Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Columbus Day: A Multifaceted View

encounterIn the United States, the Columbus Day holiday was created to commemorate Christopher Columbus’s landing in the New World in 1492. While this was an achievement, Columbus has also come to negatively represent conquest and colonialism. The following resources provide a multifaceted view of Columbus’s New World encounters.

Global trade started with Columbus’s arrival in the New World. America’s History in the Making, unit 2, “Mapping Initial Encounters” details the trade practices that occurred between native peoples, Europeans, and Africans in theme 1 of the video. This unit also presents primary sources that illustrate different perspectives of these initial encounters.

Examine how archaeological and scientific evidence has changed the way Americans think about Columbus Day in Bridging World History, unit 2, “History and Memory,” video part 1, Commemorating Columbus. Columbus’s early image as an explorer and civilizer is contrasted with resulting conquest, colonialism, and the destruction of peoples and habitats.

American Passages, unit 1, “Native Voices,” Stories of the Beginning of the World presents the literary voices and oral traditions of Native Americans.  How did the New World encounters influence the lives of Native Americans?

More resources for Columbus Day:

A Biography of America, program 1, “New World Encounters

American Passages, unit 2, “Exploring Borderlands,” author Christopher Columbus

Social Studies in Action, grades 3-5, program 9, “Explorers in North America

What does great teaching look like?

TM K-4 students1

from Teaching Math Library, K-4, program 46 “Buffalo Estimation”

Are you new to teaching? Do you want to refine your teaching strategies after reflecting on your practice? One of the best ways to improve is to watch veteran teachers guide their students in the learning process. We encourage you to observe teachers in your school and to look to Learner.org for great classroom moments you can watch on your own time. Take ideas from our workshops that show real teachers effectively engaging with their own students. Here are a few highlights with additional resources listed below by subject:

Making Meaning in Literature
shows teachers facilitating discussions to create a literary community in their classrooms. For example, in program 4, teacher Tanya Schnabl’s students develop discussion questions and connect their experiences with the dilemmas in the assigned texts as they explore “government limits and personal freedoms.”

See examples of every step of an inquiry-based lesson, from fostering a learning community, to designing how students will explore the materials, to collecting and assessing data, in Learning Science Through Inquiry. In workshop 6, “Bring It All Together: Processing for Meaning During Inquiry,” watch the teacher draw out meaning from students’ observations of their soil decomposition experiment. Shuffle to 8:42 in the video.

Find ideas for teaching about civic engagement in Making Civics Real.  Teacher Matt Johnson leads his Constitutional Law 12th graders in applying what they’ve learned to new hypothetical cases that mirror actual students’ rights cases presented to the Supreme Court in workshop 8, “Rights and Responsibilities of Students.”

Other examples of effective teaching:

Language Arts and Literature Classrooms-

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Write in the Middle: A Workshop for Middle School Teachers

The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Mathematics Classrooms-

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Teaching Math: A Video Library, K-4, 5-8, 9-12

Insights Into Algebra 1: Teaching for Learning (high school)

Science Classrooms-

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Science in Focus: Force and Motion (K-8 teachers)

Reactions in Chemistry (high school)

Foreign Language Classrooms-

Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices

Social Studies/History Classrooms-

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

The Economics Classroom: A Workshop for Grade 9-12 Teachers

Social Studies in Action: A Teaching Practices Library K-12

Arts Classrooms-

Connecting With the Arts: A Teaching Practices Library, 6-8

The Art of Teaching the Arts: A Workshop for High School Teachers

Great Outdoors Month: Parks, Oceans, and Gardens


Yellowstone National Park. © luckyphotographer / 123RF

There’s no doubt we all benefit from outdoor activities like hiking and kayaking. Leisurely strolls in woods and along the beaches, while observing nature, help us relax and inspire meditation. Physical activity, including gardening, also sends endorphins to our brains, warding off depression, and makes us fit and healthy. During Great Outdoors Month, get moving and explore some of the U.S.’s national parks, urban centers, oceans, or even your back yard. The following resources offer some suggestions for appreciating the outdoors:

Ecosystems in National Parks

In any trip to a national park or forest you are likely to encounter flora and fauna that comprise an ecosystem. Get a better understanding of how all these organisms—predators, prey, and producers—interact and coexist. Try keeping an ecosystem in balance with the Ecology Lab from The Habitable Planet.

