Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Teaching with Twitter

Twitter_logo_blue copyToday it seems like everyone is on Twitter, following and/or being followed. There’s a hashtag for everything (#chestnuts, anyone?) and much of the traffic is devoted to fun and games and news. But away from the chatter, there is also a steady stream of educational Twitter use. It makes sense: Twitter is free, easy to use, and most high school students are already on it.

But as late as September 2014, Ben Stern of TeachBoost described teachers who are heavily engaged with Twitter as “outliers”. Why? Some school districts don’t allow in-school use of social media, of course, but that’s not the whole reason. Many teachers who have not yet used Twitter as part of their curriculum may be holding out for some concrete examples of using Twitter with their students. If that’s you, you’re in luck. We provide some great examples right here:

Hold Tweet Chats and Conversations

Have students who don’t like to speak up in class? Of course you do. Twitter allows students to comment and contribute to classroom discussions without raising their hand. Have students who can’t stop speaking up in class? Twitter’s 140-character format discourages long harangues and allows for more equal participation.

The joy of Twitter is that it expands the definition of student participation, both in class and well after the bell rings. Tweet a question like “Who’s most responsible for the tragic introduction of Jim Crow segregation law?” during your U.S. history class at 9:00 AM and you’ll be reading tweet after tweet on the subject well after 9:00 PM, and into the next day and the next—for as long as you keep the topic open. Discussions that light up Twitter go on to feed vibrant and informed classroom discussions.

Don’t forget to add custom made hashtags so that you and your students can easily follow the conversation. George Couros offers some tips to create classroom hashtags for Twitter on his blog.

If you prefer more structure to your Twitter chat, ask students to discuss a question for homework within a specific time frame (on Tuesday evening from 7-9 pm, for example) to give students a window for participation. Designate a hashtag for the assignment and tweet out the question with that hashtag at 7pm to get the students going.

Elicit Peer Feedback in Real Time

Ever notice how people at conferences tweet like mad during the presentations? (Are you one of them?) They’re giving instant feedback on speakers and ideas to their network and getting responses right away. By the time the speaker is finished, their thoughts have already gone around the world twice and been thoroughly hashed and re-hashed by their peers before the live discussion in the conference room even begins. Your students can do the same thing: have them tweet questions and comments during videos or student presentations so that when it’s time to talk, the conversation is already in motion. For example, if your science class watched “Biodiversity Decline”, program 9 of Annenberg Learner’s series The Habitable Planet, they could tweet questions and comments about the episode using the hashtag #HP9discuss.

Have Students Tweet in Character

Taking on a persona can be a tough sell in the classroom. Few students want to stand up and deliver a presentation in character (especially in costume) as a figure from the past or from literature. But ask them to tweet from the perspective of a Revolutionary soldier or Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games and it’s a different story. Tweeting allows students to create a longer-term project of living inside a character’s head from day to day, expressing concise thoughts from their point of view over a longer time period that immerses them in the character—especially when they have to answer questions as the character.

Involve the Community

Students can also reach beyond their peers to begin meaningful dialogues with people outside the classroom. You can help them come up with questions for local political candidates, performers, business owners, and more to inform in-school projects and help create socially engaged members of your city and state.

Follow News and Issues

Have students track specific issues in the local, national, or world news as they are being tweeted about (#climatechange for example) to get a sense of how those issues are being discussed at large.

Encourage Group Work

Twitter can get students cooperating as a group. For your next reading or video assignment, organize your class into groups and have each group post a summary. It’s hard work to summarize any resource in 140 characters! Tweeting content like this forces students to really single out the main point of a text. You can have students vote on the best summary, or choose and retweet it yourself.

As students do all these things on Twitter, you are able to track their activity and get a good sense of where to go in your next classroom session. Afraid of spending hours each day tracking hundreds of student tweets? You can spread out Twitter-based assignments. Even one a month will give your students the benefits of the format without keeping you chained to your web browser. If your students and school have internet access, try one of the strategies above to join the “outlier” teachers who are teaching with Twitter.

What’s your experience with using Twitter? Let us know by posting a comment. (Don’t forget to follow @AnnLearner on Twitter!)

Illuminate Arts Education During International Year of Light

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared 2015 the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies. Light is at the heart of man-made technologies such as lasers, radios, and X-ray machines, as well as natural phenomena like sunsets, rainbows and photosynthesis.

