Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Nancy Finkelstein, A Teacher Who Empowered Teachers

NancyFinkelsteinOne often hears about teachers who were an inspiration to their students, who were beloved for their kindness and understanding, or even their toughness. Those stories are touching and true. This story is about a person who was all of that and more to thousands of teachers who never even knew her.

Nancy Finkelstein, our friend and colleague, passed away on Leap Year Day 2016 after a short, intense bout with leukemia. Before retiring in 2009, she was project manager for the Science Media Group (SMG) at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, MA. Before that, she was the president of Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). But at her core, Nancy was a teacher, having taught for Malden, MA public schools. And her mission was to empower teachers.

In its condolence message to its members, MTA leaders shared this memory of Nancy: “Nancy said to the 1988 Annual Meeting, ‘When people have asked me what I do, I never respond that I am a union president. I tell them that I am a teacher. I am proud to be a teacher. I am proud to be the president of teachers. And I am very proud of all of you.’”

Dr. Matt Schneps, Nancy’s colleague at the SMG and its founding director, remembered Nancy’s forthright attitude. “Nancy, always the pragmatist, was the person I relied on when I needed a reality check, to rein in my head-in-the-clouds ideas. She had a remarkable understanding of people. And she had a clear — and often colorful way of conveying her thoughts. ‘If you think that’s gonna work, I’ll eat this stapler,’ she’d say, holding the metal desktop gizmo up against her clenched teeth. She was right, of course. When Nancy spoke, people listened, and without her sage tell-it-like-is council, we would not have been able to accomplish even a small fraction of what we did.”

Nancy built a team that ran the Annenberg Channel, a 24/7 satellite-delivered source of professional development video programming for teachers. She also was the host/moderator of the very first workshop series “The Private Universe Project in Science.” The early workshops focused on math and science and later expanded into all discipline areas. Nancy shaped and whipped into shape many of the series that are hallmarks of teacher professional development: Looking at Learning…Again, Science in Focus workshops, and Essential Science for Teachers courses, among many other titles.

Under Nancy’s watch the Annenberg Channel went from a few hours after school to a few dozen sites delivered by the Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Technology (MCET), to a national range reaching more than 99,000 schools. As part of that effort, Nancy’s team oversaw the use of the workshops by teacher study groups and set up a system for teachers to earn graduate credit through Colorado State University or a certificate of participation. Nancy understood that teachers also needed to keep up with training and certification to move up the pay scale. And those teachers who wanted to improve their practice, were the ones who would be most effective in the classroom.

“What I remember about Nancy above all other things was her deep sense of compassion and resolute integrity. She was a person who strongly believed that all people (teachers, students, parents, workers,…) needed to be treated with respect,” said Dr. Schneps, “a philosophy we learned from and tried to emulate as best we could.”

Nancy Finkelstein imbued Annenberg programming with that respect. Generations of teachers and their students have felt it. Even if they didn’t know her.

We thank you, Nancy, for what you have done for all of us. We shall miss you dearly.


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.

Exit Slip: How to Survive Your First Year of Teaching

possiblestickfigure_m copy

image by Joerg Schiemann

This week, we will end on a positive note. I remember my first year of teaching clearly. Despite having been through a great education program, I felt unprepared for reality once in the classroom. I had to accept that I probably wasn’t going to get anything right the first time, and that I had to learn how to find my sense of humor no matter how frustrated I was with myself, my lack of resources, or my students.

Classroom management, I learned quickly, is not one size fits all. The strategies used are determined not only by the chemistry of the personalities in each class, but also my own chemistry with each class. The underlining strategy that took me forever to learn, but helped the most, was to be authentic. Be true to myself. I didn’t have to be a big personality and a mean presence to keep attention. I just had to be me in all my awkward, goofy glory.

The following two articles can help new teachers survive their first year.

1. In “Stay Positive and Pace Yourself: A Survival Guide for First-Year Teachers” by Sara Ketcham on neaTODAY, Sara highlights the benefits of planning ahead, setting limits to your work so you don’t burn out, and keeping a positive mindset so that you don’t add to the pressure of being a newbie.

