Dot to Dot

Dot to Dot

Lessons that are rich in arts are engaging, but how do you bring art into the classroom?

To afford students the time and space to analyze, create, and synthesize … these are the ultimate goals of education, and as such, they are the reasons why we must not only invite the arts into core classrooms, but we must embed them there. Having been a middle school theatre arts teacher and director for more than a decade before jumping into the fire of seventh grade English, I have firsthand knowledge of how to fuse the arts with content learning—and it really doesn't matter if that connection takes place in the required or extra-curricular subjects, the students will reap the benefits. Of course, since all students are enrolled in the required courses, the pay-off is higher when the arts are embedded in core classes.

I know that time seems to be the number one enemy of all teachers, but when teachers develop arts-rich lessons, they help students to be more engaged, which means more retention and less time re-teaching. Who wouldn't love that? Additionally, we've all had those students who are disengaged. What if that one lesson featuring an Iron Maiden song was enough to draw them into the learning if only for a day? Wouldn't it be worth it?

Alright. Brass tacks. You don't need more data telling you that the arts are good for kids. You know they are. What you need are ideas. How do you bring the arts into the classroom in meaningful ways while still having enough time to teach the required material? Here goes.

Step 1 – Stop looking at the arts as an "extra." The arts are not the frosting on the cake. They are more like the screws that can connect the various pieces together and make the whole lesson stronger.

Step 2 – Find the connections. Perspective is taught in visual arts, English, and social studies. Proportion and scale are taught in theatre and math. Parts of the whole are taught in music and math.

Step 3 – Make a dot. Find a starting place and commit to it. It starts with one pencil dot or letter on a lesson plan and it grows from there. Don't overthink it.

You're still thinking about Iron Maiden aren't you? Would you like an overview of arts-embedded lessons to help you as you begin planning with the arts in mind? You got it.

The Myth and the Maiden

In Texas, seventh grade English students must learn about myths. I rather enjoy the themes in "Daedalus and Icarus," and it doesn't hurt that we have a version of it in my school's adopted seventh grade literature book. As I was telling my husband—a guitar playing rock-star—about the current lesson, he mentioned that Iron Maiden has a song called "Icarus." You can imagine my surprise! I checked out the song, and unlike many adaptations, it retained much of the essence of the original myth. It helped, too, that the cover art for the album was for the song Icarus. Soon a lesson was born in which students "read" the album cover in order to make predictions about the text. They listen to the song and note the mood it evokes. Then, when they finally do read the text, they are so much more invested in the outcome. (Full disclaimer here: I have not yet taught this lesson to seventh graders since we were already in the midst of the unit when I stumbled into my newfound knowledge, but it went over very well with a group of adults in professional development. Now I eagerly await our unit on myth.)


Anyone who has ever taught writing knows that some students just shut down. They freeze. So, what better place to start a piece of writing than with a frozen image? I was working in a school with a multinational program that encouraged cross-curricular learning as I was preparing a unit on writing a play. While theatre and English fit together like Shakespeare and plays, I wanted to go deeper. (After all, I am a very deep person as you can tell from my previous sentence.) I wanted to find more ways to connect what was happening in my classroom, not just to other subjects, but also to more diverse students. I was able to do just that by selecting a variety of artwork from various time periods and cultures. The images generated discussion, which gave the students ideas they could use as they wrote their plays. I chose a variety of art including The Spaniard and His Mexican Indian Wife and Child by Miguel Cabrera, The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell, Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso, and The Builders by Jacob Lawrence. The students each secretly picked the image they were most drawn to, then I grouped them with others who selected the same image. They discussed the moment that was captured in the piece of art and then considered what happened before and after that moment. Next, they were ready to write.

Let's Not Blow This Out of Proportion

Proportion, yikes! The mere thought of it is enough to send students screaming past the principal's office. But, what if instead of running past that office, they went right in and asked the principal for permission to measure the office, then after collecting all of the necessary figures, began constructing from cardstock a scale model of that office? Now obviously some students would be more familiar with that domain, but they don't all have to select the same physical space. How excited would some of the athletes be to construct a full scale model replica of the field and stands? My students made models of the UIL (University Interscholastic League) One Act Play set because that is what they were familiar with. Let your students choose what is familiar or interesting to them. They measured for days. They cut and folded and diagnosed problems before starting again. And, they got better! Before long, they were master measurers!

Start with a Dot

Once you start seeing the possibilities and payoff of embedding art into your classrooms, the lessons will start falling out of your brain when you least expect them to. I was reading a children's book, The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds, about a reluctant art student who could only make a dot. After her teacher praised that dot as the best dot, she began to perfect her dot drawings until there were many dots—an abundance of dots—but all the art started with a dot. So, that is your task. Start with a dot. Then, make another dot. Soon you will be dancing from dot to dot!

Myia Cowles is a seventh grade ELA teacher at Fannin Middle School in Amarillo, Texas.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2019.
Author: Myia Cowles
Number of views (6050)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Musicals for Middle Level Arts and Academics

Musicals for Middle Level Arts and Academics

Musicals offer a wealth of opportunities for interdisciplinary learning and enhanced academics

Musicals can serve as rich sources for student learning, especially when staged at your own school. While musicals are considered entertainment, they can serve as strong curriculum resources. Stage, film, and TV musicals are also possibilities because they are ingrained in popular culture and tell powerful stories. The variety of musicals invites interdisciplinary learning that integrates visual arts and various academic subjects by exhibiting many facets of the human experience.

Musicals are part of the performing arts and can undoubtedly be utilized to support arts education standards (visual arts, music, dance, drama). Yet musicals can also be used to enrich learning in other academic subjects by reinforcing skills, facts, and concepts. Many schools stage musicals without having them impact classroom learning. I propose that school musicals or musicals in general can enhance academics and curriculum standards.

This article shares the principal's role in integrating musicals, tips for successful integrations, musicals subject by subject, curricular considerations, and learning scenarios across the curriculum.

Principals' Role in Musicals Integration

Principals serve as leaders through curriculum implementation. The principal can support musicals integration by

  • Supporting teachers through consultation and observation
  • Ensuring funding for materials
  • Providing stage, film, and TV musicals on DVD as part of the media center collection
  • Publicizing teacher initiatives through meetings, professional development days, blogs, and news releases

Tips for Successful Musicals Integration

  • Choose musicals that are age appropriate for middle school students.
  • Consider creating a recommended musicals list for teachers and students.
  • Encourage differentiation by using a variety of musicals with individuals or small groups.
  • Provide students previews, study guides, lesson plans, and assessments.
  • Utilize film clips and audio recordings of show tunes to enliven lessons.
  • Integrate a school musical to encourage school spirit and interest.

Musicals Subject by Subject

The following outlines how musicals can be bridged to 12 middle school subjects. Consider using two or three subjects together for an interdisciplinary focus.

Students learn about the production of the stage, film, and revival versions of a musical through reading, lecture, and by viewing the film and analyzing the libretto. Students could look at precursors or source material of a musical.

English and Language Arts
Students analyze the dialog as found in the libretto as well as analyze the lyrics as they would analyze poetry. Students could also read fiction and non-fiction sources for a musical.

Family and Consumer Sciences
Students learn about the history of clothing and fashion or regional cuisine as aligned to the setting and time period of a musical.

Industrial Arts
Students learn about set construction for stage, film, and TV musicals. Students could also learn about architecture and furniture making.

Students learn about using math for design, art, music, and STEAM related topics.

Voice or instrumental students learn to perform one or more songs from the musical score; general music students listen to songs from the score and determine how they help develop the story and characters. All music students could learn more about the life and music of a musical's composer and lyricist. Students could also learn about music of a musical's time period.

