Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Standardized Testing: What’s the real issue?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Copyright: lisafx / 123RF Stock Photo

Immigration: Push, Pull, or Both? (Part 3)

immigration_123 View “Part 1: Ancient Immigration” and “Part 2: U.S. Immigration: Legal v. Illegal” of this series on immigration.

We’re all familiar with teaching the topic of immigration in the context of push and pull factors: what factors drive people to leave their own countries (push) and what factors attract people to new countries (pull)?

Push factors include war, injustice, lack of economic opportunity, religious persecution, etc. Pull factors include equal opportunity, jobs, toleration, peace, safety, etc. But what happens when pull factors are missing, and push factors continue to occur in the new land immigrants reach?

The plight of the Syrian refugees fleeing the war in their country is an unfortunately clear example of this blurring of push-pull lines. They are fleeing the usual push factor of war. But they are not pulled into Europe by the promise of freedom, safety, jobs, and acceptance—those things are currently lacking in many European countries. In fact, the refugees will encounter further push factors in those destination countries: prejudice, violence, lack of jobs, lack of housing, lack of goodwill.

In this case, people running for their lives from terror are turned into “masses” and “waves” of “refugees”—negative terms used by European countries to describe their perceived threat of being overwhelmed by immigrants. It is all too easy to see people who left everything behind to find safety as fundamentally poor, dirty, and just too “foreign” to be desirable new immigrants. Thus they are denied immigrant status and remain refugees.

When immigrants are not welcomed in a new country, they can end up embarking on a long odyssey of immigration, moving from place to place in search of acceptance and security. This in turn can make the original problem worse: countries that might have accepted the immigrants the first time around become wary of accepting people who seem like rootless migrants, unable to “settle down” and establish normal lives. A vicious circle is drawn as withholding of pull factors pushes immigrants on to new destinations, where they are likely perceived as being pushed out, mistrusted, and denied pull factors.

The key to breaking the cycle of nonstop push and no pull is to remember that no country has the same status all the time. The same European countries that are now pull destinations were once push countries that sent millions of people to the United States because the nations were poor and lacked equal opportunity. Syria itself, to continue our example, was for many generations one of the richest and most stable countries in the Middle East, while Hungary, for example, was one of the poorest nations under Soviet occupation and control. Hungarians would have liked to be able to live in Syria!

This understanding that people’s status as living in a pull nation or fleeing a push nation is changeable and determined by factors outside their control should provoke more sympathy and understanding for the immigrants so often dismissed as chaotic “waves” of refugees.

Classroom Activity 

There is a great exercise demonstrating this random assignment in Social Studies in Action. View the full activity and explanation in the program “Population and Resource Distribution.”

When students are suddenly separated from their friends and peers by nothing more than artificial lines on the floor, it helps them to realize that national boundaries are just lines drawn on the ground that separate people who are not fundamentally different from each other. Once you’ve established your students’ “nationalities” by armband, try putting the names of the countries into a box and randomly pulling one out: it will be devastated by war. Students living there will have to leave it and move into neighboring countries. Now you and your students can simulate the disruptions to resources that occur in both the push and pull countries, and see how attitudes might harden against refugees who seem to threaten resources.

There are multiple ways to keep this simulation going over time: switch countries, so the previous push nation at war becomes a pull nation, and the previous pull destinations experience problems that force their people to emigrate. Have multiple countries at war at once. Allow students to work through various solutions to their problems until they feel they have reached a just and workable conclusion—then mix things up again. It’s a good way to learn about a real-world problem because it mimics the ever-changing political process of push and pull we see taking place around the world. The activity asks students to consider what actions citizens of the world can take to rectify inequities.

(Image Copyright: doomko / 123RF Stock Photo)

News From Space: Liquid Water on Mars


#6003 Mars Crater Ice ESA/DLR/Freie Universitat Berlin/G. Neukum

Late last month NASA scientists confirmed that Mars has liquid water flowing on its surface, a finding that the agency’s planetary science division director called “tremendously exciting” because it supports speculation that the Red Planet might be able to support life.

