Hooking Middle Schoolers with World Geography

As I work with teachers this week to develop curriculum using the C3 and the new CT state frameworks, it is clear that we have a plethora and experienced and dedicated middle school teachers in our state. As our conference speaker Heidi Hayes Jacobs said that issues-based curriculum is a great way to structure units because, “Middle school kids LOVE issues because they “are” issues!” It is clear teachers are passionate about making sure students see the relevance of what they are teaching. I have compiled some of the resources I have learned about and gather this week as we work to create lessons and units on the new CT Social Studies frameworks, specifically in 6th and 7th grade regional studies.  Hard working teachers in one district asked me to compile a list of resources for regional studies to continue this work. I have included under each region some background knowledge for teachers, possible articles and texts, primary source documents and suggestions for material culture, and fictional titles where applicable. I would love to add to this list as we develop more with this exciting approach! Special thanks to Ms. Cerniglia and the Facebook group Scholarships, Grants and Summer Institutes for Teachers where I activated the “brain trust” and got tons of additional resources from hardworking folks.

General Resources

PIER- Programs in International Education Resources From YALE, much of the archive is loanable.

EdSitement from the National Endowment for Humanities

Beyond The Bubble from SHEG

Reading Like A Historian from SHEG

Inquiry Handbook


*One interesting way for teachers to gather some background about countries they may not be familiar with might be through enjoying some of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations or Parts Unknown series. Many episodes are available on Netflix to stream. Not necessarily for students, but you could find excerpts that might serve a purpose if you wanted to.

Latin America/ Central/ South America and the Caribbean

LASER- Latin American School and Educational Resources This is a comprehensive list organized by country

Amazon Interactive A game-based geography website where students can explore and problem solve while learning about the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Additional Resource Links via Library of Congress This is a comprehensive list with lots to get you started.

Film: The Perfect Game

Middle East

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

Library of Congress Resources for Middle East and North Africa

Teaching the Middle East from University of Chicago

Edsitement Teaching Middle East Resources


PBS: Africa This is a series of online tools, lesson plans and

Exploring Africa from Michigan State University

Transatlantic Slave Map Animation This would be a powerful hook to connect students to the impact enslaved persons had on the culture and traditions of various regions throughout the world, showing both where people were taken from and where they were sold into slavery.

Transatlantic Slave Trade Database

Subsaharan African Resource list from Library of Congress

East Asia

EAGLE East Asia Gateway from University of Pittsburgh

Film: The Way Home

Book: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

East Asia Resource List from Library of Congress


Taking Action Ideas

  • Deforestation of Rainforest: Students source sustainable products and communicate to parents and peers how to boycott goods that further destruction
  • Clean Water: Participate in fundraising or raising awareness for individuals in areas without potable water
  • Oil: Students examine the relationship of oil and other resources to conflicts in the Middle East. How can US consumers play a role? How do other policies impact the need for overseas oil?
  • Immigration: Have students take a stand on US immigration policy and research policies related to various regions.
  • Maternal Health considerations: Students learn about how mothers in Africa can improve medical care to avoid stigma and improve infant mortality rate. www.halfthesky.org
  • What other ideas do you or your students have? What issues come up as you work with students?

Students in Pittsburgh packed medical supplies for doctors traveling to medical clinics in Honduras



Diving into the Writing Workshop

Today I am fortunate to share some of my experiences with the Writing Workshop with an excellent group of colleagues in Barkhamsted, CT.  My message will be that with the writing workshop, we can give bursts of explicit instruction with mini-lessons, but the bulk of the time is given for students to explore themselves and WRITE! If you think of swim practice, you probably don’t see the team sitting on the edge of the pool for the whole practice while the coach is talking. They need to get in the water, refine their strokes, build the muscle memory! This is the aim of the writing workshop. It is a challenge, but it is one that will pay dividends although at times you may feel like your head is barely above water. (I am into the metaphors… no apologies).