2. In “Learn to Reframe Failure” on Medium.com, Elsa Fridman Randolph thinks about how we might “reimagine the P.E. curriculum to serve as a catalyst for developing a growth mindset in all areas (academic and extracurricular) of students’ lives.” The most important lesson in this article for teachers and students, and everyone, is that we benefit from understanding failure to be part of the learning process. As a new teacher, know that you may have to try several ways to do something (whether managing a classroom, motivating a student, designing a great lesson plan, or developing an appropriate assessment) before you find the way that works best for you and your students. Accept the challenges.

Share experiences and insights from your first year in the comments below, and have a great weekend!

Ways to teach about climate change (Part II of II)

HP_surface air increase(See Part I: Why should schools teach about climate change? here.) Teaching about climate change can be daunting: the science is complex, multi-disciplinary, and evolving quickly. But many key ideas about how Earth’s climate system works can be used to illustrate basic ideas in biology, chemistry, and physics.

For example, when biology students study how organisms adapt to their environments, teachers can introduce the idea that climate change is shifting many species’ ranges and altering the timing of seasonal events, such as the first flowering of plants in spring. When students study the carbon cycle in chemistry or earth science, teachers can point out that human activities are adding carbon to the atmosphere, and discuss how Earth’s atmosphere and oceans act as “sinks” for carbon.

What should students know about climate science? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), America’s weather and climate agency, suggests that a climate-literate person:

  • Understands the essential principles of Earth’s climate system,
  • Knows how to assess scientifically credible information about climate,
  • Communicates about climate and climate change in a meaningful way, and
  • Is able to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate.

NOAA’s Climate.gov library breaks climate science literacy down into key principles – how energy flows from the sun to Earth, the interactions among Earth’s systems that regulate climate, factors that make climate variable, and the impacts of human actions. The site also offers visuals, videos, experiments demonstrating key concepts, and interactive tools.

Many climate change concepts can be explored through projects, which give students opportunities to apply ideas – and often, to see the impacts of their personal choices. Clarkson University worked with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to develop ten project-based climate modules on topics ranging from the greenhouse effect to the climate impact of a “dream vacation.” Lessons target grades 6-8 but can be adapted for other levels.

School groups can also join ongoing citizen science projects across the United States, many of which focus on climate-related events. Three national examples:

  • Journey North, from Annenberg Learner, is a free program that uses observations from students and citizen scientists to track wildlife migration and seasonal change. Teachers can use Journey North to help students learn which indicators of changing seasons are unaffected by climate change (such as the length of daylight at a given time of year) and which are impacted (such as the first arrival of migratory birds in spring).
  • Project Budburst, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, tracks how plant species are responding to local, regional, and national climate changes. Participants submit ongoing or one-time reports on specific plants. The project offers classroom resources for grades K-12.
  • Project FeederWatch, run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, is a project that surveys bird populations in back yards, parks, and nature centers across North America from November through April. Researchers use the data to track changes in bird species’ winter abundance and distribution.

The Habitable Planet series from Annenberg Learner also provides tools to teach about climate change. The series, presented in videos and an online textbook, explains fundamental environmental science concepts that support an understanding of climate change. Key units include “Atmosphere,” which describes Earth’s energy balance and the role of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; “Oceans,” which shows the important role that oceans play in absorbing carbon; and “Energy Challenges,” which explains how fossil fuels were created and describes the pros and cons of these and other energy sources. “Earth’s Changing Climate” ties these issues together to show how greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are altering Earth’s energy balance. (Note: for the most current international assessment of climate change science and impacts, see post here from October 30.)

Why should schools teach about climate change? (Part I of II)

EarthAs new findings about global climate change make news, some science teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Hundreds of scientists who contributed to the most recent international assessment of climate change science say they are 95 percent certain that human activities are the cause of global warming in recent decades. That’s the same level of confidence experts have that smoking cigarettes causes cancer.

But over the past five years, more than a dozen bills have been introduced at the state level that would allow teachers to present material challenging that scientific consensus. Recent reports* have spotlighted a textbook review panel in Texas, which includes several members who have questioned evolution and climate change science, and is scheduled to vote this month on an approved list of biology textbooks. (Publishers have not altered texts in response to comments from these reviewers.)

The Next Generation Science Standards offer a counterpoint. The standards recommend introducing students to global climate change in middle school as students learn about weather and climate. High school students are expected to learn about using models to understand Earth’s climate system, and to make evidence-based forecasts of the current rate of global climate change and associated impacts.

