Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Who Am I? Help Students Explore Their Identity

57188443 - brand new green shoes from above on asphalt with who i am sign

Being an English language learner, in middle school, was a really difficult experience. I had many questions about my identity, and who I was as an individual. This was a result of the language shift, but a culture shift played a huge role in this complex narrative that played in my head as well.

As a result of this experience, it was so important for me (the teacher) to create a safe classroom culture where students can explore, discuss and more importantly, express their identity. One of the important benefits from being able to discuss one’s identity is for students to feel confident in who they are as individuals. At the same time, identity exploration in the classroom can help students to also develop an appreciation for diversity in their communities and ultimately be more empathetic for others.

A teacher can help to facilitate an activity in the classroom that focuses on identity expression by using prompts to get the conversation started. For example: ask students to explore some theme questions that deal with identity, such as “Who am I?” “What do I care about?” “What do I want others to know about me?”.

One of the hardest things for many of us to answer is “Who am I?” Help students explore this question by having them do an Ingredients of Me activity. We did this in my class, and my students’ answers looked a bit like this. This activity helped my students explore what they care about, who is in their immediate life, and what they do on a daily basis.

Sharing our answers with a small group allowed students to understand who their classmates are, and what responsibilities they had outside of the classroom. However, what’s so special about this activity is that students started to see how many things in common they had with their peers. They started to have side conversations about their interests.

Exploring identity in the classroom should be practiced regularly throughout the year. The teacher can take the above activity and extend the conversation by asking other questions focused on the theme of identity and knowing oneself. Examples of questions to explore with your students include:

  • “What was the hardest thing you’ve ever encountered? How did you deal with it? Who helped you along the way?”
  • “What inspires you? What drives your motivation to keep going?”
  • “What is the most important thing in your life?”
  • “What are the most meaningful relationships you currently have in your life?”

Here are additional resources for teaching about identity:

Watch a middle school class explore the theme of identity as they read and respond to the cultural and social experiences of characters in a variety of texts in Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 1, “Engagement and Dialogue.” Students learn to define their own identity and share their personal stories as well. Also, in workshop 8, students examine media representations of various cultural groups and how writers and artists from those groups represent themselves in their works. Students then represent themselves using photography and essays, and exhibit their work to the community.

Another way to discuss identity is to explore how people define themselves through their possessions. In Essential Lens: Disaster and Response collection, see the “Belongings from Home” activity. Students use the activity to analyze photographs of relocated farmers during The Great Depression. Some of the encamped people have musical instruments because this is a core of their identity, for example.

It’s important for students to explore their own identities in a safe learning environment, as this will help them to be more empathetic towards their own peers. Exploring identities in the classroom can dispel stereotypes and perceptions that we often have about specific groups of people, and instead allows us to build stronger relationships with each other.

Share your experiences, as well as additional activities and resources, on this topic in the comments.

Image copyright: badmanproduction / 123RF Stock Photo

What Does it Mean to Lead a Worthwhile Life?

Students develop argumentative and writing skills while working on a unit on ethics and justice. From Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.

Students develop argumentative and writing skills during a unit on ethics and justice, from Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.

We hear from many teachers who are thinking about how to engage students in their communities and how to develop their students’ sense of citizenship. One way to do this is to ask students to identify issues they see in their communities and propose solutions. Another is to highlight professionals who work or have left a legacy of work for the advancement of social justice and community development as inspiration. Also, at a more personal level, teach students to consider how they may act positively and respectfully with other people both online and in face-to-face situations. Look to the following resources for ideas and activities to develop your students’ sense of community and agency, their problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and to introduce them to career paths that contribute to the greater good:

Start with a discussion about our behavior and attitudes towards others. In preparation for reading “The Children of Willesden Lane,” a memoir about a young pianist’s journey on the Kindertransport, history teacher Sheila Huntley engages her students in a discussion about what it means to be an outsider or outcast, and how the students’ actions and words can affect people. Students posit reasons we don’t always act when we see a wrong and what it takes before we act. Watch and read about the lesson in the series Teaching “The Children of Willesden Lane,” “Introducing the Universe of Obligation.” If not reading the book, you could structure this discussion around your content instead.

In Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 7, “Social Justice Action,” students read immigration stories, and participate in a discussion about social justice and taking action for change with the author. Students then develop a sense of agency as they write and revise persuasive letters to raise public awareness about the issues they’ve examined.  

In Making Meaning in Literature: A Video Library, Grades 6-8, program 6, “Dramatic Tableau,” watch 7th graders envision how they might respond in the situations that the characters find themselves in as they read The Watsons go to Birmingham, 1963. “Helping them to look at characters as people and try to personalize and make connections is something that I have found really is helpful and I know is an important thing to do.” –Dr. Jan Currence

In this lesson from Social Studies in Action, “The Individual in Society,” students are asked the following question: What role can an individual play in creating a just society? The teacher sets up a dilemma – a fictional nation on the verge of racial and ethnic strife – and students must ponder solutions using the viewpoints of different philosophers they have studied.

Democracy in America, program 5, “Civil Rights: Demanding Equality,” looks at guarantees of political and social equality, and the roles that individuals and government have played in expanding these guarantees to less-protected segments of society, such as African Americans, women, and the disabled.

The video for Reading & Writing in the Disciplines, “English in the Real World: A Sports Journalist,” demonstrates the interactive relationship between content knowledge, literacy practices, and social justice action in the workplace. Students often wonder how the work they do at school relates to their own lives and ask questions such as “How is this relevant to my life?” or “How can English be used to change the world?” Also see examples of math, social studies, and science applications. These videos can help students answer these questions and consider the types of careers that will inspire them and perhaps have a positive impact on the world and their community.

Explore the story of human resilience and perseverance. In the Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum video “Lives,” meet five people who illuminate the lives of others through photography.

Common Sense Media has K-12 curriculum for teaching digital citizenship skills. Students can build skills around critical thinking, ethical discussion, and decision making that they can apply to their online activities and relationships.

We welcome additional links to resources and ideas on this topic in the comments section.

What’s in a Debate

53793166 - render illustration of donkey and elephant icons on podium fronts, and us flag as a background.

Copyright: hafakot / 123RF

It happens every four years. Just when you think you’ve had it with the political campaign season, with the endless ads and diatribes, the presidential debates come along and breathe new life into the process. The debates offer a departure from scripted party-speak. Although the candidates strive to remain “on message,” responding to an opponent’s comments requires a good measure of spontaneity and wit. We watch and listen in the hope that it is our candidate who will deliver the zinger that will long be remembered.

Presidential debates make for fascinating viewing; they are also a launching pad for introducing students to a host of topics. From history to current events, civics to media literacy, debates–presidential and otherwise–provide teachers with endless possibilities to enrich learning.

Television: Altering Perceptions

In 1960, television changed forever how Americans would perceive presidential candidates. In America’s History in the Making, unit 20, “Egalitarian America,” you will find photos of Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, who starred in the first televised debates. The photographs underscore the impact that visual images can have on communication. How can appearance and body language influence the message a candidate hopes to deliver?  Those who watched the debate on television thought that Kennedy won the debate; those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon was the victor. What accounts for these differing reactions? Do the photographs offer clues?

You may want to conduct a similar activity in your classroom. Pick a short segment of a recently-held presidential or vice presidential debate. First, have students listen to the debate. Who won and why? Now, have students watch the segment on television. Have any opinions changed? Why or why not?

Examine History

There are many historical topics your students can debate. One helpful feature in the America’s History in the Making series is found under the Interactive tab. In the Balancing Sources exercise, you examine events from major eras of American history. You then select several sources to represent different perspectives of the historical event. For example, examine issues related to the transcontinental railroad. In what ways does the summary reveal the many issues related to the expansion of the railroad? How might you use this kind of activity to help students prepare a debate for and against expansion of the American railroad system?  Can this approach be used for all debate topics?

Activate Students’ Learning

Use the debate format in the classroom to give students opportunities to defend their positions on an issue. In preparing for debates, students must research and organize information. They also hone their skills in critical thinking, persuasion, public speaking, and teamwork.

In Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 7, “Social Justice and Action,” Laura Alvarez, a teacher at Melrose Elementary School in Oakland, California, uses debates to help her students grapple with issues that affect their lives. Alvarez helps her students conduct their research and gives them a five-step, debate-prep list:

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Identify someone who could address this problem.
  3. Write a thesis statement that states your opinion about the problem and its solution.
  4. Brainstorm arguments to support your opinion.
  5. Brainstorm counterarguments.

Alvarez understands that many of her fourth- and fifth-grade students may have strong opinions about the issues they discuss, but she ensures that students learn to support their opinions with logical evidence. Take time to review the instructional strategies most appropriate for middle school students who prepare for a debate. In what ways do these strategies help ensure that students are fully engaged in learning?

Six Ways Learner Can Support You This School Year


Teachers learning together at the 2016 Annenberg-Newseum Summer Teacher Institute.

Welcome back for the 2016-17 school year. Time to start working on those new ideas that have been brewing all summer. While we hope that many of you have spent part of your summer relaxing, we also know you participated in professional development workshops (like the Annenberg-Newseum Summer Teacher Institute) and developed new strategies and curricula for your students. In the Learner office, we have a big year ahead of us. We are excited for a year of partnerships and community-building, all to support your hard work in the classroom. Below is a reminder of resources we provide to charge your teaching batteries throughout the year.

1. Monthly Update E-Newsletter

Do you receive our monthly newsletter? If not, you can subscribe here. We look forward to connecting you to our free online ad-free resources and letting you know when new resources and PD opportunities are developed. Stay tuned each month for more from Annenberg Learner.

2. Resources for Lessons

Complement your textbooks with streamed videos in social studies, science, math, language arts, world languages, and the arts. Click on “View Programs” on the homepage to see a list of all our resources.

3. Interactives and Lesson Plan Search Functions

When brainstorming for lesson ideas, search the interactives database for online activities to enhance and improve students’ skills in a variety of curricular areas.  Search the lesson plans database for plans in all subject areas and grade levels.

4. Learner Express

Learner Express provides short video clips in math for Common Core and science for STEM curriculum.

5. Blog and Social Media

The Learner Log blog highlights specific teaching strategies and subject area resources from Learner.org and other educational organizations. It also provides a forum to discuss them with your peers. Tell us what topics you would like to see in the blog at blog@learner.org.

Our social media links provide instant connections to resources related to topics in the news, current events, and historical dates. Check us out on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and Youtube.

6. Graduate Credit and CEU Opportunities
Advance your career, sharpen your teaching skills, and update content knowledge in the subjects you teach with the following graduate credit and CEU opportunities for Annenberg Learner courses from PBS TeacherLine, Colorado State, and The University of San Diego.

PBS TeacherLine provides certificates of completion and partners with many colleges to offer graduate credit for five Annenberg Learner professional development courses. Search Annenberg Learner to see what is available.  For general information, including pricing, see the main PBS TeacherLine site.

Colorado State University (CSU) offers graduate credit for Annenberg Learner professional development and content courses, as well as continuing education units (CEUs) for a selection of reading, education, math, and science courses. Register for either graduate credit or non-credit continuing education units on Colorado State’s Online Plus website.

K-12 educators (and some courses are applicable toward community college level instructors) looking to earn credit for time spent on planning for the successful implementation of a new idea to enhance student learning and/or school improvement can take courses online through The University of San Diego.  View information about the Annenberg Learner Implementation Planning Series here.

What does great teaching look like?

TM K-4 students1

from Teaching Math Library, K-4, program 46 “Buffalo Estimation”

Are you new to teaching? Do you want to refine your teaching strategies after reflecting on your practice? One of the best ways to improve is to watch veteran teachers guide their students in the learning process. We encourage you to observe teachers in your school and to look to Learner.org for great classroom moments you can watch on your own time. Take ideas from our workshops that show real teachers effectively engaging with their own students. Here are a few highlights with additional resources listed below by subject:

Making Meaning in Literature
shows teachers facilitating discussions to create a literary community in their classrooms. For example, in program 4, teacher Tanya Schnabl’s students develop discussion questions and connect their experiences with the dilemmas in the assigned texts as they explore “government limits and personal freedoms.”