Yellowstone (Wyoming, Montana, Idaho)

Find pictures of Yellowstone in the archives for America’s History in the Making, unit 13.  For example, see a painting done by Thomas Moran as part of a U.S. Geological Survey expedition. Moran’s watercolors of Yellowstone were later used to convince Congress to establish Yellowstone as a national park.

Central Park (New York City)

Escape the hustle and bustle of New York City by ducking into Central Park. Learn about how Central Park was designed in 1857 and the design’s influence on urban natural spaces throughout the United States thereafter in Art Through Time, program 10, “The Natural World.”


Oceans cover over 70% of the Earth’s surface. As the school year ends, many head to the seaside to relax in the sun and frolic on the beach. Explore and appreciate the ocean using the following resources:


Marine phytoplankton. © United States Geological Survey. Image from The Habitable Planet, figure 12.

What is the structure of the ocean and what causes that painful “ear squeeze” in scuba divers? See The Habitable Planet, unit 3, “Oceans,” section 2.  Sections 6 and 7 describe the biological activity of the tiniest forms of ocean life, plankton, that form the base of marine food webs.

Dive into Earth Revealed, program 4, “The Sea Floor,” to learn how scientists use technology to study the geology and biology of the bottom of the sea.

Explore the relationship between rocky landmasses and the energy of the ocean. See illustrations of wave movements and their impact on the shores in Earth Revealed, program 24, “Waves, Beaches and Coasts.”

Use cyclic functions to track the height of tides as they come in and go out in Learning Math: Algebra, session 8, part A, Cyclic Functions, Tides. At the bottom of the page, watch the video clip to see a “real world” example of how to calculate tides from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

Peer into the future of energy by examining how experimental ocean power systems harness energy and the challenges of using such systems in The Habitable Planet, unit 10, “Energy Challenges,” section 8, Hydropower and Ocean Energy.


Do you have a green thumb? Why not use that thumb to help track the migration of monarch butterflies? Journey North provides schools and individual citizen scientists tools and information for planting butterfly gardens and monitoring butterfly activity. The data collected and posted on the Journey North website is used to track seasonal change.  This page lists the types of plants you will need to host both monarch caterpillars and butterflies.

You can also attract hummingbirds by growing plants with their preferred nectar. Find instructions on the “Unpave the Way for Hummingbirds” page of Journey North.

Visit a virtual garden in Art Through Time, program 10, “The Natural World.” Find a photo of the gardens created by Henry Hoare II and Henry Flitcroft at Stourhead Estate in Wiltshire, England. Be inspired by the symmetrical arrangements that reflect a nature-taming approach to gardening.

How will you enjoy the great outdoors this month and this summer?

Engage Students with Folktales

Dancer in an Izumi mask, from Invitation to World Literature: The Epic of GIlgamesh

Performer in an Izumi mask, from Invitation to World Literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Folktales connect us to the past. They blend cultures and time periods, as tales transform in the retelling like a shape-shifting creature. Teachers use these qualities of folktales to engage students in a range of content from geography to language arts.

