Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum


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!

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?

Multicultural Literature Helps Middle Schoolers with Search for Identity

TeachMultiLitAs immigration reform is debated in the halls of Congress and in communities across the nation, now is a good time to shine a spotlight on the contributions that immigrants are making to American culture and commerce. Annenberg Learner offers dozens of resources for teaching and learning about immigrant experiences, but in honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, I’m going to hone in on some strategies for teaching multicultural literature. The workshop series Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades demonstrates how teachers across the country are using literature to engage students in reading and responding to the work of writers such as Gish Jen, Tina Yun Lee and Lemsey Namioka.

The works that you will see students exploring in Workshop 1, for example, focus on the theme of dual-identity and the challenges of trying to fit into a new culture while honoring family heritage. These themes are a perfect fit for middle grade students who are often struggling to form and express their own identities.

For example, students will relate warmly to Gish Gen’s character Mona Chang from the story “What Means Switch” who was “ad-libbing [her] way through eighth grade.” As teacher Carol O’Donnell points out, “Junior high school students are really travelers between worlds. On one hand, they’re very young children who need a lot of nurturing and support and encouragement. On the other hand, they’re young adults who really need an incredible amount of challenge and independence and pushing.”

O’Donnell uses poetry, short stories and biography to give students insight into the authors’ experiences with being perceived as “other.” The literature also serves as a springboard to discussion of their own experiences with identity issues, bias, and self-discovery. O’Donnell uses structured Peer Facilitation Circles as a strategy to help students make deep explorations of the readings and appreciate these authors’ voices as part of the American story. In the Workshop 1 video, you will see students who take responsibility for their own learning and show genuine respect for their peers’ thoughts and opinions.

The work of many Asian-Pacific American writers is featured throughout the eight Teaching Multicultural Literature workshops. You’ll find content and strategies that fit your students’ interests and needs. When you introduce these writers to your students, some will see mirror images of themselves; some will see worlds they didn’t know existed. How do you use the richness of multicultural literature to engage your students?


7 Ways to Celebrate National Family Month

FAMILYblocksNational Family Month runs from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day, May 12 to June 16 this year. Here are some fun and educational activities from Learner.org that you can do together to build those family bonds:

1. For middle and high school children, choose any of the content courses with Web sites and create a scavenger hunt.  Write questions and have the family search for the answers. Time each person and reward the first person to finish with all the correct answers. Good resources for this activity include:

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Mathematics Illuminated

Earth Revealed

Physics for the 21st Century

America’s History in the Making

The Power of Place: Geography for the 21st Century

Voices and Visions

2. Gaze at the Moon and keep a journal. Use the Moon Journal activity from Looking at Learning… Again to track changes in the moon’s appearance. The pages include questions, materials, and instructions for the activities.

3. Follow the migration of monarch butterflies and report your local sightings on the Journey North site.  Kids have their own page where they can watch videos of monarchs hatching and other natural phenomena.

4. Learn and practice French or Spanish with the family by watching French in Action or Destinos.

5. Document your family’s history and then create a family history quilt as an art project.  The library Arts in Every Classroom, program 12, “Borrowing from the Arts to Enhance Learning,” shows a classroom where students create these quilts. Go to about 22 minutes into the video.

6. Play a board game to help kids learn fractions. You can recreate the Fraction Tracks game shown in program 5 of Teaching Math: A Video Library 5-8.

7. Solve the Eric the Sheep puzzle in this interactive from Learning Math: Patterns, Functions, and Algebra.


Share your own inspired ideas by posting them in the comments below.

Teacher Appreciation Story: Why doesn’t my teacher like me?

(contributed by Larisa Kirgan)

Eating Caterpillar“a, a, a, a, a, a, a, b, b, b, b,…”

This is not fair! All of my 3rd grade classmates are spending free time talking, playing games, and in general, having fun. I am stuck at the bulletin board writing the alphabet over and over and over. Why is my handwriting such a big deal? Why doesn’t my teacher like me?

Weeks later, the same teacher informs me that I will be co-hosting the 3rd grade talent show. I am not happy about this. It means more work and speaking in front of a gymnasium full of students and families. She pulls me aside and says, “You can do this. You will have to work hard and put your mind to it. But I know you can do it.” Easy for her to say, she isn’t the one who has to stand on stage. I don’t understand why she keeps picking on me!monarch illustration

It took me several grade levels to mature enough and realize that this teacher was not picking on me at all. On the contrary, she saw something in me that I had not yet. She saw my potential to not just get by, but rather to excel.  She taught me that I had to push myself to be better. Things may not come easy in life, but if I worked hard, practiced and put my mind to it, I could surpass my expectations.

My 3rd grade teacher did not care to be my favorite teacher, instead she wanted me to be the best student I could be.  That made her a GREAT teacher.

Teacher Appreciation Story: Everyone needs to start over.

erasing_clip artOne day in a college classroom, my professor did the unthinkable: She returned a writing assignment and told everyone that they had failed. She explained why the papers were missing the mark and asked us to redo the assignment. I admittedly felt shock and disappointment, because I hadn’t completely failed a paper before.  A couple of people left the classroom. Some, I learned, refused to rewrite their papers. One person even dropped out of the class.  Others, including me, saw the challenge and met her expectations. She was absolutely right and she was unapologetic in her frustration. She forced us to confront our weaknesses, and challenged us to write better and to think more critically. For that, I’m grateful.

