Writing as Inspiration in Math Class

Writing as Inspiration in Math Class

Using the power of words to explore math content, careers, and self-reflection

Reading and writing are powerful learning tools that can be used effectively in the math classroom to draw connections between mathematics and its application to the other school disciplines and the real world. Projects like those described in my previous article, "Integrating Global Education in the Middle School Math Classroom," can foster quantitative literacy, hone analytical and critical thinking abilities, and encourage reading facts, news, and information in a more reasoned and methodical way—skills that are necessary to raise competent, positive, productive citizens.

The power of words can be harnessed to benefit mathematics education in other ways, as well, such as to fight the stereotype threat. The stereotype threat is defined as a situation in which individuals are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group. Research has shown that the stereotype threat also contributes to lower performance among women in math and science.

So we chose International Women's Day (March 8) to celebrate the accomplishments of women mathematicians using a page of Plus magazine with some of the best articles, podcasts, videos, and interviews that have been written by, about, or with major input from female mathematicians and physicists.

I set up a blog with Edublogs that explained the simple guidelines of the project and looked on as my students chose one item from the list, described its content and their own responses, and blogged about it. Here are some of their posts. (Edublogs, like other blogging tools for education, allows you to choose settings and privacy degrees as well as different levels of monitoring students' posts.)

Role models and inspirational stories can provide strong support and motivation in the study of mathematics—and here again, writing can be put to good use. Every year I ask my students to interview a contemporary woman engaged in a mathematics career then write an essay based on their interview. If both the interviewee and the student agree, the essay is submitted to the essay contest organized annually by the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM). In class we discuss the guidelines for the project and we brainstorm questions. More importantly, however, it is in our classroom conversation that we find out how mathematics is entwined in innumerable professions, not just the standard ones that immediately come to mind.

Over the years my students have interviewed women from all walks of life, from nurses and pediatricians to fashion designers, bankers, actuaries, business owners, app creators, techies, economists, stock exchange traders, genetic counselors, software developers, infectious disease researchers, political statisticians, lawyers, EPA environmentalists, engineers, accountants, photographers, epidemiologists, neuro/computer scientists, econometricians, realtors, and yes, also math and computer science professors and teachers. Some of these women have achieved their dreams at great personal cost; others had to overcome difficulties, biases, unexpected challenges; all speak of perseverance, grit, dedication, "sticking to it." The heartfelt and often wise advice they share is authentic and therefore meaningful for the students. Find some students' essays in this student-created website called Inspirations, and others on the AWM website.

Finally, writing is a great way to get students' feedback on a variety of topics, for instance on a particular project I have asked them to do, especially if it is a new project. I usually give the students a series of questions or prompts that relate to the various aspects of the project as a self-reflection exercise. Their thoughts allow me to gauge the impact of the activity and develop improvements; at the same time the students feel they have a voice, and their feedback is useful and important.

Self-reflection in which the students express their thoughts in paragraphs is much more helpful for me than when they circle numbers to respond to questions. This way students can express their opinions more clearly and reveal their attitudes, anxieties and joys, difficulties and successes, concerns and expectations, and become more engaged in their own learning and more involved with the running and managing of math class. I find these self-reflections particularly useful at student-parent-teacher conference time. An exercise in metacognition, this type of writing also opens communications, strengthens the student-teacher relationship, and builds trust.

As school schedules and curricula are ever more crowded, class time becomes a crucial commodity. Projects like those described here are particularly useful for math educators because they are low investment in terms of class time. The emphasis on creativity, initiative, inquiry, exploration, independent work, extensive reading and research—all features of enriching tasks—produces high return in terms of interest and excitement for mathematics. Furthermore, they appeal to a wider pool of learners and may attract students who consider themselves more readers and writers than mathematicians.

Giving students choice and agency encourages them to take ownership of their own learning. My students responded enthusiastically to these undertakings, and enjoyed sharing them with their families—who were appreciative of the final products—and with the rest of the school community.

Alessandra King is a mathematics teacher and middle school mathematics coordinator for Holton-Arms School, an independent school for girls in grades 3-12 in Bethesda, Maryland.

Published January 2019.
Author: Alessandra King
Number of views (19757)/Comments (0)/
Topics: STEMTeaching
Worksheet Busters

Worksheet Busters

Revitalizing teaching and learning with engaging activities

It's Monday morning. You're refreshed after a weekend spent with your family, your favorite fuzzy socks, and an unashamedly impressive amount of streaming content. You're excited about your lesson plans. You've arranged your room just so, maybe with some special decorations to set the stage. You've carefully arranged all the materials. Your bell ringer is pulled up, you have upbeat, curse-word-free music playing, and your fashionable shoes aren't pinching your toes. You've planned interaction, tech integration, and a check for understanding so you know who you need to meet with tomorrow. Today, you rock.

And then you've got to do it again Tuesday.

And Wednesday.

And Thursday.

And by then, you're tapped out. Your coffeemaker is on the fritz, brewing rust-colored water instead of coffee, spurting it across your counter—and your dress shirt—as you rush out the door. Your family time has been spent shuttling one kid to soccer, another to theater, and entertaining the other while getting the hole in your tire patched since your car knows exactly when you DON'T have time for this kind of thing and has conspired with the coffeemaker to make your life as difficult as possible.

You gave up on the fashionable shoes and switched to tennis shoes by Tuesday afternoon. You're running late from your morning staff meeting, so you sacrifice your bell ringer so you have the chance to stop by the bathroom before the kids arrive. Six kids were playing four different games during class yesterday, so you've locked the computers down and want to pretend it's 1983.

You gave up on checks for understanding when Tuesday's small groups turned into a contest in which the students you needed to work with and the rest of the class competed to see who could be off-task in the most creative ways possible. Today ... today you are knee deep in The Thursday Problem.

We've all been there. Sometimes we have precisely the right activity for the objective and we can craft a truly memorable and valuable learning experience. But other times, for a variety of reasons, we find that our lesson plan amounts to "page 47."

We ALL want to be great teachers. We take this role very seriously. And we are measured by increasingly challenging professional standards that mandate we pay close attention to student engagement. In my state, our professional rubric describes a master teacher as engaging 75% or more of the class in deeply active learning experiences at all times.

That's a tall order.

When you find yourself facing The Thursday Problem, Worksheet Busters may be just the thing you need. Worksheet Busters are activity frameworks that turn any worksheet or question set into memorable, engaging learning experiences. Worksheet Busters can be adapted for ANY content at any time. Many require no special materials. All are easy to make or set up. And all bring added depth and value to traditional worksheets.

And they're fun.

If students are having fun, they are interested, connected, engaged. The walls they've built against school and learning come down. They may even start to LIKE school. And we know great things follow that. It's about creating the ideal conditions for meaningful engagement.

Fun is a tool. It's effective. But it's not the end goal.

So, in addition to being fun, Worksheet Busters are deep. They take the original experience of whatever worksheet you start with and drive the learning deeper, requiring higher-order thinking skills or a whole different depth of knowledge. In other words, massive learning bang for your very little or non-existent buck.

If you have nothing but a worksheet (or any question set, vocab list, etc.), you have all you need for Paper Airplanes, Musical Desks, Speed Dating and more. To play Paper Airplanes:

  1. Have students put their name on their worksheet and do the first problem.
  2. Then have them fold their worksheet into an airplane.

