Pizzo to Receive 2020 National Educator of the Year Award

Seventh grade language arts teacher Joseph S. Pizzo was selected for this top honor from the Association for Middle Level Education

August 11, 2020

COLUMBUS, OH – Joseph S. Pizzo, a seventh grade integrated language arts teacher and co-director of drama at Black River Middle School, Chester, New Jersey, was selected to receive the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) 2020 Educator of the Year Award. The award, supported by the AMLE Foundation Fund, recognizes outstanding practitioners in middle level education—those who have made a significant impact on the lives of young adolescents through exemplary leadership, vision, and advocacy. The award will be presented as part of #AMLE20, the 47th Annual Conference for Middle Level Education, which is being held as a virtual professional learning experience, October 23-25, 2020.

“Teaching at the middle level takes a great deal of energy, patience, integrity, and flexibility, but the rewards are tremendous. We teachers make a great difference in the lives of our students, and our students make a great difference in our lives as well. Receiving the AMLE 2020 Educator of the Year Award is a great honor, and I accept it on behalf of all of my outstanding, dedicated colleagues in middle level classrooms across our great nation” said Pizzo.

Pizzo promotes student engagement through meaningful experiences, particularly those that honor each student’s culture and understanding of the world. He encourages creativity in his classroom and promotes a sense of pride and accomplishment as he shares students’ work with local newspapers and community groups. Pizzo generously offers his time in support of other educators, whether at his school, at workshops, for state-level projects and initiatives, or as a volunteer for the many professional organizations he belongs to.

Pizzo was named the 2016 New Jersey Association for Middle Level Education (NJAMLE) Teacher of the Year, and is an executive board member of NJAMLE. He is part of the New Jersey Schools to Watch Review and Evaluation Core Team, has served on the board for the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), has served as a member of the NJDOE’s Council for Teaching and Learning and the Education Committee for Future Ready Schools, and is a member of the Digital Literacies Collaborative at Drew University (formerly at Fordham University). An adjunct professor at Centenary University who has also taught at College of Saint Elizabeth and Union County College and a member of the NJ Autism Think Tank, Pizzo helps prepare future teachers and aspiring writers. He was inducted into the WWOR-TV Ch. 9 A+ for Teachers Hall of Fame on a show broadcast internationally. Pizzo received a grant from the Chester Education Foundation to have a published author and illustrator in residency at his school for a week to brainstorm book and story ideas with students, one of whom has written her own novel. He has recorded podcasts; written blogs, books, and poetry; made promotional and educational videos; and started an Edmodo group for language arts educators that generated a global following.

According to Black River Middle School Principal Andrew White, “He is kind, generous, and involved in all the students’ lives. Mr. Pizzo goes out of his way to mentor and work with struggling students as well as push those high caliber writers in his classroom. Mr. Pizzo provides support and opportunities for his students that are greatly appreciated by the teachers, families, and community of Chester.”

Nolan Cheng, a former student, said, “I learned not just academics from him, but also just how important it is to be proactive in making other people’s lives around me better. I have been very inspired by just his ability to see the needs of both his students and those around him. It is because of him that I do so much in my community and that I am always aware of the needs of others around me.”

According to AMLE Chief Executive Officer Stephanie Auditore, “We’re proud to honor Joseph Pizzo for his dedication to serving his students with respect for their individual needs at this critical time of life. Mr. Pizzo embodies the spirit of excellence in middle level education and is an example to all who aspire to have a positive impact on young adolescents.”


About the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE)
The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) helps middle grades educators reach every student, grow professionally, and create great schools. A membership association with more than 54,000 teachers, principals, counselors, and others as members, AMLE provides professional learning and networking opportunities to those who work with students ages 10–15. www.amle.org www.amle.org/annual

Media Contact
April Tibbles | AMLE Chief Communications Officer | 800-528-6672 | atibbles@amle.org

Author: AMLE
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How Do You Spell Student Success? G-r-o-w-t-h

How Do You Spell Student Success? G-r-o-w-t-h

A teacher team shares ideas for tapping into student engagement to promote growth

In room E8, at Northside Middle School in Roanoke County, Virginia, we view student success as a significant growth over previous math achievement scores. What does significant growth entail, you might ask? We often wonder as well! In our collaborative class, whether face-to-face or virtually, success is measured by growth on a student-bystudent basis, and it’s measured on a class-by-class basis. Success also includes the growth of each student's emotional learning by gaining independence and decision-making skills. When students belong to a group in which their input and achievement are valued, students’ self-esteem increases and peer collaboration flourishes.

In room E8, there is usually a rumble of activity. If there is relative quiet, either we are testing or we have taken our class to another location for an activity that requires more space than our classroom offers. Some might call this level of daily activity undisciplined; the eighth grade math team of BensonVoss calls it engagement. In August of 2017, Amber Benson and Ruby Voss, both new to Roanoke County, were paired together and vowed to use this level of student engagement to promote growth. We continue to rely on active student engagement, without regard to the method of delivery. We have found that our students respond to energetic and imaginative methods whether they are in class or online.

In room E8, our primary focus is to teach our students how to think independently, how to ask meaningful questions, and how to choose answers deliberately. We accomplish these things by embracing data-driven instruction and by teaching our students to embrace data-driven learning. Our weekly tests are a mix of previously taught skills and new information. We analyze the data collected from our Friday assessments, and we use it to make decisions for the following week. Our homework, focus, and exit questions rely on this crucial information. This careful analysis of student results and data-driven instruction promotes student ownership and growth. Finally, we present this data to our classes at our Monday data meetings. Our classes learn to read line graphs and follow their progress in learning the curriculum. After the discussion of data, we review the topics in which students demonstrate less than a 70% success rate. Each student scoring under 70% receives individualized feedback and the opportunity to redo and discuss questions they missed on the previous week's test.

In room E8, we teach our students independence by providing all class information on Blackboard. If a student is absent, they can find the day's activities, notes, assignments, and instructional videos on Blackboard; therefore, there is never a reason to be behind. We have recorded more than 300 instructional videos over the past two years that are available on our YouTube channel. These videos are available for remote instruction, remediation, homework help, and test preparation. Our newest effort to teach our students independence is the use of QR codes on class notes and weekly homework. QR codes allow immediate access to "help" by linking to appropriate videos on our channel.

In room E8, we teach our students how to ask meaningful questions by challenging their current understanding of mathematics and by encouraging them to strive for a deeper understanding. We consistently teach beyond the Math 8 curriculum into additional algebraic and geometric concepts. A great example of this is our daily focus and exit activities, in which each of our classes engages in a friendly competition. Because it is a competition between classes, students have greater buy-in and ask questions to earn the highest class percentage possible. Not only do we ask students to solve problems in their focus activities, but we use the exit questions to teach decision-making skills. Exit questions ask students what the first step of a problem should be, to define vocabulary words, or to access prior knowledge. After two years of utilizing our focus/exit combination, we have seen a positive change in decision-making skills.

In room E8, we teach our students how to choose answers deliberately by encouraging them to consider important questions. Did I read the question carefully? Did I highlight important information? Does my answer make sense? Did I use previous knowledge? Did I use Desmos to its full potential? Our students are encouraged to work deliberately and never choose an answer without a good reason. Deliberate students will demonstrate growth. Guessing is not an option because guessing is not deliberate.

In room E8, on the second floor of Northside Middle School, we are a family. On March 16, 2020, our family was separated but we came together using technology. We continued to focus on student engagement and student growth. We continued to focus on teaching our students how to think independently, how to ask meaningful questions, and how to choose answers deliberately. We continued to celebrate our accomplishments and we built on our struggles. There is nowhere we would rather be, and each year keeps getting better.