See examples of every step of an inquiry-based lesson, from fostering a learning community, to designing how students will explore the materials, to collecting and assessing data, in Learning Science Through Inquiry. In workshop 6, “Bring It All Together: Processing for Meaning During Inquiry,” watch the teacher draw out meaning from students’ observations of their soil decomposition experiment. Shuffle to 8:42 in the video.

Find ideas for teaching about civic engagement in Making Civics Real.  Teacher Matt Johnson leads his Constitutional Law 12th graders in applying what they’ve learned to new hypothetical cases that mirror actual students’ rights cases presented to the Supreme Court in workshop 8, “Rights and Responsibilities of Students.”

Other examples of effective teaching:

Language Arts and Literature Classrooms-

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Write in the Middle: A Workshop for Middle School Teachers

The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Mathematics Classrooms-

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Teaching Math: A Video Library, K-4, 5-8, 9-12

Insights Into Algebra 1: Teaching for Learning (high school)

Science Classrooms-

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Science in Focus: Force and Motion (K-8 teachers)

Reactions in Chemistry (high school)

Foreign Language Classrooms-

Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices

Social Studies/History Classrooms-

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

The Economics Classroom: A Workshop for Grade 9-12 Teachers

Social Studies in Action: A Teaching Practices Library K-12

Arts Classrooms-

Connecting With the Arts: A Teaching Practices Library, 6-8

The Art of Teaching the Arts: A Workshop for High School Teachers

Differentiated Instruction By Subject


A blended learning approach to instruction allows students to collaborate using technology. See Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.

As you plan for the new school year, think about how you structure your classroom and lessons to engage all students and meet each learner’s needs. While differentiating instruction can be daunting, it can also be a lot of fun. Differentiation involves recognizing individual student’s talents, interests, and challenges. It also involves varying ways you present content and use the classroom space. Below are examples of teachers differentiating their classrooms. Jump to the subject you teach or read them all. For a deeper look into what differentiation is and how to recognize the potential in all students, listen to the “Differentiated Instruction Works: How and Why To Do DI” podcast on the ASCD website.

Arts and World Languages

Tap into students’ love for the arts. In The Arts in Every Classroom, program 2, “Expanding the Role of the Arts Specialist,” watch how dance, visual art, and theatre teachers coordinate with teachers of other subject areas.

Use the arts to teach students how to express their ideas in multiple ways. In Connecting With the Arts, program 12, “Finding Your Voice,” middle school students use music, art, and dance to explore the concepts of conflict and protesting.

Students are most engaged when they are talking about what they know. In Teaching Foreign Languages, K-12, “Comparing Communities,” students compare community life at home and abroad while practicing language skills. The video is captioned in English for all language teachers.

English and Language Arts

In Teaching Reading, K-2, workshop 6, “Differentiating Instruction,” learn what flexible grouping looks like and apply examples to your own classes.

Think outside of the essay and use your students’ kinesthetic and creative skills. Watch middle school students explore characters in literature by creating ceramic place settings in Connecting With the Arts, “Revealing Character.”

Vary methods of communicating with students using technology to give feedback. Jen Roberts uses Google Tools to collaborate with her students on their work. Watch “Blended Learning: Acquiring Digital Literacy Skills” from Reading & Writing in the Disciplines. Under the video, see the Differentiated Instruction paragraph to learn more about how Ms. Roberts scaffolds the lesson to meet different students’ needs.

History and Social Studies

In Social Studies in Action, program 4, “China Through Mapping,” Ms. Norton offers multiple entry points into a lesson on Chinese culture and history. Elementary students create salt-dough maps, sing songs, and complete a group mystery puzzle using printed maps of China. At 20:24 in the video, Ms. Norton explains how she assigned the roles for group work.

Try lesson plans that use photographs to hook visual learners and students interested in photography. The Essential Lens video, “A Closer Look,” explains the Focus In strategy for examining the meaning and point of view of photographs. Browse several photo collections connected to activities and big ideas that can be used in the social studies classroom. Themes include “Economies and Empires” and “Change and Resistance.”

