Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Celebrate Diversity in December: Teach Spiritual Literacy

SSAction_celebrationsoflightDecember, a time for holidays and observances of different faiths and cultural traditions, is also Spiritual Literacy Month. Broadening your understanding of religions and cultures from around the world and throughout history can give you a better understanding of students’ diverse backgrounds and help you promote respect in your classroom. Learn about the history and traditions of many religions and belief systems using the following resources:

Between 600 BCE and 1200 CE, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam continued to develop as their followers spread out to new communities. Bridging World History, unit 7, “The Spread of Religions,” discusses the political, cultural, and intellectual influences on these religions in motion.

In program 8, “Celebrations of Light,” of the Social Studies in Action K-12 Library, watch as Eileen Mesmer teaches her young students in Salem, MA the traditions of St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucia Day, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. Mesmer relates these traditions to a Cherokee legend about the winter solstice.

Compare early communities around the world and their spiritual and moral connections with nature in Bridging World History, unit 5, “Early Belief Systems.” Shinto, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and the ethical and philosophical codes of Confucius and Greek thinkers are discussed.

More resources related to spirituality and cultural practices around the world:

Teaching ‘The Children of Willesden Lane,’ program 9, “A First Impression of Judaism

The Western Tradition, program 11, “Early Christianity”

Out of the Past, program 7, “The Spirit World” (Mayan culture and spirituality)

Art of the Western World, program 2, “A White Garment of Churches—Romanesque and Gothic”

Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices, program 22, “Happy New Year!”  (Japanese New Year’s celebration customs)

Artifacts & Fiction, unit 8, “Ceremonial Artifacts” (Native American culture)

Standardized Testing: What’s the real issue?

kidstakingtest[OP-ED] The 2015 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores are out and stoking debate over all the usual questions we have in the U.S. about standardized testing. Why did the NAEP scores fall for the first time since 1990? What’s the role of Common Core influence on the scores? Can we accept Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s explanation that the scores are not cause for alarm? Do the lower scores mean that we need more testing or less?

What’s unusual in all this testing debate is that it’s rarely about education. Instead, it’s more often about:

Politics: You can’t talk about standardized tests without tying them to No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Arne Duncan, Diane Ravitch, and even Louis CK. Testing is about being a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative or libertarian.

Questioning: We demand that the U.S. always be ranked as a world leader in education, but we refuse, for the most part, to do what many other nations to do get that status. We criticize our standardized tests for racial bias, failure to assess or value non-cognitive skills, and for forcing teachers and students to devote too much time to test prep. In many Top-Ten nations ranking, this kind of criticism does not happen. In the top four nations—South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong—cramming for national exams is pretty much a way of life, and the content of the tests is not questioned. If students do badly there, they blame themselves.

National pride: We feel that if other industrialized nations use standardized testing, then the U.S. should not. It’s just like solar power or electric cars: all you have to say is “that’s how they do it in Finland/France/Germany” and many Americans will be immediately turned off. We like to go our own way, and don’t want to admit anyone else does anything better than we do. If Japan dropped its standardized testing, more Americans might support it here!

In the end, we see that Americans are deeply conflicted about the idea, purpose, and execution of testing itself, which makes it hard for us to evaluate any test results with an objective eye. As we try to make sense of testing—what we need to compete and what we want for our students—we should always remember that the U.S. is unique in many ways when it comes to education. We are one of the few nations committed to educating our entire population, for free, for 12 years. We are one of the few nations with the goal of offering equal education to all our students. And we are one of the few nations determined to be in the top ten nations for education that has a radically diverse, extremely large, constantly changing population.

According to the 2014 Pearson Learning Curve index of the top ten education ranking of nations, the top five are demographically very homogenous (South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland). The bottom five include three relatively homogenous nations—the Netherlands, Ireland, and Poland (the U.K. and Canada are the other two). All of the top ten are all small nations; Japan has the highest population at 127 million. It’s easier for small and demographically homogenous populations to use standardized tests because they believe that their students all have roughly the same demographic background and therefore same access to opportunity. There’s no question of racial or ethnic bias.

