Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum


Observe and Learn from Effective Teachers

Teachers take the stage every day in front of their students, striving to instruct, engage and guide. Being observed by a classroom of students is the norm. As Matthew O. Richardson points out in his journal article [1] for the National Education Association, “Teachers stand before others and put on a personal exhibition every time they lecture, lead a discussion, or guide a role-play.” Why is it, then, that the prospect of peer observation is potentially unnerving to many teachers?


From Teaching Math, program 6, “Animals in Yellowstone”: Fourth- and fifth-graders develop number sense and meaning for large numbers by estimating how many bison, elk, and pronghorn they saw on a field trip to Yellowstone National Park.

While discussing the growing trend of peer-to-peer learning for teachers, Education World acknowledges that the practice of peer observation (which is becoming more widely discussed in both university, and secondary and elementary environments) is meant to be a collaborative form of professional development, not an evaluation tool. Education World notes that learning by observing can reap benefits for teachers, administrators, and schools. They quote Dr. William Roberson, who served as co-director of the Center of Effective Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas-El Paso, as making this bold statement:

Easily, peer observation is more valuable than other forms of professional development, if the proper context is created. If done well, it is carried out in a real, practical, immediately relevant situation. Compare that to attending workshops or conferences in which participants remain at a certain level of abstraction from their own classrooms.

Ideally, peer-to-peer learning allows the observing teacher to reflect on their own practices and methodology in, as Roberson puts it, an “immediately relevant situation.”

Are you thinking about working peer observations into your schedule next year? Here are some resources for observing teachers in your own school and for observing teachers at your convenience.

Using checklists to focus your observations on specific goals:

Using checklists is a great way to get the most out of your observation experiences. Start by having a goal in mind. For example, is your goal to improve classroom management, track student achievement, or create more engaging lesson plans? Then, focus your observation on ways to meet that goal. Checklists are useful for narrowing your focus.

Look at some examples of teacher observation checklists below. Even if the examples are not in your subject area or grade level, you can glean ideas for developing your own checklists.

  1. This observational checklist from Teaching Reading, Grades K-2 allows a fairly straightforward evaluation of a peer teacher’s methods of developing the essential elements of literacy. Observing teachers have space to comment on their colleagues use of shared and independent reading and writing, among other practices.
  2. The Literacy Development Chart, also from Teaching Reading, Grades K-2, allows ongoing observation of a peer teacher to see how an individual student “case study” develops and how a teacher supports their progress based on the student’s strengths and needs.
  3. The Key Questions observation form provides a more open-ended way for teachers to observe their colleagues. This example asks questions related to how students develop literacy skills. The form’s prompts include questions on how reading and writing are connected and how a peer teacher instructs students with diverse needs.
  4. Searching “classroom observation checklist for teachers” on Google yields many very useful checklist formats.

Videos for observing expert educators on your own schedule:

Finding time during the school day for such detailed peer observation is not always feasible. In addition, a teacher who wants to use observation as a means to improve their own practice may encounter other obstacles; a culture of trust and a willingness to participate has to be present in their school already. Don’t have opportunities to observe peers at your school? Learner.org provides video examples of effective teaching in most subject areas and most grade levels.

The Learner.org workshops in the list below can be streamed for free. Here are just a few highlights:

  1. Teaching Reading, Grades K-2 could be used in conjunction with the aforementioned observation forms as an alternative to watching live classrooms. The extensive video library includes 30 minute programs on classroom practices in action as well as student case studies of children in grades K-2.
  2. In The Art of Teaching the Arts, workshop 3, “Addressing the Diverse Needs of Students,” watch how three teachers adjust their teaching approaches for students with various learning styles and needs.
  3. Making Civics Real, a professional development workshop for high school teachers, illustrates an activist approach to the teaching of civics. For example, in workshop 6, “Civic Engagement,” observe a Human Geography class taught by Bill Mittlefehldt. Students work in teams on a service project to solve community issue.