ATT_5_NotreDame

Aerial View of Notre Dame Cathedral, by unknown architect(s), France. From Art Through Time, “Cosmology and Belief.”

While the Year of Light provides obvious teaching hooks for educators looking to instruct their students in science and technology, light also breathes life and realism into art. The use of light was paramount to some of the greatest masters and architects in the history of Western art.

Seventeenth century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) painted such masterpieces as The Lacemaker and Girl with a Pearl Earring by using stunningly realistic effects of light and shadow. Based on his paintings, some historians believe that Vermeer used a device called a camera obscura, a box, painted white inside, with lenses in it and a hole so that the user can look inside. The lenses and mirrors inside the camera obscura, a forerunner to the modern camera, reflect outside images within the box.

For his subjects, Vermeer focused mostly on everyday scenes and people from his hometown of Delft. Learn about View of Delft, one of the best-known Dutch cityscapes from the Golden Age of Dutch art, as well as the camera obscura, in Art Through Time: A Global View, unit 11, “The Urban Experience.”

Another 17th century artist of the Baroque period, the Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610), created scenes like The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Supper at Emmaus with a signature use of light contrasted against dark and somber backgrounds. Caravaggio’s method of strong contrast between light and dark is known as chiaroscuro, which translates to light-dark in Italian.

Learn more about Caravaggio and his Baroque contemporaries in “Realms of Light – The Baroque,” program 5 of Art of the Western World.

Read more about Caravaggio’s style in the Renaissance: Symmetry, Shape, Size interactive, which discusses how the chiaroscuro method, developed during the Renaissance, was a realistic departure from the flat, unnatural backgrounds of works of art from the Middle Ages.

The use of light in art was never limited to paintings. In Art Through Time, unit 5, “Cosmology and Belief,” read about how the Gothic architecture of Notre Dame (built between 1163-1345) emphasized light cast through clear and stained glass windows. Light streaming through the ornate glass, along with the Cathedral’s towering vertical lines, were meant to draw worshippers upward to a higher, more heavenly state of being.

Share ways in which you would instruct your students about the use of light in art in the comments section below.

Make Primary Sources More Accessible with Read-Alouds

TML_7_readaloudHow well can you read this excerpt?

…a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom…

The Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863

Personally, I stopped reading and started skimming after “to wit.” What makes this text complex? Everything. First, the text contains challenging vocabulary words including but not limited to proclamation, to wit, whereof, thenceforward, authority, thereof, and repress. Second, it uses a sentence structure and language that is not familiar to our 21st century ears. Third, it requires knowledge of the historical time and politics in order to comprehend it. As such, it is an inconsiderate text as written. (To learn more about this specific primary source, review the Primary Sources workshop entitled, “Concerning Emancipation: Who Freed the Slaves?”)

Primary sources, especially historical documents like “The Emancipation Proclamation,” are not easy reading for our students. These documents often employ “technical” jargon and/or are written in historically-specific language. Students need support in deconstructing these texts – this support can be provided via instructional read-alouds. In doing so, teachers give students models for how to read and think about complex texts.

According to Annenberg Learner’s Primary Sources: Workshops in American History, primary sources are “firsthand evidence and artifacts of the past [including] letters, photographs, maps, government documents, diaries, oral accounts, pamphlets, or leaflets.” It is important for students to read and grapple with these primary source texts because they are the basis of our historical knowledge. However, because of the text complexity, teachers may choose to provide students with summaries or abridged versions instead. I would like to challenge teachers to support students in their reading of the actual documents.

There are several read-aloud strategies that will help make these texts more accessible to students. Here are two of my favorites:

Questioning the Author or QtA

My favorite instructional read-aloud approach is Questioning the Author or QtA (Beck & McKeown, 2006). Teachers help students actively build reading comprehension by asking queries during the read-aloud; these queries require students to refer to the text and seek evidence from the text to support their responses. Queries include: What does the author tell us here? Why do you think the author tells us this now? In addition, teachers explain complex vocabulary and content as they read. This is especially important for reading primary sources. Teachers are available to address challenging ideas during the reading as students build their comprehension. Teachers help build the context so that students aren’t confused by missing information. At the same time, teachers using QtA hold their students accountable for comprehending the text as a group.