Physical Education and Dance
Students replicate dance sequences in a stage, film, or TV version of a musical. Students could also explore the work of choreographers who staged dances for a Broadway show, film, or TV version of a musical.

Students could learn about the acoustics of sound in music within physical science. Students of biology could learn about flora and fauna. Students of human physiology could learn about the physiological properties of the vocal cords and how they produce the different voice ranges in singing. The human ear could be analyzed to understand how sound and music are perceived.

Social Studies
Students learn about history, culture, social trends, economics, geography, politics, and demographics based on a musical's setting and time period.

The five categories of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) can be explored in terms of staging or filming a musical.

Visual Arts

Students do art projects reflecting the themes of the musical or help with aspects of the school's production (costumes, set, make up, lobby display). Art projects could include painting, drawing, or sketching set designs (or CAD). Architecture is also an area to explore according to settings and time periods of musicals.

World Languages and English as a Second Language

Students read about a musical in the target language and discuss the reading's content using a series of comprehension questions; students translate select lyrics into the target language; students perform their translated songs. Students prepare hands-on projects that combine art, music, theatre, and other disciplines. Students compare American music with music of the target culture.

Integrating Musicals: Curricular Considerations

Musicals create a context for student learning for activities, projects, and units. By examining a musical's songs, characters, themes, settings, and time periods, we can determine themes for exploration. For example:

  • Explore pioneer life using Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun, and Paint Your Wagon.
  • Examine show business using Singin' in the Rain, Gypsy, and There's No Business Like Show Business.
  • Demonstrate aspects of French culture using Can-Can, Gigi, Carnival, and Les Misérables.
  • Gain insights into the Nazi era through The Sound of Music and Cabaret.

You can accomplish musicals integration at various levels: class, department or grade level, school, or district. When I first began this initiative, I began in one class then expanded to all my classes and also to those of colleagues in several subjects. Our integrations were awarded eight Rising Star Awards from the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, for using our school musicals in alignment with the New Jersey curriculum standards.

Middle school students can handle challenging tasks including higher level thinking. Additionally, 21st century skills are worth considering along with subject area standards. Several frameworks are conducive for musicals-related lessons including thematic and interdisciplinary learning, multiple intelligences, habits of mind, differentiation, cooperative learning, and project-based learning. Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind by Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda, Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom by Thomas Armstrong and Creating and Assessing Performance-Based Curriculum Projects by Janet Caudill Banks are all valuable for designing lessons and projects using musicals.

Musical Learning Scenarios across the Curriculum

The following outlines possible learning scenarios for middle school students bridging musicals to various school subjects.

In the Name of Art: Students create a mural, drawing, or painting depicting themes, settings, and songs in The Wizard of Oz. Sculpture, ceramics, and photography are also media worthy of exploration.

What's Playing: To promote kinesthetic, verbal-linguistic, spatial, and musical intelligences, students create a show program tied to The Music Man.

The Language Connection: Students of various world languages can explore the foreign lyrics to songs from The Sound of Music. The score has been made available on DVD, CDs, and LPs in various languages.

Fabric Arts and Paper Dolls: The traditional textiles curriculum within the family and consumer sciences umbrella can certainly be linked to musicals. Consider costumes for musicals and period clothing. Projects using fabric such as quilts can be created by students in any class tied to concepts that highlight the subject area or interdisciplinary topics. Paper dolls of musical characters can be rendered by hand or by using technology and be accompanied by a written narrative.

Math and Design: Students create set designs for a specific musical using math skills.

A Scientific Approach: Musicals usually have a specific setting. Science students can explore the flora and fauna of that setting; for example, they can explore marine life and plant life tied to Once on This Island or South Pacific.

The Social Studies Connection: Students explore Hamilton or 1776 and learn about colonial America, history, and the government.

Culinary Arts: The traditional food component of family and consumer sciences invites having students create cakes, cupcakes, or other desserts inspired by Oklahoma!

Interdisciplinary Pathways: Students learn about Victorian America and New York tied to Hello, Dolly!

Language Arts: Students analyze lyrics by Cole Porter from the musical Anything Goes. They can study rhyme patterns, vocabulary, and historical references.

STEAM: Students examine set design, lighting, sound, and costumes in addition to directing, composing, book and lyric writing, and choreography as it relates to staging or filming a musical.

School Musical Integration: Using a middle level or high school musical, students learn about the musical in their regular classes.


Musicals can engage students and bring their learning to life. Middle school learners will find the connection between musicals and their regular studies both interesting and educational. I invite you to explore musicals integration at your own school and discover how musicals can enhance middle level arts and academics.

Keith Mason, Ph.D. is a curriculum consultant and writer based in New Providence, New Jersey.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2019.
Author: Keith Mason
Number of views (3605)/Comments (1)/
Embracing Dialects in Middle School English Class

Embracing Dialects in Middle School English Class

A variety of voices in literature helps students recognize themselves in text and connect with others

I will start with an understatement: Now seems as apt a time as any to begin conversations about multiculturalism and marginalized populations in the classroom. A stance of cultural respect opens opportunities for learning and has the potential to deemphasize boundaries between dominant languages, including dialects, and the languages of everyday people. Some marginalized cultures do not hail from far away but have their roots on our own soil. The Appalachian Research Commission reported in 2015 there is continuing disparity in the economic growth in Appalachia. These young learners from foothills and backroads form the basis of this article’s concern.

So, how do educators engage students who may have challenges accessing more complicated texts, as well as hurdles in living conditions, and where does the work begin in terms of dialects? Challenges can include spelling, speaking, and forming sentences, but other challenges might include students disconnecting with a world in the classroom that does not look or sound like it values their home culture. What follows are a few simple ideas about reaching all students, even the ones with a slightly different accent. I should note at the outset that I grew up in Appalachia and teach in the foothills, so I may be more than a little biased on this issue.


It seems evident that there is a need for strategies when considering how to address Appalachian dialect in the classroom. Students speaking with a dialect are not English language learners, per se, and yet there are challenges specific to working with this group. These suggestions are based on my own experience as a middle school English/language arts teacher. Of course, these suggestions also have their limitations. What works with one group sometimes does not translate well to another group, and there is not necessarily one method that reaches across literacy boundaries. Having a number of strategies from which to work and adapt with learners may serve as a starting point for conversations about addressing dialect in the classroom.

Talk about Talk

First and foremost, effective language arts classes including members of Appalachian communities are places where students and educators can talk about talk. If the title language arts means anything, it should convey the message that language itself is an art form and, as with many other art forms, expression can be quite personal and can exist in a variety of modes. Conversation need not shy away from focusing on the differences among dialects. Students desire to gain exposure to the rest of the world and many are curious about cultures other than their own. It is always the work of expert educators to model respect for a variety of cultures.

Talking about texts is a useful and productive part of classroom instruction, and classrooms can be places where cultural differences can be explored and celebrated. While moving the familiarity with prestige dialect and conventions is the general direction of an English/language arts classroom, and while formality is a hallmark of writing in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), students’ individual cultures and dialects should not be devalued or degraded in the process.

Unique Voices

One of the beauties of literature is that students can gain insight into a variety of authors and voices. Students also need to see themselves in the texts they read; to that end, Appalachian readers would likely benefit from reading the works of James Still, Jesse Stuart, Lee Smith, Wilma Dykeman, Rick Bragg, Fred Chappell, and Silas House, to name a few. Entire texts or grade-level appropriate passages can be selected from the works of these authors and shared, as can poems and songs, including the work of George Ella Lyon.