The U.S. is big (318 million at the last census) geographically and population-wise. It is famously not demographically homogenous. We struggle to live up to our goals and principles by delivering high-quality education to everyone for free. Too often we fail. But we always keep trying, and that’s why we criticize and question our standardized tests. That will keep going on until we’re sure they are basically fair because all students have the same chance of doing well on them.

We just need to remember that the tests aren’t really the problem, and we need to keep working on what matters to produce a well-educated public.

For a deeper look into how differences in curricula, textbooks, and teaching practices around the world affect student learning in mathematics and science, go to Looking At Learning… Again, workshop 8, “The International Picture.” Educators, experts, and administrators discuss TIMSS results and point to weaknesses in the U.S. educational system.

Image Copyright: lisafx / 123RF Stock Photo

Why Do We Write?

The 2015 theme for the National Council of Teachers of English’s National Day on Writing is #WhyIWrite. We all write for different reasons, whether journaling for personal reflection; researching topics of interest; gathering information to inform or persuade others; sharing personal perspectives through stories of our lives, families, and communities, and more. The following resources provide lesson plans and strategies you can use to inspire your students to become life-long writers.


Elementary School Resources

Teach students to identify writing modes that best fit their ideas, and allow them to choose topics, like their community, that have personal meaning. See Inside Writing Communities, Grades 3-5, workshop 2, “Reasons for Writing.”

Teach young students how to respond meaningfully to their peers work and provide an authentic audience experience. See Inside Writing Communities, “Conversations Among Writing Peers.”

Middle and High School Resources

Middle school students are often focused on themselves, and the self can be a great starting point for motivating students to write. Teachers in Write in the Middle: A Workshop for Middle School Teachers, workshop 2, “Making Writing Meaningful,” start by encouraging students to share their personal stories in writing. Gradually, students expand their writing to reflect how forces in their communities impact them. See them in action here.

Have you wanted to try a multigenre project with your high school students but not sure how to start? After studying various examples (a list is included in the resource), allow students to create a multigenre piece around the theme of community. Go to Developing Writers, workshop 4, “Different Purposes.”

Hear famous authors like Leslie Marmon Silko, Ernest Gaines, and J. K. Rowling discuss where their inspiration comes from in In Search of the Novel, “Authors Notes: Part III.”

Share four videos from Reading & Writing in the Disciplines with students to show how professionals use writing in their specific fields. Hear from an epidemiologist, a biotech startup, a documentary filmmaker, and a sports journalist.

How are you helping students develop purpose in their writing?

How to Incorporate the Arts in All Subjects

PuppetsArt is a valuable tool for students to learn how to express themselves, work through a process, work cooperatively, and gain respect and understanding for others. How can we teach the arts in all subject areas so that students benefit from the learning opportunities that art affords them? For more ways art instruction benefits students, read “Ten reasons why teaching the arts is critical in a 21st century world” by Elliott Seif.

Below are examples of the arts blended with other curriculum areas, helping students to draw out a deeper understanding and appreciation for both familiar and unfamiliar concepts.


See art as a tool to make meaning of our relationship with the natural world in Art Through Time, program 10, “The Natural World.”

Seventh graders combine science, dance, and language arts as they compare the anatomy of a frog and a human and then debate whether a frog can join a ballet company. Connecting With the Arts Library, program 11, “Can Frogs Dance?” has the video and student materials.


Mathematicians understand symmetry differently than the rest of us, as a fundamental aspect of group theory. Learn more in Mathematics Illuminated, unit 6, “The Beauty of Symmetry,” which includes a symmetry interactive. Students can manipulate a wallpaper design to practice common geometric motions such as rotation and reflection.

Language Arts

Students explore Greek myths using puppets in Connecting With the Arts Library, program 2, “Breathing Life into Myths.”

Artifacts & Fiction, session 1, “Visual Arts,” shows how visual art, paired with literature, can be used to enhance students’ understanding of the predominant culture and historical setting of a work of literature.