Below, I am including some links and information I am sharing with the group throughout today’s session. More to come in future posts, especially related to specific units of study.

Diving in to Writing Workshop Presentation

Informational Mentor Texts Craft Chart (example)

Two Writing Teachers Blog

Columbia Digital Texts & Series

Mini Lesson Planning Template

Throughout the day I am happy to update this list and ensure we have all of the resources we need to do our best work. In addition, I am available to support you through this journey, just a click away!

Be well,


Primary Students + Primary Sources= Excitement!

As a passionate teacher of social studies, I find that when my kids use the process of inquiry to generate questions and conduct research, they are far more engaged in history. Encouraging use of evidence and effective reasoning are important skills for 21st century learners, and generating theories about the past using the sources allow students to do just that. This evening, I am planning to present my first webinar for the National Council for the Social Studies with the idea of spreading more information about how I have worked with primary sources in my classroom. Here is my attempt:

Synthesizing all of my learning into what should fit into some Google Slides has proved a challenge, but I have given it a shot. In order to effectively use primary sources with elementary aged students, there are a few core rules I always follow:

1. Know more than just the tip of the iceberg

When you use primary docs with kids, it leads to them wanting to know more. Unlike using a traditional social studies text, where a teacher could potentially cram the night before to have students answer the questions, primary docs

2. Encourage Close Reading & “Can-Do” Attitude

When reading primary docs, especially those written, kids have a difficult time getting used to the print, colloquialisms and complexity. I always tell my students that sometimes even historians can expect not to understand all, but that often docs can be a jumping off point to find out more.  Sometimes reading a document means trying to piece together bits and pieces of what they are learning. Close reading is an excellent strategy for doing this work. For more information about how you can use the close reading strategy with primary sources, see my example of a Close Reading Plan for Patrick Henry’s Speech from CTCorestandards.org.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 3.41.32 PM3. Build Vocabulary and Background

I often introduce a TIP chart (Terms, Information & Pictures) when I begin with the mini-lecture at the beginning of my inquiry lesson. I teach key words that students will need to use  accountable talk and connect a gesture to go with it as well.

4. Model Strategies for Analyzing Sources

I have used the SOAP method that I first learned at a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar for analyzing primary source documents, and since finding how helpful that was with students, I developed acronyms for use with looking at pictures and material culture as well. In order to look at pictures, I teach kids the DOQ method, which stands for Divide the picture into quadrants, Observe the objects, landscapes & people, and Question to find out the perspectives and other research needed to understand. The DOQ method is based on a graphic organizer I found on the National Archives website. In order to look at object, I developed a mneumonic device for students to remember different steps to take, using CHARTS. Think about the Creator, How the object was used, the Audience (who used it), the Reason for use, the Time it was used, and include a Sketch of the object. Using these strategies as an anchor can help students get more out of the experience, and these methods can be simplified and modified based on the level of your students.

5. Think Outside the Archives

You may think that primary sources are limited to what can be found on the Library of Congress website or a university database. Depending on your unit of study, your students and families can be a great source for docs as well. You may find that an old library card, report card or inventory list can be a great starting point for a unit for youngsters on school. Perhaps one of your colleagues is a Revolutionary War buff, or your local historical society has a treasure trove of letters from citizens written during the Civil War. I found boxes and boxes of articles, pictures and documents about my school throughout the last fifty years that turned out to be perfect for our third grade unit on local history in a box in the back of a cabinet! You never know what you may find if you do a little digging!

6. Don’t forget material culture

Today, I worked with third graders to analyze artifacts such as a sock darning egg, a camera from 1950 and a series of bobbins from our local (now defunct) long underwear mill and factory. The rich conversations and hilarious interpretations brought joy and curiosity, and made them a little more eager to listen to some information about what all of these objects were about.  As a teacher at a summer camp in my town’s historical society, I find having access to things like corn dryers and musket balls can help students engage more fully in a lesson. Even things you can find at your grocery store or museum shop can lend a sense of occasion to a lesson. Civil War? Bring in some hard tack and let them try it. Learning about the silk road and the age of Exploration? Try smelling the various spices that were so coveted during this time.