The work of Mark Twain can be used to consider other instances of dialect, as can the work of Zora Neale Hurston. Appalachian students need not only see their own culture represented in print; in addition to seeing themselves, all students need to see the value of others unlike themselves in print. By gaining exposure to the struggles, successes, and experiences of many groups of people, students can begin to connect their own experiences with these voices. Writing is a next step exploration for this reading process as well.

Can middle school students hang out with these authors? They absolutely can, especially when they have our help.

Tuxedo Talk

Rather than talking in terms of dialects as dominant or formal, educators may find it helpful to frame these conversations in terms of acceptable conventions on a situational basis. When applying general writing structures, there need not be an additional consideration of appropriateness; however, when applying specific expectations of grammar or elaboration, students can be encouraged to find a way to fit their mode of expression to the standards of expected formality.

Instead of framing these conversations in an oppositional way (e.g., this is the way we talk at school versus at home), teachers may refer to formal conventions as tuxedo talk, and the follow-up with an elaboration like, Tuxedo talk applies in this essay. Just like a tuxedo works best for a formal event, or even wearing a tie and jacket is expected in some places, your reader will expect you to put on your tuxedo for this writing occasion. If the occasion is more personal, then the original way you wrote this would work well. In composing this elaboration, care has been taken not to include words like appropriate or acceptable. Words like these, as well as the word correct, when it comes to grammar and speech depend largely on circumstances and context. Some readers and listeners do, in fact, have expectations for the composition of essays or speeches to be delivered in specific situations; as expert educators, it is part of our work to find ways to convey this idea to students in a way that is respectful and kind, but also retains the notion of a standard to be reached. A dialect does not deflate the value of having high standards for all students.

Using the Known

In addition to the voices that literature provides, students can find common values with protagonists across reading genres. Students should be encouraged to analytically consider and adapt classic literature, as well as modern classics, to their own experiences and understanding, while exploring opportunities in the text to expand their worldviews. This is not an easy balance to maintain.

If a student wants to take his or her understanding of the play Romeo & Juliet, for instance, and apply the play to a modern setting where Juliet stands in the back of a truck bed rather than an ornate balcony and Romeo wears a flannel shirt, why not allow them to do so? This exploration of the play is itself a playful exercise in the conventions of the work. When a director wants to retell Shakespeare in a modern setting, it is not often seen as inappropriate. Students should not be admonished for participating in the same kind of creativity, particularly as they demonstrate understanding of the contents of the work itself.


All voices in our classrooms have merit and should be valued. It is the challenge of expert educators to explore cultures and dialects with students in a way that is meaningful and includes open discussions of why and how dialects come to be. Using a variety of voices in literature, as well as exploring opportunities to have students apply their understandings within their own frameworks, can encourage young learners to achieve a balance of recognizing themselves in text, as well as connecting with others through reading. Writing about these experiences and having opportunities to write inside and outside of dialects in a variety of modes and styles is a necessary next step for students.

Jason D. DeHart taught middle grades English for eight years and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in literacy studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee and works in an adjunct capacity at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2019.
Author: Jason D. DeHart
Number of views (4444)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Students as Change Agents for Environmental Issues

Students as Change Agents for Environmental Issues

Trade books and classroom activities help students see the positive impact one person can have

Change. A six-letter word bandied around a lot. Politicians use the word every election cycle to argue for the need of the electorate to select new leaders. In a democracy, change means so much more. Citizens have the ability to interact with and change existing social, cultural, and political institutions through their actions (Barton, 2012). After all, being a democratic citizen is not a passive process. As the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) stresses, democratic citizens are the stewards of all aspects of their world (NCSS, 2013). This includes issues connected to the environment.

In this article, the authors discuss how to use two trade books to look at the positive impact people can have on environmental issues. Each trade book is briefly discussed, and the steps for implementing an activity for each are provided.

Trade Books and Environmental Issues

With the increased emphasis on content area literacy, trade books have a great deal of potential for our middle school social studies classrooms. They allow students to explore a topic in more depth than a textbook and often provide sources for further research. Over the last several years, there has been an increase in the number of trade books that focus on environmental issues.

Environmental issues are caused by a variety of reasons. First, people's actions intentionally or unintentionally can create environmental catastrophes. For example, people not using proper agriculture practices played a pivotal role in leading to the Dust Bowl. Second, changes in weather and climate impact human systems and set up the potential for environmental problems. For example, the severe drought in east Tennessee during 2016 turned what would have probably been a minor fire into a tragedy. The key takeaway from these examples is that people and their environments have a symbiotic relationship. This means that governments and people must be considerate of these realities when crafting policies and taking actions that can impact the environment. Sometimes, to address imbalances in the environment by people and governments' actions, it only takes one brave citizen's actions to restore equilibrium. In the next sections, we focus on two trade books that look at citizens that have taken such actions.

Planting Change One Seed at a Time

Seeds of Change (Johnson, 2010) tells the story of Wangari Maathai. As a girl in Kenya, Wangari learned the beauty and benefit of the mugumo tree from her mother. The tree was important to her cultural ancestors, and her mother shared how it provided food for many. Wangari was able to eventually attend elementary school and then left her village and traveled to Nairobi to continue her education with a degree in biology. After some time away, she accepted a teaching job at the University of Nairobi and was devastated to see the changes in Kenya when she returned.

The government had sold off much of the land to big companies that cleared it for coffee plantations. The mugumo trees were no longer standing, and the beautiful river had turned to mud and dried up. The river, once teeming with life, was no longer capable of growing bananas, maize, and sweet potatoes. As a result, many families were hungry. Wangari knew she must take action. With others in her community, she planted trees. Soon, a canopy of green returned to Kenya, along with the rivers, animals, bananas, and maize. Even though things were better in Kenya, some people did not like Wangari making such changes, so they arranged to arrest her. After many rallied to get her released from prison, Wangari vowed to help her country. She traveled the world speaking about ecology. In time, she became known as the "Mother of Trees," and in 2004, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

After the teacher reads aloud this trade book, students independently complete the Ripple Graphic Organizer below to show the impact of Wangari's actions.

In the innermost circle, students record how Wangari's actions impacted herself, and in the middle circle, they articulate how Wangari's actions impacted her community. In the outermost circle, they discuss how Wangari's actions made a global impact. Once students record this information, have students work in pairs to answer the following writing prompt: "From reading Wangari's story, how has your thinking changed about the impact a citizen can have on a community?" Then, have the groups share their responses. This class discussion helps students articulate their thoughts about Wangari's quest to protect Kenya's environment. This writing prompt allows students to explore the power Wangari exercised as a change agent. The examination of Wangari's story helps students realize that they can also be change agents for environmental issues (Levstik & Barton, 2015).

Harnessing the Wind for Change

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Kamkwamba, 2012) shares the story of 14-year-old William Kamkwamba and his efforts to save his Malawi village from a devastating drought. William's family had no money for food or for him to attend school, so William spent his days poring over books in the local library. Through his research, William explored how electricity works, which was foreign to many in his village. To get the parts William needed to build his machines, he scoured junkyards for recycled materials, and one day, while looking at books in the library, he saw a wind turbine and had an idea. William began to construct a similar structure to provide electricity from the wind for his family's use. He also knew that the windmill could be used to pump water, which could help save his family. Everyone in his village thought he was crazy. However, William kept building, and soon, his windmill powered a light bulb. Eventually, rain began to fall in the village, and William's windmill was able to help irrigate the crops.

After reading this trade book aloud, have students work in pairs to discuss and complete the chart on the next page. This chart draws on the 10 themes from NCSS National Curriculum Standards ( Some possible prompts are included in the chart that help students see William's impact on his community.