Ms. Ambrose’s students discuss racial profiling as they develop an understanding of constitutional law and criminal law in Making Civics Real, workshop 7, “Controversial Public Policy Issues.” One of her students reflects “… if she sees that something is boring us, if something’s not working, she’ll get at the problem. She’ll change it to make sure that we’re always interested, so that we’re always learning something. As soon as you lose interest, you stop caring, you stop learning.”


In Teaching Math K-4, video 17, “Choose a Method,” the teacher provides multiple learning experiences for exploring problem-solving methods with her fourth graders. Two groups work independently, one on computers and another on puzzles and games. The teacher and students in a third group investigate different computational methods, including base-10 blocks, calculators, mental math, or paper and pencil.

A blended learning approach to instruction allows students to collaborate using technology. Math students evaluate arithmetic sequences and share work on a Smart Board. While some students also practice speaking and teaching skills, other students focus on concepts. Watch “Blended Learning: Using Technology to Learn Math Concepts” in Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.

In “Creating Opportunities for Mathematical Discourse” from Reading & Writing in the Disciplines, Ms. Langer lets students choose from different types of classroom materials to explore content, provides scaffolding to students as needed, and allows students to work in groups or independently as they study graph theory.


Young kids love animals. Bring the outdoors inside to young citizen scientists with Journey North. Students answer the essential question, “How do animals in different parts of the world respond to seasonal change?” while completing activities in the viewing guide and watching animal cams by Explore.org of bears, birds, and more.

Use photographs to hook visual learners and students interested in photography. The Essential Lens video, “A Closer Look,” explains the Focus In strategy for examining the meaning and point of view of photographs. Browse several photo collections connected to activities and big ideas that can be used in the science classroom. Themes include “Processes of Science,” “Energy,” and “Genetics and Bioengineering.”

In Reading & Writing in the Disciplines, “Creating a Culture of Collaboration,” learn how Mr. Berryman develops students’ understanding of scientific terms in multiple ways, from using an interactive web app, a word wall, drawing activities, and more.

Exit Slip: Discussing Race in the Classroom and at Home

33508728 - high school students taking part in group discussion

Reading through my Facebook feed the last several days, I see a lot of discussion about race in response to recent police violence towards black men. I feel encouraged by the people who are taking a stand against racism and by how many parents are asking for help discussing the police shootings and race with their children. There are currently resources available that help parents and teachers think about these issues at home and in the classroom. 

For guardians and teachers of younger children, start with this article from The Washington Post by Brigitte Vittrup, associate professor of child development at Texas Woman’s University. She writes about the problems with intentionally avoiding discussions about race with children. She emphasizes that parents should not assume their values will rub off on their children: “Silence about race removes the opportunity for children to learn about diversity from their parents and puts it in the hands of media and misinformed peers.” Not only that, but discouraging conversations about race for fear of offending people can lead children to see race as a taboo subject. Vittrup offers examples of how to respond to children’s questions.

Consider the following readings and resources for older children and students. In “Uncomfortable Conversations: Talking About Race in the Classroom,” an interview between NPR’s Elissa Nadworny and H. Richard Milner, author of the book Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms, Milner shares examples of how and why teachers should incorporate students’ experiences outside of the classroom into their curriculum on a regular basis. He invites educators to be creative and do research to be able to understand their students and the communities they live in. He also asks that schools not accept high suspension and expulsion rates of minority students, but to problem solve instead. What is going on and what can we do to change this?

StoryCorps.org offers a powerful way to share life experiences, accomplishments, and open discussions about race. For example, Alex Landau tells his mother, Patsy Hathaway, what happened when he was pulled over by Denver police officers one night in 2009 and how the stop still affects him in “Traffic Stop.” In “Eyes on the Stars,” Carl tells StoryCorps about his brother, physicist Ronald E. McNair, who was the second African American to enter space and lost his life in the 1986, NASA Challenger mission STS-51-L. As a little boy with big dreams, he fought for his right to use the public library.