Here are more resources showing effective classroom instruction that can be used for observations:

The Arts:
The Arts in Every Classroom: A Workshop for Elementary School Teachers
Connecting With the Arts: A Workshop for Middle Grades Teachers
The Art of Teaching the Arts: A Workshop for High School Teachers

Foreign Languages:
Teaching Foreign Languages, K-12 Library

Language Arts and Literature:
Teaching Reading, K-2
Inside Writing Communities, Grades 3-5
Making Meaning in Literature, Grades 3-8
Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for Middle Grades
Developing Writers: A Workshop for High School Teachers
The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Teaching Math: A video library, K-4
Teaching Math: A video library, 5-8
Teaching Math: A video library, 9-12
Insights into Algebra I: Teaching for Learning (middle and high school)

Social Studies:
Social Studies in Action: A Teaching Practices, Library K-12
The Economics Classroom: A Workshop for Grade 9-12 Teachers
Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers (high school)

Science K-6: Investigating Classrooms
Teaching High School Science

While the best way to learn from expert teachers is to watch them in person, watching examples of excellent teaching in videos can be just as useful. In addition, you can observe these classrooms at your convenience and pause and re-watch sections as needed.

We are interested: Share your experiences using classroom observations to improve your instruction below the post.

[1] Richardson, Matthew O. “Peer Observation: Learning From One Another,” The NEA Higher Education Journal 16. No. 1 (2000): 9-20.


How to Share Ideas From Your Classroom

sharing ideasWe know you create amazing lesson plans and activities using Learner.org resources. Share them with other teachers on the Ideas From Your Classrooms section of our blog.

Submit your lesson plans and activities to blog@learner.org for consideration. We will post a new activity or lesson plan every Tuesday. Check back often to learn about fresh ideas from your peers.

Also, in the Ideas From Your Classrooms section of the blog, we encourage you to comment under lesson plan and activities posts, respond to questions about your classrooms, and support each other with knowledge and advice from your teaching experience.


How to Submit a Lesson Plan or Activity

Your plans and activities should state a clear objective, be well-organized, require minimal to no edits, and incorporate a Learner.org resource. (You may also refer to additional resources if desired.) The Learner.org resource you refer to can be a whole series, or part of a series such as an online textbook chapter or video program, an online interactive, or any other resources accessed free on our website. Series titles and urls must be included.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Please include the following information with your materials:

  1. Your name and email address
  2. Title of the activity or lesson plan
  3. Subject/ Class name
  4. Grade level
  5. School name or location (not required)

Also, please share this post! Thank you. Don’t forget to subscribe to LearnerLog.org so you don’t miss new postings.

Wetlands 2: May is American Wetlands Month

Habitable Planet_BiomesSince 1991, U.S. government agencies and partner organizations have designated May as American Wetlands Month. Here are some more ways to incorporate wetlands into science classes, building on the links in the previous post (Wetlands 1: Marshes and Mud Flats and Bogs, Oh My!).

Wetlands in your region: As discussed in The Habitable Planet, “Major Terrestrial and Aquatic Biomes,” Earth is divided into distinct climate zones – warmer and wetter near the tropics, colder and dryer near the poles, with more moderate conditions near coastlines. These climate zones create biomes – geographic areas whose plants and animals are adapted to specific climate patterns. Tundra and temperate forest are types of land biomes; at the coast, the intertidal zone (land that is submerged at high tide and exposed at low tide) is also a biome. What kinds of wetlands would you expect to find in your biome? How do local temperature and moisture patterns affect them? Use the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wetlands Mapper to find wetlands in your town or county, color-coded by type.

Why protect wetlands? Wetlands are protected under the federal Clean Water Act and many state laws, but nonetheless are at risk from pollution and development in many places. Good information sources on the value of wetlands include the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages national wildlife refuges across the United States, including many types of wetlands, and the Association of State Wetland Managers, a professional organization of government officials responsible for conserving and restoring wetlands.

Swamp science: Scientists are studying many issues in wetlands, including how they form; how they are changing in response to stresses such as development and rising sea levels; and ways to restore them. The U.S. Geological Survey’s wetland and watershed video library offers close-up looks at many of these challenges at sites across the United States. And this NOVA scienceNOW video examines Hurricane Katrina’s impact on Louisiana’s coastal marshes, which are some of the most rapidly-eroding wetlands in the United States.