Once students complete the chart, have them work to create two lines of five words, which synthesize the main idea from this trade book. Pairs record these two lines on a sticky note and then join with another pair to create a group of four. Now, the groups have four lines of five words each. These lines can be rearranged or reworded if needed. Once the groups have agreed on their phrases, they record their responses. The groups share their finished phrases with the whole class. The class works to construct a free verse poem from the groups' completed phrases. The teacher asks the students' opinions on line order to make the free verse poem flow. Once the class has decided on the poem, tape the copy pages to chart paper. These class discussions help students explore William's contribution of the windmill to his community, enabling them to see how a community can be positively changed through one citizen's actions.


The two trade book activities in this article are designed to show students how people have advocated for environmental policies to strengthen their communities. There are other high-quality trade books included at the end of this article that could be used to demonstrate people acting as change agents for environmental issues. After the teacher reads a couple of these trade books and discusses the impact that people can have, it is time for students to take action within their local communities about environmental issues. The teacher begins by allowing students to research in groups local environmental issues using the questions below.

  1. What is an environmental issue in our community?
  2. How is this issue negatively impacting our community?
  3. What are some potential solutions to this issue?
  4. How can our class help resolve the environmental issue?

After students have answered these questions, have a class debriefing and select one of their issues to focus on in the community. Then, the students decide how the class should take action to help resolve the issue. This creates the opportunity to draw on experts from a community that are concerned about the same issue to help and mentor students as they construct their intervention to the environmental issue. These processes actively engage students as change agents to address an environmental issue. Through their active participation and intervention, students begin to grasp the power and potential of effecting change as a democratic citizen.

Additional Environmental Trade Books

  1. The Elephant Scientist (Scientists in the Field Series) by Caitlin O'Connell and Donna Jackson from HMH Books for Young Readers
  2. One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of Gambia by Miranda Paul from Millbrook Press
  3. The Tree Lady: How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins from Beach Lane Books
  4. Energy Island: How One Community Harnessed the Wind and Changed Their World by Allan Drummond from Square Fish
  5. What if There Were No Bees? A Book about the Grassland Ecosystem by Suzanne Slade from Picture Window Books
  6. Ada's Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
  7. One Well: The Story of Water on Earth by Rochelle Strauss from Kids Can Press
  8. A World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky from Workman Publishing Company
  9. Rachel Carson and her Book that Changed the World by Laurie Lawlor from Holiday House
  10. Eruption!: Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives (Scientists in the Field Series) by Elizabeth Rusch from HMH Books for Young Readers


Barton, K. (2012). Agency, choice, and historical action: How history teaching can help students think about democratic decision making. Citizenship Teaching and Learning, 7(2), 131-142.

Levstik, L & Barton, K. (2015). Doing history: Investigating with children in elementary and middle schools, 5th ed. New York, NY: Routledge.

The National Council for the Social Studies [NCSS]. (2013). Revitalizing civic learning in our schools. A Position Statement of the National Council for the Social Studies retrieved from

Trade Books Cited

Johnson, J. (2010). Seeds of change: Wangari's gift to the world. New York, NY: Lee & Low Books.

Kamkwamba, W. (2012). The boy who harnessed the wind. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Katie Thomas is a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee studying literacy studies and specializing in children's and young adult literature.

Deborah Wooten, Ph.D. is a literacy professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Jeremiah Clabough, Ph.D. is an associate professor of social science 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 and other great resources in the AMLE online store.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2019.
Author: Katie Thomas, Deborah Wooten, Jeremiah Clabough
Number of views (7350)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
A Journey for Content Area Literacy Development and PLCs

A Journey for Content Area Literacy Development and PLCs

How to engage teacher teams in whole-school literacy and learning improvement

It's 7:30 Tuesday morning and groups of teachers are sitting in their first meeting of the year for their professional learning communities (PLCs). Thick binders filled with colored tabs and volumes of files of student literacy achievement data are in front of them. Teachers look at each other with a variety of feelings ranging from cautious optimism to bewilderment to dread. All they know is that they need to come up with a cross-discipline literacy improvement plan based on all these reports of data. They just wish they had some type of roadmap to guide them to not only make sense of the data, but to implement a literacy improvement plan that really succeeds this time.

Unfortunately, this scenario describes a common beginning of well-intentioned attempts to use data for improving reading, writing, thinking, and content area achievement. Clearly, the idea of teachers working together in PLCs and reviewing data together is important, but without guidance and support in how to collect, analyze, and use data to inform the design of their initiatives, the effectiveness of their work will be diminished. There is plenty of evidence to support the use of high-functioning PLCs to increase achievement and reduce achievement gaps. But the effectiveness of teacher teams is often contingent on a shared commitment to and optimism for improvement, a viable plan, skillful execution of research-supported strategies, and sincere dedication to taking and monitoring decisive actions.

Many PLCs may feel hesitant to choose to go on a new journey to improve literacy and learning because prior attempts have been met with too many challenges and less than expected results, especially for struggling learners and underachievers. Teacher teams often develop low group self-efficacy and lack a group growth mindset because they have not succeeded in prior initiatives together as a team. The resilience of teacher teams also gets worn down, and solving a compelling problem like low reading and writing performance seems farfetched. When teacher teams don't "win" (i.e., succeed) together, they often lose their desire to work together and lack the confidence and perseverance to improve student literacy and content achievement.

Taking the road to improving literacy and content area achievement can bring positive, measurable results for all students—especially for struggling learners and underachievers—and sparks new life and group efficacy into PLCs. The journey described below illustrates how teacher teams can "cause" student growth when the entire school is moving in the same direction, at the same time, and with sincere effort and skillful execution.

Determining the Vision

As with any successful journey, we need to have a clear vision. The school's PLCs should answer the following essential question before the journey begins: What will it take to ensure that students become confident, self-directed, and successful when they read, write, think, and learn in content areas? There's plenty of direction on reading, writing, and thinking expectations in state and national standards, and PLCs can benefit from unpacking those standards and literacy skills required for success across all content areas. Teachers often envision students who can independently read and summarize literary and informational text, process information, create meaning, and demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways including open and closed-end response tests, performances, and products. Teachers envision students who feel confident and competent in their literacy and learning skills and who demonstrate enthusiasm for learning. Finally, teachers envision PLCs that can work collaboratively to arrive at their destination because they had the will, skill, and ability.

Determining the Need

Teacher teams have to feel the need to leave their existing conditions to take even the first steps on the reading, writing, and thinking road to content achievement. The desire to embark on the journey results when teachers engage in guided and efficient collaborative examination of achievement data, student work, and learning practices. Groups use guiding questions to analyze and transform data into actionable knowledge so they can put it to work to improve student literacy and learning. Group process protocols efficiently yield rich conversations and useful insights about the data including patterns, comparisons, strengths, needs, and effects. Teams identify the strategies and interventions that have been previously used in the school to develop student literacy and content achievement and determine the effectiveness of previous actions, especially for struggling learners and underachievers. Finally, teams engage in an analysis of contributing factors that may cause literacy and learning problems. This actionable knowledge helps the school match strategies and plans for improvement efforts to the greatest areas of student need and the most prominent contributing factors.

Planning the Journey

There is no doubt that large groups can make planning for school improvement quite challenging. A smaller representative group of teachers from the PLCs—the planning team—can act as liaisons for their PLC and more efficiently draft plans for the improvement journey. The chief goal of this school team is to match the PLC's and school's vision of literacy and learning, knowledge about existing student performance, and contributing factors with research-supported practices. The planning team examines professional literature and research to identify promising instructional and assessment strategies and practices and best practices for effective school improvement and professional development. For example, published meta-analysis results related to literacy and learning demonstrate that the use of graphic representations, summarizing, focused skill questioning, explicit teaching, and differentiation yield percentile gains on a variety of measures, including content achievement. Also, professional literature illustrates that ongoing professional development, PLC collaborative inquiry, consistent progress monitoring and adjustment, instructional coaching, and administrative support yield positive results for school improvement.