Yes, an airplane.

  1. Students stand. At your signal, they throw their airplane.

Take a moment to look around the room. You'll notice something about your students at this point. (Hint: it involves a strange phenomenon in which students' mouths turn up at the corners, possibly revealing their teeth.)

  1. Students grab the nearest worksheet and do the next problem.
  2. Repeat steps 2-4 until the end of playing time or the worksheet is finished.
  3. Students get their own worksheet back and evaluate all the answers on it, deciding if they are correct and making changes as necessary. This brings a deeper level of thinking to a traditional worksheet.

Musical Desks also requires nothing more than a worksheet or question set and a little music (preferably of the curse-word-free variety). There are many different ways to play. To use Musical Desks with open-ended questions:

  1. Put one open-ended question on a piece of paper. Place one paper at each desk.
  2. Crank some tunes.
  3. Students walk (or dance) through the room until you stop the music.
  4. Then they sit at the nearest desk and answer that question.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4. As students sit at desks where the question has already been answered, they extend their answer with their own thoughts, prove the answer with more evidence, argue against it, even prove it wrong. Students are engaging in written conversations with each rotation.

For Speed Dating, divide your class in half. Give half a question and half an answer from a worksheet and answer key. Arrange the students in circles facing each other. Then:

  1. Pairs discuss their question and answer and determine if they're a match. If not, they hypothesize what question or answer they go with.
  2. Keep the time tight. Rotate students to a new partner right before they'd be done with their conversation. Like true speed dating, you want to keep the sense of anticipation and urgency high. Repeat.
  3. If students are rotating with a copy of the worksheet, they can write answers with their partner as they come up with them. But even without a worksheet, students can still engage in meaningful discussion.

If you're willing to spend a few bucks on a bag of ball pit balls*, you can do even more. Hungry Hippos is a Worksheet Buster with many variations. Here's one way to play Hungry Hippos:

  1. Cut apart a worksheet or question set.
  2. Tape one question to each ball.
  3. Have students draw out a ball and discuss their questions (or write answers on paper).
  4. Return the balls and repeat.

To really up the ante, try letting the kids come up with the questions. They can write them directly on the balls with dry erase markers, deposit their ball, then draw a different one out to take back to their seat and discuss. *Middle school students tend to have trouble with the word "balls." I suggest the euphemism "learning spheres" instead.

When you can craft a learning experience perfectly suited to your objective, do. But when you find yourself facing The Thursday Problem (even if it's Monday), Worksheet Busters are a sanity-saving way to engage your students in deep, meaningful learning. And they'll want to come back for more tomorrow.

These Worksheet Busters, including many variations of each, and more are available at www.teachbeyondthedesk.com.

Katie Powell is a sixth grade reading and ELA teacher in Indiana. After serving as a special education teacher, Title 1 teacher, and instructional coach, she developed Worksheet Busters to be applicable to any content without sacrificing teachers' already limited time or money. Katie serves on AMLE's On-site Professional Development team.

Published January 2019.
Author: Katie Powell
Number of views (12428)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Student Choice in the Mathematics Classroom

Student Choice in the Mathematics Classroom

Increasing engagement and motivation by giving students input on their learning

As a mathematics teacher I have often struggled to help my students feel inspired and motivated to do mathematics. Some students are unmotivated because traditionally they have not been successful in mathematics. This lack of motivation often contributes to behavioral problems and a decrease in academic achievement.

In the schools where I have worked, on-grade level courses are for "non-advanced" students and tend to be designed in a more traditional manner, one in which students have few freedoms and typically do not have a voice in the ways in which they are learning. Self-Determination Theory (SDT) states that a person will display more signs of happiness and increased self-motivation if they have a perception of support for their autonomy as opposed to being controlled (Chirkov & Ryan, 2001).

With a more controlled environment taking place in many public schools in the United States, there is a power struggle that must be addressed to move towards a more autonomous-supportive classroom (Cook-Sather, 2002). In an effort to support students' autonomy and increase their motivation I decided to look at ways to allow students to have input in their learning. My goal was to examine students' perceptions of various mathematics lesson formats.

Lesson Formats

To gain these insights, I posed these questions following the implementation of each of three different lesson formats:

  1. How well do you feel you understood today's task?
  2. Did you enjoy learning through tiered instruction (or inquiry or direct instruction)?
  3. If this lesson was taught again, how could it be improved to make it more interesting or to help your learning? 
  4. What is your favorite way to learn in mathematics class?

Each of these prompts were given to all six of my eighth grade classes after teaching lessons using the tiered, inquiry, and direct instruction lesson formats. I also engaged students in whole-class discussions to reveal their perceptions. Let's take a look at the three different lesson types implemented: tiered, inquiry, and direct instruction.


A tiered lesson is a differentiated lesson based on students' needs. The tiered lesson I taught was aligned to the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM) (CCSSI, 2010, ) standard for eighth grade that focuses on using informal arguments to establish facts about the interior angle sum and exterior angles of triangles (8.G.5).

Students were given a pre-assessment, which was used to form four student groups (i.e., levels 1-4) Each group consisted of four to five students and each student was provided their own laptop. Student groups were instructed to complete four tasks related to the standard.

The level four group was comprised of students who demonstrated an understanding of the learning goal, "Students will be able to use informal arguments to establish facts about the angle sum and exterior angles of triangles." Therefore, the level four group's work was designed as a quick review followed by an extension. The goal for these students was to create their own examples and work through proofs of both the Exterior Angle Theorem and the Triangle Angle Sum Theorem.

Students grouped in level three took guided notes from a video and completed practice problems that focused directly on the learning goal with an extension on the Exterior Angle Theorem. Level two students were given examples and practice problems that were scaffolded to provide an opportunity to gain understanding of the angle relationships of a triangle. Level one students were placed in a group where the teacher provided the instruction, providing opportunities for students to work one-to-one with teachers.


The second lesson format presented to students was an inquiry lesson which used a more student-centered approach. Inquiry was described to students as a learning process where students pose and investigate questions to discover new ideas. This lesson focused on solving real-world and mathematical problems involving volume of cylinders, cones, and spheres (CCSSM 8.G.9) using "The Coca Cola Problem" by Dan Meyer (see http://blog.mrmeyer.com/).

Students began by watching a short video clip in which someone fills a pool with soda, and students then posed different questions about the video. From the questions created, students were tasked with determining the number of soda bottles it would take to fill a swimming pool. Students worked collaboratively to determine the information needed to solve the problem. After brainstorming ideas, students were given the diameter and height of the pool and how much one bottle of soda could hold. Students used this information and worked in teams to figure out how many bottles of soda could fill up the pool.

Students discovered that they needed to find the volume of the cylindrical shape pool, so a discussion on how to find the volume of a cylinder ensued. Eventually students decided to use the volume formula for a cylinder to solve the problem.

Direct Instruction

The direct instruction lesson can be described as a teacher-centered approach in which students are presented with facts and steps, and they used this information to answer prescribed questions and problems. The direct instruction lesson focused on solving real-world and mathematical problems involving volume of spheres (CCSSM 8.G.9). This lesson began with a video that helped students relate the volume of a sphere to the volume of cones and cylinders.

