Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Teach Inquiry Strategies to Improve Students’ Writing

SeattleClassMy favourite part of teaching English has always been the freedom that comes with teaching it. As an educator, I never feel like I am bound to specific rules or instructional strategies when it comes to teaching writing to students. As explained in Reading & Writing in the Disciplines, writing is a process that students work on to improve over time. My goal as an educator has always been to empower students to believe that their writing voice is important, and that they have something to say. This epiphany didn’t come to me easily though. My students, many of them are struggling writers and a lot of them are English Language Learners, have a hard time engaging critically with works of literature: short stories, novels, etc. When students can easily engage with the text by reading, they have a much easier time writing about that same text.

One day during a writing workshop, as I was helping one student decide what topic to write about, I found that I was asking him a lot of questions. My questions were scaffolded, and they moved from description to analytical questions. As the student answered each question, he was able to discover his focus. The success of using inquiry to strengthen students’ writing is also what led me to create The Writing Project.

Here are some examples of questions to ask students to help them to understand and interpret text:

  • What was the main idea of the story?
    • How did you see this main idea throughout the story? Give examples.
    • Which one of the main ideas seems more interesting to you?
      • Why did you find this one interesting?
  • Who were the main characters in the story?
    • Who did you find to be an interesting character?
      • Why did you think they were special?
  • What are some of the interesting elements you encountered in the story? List them.
    • Choose a couple of elements to discuss. (narrow down)
      • Why did you choose these specific elements? What was so important about them?
  • How does the main idea/theme relate to the character/s?
    • In what way did the story stand out to you?
      • Why did you find this interesting?

The process of inquiry has the potential to unlock students’ hidden interests. They can discover something interesting and that stands out to them in the text before they even know they’re interested in the text at all. What does that mean? My students often come with the mindset that the story is not going to be enjoyable. However, with a little bit of support and encouragement and the act of asking and answering questions, they can discover a lot of hidden gems in the story that they actually appreciate!

As a result of using inquiry in the classroom, students often start to see that writing is a process of answering questions on a larger scale, like an essay or a research paper. It becomes a manageable task for them, less daunting and even fun as they learn to string together their responses to questions to support a common thread (their thesis statement).

Also, teaching students to use inquiry to write allows them to build and strengthen their critical thinking and analytical skills. Students are no longer passive readers and writers. They are actively and critically engaged with the text to produce strong pieces of their own ideas.

If you’re interested in checking out some additional ideas about writing workshops and the writing process, Developing Writers is a great resource. The online workshop runs through important components of writing activities in the classroom.

Making Meaning in Literature“Asking Questions,” is a very helpful resource that provides videos and lesson plans about inquiry-based pedagogy, and facilitating discussions around works of literature.

Learn how to apply inquiry strategy to enhance teaching of multicultural literature in The Expanding Canon, session 3.

Share your experiences using inquiry strategies with your English/language arts students in the comments.

What Immigration Stories Teach Us

LOH_PAPER SON_lowI love immigration stories. I love reading them. I love teaching them. And, I love writing them.

When I was teaching fourth grade at a school in Southern California, I wanted to teach about Angel Island. Chinese immigrants played an important part of our nation’s history, especially California’s history. Yet, there was a dearth of children’s stories about Chinese-Americans being detained at Angel Island. My fourth graders had no idea that Chinese immigrants were unfairly victimized by the Chinese Exclusion Act; they didn’t know that Chinese laborers suffered from overt racism and discrimination. They also didn’t know that Chinese immigrants built cities, railroads, and industries. As such, I was inspired to co-write Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to AmericaI’m proud to mention that it has been nominated for a California Young Reader Medal Award. It’s an immigration story about a boy who has to endure the interrogations and long detentions at Angel Island.

Considering the upcoming U.S. presidential election and the refugee crisis, immigration issues seem to be at the forefront. We have not always treated immigrants well. Immigration stories and teaching about immigration allow teachers and students to view immigrants and refugees from a more humanistic viewpoint. (Read “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy” in Scientific American to learn how reading fiction improves our ability to understand others.) In April 2016, I attended the National EdTPA Conference in Savannah, Georgia. I had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Pedro Noguera speak. He noted that immigrant kids keep our communities functioning. He said, “We always gain from immigration. History shows immigration has always been good for America.”

To help students understand the complexities and nuances of immigration, teachers need to recognize that immigrant stories are rich and powerful. Immigrant stories need to be analyzed and studied, not just read. In The Expanding Canon, session 4, learn how to apply inquiry-based instruction, which can be employed with immigrant stories to help students dig deeper. For example, find lesson plans featuring Tomas Rivera’s And The Earth Did Not Devour Him and Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican. In the plan, students were asked to interview Mexican immigrants, conduct research, engage in dramatic readings, and write their own memoirs. One of the questions that students were asked to think about is: How did the U.S. government feel about immigrants? This question forces students to consider historical, social, and political contexts of immigration.

In Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 7, “Social Justice and Action,” students are asked to examine Alma Flor Ada’s My Name is Maria Isabel, Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, and Paul Yee’s Tales from Gold Mountain. Students are positioned to be agents of change and are charged with writing persuasive letters to raise public awareness.

Look for additional works to support Paper Son in Teaching Multicultural Literature, which features several Asian-American immigration stories and explores historical and contemporary immigration issues. The workshop has students reading An Na’s A Step From Heaven about a Korean immigrant, Laurence Yep’s Dragon’s Gate about a Chinese immigrant, Pegi Deitz Shea’s Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story about a Hmong immigrant, and more.

So, why are immigration stories important? Because we all benefit from immigration, we’re all affected by immigration, and we can all learn from immigration.

Teaching Multicultural Literature: Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month 

AmPassMaxineHongKingstonDuring Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, explore Annenberg Learner resources to discover the rich history, cultures, and personal stories of Americans of Asian and Pacific Island heritage.

Students come to understand the plight of Japanese-Americans in World War II as they read poetry by Lawson Fusao Inada in the The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School, “Critical Pedagogy: Abiodun Oyewole and Lawson Fusao Inada.”

New York City students explore “dual identity” by reading the literary works of authors Gish Jen, Tina Yun Lee, and Lensey Namioka. As students discuss the works, you’ll see effective teaching strategies, including peer facilitation circles, in action. See “Engagement and Dialogue” of Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades.

Maxine Hong Kingston, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, writes stories that explore balancing cultural values with the expectations of American society. Read about her life and works in American Passages, “Search for Identity.”

Share additional resources in the comments.

Develop Your Students’ Love For Reading

ELL BOSTON4May is Get Caught Reading Month.  Looking for inspiration for readers young and older? The following Annenberg Learner resources will get you started.

Observe 5th-grade teacher Bileni Teklu teach her students to make connections between what they read and their own experiences. The young readers then discuss what they enjoy about reading. Build a strong community of engaged readers using the classroom examples and ideas in Engaging With Literature, A Video Library, Grades 3-5.

Why do you read? Conversations in Literature, for middle school and high school teachers, will inspire you to revisit your passion for literature. Inspire the same love in your students by helping them identify their own effective reading habits. For example, readers “step in” to a text by sizing up the characters and the atmosphere the same way they would in a social situation. See program 3, “Stepping In.”

Glimpse the appeal and power of great literature as celebrities, academics, and people who just love to read talk about their fascination with The Epic of GilgameshPopol VuhOne Hundred Years of Solitude, and more in Invitation to World Literature.

Watch authors Katherine Paterson, Leslie Marmon Silko, and J.K. Rowling discuss literary works that inspired their own writing in the Author Notes, Part III of In Search of the Novel. Scroll to the bottom of this page and click on the VoD.

More resources for Get Caught Reading Month:

Making Meaning in Literature, Grades 6-8 Library

Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Literary Visions

National Poetry Month: Grab Your Quills and Start Writing

POETRY123rfIt’s Poetry Month! Grab your quills (or laptops) and start writing. When the Academy of American Poets started National Poetry Month in 1996, one of their goals was to assist teachers in bringing poetry to their classrooms. Find activities and resources on the Poets.org site.

Start laying the foundation for young writers by encouraging them to keep a writer’s notebook. Students learn to record their thoughts about their experiences and choose the formats (including poems) to deliver those thoughts. See Inside Writing Communities, Grades 3-5, workshop 2, “Reasons for Writing.”

Teach students to distinguish between poetry and prose. One way to do this is to have students write in layers of drafts until a poem starts to emerge. Find this 5th-grade lesson plan in Write in the Middle, workshop 3, “Teaching Poetry.”

Use poetry to help students connect personal experiences and feelings to themes they are reading about. In a technique called “copy-change,” students follow the form of a published poem, and insert their own words, ideas, and emotions. View the lesson in this classroom video for Teaching ‘The Children of Willesden Lane.’

In program 12, “A Sense of Place: Setting and Character in Poetry,” of Literary Visions, hear readings and discussions of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, and listen to Maxine Kumin discuss capturing New England landscapes in her poetry.

Emily Dickinson used her science training to write poetic observations of nature. Her life and work are discussed in Voices & Visions.

Students can compare how poets use images of a city to describe the human condition. See question 5 in American Passages, Context Activities for unit 10, “Rhythms in Poetry:” How do Eliot’s London, Sandburg’s Chicago, and Hughes’s Harlem all represent particular interpretations of the city and the modern condition?

For additional poetry resources:

The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School, session 1, “Reader Response: Pat Mora and James Welch

Engaging With Literature: A Video Library, Grades 3-5, program 3, “Starting Out

Image Copyright: pixelsaway / 123RF Stock Photo

Using Poetry to Facilitate Discussions


Poet Nikki Grimes talks with students. Click on this picture to watch the classroom video in Teaching Multicultural Literature.

