How we are hurting our students when assessing them
Most teachers actively root for their students to succeed. They are often more committed to student learning than the students themselves. Even with the best of intentions, teachers frequently sabotage their students' ability to think, process, and comprehend when they use assessment and motivation strategies that are detrimental and ineffective ... even though they are common practices in most middle school classrooms.
Below are six statements that teachers use with the goal of helping their students. At first glance, they seem common, and it is easy to argue how they could have a positive impact. The purpose of this article is for educators to think about their practices and how common "help" can easily reduce student agency and enthusiasm.
With that said, think twice before uttering the following:
"Let's do a quick review before the quiz."
Teachers often say that this allows students to seek clarification before tests and quizzes. And if we are completely honest, our motivation is that we want our students to score well. However, what typically happens is that teachers reteach and remind their students of the content moments before passing out the assessment. Students now have the information stored in their working memory; they are able to regurgitate it for the day (or class period) so to appear to have understanding, yet they quickly forget it.
When teachers make this a part of their practice, students learn that they don't have to review new information over and over which is how it becomes embedded in their long-term memory. This helps explain why students earn A's in class, yet they still fail end of course state tests. More importantly, it affects students' ability to truly learn the material.
Instead, frequently assess students with both low stakes checks that are not graded along with quizzes, tests, essays, projects, etc. that do impact grades. Although I would not recommend "pop quizzes," students should not have an opportunity to cram facts and details into their working memories so they get a good score. Even better, teachers should begin classes with an assessment (whether graded or not) to use the results for targeted instruction.
"Let me help you."
Of course teachers should help students. However, students learn through struggle. For students to have deep learning experiences, they must think critically, which entails that students find their own answers to questions through research, reasoning, and investigation. As Carol Dweck details in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, students must embrace challenges and temporary failures before they truly develop a passion and skill for learning.
Even though I would suspect that everyone reading this article has heard of growth vs. fixed mindsets, teachers still have difficulty watching students struggle with new concepts or higher-level thinking. They quickly "rescue" students by providing guidance, direction, or even answers. Teachers often err on the side of protecting their students' self-esteem, which is short-sighted and ultimately detrimental. Ask any athlete about beating a superior team vs. beating a weak team. Ask any musician about mastering a difficult piece vs. a simple piece. Although most students will not admit it "in the moment," they crave challenges, appreciate teachers who expect each student's best, and take great satisfaction in meeting lofty goals.
Instead, after directly teaching students the value and philosophy behind struggling, remind students to either try to figure information out themselves or collaborate with their peers with an understanding that after 5, 10, or 20 minutes, you are there to assist with feedback or guidance to help them find answers. Embrace temporary failures.
"Are you sure?"
Is there any clearer clue that a student answered a question wrong than when a teacher sweetly responds with "Hmm" or "Are you sure"? When students hear either of these, they know they just answered incorrectly and are prompted to answer again without much thought. If it is a low-level question, they just answer the opposite without true understanding.
Instead, reply "Why?" whether the answer is correct or incorrect. When students must justify their responses, they have the chance to self-correct, which leads to a deeper understanding. Teachers can simply expect that an answer is followed by "because …" When it becomes routine for teachers to solicit the reasoning behind student answers, the level of critical thinking increases dramatically.
"You need to know this for the test."
Okay, this is typically stated long before assessments, but it certainly contributes to the inauthenticity of learning. When teachers try to motivate students through grades, they are often successful. But they are also contributing to the development of a fixed mindset and causing more harm than good.
As teachers, we are frustrated when students ask, "Is this going to be on the test?" However, we are the reason why so many students ask. To steal from a 1980s public service announcement, "I learned it from watching you!"
Instead, assessments should be focused on big ideas and higher level responses to facilitate independent and critical thinking rather than the regurgitation of facts.
"Are there any questions?"
Again, on the surface, this is not a bad question. However, the issue is assuming that student silence equals comprehension. Many students are too embarrassed to publicly share that they do not understand, and others may be daydreaming or didn't hear the question. There are so many ways students can demonstrate what they know and do not know in an engaging and data-driven way.