The Cinderella story provides young students material to dissect the key elements of fiction from setting and character to exposition and resolution. In the student interactive Elements of a Story, early readers can listen to the story as they read the simplified text, and then can test their new knowledge. (language arts, elementary)

Folktales are connected to places. Jane Shuffleton skillfully blends Russian city names, their origins, and group work pairing native and beginning Russian speakers to create folktales in “Russian Cities, Russian Stories.” Watch this program from the Teaching Foreign Languages Library to learn about Russian geography and guiding multi-level classroom discourse. (world languages, high school)

Travel the world with epics, folktales, and creation myths in Invitation to World Literature. The world’s oldest work of fiction, The Epic of Gilgamesh; the Mayan creation story, Popol Vuh; and tales of Arabia and Persia, captured in the Thousand and One Nights are among those explored by scholars, artists, and other lovers of story and myth. (world literature, history, high school)

Find additional multi-disciplinary connections to folktales in these resources and add resources you’re using in the comments:

Students revise an Indian folktale in the classroom video “Revising for Clarity” of the Teaching Reading 3-5 Workshop. (language arts, elementary)

African, Asian, Native American, and Mexican folklore in sessions 5 and 6 of The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School are taught from a cultural studies perspective. (literature, high school)

A Biography of America program “Slavery” discusses the significance of animal trickster tales. (history, high school)

Search the American Passages archive for artifacts related to the Mexican folktale La Llorona and Uncle Remus stories. (literature, history, high school)

A Cajun folktale lays the foundation for a lesson in Francophone culture in Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices. (world languages, middle and high school)

Middle school students create a culture and transform folktales in Connecting With the Arts: A Teaching Practices Library, 6-8. See “Folktales Transformed,” “Breathing Life Into Myths,” and related units. (arts, language arts, middle school)

How to Incorporate Music in Your Subject


March is Music in Our Schools Month and educators are urged to make a case for including music education in the K-12 curriculum. It would seem to be an easy argument. According to Christopher Viereck, Ph.d., Developmental Neurobiologist in Residence for The Music Empowers Foundation, ongoing music education creates “new connections (‘wiring’) between brain cells.” Music education “also benefits students in other academic domains,” writes Viereck in Music Education and Brain Development 101, the first of many articles in the Your Brain on Music Education series.

Still, despite the substantial amount of evidence that supports the claim that music enhances learning, music programs in budget-strapped schools are often considered niceties, not necessities. There are ways to incorporate music into lessons, should formal music programs face the axe, however.

Let’s take a look at some examples of resources and classroom activities:


High school and college students can study how the Greeks applied mathematical thought to the study of music in the video and online text for Mathematics Illuminated, unit 10, “Harmonious Math,” section 2, The Math of Time.

Learn how sound waves move through the air in section 3, Sound and Waves.

Section 6, Can You Hear the Shape of a Drum?, asks if it’s possible to deduce what object makes a sound based on the frequency content of the sound.

World Languages

The Teaching Foreign Languages K-12 video library provides two examples of how to incorporate music into language lessons. Watch “French: A Cajun Folktale and Zydeco.” At about 20 minutes into the video, students are introduced to Cajun music. See how the teacher builds excitement for what students will be learning and how music helps students better understand cultural traditions of the people who live in that particular region of Louisiana.

Music can take students from the Bayou to Ancient Rome. In this mixed-level Latin class at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., teacher Lauri Dabbieri uses music to help students understand the difference between translation and interpretation, as well as to make historical connections to Roman culture.

Social Studies and Language Arts

The Middle Ages: Early music provides an echo of the past, allowing students to connect to people, cultures, and arts from long ago. Using The Middle Ages interactive, students test their ears by determining which of the instruments used by medieval musicians match the sounds they hear.

The Renaissance: Elementary music specialist Sylvia Bookhardt teaches students about Renaissance society in The Arts in Every Classroom,Teaching Music.”

The Holocaust: The series TeachingThe Children of Willesden Lane’ offers resources to help middle and high school students better comprehend survivor Lisa Jura’s story of loss, resilience, and ultimate triumph. Mona Golabek, Jura’s daughter, wrote The Children of Willesden Lane to honor her mother, who was spared the cruelty of the death camps thanks to the Kindertransport (children’s transport). In all, the operation saved nearly 10,000 children. Music played a central role in Lisa Jura’s life and is integrated into this memoir. Find the music downloads here.

The Fifties: Explore an emerging American teenage culture, including the influence of the transistor radio and a young man named Elvis Presley, in A Biography of America, unit 23, “The Fifties.”