In what ways do you think teachers need to prepare in order to engage students with inquiry in Primary Source documents?

Dr. King & the Labor of Public Education

MLK1 In March 1968, DR. Martin Luther King spoke to Local 1199 and spoke his famous words, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” This quote is widely used, and if pulled out of context there is an optimism and openness that brings hope.   This speech also outlined, however, the “two Americas” and the similarities to what all working people want and need. He spoke of  “conditions in which families that can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community.” Today is not just a day to post a meme or a quote about Dr. King’s life and legacy, although I have enjoyed the mighty words coming through my social media feed. For me, this day is about examining the labor I am doing and how it can be uplifting or oppressive to others. As a public school teacher, I am fortunate to feel at this point in my career supported by colleagues and administration, able to creatively engage my students in a variety of ways, and to pursue my passion of teaching history and language arts with the needs of all students in mind. I can work to make sure this is the case in all schools across our state and in our nation, and I have committed to honoring Dr. King’s legacy by :

  • Supporting emphasis on civics, economics, history and geography in all public schools across the nation. Children need to be prepared for civic life, understand economic advantages and disadvantages, and understand the world and their place in it.  The danger of marginalizing the social sciences is not just missing out on dates and facts. In Connecticut, I was fortunate to work with a group of educators who have responded to this with a policy statement on social studies instruction and a frameworks document that allows for local control but encourages a more multi-faceted look of the history of the country and our world.
  • Listening to the stories of people. I am trying to seek out opportunities for myself and my children to extend their view of the world and what “is”. We move beyond our neighborhood sometimes, taste different flavors. I am working hard to “try on” another opinion for a few hours and decide why someone might think that way. I am learning to honor others’ truths & encouraging my children and students to do the same.
  • Learning more about my own racial and cultural identity and how it shapes my world view. This is in the hope that I can identify when others might have a different viewpoint. Students are in the most difficult position in this scenario, but being open to understanding where my students are coming from is imperative. I have found the work of Dr. Bill Howe on Multicultural Education to be particularly helpful with this work. Understanding culturally responsive teaching is a great place to begin.
  • Not just “being a voice” for students living in poverty and students of color but teaching with high expectations for all and fostering a safe classroom environment and a responsive school culture that will ensure when they leave my classroom and our district they will be able to speak for themselves.

I am not sure if I am going about this the right way. I do know that I want the work that I do to help rather than hinder. I want to excite a child, light a spark, and be part of a solution rather than the problem. How do you honor the legacy of Dr. King in your classroom?


Teach the Small Things

Recently, I read an article about the use of digital technology in the classroom. I loved the way the authors outlined all of the important ways we can and should apply technological tools to raise the level of student achievement. The use of technology is authentic: in my work life, I rely on my computer to develop content, peruse new information related to my field, and connect with other like-minded (and otherwise) people in education to gain a broader understanding.

iphoneoct14 021

It made me think about the ice cream cone. One way to reduce laundry and hassle might be to spoon feed my son this summer treat, but sometimes, the best way to learn to eat an ice cream cone is to just eat an ice cream cone with someone you love by your side. It can get messy! With some gentle reminders, feedback and modeling (Lick the sides! Eat the top first! That’s the way!) we get better and better at it. The most important thing is that we are learning new things all the time as we discover the world, while doing something that we enjoy.