While I modeled finding the volume of a sphere in two different ways, students took guided notes. After a few examples students tried some problems on their own and then with their teams.

Students' Perceptions of the Lessons

Student feedback on the three lesson formats was interesting. The majority of students stated that they preferred to learn on individual laptops because they liked the opportunity to work at their own pace and pause the video. One student said "Tiered (lessons) may be my new favorite way to learn. It was very helpful with this lesson."

Many students who enjoyed working through the tiered lesson liked the opportunity for collaboration as well. Students shared that they enjoyed discussing ideas with their team when they were stuck. Generally, students preferred lessons that included technology and opportunities to work as a group.

However, there was a portion of students who shared that they would rather experience direct instruction and have the opportunity to work independently or closely with the teacher.

Overwhelmingly, students preferred lessons that are engaging in some way such as using whiteboards, watching videos, or simply incorporating music. During the inquiry lesson, students were challenged to think critically and some students "got it" right away, but many did not. While students wanted to be rescued, I instead posed questions to help them persevere through the lesson.

Lessons Learned and Tips for the Classroom

In trying out different lesson formats, I discovered that students enjoyed using laptops for instruction. Doing so allowed me to differentiate lessons and work one-on-one with students. I also know now I need to include more tasks that encourage students to work as a team while also using computers. Asking these questions of my students helped me to learn about the lesson formats students prefer, what they find helpful, and how they feel they learn best. Below are some tips for teachers interested in incorporating student choice in the classroom:

  • Allow students to provide input on your instructional design during the beginning of the school year when getting to know students.
  • Design questions that focus on different lesson formats so you can get meaningful feedback from your students.
  • Select tasks for your lessons that provide an entry point for each and every student—otherwise students may become frustrated and little productive struggle or success will occur.
  • When seeking student input, present different forms of lessons that are proven effective in the classroom.


Allowing students opportunity for choice in the classroom empowers them to make decisions regarding their learning. Doing so increases their feeling of autonomy. As Brooks and Young (2011) suggest, teachers hold a vital role in supporting students' motivation to complete a task, which demonstrates the need for a more autonomous supportive classroom.

Obtaining candid feedback from my students has allowed me to reflect on what went well and what did not go well in my lessons. Students made great recommendations on ways that I could improve. Moving forward I will follow-up with students and begin formatting lessons to include students' preferences, while maintaining quality and rigor.

I also learned the importance of giving students the opportunity to provide input on their learning, which helped them realize that they play an active role in their own learning. With a voice, students seemed to be more motivated to complete a task. This aligns with the idea that intrinsically motivated people are found to exhibit an increased level of perseverance, creativity, vigor, self-confidence, and success (Deci & Ryan, 2001).

Providing opportunities for students to participate in the decision-making process in regards to their learning can have a great impact on student engagement and motivation (Ferguson & Braxton, 2011, p. 55).

In closing, I advocate that it is just as important to differentiate based on student learning preferences as it is to differentiate based on achievement because sometimes students' needs are not just about scaffolding ideas but also about how the topic is presented.


Brooks, C.F., & Young, S.L. (2011). Are choice-making opportunities needed in the classroom? Using self- determination theory to consider student motivation and learner empowerment. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 23(1), 48-59.

Chirkov, V.I., & Ryan, R.M. (2001). Parent and teacher autonomy-support in Russian and U.S.: Adolescents common effects on well-being and academic motivation. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 32(5), 618-635.

Cook-Sather, A. (2002). Authorizing students' perspectives: Toward trust, dialogue, and change in education. Educational Researcher, 31(3), 3-14.

Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). 2010. Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Common Core State Standards (College- and Career-Readiness Standards and K–12 Standards in English Language Arts and Math). Washington, D.C.: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. http://www.corestandards.org.

Deci, E.L, & Ryan, R.M. (2001). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

Ferguson, D., Hanreddy, A., Draxton, S. (2011). Giving students voice as a strategy for improving teacher practice. London Review of Education, 9(1), 55-70.

Michelle Burroughs is an eighth grade mathematics teacher at Millennium Middle School, Orlando, Florida.

Published January 2019.
Author: Michelle Burroughs
Number of views (8343)/Comments (1)/
Topics: Teaching
Bring Passion to Your Class

Bring Passion to Your Class

The benefit of 20% Time or Genius Hour for middle schoolers

In my first year of teaching, I was actively looking for new ways to renew my students' excitement for learning. My search led me to Google's 20% Time initiative, where employees are given 20% of their working time to work on personal projects. This initiative is how Gmail and Google News started.

To bring this concept into middle school, during 20% Time (or Genius Hour) students determine their areas of passion and create a project based on it. Unlike traditional curriculum, students learn to problem solve, conduct research, overcome obstacles, and organize a project independently from start to finish. While common in elementary classrooms, this project is even more beneficial for middle schoolers, as it allows them to explore potential future careers, equips them with skills needed for a job, or, at the very least, allows them to develop their interests. Here are steps I took to start 20% Time.

Step 1: Set the Tone for the Project

Introducing the project to the class requires enthusiasm so students understand that the project is special, unlike anything they have ever done in class. Since excitement is contagious, the more positive you can be, the more it will reflect in the students' attitudes.

I introduce the project by providing a timeline and giving them my project rules.

  1. You are only limited by your imagination
  2. You must create something to show the class
  3. You must be working on something during class sessions

Step 2: Brainstorming Ideas

Since middle schoolers are accustomed to being told what to do in classroom assignments, brainstorming ideas for a project can be intimidating at first. Most likely, they will not be used to having complete control. To help guide them, here are questions they can consider:

  • What is something you've always wanted to do in school?
  • If you could spend your time doing anything, what would it be?
  • What is a problem that needs solving?
  • What is something that makes you really annoyed (or happy)?

For students who do not immediately know where to turn for a project, these questions can serve as discussion-starters between the student and the teacher. I confer with my unsure students to help them talk through ideas, drawing on inspiration from their responses.

Step 3: The Official Pitch

Once an idea is selected, it must be pitched to the class. Prior to this date, students should have conducted research about their project and be knowledgeable enough about the topic to present it effectively to the class. This 60-second commercial must sell the class on the necessity and potential benefit of the project for the student's life or the lives of others. The class votes to approve or deny the project and either offers recommendations for revision or advice and support.

Step 4: Working Sessions

Class sessions may seem chaotic at first as students are working on different projects simultaneously, but the key is that all students are focused on their work. They can collaborate with others or work independently to achieve their goals.

During these sessions, I circulate the room and confer with each student, checking their progress and working through difficulties. I try not to give direct answers, but rather point them in the direction of resources. I also require students to document during their working sessions what they have accomplished, learned, or struggled with during the session. Students can document their progress in any way they like, such as audio or video recordings, blog posts, or bullet points in a notebook.

Step 5: The Grand Finale

After the working sessions have ended, the students share their work in a culminating presentation. While the go-to suggestion is a TED talk variation, I typically have my students choose a presentation method that represents their project. I've had students take classes outside for demonstrations, test out inventions, screen films, dance, lead book discussion groups for a self-written series, and test a self-coded video game. Students are more open to this strategy, appreciating the open-ended opportunity and the process of finding the best way to share their work.