Ruby Voss and Amber Benson (BensonVoss) are a collaborative math team at Northside Middle School, Roanoke, Virginia.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.
Author: Ruby Voss, Amber Benson
Number of views (97)/Comments (0)/
There’s Energy in the Air

There’s Energy in the Air

Using design thinking to prepare students to be leaders and changemakers

Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. These are the building blocks of the design thinking process, a process that has been accessed time and time again by successful start-ups and other businesses worldwide. According to David Kelly, founder of IDEO Design Thinking and partner, Tom Kelly, design thinking is a methodology that can be used to address a variety of personal, social, and business challenges in creative ways. As middle school educators, it is our responsibility to prepare our students for their future careers and to provide them with a toolkit of skills that address the challenges Kelly and Kelly speak of when they enter the competitive workplace as leaders and future changemakers.

Consider the following scenario: A start-up company is operating out of the home of its 24-year-old founder. Seven others are sitting or standing, coffee in hand, around two whiteboards, crammed in a small living room space. The whiteboards are covered with sticky notes and the sticky notes are filled with questions scribbled on them in various colors. Who are our customers? What are their needs relative to our product? How do we improve our customers’ lives? How do we improve our product? Do we create a new one? What were the results of our interviews? What are the common themes from the target demographic responses?

In no particular order each team member jumps up and jots something on the board then returns to their seat. What can be witnessed next are nods, agreements, respectful disagreements, consideration of ideas, and then…a “drop the mic” moment. All team members see it: the vision on the board. It is the inspiration that will kick the team off into the next two stages of the design thinking process—building their vision, or prototyping it, and then testing it out. As quickly as the gathering began, it ends. The founder remains while the others scatter in different directions. There is no formal assessment of the team members’ performance that morning. The proof is on the board and will be in the development of the ideas and data they bring to the next meeting.

Consider the design thinking process these eight individuals just took part in and the skills required to do so. Teamwork. Listening. Speaking. Critically thinking. Analyzing. Empathizing. Questioning. Creating. Arguably, these are skills all middle school educators should be embracing, modeling, and actively allowing their students to engage in throughout the school year. What if more classrooms embraced this model? What would learning look like? What would it sound like? How would learning change? How would our middle school learners change? Consider even, what would assessment look like?

Let’s move the design thinking process from the first scenario to our middle school classroom. It’s a Thursday morning in January. There are 28 kids and 1 teacher in an eighth grade science classroom. The class has just reached the end of a unit covering the environment, more specifically global warming. Questions such as: “What is my individual role as well as our whole group role in protecting the environment?” have been common discussion points throughout the unit. It’s time to assess the students’ knowledge. Enter the teacher and the design thinking challenge for the class: Take a closer look at our own school community. How can we improve the environment by changing our practices in this one building? Empathize: Who are we designing for? What are their needs? Research: Survey and interview friends, teachers, administration. Define the problem. Ideate and brainstorm! Prototype: Bring your ideas to life. And finally, test: Give the potential solutions a try!

What does a design thinking classroom model look like? Four whiteboards, many different colored markers, and sticky notes (small, large, different colors) are stationed throughout the room. Seven students make up a group and are assigned to each board. Seven kids huddle around each whiteboard. The teacher tasks the groups with assigning a leader who will refocus their group throughout the process. Words are quickly scribbled on the boards, circled, and even more added. Kids are constantly jumping up and down, moving to the board and sitting back down, standing by it, heads are turning to look at their competitors’ ideas.

What does a design thinking classroom model sound like? Loud but with purpose. There is excitement and energy in the air because 28 brains are being inspired to offer their knowledge and creativity to a common challenge. Their voices are being heard. How does the learning change in a design thinking model? Design thinking moves students beyond surface level “student-centered” classroom work into a different mindset, that of the workplace. Students no longer feel like just students; they are leaders, competitors, changemakers. There is opportunity to honor the various strengths of students in the classroom. Budding journalists get to interview school principals, students, and teachers. Mathematicians get to recognize patterns in the data and analyze it. Artists and engineers get to take the lead on prototyping and building potential solutions. And perhaps most important are the social-emotional relationships. Kids learn to listen to their peers, value what the other has offered, respectfully question, consider various points of view as a result of the process, and learn to work together as a team.

That’s great, you may be thinking, but how do we assess and grade this work? In his article, "The Next Revolution in Education: Design Thinking" (2019) Michael Shein interviews Sam Seidel, the director of K12 strategy and research at the Stanford d.school. Seidel comments that, “On average, a quarter of school days are spent on either test prep or actual tests each year. I’m not saying that assessments can’t be meaningful and valuable when done well, but… well, that brings us to the second big problem. These tests don't measure what most everyone agrees matters. It’s become a given that success in life requires being able to collaboratively solve problems. To think critically and creatively. To communicate effectively. That's not what these assessments are testing.” The skills Seidel suggests are worth measuring can be assessed in the scenario above. Accountability measures can be created for students throughout the design thinking process to both individually assess their performance as well as peer assess the members of their team. Teachers also have much more flexibility during design thinking activities to move around the room and informally assess groups. Presentations can be developed by each group when they complete the process to serve as one final assessment measure. And guess what, it’s OK if the final prototypes fail. This is yet another important lesson students learn by participating in design thinking activities. Imagine the potential power of a discussion about the great inventors and innovators of our time? Where would we be as a society if they simply stopped after their first try?

Introducing design thinking into our middle school classrooms not only prepares our students for the workplace and allows teachers to begin placing focus on the important skills of building empathy, developing critical thinking, and improving team collaboration, but just as important it inspires our students to develop the grit to keep trying despite failure. The potential for success and change might just pop up on the next sticky note that goes up on that board.

Jamie Silverman is a lecturer in the Department of Secondary and Middle School Education, Towson University, Towson, Maryland.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.
Author: Jamie Silverman
Number of views (114)/Comments (0)/
Building Students’ Civic Identities

Building Students’ Civic Identities

Analyzing presidential campaign messages to help students become informed citizens

During the middle school years, students are trying to figure out who they are. Their identities are malleable and constantly changing based on different life experiences. Social studies teachers need to utilize activities that build students’ civic identities and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be future democratic citizens (Clabough, 2017). One area of civic education where students need such learning opportunities is with deconstructing political media messages in presidential commercials.

In this article, I discuss ways social studies teachers can utilize presidential commercials to help students analyze political media messages. First, a brief overview of presidential commercials is provided. Presidential commercials contain multiple media tactics to gain support for a candidate while negatively framing an opponent. A graphic organizer with some analysis questions of these different media tactics is provided that can be used to help students deconstruct political messages within presidential commercials. Finally, two activities based on two of these media tactics are given. The steps and resources to implement these two activities are discussed.

Overview of Presidential Commercials

Presidential commercials have been a staple of campaigns since 1952. All of the presidential commercials from Republicans and Democrats can be accessed at Living Room Candidate, http://www. livingroomcandidate.org/. Presidential commercials help students examine how words and images are used to convey a candidate’s message. These messages contain the values, biases, and beliefs of candidates and their political parties (Mason, 2015). Sometimes, the commercial has these items in plain sight while at other times they are just below the surface. For this reason, social studies teachers need to set up learning opportunities to help students grasp the straightforward and subtle messages within presidential commercials. I provide two activities in the next sections to show how teachers can help middle school students analyze political messages within presidential commercials.

Judging the Vision

Presidential commercials often have different goals. Sometimes, they are designed to attack one’s opponent, while at other times a candidate is trying to articulate his or her vision for the United States. Social studies teachers need to set up opportunities for students to analyze these messages.

All presidential candidates articulate an argument for why they are running for the office and how their life experiences have prepared them. These reasons can vary from previous government experience to working in the business sector. Candidates use presidential commercials as the vehicle to convey these reasons to the electorate. The teacher can use “Country I Love” from Barack Obama in 2008 as an example, http://www.livingroomcandidate. org/commercials/2008. After students watch this commercial several times, they can complete the following questions. They utilize evidence from the commercial to support their responses.