The culminating activity for the team is to create a template plan that will be used by all the PLCs. Figure 1 illustrates a plan that assists teacher teams in selecting two literacy skill targets for 30 to 60 days and identifying indicators, measurements, strategies/methods, and actions. PLCs complete their planning in their meetings, and team plans are then shared with all staff so cross-PLC sharing is possible, their commitment is public, and PLCs can create partnerships to accomplish similar goals.

Figure 1

Taking Decisive Action

In the first implementation stage of the journey, PLC members and instructional paraprofessionals/aides participate in professional development on the use of graphic organizers, summary templates/frames, focused skill questioning, explicit teaching, and peer-to-peer interaction. Then teachers in each PLC select a compatible graphic organizer, summary frame/template, and question stems for the two comprehension targets identified in their planning template (see for examples). Figure 2 illustrates instructional strategies for a specific literacy skill.

Figure 2

Stage two of the implementation involves collecting and analyzing the baseline information needed to determine progress. Teachers assign students to read or listen to a text or topic in their content area, and students complete a graphic organizer and write a summary. Teachers examine their students' work with a three-point rubric and then select a high, average, and low quality example from each task above to bring to their PLC meeting. Teachers use a group protocol in their team meetings to analyze student work and gain insights about the qualities of student work that made it high, average, or low quality. They discuss aspects that need to improve (e.g., key ideas, detail, organizational pattern) and share how each member will commit to helping students improve during the next couple of weeks. Teachers then keep student artifacts and lesson descriptions from at least two lessons per month in their teacher portfolio. Teachers are also provided with support for creating lessons that explicitly teach targeted literacy and thinking skills using graphic organizers, summaries, question stems, and peer-to-peer interaction.

During the third stage of the journey, teachers frequently utilize lessons or tasks in which students use selected graphic organizers and summaries and respond to question stems that match the PLC's target literacy skills. Teachers also learn to use rubrics to engage students in self-assessment about the use of graphic organizers, summaries, and questioning. Once again, teachers select a high, average, and low quality example from each task above, and they use a group protocol in teams to analyze student work. The second group of protocols has PLC members share their lessons, observations of student use, and changes from the original samples. Teachers create student improvement needs and identify needed coaching and other professional development and support. They also continue to place sample artifacts of student work and lesson descriptions in their professional portfolio for this initiative.

Instructional coaches, teacher leaders, and administrators provide support for the improvement initiatives during this part of the journey. Coaches and teacher leaders can conduct demonstration lessons in the classroom. This type of support provides teachers with an opportunity to observe the process of explicitly teaching content and literacy skills concurrently. Coaches, teacher leaders, and administrators also work with teachers to design lessons that use the selected strategies. After the first 30 days it may be useful to use walkthroughs to determine levels of implementation and talk with students about their perceptions of the improvement initiatives and strategies.

During the fourth stage of the implementation, teachers bring their samples of student work to PLC meetings and they share how often they are using graphic organizers, summaries, question stems, and peer-to-peer interaction to determine that there is a high level of implementation. Different protocols are used for troubleshooting, measuring progress, and determining student and teacher learning needs. Teachers also respond to guided questions to examine artifacts in their professional portfolio. Professional development focuses on differentiation techniques that address the needs of high, average, and low achievers. Special Education, RTI, ELL, and other student services specialists provide additional strategies and coaching. Opportunities are created for cross-discipline and grade groups to meet and discuss the implementation progress and to reinforce a whole-school commitment to the literacy and learning improvement initiative during the first 60 days.

The last stage of the literacy and learning improvement journey is ongoing. PLCs continue to use group process protocols and their professional portfolios to recognize progress, make adjustments, and celebrate successes. PLCs reflect on what they are learning during the implementation and identify their professional learning needs. Instructional coaches, teacher leaders, specialists, and administrators continue to provide differentiated professional development and support for various PLCs and individual teachers.

Making It Successfully to the Destination

There really is no end to the journey to improve literacy and learning. Student learning needs, accountability, teachers, and the art of teaching and learning seem to always change. Yet, it is still important for schools, and especially PLCs, to check on progress toward their literacy and learning vision. Standardized test scores and content area achievement illustrate that this journey has yielded increases in student achievement and reduced achievement gaps. This journey helped many students develop confidence and competence related to literacy and content achievement. It has strengthened the professional efficacy of individual teachers and PLCs and helped them develop and sustain a culture of inquiry and continuous improvement rarely experienced before by some PLCs. Finally, this journey injects new life into a whole-school improvement initiative where PLCs work with students to make a literacy and learning vision come alive.

Bobb Darnell is president of Achievement Strategies, Inc., as well as an educator, presenter, and author.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2019.
Author: Bobb Darnell
Number of views (6235)/Comments (1)/
Motivating the Reluctant Learner

Motivating the Reluctant Learner

Changing student motivation from being disruptive to being successful

Working with students who typically haven't been very successful in the classroom can be a challenge. Luckily, there are a few simple approaches to take that will help you motivate those reluctant learners from day one.

Every child wants to succeed. I know this is true. If you want to be successful at motivating the reluctant learner, you need to believe this as well. In my experience working with students from many different backgrounds, upbringing, family situations, and home lives, every student thrives when he or she feels a sense of accomplishment.

Sure, sometimes this sense of accomplishment comes from getting the teacher to lose her temper or hitting a friend in the head with a well-aimed spitball. Our jobs, then, become refocusing that student's goal away from those negative accomplishments towards the positive accomplishments – those that equate to success in school and, ideally, in life.

Sounds easy, right? You and I both know, though, that bad habits are hard to break. Students who have a habit of looking for success in ways that undermine what we're doing as teachers can often have the hardest time changing their habits.

When I start a school year, I quickly recognize those students who are struggling to share the same measure of success I've set for my students. While many teachers try to ignore the disruptive behaviors hoping that they will just go away, oftentimes it leads to more disruptive behaviors as those students look for other ways to successfully get your teaching off-task.

Instead of ignoring that disruptive student, addressing that reluctant learner as early in the year (or day or even lesson for that matter) will help you successfully guide the student towards a new standard of success. What do I mean?

Here's an example I'm sure most of us can relate to:

You see little Johnny throw a broken pencil at another student. What do you do? Ignore it? Yell at Johnny? Tell him to go to the office? Assign detention?

How about this response?

"Johnny, please don't throw anything in my class ever. Do you understand?" stated in a very calm voice.

"But he threw it at me first!"

"Johnny, do you understand what I told you?"

Grumbling, "Yeah."


The rest of class passes without Johnny throwing any more pencils. On his way out of the classroom, you mention to him, "Johnny, I appreciate you not throwing anything in my class. Nicely done." You say this with all sincerity, but not making too big a deal out of it. Johnny doesn't reply but just shuffles off to his next class.

The next day, Johnny comes into class as usual. For the first five minutes, Johnny doesn't throw anything at anyone. You casually move near him and say very quietly to him, "You're having a good day today, aren't you?" Johnny doesn't respond, but he refrains from throwing anything for the entire class. Again, at the end of class, you mention to Johnny, "Nice work today."

And today, Johnny smiles. By building on the small successes your reluctant learners experience, you can gradually motivate them to achieve higher and higher levels of success.

This sounds like a simple example, and you're right! It is incredibly simple to bring students over to "your side" in the battle, to stop fighting with your students and start helping them fight their own battles against their anti-social and disruptive impulses. By helping the student understand that your role isn't to always highlight their disruptive behavior but instead to help them achieve a more productive model of success; the disruptive student often becomes a key ally in your classroom.