World Languages

Latin students learn the difference between translating and interpreting the language using music and literary works of Mozart, Vergil, and Cicero. See Teaching Foreign Languages K-12, program 24, “Music and Manuscripts.”

In Teaching Foreign Languages, program 29, “Interpreting Literature,” students discuss “Dos caras” (Two faces) by New Mexico author Sabine Ulibarri. They act out scenes and make comparisons to a painting by a local artist.

In program 27, “Interpreting Picasso’s Guernica,” students write and deliver radio newscasts interpreting the scene in the famous painting.

Social Studies/History

Fifth graders in The Arts in Every Classroom, program 6, “Teaching Visual Art,” view portraits, looking beyond the face for historical cues. They continue the lesson by creating new portraits that reveal clues to the lives of their subjects through clothing, expressions, and background.

Use the Focus In tool with middle and high school students to analyze photographs curated by topics such as “Protest and Politics” and “Economies and Empires” in Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum. Also, hear a photo editor at National Geographic and a professional photographer discuss their work in the video “Story.”

Music and Art

Start a music program at your school based on the El Sistema program or borrow ideas from the programs presented in our new series The Power of Music: P-5 Teaching Inspired by El Sistema. The El Sistema philosophy presents music making as a collaborative process—one that teaches individual self-confidence, creates caring citizens, and builds cohesive communities. The program includes ideas for teachers of all subjects, not just music.

Watch art, dance, and theater teachers use scaffolding as they help students gain knowledge and fundamental skills while fostering creativity and active self-directed learning in The Art of Teaching the Arts, workshop 2, “Developing Students as Artists.”

Additional Resources:

To learn more about why arts education is important and how to connect the arts with big ideas in other subject areas, view Connecting With the Arts, program 2, “Why Integrate the Arts?”  and program 5, “What Are Connecting Concepts?”

These ideas just scratch the surface of all they ways arts instruction can be incorporated in other curriculum areas. Please feel free to share more ideas in the comments.

Breaking the Mindset Barrier

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Image Copyright: Dmitry Guzhanin

One of the staples of American storytelling is the tale of the underdog athlete who became a superstar through relentless practice. Countless magazines have told the story of Boston Celtics basketball legend Larry Bird, discounted in adolescence by coaches, dedicating himself to hours and hours of daily practice. Alone on a shabby outdoor court, Bird would shoot and shoot and shoot, day after day, week after week, month after month until—voila!—he became a superstar. Even after he was a pro star, Bird would spend hours alone in the Boston Garden practicing his shots—before team practice even began. This is what made Bird “Larry Legend.”

Bird’s not the only one, of course; we love stories about athletes who drill and drill from sheer love of the game and a burning desire to become the best they can be. We tell our own young athletes that they can achieve anything if they really want it badly enough. Before the U.S. women’s soccer team won the 2015 World Cup, their captain Abby Wambach made an inspirational video in which she repeatedly said that the team could win the cup if they wanted it: “we’ve just got to believe.”

…so why don’t we have the same approach to academics? Why don’t we tell students that they can achieve any academic goal they want, from understanding math to writing lab reports to analyzing literature, if they want it badly enough? Why don’t we tell them it will take hours and weeks and months and even years of practice and failure, practice and incremental improvement?

Instead, we tend to tell students, directly and indirectly, that school is not really designed to help them set and achieve goals through unlimited practice. We tell them that school is about doing a little practicing, and then taking a test that does two things: permanently end practice of the skill that was tested and put a permanent label (a grade) on the student’s skill level.

When we test students after limited practice, we’re telling them that they have a set ability in a certain subject that can’t really change much no matter how much they practice. When we study a unit for two weeks and then test students on it, we’re saying, If you can’t master this in two weeks, you have a problem. Everyone should be able to master this in two weeks.