In my work with teachers and students, I find that lessons involving technology can be extremely engaging and powerful, or they can serve to fit a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. There are many teachers who are understandably scared of the management that will happen when you plan your entire lesson around a tech tool. The idea of “it gets messy” can be very uncomfortable. Others might feel that with so much to cover, taking time to explicitly teach individual skills that are specific to a device, application, or task might detract from other subjects.  Many of us assume that kids get so much screen time at home and they are better with the technology that we are. This may be true, especially in the sense that often show willingness to discover and play when handed a new device. Their open mind and natural curiosity is a springboard. However, my two year old son has a natural inclination to flip books, point to words, name them, and turn pages. He likes to discover what he can about these important tools. Yet I wouldn’t for a minute think that this would be the only instruction he would get over the next few years.

To teach readers, we let them explore books that are carefully chosen. Then, we take a more directed approach to teaching skills necessary to discover more about books and reading. Sorting out for students all of the things they need to know about the world is a HUGE job, and is best done by both  teachers and parents. I give my daughters and students feedback on their computer based tasks, teach  tricks and tips, have them watch me manage frustration with a platform,  and let them explore.  In the future, their ability to decide when they don’t know something and then find out where they can go to get the answer will be a useful skill that doesn’t have to take time away from your lesson on punctuation. Who’s to say they can’t have a tab open with a grammar rules references site, just as many professionals might? {author’s note: just looked up something on the GrammarGirl website to improve that last paragraph.}

Lessons on specific skills & strategies and sometimes just one-to-one conferences about the little tricks and trips that YOU find helpful to you as a reader. Some of the “mini-lessons” that I have done, or seen, that have helped students move forward more confidently in order to apply the learning goals to the new technology might have looked like this:

  • a mini-lesson on how to use tab, center, justify and align keys embedded into a mini-lesson in the writing workshop on paragraphing
  • one-on-one conferring about how to cut & paste during the revision process
  • Whole group “exploration” time to show tips and tricks when working with a new device
  • Partner coaching session on web browsing: back button, bookmarking, and tabs
  • Explicit instruction through developing anchor charts for web research

image comes from Scholastic.com, with another awesome article on Teaching Reliable Sources and Citations

Classrooms where students feel confident in their ability to troubleshoot, but are also led by educators  willing to use trial & error, model, discuss and teach the “little things” are excellent places to promote the skills students will need in the 21st century.

Tech Tools for Inquiry in the Social Studies Classroom

I am so excited to present today at the Connecticut Educators Computer Association Conference! If you are joining me for the hands on workshop, please use this link to access the google presentation which we will use throughout our session.

Today I will mainly focus on creating materials for classroom use with Google Apps, with some other implications and ideas from PBWorks, Survey Monkey & TodaysMeet, based on your interests and needs as developed by this survey. Stay tuned as I will update this post with some additional information based on what we are not able to cover during the session. Feel free to comment here with follow up questions!

Interactive Notebooks

Many years ago I heard a fact about retention of information that really stuck with me. Basically, the argument was when you HEAR it, you retain the least. When you HEAR & SEE you retain more, and when you HEAR, SEE & READ you learn even more but the best way to improve learning would be to HEAR, SEE, READ & DO. While I think there is a time and place for teachers to present information orally, learning about how little is retained from simply standing up and talking really changed my teaching. Now, I make sure I have an anchor chart or presentation file with words and pictures to go along with every lesson, and I always write directions on the board as well. The tricky part, however, was learning to apply the principle of participation. How can we get students to become more engaged in their learning?

Learning Recall Related to Type of Presentation

Presentation Ability to Recall
after 3 hours after 3 days
Spoken lecture 25% 10-20%
Written (reading) 72% 10%
Visual and verbal (illustrated lecture) 80% 65%
Participatory (role plays, case studies, practice) 90% 70%

Adapted from: Dale 1969.