Read “A Jazz Festival in Your Classroom” to find resources for incorporating music into social studies and language arts classes. Teach your students about the Jazz age as historical context for reading works by Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and more.

The Arts

And if you do have room in your elementary school’s schedule and budget for incorporating a music program of any scale, explore The Power of Music: P-5 Teaching Inspired by El Sistema to see how educators use music programs to build students’ confidence and sense of community.

Share ways you are incorporating music into your classrooms in March or any time below the post.

Black History Month: We Celebrate Women Writers

During Black History Month, we pause and reflect on the contributions of great African Americans. The theme of this post is “Black Women in American Culture and History.” In this space, we provide resources to help you teach about women who have made significant contributions to African-American literature. American Passages features several writers who have contributed to and commented on American culture and history.

Read the remarkable stories of educated enslaved woman such as Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Jacobs.  Phillis Wheatley became a published poet writing about Christianity and liberty. Unit 4, “Spirit of Nationalism,” tells how Wheatley’s mistress recognized her intelligence and oversaw her education. Harriet Jacobs, another enslaved woman who was taught to read, escaped from the plantation and eventually fled to the North. She wrote about her own experiences of exploitation and escape in order to bring awareness to the mistreatment of enslaved women. Read about her in unit 7, “Slavery and Freedom.”

Provide your students with different perspectives of the black experience in America by introducing them to writer Zora Neale Hurston. Much to the dismay of her peers such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, who wrote about the oppression and degradation of black people, Hurston wrote to promote a vision of “racial health – a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings.” See unit 13, “Southern Renaissance.”

Develop your students’ critical thinking skills using the Author Questions for Gwendolyn Brooks. You can find questions such as “What do Brooks’s poems suggest about the special challenges of being an African-American poet in a time when many other genres and media compete for attention?” and additional activities for this author in unit 14, “Becoming Visible.”

Alice Walker meaningfully uses images of quilts in several of her works, including “The Color Purple” and “Everyday Use.” After examining the literary purposes of this household object in Walker’s work, guide students in their own search for identity using activities that discuss family heirlooms. For information on Walker, read American Passages, unit 16, “Search for Identity.” Click on Author Activities to find activities for teaching about Walker and her story “Everyday Use.”
Hear a reading and discussion of her poem “Revolutionary Petunias” in Conversations in Literature, workshop 6, Objectifying the Text” (35:08 minutes in).

In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize. Read about Morrison’s work in American Passages, unit 16, “Search for Identity.” Use activities and discussion questions provided to teach her short story, Recitatif, which challenges the human urge to categorize people.

The program In Search of the Novel, “Ten Novelists,” provides links to biographical information about Morrison.

How to Teach Negative History

Distant view of crowds during mass demonstration of students and workers during general strike in Paris on May 13, 1968. Picture was taken on Rue De Turbigo with the Place de la Republique in the background. (AP Photo/Eustache Cardenas)

Distant view of crowds during mass demonstration of students and workers during general strike in Paris on May 13, 1968. Picture was taken on Rue De Turbigo with the Place de la Republique in the background. (AP Photo/Eustache Cardenas)

We all know that uneasy feeling you get when you have to teach a difficult topic or time in U.S. history. How do you stand in front of a classroom of students and talk about slavery, the Indian wars, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, the Red Scare, lynching, the Trail of Tears, the Chinese Exclusion Act, resistance to women’s suffrage, the Know-Nothings, and more low points in our history without a) embarrassing students, b) making students whose ancestors may have been the victims of these actions feel singled out or victimized themselves, or c) leaving students with the feeling that the U.S. is a pretty terrible place?

The good news is that teaching negative history has very positive results when it’s done well. It’s only by thoroughly understanding why negatives happened that we reassert our national commitment to ending them and preventing them from happening in the first place. Every injustice committed in our history produced a backlash from Americans who would not accept that injustice. The knowledge that our founding principles demanded something better—liberty and justice for all—drove Americans to fight every injustice you can list in American history.