The high school standards also link global climate change to human sustainability. Students who understand these concepts should be able to explain how human activities are affecting relationships among Earth systems, such as the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere, and to think critically about solutions that could reduce human impacts on natural systems.

Twenty-six states helped develop the standards, and eight states have already adopted them: California, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, and Washington. Kentucky’s Gov. Steve Beshear overruled a legislative subcommittee that voted against adopting the standards, which had already been endorsed by the state Department of Education and Board of Education. “My job . . . is to make sure our children are college and career ready when they leave high school. Part of getting them college and career ready is to make sure they study all the different scientific theories [that] are out there that everybody else in the world will be studying,” Beshear said.

By emphasizing critical thinking and investigation, the Next Generation standards are designed to help students understand how scientists develop and test ideas, and to think across disciplines. Climate change is a topic that is well suited to this approach. It draws on multiple fields of science: for example, we need some basic physics to understand atmospheric circulation, while ocean acidification is a chemical process. And scientific understanding of climate science and climate change impacts is evolving in real time today, as researchers test theories and refine models that help us understand past climate shifts and predict what may happen in coming decades.

*Post update: On November 22, 2013, the New York Times published a new piece on the ongoing controversial textbook process in Texas. See the article here.

(Stay tuned next Wednesday, November 20, for Part II: Ways to teach about climate change.)

Teaching Newton’s Laws of Motion



Newton’s laws of motion were written more than 300 years ago and they are still in force.  But how do you teach them so they have impact on students, who often seem inert?

First you must ask yourself the question: Is Newton’s work still relevant in today’s high-tech world? For many years, physicists have been scratching their collective heads about how gravity can exist alongside of the other three forces of nature (electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear forces) because it is many factors weaker than the other forces — the 98-pound weakling at the beach, if you will.

Physicists at the University of Washington’s Eot-Wash lab are testing Newton’s Inverse Square Law at extremely minute distances, less than a hair’s width. In the program “Gravity” from Physics for the 21st Century, you’ll see their experiments and what they have learned. This law defines the force bodies have on each other at various distances. It gives students a glimpse into long-standing physics puzzles and the people working on them.

Students can test their understanding of the 2nd and 3rd laws by observing automobile collisions. You don’t have to go to the street corner and wait for two cars to crash, you can go to Learner.org’s student interactive Amusement Park Physics in the bumper cars section of the virtual park.  The bumper cars provide collisions between moving cars and cars at rest, with drivers of various masses. Students can predict the resulting motion after the collision and perhaps become more aware drivers in the future. (One can always hope.)

Newton’s laws of motion are explained with tabletop demonstrations that use CDs, balloons, eggs, and other common objects in workshop 7 of the Science in Focus: Force and Motion. Advance the video slider to about 29 minutes into the VOD at where you will also learn about how great thinkers from before Aristotle to Newton pondered the questions of the nature of forces and motion acting on objects.

Or you can visit Newton and Galileo in their studies as they work on their theories, in The Mechanical Universe…and Beyond program 6, “Newton’s Laws,” and get a feel for the times of both scientists whose names are synonymous with motion today.

These approaches to teaching Newton’s laws should give your students many ways to think about Newton’s simple and elegant set of rules for all matter.

Directing Student Learning

As teachers, we sometimes have moments when we are confident the students are leaving the classroom prepared to tackle the homework, yet the work they bring back is inadequate. Where did our lesson go wrong or does the trouble lie within the students?

An explanation may be in the way we think about how students learn. Neural networks, which go hand-in-hand with learning new concepts, are built not in a linear fashion, but more like Russian nesting dolls. Children make connections with simpler skills and concepts and build outward to learn more complex skills and concepts.

Regression, often thought of as a negative step, is a natural stage in this skill-building process. Children must master the simpler skills first, and sometimes that requires them to go backwards and practice more.

Teachers help students build new connections when they scaffold instruction, providing children different levels of support until they are able to direct their own learning.  But often students regress at different stages as the scaffolding is taken away.

To further explore these ideas, visit unit 5, “Building New Neural Networks,” of Neuroscience and the Classroom. For example, in the section 6 video, Scaffolding: Johanna and Her Mother with Commentary, hear Professor Kurt Fischer explain how scaffolding occurs between mother and baby, and how scaffolding benefits students in the classroom.