Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Celebrate Diversity in December: Teach Spiritual Literacy

SSAction_celebrationsoflightDecember, a time for holidays and observances of different faiths and cultural traditions, is also Spiritual Literacy Month. Broadening your understanding of religions and cultures from around the world and throughout history can give you a better understanding of students’ diverse backgrounds and help you promote respect in your classroom. Learn about the history and traditions of many religions and belief systems using the following resources:

Between 600 BCE and 1200 CE, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam continued to develop as their followers spread out to new communities. Bridging World History, unit 7, “The Spread of Religions,” discusses the political, cultural, and intellectual influences on these religions in motion.

In program 8, “Celebrations of Light,” of the Social Studies in Action K-12 Library, watch as Eileen Mesmer teaches her young students in Salem, MA the traditions of St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucia Day, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. Mesmer relates these traditions to a Cherokee legend about the winter solstice.

Compare early communities around the world and their spiritual and moral connections with nature in Bridging World History, unit 5, “Early Belief Systems.” Shinto, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and the ethical and philosophical codes of Confucius and Greek thinkers are discussed.

More resources related to spirituality and cultural practices around the world:

Teaching ‘The Children of Willesden Lane,’ program 9, “A First Impression of Judaism

The Western Tradition, program 11, “Early Christianity”

Out of the Past, program 7, “The Spirit World” (Mayan culture and spirituality)

Art of the Western World, program 2, “A White Garment of Churches—Romanesque and Gothic”

Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices, program 22, “Happy New Year!”  (Japanese New Year’s celebration customs)

Artifacts & Fiction, unit 8, “Ceremonial Artifacts” (Native American culture)

How to Incorporate the Arts in All Subjects

PuppetsArt is a valuable tool for students to learn how to express themselves, work through a process, work cooperatively, and gain respect and understanding for others. How can we teach the arts in all subject areas so that students benefit from the learning opportunities that art affords them? For more ways art instruction benefits students, read “Ten reasons why teaching the arts is critical in a 21st century world” by Elliott Seif.

Below are examples of the arts blended with other curriculum areas, helping students to draw out a deeper understanding and appreciation for both familiar and unfamiliar concepts.


See art as a tool to make meaning of our relationship with the natural world in Art Through Time, program 10, “The Natural World.”

Seventh graders combine science, dance, and language arts as they compare the anatomy of a frog and a human and then debate whether a frog can join a ballet company. Connecting With the Arts Library, program 11, “Can Frogs Dance?” has the video and student materials.


Mathematicians understand symmetry differently than the rest of us, as a fundamental aspect of group theory. Learn more in Mathematics Illuminated, unit 6, “The Beauty of Symmetry,” which includes a symmetry interactive. Students can manipulate a wallpaper design to practice common geometric motions such as rotation and reflection.

Language Arts

Students explore Greek myths using puppets in Connecting With the Arts Library, program 2, “Breathing Life into Myths.”

Artifacts & Fiction, session 1, “Visual Arts,” shows how visual art, paired with literature, can be used to enhance students’ understanding of the predominant culture and historical setting of a work of literature.

World Languages

Latin students learn the difference between translating and interpreting the language using music and literary works of Mozart, Vergil, and Cicero. See Teaching Foreign Languages K-12, program 24, “Music and Manuscripts.”

In Teaching Foreign Languages, program 29, “Interpreting Literature,” students discuss “Dos caras” (Two faces) by New Mexico author Sabine Ulibarri. They act out scenes and make comparisons to a painting by a local artist.

In program 27, “Interpreting Picasso’s Guernica,” students write and deliver radio newscasts interpreting the scene in the famous painting.

Social Studies/History

Fifth graders in The Arts in Every Classroom, program 6, “Teaching Visual Art,” view portraits, looking beyond the face for historical cues. They continue the lesson by creating new portraits that reveal clues to the lives of their subjects through clothing, expressions, and background.

Use the Focus In tool with middle and high school students to analyze photographs curated by topics such as “Protest and Politics” and “Economies and Empires” in Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum. Also, hear a photo editor at National Geographic and a professional photographer discuss their work in the video “Story.”

Music and Art

Start a music program at your school based on the El Sistema program or borrow ideas from the programs presented in our new series The Power of Music: P-5 Teaching Inspired by El Sistema. The El Sistema philosophy presents music making as a collaborative process—one that teaches individual self-confidence, creates caring citizens, and builds cohesive communities. The program includes ideas for teachers of all subjects, not just music.