And of course we need to continue to work hard at developing our students’ analytical, problem solving, and discussion skills. Apply ideas from the following blog posts throughout the school year:

Teaching Students to Analyze Sources of Information

How Can Schools Prepare for Discussions of Controversial Issues (Part II)

As parents, teachers, and community members, we have a lot of work to do. I invite you to share comments and any helpful articles or resources on this topic in the comments section. Peace.


Image copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

Bring Digital Literacy and Citizenship Skills to Your Class


Ms. Ferrales students participate in a class discussion on the Haitian Revolution in Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.

Before my class started blogging and creating digital stories, they had many questions regarding online use of blogs, social media platforms, and YouTube. Some students, rightfully so, were concerned about their privacy. Some students were more concerned about their communication and the digital footprint they would be leaving. As a result, before we were all comfortable with displaying our work digitally, we needed to address these concerns.

When it comes to digital citizenship, there are several elements (including elements of digital literacy) that are important to discuss and understand. Mike Ribble identifies 9 digital citizenship elements. In my classroom, I found myself covering the following:

Privacy/Security Many of my students were concerned that their blog posts would be read publicly. We had a conversation about ways to keep our work private on YouTube and blogging platforms. Of course, it still exists digitally; however, it’s important for them to know that they have options to keep their work private and to only share it with specific people.

I encourage students to make their work public, because that’s one of the ways we’re able to leave a professional digital footprint. As long as their work is professional and appropriate, it benefits them to share it publicly to create their digital portfolio and open themselves up to make professional connections.

In terms of security, students needed to familiarize themselves with options to keep their personal information private. It was also necessary to learn about virus protection, spam filters, and block options.

Digital Communication When it comes to communication, many students will be wary of writing and publishing online for the first time. Students are mostly concerned about being vulnerable with their thoughts and ideas, as well as their writing and composition. Encourage hesitant students to share their work with their peers before they publish. This will help alleviate some stress about other people reading their work, since it’s already been read by someone they know.

Encourage struggling writers to try out different platforms and see which ones are more comfortable for them to use. Many students might prefer the idea of micro-blogging, as opposed to blogging, and that’s perfectly fine. There are platforms such as Tumblr and Instagram that work really well as micro-blogging tools. Podcasts are another great platform for students to express their thoughts. In Reading & Writing in the Disciplines, “Writing for New Media,” watch as journalism students learn to consider the multiple perspectives of their audience and the importance of data collection while creating podcasts on the topics of their choice.

Digital Etiquette Just as there are etiquettes we need to adhere by in real life, there are ones we should follow in the digital world. It’s important for students to learn and understand that anything they put out in the digital world should exemplify their behaviour in the real world. Ask students this: “Would you say this to someone face to face?” If the answer is “no”, they should rethink publishing it.

Having a discussion about what digital citizenship means helps students to see that our presence digitally is no different than in real life. Our identities, work and behaviour need to always model professionalism as they tell the world more about who we are than we may realize. It’s also very vital for educators to remind students that once something is published, it has its own permanent place online, even with the delete option. This fact should not intimidate us or students, but it should be a reminder to only put work out there that shows that we’re good citizens.

For an example of how to bridge discussion skills from the face-to-face classroom to an online community, watch Reading & Writing in the Disciplines, “Designing the Classroom to Support Understanding.” Students practice respectfully and confidently discussing their ideas about controversial topics in the classroom and take those skills with them to online discussion forums for homework.

How are you teaching digital literacy and citizenship?

Lessons for Independence Day

Chemistry_fireworksAs you are enjoying your holiday picnics, parades, and fireworks, reflect on the history and science behind Independence Day.

Revolutionary Perspectives,” of America’s History in the Making, reveals the political wrangling that led up to the Declaration of Independence and other state constitutions.

Watch A Biography of America, “The Coming of Independence,” to see how English-loving colonists were transformed into freedom-loving American rebels. Program 5, “A New System of Government,” presents the outsized personalities that came together to hash out new systems of government for the American people.

Do you know the lyrics for the Star Spangled Banner beyond the first stanza? If not, find the words and an audio clip in the American Passages Archives.