Tests and test grades tend to send the message that everyone is somehow born with a set amount of academic potential—a mindset—and they need to spend the rest of their school years managing (or concealing) that limitation. It’s like an academic caste system: a few lucky students are gifted; the rest are “average” or “struggling”—and they always will be. The first few tests students take that seem to “confirm” that they are forever stuck at one skill level kill all initiative. While athletes can be made, we send a message that mathletes (and others) are strictly born. See “What does this mean for me?” at the Mindset website and Reading & Writing in the Disciplines: Big Ideas in Literacy for more on this harmful and unfounded message.

In the mindset system, school is not about working hard until you achieve a goal, no matter how long it takes. It’s about struggling to achieve a goal on someone else’s timeline. The whole point of our inspiring sports stories is that the athlete took things into her or his own hands: they decided how long to practice, when to practice, and, crucially, why they were practicing. They were tested only after they felt they were ready to present their skills to a coach or a team. As Bird put it, “I really don’t count my shots. I just shoot until I feel good.”

Unfortunately, school calendars and state standards don’t allow this kind of flexibility. Students have to show mastery of a certain (large) number of learning objectives and state standards by the end of each school year, each term, even each quarter. They can’t “shoot until they feel good” on that kind of schedule.

Students aren’t the only ones who struggle with this, of course; teachers have to teach on someone else’s timeline (the one assigned by their state standards). They are required to test their students regularly. Few teachers have the option to simply stop testing and allow unlimited practice. But there are ways to reinvent testing so that it is as much a part of practicing as it is an assessment of practice; see Neuroscience & the Classroom: Making Connections for a real-world test case.

The section gives one example of how testing and grading can become tools you use to help your students develop skills. They can become part of your ongoing formative assessment of how their skills are developing and part of your teaching process, rather than an interruption of teaching and learning. When students see that testing and grading are a measure of their existing skill level, they resist both. When they see that testing and grading are a prompt to their developing skills, they embrace them as part of a collaboration with the teacher that will help them advance. Test until you feel good!

Exit Slip: How to Survive Your First Year of Teaching

possiblestickfigure_m copy

image by Joerg Schiemann

This week, we will end on a positive note. I remember my first year of teaching clearly. Despite having been through a great education program, I felt unprepared for reality once in the classroom. I had to accept that I probably wasn’t going to get anything right the first time, and that I had to learn how to find my sense of humor no matter how frustrated I was with myself, my lack of resources, or my students.

Classroom management, I learned quickly, is not one size fits all. The strategies used are determined not only by the chemistry of the personalities in each class, but also my own chemistry with each class. The underlining strategy that took me forever to learn, but helped the most, was to be authentic. Be true to myself. I didn’t have to be a big personality and a mean presence to keep attention. I just had to be me in all my awkward, goofy glory.

The following two articles can help new teachers survive their first year.

1. In “Stay Positive and Pace Yourself: A Survival Guide for First-Year Teachers” by Sara Ketcham on neaTODAY, Sara highlights the benefits of planning ahead, setting limits to your work so you don’t burn out, and keeping a positive mindset so that you don’t add to the pressure of being a newbie.

2. In “Learn to Reframe Failure” on Medium.com, Elsa Fridman Randolph thinks about how we might “reimagine the P.E. curriculum to serve as a catalyst for developing a growth mindset in all areas (academic and extracurricular) of students’ lives.” The most important lesson in this article for teachers and students, and everyone, is that we benefit from understanding failure to be part of the learning process. As a new teacher, know that you may have to try several ways to do something (whether managing a classroom, motivating a student, designing a great lesson plan, or developing an appropriate assessment) before you find the way that works best for you and your students. Accept the challenges.

Share experiences and insights from your first year in the comments below, and have a great weekend!

Moving From Routine to Rousing at #ANEW15


Sara works with a newspaper from the Newseum archives.

Post written by Sara Romeyn, high school Honors Global History and AP United States History teacher and participant in the 2015 Newseum Summer Teacher Institute: “Primarily Digital: Teaching Media Literacy to Plugged-in Students,” sponsored by Annenberg Learner. Look for the #ANEW15 hashtag on Twitter. 