Watch art, dance, and theater teachers use scaffolding as they help students gain knowledge and fundamental skills while fostering creativity and active self-directed learning in The Art of Teaching the Arts, workshop 2, “Developing Students as Artists.”

Additional Resources:

To learn more about why arts education is important and how to connect the arts with big ideas in other subject areas, view Connecting With the Arts, program 2, “Why Integrate the Arts?”  and program 5, “What Are Connecting Concepts?”

These ideas just scratch the surface of all they ways arts instruction can be incorporated in other curriculum areas. Please feel free to share more ideas in the comments.

Breaking the Mindset Barrier

123rf_guzhanin_Brain copy

Image Copyright: Dmitry Guzhanin

One of the staples of American storytelling is the tale of the underdog athlete who became a superstar through relentless practice. Countless magazines have told the story of Boston Celtics basketball legend Larry Bird, discounted in adolescence by coaches, dedicating himself to hours and hours of daily practice. Alone on a shabby outdoor court, Bird would shoot and shoot and shoot, day after day, week after week, month after month until—voila!—he became a superstar. Even after he was a pro star, Bird would spend hours alone in the Boston Garden practicing his shots—before team practice even began. This is what made Bird “Larry Legend.”

Bird’s not the only one, of course; we love stories about athletes who drill and drill from sheer love of the game and a burning desire to become the best they can be. We tell our own young athletes that they can achieve anything if they really want it badly enough. Before the U.S. women’s soccer team won the 2015 World Cup, their captain Abby Wambach made an inspirational video in which she repeatedly said that the team could win the cup if they wanted it: “we’ve just got to believe.”

…so why don’t we have the same approach to academics? Why don’t we tell students that they can achieve any academic goal they want, from understanding math to writing lab reports to analyzing literature, if they want it badly enough? Why don’t we tell them it will take hours and weeks and months and even years of practice and failure, practice and incremental improvement?

Instead, we tend to tell students, directly and indirectly, that school is not really designed to help them set and achieve goals through unlimited practice. We tell them that school is about doing a little practicing, and then taking a test that does two things: permanently end practice of the skill that was tested and put a permanent label (a grade) on the student’s skill level.

When we test students after limited practice, we’re telling them that they have a set ability in a certain subject that can’t really change much no matter how much they practice. When we study a unit for two weeks and then test students on it, we’re saying, If you can’t master this in two weeks, you have a problem. Everyone should be able to master this in two weeks.

Tests and test grades tend to send the message that everyone is somehow born with a set amount of academic potential—a mindset—and they need to spend the rest of their school years managing (or concealing) that limitation. It’s like an academic caste system: a few lucky students are gifted; the rest are “average” or “struggling”—and they always will be. The first few tests students take that seem to “confirm” that they are forever stuck at one skill level kill all initiative. While athletes can be made, we send a message that mathletes (and others) are strictly born. See “What does this mean for me?” at the Mindset website and Reading & Writing in the Disciplines: Big Ideas in Literacy for more on this harmful and unfounded message.

In the mindset system, school is not about working hard until you achieve a goal, no matter how long it takes. It’s about struggling to achieve a goal on someone else’s timeline. The whole point of our inspiring sports stories is that the athlete took things into her or his own hands: they decided how long to practice, when to practice, and, crucially, why they were practicing. They were tested only after they felt they were ready to present their skills to a coach or a team. As Bird put it, “I really don’t count my shots. I just shoot until I feel good.”

Unfortunately, school calendars and state standards don’t allow this kind of flexibility. Students have to show mastery of a certain (large) number of learning objectives and state standards by the end of each school year, each term, even each quarter. They can’t “shoot until they feel good” on that kind of schedule.

Students aren’t the only ones who struggle with this, of course; teachers have to teach on someone else’s timeline (the one assigned by their state standards). They are required to test their students regularly. Few teachers have the option to simply stop testing and allow unlimited practice. But there are ways to reinvent testing so that it is as much a part of practicing as it is an assessment of practice; see Neuroscience & the Classroom: Making Connections for a real-world test case.

The section gives one example of how testing and grading can become tools you use to help your students develop skills. They can become part of your ongoing formative assessment of how their skills are developing and part of your teaching process, rather than an interruption of teaching and learning. When students see that testing and grading are a measure of their existing skill level, they resist both. When they see that testing and grading are a prompt to their developing skills, they embrace them as part of a collaboration with the teacher that will help them advance. Test until you feel good!

Vacation in Yellowstone: A lot to see, a lot to learn.