Think-Aloud

Another strategy that will help students learn to effectively grapple with reading primary sources is the Think-Aloud (Wilhelm, 2003). As teachers read aloud a primary source, they should stop at difficult words and sections and ask, “Does this make sense?” Teachers then say out loud to the students why these parts are complex and what they plan on doing to decrease the complexity. In doing so, teachers model for students that all readers grapple with text and that there are effective strategies for comprehension.

These strategies are supportive and educative. Teachers support students in their comprehension of the text by stopping frequently during the read-aloud and guiding students’ interactions with the text. The strategies are educative because they help model for students how to be proficient readers. As such, the reading of primary source documents can be demystified for students.

Learn more about read-alouds in general in Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 7, “Social Justice and Action.”

References

Beck, I, L. & McKeown, M.G. (2006). Improving comprehension with Questioning the Author: A fresh and expanded view of a powerful approach. NY: Scholastic.

Wilhelm, J. (2003). Navigating meaning: Using Think-Alouds to help readers monitor comprehension. Retrieved from: http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/495

Displaced by Disasters

Floods, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters have driven humans from their homes throughout history. The problem is growing as world population rises and millions of people move to mega-cities, many of which are located in vulnerable areas. According to a recent report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a non-government research organization in Geneva, Switzerland, 27 million people on average have been displaced each year since 2008 by natural disasters.

B195_05

Image from Earth Revealed.

Climate change is worsening the problem by raising sea levels and increasing the frequency of catastrophic storms. U.S. students may remember images from Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012, which flooded large sections of lower Manhattan and caused at least $50 billion in damages. Climate analysts have calculated that if global carbon emissions continue to rise at their current rates, about 2.6 percent of the world’s population (177 million people) will live in areas that are at risk from regular flooding by 2100. No country is safe, but the greatest risk is in Asian nations such as Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Bangladesh, where large fractions of the population live in areas that are vulnerable to coastal flooding.

Human vulnerability to disasters can be studied from several science perspectives. Unit 24 of Annenberg Learner’s Earth Revealed geology series focuses on coastlines, where the energy of ocean waves meets rocky landmasses of the mainland. Use this video to discuss issues that people living near shore should consider, such as erosion and how far back from the water to build. For more information on flood risks, the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program develops flood-hazard maps for U.S. communities that can be viewed online, along with videos from flooded communities.

Many people live in areas where they know there is significant risk of floods, wildfires, or other natural disasters. In unit 25 of Earth Revealed, see how scientists are studying the San Andreas Fault and residents of San Francisco have adapted to the risks of earthquakes in the Bay area. Teaching Geography, workshop 2, “Latin America,” part 2, discusses the risks that people living near Mount Tungurahua in Ecuador face. In addition, the Volcanoes interactive explores our ability to predict volcanic eruptions and steps that people can take to reduce the danger of living near active volcanoes.

Many cities threatened by rising seas are considering ways to adapt and make themselves more resilient in the face of floods and storms. One widely-cited example is the Netherlands’ Room for the River program, which is creating open spaces where the Rhine River can spill over during floods without threatening local communities. In New York City, a program called Rebuild by Design is proposing flood-protection strategies for the New York region, including protective berms around Manhattan and restored marshes and oyster reefs in New York Harbor to absorb the impact of storms.

At the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, an upcoming exhibit called “Sink or Swim” will examine human responses to coastal flooding around the world, from sea walls to floating schools. The exhibit, which runs from December 13, 2014 through May 3, 2015, will show “how communities are rising up to meet the challenges” of climate change in densely populated coastal zones worldwide, says Annenberg Foundation Chairman of the Board, President and CEO Wallis Annenberg.

How to Teach Historical Documents

Democracy in America_2Imagine an adorable mini-version of me reciting the following words, “We the people of the United States…”

In the fifth grade, I remember memorizing the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution for a school play. I also remember reading textbook entries about it; thus, I was able to answer questions such as: Who wrote it? When and where was it written? Why was it written?

What I don’t remember is actually reading the document or grappling with its content. I did not answer questions that promoted higher order thinking like: What is the historical significance of the Constitution given the time period? How did the document reflect the social and political thinking of the time? How is the document relevant to me today?