  1. What kind of message does Obama articulate in this commercial?
  2. What qualifies Obama to be president from this commercial?
  3. What values will Obama bring to the White House if elected?

Then, the teacher guides a class discussion. The focus of this discussion should be students using evidence with phrases and images from the commercial to support their arguments. For example, the teacher may stress how Obama tries to connect his roots to the work he did in Chicago to help everyday Americans to demonstrate that he understands the needs of ordinary citizens. By examining examples like this, students deconstruct messages within commercials.

This class discussion prepares students for the presidential commercial judge activity. Many contemporary television shows use judges to evaluate the effectiveness of candidates: American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and Shark Tank. With this activity, students score the effectiveness of this presidential commercial to convey Obama’s vision for the country on a scale of 1-10. They also write a solid paragraph explaining their score by drawing on evidence from this commercial. This writing activity helps students articulate ways that candidates convey their vision for the country.

As an extension activity, the teacher can have students view multiple presidential commercials from both Republicans and Democrats that convey a vision for the country and score each commercial on a scale of 1-10. Then, they decide the best commercial from among the group. Some example commercials that may be used include Reagan’s 1984 “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” Clinton’s 1992 “Journey,” and Bush’s 2000 “Successful Leader.” This activity helps students deconstruct the ways candidates frame arguments using words and images. This sets up future class discussions to compare and contrast how both political parties convey different solutions to the country’s needs.

Mudslinging Like a Champ

One consistent element present throughout the history of presidential commercials is attack ads. Candidates attempt to undermine the messages and credentials of an opponent by framing his or her policies as bad for the country. These negative messages attempt to reframe the ways in which an opponent is viewed by the electorate.

While Barack Obama ran a more optimistic campaign in 2008, his reelection campaign in 2012 had a more negative tone. He consistently tried to paint Mitt Romney as an out of touch elite that only cared for the wealthy. There are several commercials that the teacher can use to capture ways the Obama campaign attempted to frame Romney such as “The Cheaters,” “47 Percent,” and “Big Bird.” This shows that all candidates rely on negative campaigning to some degree.

First, students watch “Big Bird” a couple of times to catch the ways that Romney is framed. Then, in groups or individually, students can focus on a different element of this commercial and answer the questions in the graphic organizer above. The completion of this graphic organizer requires research into issues of the 2012 presidential campaign.

The questions in this graphic organizer help students explore the reasons certain media messages are structured in particular ways.

Then, in a class discussion, groups or individuals can share the elements of the commercial that they analyzed and researched. This allows students to learn from their peers. The teacher focuses the discussion on the ways the Obama campaign used words and images from this commercial to paint Romney as only worrying about the wealthy. This activity builds students’ research skills as they contextualize issues within a campaign that drive an election cycle.


In this article, I provided two activities middle school teachers can implement to analyze political media messages in presidential commercials. These activities help students decode the ways words and images are organized to positively frame a candidate while undermining an opponent’s messages and policies. They can also be adapted to examine presidential commercials from other election cycles. These learning experiences prepare students to be responsible consumers of media by analyzing messages and then researching claims. With election cycles on any level, students are better prepared to make informed decisions about candidates and public policies to support (Engle & Ochoa, 1988).


Clabough, J. (2017). Helping develop students’ civic identities through exploring public issues. The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies, 78(2), 1-9.

Engle, S. & Ochoa, A. (1988). Education for democratic citizenship: Decision making in the social studies. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Mason, L. (2015). Media literacy: Analyzing political commercials. Social Studies Research and Practice, 10(2), 73-83.

Jeremiah Clabough, Ph.D., is an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Check out Dr. Clabough's book, When the Lion Roars Everyone Listens: Scary Good Middle School Social Studies, in the AMLE online store.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.
Author: Jeremiah Clabough, Ph.D.
Number of views (3)/Comments (0)/
Am I Part of the We in “We the People…”?

Am I Part of the We in “We the People…”?

Applying the Constitution to an eighth grader

“We the People of the United States…” Seven simple words. Words that were meant to bring unity to a young country that was floundering a bit in its early stages. Words that will get many adults (ages 35 and up) to begin humming a tune they learned as a child from Schoolhouse Rock. Words that most Americans today immediately connect to the United States Constitution, or is it the Declaration of Independence? No, no, it’s from the Constitution, right? Bottom line, we recognize the words, but do we really know what they mean?

To most eighth graders, the Constitution is just an old document that has something to do with our government. To be fair, they are correct on both accounts, but as a teacher of history, obviously I’d like to have them see it as something a little more significant. The struggle I face each year as I introduce the Constitution is in getting the students to identify and appreciate the historical significance of what the Constitution says, especially as it applied to the time it was created, of course, but also to see it in a more relevant and contemporary sense. You see, as I try to explain to my students, remembering who won the American Revolution might not save you in 2020, but knowing what rights are protected by the Fifth Amendment...well, that just might.

This has led me to teaching the Constitution in a different way over the past few years, trying to get the students to see that the founding fathers were writing this document not just for the citizens of the 18th century, but as something that would be able to stand the test of time. There was no blueprint for such a document; it needed to be specific enough that it would guarantee certain basic rights, but vague enough to encompass things like Internet privacy and same-sex marriage (things that probably weren’t at the forefront of James Madison’s thoughts). It was destined to be a living document that could be amended, but not so easily that we would have 632 amendments convoluting the overall essence of what the document stood for. This was a tall task, but an exciting one as well.

So, after taking a long look at how I had taught the Constitution in the past, I decided to condense my teaching on the historical background of the Constitution. Providing background information on what the intentions of the document originally were and the historical circumstances that surrounded the creation of the document is certainly important. However, what I thought was more important was to dedicate the majority of my time in the unit helping my students understand that they were also considered in the “We” of We the People.

The Social Revolutions Project

The ensuing project became known as the Social Revolutions project in my classroom. After looking at some historic Supreme Court cases and identifying how many of the amendments had been used in the past to protect the rights of American citizens, I had the students start to list current issues that they thought were violations of American’s rights. Often these brainstorming sessions are dominated by issues that are currently in the news. This year was no different, with many students showing interest in mandatory vaccinations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and police brutality and social injustice triggered by George Floyd’s death. During the brainstorming sessions, I inevitably hear topics like cyber bullying, gun control, police brutality, and the legalization of certain drugs. I also get students that show a strong interest in discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender. For many of my students, it’s an opportunity to explore, in a safe environment, a topic that personally connects with them. It’s an opportunity for them to see how the Constitution could be used to protect their rights both now and down the road.

Focusing In

During our initial discussions about these topics, I ask students to pinpoint what it is about the status quo of these topics that they are upset about. This follows our common definition of what a revolution is (which is the theme of my class)...people must be upset with the status quo, have a better plan, and do what it takes to implement that better plan. The first part is easy. Most students have no problem identifying what they are upset about in their particular social revolution. The final two parts are where the research comes in. Being able to identify how we can rectify the violation of a certain group’s rights and then using Constitutional amendments and court precedent to implement the change, that’s where the real work begins.

Obviously, these topics are huge and it is easy to get lost in the research, so I try to narrow their focus to one researchable statement. Each student must follow the structured statement of, “Every American has the right to __ blank __ as a result of the __ blank__ amendment.” From here, I am able to eliminate the statement “Every American has a right to own a gun because I said so.” By adding the amendment and researching how it has been used in the courts over the years, this allows the students to see the Constitution, and the rights that it guarantees, as something that does in fact include them, as well as all Americans in the 21st century.