What causes the different colors of light in fireworks that make us ooh and aah? Find out in Chemistry: Challenges and Solutions, unit 3, “Atoms and Light.”  Click on the video link and start at 12:05 to see a colorful demonstration of various metals throwing off different colors of light when burned in The Flame Test segment.

End of Year Reflections by Students in a Student-Centered Class (Guest Post)

Hot Air Balloon Rally, September 2014. Copyright: svetlana57

Today’s guest post is by educator Kelly Garner (@GarnerRockstars). Her End of Year Reflection caught my attention on Twitter because it demonstrates that her classroom is exceedingly, if not bravely, student-centered. I asked her to share her students’ reactions to the school year in a guest post. Here it is:

In today’s classrooms there is a mindshift. We are preparing students to enter a world that provides them with opportunities that will demand that they can problem solve, collaborate, communicate, fail, and succeed. We have to focus on creating personalized learning environments and instruction for our students. We must allow students to practice making choices. In my class, students can sit where they want, choose their own research topics, decide on their product, and how they will share their learning with others. They complete many projects throughout the year, and I consider myself a facilitator of student learning.

At the end of every year I take some time to reflect with the students about the school year. This year our reflection led to some great discussions of their favorite projects. Some examples were creating a film for iPadpalooza Youth Film Festival, TIGER Talks (mini TED Talks), Backyard Getaway PBL, using the MakerSpace, 3D printing, creating Kahoots, and more!

I could tell you the things that students learned, but more importantly I wanted to share some of their feedback. Here’s what they said:

“I learned how to research better and how to have better time management.”

“I learned to open up more and that it is ok to ask questions.”

“To be creative and to believe in yourself.”

“How to be responsible.”

“We learned that you can’t take words back once we say them.”

“That things are not always easy.”

This learning can not happen without the opportunity to move beyond worksheets, grades, and confined rows of desks. We have to provide students with choices and opportunities to fail. We shouldn’t assign a grade to students when they are “learning” content. In my class, I don’t assign grades or use a scale system to assign a value to their work. So in turn, the students don’t receive any extrinsic motivation. Therefore, I asked my students, what motivates them to work in my class. Their answers were:

“I can research and learn without worrying about a grade.”

“I get to make choices here.”

“I am not told minimums or given a box to work in.”

Two of my favorite projects this year were the youth film projects and TIGER Talks. For the youth film projects, students were given the opportunity to work independently or in groups. We invited a storyboard artist, Mark Bristol, to come and share filming and storyboarding techniques. During the project, students had to create storyboards, participate in peer review, receive feedback, and edit. The process is long, but the finished product is rewarding. They collaborated, created, and had many ah-ha moments. As a result of their hard work, four of my student groups moved on to the semi-finals. We had many successes and many fails. One of the most important steps in any project is reflection. This is a must and will provide the most successful learning experience for students. We also viewed and critiqued the semi-finalists, which led to a discussion of what they were going to do differently next year.

Another great project this year was the TIGER Talks. Students were allowed to pick a topic that they were passionate about and create a 2-3 minute talk that they memorize. They then create a slideshow, using pictures, keywords, or quotes. The finished products were remarkable. Students stood in front of parents and peers and talked about topics like World War II, Jump Roping, Stop Smoking, Dinosaurs, and more. They were AMAZING! Public speaking is a skill that we can’t practice enough. They were excited about this because it was their topic, their passion, their voice!

I want to end with a few more statements from my students about their reflection of the year. I asked them what would they tell their teachers, if they could tell them anything:

“Why do teachers tell us they are getting us ready for life, when in fact many things I am taught I will never use in life?” 

“Why grades? I know this is the only system we have right now, but we need to find a better system.” 

“When I do an assignment I am concerned about what grade I am going to get.” 

“I would tell my teacher that I would like more advanced work because my regular work is too easy.”

“I would tell my teacher I am bored of doing worksheets.”

“We need to learn more soft skills, not just facts.” 

I challenge you to reflect on your school year, write down your ah-ha moments. As you prepare for the next school year, think about opportunities to give students a voice and choice. How will you create a personalized learning environment for your students next year?

Need ideas for writing your own end of year reflections? Read our blog post. Also, share your comments and questions about Kelly’s post below this post.