Instead, use formative assessments such as exit tickets, the monitoring of small group discussions, quick check games, low stakes quizzes, and a plethora of digital assessment tools such as Kahoot!, Socrative, Mentimeter, Google Forms, Padlets, Poll Everywhere, Quizlet, Quizizz, Nearpod, etc. Good teachers are using these assessments to check understanding. Great teachers are using them to purposefully group students and target instruction and remediation based on student readiness.
"Use your notes."
This is similar to "Let me help you." Instead of the teacher rescuing the student, the student rescues him or herself by finding answers rather than struggling. I still remember copying down definitions from the dictionary … but I don't remember any of them. For students to truly use those higher level thinking skills, they must take what they know and synthesize that information.
In Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter C. Brown et al. argue that students often have an "illusion of knowing" based on familiarity of information. Unless students are able to recall information in their own words and then apply it, real learning is not occurring; test preparation is occurring in its place.
Instead, remind students that their own self-awareness is the most important aspect of learning. During those multiple low-stakes assessment opportunities, students should recognize what they know and, more importantly, what they do not know. Don't take away this tool by quickly providing the "crutch" of notes.
So how can teachers be responsive and supportive to their students? Establish from the first day of school (or start tomorrow) a focus on learning rather than grades and an expectation that student struggle is part of the learning process. Remember that the purpose of assessment is to check understanding, not to motivate students.
Any questions? No? Good.
Eric Fritz is an assistant principal at River Bend Middle School in Loudoun County, Virginia. He previously taught seventh and eighth grade English and is a frequent presenter at conferences.
Published October 2018.
Healthy discussion and debate can help students navigate uncomfortable moral and social concerns
Perhaps one of the most tenuous places to find yourself in as an educator is the moment a topic is broached in class that has multiple perspectives—particularly when students have an unexpected stance on the issue. Even so, some conversations have to be had, especially when it comes to ethical issues.
What follows are three examples of precious and precarious moments in my own classroom in which a moral or social code was critically approached, followed by an explanation of what I did in that moment. Two caveats: My own teaching stories are not always the map to follow and students are often hard to predict.
If nothing else, I would want teachers to know they are not alone in bumping up against occasional hostile and uncomfortable situations involving controversy. In all cases, educators should know their school district policies and get to know the culture they are working in before taking drastic steps.
Embracing All People
One year at the middle school, I decided to include some portions of To Kill a Mockingbird in my English course. I knew that students would likely encounter the novel in high school, but I wanted to touch on some of the themes presented in the book. This was also a book that one of my colleagues used in her English/language arts class.
Wishing to be a "team player" and connect with the history teacher on my team, as well as this departmental colleague, I included some excerpts from the novel in my class.
"Guys, you would not believe this, but there was a time when people had a real problem with marriage between people with different colors of skin," I offered by way of introduction. A comment arose from the floor. "My parents feel that way now," one of them said. "Mine too," another offered.
Talk about an awkward pedagogical moment. My mind raced to my classes on school law and teaching philosophies. What was I to say? To me, respecting people of all cultures and races is an important aspect of being a decent human being.
I suppose I should have known my school climate a little better, maybe noting some aspects of the culture around me. I should have listened to the language of the community a bit more. At least I would have seen this coming. I nevertheless feel that embracing all cultures and peoples is a moral point, but perhaps my phrasing could have taken other worldviews into account.
To be honest, I do not remember what I said exactly, but in this moment, I reaffirmed that the theme of the book was embracing diversity and seeing all people as people. Was my response resolute enough? I certainly hope so.
I believe strongly in a curriculum that advocates for respecting all people. And I believe a variety of skin colors can be represented in our reading choices. What is more, this diversity does not just have to occur one or two months out of the year. This incident whispers of a problem that I am not sure is resolved in my community, nor do I believe it is resolved in my country.
By way of a second narrative in a similar line of thought, I return to my school days first. As a junior high student in 1996, I encountered the novel, The Pearl by John Steinbeck. It never occurred to me that this book was considered racial or controversial in any way. The Pearl, however, provided an opportunity for yet another learning experience. It was a spring semester and a student teacher in my classroom asked if she might read the book with the class. I agreed to the choice and was curious to see what the student teacher would do with the text, since I had never taught it.
During her introduction of the text, I heard a student say, "I ain't readin' no book about no Mexican." Shocked, I stood up, stepped into the classroom situation and said simply, "That is not how we talk about people and books in this classroom."