The students participate in a Q&A with the class after the project is shared and positive comments are provided by peers to celebrate the successes. Some popular projects from previous years include a weekly podcast, a World War II documentary, fundraisers for anti-bullying awareness and wildlife conservation, and the creation of a music album.

20% Time is a staple of my classroom. Each year, I'm amazed by the passion, resilience, ambition, and dedication of my students. Middle school is a time of self-discovery and this project provides students with the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Kathryn Nieves is a special education ELA teacher at Sparta Middle School in Sparta, New Jersey.
Published December 2018.
Author: Kathryn Nieves
Number of views (5636)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Is it About Their Future or Your Past?

Is it About Their Future or Your Past?

Creating great experiences that prepare students to be ready for whatever the future brings

I'm an 80s kid. I was born in 1977 and spent the bulk of my childhood in the greatest decade ever. I wore knee high striped socks with my short shorts. I listened to Michael Jackson, Tiffany, and Guns and Roses. My beloved Detroit Pistons were winning championships for me, and the Detroit Tigers were World Series champions.

My childhood was filled with kickball, bike rides, and Mr. Wizard. Today I have four children of my own. My oldest child, almost a teenager wears shorts that fall below his knees. My kids watch television shows downloaded from the Internet. Kickball has been replaced by Pokemon Go, and my favorite sports teams probably won't even make the playoffs this year.

My childhood was a long time ago and a lot has changed since then. As a child I had no Internet, no home computer, no clue what my future would hold. I believed I would grow up to be a truck driver, a meteorologist, and a Navy Seal. Today, my kids dream of being vloggers and YouTube stars. My kids have no idea what childhood was like 40 years ago, and back then I could never have imagined what childhood would look like today. Similarly, 40 years ago I had no idea what adulthood would like when I actually got there, and neither did any of the adults I surrounded myself with.

What Lies Ahead?

Many of us have heard the statistics about the number of jobs that will exist 20 years from now that aren't even ideas in people's heads today. The reality is, we have no idea how many new jobs will exist because we have no idea what new technologies will be developed, what new consumer demands will be created, and what services will be required.

Knowing about this uncertainty, we, as educators, still try to tell our students why all the content we are exposing them to is important and how it will help them in the future. In reality, all we are doing is telling these students, children with uncertain futures, how that content has helped prepare us for our present, which may or may not be relevant to their future.

It's important to ask ourselves daily, "Are we preparing students for their futures or for our past?"

As educators our job is to contribute to the future. We have jobs that others try to measure in moments of time through daily observations and summative assessments, when, truly, our success can only be measured in generations. If what we are presenting to our students cannot endure, we must ask if it is something we should be spending our time on at all.

What About SBL?

Now, don't get me wrong. Standards-based learning (SBL) is a key to achieving success. Clearly articulating objectives and assessing based on growth and progress, mastery, and proficiency are critical components of lasting learning and enduring education, but none are the silver bullet. I have built my professional reputation—my career—on articulating the importance and relevance of focused, standards-based learning and grading. But even I know that SBL, as it is often described, is only a piece of the puzzle.

In education we are often guilty of seeking the Holy Grail or a magic pill to cure all and fix what others perceive to be broken. We attend a conference and hear one educator tell a story of what has worked in her classroom, with her kids, in her community and jump on board to try to replicate that program in our school with our kids in our way and expect the same results. We chase programs over people. We search for curriculum over creativity. When we don't see immediate results, we drift back to the status quo and wonder if the next blog we read, the next professional development seminar we attend, or the next team meeting will reveal the answer we have been looking for.

We need to stop looking for THE answer and instead continue to look for AN answer, realizing that we have millions of children in a multitude of environments, with countless unknown futures who all require something a little bit different.

College and Career Readiness

I currently work in a state that has adopted College and Career Readiness Standards. This is such a great idea, yet so often misapplied and misinterpreted by the very people responsible for their implementation. I am currently in my 19th year as a professional educator. When I look back on my first year and compare it to this year, I can honestly say I was a mess when I began. I had no idea what I was doing almost two decades ago.

Prior to becoming a teacher, I attended a great teacher preparation university, Central Michigan University (Go, Fire Up, Chips!), and had a diverse student teaching experience and a phenomenal mentor. But despite all of that, the only thing that could properly prepare me for my career was my career. This is why veteran teachers make more money than first year teachers. It is not because older teachers are worth more, it is because they've had more experiences, and we assume they've had the opportunity to refine and grow their skill sets as a result.

We understand that experience in the career is what prepares us for the career. The same is true of

almost every career you can imagine. Whether it is professional sports, education, engineering, public safety, or medicine, often the only thing that truly makes you ready for your career is your career … and a lot of grace offered to you by those you work with as you make mistakes along the way.

The same is true of college readiness. When I look back on my first year of college, I wonder how in the world I am still alive. I graduated high school with a 3.8 gpa. I was the student council president. I competed in sports and Model United Nations. I was a self-described model high school student, yet my first year of college was a disaster. The only thing that helped me find success and graduate from college was my ability to make it through my first year of college. I may have had some book smarts when I entered, but I was lacking a lot of "not so common" sense.

When we say we are preparing students to be ready for college and career are we measuring this based on their short term retention of academic facts or are we really providing them with skills and opportunities that will transcend the safety of their K-12 school system and lead them towards long term success, regardless of what the future holds? Are we giving them the persistence, confidence, humility, and curiosity that will lead to future learning or are we giving students the answers to questions that exist today without the ability to question the answers that we believe will exist tomorrow?

In addition to my role as a public school administrator, I serve as an adjunct professor for a teacher prep college in the midwest. I get the opportunity to work with high school graduates, giving them foundational understanding, and helping to set them up for a long career. The students I work with come from a wide range of communities, families, and school systems. They all had to apply for their college admissions and all were accepted, despite having such a variety of experiences. During the admissions process, college offices asks students to submit ACT scores, GPAs, transcripts, essays, records of philanthropic service, as well as descriptions of extra-curricular achievements. Colleges understand that they should not accept students simply because of a single data point or high school transcripts, but that we are all a collection of data. We are not defined by one test, one grade, or one statistic. We are who we are because of a collection of moments and experiences.

As educators we must get back to embracing that if we are indeed trying to set our students up for success in their careers and college, we are not just in the test prep business; we are in the experience creating business. Yes, we want students to learn, but real learning, learning that lasts, has nothing to do with memorizing facts and figures. Learning that lasts is all about making memories and creating experiences. Great teachers recognize this, and great leaders encourage this.


David M. Schmittou, Ed.D. is executive director of curriculum and instruction at Brandon School District, Ortonville, Michigan. He is a former middle school principal and was named the 2018 College Educator of the Year and the 2014 Michigan Principal of the Year. He is author of It's Like Riding a Bike: How to Make Learning Last a Lifetime (2017).

Published December 2018.
Author: David M. Schmittou
Number of views (5390)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Teaching Failure

Teaching Failure

How learning to fail can produce the biggest gains in life

We absolutely love walking into kindergarten classrooms. There is a richness in colors that cover the walls, activities, and learning stations can be found scattered across the room, and let's face it, those cubbies are so cute and smell so much better than the lockers we have in our middle schools.