Your work isn't done with this tiny victory. Once you've broken the initial bad habit of disruptive behavior, you will then need to help your students understand how "success" is defined in your class. Questions like "Are you being successful?" and "When you do that are you being successful?" and "How does that help you be successful?" all work to help the student understand that part of your job is to help him or her be successful.

Each day, I write on the board my measure of success for that day. It's usually something like, "I will have at least 15 note cards completed for my research paper." or "I will understand why the main character decided to go to the lake," or something like that. When a student is off-task, it's a simple matter for me to approach him or her and say, "Are you being successful? How can I help you be successful?" Done with the right tone and approach, these two questions can truly transform the way you and your students interact.

Once your reluctant learners (and everyone else for that matter!) realize that you are really there to help them be successful, that you want them to do well in school and build the skills they need to be successful in life, their reluctance to learn gradually disappears in favor of a new motivation to succeed, a measure of success based more closely on positive productive goals rather than disruptive negative goals.

Darren Barkett is a lifelong educator and an advocate for equity in education at all levels.

Published March 2019.
Author: Darren Barkett
Number of views (7595)/Comments (2)/
What Could Middle Schools Learn from Summer Camp

What Could Middle Schools Learn from Summer Camp

Here's what students had to say and what educators can do to have camp-inspired lessons

Middle schools and summer camps play different roles in society. Middle schools are a legally required step in a child's development meant to prepare them for college and career, while summer camps are often elective experiences focusing on a broad range of skills. Yet, for more than a century, summer camps have been praised for their ability to provide adolescents with a positive experience that encourages growth, independence, and personal development.

For many children, camp provides a rare space where they shed the anxiety and self-conscious nature of adolescence, and feel safe to take risks and try something new. In a study conducted from 2001-2004, the American Camp Association (2005) found that parents, camp staff, and children reported significant growth in four domains: positive identity, social skills, physical and thinking skills, and positive values and spirituality.

So the question is worth asking: What can traditional educators learn from the summer camp experience?

Students at Windsor Mountain International Summer Camp in Windsor, New Hampshire, were invited to participate in conversations about this topic. The mission of this co-educational summer camp is to "provide educational experiences that open minds, foster personal growth, and help students respond to cultural, social, and environmental challenges as responsible citizens of the world." The camp was founded in 1961 by Richard Herman, a teacher in the Boston Public Schools at the time, who envisioned a summer camp that fostered a spirit of peace and unity. Campers were eager to share characteristics middle schools could learn from their beloved summer camp.

The first suggestion:

Intentionally build community to increase a sense of belonging.

"School should be more like a family," explained a ninth grade girl, "At camp I know everyone and take classes with all ages." A ninth grade boy added, "Knowing everyone makes it easier to feel safe and focus on your work." This sense of family is intentionally built at Windsor Mountain through articulated values and intentional structure.

"The expectation at camp is that everybody should, at least to some extent, be friends and accept one another," explains Rachel Ekarib, a former camper and counselor. "The goal of creating an inclusive community is projected very early on, and the success builds on itself, meaning, once people start to feel a part of a community they work harder to maintain and support it."

The structure of Windsor Mountain is such that the entire camp community is together multiple times each day: during meals, morning meetings, and nightly all camp activities. These moments create shared experiences and traditions enjoyed by the entire community. Every summer camper eagerly returns to participate in traditions they have come to know and love that make their camp unique. Campers take part in multi-age classes, so students as young as 7 and as old as 15 are interacting with each other on a daily basis. "At camp we all get together all the time," explained a fourth grade girl, "At school it's only like that twice a year. We get to know other people here." This sense of community makes campers look forward to returning to the "camp bubble" every year.

The second suggestion:

Get to know your students, and let them get to know you.

A difference identified between camp and traditional school is the relationship between "students" and "teachers," and "campers" and "counselors." While at camp, the emphasis is not only on fostering lasting connections between campers, but connections between counselors and campers as well. A ninth grade girl observed that "as you get into middle school or high school, teachers seem to care less and less. We want to know the personalities of the teachers, have them be more open and social, there are just no opportunities to get to know your teachers." Another ninth grade girl suggested that activities such as "counselor trivia," a game where campers are given random facts about their counselors and attempt to match the fact to the person, would help students get to know their teachers better and build a stronger community.

The more casual relationship between camper and counselor also creates a culture in which campers respect and want to role model after their counselors. This is a role that counselors take seriously. Madison Graboyes, a former camper and counselor speculates that the difference between being a camp counselor and being a traditional teacher is a camp counselor's priorities. "We are there to make sure the kids learn, grow, and have fun experiences that will last them a lifetime. It isn't about making kids fit in a box at camp, it is about finding out what interests them, supporting them, and helping them to grow in the ways they want. We give them the support system and love who they want to be and help guide them along the way." The campers can sense this. "Teachers at school don't teach you morals," stated an eighth grade boy, "A teacher gives you information, but a counselor really teaches you a lesson." Even as young as third grade they sense a difference. "Counselors are more awesome," explains a third grade boy, "they don't yell at you."

A third suggestion:

Broaden the academic focus on schools.

Another difference identified between camp and traditional school is the classes available. "Teachers should have an open mind to different subjects, like life skills," explains a ninth grade girl. She goes on to suggest that initiative games, such as name games, trust activities, and team building challenges would help build a tighter community in schools. "We learn quality skills here," explains a fifth grade boy, "like getting along with everyone, being respectful, taking responsible risks." Campers also feel they learn a wide range of practical life lessons while at camp. For example, "I learned that basil and tomatoes together keep the bugs away," explains a fifth grade girl, "there should be a gardening class at school."

The more hands-on and interactive approach to camp is attractive to some campers as well. "At camp you get to walk around more—you have a lot of energy because you move a lot. At camp I'm excited, at school I'm bored," shares a fifth grade boy. "We should get more recesses," chimed in a fourth grade boy, "Even if it means more school, recess gives you exercise and energy."


A focus on learning for life, not on grades and scores.

The lack of grades and formality at camp also makes a difference in the comfort level of campers. "Camp is informal, look at how we are sitting right now!" observed a seventh grade girl, taking note that we were sitting in a circle outside, myself as the teacher sitting in the circle as well. She went on to explain that "teachers wonder why we don't understand things, but they just teach us out of a book, you don't get to feel it." She also chimed in later in the conversation, explaining that counselors "don't badger you at camp, you are allowed to not do things you are uncomfortable with. No one gives you a 'zero' at camp." By taking away the risk of failing, campers are more likely to take risks and try something new or continue something they may not be good at.

Early adolescence is a time of immense change, physically and emotionally. Children go from being concrete thinkers, to being capable of self-reflection and abstract thinking. The magnitude of these changes makes it even more essential for children to feel supported and encouraged during this pivotal time of development, and for educators to be searching for ways to best support young adolescents.

So, what could these summer camp inspired lessons look like in a traditional middle school?

  • Intentionally building opportunities for your school to have an identity that all students feel part of. Have clearly identified and frequently mentioned core values. Encourage name games and icebreakers. Create and honor traditions and routines that students at the school feel part of. Build space for community building activities and field trips, for teams if not the whole school. Challenge staff to know as many student names as possible.
  • Creating frequent opportunities for cross-graded experiences. For example, the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Harwich, Massachusetts, reserves an hour and a half on Friday afternoons for their seminar program. Seminars are cross-graded academic classes including quantum physics, weaving, guitar, yoga, robotics, and more. These courses are available to all students as a commitment to teaching to the whole child and fostering a sense of whole school community.
  • Focusing on social-emotional learning. Above and beyond academic progress, what life skills are students learning? Discuss this through explicitly teaching life skills, embedding reflections into the academic curriculum, and celebrating learning above and beyond a letter grade.