Students need opportunities to explore more robust questions about the contexts of historical documents. For example, in “The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible?,” program 2 of Democracy in America, students study the document as a “living” entity. They examine their own role in perpetuating the principles set forth in the Constitution. They answer such questions as: What are some of the disputes over the Constitution’s wording that persist today? Why do some people consider the Constitution as a timeless, perfect document while others view the Constitution as a living document to be reinterpreted by each generation? In exploring these questions, students learn that the Constitution is a product of its people and that it is perpetuated by the people.

In particular and as described in the Artifacts & Fiction workshops (halfway down the web page), I like the CAATS strategy, which encourages students to study the Creator, Assumptions, Audience/User, Time and Place, and Significance of a historical document. An overview of this strategy is provided in the following table:

Creator: Who created this artifact? What do we know about the person(s) who created it? How did it influence his/her life at the time it was created? Would the creator find relevant connections to the literature you are pairing with this artifact?
Assumptions: What do you know about the context of this artifact? What assumptions can you make based on prior information that you bring to this analysis?
Audience/User: Who was the audience for this object when it was originally created? What leads you to this assumption?
Time and Place: When and where was this artifact created?
Significance: Why is this artifact important? How does it help explain the literature you are teaching with it? Does the context of the artifact parallel the context of your literature?

 

In Primary Sources: Workshops in American History, also find “Examining Documents and Images,” a resource guide with strategies to teach students how to read primary sources skeptically and critically. This workshop also offers webpages on several historical documents; these pages provide historical background and robust questions about the document. For example, the webpages featuring “The Declaration of Independence” and “Emancipation Proclamation” provide teachers with a brief historical background and questions about the documents.

Students will greatly benefit from studying historical documents from various and multiple perspectives and/or lenses (Appleman, 2010). By having students study the contexts of historical documents, teachers are building a rich knowledge base for students – one that supports agency and advocacy. By helping students go beyond “what is this document” to also examining “why this document” and “how this document,” then we are empowering students to understand their own roles and responsibilities.

How are you teaching about historical documents in your classes? Please share in the comments section under this post.

References

Appleman, D. (2010).  Critical encounters in high school English:  Teaching literary theory to adolescents.  (2nd Edition). NY:  Teachers College Press.

Learning from the 2014 Nobel Prizes

Perhaps the Nobel Prizes recipients don’t make the same headlines as baseball’s World Series challengers, but every October the stories behind their work are just as exciting. These are discoveries, theories, works of art, and acts of humanity that have been years in the making. The work touches us in fundamental ways and constitutes the “shoulders of giants” referred to by Isaac Newton. If you don’t quite understand the laureates’ achievements, you can see the fundamental principles and related concepts at learner.org.

MathIllum_rockpaperscissors

Learn how game theory applies to “rock, paper, scissors” in Mathematics Illuminated.

Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economics

Jean Tirole, a French theoretical economist, won the award for analysis of market power and regulation. Tirole studied how to regulate industries with a few powerful firms, such as telecommunications firms. You can hear from Nobel committee chair Tore Ellingsen on the significance of Tirole’s work.

Tirole’s work was based on the mathematical concepts of game theory, which you can learn about in Mathematics Illuminated, unit 9.  The online text provides familiar examples, including zero sum games, and prisoner’s dilemma. Watch the video to see how game theory even applies to “rock, paper, scissors.”

Once you have a handle on game theory, see how government regulations have been applied to big players in the auto, energy, and airlines industries in Economics U$A, program 7, “Oligopolies.” This program looks at how big industries manage to write the rules of the marketplace.

Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology and Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Several of this year’s laureates followed the principle of thinking small. The medicine/physiology and chemistry prizes involve looking at objects down to the size of a single cell or molecule. The Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology was awarded to three researchers who found the brain’s mechanism for establishing our position in space, a mental GPS-like system. John O’Keefe found that we carry “space cells” in our brains and May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser expanded the concept to a grid in which these cells operate.  The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for work in microscopy allowing scientists to see down to this level at “super resolution.”

This level of microscopy has applications across all fields of science research. Wolfhard Almers at the Vollum Institute in Portland, OR explains how, using wave microscopy, he and his colleagues were able to isolate a single nerve cell to understand what it does after releasing a transmitter. His research is covered in Rediscovering Biology unit on Neurobiology.