Mars is extremely cold: the average surface temperature is about -60 degrees Celsius (-80 degrees Fahrenheit), far below the freezing point of water. Until now it was generally thought that all available water on Mars was contained in frozen ice caps at its poles. But by analyzing photographs that showed dark streaks running down slopes on the planet’s surface, scientists discerned that the streaks contained hydrated salts. That indicated that liquid water, either from Mars’ atmosphere or from underground, was dampening those areas.

Annenberg Learner’s Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum course for middle and high school teachers uses photographs to demonstrate how scientists and engineers think about problems. It includes a case study that examines investigations of water on Mars to teach students about processes of science: posing questions, interpreting data, constructing explanations, and arguing from evidence. Students can compare geological features on Mars and Earth, form hypotheses about their functions, and look for evidence of water on Mars. Complement these with images and animations from NASA that were released to support the September 28 announcement.

And since a good movie hook is always handy in the classroom, note that NASA provided technical advice to director Ridley Scott for his just-released movie The Martian, which stars Matt Damon as an astronaut who is stranded on Mars in 2035 and has to figure out how to survive for four years until the next mission from Earth arrives. Planetary scientists have praised the movie as a well-told story rooted in sound science, with one exception: To generate a storm as strong as the gale that strands Damon’s character in Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere, winds would have to blow at over 10,000 miles per hour. But that’s a small issue to overlook in a movie where science is the star.

U.S. Immigration: Legal v. Illegal (Part 2)


[IMMIGRANT FAMILY LOOKING AT STATUE OF LIBERTY FROM ELLIS ISLAND] (ca. 1930) courtesy of Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-50904].

View “Part 1: Ancient Immigration” and “Part 3: Immigration: Push, Pull, or Both?” of this series on immigration.

We’re used to hearing about “illegal immigration” in the U.S. today. Emotions run high as people attack and defend modern immigration to the U.S.

All this clamor can hide the fact that this is really the first time in U.S. history that there has been a problem called “illegal immigration.” Yes, Chinese immigration was halted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of 1907 allowed the U.S. to stop Japanese immigration by having Japan outlaw emigration. And the Immigration Act of 1924 was an attempt to sharply lower the number of Jewish, Catholic, and Asian immigrants entering the country.

But the very success of these measures meant there were no “illegal immigrants” in those periods. Unwanted groups were effectively kept out or their numbers lowered—they did not continue to enter the country in large numbers. The immigration “issue” was how to manage existing (legal) immigration populations.

Today, there are no groups targeted as “unwanted” in the way those earlier groups were: people from all nations are welcome to emigrate here—the only caveat is they must do it legally. But the definition of “doing it legally” has been fundamentally changed over the decades since WWII.

For the majority of our history it was just very easy to enter the U.S. legally. If you were not part of an “excluded” group, gaining permanent residence in the U.S. was simple and quick. There were no written exams. The tens of millions of people who came here through Ellis Island only had to have their name appear on their ship’s register and pass a physical exam so brief that the doctors giving it called it the “six-second exam.” Some had to show the address of a person already living in the U.S. who they could stay with. That’s it. Those immigrants were free to live the rest of their lives in America, and become citizens by passing a civics and history test.

That easy entry began to change after WWII. By the late 20th century, gaining permanent residence required a permanent visa, and citizenship required having a visa, a full-time employer who would pay to sponsor you, and other requirements that cost money, required good English skills, and took years of dedicated effort to fulfill.

This means that people today who claim that immigrants back then “followed the rules” while (illegal) immigrants today don’t are on pretty thin ice. When it’s easy to follow the rules, people do it. When getting into the U.S. legally is very difficult and expensive, people either don’t or can’t do it.

When you’re teaching the topic of immigration, consider discussing these points with students:

  • Beginning with Irish immigrants in the 1840s, there has always been a “bogeyman” immigrant group that native-born Americans were told to fear: Irish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Eastern European, Mexican, etc.
  • Most of those who stirred up panic about and/or violence and laws against new immigrants (Nativists) were themselves immigrants or first-generation Americans trying to find a way to move the negative focus from their own group to another.
  • Fears about immigrants were usually religious: Irish, Italian, and Eastern European Catholics sent Nativists reeling with terror that the Pope would take over America. Eastern European Jews were not welcome either. This is because the majority U.S. population up until the late 1800s had been Protestant, and change always scares people.
  • All originally “unwelcome” groups eventually gained acceptance in the U.S.; our history is one of continually expanding our welcome, and emigration to the U.S. continues to grow.