American Camp Association. (2005). Directions: Youth development outcomes of the camp experience. Martinsville, IN: Author.
Hannah Kast teaches at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Harwich, Massachusetts.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2019.
Author: Hannah Kast
Number of views (3401)/Comments (0)/
Art: The Magic Molecule

Art: The Magic Molecule

Tapping into the arts helps students—and teachers—make an emotional investment in reading

Plagiarism is both easier to commit due to the tremendous amount of content "out there," but also ridiculously easy to catch with a simple Google search. As an English teacher, I've found that if my assignment can be easily plagiarized, it probably isn't that engaging for kiddos. For example, if I ask students to do a reader's response to Stargirl, The Giver, or The Outsiders, they can find plenty of online examples and summaries. However, if I offer students artist choices, not only do they become emotionally invested in the projects, they also have a purpose for reading other than "I told you to." As all middle school educators know, motivating middle schoolers can sometimes be a challenge!

I teach at a large middle school in New York, so collaborating with an art or music teacher is often difficult since we don't always share the same students. I've compensated for that in my own classroom by creating projects that allow students to creatively respond to literature instead of perform rote tasks. I tell my students, "The assumption is that you read the book and understand it. I'm not going to give you a task that proves that you read it because that is easily faked. Sad but true. Instead, use this project to intrigue us or draw us into a conversation." Here are a few of my favorite creative options that I offer students in response to independent reading:

Create a playlist that you might find on the protagonist's phone or Ipod. Be sure to include the multiple moods your character experiences. Arrange the songs chronologically so that the first song correlates with the first few chapters, the second song goes along with the next few chapters and so on. There should be at least eight songs. Make an MP3 or share links with me to the songs. For each song, write a few sentences as if you were the character describing the selections.

Using GarageBand or some other platform, create an original soundtrack to the book. Follow the same general directions as above, focusing on the moods your character experiences throughout the course of the novel.

Create a piece of artwork that captures the essence of your book. Incorporate at least ten quotes that are important to the theme. You may "hide" the quotes, or they can be overt. On a separate sheet of paper, explain why you chose the quotes.

These are three examples that have highly engaged my middle school students, prevented the boring book report summary that is easily plagiarized, and made my job infinitely more interesting and rich. Conversations about why a student chose a particular song or how they slyly incorporated quotes into the strands of hair in the portrait they created are fascinating. Reading another summary? Not so much.

If there is one shift in education that has the most potential to enrich the lives of our students and create critical thinkers it is the move away from memorization and summarizing. These tasks make reading unappealing, assuming that we are making them do it in the first place. How can I convince anyone that reading is an amazing portal to vicarious experiences if I'm making you prove you read it? This is where book selection is key, and your school librarian can be an amazing resource for you and your students. Share conversations with your students about abandoning books yourself. I know that if I'm not hooked in the first chapter, I might as well move on to something else. Allowing students this type of freedom and choice will lead to engaged readers who want to express their reactions, artistically represent emotions and critical thinking, as well as create art that makes them proud of their learning.

My shift to providing engaging and creative assignments that tap into the arts has led to a young girl composing a funeral march for a character who'd been lost at sea, a vase with quotes woven into vines, an entire city of LEGO pieces, animations, masks, and recreated scenes in sculpture. Students have created videos of themselves acting out critical scenes, talk shows where they pretend to interview the author, and commercials that advertise an important symbol from the novel. Deane Alban, in her article, "The Mental Health Benefits of Art Are for Everyone," explains the magic motivation that occurs: "Creating art increases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine has been called the 'motivation molecule.' It boosts drive, focus, and concentration. It enables you to plan ahead and resist impulses so that you can achieve your goals." I don't know about you, but I usually have a room full of middle school kiddos who could use more of the "motivation molecule!"

Amber Chandler is an ELA teacher and the ELA department chair at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York. She is a 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year and a member of the AMLE Board of Trustees.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2019.
Author: Amber Chandler
Number of views (3801)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
The Spotlight Challenge

The Spotlight Challenge

A design thinking project to inspire the future generation of leaders

Students today are faced with global issues that impact their lives such as bias, political divisiveness, injustice, and mass shootings. These students have the potential to become a generation of leaders that improve the world for everyone. Educators are in a position to provide students authentic opportunities that demonstrate how each person has the ability to positively impact their community.

The Spotlight Challenge, a school-wide competition, uses design thinking to provide an opportunity for students to discover a passion, solve real world problems, reflect on their strengths, research ideas, and create a call to action that encourages their peers to join them in bringing about positive change.

As the language arts department chair, I implement the unit as a school-wide speech competition but it could be done in a single grade level or classroom environment. Students are given the challenge to design an oral presentation that showcases what they have chosen to spotlight for their peers. The goal of the presentation is to share their ideas and make a positive impact on the community.

Real World Examples

Students begin the unit by exploring real world examples of how others have made a positive change in the world. They are provided examples that include people of diverse backgrounds and ages. This helps build up their confidence that they can make a difference and counters stereotypes as they see children, people of color, immigrants and women taking on leadership roles and making significant positive impacts in our world.

Uncovering a Spotlight

Students then begin brainstorming possible issues, passions, and ideas that they would be interested in presenting to their peers. During this brainstorming process they consider questions such as: What changes do you hope to see in your community or the world? What solution can you create to inspire progress in your community? Once students decide on their topic they take time to research their idea, conduct interviews if applicable, and develop the plan they will present.

Speech Writing

Students then begin to design their speech by writing a claim, a compelling argument, and a call to action. They use ethos, pathos, and logos to appeal to their audience. Students are specifically instructed that their call to action must be something they would be willing to do themselves, and the basis of the idea can't require others to donate money. By eliminating donations as a solution, it encourages students to craft solutions that would be available to everyone regardless of their ability to contribute financially.

Final Touches

Students use technology to engage the audience, which often helps students feel more confident during their presentation. Students practice their speech many times before presenting it to the class, and with practice they find ways to make it better.

A Competition that Everyone Wins

Every student presents their speech to their language arts class, one winner from each class presents at a grade level competition, and then two students from each grade level advance to present in front of the entire middle school study body. When I introduce the eight finalists to their peers at the school-wide competition, I emphasize that every student in the community has contributed by sharing their ideas, and I encourage students to pursue their plans even if they didn't advance in the competition.

The Spotlight Challenge is powerful. It encourages students to develop and share ideas. It focuses on ways students can change the world now. It also gives teachers and parents insight into the issues that are important to students. There are always a wide variety of topics shared in the competition such as the power of words, transgender bullying, sexism, Islamophobia, gun law reform, sharing our resources with the broader community, the benefits of taking a walk, and 3-D printing to help those with disabilities. I am consistently in awe of the moral courage shown by middle school students as they share their passions, ideas, and often very personal connections with their peers. The far reaching impact of this opportunity on their future has yet to be determined, but it has helped them develop confidence and the belief that they have the power to make a difference.

Students' Voice

Lilah P."The Spotlight Challenge gives students a sense of power and motivates them to make small changes that can lead to big changes. It shows students their decisions matter, and their actions go a long way."

Lauren R. "The challenge also helps the middle school in several ways. For one, it broadens ideas and spreads knowledge across peers, classrooms, and grade levels. It makes issues relevant and uncovers people's passions and ideas … Giving the Spotlights gave me the courage to do the plays and musical, leading me down the path of theatre, which has been one of the best experiences of my life … the Spotlights enforce and create change in our school ... It's such a wonderful project that expands bigger than the school and much bigger than one kid might think as he or she types up their Spotlight speech. I have thoroughly enjoyed each Spotlight challenge and I will always be thankful for the knowledge and experience it gave me."