“I still haven’t gotten over thinking it’s really cool, that I can go into work every day and take pictures of atoms and I can see individual atoms with this microscope,” says graduate student Tess Williams. The lab where she works at Harvard investigates the structure of superconducting materials. Find out more in Physics for the 21st Century unit “Macroscopic Quantum Mechanics.”

Nobel Prize in Physics

The three physicists who shared the Nobel Prize in physics gave new meaning to “keeping the lights on.” They invented a new energy-efficient and environment-friendly light source – the blue light-emitting diode (LED). In the LED, electricity is directly converted into light particles, photons, leading to efficiency gains compared to other light sources where most of the electricity is converted to heat and only a small amount into light. Explore the many facets of light and heat with your students in the workshop series Shedding Light on Science, especially unit 2, “Laws of Light.

Nobel Peace Prize

Indian and Pakistani activists Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai attracted the attention of the international community to the issue of child rights and shared the Nobel Peace Prize. From the earliest waves of immigration in the U.S., children have been used as workers and denied a formal education. Thomas Rivera wrote about his experience as a migrant child agricultural laborer in the memoir, “And the Earth Did Not Devour Him/Y la Tierra no se traiga.” Read about Rivera’s background in American Passages, unit 12, “Migrant Struggle.” His translator, Evangelina Vigil-Piñón discusses Rivera’s work and its place in Chicano literature in the Learner Express: Language Arts modules.

Teach Your Students to Argue Effectively

TML_7_3Have you ever met anyone with uninformed opinions? Didn’t it make you want to explode (or at the very least, lament the decline of mankind by eating pie)? Reasoning is one of our most powerful assets. As teachers, we have the opportunity to prepare students for a good old-fashioned banter. We need to teach students how to effectively argue so that they can engage in productive thinking and be active citizens of their communities. Otherwise, we are at risk for producing students who limit their own learning potential by focusing on regurgitation versus critical thinking.

First, take a minute to read the CCSS Anchor Standards for Writing as it pertains to argument:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

When we argue, we are assuming a position with the purpose of persuading readers or rather, convincing them of our opinion; this is active work, work that requires agency on the part of the writer. This agency is what 21st century literacies demand of its citizens; for example, Franklin and van Harmelan (2007) write, “In Web 1.0 a few content authors provided content for a wide audience of relatively passive readers. However, in Web 2.0 everyday users of the web use the web as a platform to generate, re-purpose, and consume shared content” (3). Argument writing is a tool that enables and empowers students to participate in and contribute to various discourses.

Argument writing pushes students to go beyond just knowing content; it forces them to actually do something with the content. Arguing requires students to ground their thinking in evidence from the text; in fact, this evidence-grounding is one of the main instructional shifts in English Language Arts. Teachers need to spend more instructional time teaching argument writing, which encompasses teaching students how to opine and how to write persuasive texts.

Let’s consider the discipline of history: We want students to go beyond just reciting facts and dates; we want them to make historical arguments and interpretations. We also want them to become adept at using textual evidence to support their claims. Historians and social scientists actively study and inquire – they do not just regurgitate facts; they examine the evidence and create claims based on the evidence. We need to help students understand that data is a live entity and that it requires our careful and critical reading and crafting. (Questions like, “Whose history is being represented here?” and “Why is this history being told in this way?” help build students’ inquiry skills which promotes their argumentation skills.)

This semester, I asked my pre-service teachers (graduate students) to write a historical argument paper. Because of the CCSS’s emphasis on argument writing, I wanted to make sure that my graduate students knew how to create arguments since they would be required to teach their students how to do the same. The process for this task is outlined below: 

Steps and Tasks: Prompts and Instructions

1. Pick a topic: What do you want to study?

2. Design your inquiry question: Narrow your topic. This question should guide your research and examine your topic deeply. Consider specific perspectives and lenses.

3. Conduct research: Guided by your inquiry question, conduct research. Critically read primary and secondary sources.

4. Craft a claim or argument: The claim is essentially the answer to your inquiry question as a result of your research. It is important to craft your claim/argument after conducting research so that your thinking is driven by the data. This claim needs to be arguable, meaning someone can deny your claim and argue an opposite point.

5. Provide examples: Use research data to support your claim/argument. Craft examples so that they prove your point. Use linking words and phrases and be explicit about how your example connects to your claim/argument.