The Research

I’m fortunate to have a librarian in my building who also doubles as a research guru. In the past, we have tag-teamed the project, making sure that students have the resources available to help them find reliable and authoritative data to “build their case.” As we were thrust into the remote learning setting during the global pandemic, the research looked a little different. We maintained similar expectations in the research process, but instead of meeting in the library, students were sent to a resource landing page. This landing page provided usernames and passwords to the school-approved databases, as well as reliable news sources and organizations that may be useful during the research process. We continued to teach the how and why of research remotely, but did so over Loom recordings and during live Zoom classes. It was an adjustment for my students for sure, but to their credit, many of them rolled up their sleeves and dove into the research.

Although the students put together an individual final product, they often found themselves collaborating on similar topics. They continued the practice of sharing resources and information during the research process, it just looked a little different while remote learning. Students used breakout rooms during classes and were encouraged to carry on conversations about their topics with classmates on their own time as well. In the end, this is where much of the application of the information takes place. Listening to kids say things like, “...this is ridiculous...that’s such a violation of our rights…” or the conversations that involve one student explaining how a majority decision from a court case 50 years ago could be used as precedent for a situation happening in 2020. It’s the kind of stuff that puts a smile on my face and provides the reassurance that this project is working.

Student Presentations

The final presentations for this project usually involve students standing in front of their peers and providing a public service announcement of sorts. In remote learning, this took on a slightly different look. Instead of standing in front of their peers to present, the students were asked to prepare a Loom presentation with visuals (infographics, powerful images, tables, or charts) to present their research to the class. They aren’t necessarily trying to convince each other that their side of the issue is the right side, just trying to explain their perspective backed with some Constitutional evidence on a social revolution happening today. This actually brings up a great opportunity to teach the phrase (and the belief behind it) “I think that we are going to have to agree to disagree…” Teaching perspective, and that there are often two sides to every story, is a big part of teaching American History in eighth grade.

By the end of the project, I always reach out to my students through a survey and have them provide feedback. Although I ask them questions like “Do you think you had enough time to work on this project?” and “How would you have attacked this project differently if you were given a chance to redo it?” The most valuable question for me is my final question: “What was the most important thing that you learned from this project?” I’m always impressed with the answers my students provide. Many students mention their frustration with events that are happening in the world around us, but that they now feel they have knowledge and a solid defense to fight back. Many leave the unit with a fire that doesn’t get extinguished just because the project is over. They are revolutionaries now with knowledge and a powerful defense...the Constitution. You see, the Constitution can just be an old document, written by a bunch of old people, dealing with old issues, or it can be used as a forceful tool to initiate change in the world today. My students learn to think of it in the latter.

Kevin DuRoss is chair of the middle school history department at Detroit Country Day Middle School, Beverly Hills, Michigan.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.
Author: Kevin DuRoss
Number of views (6)/Comments (0)/
Exploring Socially Conscious Themes

Exploring Socially Conscious Themes

A structured activity that engages students in critical thinking through meaningful conversation

When considering exploring socially conscious themes with middle school students, including such topics as racial and social inequality, poverty, environmental protection, and LGBTQ rights amongst many others, there is a gap in the research and in the practical methodology of creating inclusive environments rich in dialogue specifically for the young adolescent learner (grades 4 - 8). This article outlines a method that encourages student exploration of the relevant socially conscious theme of integrity. As they engage in lively and authentic dialogue, ultimately reaching new levels of critical thinking, students apply understandings in ways that can help them make a difference in themselves, their peers, their community, and the world.

The theme of integrity was selected because it aligns with the pillars of social-emotional learning (SEL); with the Peace Literacy initiative goal to, “make good decisions, take effective actions…” (https:// www.peaceliteracy.org/); and with AMLE’s core value of integrity in practicing inclusive and courageous behaviors. While powerful for teaching the theme, this lesson is transferable for use with other socially conscious and equally important themes. This transferability allows teachers flexible and diverse opportunities for implementation.

Socially Conscious Theme of Integrity

Young adolescents may “begin to exhibit the ‘I don’t care’ attitude right around the glorious middle school years” (Werner-Burke et al, 2012, p. 45), thus providing an opportunity to integrate learning experiences in which learners can develop the tools to begin looking beyond themselves. Acting with integrity is one such way to do so. Integrity requires alignment between one’s behavior and moral/social values over time and across social contexts (Dunn, 2009). A person acts with integrity by making decisions and taking action in ways that uphold the interests and well-being of the community. Social consciousness embodies integrity.

Authentic Dialogue

Student motivation to fully engage in an inclusive environment is heightened when, through dialogue, learners realize that all voices are accepted and expected. “Students need to experience and learn to appreciate how conversation can spiral, leading them to higher quality ideas and actions when they truly listen to each other and reflect upon what others are saying” (Shanklin, 2010, p. 64).

Structured discussion strategies like Snowballing (Brookfield and Preskill, 2016), guide learners as they build on initial ideas, thoughts, and perceptions through scaffolded collaboration and reflection. Beginning with independent reflection, learners respond to prompts, then share their initial thinking in pairs, then move into progressively larger groups. At each stage, theme understanding “become[s] expanded, deepened, and reconfigured as the group size increases” (p. 49).

Critical Thinking

Strategies like Snowballing foster student teamwork and collaboration, heightening learners’ critical thinking. Because learning is a social and cultural process in which knowledge is co-constructed (Vygotsky, 1978), collaboration and dialogue are key to deepened understanding. Together, learners move beyond their surface understanding of a theme. By intensifying their critical thinking, learners reflect on their own actions and those of others, ultimately exemplifying the theme through meaningful action.

Integrity: The Lesson

In this modified version of Snowballing, students explore integrity by identifying a character or historical figure’s implicit and explicit traits. They develop metaphors that describe the character or historical figure’s integrity and use metaphors as a rich discussion tool. Students simultaneously make connections, engage in higher level thinking, use dialogue to explain thinking, and are afforded the opportunity to deflect their own experiences onto that of the character or historical figure.

Step 1

Explain that all individuals explicitly and implicitly reveal their integrity through their thoughts, speech, decisions, and actions. Several reflective and analytical questions can be asked to identify traits that illustrate integrity. To assist learners in identifying these as they read independently, in small groups, or as a whole class, provide guiding prompts, such as:

What do you notice about the character/historical figure?

  • Explicit What does the character say? Note the character’s actions. Document the decisions made. Describe how integrity is or is not demonstrated.
  • Implicit Chronicle the character’s decision-making process. Identify how the character changes over time. What doesn’t the character say? How does the character reflect on his or her actions?
Step 2

Structure the next steps by starting with student pairs. Remind students of the theme: integrity. Independently, learners answer the prompts and provide evidence from the text.

Step 3

Move students into pairs to share their individual prompt responses and work collaboratively to generate a list of traits both explicit (speech and actions) and implicit (thoughts and decisions). For example, the pair could describe a character or historical figure as being confident (explicit), fair (explicit), egocentric (implicit), and having a sense of justice (implicit).

Step 4

Grow the snowball once the pairs have had ample time to collaboratively generate a list of explicit and implicit character traits by reconvening the whole class. While pairs share out, document their ideas for all to see, including their rationale for each trait, and textual evidence.

Step 5

With the list of traits generated, melt the snowball by directing the original pairs of students to join another pair, making a group of four. Ask each group of four to choose a trait either from the whole-class list or one of their own choosing and to brainstorm and select a metaphor that can be used to fully explore the theme. Using large chart paper, the group then creates a visual representation of that trait using their selected metaphor. They clarify and provide reasoning for how the metaphor represents integrity. For example, to illustrate a character or historical figure that rises above ego-centrism a group could use the metaphor of eyeglasses. The initial use of eyeglasses could then be extended by explaining that a person visits an optometrist to obtain an accurate prescription just as a person who acts with integrity may consult with a trusted individual to ensure they are seeing a person or situation clearly and are therefore responding in a way that shows integrity.