The student, being somewhat compliant, was silenced and I never heard another complaint. I cannot account for any silent pushback that went on in the classroom under anyone's breath, but my swift statement seemed to calm what could have been a storm of bias.
All of this reminds me, yet again, that racism and opposition is alive in the United States, and that my classroom was a place where I could send the message, with clarity, that all people are valuable.
Video Games and Violence
Finally, my students had the opportunity to consider the violence presented in video games. Other books included in my classroom as part of reading instruction like The Hunger Games gathered criticism from parents for being too violent. I understood this concern and made it my practice to provide consent forms for students so parents could be fully aware of students' experience with the dystopian novel.
In reading an article about violence in games, my students had the opportunity to speak from a variety of roles. I came up with the titles, Game Designers, Parents, Students, and Vendors. Students worked in small groups to construct arguments from the perspective of each of these voices both for and against violent games, based on evidence from the text.
Discussion and debate are processes that I quickly learned require modeling for middle school students. Young learners sometimes have poor examples of what it means to disagree at home, or on political programs where the goal seems to be to silent the opposition. I wanted to instill in my students a sense of balance in argument, and so I consistently returned to the model of intellectual debate that hears both sides of the issue and comes to a reasonable conclusion.
I posted expectations for how the discussion should go and returned to these guidelines any time it appears to our discussion would become a loud argument. This kind of approach requires pedagogical patience and a willingness to remind students about what is appropriate and what is simply trumped-up entertainment in the guise of thoughtful debate.
I would love to suggest that every lesson I delivered and all the texts I used were readily embraced by a group of voracious young learners. Sometimes there is opposition, and this sense of opposition might even begin at home. The two stories I share about racism represent a small section of the population I taught, but a presence, nonetheless.
As teachers building relevant lessons, sometimes we encounter the harshness of reality. I have shared three examples of situations in my classroom that were not easy to handle, requiring patience and even a bit of moralizing.
Part of being an educated person is recognizing that people are valuable, and that dialogue is important. Some of the best dialogue can occur with a well-chosen text and a teacher who knows their context.
Jason D. DeHart taught language arts for eight years. He is currently working on his PhD in literacy studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He teaches graduate courses in reading and writing across the curriculum and research methods at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Published October 2018.
Middle school students are going through a difficult stage of life. Here are three things educators should keep in mind.
I hated middle school. It seemed like a cruel joke almost 20 years ago that the only job I could find was teaching remedial English to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. When I tell my students that I hated middle school, I always explain that some of my favorite memories also happened during those years. I share that I didn't really hate middle school itself, but I hated the way my mind worked back then. What do I mean? I mean that I hated the constant second-guessing of myself, the tears I simply couldn't stop, the ups and downs of every relationship, the elation and devastation of my first crush, and the constant feeling of being caught off guard. In other words, my middle school mind was like me now, but on my worst days! If our students are going through this same tumultuous experience, how can we be expected to teach them? When dealing with adolescents, the 3 S's of the Middle School Mind might be helpful:
One of the beautiful things about turning 40 was that all of the self-consciousness of my life seemed to fade away, perfectly timed to embarrass my own children. It is hard to imagine that I ever thought, "Do I have the right kind of nose?" or "Am I allowed to dislike Disney movies?" or "Can I still have my Hello Kitty pencil case this year?" However, my daughter, heading to eighth grade this year, reminds me just how self-centered the world is at this age. It isn't that she isn't thoughtful and kind, but rather, just like all her peers, she is always thinking of the world in relation to herself and her place in it. I've watched her change clothes three times just to go to the grocery store, vacillate on the music she likes, and lose sleep over the most minute things. In a fit of desperation one night, I said, "Zoey, no one cares. They aren't paying any attention to you. They are too busy worrying about themselves." Her response is one that I take into the classroom with me: "I know they aren't, but it feels like they are, and it is the same thing."
The tricky part about this hyper self-consciousness is that it creates a complex dichotomy between "No one look at me" and "Please, pay attention to me." Middle school students, even those who don't act like it, are dying to be social and to be a part of the crowd while also standing out from it. This is probably the area that I most focus on with my students because it is the one I've learned to orchestrate over the years. Creating a culture of caring and acceptance, a place where it isn't acceptable to be judgy about each other, and a space that celebrates all kinds of talents and personality quirks has been my goal for the last decade. I've succeeded in large part because I practice an engaged sort of empathy that is a constant reminder that middle school is tough, and if I can create a space where they are encouraged to be social while learning, then I've given them some life skills that will help them equally as much as where the comma goes with coordinating conjunctions.