6. Craft a conclusion: Answer the question, “So what?” Your conclusion should not be a regurgitation or restatement of your points. This is your closing argument like in a court case. Connect to a bigger issue. Address implications.

 

Need more ideas? Find several resources to help teach argument writing on the Annenberg Learner website:

REFERENCES:

Franklin, T. & Harmelan, M. van (2007). Web 2.0 for content for learning and teaching in higher education. York, UK: Franklin Consulting.

CCSS website: www.corestandards.org

How can schools prepare for discussions of controversial issues? (Part II)

MCR D7 TalkOn Monday, we looked at the reasons why schools should allow discussions of controversial issues. See Part I. Now let’s address the how.

What can school leaders do? Schools could preemptively address parental and other concerns by preparing teachers through professional development and appropriate planning. The following are just a few ideas to consider so that current news events may enrich instead of derail curriculum plans.

1. Set up the school-wide goals. What do you want students to gain from the experience? Will they learn to think objectively? Discuss difficult topics while respecting each other? Examine historical influences on current events? Collect facts and differentiate between credible resources and voices that are just stoking a fire? Brainstorm ways they can work towards a solution for the community?

2. Discuss appropriate approaches for these conversations. Meet with teachers early in the school year and determine procedures and guidelines. For example, not everyone will agree that opinions need to be left out of the conversation, but we are human and we arrive to the discussion table full of opinions, preconceptions, and biases. What are appropriate ways to deal with the whole human package that the school and parents would be comfortable with?

3. Determine which professionals in the school would be best to handle discussions. Do students have advisers or a school counselor that they can talk to? Are there teachers in the building who are willing to tackle issues with their students and who have expertise they could share with the group? Social studies and literature teachers could offer natural safe spaces for students to work on issues.

4. Designate a liaison between the school and the parents and guardians. This person, whether an administrator, teacher, or parent volunteer, can provide parents with information and field questions and concerns. Consider developing guidelines for how administrators and teachers will handle any challenges to or concerns about the classroom discussions.

5. Respect an individual’s preference to sit out of the conversation. Not every teacher will be comfortable talking about difficult issues with their students, and that’s valid. Some teachers might recognize that they have a bias due to personal experience or just might not feel comfortable leading a discussion safely. What resources can these teachers direct students towards when questions occur?

What can individual teachers do? At the individual teacher level, here are some ideas for guiding students in respectful conversations about controversial topics and what it means to be a part of a community. (These videos below could also be used for professional development on this topic.)

1. Develop students’ understanding of multiple points of view. For example, teacher Wendy Eubank’s students simulate a town hall meeting, role playing characters that have a stake in an outcome, so they can learn to express their ideas freely. Students have researched facts from multiple sources and are asked to consider multiple viewpoints. Watch Social Studies in Action, program 31, “Dealing with Controversial Issues,” to see this and other examples of activities at varying grade levels.

2. Structure discussions to allow every student a chance to share, listen, and evolve. For example, JoEllen Ambrose does a fantastic job leading students through a discussion about individual rights versus public safety related to news topics students are already familiar with. She asks for students to respond to questions physically and verbally, by grouping themselves by agreement and providing personal examples to support their opinions. Watch students specifically discuss their ideas about police power and individual rights, especially related to racial profiling. See workshop 7, “Controversial Public Policy Issues,” of Making Civics Real.

3. Empower students to act as a member of a community. In the introductory video for Teaching ‘The Children of Willesden Lane,’ Martina Grant’s students discuss their “universe of obligation;” reasons why people choose to act and not to act during times of crisis; and how history is connected to their own lives and experiences. Once we understand why individuals or communities fail to act during a time of crisis, we can work together to propose possible solutions or realistic ways people can act.

News comes and goes as one event overshadows another. Underlying themes and issues persist, and teaching students how to discuss these themes and work together to build a stronger community that can problem-solve should be an important goal of any school. Meanwhile, the beauty of the internet is that resources we often need are a click away. Please share more links and ideas that you find helpful on this topic in the comments. I started a list here.