How are you teaching about wetlands in your classrooms?

9 Ways to Encourage Play for Kindergarten Day and Every Day!

ArtsEvery_11Time to pull out the blocks and finger paints. Kindergarten Day recognizes the importance of play, games, and creative activity in children’s education. In 1837, Friedrich Froebel, born April 21, 1782, established the first kindergarten in Germany. German immigrants brought the idea to the U.S. in the 1840s. In 1873, the first public kindergarten was started in St. Louis, MO.

Kindergarten classrooms of the past provided oodles of time for students to use their imaginations, develop social skills, and learn to love learning. As the arm of standardized testing reaches into the earliest years of childhood development, concerns are raised about the disappearance of play experiences. Read about why playtime is important for young students in this report from the Alliance for Childhood.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of Friedrich Froebel, we present the following ideas for using play to teach literacy and math skills, as well as concepts for social studies and science:

1. Students learn to appreciate different cultural backgrounds as they explore holidays such as the Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day in Teaching Reading K-2 Library, program 3, “Building Oral Language.” Sensory activities and crafts are combined with reading and writing activities to help students make connections.

2. Chuck Walker pairs kindergartners with 6th graders for counting activities located inside and outside of the classroom in Teaching Math, A Video Library, K-4, program 3, “Math Buddies.”

3. Students learn about story structure and engage their imaginations when theatre artist Birgitta De Pree visits the classroom in The Arts in Every Classroom: A Video Library, K-5, program 10, “Bringing Artists to Your Community.”

4. Thalia’s teachers tap into her interests and add whimsy with song and drawing to literacy lessons for this energetic kindergartner in Teaching Reading K-2 Library, program 4, “Thalia Learns the Details.”

5. Young students learn mathematical concepts while playing with different types of manipulatives in Teaching Math, A Video Library, K-4, program 7, “Cubes and Containers,” program 12, “Dino Math,” and program 43, “Beans, Beans, Beans.”

6. Students understand economic concepts of supply and demand while working together to make bread in Social Studies in Action, A Teaching Practices Library, K-12, program 6, “Making Bread Together.”

7. In Ms. Mesmer’s classroom, students participate in a variety of fun activities to compare holidays, while learning about seasons and the earth’s rotation around the sun. See Social Studies in Action, A Teaching Practices Library, K-12, program 8, “Celebrations of Light.”

8. Watch students practice their French vocabulary using song, movement, and cut-and-paste activities in Teaching Foreign Languages, K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices, program 4, “Chicken Pox.”

9. A kindergarten class mixes with a 4th-grade class to create an original performance based on Quidam by Cirque du Soleil in The Arts in Every Classroom: A Video Library, K-5, program 11, “Students Create a Multi-Arts Performance.”

What are ways you are using play in your kindergarten classrooms?

Wetlands 1: Marshes and Mud Flats and Bogs, Oh My!

WetlandsIf you live in the Northeast, Midwest, or along the Pacific coast, don’t be surprised if you see small ponds or lakes appear suddenly in your neighborhood during the spring. These are vernal pools – wet areas that form in low-lying zones where water collects in winter and spring. By summer the water evaporates, leaving the site damp or dry through autumn.

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands, but many other types occur year-round across North America. Wetlands are areas where the soil is always or usually saturated with water, so they support plants and animals that are adapted to moist conditions. Bogs, marshes, mud flats, swamps, and estuaries are all forms of wetlands.

They don’t always look impressive (that’s one reason why many wetlands have been filled in or paved over), but wetlands play important ecological roles. They serve as nurseries and feeding grounds for many types of fish, mammals, and birds; filter pollutants and sediments out of water; and protect coastlines from the impact of storms.

To put wetlands into context, unit 8 of The Habitable Planet describes Earth’s water resources, how they move through the global water cycle, and threats to fresh water. Section 3 shows how the world’s freshwater resources are distributed between ground and surface waters. Section 8 discusses how pollutants–including biological organisms, chemicals, and sediments–impair water quality.