As I was thinking of the final "S," I was half-tempted to put "surly" or "snarky" or my daughter's favorite word for the eye-rollish attitude, "salty." At the center of all these reactions, though, is an extreme sensitivity, one that I see more in my male students than you might expect. When a tense moment arises—and they will, no matter what kind of culture you aim to create—what I notice is that the young men are frequently operating from a place of hurt or embarrassment, not anger. Many grown men still struggle with expressing their sensitive side, so expecting middle school boys to do so is probably unrealistic; however, with a shift towards restorative practices, I'm seeing progress.
When I think of my own middle school experiences, I am floored by all that I was expected to handle. As I look out at my students, I see that they shoulder even more responsibility than I did, they are living their lives online with audiences of thousands, and they are struggling to appear confident and cool. If we can do anything to help these kiddos navigate the tricky open waters of adolescence, let it be by creating classrooms that are safe islands where they are free to be themselves, socialize, and be sensitive.
Amber Chandler is an ELA teacher, the ELA department chair at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York, and a recipient of the 2018 AMLE Educator of the
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2018.
Connecting students with what they're reading by pairing texts with real world experiences
Once we've learned to read, reading becomes a tool that helps us learn. Creating a learning experience that incorporates reading deeply, however, can be a challenge for today's teachers. How can we make reading relevant for today's students? How do we convince them that what they're reading matters? At The College School, I think we've found a way.
By pairing readings with real world work in a service-learning course, students can better relate to and understand what they read.
The final course our students at The College School take before they graduate as eighth graders is a service-learning class. We partner with multiple local non-profit organizations, and throughout the trimester, students engage in a variety of service projects designed to reflect on the major pillars they've studied in their years at our school: human community and the environment.
The work varies from year to year but often includes invasive species remediation in local parks, sandwich making at a local homeless shelter, picking up trash in waterways, helping to develop urban farms for refugees, and helping rebuild houses destroyed by natural disasters. Students organize bike drives and bake sales and school supply collections. They learn some hard skills along the way including how to properly use loppers and other trail maintenance tools, how to paint and install quarter round, and how to maneuver a wheelbarrow.
They improve their soft skills, too. They work as a team, persevering when things are tough. Oftentimes, they have to work hard to find the internal motivation to maintain a positive attitude and keep working at a task they may no longer be interested in.
The service itself, and the benefits it provides to our students and to the communities we serve, is only a part of the picture.
Without some deeper understanding of the issues, without understanding why the need for service work exists in the first place, the experiences are not nearly as meaningful. The students engage with the experts in each organization and learn directly from them.
They also read. Instead of assigning just one reading, my co-teacher and I provide students with a list of resources. The students' job is to dig in and be ready to share at our next class meeting. The resources are largely academic in nature—published articles from Time, Newsweek, and Ebony, for example—articles with statistical data and facts that help students see the scope of the issues.
We have students who prepare for the discussion by reading just one article; we have other students who choose to read every resource on the list as well as some they've sought out on their own. I've found through teaching this course and others that when students are curious about a subject, they'll put more time and effort into their learning. When a topic feels real or important—beyond the fact that it was assigned by a teacher—their level of engagement deepens.
The reading and notetaking students do have a purpose beyond just learning about the issues. We ask students to read in order to prepare to discuss what they've learned with their peers. In this way, they are accountable for what they learn.
In our discussions, which are mostly student led, we consider answers to questions like these: What did you learn? What surprised you? How did you feel? Because the students aren't all reading the same resources, they have different ideas to contribute to the conversation and can piggyback off one another's ideas, furthering their own understanding and the knowledge base of their peers.
Often our learning leads to greater understanding, but sometimes it leads to even more questions. For example, when presented with the concept of payday loans in a poverty simulation one year, a group got invested in learning more about them. We worked together to find podcasts and articles exploring the nature of payday loans and their ability to both help and harm the communities their peddlers target.