graph from http://changingminds.org/explanations/learning/active_learning.htm

Inspired by my fifth grade teammate Mrs. K, I went looking for some more information about interactive notebooks. This teacher was using interactive notebooks in science and social studies with great success, and I wanted to see what all of the fuss was about. I found this blog post with a clear outline of the possibilities for interactive notebooks, and I was impressed by the way it set up a simple routine for a class period. If we were doing a fifth grade social studies for example, a teacher could activate prior knowledge through the “in” activity and then use the right side for students to record notes and information throughout the lesson. I use a “mini-lecture” approach, where I take the meat and potatoes of the content for the day and present them so that students will have just enough background to engage in the inquiry activity. I have been working on third grade lessons related to economics, and so I thought one way of using this would be:

1. “IN” activity – I try to develop a success starter where students find something to relate today’s learning to their lives. For a lesson on imports and exports, students could examine the tags on their shirts to see where they were made in the world. We could have a brief discussion about how kids think their clothing got to them, activating prior knowledge.

2. Mini-lecture- now that I have found out a little about what they know, I might fill in the gaps with some information about today’s vocabulary. Defining words, usually with a TIP chart (both this and the success starter idea comes from Suzy Pepper Rollins’ book Learning in the Fast Lane.)

3. “Out” activity- this is where students apply their learning and think about the concepts. I might have students write a short paragraph outlining how a product gets to a buyer and asking students to use vocabulary words like import and export. This is also a way for me to continually assess.

4. Bridges to tomorrow- the final and most important part of the Interactive notebook is that students should be coached to examine their notes daily. I encourage kids to use a different color pen or highlighter to go back through and record insights and questions. Getting VERY excited the first time a student says, “I was looking at my notebook last night and wanted to know…” will make this much easier.

image from https://bvogtstechniquesforsuccess.wikispaces.com/Interactive+Notebooks

*A note on assessment: Interactive notebooks DO require immediate feedback, but much of this can be done through in class partnerships, or table check ins with groups. To assure student quality and take a look at growth over time, I do often collect & reflect. Rather than taking all of the notebooks home at once, I try to take 5 or so books home at night to check over the last few nights, seeing everyone once per week.

How do you use interactive notebooks? What other ways have you found to keep students engaged and accountable for their learning?


Best Back-to-School Interactive Read Aloud Books

Finding the perfect book when you haven’t gotten to know your class can be daunting, so I have compiled a list of my favorite read alouds that can help teachers start the school year by getting kids “hooked” on reading.  Some of the things I look for in great start-of-the-year read alouds include:

  • Realistic Fiction, which can illustrate what students are thinking and feeling as we start the year
  • A mix of compelling characters to whom all kids can relate
  • Teacher role models that set the tone for the year
  • Humor, Humor, Humor!

Check out my list and use the comments section to add more about your favorite read aloud!

Sahara Special by Esme Raji Codell (F/P level S, DRA 40, Lexile 660)

This story is told in the first person by Sahara, a young girl who is held back and getting ready to repeat fifth grade. I love this book because the author integrates powerful stories in the dialogue between teachers and students, demonstrates some of the difficulty in navigating the social scene in elementary school, and integrates characters’ journal entries into the story. The characters are so compelling and full of sass and humor which helps to win over the class quickly. I have started my year with this book frequently and refer to the lessons embedded throughout the year. We feel like we are really in Miss Poitier’s class (Miss Pointy for short) when she explains her routines and says things like “I’m the meanest teacher this side of the Missisipppi!” The first few chapters segue perfectly into explaining routines you may use or will want to borrow from Miss Pointy, like journaling and the “trouble box”. We overhear as the class discusses stories like Aesop’s Fables, which will in turn spark interest in new reading, and most importantly provides so much fodder for discussion in your own class. I cannot recommend this book enough!

Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos (F/P Level T, DRA 50, Lexile 800)

We meet Joey in the summer and find out a little bit about how this charming young man gets into so much trouble. The author candidly voices Joey’s frustration with his attention, medication, and high levels of energy. Humor is infused throughout and a teacher can have a lot of fun reading Joey’s phrenetic narration. As a teacher, I benefit from this inside-the-mind glimpse of a boy who wants so desperately to be “good” and struggles with self-perception, changes in family, and his own uniqueness. With so many opportunities for inferring and for students to make deep connections to the stories of this loveable character, your students will want more and thankfully can meet Joey again in subsequent titles.

