Seventh grade language arts teacher Joseph S. Pizzo was selected for this top honor from the Association for Middle Level Education
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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
April Tibbles | AMLE Chief Communications Officer | 800-528-6672 | email@example.com
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
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
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,
Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.
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
Jamie Silverman is a lecturer in the Department
of Secondary and Middle School Education, Towson
University, Towson, Maryland.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2020.
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.
- What kind of message does Obama articulate in
- What qualifies Obama to be president from this
- What values will Obama bring to the White House
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
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
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
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,
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
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2020.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
What does the character say?
Note the character’s actions.
Document the decisions made.
Describe how integrity is or is not demonstrated.
Chronicle the character’s decision-making
Identify how the character changes over time.
What doesn’t the character say?
How does the character reflect on his or her
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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/
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.
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.
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.
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
Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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,
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
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,
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.
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:
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.
- 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
How will we foster relationships with students
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.
- 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
Michele Schuler is an eighth grade science teacher
at Meade Middle School, Fort Meade, Maryland.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2020.