If you present poetry as if it were castor oil, no one will be interested. Instead, teachers can approach it as something fun, and also explore poetry that connects to the students and their lives (as opposed to choosing poetry that they feel “should” be studied).” – Nikki Grimes, in Teaching Multicultural Literature

Poetry is a type of genre with which many students have a hard time engaging. In fact, it’s also a genre that many teachers struggle to teach, as a result of its complexity and form. I, for one, am one of those teachers. Helping students to decipher lines, tropes, and the meaning of poems, while at the same time keeping the lesson engaging was a struggle for me. Consequently, I was a little worried before the start of a poetry unit that my students would be disengaged from the lesson. As a result, I decided to ask students to bring songs, lyrics, or poems that they enjoyed and that conveyed a special message or meaning to them.

To my great surprise, while many students opted to bring song lyrics, a large number of them shared poems that they liked and that resonated with them. One particular student shared Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” As she read it, she started tearing up making for a very emotional read.

I asked her about what made her tear up. She answered me with the following, and I will never forget it:

“We’re always put down by society, men, and sometimes those who love us. It’s why I have this on my mirror, it gives me strength every day to walk into the world as a black woman.”

Maya Angelou’s poem resonated with my student and many students who heard it that day, because it touched on what it means to be a woman of colour in society. The poem challenges traditional notions of beauty constructed by society and elevates the beauty of a woman to which we can all relate.

For this lesson I learned three things.

  1. Never underestimate the interest of students in a certain subject area. It might not be a popular subject or theme or unit, but what students might share may allow us to get to know them and understand them.
  2. Poetry, just like literature, has the power to start an open conversation about issues that students care about and that directly touch students’ lives.
  3. By giving students a choice to bring their own examples, I opened room for discussions about topics that are relevant to them. Our particular conversation taught my students about what feminism means and that everyone, not just women, shares a responsibility in advocating for women’s rights.

Facilitating a conversation by teaching poetry began with sharing selections and samples. To help my students start the conversations, I asked them: Why did you choose the piece? What was so special about it? What resonated with you? From there on it’s crucial to build on that conversation through more questioning, inquiry, analysis, and reflections.

In Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 2, “Engagement and Dialogue,” read an interview with writer Nikki Grimes about teaching poetry to students. Also explore methods of teaching poetry to help students engage in the work. Find strategies for helping students to connect with the texts they read, and instructions for how to host an open mic event with students.

The most important thing to remember is to enjoy the experience of teaching poetry and learning with and from students.

Frederick Law Olmsted: Urban Planning as Art

Frederick Law Olmsted / engraved by T. Johnson ; from a photograph by James Notman. LC-USZ62-36895

Frederick Law Olmsted / engraved by T. Johnson ; from a photograph by James Notman. LC-USZ62-36895

In 1857, Frederick Law Olmsted (b.4.26.1822) and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park in New York City as a work of art, a space distinct from the urban life. Learn how this park was deliberately designed and constructed with a sensitivity to nature in Art Through Time, program 10, “The Natural World.”

See the “Lagoon Bird’s-Eye View” photo of Olmsted’s design of the Chicago World’s Fair site in Activity 2: Campaign for World’s Fair 2010 of Primary Sources, workshop 5, “Cans, Coal, and Corporations.” Consider how this city design and the design of Central Park have inspired future urban landscape plans.

Frederick Law Olmsted was also a writer. He wrote about the differences between Northern and Southern societies during the 1850s, and critiqued the slave labor practices of the South vs. the paid labor of the North. Watch the video for A Biography of America, program 9, “Slavery.”

Remembering Beloved Nigerian Writer Chinua Achebe

achebeThe world lost an important voice with Chinua Achebe’s death on March 21, 2013. Critics consider the writer, born in Ogidi, Nigeria in 1930, one of the finest Nigerian novelists. Chinua Achebe eschewed trends in English literature and embraced the African oral tradition. See the Chinua Achebe biography page from In Search of the Novel, Ten Novelists, for background on the author and his writing style.

Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart asks readers to consider what they would do if their whole way of living was suddenly threatened by a group of outsiders. Okonkwo, the protagonist of this work, faces the imminent influence of British values on his Nigerian Igbo community. The Ten Novels page provides a synopsis and reviews of Things Fall Apart. Anthony Appiah, Achebe’s friend, explains his view of the novel Things Fall Apart in the program Invitation to World Literature: “One of the things that Achebe has always said, is that part of what he thought the task of the novel was, was to create a usable past. Trying to give people a richly textured picture of what happened, not a sort of monotone bad Europeans, noble Africans, but a complicated picture in which mistakes are made on both sides.”

Also, in Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 8, “Social Justice and Action,” author Joseph Bruchac talks about his friendship with Achebe and how Achebe influenced his writing.

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.