Here are some links to some additional resources:
Discussing Controversial Public Issues in the Classroom, via TeachingHistory.org
Michael Brown, via Facing History.org
Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply, via Edutopia

Should schools allow discussions of controversial issues? (Part I)

MakingCivicsReal_7[OP-ED] On Saturday, August 9 in Ferguson, Mo., a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, a young black man, sparking protests in the town and discussions about race and history across the United States. On August 21, Ed Week reported that the superintendent of a nearby school district banned the discussion of the events in Ferguson, Mo. in schools, because “parents complained … that some teachers were interjecting their own opinions into class discussions rather than objectively guiding discussion for students.”

While it’s true that discussions about emotionally charged or controversial issues must be handled carefully in the classroom, what message do teachers send when they have to tell their students, “We are not allowed to talk about that here?” And while parents certainly have a right to be concerned about how teachers will address difficult topics in their classrooms, silencing the discussion all together is not an answer. The ability to discuss public controversy is a sign of a healthy democracy and a right we can share with our students. Preparing a plan for discussing national news events as they occur could help avoid the “shut it down” effect, which cuts off golden learning opportunities to build better thinkers and stronger communities.

School is most likely one of the best places to address controversial news topics, and there are several benefits to providing students a forum to express themselves. (Similar discussions already occur in literature and social studies lessons as students read and talk about literary works and historical themes.)

First, students are already talking about events as they occur, so they will be easily engaged and invested in learning experiences tied to these topics. In the classroom, teachers, as objective moderators, are able to guide students in thoughtful discussions in a safe space.

Second, controversial issues offer teachers an opportunity to develop students’ critical thinking and analytical skills, goals of the Common Core Standards. For example, they may examine the role that emotions and personal biases play in how people initially react to a national news event like Brown’s death and the resulting protests and police response. With appropriate activities, students learn to review available information, evaluate sources, consider multiple perspectives, and propose solutions.

In addition, allowing students and teachers to talk about timely events and controversial issues creates a sense of community and empowers students to take productive actions to correct wrongs within the school, city, even nation or world.

Please share your thoughts on this topic in the comments and look for Part II on Wednesday: How can schools prepare for controversial discussions?

(The views expressed by the authors of Learner Log blog posts are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or endorsement of Annenberg Learner or the Annenberg Foundation.)

Get Set: Organize and Manage Your Classroom

Teaching Reading K-2 KostandosWhile considering all of the material you will need to cover during the school year, you might be tempted to jump directly into the content. Instead, consider spending time teaching classroom expectations and systems that can create more productive learning environments throughout the year.

Here’s an example of a productive first grade reading classroom. Watch Valerie Kostandos teach her students to be readers, writers, and leaders in Teaching Reading K-2, program 8, “Promoting Readers as Leaders.” She builds in early opportunities to teach systems that foster cooperative learning and student independence.

“I think it is important that all kids get in that role of being the leaders. If we give them a challenge, they rise to it. They feel so empowered… and that carries over when they write and when they read. They have the sense that they can do it…. What is hard is trying to stay back and not jump in.”
Valerie Kostandos

Ms. Kostandos’s classroom runs smoothly because she

1. organizes the physical classroom space so that she can see what is happening when children are working in small groups.
2. teaches students leadership roles, giving her time to work with students individually at the beginning of each class.
3. uses an observation survey to keep records of how students are progressing throughout the year.
4. models classroom expectations and systems early and gradually gives students more autonomy to perform tasks on their own.
5. provides opportunities for students to share their ideas about what they are reading and what they have learned at the end of the school day.
6. gives students some choice in the books they read and guides them to choose books they hadn’t considered.
7. varies activities to encourage social growth. Students learn to work independently, in pairs, in small groups, and as a whole group.

Discover more ideas for organizing and managing classrooms in the resources below:

Teaching Reading 3-5, workshop 1, “Creating Contexts for Learning,” explains why classroom organization matters, the importance of routines, and how grouping affects students’ learning. It includes tips for new teachers on setting up a vibrant literacy classroom starting on the first day of school.

Social Studies in Action: A Teaching Practices Library, K-12, program 29, “Groups, Projects, and Presentations,” provides tips for forming cooperative learning groups and fostering problem solving skills in the classroom.

The Learning Classroom: Theory Into Practice, unit 13, “Pulling it All Together-Creating Classrooms and Schools That Support Learning,” looks at the bigger school community. What structural features of schools support teaching and learning for understanding? How can schools use what is known about student development to organize and scaffold instruction?

Now it’s your turn. We would love to hear how you get your classrooms off on the right foot in the comments.