Wetlands can serve as settings for biology, ecology, or chemistry classes. In  Journey North, learn how wetlands are especially important feeding and nesting zones for whooping cranes. Read about what the birds eat, track their migration stops, and discuss how human actions are affecting the wetlands that these birds use. For a biology or chemistry class, see unit 4, section 7 of Rediscovering Biology, “Microbial Diversity,” for a discussion of how archaea break down carbon in swamps. And the interactive on “Garbage – Solutions for Sewage” offers a case study of Arcata, California’s wastewater management system, which includes artificial (constructed) wetlands that improve water quality through physical and chemical processes.

And if you live in a region where vernal pools form, the Association of State Wetland Managers has news, videos, and links to additional materials about these seasonal spring wetlands and the many species that live in them.

Look for post #2 next Wednesday (April 23) with more ideas for teaching about wetlands during American Wetlands Month in May!

The Smoking Gun of Cosmic Inflation

Physics_cosmic inflationYoung Alvy Singer got it partially right.The main character in the Woody Allen film Annie Hall explained why he gave up doing his homework: “Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!”

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics recently announced that the BICEP2 collaboration (its research partnership with Caltech/JPL, Stanford/SLAC, and UMinn) had observable evidence to prove how this expansion got started from the point of the Big Bang: through cosmic inflation.  “These results are not only a smoking gun for inflation, they also tell us when inflation took place and how powerful the process was,” said Harvard theorist Avi Loeb. Physics for the 21st Century at Learner.org provides explanatory text, images, and video to help you make sense of the discovery and the theories that led to it.

Start by looking at the text for unit 4 on String Theory to understand how cosmic inflation is responsible for the structure of the universe as it is today.

Short of running backwards the movie of all time, the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB, is the best link to the first moments of the development of matter. The CMB is the detection of the relic gas radiating from the Big Bang. Astrophysicists also have been able to find in their data the finger prints of gravitational waves, which are described as ripples in space-time. Dr. Nergis Mavalvala of MIT explains the relation of gravitational waves to today’s astronomy. Watch the segment of the video Gravity, beginning at 14:30 through 16:21, to learn about how these waves are propagated.

The final unit looks in on the work of two astrophysicists, Robert Kirshner and David Spergel, both trying to determine the cause of the acceleration of the expansion of the universe and whether there may be an end to it. Their chief suspect is Dark Energy. Their research may assuage Alvy Singer’s concern about the universe ultimately breaking apart.

Citizen Science II: Making CS more visible

science students clip art(See Part I: From winter into spring here). Citizen science is a fast-growing field, and some practitioners would like to see it become a recognized scientific method. A panel at last month’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual conference in Chicago considered how to move toward “a science of citizen science.” Panelists agreed that citizen science is producing valuable information on a wide range of issues, and that it is time to start analyzing CS projects and comparing what works across different scientific disciplines.

‘Who makes knowledge? Where and how does it happen? As citizen science matures and becomes more prevalent and professionalized, researchers want to understand these questions,” said Caren Cooper, a research associate at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, which manages multiple citizen science projects.

In Cooper’s view, scientists value and trust data from citizen science projects. CS data is appearing with growing frequency in studies, and authors typically do not qualify it or treat it as inferior to other data sources. By the same token, though, they often do not identify it as coming from citizen science projects. That makes it hard to quantify how many researchers are using citizen science data or what impact it has made.

The Citizen Science Association, founded in 2012, hopes to make CS more visible and professional by launching a journal and spotlighting best practices in citizen science. Those steps should make citizen science more visible and help new projects attract funding.

Several speakers at AAAS discussed the challenges of managing citizen science projects, such as encouraging participants — especially in online projects — and keeping them engaged. Typically, most participants in large-scale CS projects do relatively little work and make small contributions, while much of the input comes from a small group of more engaged players – a pattern that probably is familiar to many teachers.

Like classroom teachers, CS project managers are trying to create learning communities. But their relationships with participants are much more distant and temporary than classroom teachers’ interactions with students. Even so, panelists said, some players in citizen science projects have called their experience transformative and said that participating helped them realize they were good at science. In some cases, participating in a citizen science project had steered people toward studying specific science topics in school. Practitioners would like to know how to make that happen for more participants.