But, in the midst of the excitement and newness, there is something else happening, a phenomenon that is often missing from our middle school classrooms. You see it when kindergarten teachers ask their students what happens next in a picture book they are sharing. You see it when they pass out markers and crayons and ask their students to draw and create a picture. You are overwhelmed by it when the kindergarten teachers asks the class an open-ended question, and virtually every hand shoots up into the air.

Kindergarten students do not fear failure. They eagerly give answers with no fear of consequences for being wrong, and they attempt new challenges without lamenting their lack of experience with the challenge.

Fast-forward six or seven years and these same students are in our middle school classrooms. Yet now, they fear failure. Very few volunteer answers or take risks in their learning. Students avoid eye contact, they rarely go beyond the expectations for assignments, and they are often focused on the grade, not the learning.

Our classrooms have also changed from what they experienced in kindergarten. We institute rubrics and minimum scores on assignments and we design lessons and activities to help eliminate the possibility of our students failing. When students do fail, teachers often focus on the consequences—the act of failure—and not on the opportunity for learning it presents.

Certainly, there is a variety of reasons for this change in student behavior, including their psychological, cognitive, and social-emotional development as described in This We Believe. However, we would theorize that schools and education in general have played a role in transforming student behavior too by associating the act of failure with negative consequences. What would our classrooms be like if all students acted like their inner kindergartner?

More importantly, we have witnessed in our own teaching the power and benefits that can be achieved when our students are allowed to fail. When we removed the fear of failing from our classrooms, and adjusted our lessons to incorporate failure, we began to realize amazing gains in our students, both academically and more broadly in their character.

Teaching middle school students how to fail promoted resilience, perseverance, and mindfulness. These character education traits are immensely beneficial in supporting classroom learning, but we would argue they are essential for developing the type of lifelong real world skills that students will need upon leaving school.

With this in mind, we present our roadmap for teaching failure within your classroom. Each of these suggestions incorporates an aspect of failure while building students' resilience, perseverance, and mindfulness. For the purpose of clarity, we define resilience as the ability to bounce back with a task after experiencing failure with it; perseverance as the ability to continue with a task, despite the possibility for failure; and mindfulness as the understanding of how your failure affects yourself and others.

Seven ways to teach failure in your classroom

1. Have your students experience failure at least once a week.
Experiencing failure may sound bad at first, however, if students learn how to fail in a safe environment while they are still young, they will be able to overcome greater failures and challenges as adults. From failing in a simulation, or even a complex question, to failing at a classroom game, students will be able to recognize that these failures do not define their capabilities. Furthermore, when students are able to overcome these initial failures, they will emerge stronger and more confident about their own abilities.

2. Encourage (require) risk taking in academic and social/emotional tasks.
Encouraging academic and social/emotional risk will build self-esteem and encourage learning. Have students take these risks by answering questions or completing a project that may be new to them, like creating a video instead of writing a report. Ask students to do things they are uncomfortable with, like talking to adults in the community or presenting to an audience. Encourage students to try new foods or join new clubs. Students may potentially fail when taking these risks but they will be surprised how often they succeed, thus nourishing curiosity and confidence in their own abilities.

3. Students should reflect once a week on how their decisions affected others.
Students can spend the first five minutes of class once a week reflecting on their actions and the reactions of others to their actions. Students will see that some of their decisions were positive and other decisions were places in need of growth. This activity will help to instill reflective and accountability traits in students. Students will see that their actions always have repercussions on themselves and others, both positive and negative. Students will also become more accountable for their own actions because they will understand the effects their actions have on themselves, others, and the world around them.

4. Have students take a weekly inventory of everything they have accomplished during the week.
Have students create goals at the beginning of the school year and smaller weekly or bi-weekly goals. At the end of the goal period, ask students to write down the factors that lead them to achieving or not achieving their goal. Their goals should include any aspects of their lives they want to improve and do well in. Since it is student driven, it should keep students motivated and focused. If students accomplish their goal, they can create a new goal to accomplish. If students do not accomplish the goal, they can reflect on how to accomplish the goal and think of what to do better. Student goals can include anything from making a middle school team to giving someone a compliment each day. It is important that the goals be student driven to ensure student ownership and eventual success. A great way to expand on this is to spend time in class having students share with their classmates the goals they selected, the evidence of their progress towards or away from their goals, and celebrations for achieving their goals.

5. Have students participate in simulations and role-plays with ethical dilemmas.
When given a choice, people will often take the path of least resistance, and middle school students are no different. However, there are meaningful gains to be achieved when we ask our middle school students to engage in simulations and role-plays that wrestle with ethical dilemmas. A favorite activity of ours is to play "Take a Stand" with our students. In our version of this activity, we create two signs, "Agree" and "Disagree," placing each sign on different sides of the room. We do not offer a "Maybe" or "Sometimes" option, because when offered, students will usually go to these options in order to have a safe answer. Then we read our students statements with ethical dilemmas. For example, in our social studies class we might say, "Christopher Columbus discovered America." Students grapple with the idea of what it means to discover something, especially in light of the fact that people were already living in the western hemisphere. More importantly, having these ethical discussions helps students realize that sometimes there are no right answers, but rather multiple interpretations of questions and scenarios. This is a valuable lesson for students to learn, especially in our current "bubble test" culture that emphasizes only one correct answer for a given question.

6. Character Growth Plans (CGP)
Identifying and recognizing our failures is the first step in overcoming them. To this end, we have our students create a yearly character growth plan (CGP). Students identify at the beginning of the year a weakness in their character or something they routinely fail at. Students then provide strategies and goals they plan to undertake during the school year that address their weakness. Twice each quarter, students reflect on their progress and submit evidence of their work towards overcoming their weakness, including attempts that resulted in failure. At the end of the school year students will create a portfolio of the character growth plan, including evidence and reflections collected throughout the year. These portfolios are then shared with the class and with the school community through an organized gallery walk.

7. Encourage curiosity.
Fear of failure has helped to kill curiosity in the classroom. One of our jobs as a teacher is to rekindle a sense of curiosity within our students. To accomplish this, you could have students speculate about society, life, and general events. For example, students could speculate about the impact of driverless cars or social media on our society. To take it a step further, you can ask students questions that have no answers. For example, you could ask students if the average human life span were 30 years, how would you live your life differently? Alternatively, you could ask them what would you do differently if you knew nobody would judge you? Questions like these spark intense curiosity within students and teach them that it is ok to answer, even when there is no correct answer. In fact, it helps build in students the notion that often answers are discovered only after we have played with them through our curiosity. We highly recommend this activity for those days when you have shorter class periods. Like after a fire drill or on picture day.

Dr. Miguel Gomez is assistant professor of middle school education and the middle grades program coordinator at Murray State University. Previously he taught technology education, math, and social studies in middle school.

Kalyn Niehoff is a fifth grade social studies teacher at KIPP Triumph Academy Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. She graduated from Murray State University with a degree in middle school education.

Published November 2018.
Author: Miguel Gomez, Kalyn Niehoff
Number of views (5582)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
What Does It Mean?

What Does It Mean?

Promoting divergent thinking with digital storytelling

Imagine a photo of the Grand Canyon, jagged peaks under a summer sky. In the foreground, a father holds a round-bellied little girl in a yellow shirt and sandals. Feet dangling, the girl stares at his collar, while he looks past her, eyes fixed on the horizon.