Engaging students in a conversation about the role of immigration in their families (past and present), in their town, in their state, and in their region is a good way into the topic. Everyone in your class is touched by immigration; if it is a politically charged topic in your school, town, or state, it’s important to look at the history of immigration in your area to see that new groups are often feared at first but find acceptance as time passes. This can help students see that immigration has often caused controversy but always improved our nation.

Most Americans don’t know a lot of facts about immigration past or present. For a historical overview, see American Passages,  “Coming to America: Immigrants at Ellis Island.” For the present, go to the Statistical Portrait of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States, 1960-2013 by the Pew Research Center.

Additional Resources for Teaching About Controversial Topics:

Should schools allow discussions of controversial issues?

The Learning Classroom: Theory Into Practice, session 5, “Feelings Count- Emotion and Learning

Social Studies in Action, “Dealing With Controversial Issues

Ancient Immigration (Part 1)

Original caption: Viking trading ship of the 8th century leaving on an expedition from Dawn Ladir Cliffs, Norway. ca. 1901-1933

Original caption: Viking trading ship of the 8th century leaving on an expedition from Dawn Ladir Cliffs, Norway. ca. 1901-1933

Immigration is a hot topic in the U.S. today, loaded with political meaning and characterized by heated debates over who is coming to this country and why, and who should be allowed to come here and who shouldn’t. It seems like a very modern problem, but immigration has always been a part of human life.

From migration to immigration

Of course, in prehistoric times, there was no immigration, only migration. The “im” means “into”, and was adopted once kingdoms and then nation states were created and people had a political identity based on where they were born. If they left the state they were born in, they weren’t just moving to unclaimed land; they had to move “into” another political state. Before this political in-migration, there was only migration—moving from one territory to another—and that’s what humans did, constantly.

As we’re learning with each new fossil discovery, moving over long distances did not start with homo sapiens: very early human species were leaving east Africa and covering thousands of miles to move into Asia and northwest Africa. This travel wasn’t just something we did, it’s likely what made us who we are. The “Human Migrations” unit of Bridging World History explains how traveling and encountering new climates, landscapes, animals, foods, and challenges led to the development of the first human cultures. Language, music, tool-making, and social organization were all responses to the needs and challenges of migration.

Why did we move so far and so often?

Anthropologists believe that climate change was the key motivator. During the Pleistocene Era which lasted from about 2.6 million years ago to about 11,700 years ago, there were a series of ice ages. Each one drove humans to leave the places they were in as they became colder or dryer, following familiar livestock or searching for new sources of food. We can never know what really happened then. Did people communicate with each other about their growing problems? Did advance groups travel and return to tell about better lands elsewhere? Did people compete with each other, racing to be the first to reach better territory?

What we do know is that over tens of thousands of years, moving became ingrained in the human lifeway. City-states, empires, kingdoms, and nations with borders you have to get official permission to cross are all recent, upstart ideas invented mere seconds ago on the historical scale. When the Sumerian city-states were formed in the fourth millennium BCE, they were a sharp rebuke to millions of years of free human travel. Creating Great Walls, sentry posts, border crossings, citizenship tests, and passports were all steps away from the old human tradition of free migration.

How do we begin to teach about immigration?

Knowing that free, long-distance migration is in our genes and our blood, how do we teach it today to students who will likely never experience it for themselves? First, we introduce them to this part of their human heritage by studying the past. Anthropologists have debated the date for the first arrival of humans into the Americas for decades, but now they are also questioning long-accepted timelines for human entry into Asia, Australia, northwest Africa, and Europe. Homo sapiens were not the first humans to enter these regions, and different species of humans did not fight each other to the death, leaving only homo sapiens to inherit the Earth. Different types of early humans mingled and produced new generations of mixed humans, who then mixed with homo sapiens. We all carry Neanderthal, Denisovan, Erectus, and other human DNA. Different types of early humans lived and worked side-by-side. Migration was not a threat but an opportunity to the first humans.