Step 6

After displaying their visual representation, each small group shares their metaphor and rationale with the whole class. Group members collaborate to make the explicit connection between their selected metaphor and the theme of integrity. While students actively listen, they hear the varying metaphors presented by other groups and subsequently build upon their understanding of the theme. These discussions can help students extend their own metaphor, clarifying, and broadening their perception of what integrity is. This, in turn, will influence and hone their skills in connecting the theme to real life experiences and decisions.

Step 7

Melt the snowball again by having students engage in individual reflection to internalize what it means to have integrity in future real-life situations as they become change-agents in their own and other’s lives. To clarify and teach deep reflection, model it by conducting a think aloud linking one of the metaphors to a situation in your own life in which you experienced or acted with integrity.

Once the process reflecting is modeled, provide quiet uninterrupted think time for the students to process and informally journal about their personal connection to any one of the metaphors displayed in the room. This time affords students the opportunity to sort through meaningful situations in their own lives where they have been faced with a choice that required or compromised their integrity.

Step 8 (optional)

As desired, ask students to share their connection to the theme with a small group. If incorporating this step, it is important to inform students that they may be sharing before they journal. It is also important that inclusive classroom practices are in place where all listen without judgement and do not interrupt as others share. While sharing, students may choose a safe word such as “pass” if they prefer not to reveal the situation they journaled about.

The powerful layering of theme and metaphor using visuals, high-order thinking, listening, speaking, reading, writing, and reflection creates a lesson that guides students to a deepened understanding of the theme. This understanding enhances one’s ability to self-assess, reflect, and respond to situations with integrity.


When teachers empower students by teaching socially conscious themes through structured activities like Snowball and the development of metaphors, they provide an opportunity to explore, question, and connect to the ideas of others through purposeful dialogue. Actively participating in authentic dialogue about what integrity is and how characters and historical figures do or do not exhibit integrity extends critical thinking skills, engages learners in meaningful conversation, creates an avenue for students to reflect on their own integrity, and bolster's a young adolescent's desire to positively impact the world.


Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (2016). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dunn, C. (January, 2009). Integrity matters. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/ publication/267699187_Integrity_matters

Shanklin, N. (2010) Inventing your way into highquality student discussions. Voices in the Middle. 18(2), 63-65.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Werner-Burke, et al (2012). Bridging the disconnect: A layered approach to jump-starting engagement. Voices from the Middle, 19(4), 45.

Karen L. Moroz, Ed.D. is an associate professor at Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Jennifer Carlson, Ph.D. is a professor at Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.
Author: Karen Moroz, Ed.D., Jennifer Carlson, Ph.D.
Number of views (22)/Comments (0)/
Lessons Learned from Emergency Remote Teaching

Lessons Learned from Emergency Remote Teaching

The power of connection, communication, and a little grace

In mid-March 2020, like many other educators across the United States and around the world, I shifted to emergency remote teaching due to the global pandemic. During the first few weeks I was trying to figure out how to manage my own three children and how to be as effective as possible teaching remotely while dealing with the underlying stress of the pandemic. I began to have moments of time and the mental space to reflect on my teaching and the feedback I was getting from students and their families. While I would love nothing more than to be in my physical classroom with my eighth graders, this situation pushed me to adapt and taught me lessons that will continue to impact my instruction long after I return to my physical classroom.

Connect First

Emergency remote teaching magnified the need to connect and address the social-emotional needs of students. Suddenly the emotional and physical wellbeing of my students were on the forefront of my mind, and I no longer had many of the opportunities to connect with students that are naturally built into a school day. I realized that I mostly relied on the unplanned moments of connection in the hallway both before and after class and while working with students individually or in small groups.

Without these opportunities to interact and connect with my students during remote learning, I began to intentionally build them into daily assignments and live class meeting times. Remote teaching helped me realize that I needed to spend more time intentionally developing connections with each student, each day.

Once I return to my physical classroom, I will continue to develop new ways to build in these moments, but there are a few strategies I can easily carry over from teaching remotely. During remote learning, I have begun all live class meetings with time to check in with kids and share how we are all doing. When I return to my classroom, I will implement “first minutes” during the first 2-4 minutes of each class period to check in, practice speaking and listening skills, collaborate, and build community. It will be like a morning meeting, eighth grade-style, that fits into the time constraint of a 45-minute class period. I look forward to taking this time to connect in a space that is available to all students and that is intentionally planned to meet their needs. Taking time to focus on connection will be time well spent because as I build connections and address social-emotional needs, it will also create an environment that helps students learn the curriculum.

During remote learning I dedicated days for students to journal or free write. The format for writing has varied and allowed students to use prose, poetry, or images to share their ideas, thoughts, and feelings. I wrote and shared my own responses before asking them to write one of their own. This allowed them to see a little into my life while providing an authentic model for their writing. Students had the option to share their response digitally with peers or keep it private and share only with me. Through these consistent writing opportunities, we learned a lot about each other, and some students produced their most creative and detailed writing of the year. When I return to my physical classroom, I look forward to assigning free writing assignments to students in order to build relationships, increase opportunities for authentic writing, and address the social-emotional needs of students.

Clear Communication

During remote learning, I began posting short screencasts online with a video of me explaining assignments and concepts. I have always given verbal and written directions; however, I have never provided students a place to access verbal instructions after class. Remote teaching showed me how quickly I could screencast directions and share them with students. Students voiced their appreciation for the opportunity to go back and watch the videos any time they needed. When I return to my classroom, I will continue to make and post these video clips for complex assignments and concepts. This extra layer of communication will help a variety of students including those who need extra time to process, or who are absent, benefit from previewing material, or gain reassurance that they remember the directions correctly.

A Little Grace Goes a Long Way

Throughout remote teaching, I have thought about how students are in different situations at home and the variety of factors that might affect their ability to complete assignments. I have made a point to address every situation of late, incorrect, and missing work with understanding and grace. I have focused on first checking in with how students are doing, then asking if they need help completing the assignment and then inquiring about the status of the assignment.

Before remote teaching, I would often simply remind students to turn in an assignment by stating verbally or through an email that the assignment was late. I did not take time to first ask what caused them to not complete the assignment or inquire if they needed help turning it in. Teaching remotely has changed how I address late, missing, and incomplete work. It has shown me how beneficial and easy it is to address all situations with compassion first. It has also caused me to stop and think about how many students throughout the years needed someone to check in on them or offer help instead of simply saying, “you haven’t turned in your essay, you know it was due yesterday.”

Remote teaching, a global pandemic, and a total shift in how I can interact with students taught me that content comes after connection and compassion. I am naturally a task-driven person and I admit that I needed this reminder. I needed to remember that I don’t always know everything that is going on in a child’s life, and it doesn’t take a global pandemic for students to have valid reasons they need some grace, someone to check in on them, a little help, and after all that, a gentle reminder to turn in that essay.

Kasey Short teaches English and social studies at Charlotte Country Day School, where she also serves as English Department chair and Spotlight Challenge coordinator.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.
Author: Kasey Short
Number of views (18)/Comments (0)/
What Will Middle Schoolers Need When School Reopens?

What Will Middle Schoolers Need When School Reopens?

Four things for educators to consider in support of students

We’re five months into the pandemic and still dealing with many unknowns. We are dealing with whether school will be virtual, face-to-face, or a blend of both, and we don’t yet know the long-term toll that months of quarantining, social distancing, remote learning, and coping with devastating news about racial injustice are taking on our students. We do know that families have endured traumas ranging from furloughs to job loss to illness, with blacks and Latinos dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates. We also know the homework gap is real, and many students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged areas, have been unable to access any education at all since schools shut down in March. In comparison, canceled sports seasons, camps, and birthday parties may seem inconsequential, but these are real disappointments for students, too.

I don’t have a crystal ball and kids are resilient, but I anticipate that many will return to school needing support. Here’s how educators can work together to help students make a smooth re-entry, whatever school looks like this fall.

Talk about racism, inequity, and how they can make a positive difference.