This summer my husband, teenage daughter, and I took a trip to Yellowstone National Park. The park itself is a natural wonder with majestic landscapes, and strange and smelly features, and the round trip from Salt Lake City airport included stops to learn about our social, religious, and geographic history, and view works of art as well. To better understand some of the background on the places we visited, I am looking at learner.org for more information.

Golden Spike National Historic Site/Spiral Jetty yellowstonetrain

I learned that the Golden Spike was for ceremonial purposes. Anyone with an understanding of chemistry knows that gold is too soft a medal to use as a railroad spike. Besides, they would have to guard it! The history of the joining of the Transcontinental Railroad is a fascinating one.

spiraljettyThe immense earth artwork Spiral Jetty, set in the Great Salt Lake in 1970, was only 12 miles away from the Golden Spike site on a dusty, dirt road. The lake water had receded since it was installed, but it occasionally comes back to the north end of the lake.

Yellowstone National Park

yellowstone geysersYellowstone was the nation’s first national park and it attracts millions of American and foreign visitors. We stopped by the Norris Geyser area to view Porcelain Basin, oozing with lava composed of silica.

MorningGloryPoolIn the Old Faithful Geyser area, there were smoking and erupting geysers as far as you could see. We saw Old Faithful erupt about a dozen times, also enticing thermal pools bathed in beautiful gem colors. Stepping into one would severely scald a human but thermophile microbes find the high temps quite agreeable.

MMCpettingmooseWe did see wildlife in the park. A coyote approached our group on a horseback ride and our car drive was held up by road-crossing bison. More majestic and idyllic views of wildlife and nature were on view at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY. Here we learned about the connection between art and conservation of the wild.

We have wonderful memories of the trip and I am glad I have learner.org as a resource.

All photos on this page by Michele McLeod

Eadweard Muybridge: Photography and Film Pioneer

English expatriate Eadweard Muybridge (April 9, 1830-May 8, 1904) is one of the most influential people in the history of American film. He was a pioneer in film and artistic photography, as well as in scientific and industrial photography. His exciting work has connections to art, social studies, science, and mathematics topics.

PUPMath_Kid looking at Muybridge work

A student looks at Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic study of animal motion. From Private Universe Project in Mathematics.

Art: Muybridge took daring steps, cutting down trees and venturing into dangerous places, to get landscape photographs that would distinguish him from his contemporaries. See the story of his shot, Falls of the Yosemite, taken in 1872 while on a six-month trip West in Art Through Time, program 10, “The Natural World.”

Social Studies: Find a slideshow of 17 of Eadweard Muybridge’s images of Guatemala in Teaching Geography, workshop 2, “Latin America.” Below each slide is information about the content of each photo and questions to compare the past with the present.

Science and film: Muybridge developed photography techniques that captured human and animal movements in new ways. Read about these techniques in American Passages, unit 8, “Regional Realism.”  Muybridge also invented the zoopraxiscope (image #8245 in the archives), a device that projected a moving image from still sequences.

Math: In the video for workshop 6, “Possibilities of Real Life Problems,” of Private Universe Project in Mathematics, ninth graders are asked to solve how fast a cat, captured in a series of photos by Eadweard Muybridge more than 100 years ago, was moving in frames 10 and 20.

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.

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.


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.

Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom

Why should you consider teaching with graphic novels?


The Odyssey comic written by Roy Thomas, et al. See Thomas talk about his experience with the work in Invitation to World Literature.

Kids read graphic novels – walk into any library or bookstore and you will find young readers hanging out in the manga and comics aisles. So, why aren’t teachers using more graphic novels in their classrooms? One of the main reasons is due to a bias against graphic novels as a “legitimate” text; however, this bias is being chipped away as research supports the efficacy of using graphic novels in the classroom. Yildirim (2013) writes, “The increasing popularity of graphic novels has transformed it into a powerful medium of expression. Once regarded as only a means of amusement lacking literary insight and merit, graphic novels have evolved into a respected and well-regarded genre of literature which deserves a permanent place in the literary world” (122).

Graphic novels are popular and prevalent today because these texts offer a diverse range in complexity and topics/issues in addition to crossing genres. Today’s graphic novels are about more than just superheroes, science-fiction and fantasy (Gorman, 2002) – they can be used in all content areas as there are graphic novels about history, science, and major literary works. Furthermore, graphic novels not only target teen readers, but are also making an impact in the early/emerging reader markets (Brown, 2013). Simply put, there is a graphic novel for everyone.