When you click the image, you hear the voice of a young woman, narrating. She tells you the photo was taken on a father/daughter road trip to Arizona. She chuckles, recalling her father's reason for waxing the rusty Ford pickup: "We'll get better gas mileage this way." After the trip, her parents will divorce, leaving her confused. Was he saying goodbye? Will she ever have such time with him again? Feeling hopeful, she concludes that the photo represents shared time and friendship.

What I've just described is a two-minute single-image screencast video, compact and loaded with meaning. To make it, this student engaged in all facets of literacy: writing, reading, speaking, listening, and thinking. Our narrator tells you what you see and what you don't see as she determines what the story means to her.

Since argumentation became a key feature on standardized testing, we spend a lot of time talking about claims, reasons, and evidence. And while these concepts are vital for fostering critical thinking, too much focus on argument sends the message that the world is little more than a theatre for pro/con argumentation (a message the world is happy to reinforce). Digital storytelling, by contrast, has the unique ability to provide authentic audiences and promote divergent thinking while fostering a sense of shared humanity.

Making Meaning

When I think about story, I draw upon the work of Jerome Bruner, who proposed that narrative was a way of knowing. You could learn about the properties of a wood-burning stove through observation and experimentation (what Bruner called the paradigmatic mode), or you could learn about the stove by inadvertently touching it, despite your mother's high-pitched "No!" (his narrative mode).

While some things are best learned vicariously or via formal experimentation (thus saving you a trip to the doctor), our most powerful and long-lasting learning experiences are storied. How you learned something is a story, complete with motives, helpers, and hindrances. But, there is more to a story than its factual elements (touching a hot stove). There are the conclusions we draw, which allow us to transfer what we learn to other facets of our lives (slow down, pay attention). So, it is worth asking what our stories mean.

As human beings, we determine meaning all the time, and sometimes we get it wrong. Take this example, as told by my sister, who teaches eighth grade reading: A student, let's call her Emily, sits down in class and begins to text Erik, a boy with whom she is "going out." Since he is on a different schedule, she writes, "How's lunch?" and puts her phone away. As class winds to a close, she peeks at her phone to see a notification from Erik: "It's over."

Emily can't concentrate. It's over? What happened? The next day, she will apologize to her teacher for failing the quiz. The relationship wasn't over. Lunch was over.

It's not what Erik says that worries Emily. It's what she thinks it means. And, if you pressed Emily to explain what she learned from the experience, she might generate some very good conclusions, such as that Erik is a pretty literal dude, or that text messages have limitations.

If we don't ask students to derive meaning, they generally don't, and so miss opportunities to question their conclusions. If Emily can learn to reflect on something as simple as the misinterpreted text, she may be more adept at determining something more complex down the road, like asking what it means when her boyfriend habitually succumbs to fits of rage. Deriving meaning is not a thing we do in school; it is a thing we do in life.

Moving Beyond Binaries

As teachers, we're generally pretty good at fostering convergent thinking: we help students get the same answer to a math problem, the correct context for a historical event. We want students to reach the same conclusion, the right answer. Sometimes we get the opportunity to foster divergent thinking: we look at events from different points of view, read the short story and emerge with different personal connections. We entertain possibilities for interpretation.

Writing can be a powerful conduit for divergent thinking. Take our digital story at the top of this article: a daughter tries to decide what the road trip with her father means to her. His joking about waxing the truck could be a way of showing he cares (love takes many forms). She could conclude that we should savor time with people we love (seize the day), or that parents are human.

Generating possibilities for meaning can help us open up, think reflectively, learn. Struggling to hone her message, another student of mine turned in two separate videos, each one featuring the same photo of a scrappy black and white kitten sandwiched between pillows. In the first video, she spoke about how she adopted a shelter kitten, explaining that the kitten taught her responsibility. In the second video, she explained that she adopted the kitten on the advice of her therapist (new detail), and that the kitten curbed her sense of isolation and growing depression.

Note the switch: In the first version, she saves a kitten. In the second, the kitten saves her. What's terrific is that both stories are true. Life doesn't have to fit into binaries: good decisions/ bad decisions; right answers/wrong answers; giving love/receiving love. Moving past binaries helps us understand human nature.

What Did I Do?

Bruner was interested in actions—the choices we make within specific cultural contexts—along with how those actions generate narrative. In Acts of Meaning, he noticed that children supplied more elaboration when they were asked to explain an action that deviated from an established cultural pattern. If, for instance, Sally decides to pour water on her birthday candles rather than blow them out, you've got a story.

If unlikely actions (or feelings) call forth narrative, that's great news for middle school educators, since their students are grappling with identity, including their own weird feelings and actions. Stories can help students consider their motives and assess the results of their choices: did things go according to plan? What went wrong? Can I tell this in a way that will help others understand me?

When things go wrong, we tell stories. When we get caught eating a third piece of cake, we tell stories. When we have feelings that don't match the occasion (why am I crying?), we tell stories. Stories help us explain, rationalize, reflect. Middle schoolers have a lot of stories. So, there's plenty to mine.

Shorter is Sweeter

In giving this assignment to teaching candidates, I have learned to ask them to keep it short. If students have 1-2 minutes to tell a story, they tend to think in terms of relevance. They winnow things down to the most salient details, focus on precision, along with the message they are trying to send.

If students have 4-5 minutes to tell a story (or, heaven forbid, an unlimited amount of time), they tend to ramble, lose the narrative thread, or supply unnecessary details, trying to fill time in the same way they pad essays. In the real world, we rarely have unlimited time to make a point, share a story, or idea, so it's worth practicing pithiness.

Short videos can also help differentiate instruction. While the time limit makes digital storytelling seem easier for students who are paralyzed by the thought of writing to length, students who are skilled elaborators find that the time limit makes the process harder, since they have to be selective about the details they choose. In this way, everyone gets a challenge suited to their abilities.

The Basics

Ask students to identify a photo in their library that needs explanation. Then, instruct them to do the following: 1. List what is obvious, 2. Identify what is not obvious (emotional states, intentions, conflicts), Then, ask them to outline a narrative arc and draw conclusions. What do they learn from the photo? If you want to foster divergent thinking, challenge students to supply more than one explanation, or challenge each other's conclusions.

You will find plenty of free screen-capture software applications online. Just make sure to keep it simple as you begin: one image/one narrator. Ignore all the bells and whistles, including audio effects and pan-and-zoom options. The educator page at University of Houston's digital storytelling website will provide you with more sophisticated techniques when you're ready to go wild. In the meantime, help students generate stories worth telling. The rest will follow.

Denice Turner has taught for 30 years, starting with young adolescents. She teaches content area literacy at Black Hills State University and is the author of Worthy: A Memoir.

Published November 2018.
Author: Denice Turner
Number of views (5238)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
No More Assemblies

No More Assemblies

How to make engaging with outside professionals count

An exploding mixture! A cloud in a bottle! Every student's hand in the air to volunteer. Everyone's laughing. Sounds like an educator's dream. But when the dust (or simulated volcano) settles, it is often difficult to pinpoint what students learned. Did they leave with a stronger understanding of a concept? Did they develop the skills of a scientist—crafting a hypothesis, making predictions, testing through experimentation, or analyzing results? Were they inspired to approach their class differently by the connection between the experiment and a real-world problem? Probably not.