The White House honors a dozen scientists as “Champions of Change” for creating citizen science initiatives in fields ranging from neuroscience to paleontology. As scientists grapple with challenging research problems, teachers can expect that there will be even more opportunities for students to help them.

For ways to get your students involved in citizen science projects, see our previous post Citizen Science I: From winter into spring.

Citizen Science I: From winter into spring

I see youMarch started off with yet another wave of snow, ice and Arctic air across much of North America. But even in regions where winter has been colder than average, like New England and the Midwest, the natural world is transitioning from winter to spring. And that shift offers many science teaching opportunities.

Even if your town is still covered with snow, you can still observe signs of seasonal change, such as lengthening daylight hours or the passage of animals and birds migrating north. Through Annenberg Learner’s Journey North (JN) program, teachers can register their classes and share their findings with other observers across North America. Choose a species that migrates through your region – for example, hummingbirds along the Gulf Coast, or robins across much of the eastern United States. Where and when have they been seen locally in recent years? Is that pattern holding this year? If you see something different, what might be the cause?

Or use the phenology checklist to track changes in sunlight and temperature, and correlate those factors with the emergence of plants and animals locally. Compare your students’ observations with reports from other regions. Why is the timing of spring different across North America? Journey North’s teacher resource page offers other standards-based classroom lessons and advice from teachers who have used JN at different grade levels.

Journey North is also a way to introduce students to the concept of citizen science. Citizen science projects come in many forms, but typically pair volunteers with scientists to collect scientific data. The central idea is that anyone can make observations that will help researchers tackle large-scale questions about the natural world.JNheader102007

When students participate in citizen science projects, they engage in many activities that are central to the scientific process: they observe phenomena, collect data, summarize it, and have opportunities to compare their data with others’ findings and interpret the results. See Annenberg’s course on The Science of Teaching Science for more discussion of how these activities support scientific learning.

Traditional citizen science projects ask participants to collect data in the field for analysis by scientists. One well-known example is the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), administered by the National Audubon Society, which launched in 1900. Thousands of CBC volunteers, often working in teams, count birds in designated zones every year in late December across North America and beyond. Researchers have used the enormous CBC database on bird populations to identify species that are declining or threatened, and develop strategies for protecting them.

Over the past decade another approach to citizen science has evolved, in which scientists ask participants to search through large data sets and sort or process information. Using GalaxyZoo, an astronomy project, view images of galaxies and classify them according to their shapes. More than 150,000 people contributed classifications during the project’s first year.

Games are also becoming a popular way to draw participants into scientific tasks. One of the most popular is Foldit, which has also attracted hundreds of thousands of participants since it debuted in 2008.  Foldit players solve puzzles by folding video images of proteins. To earn high scores, they have to understand basic principles of protein structure, which are explained in introductory challenges. Scientists at the University of Washington developed the program to see whether humans’ puzzle-solving intuitions could help predict the structure of proteins – a key task in biology and medicine. Players can also design new proteins that could prevent or treat diseases.

There is no single directory for citizen science research, but many projects are easy to find online. For a sampling, see the listings at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (birds and bird habitat); Zooniverse (astronomy, climate, and biology); Scientific American magazine’s database (many disciplines); and Scistarter (many disciplines), a website that connects volunteers with citizen science projects. And don’t forget to check out Learner.org’s own Journey North program!

How are you getting your students involved in citizen science projects?

Solving Real-World Problems: National Engineers Week, February 16-22

President Nixon visits the Manned Spaceflight Center to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team

President Nixon visits the Manned Spaceflight Center to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team

When small children hear the word “engineer,” they may picture someone driving a locomotive. National Engineers Week, which runs from February 16-22, is an opportunity to show them another meaning of the word. Engineers use math and science to solve practical problems and invent new products. And older students should be interested to learn that engineering is a growing field with a diverse array of high-paying jobs.