I was fortunate to take part in the “Primarily Digital” workshop in late July. I have attended many professional development workshops in my 20-year career as a teacher, but this was one of the standouts. It was relevant, well organized, hands-on, collaborative, and exciting. Our classroom was buzzing with energy and participation. Teachers came early and stayed late. As I reflect on the experience three weeks later, I realize that the workshop organizers and leaders continually modeled best practices. My big goal for the coming school year will be to further integrate those best practices in my own classrooms.

So, let me take each of those best practices in turn and explain in greater detail how they might influence my teaching:

  • The “Primarily Digital” workshop was well organized. We began each day with a review of the agenda, which was projected at the front of the room and in our notebooks. The agenda provided both a schedule for the day and the learning objectives. I usually post an objective at the beginning of my class, but I will make it a more intentional practice in the year to come. I will also include a specific time schedule. Such a practice will help frame the work, keep us on task, and give the students a sense of what to anticipate for the day.
  • The “Primarily Digital” workshop was relevant. The instructors and leaders continually drew connections between the materials introduced and our own classrooms. There was a practical link to current events. In my own classroom, I think students appreciate understanding why we learn something and how it might inform or influence modern events. With the study of history, it is important to draw connections to the present day. I will continually focus on that objective.
  • The “Primarily Digital” workshop was hands-on. We had the chance to physically examine historical newspapers. We created a social media campaign and designed our own buttons for a political cause. We were up and moving and engaged in the task of “doing history.” This approach was so much more engaging that a lecture. Again, I want to bring these practices into my classroom, whether it is a gallery walk where students analyze photographs or a project where they utilize artistic talents.
  • The “Primarily Digital” workshop was collaborative. We worked in small groups on multiple occasions during the three days, and we learned so much given the opportunity to share our ideas and perspectives. Group work gives a voice to students who are less bold in front of a large class. The ability to collaborate is a key life skill…how does one listen carefully and respectfully?
  • The workshop was exciting. The organizers made fresh and interesting use of social media, including the visit to the Berlin Wall gallery where we tweeted as an East or West Berliner. In the Vietnam exhibit, we engaged in an on-line debate about the power of the media in a time of war.

I appreciated many aspects of the workshop. I came away with valuable resources, such as tools students may use when evaluating a source. I was introduced to several new tech tools, and discovered novel ways to use familiar tools. Ultimately, however, it was the structure of the workshop that was the biggest “aha” moment for me. By using multiple best practices for the classroom, the workshop leaders provided a powerful and engaging three days. I believe the best teachers are life-long learners, and when we use the summer to grow and have new experiences, we become better teachers. I look forward to recreating these practices in my classroom in the coming year.

See what else Sara was up to this summer on her blog. After spending a week in the “Primarily Digital” workshop, she left for a teacher exchange program to South Africa. In addition to learning about the history of Apartheid, she spent several days teaching in a high school in a township. 

Exit Slip: Neural Pathways and Political Discussions

Copyright: ikopylov / 123RF Stock Photo

How does it feel to be back in the building? I always enjoyed the first two weeks of the school year, meeting new teachers and reconnecting with peers, receiving class rosters and wondering what my new students would be like, setting up the classroom, and planning like crazy.

At my school we sometimes held informal discussion groups about articles related to our teaching practice, much like a book group would. Here is some food for thought collected from the web this week, either to consider on your own (and comment on below!) or share with others. This week, we are thinking about how we build students’ skills gradually in order to meet instructional goals and how to safely and fairly discuss political issues with students.

1. Guest Column: Don’t Short Circuit Education, a June post on Learning Lab/WBUR written by Alden Blodget, is about the importance of focusing on the learning process, instead of just focusing on achieving the goal. “We need to create schools that nurture the growth of neural pathways, the circuits, that result in engagement and recall. And educators need to trust that, if students build the circuitry, the lights will go on.” Learn more about how you build these paths in Neuroscience & the Classroom. Alden Blodget is a content contributor to the series.