Ellie W."Putting your ideas out there may be scary but it is worth it … The Spotlight Challenge helped me to reach out to other people to encourage them to help me with my garden idea. If everyone worked hard to help others, the world would be a better place … A little effort can make a big impact on others."

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

Published February 2019.
Author: Kasey Short
Number of views (4031)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Taking Revolutionary Boston to Detroit

Taking Revolutionary Boston to Detroit

Skill building and making connections with themes boosts social studies learning and engagement

There are a number of lessons I have learned in my 20 years as a teacher of American History.

  • Appreciation of history is like a fine wine … the longer you let it sit (the older we get), the better (more meaningful) it becomes.
  • Given the opportunity to take the easy way out, most middle school students will take it … they cram, memorize, and regurgitate, instead of question, understand, and apply.
  • Attaching historical content to one consistent theme throughout the year can create a "velcro effect" that can help establish connections and promote better retention for students.

All three of these lessons are important to keep in mind as educators, but it's the last one that has changed my approach to teaching in recent years.

When I was in middle school, history was taught in chronological order, without exception. We sat in straight rows, faced the chalkboard, and dutifully wrote down what the teacher said. History was a story that was told using lots of dates, names, and events that needed to be memorized.

Don't get me wrong, much of what we were learning was a beautifully amazing story that fascinated me as a child, but it was often very disjointed and hard to connect. I remember thinking about each chapter as its own separate entity, that once completed, could be discarded in order to make space for the new information that I was to learn. My "velcro effect" was lacking.

Today, I still tell the story of American History, but the approach is quite different. Yes, I have my students sit in straight rows once in a while, and yes, my students still dutifully take notes during class, but the cram, memorize, regurgitate routine is no more.

Much of this is the result of two major changes in my teaching philosophy. First, content, which used to be seen as the driving force in my history class, has taken a back seat to skill building and focusing on making connections. And second, I've moved away from telling the entire chronological story, and teaching in more of a thematic manner with projects that are geared to being more relevant.

The idea of teaching history through the scope of "revolutions" was a pretty big shift in how my classroom operated on a day to day basis. The first thing I needed to do was to create a definition of what a revolution is and then find content that would fit the definition. I decided to make it easy, just three steps.

  • The status quo must be upset (revolutions don't begin when everyone is happy)
  • There must be a better plan (you can't just complain about how bad the current situation is)
  • That better plan must be successfully implemented and sustainable (your better plan has to work)

I ended up cutting my content almost in half. I established four content pillars: The American Revolution, The Constitution, Westward Expansion, and The Civil War. These units gave me a structured approach to covering the necessary standards and creating an understanding of American History, while also providing a perfect backdrop for the aforementioned theme of revolutions.

Instead of 15 chapter tests that I had given in the past, I was cutting back to four unit tests. Instead of the traditional fact-based reports that students created in the past, they were working on connecting what they had learned in class to relevant aspects of their own lives. It was hard for me at first to cut back on some of the history that I very much-loved teaching, but the results were immediately evident.

Studying the American Revolution first allowed me to lay the groundwork for what a revolution was and what it meant to be revolutionary. I mean, how much more revolutionary can you get … angry colonists, protests (violent and non-violent), leaders emerging to take on the cause … the students were able to identify and create a relationship between the theme and the content right away.

This unit also just so happened to line up perfectly with our eighth grade interdisciplinary trip to Boston, Massachusetts, that we take each year in November. We were able to finish the unit by the middle of October, have a test on the material covered, and then work on creating a relevant project that would help them "connect" with the content and the theme.

Our Boston Freedom Trail Project, and consequent Detroit Revolutionary Trail Project, was born out of this combination of content, thematic approach, and timing … and it has been a major success over the past few years. We ask the students two weeks before our trip to Boston to work with a partner to research one of the stops of the Freedom Trail. They research their specific stop, looking for interesting facts, historical significance, why it's on the trail, what visitors can expect to see while there, and most importantly, what makes this stop revolutionary (based on our previously established definition).

Once this information is found and organized, students put it together in a final, visually appealing format. Students have created YouTube quality videos that visually take the viewer on a virtual tour of the stop, while providing interesting details using voiceovers. Other students have created large poster boards showcasing their information in a colorful, visually appealing style. Giving students choice in this final product is certainly an opportunity for the groups to utilize their strengths and creatively think about what would work best.

I usually give the students four to five class periods to work on this, with the final class period being used as an opportunity for the students to share their final product. This presentation day happens the day before we leave for Boston … which is great, as it provides a strong base of prior knowledge to be established for each student. When we get to Boston and experience the trail, students get another chance to do a quick 30-60 second presentation about their stop while at the stop … essentially, they become the guide. It's fun to watch them point to artifacts, plaques, or monuments that they had been researching in class, and seeing, for the first time, the places and objects that had only been images on their computers before. They take great pride in sharing their knowledge with their peers in the moment. The experience on the trail is a great way for the students to connect with the history in a hands-on, fun, and educational way.

My first question when we get in the classroom after returning from Boston is always the same, "So, what did we love about the trip?" Inevitably, the students will talk about the fun they had with their classmates and the dinner cruise we take around the harbor, but when I redirect the question back to educational experiences, the Freedom Trail tops the list. My follow up question is then, "Why do you think that Detroit doesn't have a trail like this?" Most students respond with statements about how Detroit really didn't play a role in the American Revolution or that Detroit doesn't have the same kind of history as Boston. True, maybe, but when I press harder and challenge the students to think about the Freedom Trail as not just an American Revolution Trail, but a trail that showcases revolutionary events that took place in Boston, the real question then becomes, are there revolutionary aspects to the city of Detroit?

Time to go back to our definition of what makes a revolution: unhappy with the status quo, better plan, successful implementation of that better plan. So, are there aspects of Detroit's history that could work? Heck yeah there are! Getting the students to start thinking about Detroit differently, different from the national negative light that is often cast, is an important lesson for me to teach. Getting them to look at some of the cool, interesting, and revolutionary things that Detroit has been part of is a real game changer for many of my students.

The Detroit Revolutionary Trail Project asks the students to find places in Detroit that represent revolutionary actions in the city. Students are divided into groups again and asked to brainstorm revolutionary aspects of Detroit. I get everything from the auto industry to Motown Records to the art and cultural explosion that is currently taking place in the city. The students are asked to narrow their stops to 5 or 6 (I don't ask for 16 like the Freedom Trail) and begin to collect information that will be helpful in describing historical significance of the place or event and determine revolutionary components. They create a Google Slides presentation that is visually appealing with lots of images and then they create a sales pitch. I call it a sales pitch because they are not just presenting it to me; we scour the community and alums of the school to create an authentic audience for the students to present to. I often get asked the question by the students, "Do you think that they will create our trail for real?" To which I always just shrug and say, "Who knows?"

The day of the presentations are awesome. The kids are nervous because there are people in the room who usually aren't there … they are adults, but not teachers. It's strange and intimidating, but also super exciting. And the kids don't disappoint, they bring out their A game. They passionately plead their case for why their trail not only should but must be made. Full disclosure, none of the trails have been made in the city of Detroit … yet.

The month spent on this unit is amazing. I like to think that it involves the trifecta of educational learning: learn it, experience it, and apply it. I'm so impressed with how the students embrace the lessons from this unit and walk away not just looking at what makes a revolution, but more importantly, how they can be revolutionary. If our students are the future of our community, it's important that they understand this concept and follow the wise words of the great Mahatma Gandhi to be the change that they want to see in the world.

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

Published February 2019.
Author: Kevin DuRoss
Number of views (3425)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
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