There’s a good basic approach to teaching negative history:

  1. Provide context: Too often historical events are depicted as coming out of the blue—“in 1892 Congress passed an act to ban all Chinese immigration.” But every action is a reaction to long-term trends, debates, tensions, and changes in society. An objective, non-cynical yet unapologetic explanation of the historical context of even the most horrible events gives students a way to understand how it could have happened that isn’t just “people are just racist/sexist/xenophobic”, etc.

Example: Essential Lens, “1968, Year of the Barricades,” uses historical context to explain the political protests that rocked America and Europe at a time when the young people protesting seemed like they had nothing to be upset about—they were living in some of the richest nations in the world.

  1. Let the actors speak for themselves: Why should you have to parrot the beliefs of proslaveryites to explain them to your class? Let students hear their awful beliefs from their own mouths by giving them primary resources to read. And, on the flip side, why should you paraphrase the arguments of Americans who resisted slavery? Let them speak for themselves, too, through their own documentary record.

Example:Slavery and Freedom,” unit 7 in American Passages, provides a list of antislavery and abolitionist activists; click a name to get a background essay, then click the Activities box on the right to go to artifacts about and writing by that person.

  1. Acknowledge subjectivity: The historical record is not perfect. Often it has more records from one side of a debate than the other (for instance, we have a lot more documents from 17th-century white colonial settlers than American Indians). Sometimes both sides of a debate are equally represented, but they say such wildly contradictory things that it’s hard to tell which side was right or if both sides were confused or just plain lying. For instance, there were Cherokee groups who left the southeast willingly and maintained that the agreement they signed with the U.S. to give up the Cherokee nation was fair—but that’s not what the Cherokees who were physically removed from their homes, kept in cages, then put on a forced march west said. And sometimes the historical record changes: for instance, in the 19th century the Puritans were depicted as heroes. By the 21st century, they are most often depicted as harsh and destructive people who started the Indian wars. Which is the truth? Acknowledging that the historical record does not have all the answers actually inspires students to read both sides and empowers them to construct their own interpretation of history.

Example: “History and Memory,” unit 2 from Bridging World History, offers a roadmap for teaching students about interpreting history, and helping them to see the historical record as not carved in stone, but a living, breathing, evolving organism.

  1. Put students in someone else’s shoes: It’s easy to sit back and judge our ancestors in hindsight. But they weren’t making decisions based on careful research and study—they were reacting to events as they happened. This means they often did not have all the information they needed to make the right decision. Interactive websites that allow students to make choices based on limited data help them to understand that they are just like the Americans who came before them: doing the best they can with the information they have, likely to make mistakes, and then likely to try to fix them.

Example: “World War II,” program 22 of A Biography of America, has a “You Decide: Japanese American Internment?” feature that starts with one sentence of information and asks students “Was the wartime internment of Japanese Americans appropriate?” Students click to get started, and are offered a choice of clicking Yes or No. Clicking either one takes them to a new page that gives more information that could make them rethink their decision. This helps battle the judgments that hindsight makes very easy and shows students how people can make the wrong decision with the best of intentions.

Please share ways you teach the negative side of history in your classrooms in the comments.


Ferris Wheel Day (February 14, 1859)

Minnesota Historical Society

George Washington Gale Ferris, an American engineer and inventor, invented the Ferris wheel for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The first Ferris wheel, built specifically for the fair, was 250 feet in diameter and could carry 40 passengers in 36 coaches.

See a picture of the first Ferris wheel and related questions in Primary Sources, “World’s Fair Photograph.”

In America’s History in the Making, unit 16, “A Growing Global Power,” David Cope, former social studies teacher and adviser for World’s Fair documentaries, says the Columbian Exposition in Chicago provided America the opportunity to show the world its industrial might.

Students practice trigonometry by developing functions to describe the height of a Ferris wheel rider. Watch this lesson unfold in Teaching Math: A Video Library, 9-12, program 7, “Ferris Wheel.”