For a sampling of the many different specialties that make up this field, check out the overviews at DiscoverE of disciplines such as aerospace, electrical, and civil engineering. This survey offers examples that draw on all of the sciences, and can be discussed in combination with course units on Learner.org. For example:

  • Unit 5 of Science in Focus: Energy explains how humans get the energy that they need to survive from food. Agricultural and biological engineers help people produce enough food to meet demand by designing farm equipment and innovative ways to grow food, such as hydroponic systems. They also design farming equipment, help farmers find new ways to plant and harvest, and develop ways to keep food fresh and safe while it is stored and transported to markets.
  • Unit 8, section 4 of The Habitable Planet describes how water moves through the ground and interacts with soil and rock. What happens if chemicals are spilled and seep down into groundwater that communities use for drinking? Environmental engineers know the chemical properties of pollutants and can calculate where they will flow and how quickly they will move. They also monitor and protect water supplies to keep them safe.

Sometimes engineers have to invent completely new solutions to problems that have never been seen before. One famous example was the Apollo 13 flight in 1970, which was dramatized in the movie Apollo 13. During a mission to the moon, an oxygen tank on the spacecraft exploded and ruptured, leaving the crippled flight with limited electricity and oxygen. The crew and flight controllers on the ground had to invent a new plan for getting the astronauts back to Earth.

“All we had to work with was time and experience,” flight director Gene Kranz wrote later. Engineers had to invent many new procedures and improvise a system for filtering carbon dioxide out of the spacecraft’s cabin so that the astronauts could breathe. After the successful return, President Nixon awarded the astronauts and flight operations team the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “We often speak of scientific ‘miracles’ – forgetting that these are not miraculous happenings at all, but rather the product of hard work, long hours and disciplined intelligence,” the award citation stated.

Inspire your students to become engineers with these examples and more of the important work engineers do.

Crystal Clear: Celebrating the International Year of Crystallography

Chemistry_saltcrystalsWhat do diamonds, ice, sand, and table salt have in common? Like most solids, they have crystalline structures: they are made up of atoms or molecules arranged in a regular, repeating order. A century ago, scientists developed a technique called x-ray crystallography that made it possible to analyze the structure of crystalline solids. Since that time crystallography has become a key tool in many scientific fields, including mineralogy, medicine, archaeology, and food science. Twenty-three Nobel Prizes have been awarded for discoveries that relied on crystallography.

The United Nations and the International Union of Crystallography have proclaimed 2014 the International Year of Crystallography to educate people about this versatile technique, which is still relatively unknown to the general public. Since crystallography is widely used in many different scientific fields, this event offers a teaching hook for chemistry, physics, and biology classes.

Annenberg’s new chemistry course, Chemistry: Challenges and Solutions, unit 13, describes the chemical bonds that hold crystalline substances together, and the insight that launched the field of crystallography. British physicist William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg recognized that when a beam of X-rays was aimed at a crystal, planes of atoms within the crystal would diffract (scatter) the rays in patterns that could be used to map the crystal’s internal structure. The Braggs shared a Nobel Prize in 1915 for their work.

Physical Science, session 5, “Density and Pressure,” explains X-ray diffraction and how scientists can use it to reconstruct the size and shape of particles that are too small to be seen with the naked eye. X-rays make this kind of visualization possible because their wavelengths are short enough to interact with individual atoms of molecules.

Crystallography generated key insights in early medical research. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, a British chemist, used it to map the structures of insulin, penicillin, and vitamin B-12. In 1964 Hodgkin became the third woman to receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry, following Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie. Another key advance occurred when researchers found ways to crystallize biological materials, such as proteins and DNA. In Annenberg’s Rediscovering Biology course, unit 2, “Proteins and Proteomics,” Ned David describes the rapid evolution of techniques for crystallizing proteins. Drug designers use crystallography to visualize the three-dimensional structure of a protein so that they can find the best place for a drug to bind snugly to the protein.

The invention of synchrotrons (large particle accelerators that generate intense light and x-rays) has furthered the growth of crystallography. For examples of crystallography’s diverse applications, see the web page for x-ray scattering research at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s Advanced Light Source. The International Year of Crystallography’s learning page has images, video and audio clips, and links to other online resources about crystallography.   

How will you be teaching about crystallography in 2014?