There are many benefits to using graphic novels in the classroom.

1. They can be used to build students’ reading and writing skills (Frey and Fisher, 2004; Yildirim, 2012; Brown, 2013). They offer multilevel reading experiences, as reading the words and images builds students’ basic reading skills and analytical skills (Yildirim, 2013).

2. Graphic novels provide support for struggling readers, including English learners, by addressing multiple learning modalities. Hassett & Schieble (2007) indicate that graphic novels facilitate comprehension by combining images with texts, making them particularly helpful for visual learners. Graphic novels also provide a path for more complex reading by building reading fluency and reading confidence (Yildirim, 2013).

3. Graphic novels build students’ reading habits; for example, Schwarz (2002) found that graphic novels were a source of motivation and stimulation for struggling and reluctant readers.

4. Graphic novels can boost students’ critical thinking skills, creativity, and imagination (Yildirim, 2013).

Graphic novels benefit all readers. As McTaggert (2008) indicated, “[Graphic novels] enable the struggling reader, motivate the reluctant one, and challenge the high-level learner” (32). Reading a graphic novel requires students to make inferences and draw conclusions from the images and text while being supported by visuals and pacing. I would argue that in some ways, reading a graphic novel is more complicated than reading a traditional novel in that graphic novel readers have to rely on non-textual cues to derive meanings and they also have to rely more heavily on their inferring skills.

It makes sense that today’s digitally-oriented students would find graphic novels appealing. These students are used to surfing the internet, navigating multiple open windows of content, and reading messages from various social media sources. Our students have been reading graphically for years!

Resources for Using Graphic Novels in Your Literature Classroom

Annenberg Learner provides several resources to graphically enhance your classroom instruction. Invitation to World Literature is a comprehensive resource for learning about literature from around the world and across time. There are several programs within the series that could support learning about graphic novels.

1. “Journey to the West” is a classic Chinese story about the Stone Monkey King. In this program, you’ll find videos, texts, maps, slideshow of images, and connections to graphic novels. This unit would pair nicely with a study of Gene Luen Yang’s “The Shadow Hero,” a graphic novel about the Asian-American superhero, The Green Turtle. (Also, make sure to check out Yang’s other graphic novels.)

2. The video introducing “The Epic of Gilgamesh” presents comic book artist Jim Starlin. Starlin wrote a comic book series, “Gilgamesh II,” for DC Comics. Students might find it interesting to learn more about him as he is best known for re-inventing Marvel Comics superheroes, Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock. He also co-created Thanos and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu.

3. Roy Thomas is another comic book artist featured in the program “The Odyssey.” Thomas was Stan Lee’s first successor as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. He is famous for writing graphic novels for “X-Men,” “Conan the Barbarian,” and “The Avengers.” He has also written titles for “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad.”

4. Lastly, the program on “The Thousand and One Nights” also features a comic novelist, Bill Willingham. He created the DC comics series “Fables” and wrote a comic novel entitled “1001 Nights of Snowfall,” which would be a nice pairing for this program. Students might get a kick out of studying how Willingham puts a unique spin on classic stories.


How are you using graphic novels in your classroom?



Brown, S. (2013). A blended approach to reading and writing graphic novels. The Reading Teacher, 67(3), 208-219.

Gorman, M. (2002). What teens want. School Library Journal, 48, 42-47.

Hassett, D. D, & Schieble, M. B. (2007). Finding space and time for the visual in K-12 literacy instruction. The English Journal, 97(1), 62-68.

Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2004). Using graphic novels, anime, and the Internet in an urban high school. The English Journal, 93(3), 19-25.

McTaggert, J. (2008). Graphic novels: The good, the bad, and the ugly. In N. Frey, & D. Fisher (Eds.), Teaching visual literacy: Using comic books, graphic novels, anime, cartoons, and more to develop comprehension and thinking skills (pp. 27-46). CA: Corwin Press.

Schwarz, G. E. (2002). Graphic books for diverse needs: Engaging reluctant and curious readers. The ALAN Review, 3(1), 54-57.

Yidirim, A.H. (2013). Using graphic novels in the classroom. Journal of Language and Literature Education, 8. 118-131.


Observe and Learn from Effective Teachers

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


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

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

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

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

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

Using checklists to focus your observations on specific goals:

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

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

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

Videos for observing expert educators on your own schedule:

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

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

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

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

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

Foreign Languages:
Teaching Foreign Languages, K-12 Library

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

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

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

Science K-6: Investigating Classrooms
Teaching High School Science

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

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

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


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