The academic nature of the reading is helpful in many ways, but after teaching and reflecting on the course a couple of times, I found that there was still something missing. I wanted students to know more than just facts about the issues. I wanted them to be able to imagine what it might be like to, for example, be a refugee or experience poverty or be homeless. I wanted them to wonder what that might look like. What might that feel like?
It happens that I teach the same cohort of students for language arts, so I was able to design a thematically integrated literature circle unit, where students read and discuss books about characters facing some of the same types of issues we study in our theme. These books—mostly novels, but some non-fiction first-person accounts—help students engage on another level: they help students see the issues through the eyes of a person rather than simply through the lens of statistics and data. By reading even fictionalized accounts of what it's like to be in poverty, for example, students develop understanding and empathy that doesn't always come with reading academic articles or even doing service.
As a follow up to the literature circle unit, they take their final essay test of the year. Here's the question: Why is it important to read books with characters whose experiences are different from yours? Their answers are strong and well thought out; their answers highlight well how we help students understand that reading matters.
In response to the essay prompt, Frances, a student in the class of 2017, wrote: "If the books of children, young adult, and adult genres were more diverse and included main characters with all different backgrounds and ways of life, we would have a more understanding community and a more equal world." She argued that "one of the most powerful ways books can get people to think differently is by getting the reader to realize what they and the character have in common."
"Reading books with diverse characters dealing with all different issues in their lives," she wrote, "can also cause conversation... This leads to understanding, education, perspective, and, if we work hard enough at it, equality for all."
"Books," she wrote, "are an extremely powerful tool to move our country and world forward towards equality to all, if we use them right."
But are we, as Frances argues, using them right?
There's a paradigm in experiential education that goes What, So What, Now What. In the What? is the experience itself. So What? asks why that experience mattered. Now What? asks what a participant will do with that experience moving forward. It's from this paradigm, and at a student's suggestion, that the service-learning class came to be called "Now What?" Too often, I think, reading in school lives in the world of the "What?" If we want to help students connect to what they read, we have to dig deeper. We have to ask them—and ourselves—why it matters and what are we going to do with it?
Sarah Gravemann is a middle school teacher and experiential education specialist at The College School in Webster Groves, Missouri.
Published September 2018.
Write on Sports summer camps blend sports and literacy with authentic, individualized learning
One of the many reasons teaching is a unique profession is that there is a finite beginning and end to each year. After bidding farewell to outgoing students, we have a summer vacation that provides us with time to reflect and recharge and get ready for our next group of students in the fall. Some look for a break from working with students and discussing curriculum and pedagogy; however, that is not my story.
This will be the twelfth summer I have taught middle school students in a program called Write on Sports. Each year I am reminded of how enjoyable teaching can be when divorced from high-stakes standardized assessments, district mandates, student report cards, and an inauthentic teacher evaluation system. Instead the focus is on individualized student learning through a collaborative teaching model.
Write on Sports is a non-profit academic program that helps middle school students improve their literacy skills by tapping into their interest in sports. We define sports broadly to include sports students play or watch as well as the intersection of sports with politics, fashion, and music. In our two-week summer camps, 30 students work with six teachers and interns (who are often college-aged former students of the program) to interview professional journalists and standout athletes, write a feature-length article and blog stories, and film and edit a video.
At Write on Sports, we are simultaneously building on the literacy skills our students are taught in school while also having them engage in the work of professional journalists like asking probing questions, finding reliable information, developing interesting angles, using evidence to support their ideas, choosing the right words and organization structure to effectively express themselves, and improving their work through revision.
These are widely applicable skills that they take back to school with an increased confidence and excitement that stems from writing about a topic of interest and receiving ongoing feedback from a teacher that is detached from an evaluative grade.
At the end of each 7-hour day, the teachers and interns participate in a reflective discussion about the students and curriculum. We see the curriculum as constantly evolving and necessarily flexible based on the needs and interests of our students. We use this time to share concerns about students and identify those who need more support. In this space, we collaboratively develop strategies for differentiating the curricular projects by interest and ability to meet our goal of helping all students grow as writers.
Write on Sports holds camps in urban and suburban settings across several states with a focus on serving low-income communities. Each camp has a range of students from those who earn top grades in school to those who struggle academically. We serve students who are English Language Learners as well as those who receive special education services. Through our individualized and collaborative instructional approach, we are able to help the motivated, strong writer see a career in journalism in her future and at the same time help the disenchanted, struggling writer develop a story that she is proud to share with others.