Drop-ins by outside professionals often last just an hour, so they have to jump straight to the punchline. These experiences then quickly fade into the blur of the school day without having the lasting impact we envision.

An Alternative

At Harlem Academy, we've developed an approach to making collaboration with outside professionals worthwhile: (1) go big, (2) weave it into the curriculum, and (3) make it a true partnership. We'll be zooming in on these themes using our eighth grade architecture unit as a case study.

Go big. Rather than a series of one-off assemblies, speakers, and class trips, we dive deeply into just a few extended experiences with practitioners that will stick with students. As a rule of thumb, we aim to dedicate 20 or more hours to a professional engagement experience. In some cases, the collaboration might take place a few hours per week over several weeks. In other cases, we spend a full day on it for three days in a row. In still other cases, it is a relatively short experience that repeats for several years.

We've found that this shift from a one-time burst of attention to enduring engagement encourages real learning. A depth-over-breadth approach allows students to immerse themselves in the material they are studying, positioning them to remember what they have learned and grapple with the larger questions of each discipline rather than just scrape the surface.

Architecture case study: Our students work with architects for four hours per week over a five-week period (20 hours), with hands-on exposure to foundational concepts and processes in the field of architecture.

Weave it into the curriculum. It is critical to keep learning goals at the center of planning and build from there, not the other way around. When developing professional engagement opportunities, this means starting with the skills you are advancing and then determining whether the engagement can help students to develop them.

Architecture case study: Our architecture unit is part of the eighth-grade applied science course. In eighth grade, we focus deeply on four core skills outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards, and this unit advances all of them:

  • Developing and using models. Develop or use a model to test ideas about phenomena in designed systems following a protocol to generate a testable model.
  • Constructing explanations and designing solutions. Undertake a design project, engaging in the design cycle to construct or implement a solution that meets specific design criteria and constraints. Students practice all the steps of the engineering design process.
  • Engaging in argument from evidence. Make an oral or written argument that supports or refutes the advertised performance of a device, process, or system based on empirical evidence. Students evaluate the performance of design models following the testing process, suggesting areas for improvement in design and construction of a model.
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. Communicate scientific and technical information in writing or through oral presentations.

Make it a true partnership. We aim to get as close as possible to genuine, on-the-job experiences that will expose students to career paths and develop the early skills they need to succeed in the training for those fields. We therefore listen carefully to the professionals' ideas for authentic, challenging, and meaningful engagement to frame the program, while our teachers ensure the lessons and unit are well constructed and advance curricular objectives. The best of our programs could not have been written without substantial input and collaboration from both parties.

Architecture case study: Harlem Academy's program team worked closely with Rafael Viñoly Architects (RVA) on the development of this unit. As a result, students have authentic exposure to the field, creating designs, scaled drawings, and 3-D models following typical design parameters (e.g., setbacks, height limitations, etc.). Ultimately, students present their drawings and model to a jury panel at RVA's offices, fielding questions, defending their concepts, and listening to critiques.

Implementation Tips

Look within your community. Start by taking an inventory of your community, considering which hospitals, colleges, private companies, and nonprofits are nearby. Your school might tap a local university to shape a weather unit, an arboretum to work on plant biology, or a manufacturing plant to guide a unit on the engineering design process.

In addition to RVA, Harlem Academy has substantial collaborations with:

  • Poetry Society of America: Professional poets visit each middle school classroom to guide the drafting, writing, and revision process during a month-long unit.
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Students spend three days each year working in university labs and experiencing life on a college campus.
  • Columbia University Neuroscience Department: Neuroscientists work with students for two months as part of our seventh-grade human biology course.

For some of these experiences, we engaged in the full process described above. In other cases, we took advantage of the organizations' existing outreach programs. We recommend exploring both options, with a focus on ensuring that "off-the-shelf" approach to advancing learning goals.

Just ask! Schools might think that an outside professional would be hesitant to make such an extensive commitment, but we have found just the opposite to be the case. Partnering institutions are willing to put in an extraordinary amount of work to develop meaningful, long-term collaborations that will move the needle for students. Many senior professionals have flexible schedules and find tremendous reward in these experiences. It takes some time to get the right people and the right institutions involved, but when you do, these collaborations become central to the curriculum. At the end of the day, one of the biggest barriers to success is simply a failure to ask.

Know when to say no. When separately considering a series of shorter commitments over the course of a year, it is easy to add in activities on a one-off basis. Ultimately this is not as innocuous as it seems; it distracts and pulls resources from core programming and the realization of the school's mission. Similarly, even when you have the right collaborator, don't assume that you have to say yes to every suggestion because they are donating their time. Instead, build at least four hours of planning time into the collaboration and don't be afraid to share exactly what you need to maintain the focus on your curricular goals.

Persevere. It is best to think of this as a three-year process. Our first-year programs have always had positive outcomes but with significant points for improvement. We have found that our approach to professional collaboration starts adding real value when we take that first-year experience and build on it…and then build on it again. Schools need to be willing to stick with a process, reflecting on what worked and what didn't, and then revising through at least the first three cycles.

Architecture case study: In our first year, we found that students were not getting enough practice at various stages. Students spent four weeks working on their first concept, and the work was much more about the manual creation of a model than about the design process. Over the next two years, we honed a curriculum that placed more weight on concept development and the design process. Now, students get peer feedback on at least three early-stage concepts before choosing one to take to the next stage of developing a scale drawing and model.

What Next?

Students need time to learn and understand core concepts, to struggle to apply them in the face of authentic challenges, and to synthesize what they've learned, often in the form of a final product. The approach we described provides the time and exposure necessary for this critical process to unfold.

So, are you ready to cancel all of next year's assemblies? Probably not … and neither are we. But is it worth evaluating existing and new opportunities through the lens of "(1) go big, (2) weave it into the curriculum, and (3) make it a true partnership" to decide whether to pursue them? Should you put some of the time and resources that go into developing professional engagements into deeper, long-term collaborations? To these questions, our response is an emphatic yes.

Vanessa Scanfeld is the strategy director at Harlem Academy in New York.

Vincent Dotoli is the founder and head of school at Harlem Academy.

Published November 2018.
Author: Vanessa Scanfeld, Vincent Dotoli
Number of views (6621)/Comments (0)/
Scary Good Middle School Social Studies

Scary Good Middle School Social Studies

Classroom activities that inspire student engagement with social studies content

Best practices in social studies education have changed significantly over the last six years. With the release of the Common Core State Standards and its state variations, along with the C3 Framework by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the emphasis has shifted to stress inquiry-based teaching and content area literacy skills. This shift has been a subtle change for some teachers and a seismic one for others.

The goal of recent education reform movements in social studies is to replace days of teachers lecturing non-stop to students with classroom activities in which students are historical detectives examining primary and secondary sources.

When the Lion Roars Everyone Listens (2017) by Clabough, Turner, and Carano, looks at current trends and issues in social studies education. Each chapter examines a pressing issue in social studies education and gives a series of activities about that topic. A list of additional germ ideas for further activities and a list of resources are provided at the end of each chapter.