Shredderman #1: Secret Identity by Wendelin Van Draanin (F/P Level S, DRA 40, Lexile 520)

Nolan is the quintessential “good kid” who makes it clear he wants nothing but to get good scores on his math quizzes and stay out of trouble. However, he harnesses the power of technology to get back at class bully Bubba Bixby after getting a brainstorm from a class project assigned by the guitar playing teacher, Mr. Green. Includes themes of justice, breaking the rules for the sake of helping others, and root causes of bullying and the best ways to stop it.

The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron (F/P level N, Lexile 520, DRA 30)

This book is a series of vignettes about a young man named Julian with a vivid imagination and a wild series of adventures. This is a classic loved by many and can be used in sections or chapters based on student need and class timing. I recommend this for younger elementary students, especially if getting to a larger chapter book seems like a challenge for your kids. The short stories can stand alone if you go a few days in between read aloud days or if your kids are working on following a longer story arc.

Junie B. First Grader: Boss of Lunch by Barbara Park (F/P level M, DRA 24, Lexile 330)

Who doesn’t love Junie B.? A funny and realistic character who is highly affected by the perceived injustices in her world. This is one of my favorites to start the year because lunchtime is such a desired time of day for my students! Respect for teachers, wanting what others have, and sharing priviledges are all themes for discussion. I also use it to spark a discussion on what it means  to be “in trouble” vs. what it means to receive feedback from others and how to take both in stride.


Authentic Writers, Real Writing

I was fortunate to present professional development to a group of teachers a few weeks ago and have been reflecting on their work and the process since. During our session, we spoke about the implications of the Common Core and how our teaching has shifted to meet the new standards.
Wordle: Authentic Writers, Real Writing
One of the main goals of my presentation was to share with teachers how our own writing experiences can shape the way we teach, and putting ourselves in our students’ shoes can assist with creating an environment that encourages creativity and supports all students.  Here are some ideas I shared to assist with “hooking” ourselves and our students on the writing process:

  • Taking some time as teachers to write for pleasure, or write for the same purpose as your students. Want them to learn persuasive? Show them the Op Ed you sent to the local paper. Starting a new poetry unit? Share your own.
  • Let them write WHATEVER at first. I make sure to include “free write” time as much as possible in the classroom. I tell the kids on the first day of school that the only rule is that your pencil needs to be moving. They can write lyrics to their favorite song, a poem, story or play, or just write “I don’t know what to write”. Muscle memory is a powerful thing, and by the end of the year they are working on a variety of pieces and asking more more time to “free write”.
  • Make writing real. Writing literature reviews? Publish them on Amazon.com.  Send letters to the board of education. Working on narrative techniques? Have them write out Fan Fiction based on a favorite game or show. Examine poorly written tweets that get bad press to prove the importance of coherent thought. It is a wonderful time to be an educator.
  • Meet kids where they are. Find out how to integrate their interests & passions. Get kids writing compare and contrast paragraphs by comparing the Wii U and the Xbox Kinect. I once tried to prove the point that you can “flash draft” with little or no research by challenging my students to think of a topic that I would know NOTHING about and betting them that I could write a full paragraph. So? I did write… about World Wrestling Entertainment. They were rolling on the floor laughing as I mentioned The Rock (I guess he has been Dwayne Johnson for a while now?). It might have been the worst paragraph I’ve ever written, but it proved my point.
  • Read. Encourage your students to read. Read in front of your students. Read the stuff your students are reading. If that means Pokemon graphic novels or dystopian YA, so be it. Just READ. Steven King does a great job explaining the critical link for writers as readers below:

Teaching writing is causing a spark to ignite. How do you help ignite a passion for writing with your students?