2. In Politics in the Classroom: How Much is Too Much, by Steve Drummond on NPREd, Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy discuss whether or not politics should be allowed in the classroom and if controversial topics should be used as learning opportunities. Hess says, “My view is that if you’re going to have students involved in authentic politics, then it’s really important to make sure you have issues for which there are multiple and competing views, and you don’t give students the impression that there’s a political view that they should be working toward.” Read the article to find valuable considerations for class discourse. Do you talk politics with your students? If so, what has worked for you to create a safe and well-rounded discussion?

(Image Copyright: ikopylov / 123RF Stock Photo)

Exit Slip: Differentiation, Twitter Chats, Teacher Prep, and more…

Copyright: Sujittra Chieweiamwattana

Copyright: Sujittra Chieweiamwattana

Welcome to our new Exit Slip posts. On Fridays, we will recap some of our favorite education-related resources and entertainment found on the web or learned in a workshop during the week. We will also include thought-provoking articles on education in the United States. Please enjoy and post thoughts and responses in the comments below. Have a great weekend!

1. Differentiated Instruction Works: How and Why To Do DI, by Klea Scharberg: Carol Ann Tomlinson, Kristina Doubet, and Jessica Hockett discuss the importance of differentiated instruction and what differentiated instruction looks like in the classroom with Sean Slade, ASCD’s director of whole child programs on the Whole Child Podcast. My favorite idea in this podcast is that teachers and students benefit from a growth mindset. Everyone has potential and effort is more important than perceived intelligence.

2. Teacher Jennifer Roberts shared (via Google Hangout) how she uses Google tools with her students to give them feedback on their writing during the Newseum Institute for teachers, sponsored by Annenberg Learner. Watch her in action in Reading & Writing in the DisciplinesBlended Learning: Acquiring Digital Literacy Skills.

3. Also during the institute, we learned about Cybrary Man’s schedule of all education-related twitter chats happening on the web. Twitter chats are a useful tool for teacher professional development and sharing resources and ideas. Currently, we are hooked on #sschat and #CitSciChat. Which educational chats do you like best?

4. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is reporting that not all states are assessing the quality of teacher preparation programs and therefore not holding low-performing programs accountable, as required by federal law. Here is the article “New GAO Report: Teacher Prep Programs Lack Performance Data” by Lauren Camera in Ed Week. A link to the report is included in the article. Do you feel like your own teacher prep program prepared you for the classroom? Why or why not?

5. Finally, we will end this week on a humorous note. Key & Peele imagines what it would be like if we treated teachers like athletes in this entertaining sketch on their show. See the article and segment on Slate.com.

Annenberg Learner: Videos for Content Area Literacy


Jennifer Roberts asks students to compare two characters from The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe using evidence they have gathered from the text.

This post originally appeared on Litandtech.com May 8, 2015.

I am excited this week to be exploring the resources now available from Annenberg Learner [Reading & Writing in the Disciplines] and specific to disciplinary literacy. These are videos of students working on developing their literacy skills in a range of core subject areas.

I’m looking forward to being able to use these videos as starting points for conversations with my colleagues and administrators about what literacy looks like in all subject areas, not just English.

I also appreciate that the collection is searchable by discipline and topics like close reading, differentiation, gradual release of responsibility etc. It makes it easy for me to narrow down my search and preview the videos I might want to use.

Full disclosure, the reason I know about this project is because my classroom is one of the many that were filmed for the collection. It’s not possible to search by teacher, so if you really want to see me or my classroom you’ll need to look here and here, but you may also spot me in some of the expert commentary videos. My classroom shows up as an example sometimes while leading educational researchers talk about current trends in literacy instruction.

If you are a literacy coach, a resource teacher, an administrator, or anyone else responsible for helping teachers implement Common Core or develop student literacy then you will appreciate the resources from Annenberg Learner as much as I do.

Power Up Cover copy

Click on the book cover to find purchase information through Stenhouse.com.

By popular demand, direct links to videos from my classroom.

Check out Jen’s blog Literacy, Technology, Policy, etc… A Blog, about teaching literacy with technology in an era of educational innovation, and learn about Diana Neebe and Jen Roberts’ new book Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning.  

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