We can study how that attitude changed over the millennia, as human societies became richer and more organized, and humans began to claim land as their own and fight anyone who tried to enter it. This eventually leads to the history of city-states, empires, and kingdoms, and right up to the modern nation-state. That’s where we’ll pick up in our next post on the topic of immigration.

View “Part 2: U.S. Immigration: Legal v. Illegal” and“Part 3: Immigration: Push, Pull, or Both?” of this series on immigration. 

Animas River Spill: How Scientists Assess Risks

HP_6_testingwaterTwo weeks ago contractors working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally breached a containment wall at Colorado’s Gold King mine, spilling three million gallons of toxic waste that turned the Animas River mustard-yellow. People who live near the river in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation are still asking questions. Are heavy metals buried at the bottom of the river? Will they kill insects, fish, and birds? Is it safe to swim or drink the water?

Unit 6 of The Habitable Planet, “Risk, Exposure and Health,” explains how scientists assess risks to human health when people are exposed to harmful substances. Many of these risks happen at low levels every day: we inhale air pollutants, or consume traces of pesticides on our food. Other exposures, like the Animas River spill, happen suddenly and then dwindle away, but may leave residues behind.

Risk assessment is a multi-step process that asks a series of questions:

  • Is there a hazard – i.e., have people been exposed to something that we know is harmful?
  • How much of the harmful substance(s) is needed to cause harm?
  • What actual exposure has happened? How much of the harmful substance(s) have people come in contact with? By what pathway (for example, drinking water, inhalation or skin contact), and for how long?
  • Based on what we know about the substance(s) and the exposure that has occurred, or is likely to occur, what harmful results do we expect?

EPA is collecting water samples from the Animas River and from shallow drinking water wells near the river to test for unsafe levels of 24 types of heavy metals which are common contaminants in drainage from old mines. Some heavy metals are serious health threats: lead causes neurological damage, cadmium can harm kidneys, and arsenic exposure can increase the risk of several types of cancer.

As the plume of mine waste flows south into Lake Powell in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico have lifted restrictions on using river water, although they have warned residents not to drink untreated water. It may take years to measure long-term impacts on soils, insects, fish, wildlife, and human health. Scientists are just starting to report and assemble findings about how the BP spill in 2010 may have affected ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico, and many questions still surround that much larger research effort.

What would your students want to know if a toxic spill happened in their neighborhoods? (Has anything like the Animas spill happened in your area?) Who would they trust to measure the impacts? What kinds of tests would make them feel safe? There’s no single right answer to questions like this, but events like the Animas spill can launch thoughtful debates about risk and exposure in everyday life.

Exit Slip: Neural Pathways and Political Discussions

Copyright: ikopylov / 123RF Stock Photo

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

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

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

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

(Image Copyright: ikopylov / 123RF Stock Photo)

How to Analyze Crafted and Captured Moments in Photographs

Photos are immediate—they are unstaged, unplanned, caught in the moment to stand as witnesses to history. …well, some of the time. Some photos really are all that, and they really do capture a moment that speaks to millions of people.

For example, John Filo’s famous photo of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller at Kent State University in 1970: Kent_State_massacre

Filo did not stage this photo. It went out to the American public via LIFE and other magazines and communicated the shock of the incident, in which National Guard soldiers shot and killed unarmed students protesting the Vietnam War. But between Filo taking the photo and LIFE publishing it, one little edit was made: the pole behind Ms. Vecchio, that looks like it was coming out of her head, was airbrushed out.

Someone in Editing somewhere thought that pole coming out of the young woman’s head was too distracting and took it out. That someone wasn’t the photographer, in this case, but would it have mattered if it was? Does perfecting a photo after the fact take away from its integrity? If a photo is staged, can it be as powerful as a lucky shot taken on the fly? Is crafting a moment less authentic than capturing one?

We put this question to students in a continuing effort to give them more authority and control over their reading of photographs. (See Selfie: Bringing Personal Meaning to Photos). Photos seem to be unquestionable to most students: they have one clear, set meaning to give the student that the student must passively receive. We want to show students that this is not always, or not completely, true. As Makeda Best puts it, instead of stopping at asking ourselves and our students what we see in a photo, we have to “look more closely and ask questions of why we see what we see.”