Middle schoolers are highly attuned to equity and fairness, and they need to exercise agency and independence. Many have been participating in protests and engaging in conversations at home about racial injustice, but others have had to process recent events without adult intervention. Be prepared to talk about the current unrest and the 400 years of history that got us to this point. Recognize that many students are feeling raw and will need you to acknowledge their pain, regardless of the subject you teach. You may need to educate yourself first, says former principal Baruti Kafele, author of The Assistant Principal 50. When he delivered a lesson to administrators about social justice education recently, he was struck by how many participants told him, “I have to change based on what you said.” As he told me, “If teachers don’t bring a social justice pedagogy to their practice, students won’t have that context.”

At the same time, kids in this age group thrive when they feel empowered and optimistic. To instill hope, share examples of kids making a difference. For instance, three teen girls organized Nashville’s largest protest, and Kamryn Johnson, the 9-year-old daughter of former NFL player Ron Johnson, raised $40,000 for black-owned businesses in Minneapolis by selling homemade bracelets with her friends.

Help kids reconnect with peers.

Social distancing has had its challenges. Many children who lack strong social skills have struggled to connect virtually, while extroverts have found virtual communication unsatisfying. Kids have felt extra sensitive about ambiguous comments or inadvertent acts of exclusion, in part because it’s easy to miss nuance in virtual communication, and in part they have had no organic opportunities to smooth things over in person.

Other friendship issues emerged during the quarantine. “I feel so left out,” one 11-year-old girl told me. “Everyone is double bubbling except for me.” When I asked her what she meant, she explained that other families let their kids “cluster quarantine,” or hang out together. This is classic FOMO, but with a COVID-19 twist. Meanwhile, for many socially awkward kids, the end of school may mean they no longer see peers at all. These are the kids who only spent time with classmates when teachers facilitated inclusive lunch groups or other structured activities and lessons. Another sizeable group of students had no access to virtual socializing (or instruction) because they lack access to technology.

Despite these constraints, social distancing hasn’t been a universally negative experience. Some kids who are introverts or easily overstimulated have even fared better. But whether the quarantine was a positive or negative experience, I suspect that most kids will feel a bit awkward, lost, excluded, sensitive, or unsure of their place when school re-opens. In other words, they’ll be cycling through the typical middle school emotions, only amplified.

Remember, students have had their lives turned upside down. They've had to master the art of videoconferencing at an age when many have a difficult time talking face-to-face. And at their most self-conscious, they’ve had to interact and learn while staring at their own image. As one middle school counselor told NPR, “I know a student has had enough when they turn their camera to the ceiling.” I once asked a seventh-grade student if she’d be willing to turn on her video so I could see her face. She quickly responded, “The face isn’t the problem. It’s the hair.”

Educators can help by spending extra time establishing class norms, reiterating expectations for kind behavior online and offline, discussing the types of social challenges that emerged during quarantine, grouping kids thoughtfully, telling social stories or sharing real-world events during advisory time that encourage perspective-taking and build empathy, and deploying students with social capital to help classmates hovering on the edge of the herd.

Meet them where they are academically.

As with social distancing, some kids thrived during remote learning. These kids tend to be selfstarters who enjoy setting their own pace and exploring interests independently. They don’t need a tremendous amount of direction or reassurance to stick with an assignment. They also may be more open to participating and taking academic risks when they’re not performing all day in front of their peers. Others have benefitted from the ability to take frequent movement breaks without missing instruction. Quieter kids liked sharing their ideas in writing via the videoconferencing chat feature. And in the absence of grades and scores, many students were able to demonstrate their learning in novel ways and under less pressure. If teachers abruptly strip away students’ newfound independence, they’re going to bristle. They’ve grown used to being the architect of their own learning, and they’ve shown that they don’t need a teacher looking over their shoulder or micromanaging them. Let's not lose those lessons.

On the other hand, some students didn’t fare as well during this period, whether they needed more specialized support, lacked access to instruction, floundered without structure and accountability, or had family stressors or responsibilities that interfered with their ability to learn remotely. To address the needs of both groups, meet kids where they are. Some will need more opportunities for self-directed learning, while others will require more targeted interventions. Ask students questions such as, “What have you learned about yourself while working at home? What elements need to be in place for you to be productive? What got in your way?” Respect that they’ve been through a lot and have matured and developed self-awareness as a result. Be flexible and open to tweaking your approach.

Proactively teach coping skills.

This spring, I asked one of my seventh graders if her classmate was okay, because it wasn’t like her to miss a group session. She replied, “She’s quarantine good, like the rest of us.” Start from the assumption that kids are quarantine good at best, and remember that middle schoolers are notorious for misreading their own and others’ emotions. They also have a spotty track record when it comes to asking for help and identifying coping strategies.

Under normal conditions, kids might have leaned on their parents for support, but middle schoolers tend to protectively shield their parents from pain when they sense that they’re not at their peak. And very few adults are at their peak right now, which means that kids have been working hard to hold themselves together. When they return to brick-andmortar school, they may finally uncork their bottled-up emotions and fall apart. If that happens, they’re going to need sensitive adults to help them put themselves back together.

That means schools will need all hands on deck, with every empathetic adult in the building proactively reaching out to students to ask how they’re doing. It doesn’t matter if that person is a counselor, building services worker, science teacher, or assistant principal. Anyone and everyone can greet kids in the hall, smile, and prioritize connection. Don't forget to look out for one another, too. The adults in the building need to model for kids what it means to care for one another and normalize asking for help. Middle schoolers need to know that it’s okay to not be okay, and they need to know that they’re not alone.

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC, is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of Middle School Matters (Hachette Book Group, 2019). Phyllis also writes The Kappan's weekly Career Confidential column and tweets.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.
Author: Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC
Number of views (3)/Comments (0)/
Upsetting the Apple Cart Not Always a Bad Thing

Upsetting the Apple Cart Not Always a Bad Thing

Pandemic challenges to schools provide opportunities to invigorate and transform instruction and assessment

"You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have." --Maya Angelou

Blank stares fill the conference room, frustration palpable. "There's no way to do this. Some students are just not going to learn the material," Sheila laments. The challenges of emergency, remote instruction during the pandemic were clear.

"And what about the emotional and physical trauma our students and their families are experiencing?” Barry says. “Unless that’s resolved, learning isn’t going to happen.

True, but let’s do one thing at a time,” Cortesia responds. “What if we parked buses with the portable WiFi outside the apartment complex for two hours every afternoon? Students could download lessons and assignments and upload their completed work to their teachers.

"Not everyone has access to tech in their apartments,” Jack says, “or, if they do, it’s not at the exact same time as when we would park the bus there. Parents may be using the family’s one computer for their own work. Plus, what about our rural students: Are we going to take our buses to them as well? That’s expensive and time-consuming, but if we don’t do it, how is that conscionable?

"Agreed," Cortesia replies. "Let's keep at it."

They need to get lessons to students in their homes and to get completed assignments back from students so they can assess them, provide feedback, and direct the next steps in instruction. They also need to assist students with the traumatic elements of social distancing before learning can take place. After brainstorming their own suggestions and studying what other schools around the country are doing to bring remote instruction to students, they have a beginning list of possible actions, some more immediate than others, but all providing oxygen to suffocating challenges (see figure 1).