Chapter seven has a perspective-writing activity that has students write an argument for why Colonel George Custer should be allowed into a fictitious "U.S. Generals Hall of Fame" similiar to a sports hall of fame. Here's a sample writing piece:

General Custer's Pitch to Be in the "U.S. Generals Hall of Fame"
We want to make this august body aware of my accomplishments and qualifications. Once you understand these, there is no doubt that you will want to include me in the "U.S. Generals' Hall of Fame." Sure, things at the Battle of Little Big Horn did not go my way, but a general's career is not defined by one event. Even the great Washington, who is revered by all of us, lost a lot of battles before realizing that shooting at people standing in straight lines from behind trees is a good idea.

I demonstrated a keen insight into military strategy with the First Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Gettysburg. My bold strategies in my cavalry regiment helped me to constantly be promoted. My detractors can call me the "Boy General" all they want; they are just envious of my success. Sure, I lost at Little Big Horn but need I remind you that General Lee also lost the U.S. Civil War thanks to me cutting off the movement of his forces at Appomattox. That is right, I played an instrumental part in helping end the bloody conflict that cost many Americans' lives. I ask for these reasons and many more that the committee carefully consider my application into the "U.S. Generals' Hall of Fame." My absence from this esteemed group is a miscarriage of justice that is a glaring omission and an insult to my many accomplishments.

—Colonel (Former General) George Armstrong Custer

This perspective-writing activity reflects the type of teaching advocated by recent education reform movements in social studies. Students engage in research by analyzing primary and secondary sources about Custer's actions, shortcomings, and accomplishments. They use evidence from examining primary and secondary sources to make an argument for why Custer should join the "U.S. Generals' Hall of Fame." This helps students understand a historical figure's values, biases, and perspectives about issues and events in his or her historical era. All of these processes engage students on a deeper level as they explore social studies content.

More ideas you can find in When the Lion Roars Everyone Listens.

Jeremiah Clabough, Ph.D., is an assistant 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 October 2018.
Author: Jeremiah Clabough
Number of views (5478)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Three Ideas for Infusing Joy in the Classroom

Three Ideas for Infusing Joy in the Classroom

Students—and teachers—are more creative and open to learning when our classrooms are joyful

As societal pressures intensify and expectations push educators to improve achievement rates, create emotionally healthy environments, and make safety a priority, there is an increasing need to infuse joy into the classroom. Reflecting on these concerns throughout my 29 years in education, I am prompted to consider joy and its relationship to my life and work.

Joy, defined as a noun, is an expression of emotion, display of great delight or keen pleasure. I recognize and feel great joy when I am out in nature, when I engage in activities and laughter with family, when I accomplish a task, and when I see others experience delight. Thinking about joy in these contexts inspires me to ask: when do I feel, experience, and share joy in my own classroom?

Recent brain research reveals that the brain is increasingly open to learning when learning is joyful. When we feel delight, we release endorphins that produce a joy-filled response (Costa & Kallick, 2014). A positive classroom climate is built through everyday teacher and student connections and interactions (Badley, 2012). These moments are not just brief warm fuzzies; they reap positive results on an individual's health, both physically and psychologically (Costa & Kallick, 2014).

Reflecting on joy has revealed three areas of joy in my classroom: the first is when students have that light-bulb or "ah-ha" moment. My heart actually races faster when I see a student discover and grasp a new concept, complete a project, and "get it!" I am filled with immense joy when an engaged student asks a thoughtful question; furthermore, when joy emerges, student curiosity grows.

In addition to the "ah-ha" moment, I am filled with immeasurable joy when I hear laughter in the classroom. When a student says something funny, I can choose to stop and pause, to laugh with or laugh alongside the student. I find that I also need to pause and laugh at myself when teaching. When I am tongue-tied or when I make a mistake delivering instruction, the space is optimal for me to pause and laugh a little. Laughter can diffuse an awkward situation and increase the level of classroom joy.

Additionally, when I am able to laugh at myself, I am able to reveal a playful side of my personality to students. Research suggests that playfulness and creativity elicit joy that positively impacts student and teacher attitudes in the classroom (Sherman, 2013; Silver, Berckemeyer, & Baenen, 2015). I find that when there is laughter in my classroom—my students and I laugh together—joy multiplies! Classroom laughter fosters joyful space, for both students and teacher, to learn and grow.

Another avenue for joy is when I observe students working together. I am filled with joy and satisfaction when a lesson clicks and learning happens. When students engage in meaningful work, it is joyful to observe (Sherman, 2013; Silver, Berckemeyer, & Baenen, 2015, p. 93). When students collaborate and progress together in academic goals, they become eager sponges engaging in joyful learning.

Practically speaking, I offer three suggestions for infusing joy into your classroom:

Invite joy into the classroom! When you feel joy, dive into it, embrace it, and welcome it. An invitation is a literal request and summons for participation. Teachers can invite students to embrace joy in the classroom to build community and create ownership. Students will cling to joy and this can alter your classroom ethos.

Build on the student-teacher relationship! When a teacher intentionally builds trust and rapport with students, she creates a safe place and space for joy to emerge. Birky (2012) writes of modeling joy in the classroom to create joyful results. When a teacher creates assignments where students can share ideas and infuse laughter, joy multiplies.

Be joyfully intentional! Carefully consider what elicits joy in your teacher-self: name it, repeat it, and practice it. With great intention, capitalize on joyful moments. Joy is contagious. Infusing joy with purpose can decrease student and teacher stress, foster community, and help students feel a greater sense of belonging. A teacher can actively create moments for joy and rejoicing in the classroom; by doing so, the teacher shares the gift of herself with her students (Wineberg, 2012).

As classroom responsibilities, pressures, and expectations grow, teachers can make an increased effort to invite joy into the classroom, build on the student and teacher relationship, and purposefully share joy. Tomlinson suggests that when hard working teachers embrace creativity in their personal and professional lives, they seek joy and opportunities for laughter and learning (2016, p. 93).

Will you intentionally cultivate joy in your classroom? Will you allow joy to emerge into your work and lessons? Will you make an effort to demonstrate joy? Let's commit to lean into joy and watch our classrooms fill with joy!



Badley, K. (2012). Metaphors and models of faith learning integration. In Badley, K. & Van Brummelen, H.V., (Eds.), Metaphors we teach and live by, how metaphors shape what we do in classrooms, (p. 139-157). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Birky, G. D. (2012). Joy. In Dee, A. L. & Tiffin, G., (Eds.), Faithful education, these and values for teaching, learning and leading, (p. 19-41). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publication.

Costa, A. L. & Kallick, B. (2014). Dispositions: Reframing teaching and learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Silver, D., Berckemeyer, J. C., & Baenen, J. (2015). Deliberate optimism, reclaiming the joy in education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sherman, S. M. (2013). Let's lighten up! Play and important roles in learning. Virginia Journal of Education, 4, 13-15.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2016). Caring for teachers. Educational Leadership, 73(8), p. 92-3.

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Michelle C. Hughes, Ed.D. is associate professor of education at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. She teaches and supervises pre-service teachers and is a former junior high school teacher and high school administrator.
Published October 2018.
Author: Michelle C. Hughes
Number of views (7320)/Comments (1)/
Topics: Teaching
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