In Selfie, we showed strategies to bring meaning to Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 photo Migrant Mother:

This image is so famous, and so ingrained in our minds and eyes that it’s hard to believe that it was only one of five photos Lange took of this woman and her family. Lange saw them when she visited a pea-pickers’ camp in California while documenting the effects of the Great Depression. Lange made no secret of the fact that she took several photos before she felt she got just the right one to tell the family’s story. Here’s how Lange described it:


From Essential Lens: #8014 (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF34-9058-C)

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. [She] seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. …I did not approach the tents and shelters of other stranded pea-pickers. It was not necessary; I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment.”

Show your students the five related photos in Essential Lens, “Disaster and Government Response.” Start like Lange did, from a distance with #8015, then to #8016 – #8018. Then go to the final shot, and the one Lange knew was best: #8014. Ask students:

  1. What do you see as you “approach” the family? What was missing from the first four photos that Lange felt she finally got in the fifth?
  2. The first photos are taken at a distance. The first shows all of the children, while the next three show just two of them. What do you notice about the final photo? (It is a close-up.) Do you think Lange made this choice to get closer deliberately? If so, what was she trying to capture?
  3. Why do you think the two older children are in the final photo? Do you think Lange asked them to step in?
  4. The mother has the same worried expression in all five photos; what does she do in the fifth that makes it even more powerful? Do you think she did this consciously, to give a better photo? Why do you think the children hide their faces?

Discussing student responses helps them understand that crafting a moment for a photo can be just as powerful as capturing one by surprise, and that sometimes photos are a mix of lucky accident (such as Lange finding this family), and careful artistry (taking multiple shots and possibly asking people to pose a little). Also, they can consider how editing photos, even to remove objects that someone judges as distracting (like with Filo’s photo), can undermine authenticity.

Try this exercise with other photos in the Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum collection. Students can choose a photo that speaks to them and research the photographer to find other photos on the same topics. They may assess the artistry that went into that photographer’s work, and what makes one or two of their photos famous while others on the same topic are not.

Selfie: Bringing Personal Meaning to Photos

EssentialLens_MakedaBestWhen students see a photograph in a classroom, a textbook, or a school project, they often treat it just like a poem or short story: they try to clearly state what the photo “means.” They believe that a photo has a unique, incontestable meaning that is clear to the perceptive viewer. A photographer wouldn’t take a photo without having a message in mind, the reasoning goes, so that message must be clear in the photo s/he took, and if I can’t find it, there’s something wrong with me.

It’s hard to convince students that this is not true (for photos or for poems and short stories, but we’ll stick with photos here). Photos cross a line between art and reportage. They can have a clear message when they are reportage. When they are art, they are open to almost endless personal interpretation. When they are a mix of both, photos can challenge the most perceptive viewer. The student looking at the photo is not just a data analysis machine taking in information and processing it. The power of photos is in their immediacy: they are shots of real people in real situations that the viewer takes in through the lens of her or his own life experience. In short, the viewer makes the meaning. As historian of photography Makeda Best puts it, instead of stopping at asking ourselves and our students what we see in a photo, we have to “look more closely and ask questions of why we see what we see.” This is a big shift. It gives the student authority over the photo instead of the other way around.

To teach students to use their own experiences to analyze a photo, practice on the photo mentioned below using the Focus In activity from Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum. (Watch Makeda Best demonstrate the Focus In activity in the “A Closer Look” video.):

Start with Dorothea Lange’s masterpiece “Migrant Mother,” taken in 1936. Students may have seen it before. It is one of the most famous photos in the world. Too often, students move past their initial emotional reaction to this photo to try to discern its objective meaning. Following the steps in the Focus In Method for Analyzing Photographs, try to get your students back inside their own heads and hearts and experiences as they analyze “Migrant Mother.” Click on the link for a detailed description of each Focus In step. This step-by-step process can take the burden of finding meaning off students by encouraging them to make meaning.

Focus In Steps

Step 1: Observe

Step 2: Build on Your Observations

Step 3: Make Inferences

Step 4: Formulate Further Questions

Note: Here is a link to information about the photograph “Migrant Mother.”


How are you using photographs in your classes? Share in the comment section below.

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.


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.

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