Guts are required to challenge students in this way, especially if those students had been praised for years for what is, at best, mediocre work. And it takes guts to meet that teacher’s challenge. Over the months of the course, this professor shifted our focus from earning A’s to learning content and critical thinking skills. Her class was exciting, evocative, and challenging. We took risks, we learned to research well, we made mistakes and figured out ways to fix those mistakes.

In my own teaching experiences, I found it difficult to convince students that it is okay to make mistakes and it is okay to receive a critical analysis of their work, whether from me or their peers. Questions and criticism, when done without personal judgment, help us grow and strengthen our abilities. If praise is the only response we are seeking, then we probably aren’t challenging ourselves to work to our full potential. I didn’t truly understand this until I met this amazing college professor, because I had been so focused on grades and positive teacher comments on report cards.

How do you encourage your students to learn from their mistakes and react productively to constructive criticism?





Teacher Appreciation Story: All That is Seen and Unseen

Aster DaisiesBy the time I was nine years old I had changed schools seven times. As an already shy and reserved child, I had a difficult transition each time. However that all changed the day I walked into Mrs. Ito’s fifth-grade classroom.

We were to be Mrs. Ito’s last class. After 33 years of teaching she was retiring at the end of the year. I got a glimpse into how much she was going to be missed on that first day of school when I walked to our class and found scrawled across the chalkboard a message from a fourth grader’s parent that read, “PLEASE STAY JUST ONE MORE YEAR!!!”  I immediately felt special to be part of her last class. I had made it just in time.

I’m guessing she must have been in her sixties at that point, but you’d never know it. Her whole body shook with energy. Even when standing in front of the class, her leg would tap as she spoke to us. Her eyes crinkled up at the corners when she smiled, and she had a rich, hearty laugh that came easily.  She exuded positivity and joy. We just knew she was happy to be there each day.

Mrs. Ito’s positive influence stretched beyond the classroom for me though. Life at home was not always an easy one. My mom was single with four small children, barely making ends meet. She took in laundry and watched children for extra money, but it couldn’t cover much beyond the necessities, and sometimes not even that. One day my mom kept me home from school to help with my younger siblings so she could work. She sent a note with me the next day explaining why I had missed school. I can still remember feeling ashamed as I handed the note to Mrs. Ito. I wanted so desperately to please her and hated giving her a note that revealed that I had missed school when I wasn’t sick. She took the note and after reading it looked up at me with her crinkled-eye smile and said, “You know, if I had ever had a daughter, I would have wanted her to be just like you.”  I walked back to my desk bolstered by her words. If Mrs. Ito thought that highly of me, then it must be true.

As the year went on, Mrs. Ito pushed us. She challenged us. She never accepted less than our best.  But what she gave me is far beyond what can be measured in a test. She believed in me so convincingly that I had no other choice to believe in myself, too.

Teacher Appreciation Story: Remembering an Excellent Math Teacher

Desks in an Empty ClassroomI just learned this week that a well-liked math teacher at my daughter’s middle school passed away as a result of pancreatic cancer. It was a shock and surprise. My daughter had his class last year, so I was not aware that he had been sick. What I knew of the man was that he came to teaching after a career in finance. In addition to math, he taught his students that understanding math was a key to doing well in the world. He was a friendly but a very no-nonsense kind of person. My daughter liked him and she would report on things that he said in class, which was a rarity.

Thinking generally about teachers, one realizes that the good ones see how kids think and can have a great influence on them. They can also help us parents understand our kids as cogitative beings. To lose a good teacher, to illness or burnout, is to lose a potent resource to shape society. Sure, there are many intelligent and inspiring people who we hear about in the news or in books, but few do we get to watch and interact with face-to-face. Those are the teachers.

I was never able to speak to this teacher because the line in front of his table at teacher conference night was always too long.  I imagine the line will be even longer at his viewing. I feel sad for his family and sadder for the future kids at the middle school who will have missed an exceptional teacher.

National Environmental Education Week (April 14-20)

HabPlanet_earthDiscuss current and future environmental problems, including possible solutions, with your students. The following resources provide ideas for science, social studies, and literature classrooms:




  1. Hear thought-provoking views and research findings from experts in the field, including entomologist E.O. Wilson in The Habitable Planet, unit 13 video, “Looking Forward: Our Global Experiment.”
  2. Two interactives in The Habitable Planet allow you and your students to manage an energy crisis. The Carbon Lab explores how human influence on carbon output affects the future health of the Earth’s atmosphere.  In the Energy Lab interactive, try developing a portfolio of energy resources that cuts back on CO2 and considers the pros and cons of multiple sources of energy.
  3. Gage Reeves asks his 5th graders to relate their reading about global warming and climate change to events and products in their community in Teaching Reading 3-5 Workshop, classroom program 13, “Reading Across the Curriculum.”
  4. Consider the possible conflicts that arise when living in a future society affected by significant global warming and other challenges by reading “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia E. Butler.  The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature, session 7, “Critical Pedagogy,” includes an audio clip of the author and a synopsis of the story.
  5. Learn about where oil comes from, how it is extracted and used for energy, and the effects of using oil as an energy source on the environment in Earth Revealed, program 26, “Living With Earth, Part II.”
  6. Explore environmental mysteries like the causes of ice ages and consider how life shapes the earth in Planet Earth, program 3, “The Climate Puzzle,” and program 7, “Fate of the Earth.”
  7. Economic stories show how pollution is a “negative externality” that can have serious consequences for economic efficiency in Economics U$A, unit 8, “Pollution and the Environment.”
  8. The World of Chemistry, program 17, “The Precious Envelope,” explains ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect on the earth’s atmosphere.