Now, our group pulls the camera back to encompass more of their reality, recognizing the myriad of other difficulties with remote instruction (or blended instruction with in-person learning as schools implement personal protection procedures during the year), responses to which will require significant departure from normal. They wonder:

  • Long-used instructional practices in the classroom don’t transfer well to online, remote instruction: How do we teach now, especially if we’re being developmentally appropriate for the age we teach?
  • Some of us are struggling with new ways to assess students on our course content. There just doesn’t seem to be any remote version we can create that is similar to how we’ve been assessing students, and how do we make sure the work students do at home is truly their own?
  • Zoom fatigue is real: How do we make our lessons via a tablet or computer screen more engaging?
  • Remote instruction, even blended with some in-person teaching, is slower than daily, in-classroom teaching. We can’t get through all the curriculum we normally do. How do we sort what’s worth keeping in the current curriculum and what needs to be left out due to limited time and utility? And what do we do about last year’s curriculum that was barely learned, if at all: Do we integrate it with the new year’s curriculum because it’s important enough for students to learn it?
  • Strong teacher-student relationships are key to student engagement, especially in middle school, but our normal, go-to activities to build those relationships at the beginning of the year are no longer available. As we begin the new year with a new set of students, what can we do to really connect with one another and establish community?
  • What do we do when students simply don’t show up for remote instruction?
  • And how do we stay healthy and effective as teachers when we are required to teach students both in-person and online?

Reinventing Teaching

This is all daunting, seemingly beyond our capacity to resolve. We’re used to being competent, and now we’re floundering, forced suddenly into humility, as nervous as first year teachers. It’s particularly hard, too, when we don’t grant ourselves forgiveness to not get it right at first, or we are averse to re-invention of our teacher selves for fear that we appear less than knowledgeable. As we strip away pretense and accept these truths, however, maybe we can do something extraordinary: Let go of earlier versions of our teacher selves, untether thinking, re-examine long-practiced rarely-questioned strategies, cull complacency, and invite new and provocative ways of teaching into our practice. Could this be a moment to invigorate a previously flagging energy and professionalism, and a chance to find personal evolution?

As so many have remarked, necessity is the mother of invention, and boy, is this the time to question what we do and to reinvent one’s approach in response. Let’s look deeply at what really works in teaching, and whether it resonates with students and results in lasting learning. Let’s see our call to be innovative right now not as a burden to bear, but as a wellspring from which we draw rich ideas and new perspectives for student learning and meaningful teaching.

Student Involvement

We can invite students into the teaching-learning dynamo, for example, asking them to plan or deliver some lessons themselves (really, they can often run circles around us with their tech prowess, and they’re looking for a way to be active and contribute!). We can invite them to think of different ways to assess the same standard, as long as we’re focused on accurate evidence of proficiency, not compliance that they followed a format. They can suggest evocative writing topics and activities that more closely reflect their lives, challenges, and culture, even with controversial topics, that would still enable clear demonstrations of intended learning.

We can look online for how other teachers teach the same things we do and borrow from them, or outright ask students to watch them instead of us. We can consider how to let students build physical/ virtual models with at least one moving piece to demonstrate abstract ideas, and they can create podcast debates between historical figures or a series of postcards or Instagram reflections from specific characters in their novels. Culture, class, gender, and racist intersectionality as originated by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw can be explored and expressed via dozens of avenues in fine and performing arts, as can Boyle’s Law (gas pressure increases as volume of its container decreases), laws of algebra (commutative, associative, distributive), and the Bill of Rights. We can leverage the world of experiential education, often found in physical education and outdoor education programs, to increase engagement and understanding of academic subjects. We can infuse instruction with more suspense, foreshadow, and constructivism instead of mere declarations of fact, igniting the curious minds before us. This is the chance to get truly excited about the “out there” possibilities.

We all feel out of control about what’s happening, students even more so. Let’s move our classes closer to a creative, modified democracy, turning over some learning facilitation to students, integrating topics previously taught in unconnected silos. Students will feel like they matter, that they have choice and voice. Sitting and passively receiving virtual instruction all day in a 24-7, anxiety-filled world exacerbates depression and divestment.

Embrace the Opportunity

There’s nothing about remote instruction that says we give up all we know about effective teaching. When we sacrifice sound principles, we feel lost ourselves, we succumb, losing steam in our own efforts. If we’re principled first, actionable second, we fight just a little harder, last a little longer, as we confront the creative challenges ahead. In this effort, let’s see our forced lesson and assessment modernizations as great opportunities to revisit our core values as teachers, and how we manifest them weekly:

    Let’s teach the way students best learn, not the way we or their classmates best learn. Let’s not be beholden to the school calendar or the master schedule if parting ways from it can improve student learning. Let’s think deductively and inductively simultaneously, and let’s extrapolate, experience curiosity, and even awe. Let’s be developmentally appropriate in our instruction and stop thinking we must replicate the policies and practices in the grade levels above us as the only way to prepare students for those levels. Let’s stop perceiving ourselves as the sole arbiters of all there is to know, limiting students to our concept of excellence. And heck, yeah, our students learning from home can still conduct book discussions, mock trials, debates, musical performances, Socratic seminars, poetry slams, group workouts for physical education classes, and dramatic plays so vital to their learning and growth.

And let’s write these operational tenets down and discuss them with colleagues. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but wow, it is cleansing and liberating!

Some of us have let our own creativity atrophy over the years, though, just going through the lessons and motions of years past with each new set of students. When we weren’t looking, we fell into a comforting and familiar pattern, though it be full of ruts: A student with special needs who can’t learn with a given technique, for example, will just have to deal with it because there are no other options to get at the same learning right now—when really there are wonderful ways to do it.

Assessment Possibilities

In another instance, we may think there is only one way to assess the current content, when there are many. In a recent webinar, I asked a school to give me a random school topic and I would brainstorm at least eight ways to assess it substantively (no frivolous or superficial demonstrations) in under one minute’s time. They gave me, “pronouns,” and I drafted these,

  • Define pronoun, antecedent, noun.
  • Identify pronouns.
  • Identify antecedents to which pronouns refer.
  • Substitute pronouns for nouns.
  • Explain why pronouns are important – What’s their function?
  • Ask students to critique pretend classmates’ work with improper use of pronouns and its effect upon the reader, then to explain what the classmate would need to be taught in order to use them properly.
  • Analyze writing with strong and weak use of pronouns.
  • Describe how other cultures handle the functions we attribute to pronouns in English.

Then, I asked for another topic, unrelated to the first one. They chose, “Coding.” Ugh, I hadn’t coded since COBOL, FORTRAN, and BASIC. Nonetheless, here’s the one-minute’s brainstorming, trying to mix in a very limited understanding of today’s coding:

  • Explain the function of each line/element of code.M/li>
  • What algorithms are used in this particular code?
  • Describe the build.
  • Critique others’ code and make recommendations on how to make it more efficient for the task.
  • Describe typical mistakes coders use with this particular code or build.
  • How does block-based programming differ from text line code?
  • Is the code agile?
  • What happened when you submitted your code to the compiler – What was lost in the translation?

In case they’re helpful, here is an initial list of complex assessment prompts to keep on hand for use in multiple subject areas:

  • One of these is impossible to answer, figure out which one and explain why.
  • For each multiple-choice problem, explain why your answer is correct and the others are not.
  • Identify four metaphors for this science, math, writing, engineering, art, music, health, government, legal, media, or philosophical concept and a favorite sport or hobby.
  • Here’s how five different classmates responded to this particular question – Who did it correctly, and how do you know? Who did it incorrectly, and what would they need to be re-taught?
  • Given this question, here is its correct answer. Demonstrate two different ways to arrive at this answer.
  • Have a debate between two of these components about who’s function has more impact on the success of the whole. (Alternatively: ‘Between two historical/ literary/scientific figures about a modern debate topic.)
  • Would your answer to the previous question change if you were given this new variable…? Why or why not?
  • Add your own voice in the assessment: If we left your name off the project, would we know it was you that created it? Express your individual voice in at least three elements.

The more we practice building fluency and dexterity with teaching and assessment ideas like this, the faster and more effective are our choices, and they are at our mental fingertips when we need them. This is a great time to brainstorm assessment possibilities, engaging lessons, interdisciplinary connections, how to bring students’ personal lives into their learning, and problem-solving, just for its own sake. When we don’t develop this versatility, it becomes easier to blame students and situations when learning flounders. We give up; there’s nothing in the tank, and worse, students are treated inequitably. Their learning, hope for themselves, and trust in us are jeopardized.

We Can Do This

So, let’s use this time to widen our repertoire and feed our own intellectual selves. It goes back to the, “If all I have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” thinking we want to avoid. In AMLE Magazine’s 2014 piece, "The Intellectual Life of Teachers," I outline specific steps we can take to re-build this problem-solving, creative capacity.

Humor is deeply connective and creative, too. It releases the dopamine we need to stay attentive and invest in what we’re doing and, when used well, it builds community. Seriously, put occasionally bizarre, humorous, “punny,” satirical, and funny elements into the online learning and assessment experiences. For example, instead of asking students to determine the carrying capacity of a swimming pool, ask them to figure out how many boxes of chocolate pudding you’d need to fill it up, and what kind of fun games you could play with a pool full of chocolate pudding.

If remote learning is not available for some students, take a picture of yourself holding a funny and encouraging sign made uniquely for a particular student, and send it through the Postal Service to the student’s home. Appear outside the front windows of their homes in a crazy costume and offer a personal message of connection and encouragement. At the end of homework or assessment questions on content, throw in a question about something completely unrelated, but interesting to answer. For example, after several math problems ask, "For what do you have more use in your life: parallel or perpendicular lines?" "Describe a time when you laughed so hard that what you were drinking at the time came out of your nose."

Teach while holding an umbrella over your head, as if it were raining only on you. Don't say anything about it. If a student comments on why you're holding it indoors and it's not raining, tell him that in your reality it is raining and that you'd kindly like him to be careful where he walks as he is splashing through puddles in his own home right and left. Occasionally stick out a hand, palm up, to see if it's still raining. There's a child-like playfulness here that catches students unaware and invites imagination.

These and other ideas about using humor can be found in AMLE Magazine’s 2019 piece, “Humor? Yes, Please!"

In difficult times, tennis champion, HIV/AIDS educator, and civil rights activist, Arthur Ashe, often reminded us to, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” We can do this in the small and larger moments of reimagining and facilitating student learning in the year ahead. In any hard change, though, it’s a process, not an event, so let this all be a progression. Don’t despair over steps that were smaller than we thought they would be or the times we stumble down blind alleys. And as Maya said above, we can’t use up creativity.

Let’s make sure to invite students to walk the path with us, imperfectly navigating a deeply challenging situation as we are—and maybe even lead the way. Just as forest fire can bring new and unprecedented growth to places that were overgrown and strangling all new life, this is an opportunity to renew ourselves, add colors to our palette, and find vitality where it may have waned. And wow, education needs life and color right now, so run with it.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/shop. Fair Isn’t Always Equal, Second Edition (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in 2018 and Summarization in any Subject: 60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student Learning, 2nd edition (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra Stafford, was released in 2019.


Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.
Author: Rick Wormeli
Number of views (1)/Comments (0)/
E-Learning: Post Pandemic Teaching

E-Learning: Post Pandemic Teaching

The effects of a monumental shift in the model of schooling

Can you feel it? It’s an educational paradigm shift. Every few years there is a shift in educational philosophy and pedagogy that take the field of education by storm. The COVID-19 pandemic may very well have been the biggest shift to date. Going as far back as The Enlightenment, to the Progressive movement of Mann and Dewey, to Common Core, the Pandemic of 2020 has launched the next shift, and it’s here to stay: e-learning. The time has come to discard the old model of teaching and learning for the new. We are preparing students for a college or career that doesn’t exist yet.

In the new model teachers can expect smaller class sizes but potentially more work. As states unveil their social distancing models for the coming school year, many models have students at the secondary level meeting face-to-face with teachers on a rotation schedule. The students will have to continue to e-learn when they are at home. We can expect to see increases in public school enrollment as families who were hit hard during the pandemic cannot afford private school tuition. There will be a surge in homeschooling ventures as well for some students who have had a positive experience with online instruction.

Students in the Class of 2025 and beyond can expect to see the traditional model of college all but disappear, too. Our current middle school students will likely see fewer opportunities to go “off to college” as colleges will begin offering more online programming, making college more accessible to many. We are now in the business of preparing students for this new mode of learning that requires them to take ownership of their education (in whole or in part). COVID-19 is literally turning the whole of education upside down. Here are some upsides and downsides of this new reality:

  1. Embrace the tech! E-learning will be a growing part of instruction.

    The upside: Technology is providing students with the skills and assets needed to communicate, collaborate, and exist in a 21st century workplace. Teachers are preparing students for a work world that does not yet exist. The education community has been talking about this for years, and now finally here we are.

    The downside: The challenge is two-fold. First, in addition to the prep teachers will need to do to prepare for face-to-face instruction, teachers will need to prep online modules to keep students engaged in learning when they are not in the classroom. Second, accountability for students will have a significant and long reaching impact on their success overall. Sadly, many districts ramped up e-learning then quickly traded out grading accountability. The message received by parents and adolescents? The work didn’t matter. Switching mindsets in a new teaching model will be challenging to overcome.

  2. How will we collaborate as teachers?

    The upside: Use of digital collaboration spaces means that teammates can engage in projects remotely and build shareable educational materials. Teachers are also honing the necessary skills to be practitioners in a new learning world that is going to be beneficial for new teachers growing their pedagogy practices.

    The downside: Collaboration is essential to student growth and achievement. It is well documented and practiced nationally. With a new model for teaching rapidly coming, collaborating will take a hit. In teacher schedules that are already pressed for time, creating professional collaboration communities to continue key topics such as data-driven instruction, brainstorming, and sharing of resources will be challenging. Software giants will eventually respond with educational collaborative workspaces, but until then there are some collaborative technologies that work, such as Google Classroom.

  3. How will we foster relationships with students and colleagues?

    The upside: We are now creating relationships that were previously unavailable in traditional school building settings. We can more actively reach beyond classroom walls and into the community. Community partnerships can be fostered via live lessons with guest speakers from a variety of places, and students can access adult mentors and role models previously unconsidered. What greater relationships are there than with people in the community our schools serve?

    The downside: Relationships are critical to fostering resilience and connection. There is no app that can replace human connection. In a new educational model, how will we continue to grow and build relationships with the colleagues and students we interact with? Showing care is a fundamental part of what teachers do every day and without human interaction, how will teachers and leaders continue to demonstrate caring via technology? Can we go back to the time-honored tradition of handwritten letters and cards by mail? A positive phone call home for students, or a positive affirmation email for colleagues? Sometimes, going “old school” is necessary to maintain human connectedness in a technology-infused learning and work space.

  4. How do we support the disenfranchised?

    The upside (if there is one): Finding creative ways to provide meaningful, purposeful and equitable instruction will be at a premium. Districts will be forced into what teachers have been crying out for for these students: support and equity. The disenfranchised and their school advocates will not be able to be ignored. In this new model, people are watching what district leaders will be doing to support this group. The downside: Our most vulnerable students will need the most support. The kids living in poverty, the kids living in abuse or neglect, the special education kids, the emerging bilingual students. In the new models for social distancing, we are going to further marginalize an already excluded group.

E-learning is going to become a significant and growing part of the teaching and learning cycle. For better or worse, we can expect growing pains as we adapt to our new virtual classroom hybrids. For reasons that are bound to policy and budgets, the new models are also a means to keep class sizes small and capital building projects down. This will translate to more educational bang for the buck. E-learning will require leadership to consider professional development that makes sense and can be differentiated to meet the needs of educators. We need to prepare students for college and careers that aren’t even dreamed of today, but are the future they are entering.

Michele Schuler is an eighth grade science teacher at Meade Middle School, Fort Meade, Maryland.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.
Author: Michele Schuler
Number of views (56)/Comments (0)/

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