It's easier to engage in this type of teaching when it's set outside of a school and the student-teacher ratio is low. However, there are several ways the Write on Sports model can be instructive for classroom teachers.
First, we should embrace a pedagogy rooted in project-based learning, student choice, and differentiated instruction. Projects provide students with an opportunity to explore a curricular topic in more depth and can be structured in a way to offer students choices related to content and design. Projects can also be scaffolded to support struggling students while still challenging high achieving students.
Second, we should recognize the importance of providing students with authentic learning experiences that extend education beyond the classroom walls. Students will remember experiences like meeting a guest speaker or going on a field trip more than the day-to-day routine of our classroom instruction.
Finally, we should appreciate the benefits of teacher collaboration. Teaching can be isolating as we focus so much on our individual students, lessons, and other responsibilities. However, when collaboration is teacher-driven it can create a more inclusive and dynamic learning environment for students. Collaborative discussions among teachers can also lead to a wider range of instructional ideas and intervention strategies.
When I return to my classroom each fall, these are the lessons I take with me after another summer with Write on Sports.
Andy Beutel is lead teacher for Write on Sports and a seventh grade social studies teacher at a public middle school in New Jersey.
Published September 2018.
Defining your classroom and inspiring students by honoring your own voice and interests
As I look around the classroom, I'm reminded of all the things I like about teaching. Photographs feature our ongoing service project, and displays highlight our unit on globalism. I've also created a modest space that showcases me, where I inspire myself by sharing my interests with students. I feel at home in this room; I feel I'm where I belong, doing what I was called to do.
But for some years I was worn down as a teacher. The growing change and demands of the classroom left me feeling overwhelmed and unfulfilled. Finally, I decided to go back to my decision to teach and to the joy of the early years to figure out what I had lost along the way.
I started to look closely at my values and interests, my talents and goals. I began looking at how I related to others, how I used time, how I took care of myself (or didn't), and whether or not I was making the best use of strengths I was rediscovering.
Change began when I decided to trust my instincts and intuitions in the classroom. Sometimes, it meant interrupting a lesson to take it an unexpected direction. Other times, it meant stopping everything to listen to students. Then there were the very interesting times when it meant contending with ideas that wandered into my head, intent on staying there until I found a place for them in my teaching.
I'm beginning to see that teaching for me is an inside-out process, thriving on internal hunches and urges that work their way out through my decisions and actions. Thinking back, this may have been true of my own best teachers who seemed to go beyond the advice of experts and the practices of colleagues to listen to something unique within themselves. Like these teachers, I want to hear my own voice and be free to honor it in my teaching.
Teaching has a personal face; teachers need to see themselves in the choices that define their classrooms.
You were privileged to personal faces in your own schooling. Perhaps you had an English teacher whose dramatic and practiced style left no doubt as to why literature required your time; or maybe a math teacher, able to bewitch by spectacularly unfolding precision logic on a daily basis; or a history teacher, gifted at engaging the imagination through stories.
These talented teachers had discovered a way to make teaching a reflection of themselves—an expression of what they believed in, what they enjoyed, and what they were good at doing. They were on a journey, and you, as their student, were privileged to travel along with them.
Giving the personal face life in the classroom is different for every teacher. As an instructional leader, I have experimented with ideas that accommodate these differences and have found two ideas that are practical and that succeed consistently.
Consider Why You Chose to Teach.
We begin with discussions about teaching—taking a look at the influence of our own teachers, considering our earliest attractions to teaching as a career, and recalling the immediate circumstances surrounding our decision to teach. We move on to identify our greatest strengths and talents, not only as teachers but as people. We reflect on past and current feelings of satisfaction in the classroom, and on events that precipitate those feelings. Throughout our discussions, conversation is focused on finding our most comfortable and rewarding space as teachers, a place we can call our own.
Teachers are encouraged to follow-up on discussions by doing something different in their classrooms to reinforce emerging strengths and motivations. The focus is on taking small steps in directions that hearten and inspire the teacher.
Periodically, teachers meet with other teachers to discuss what they are learning about themselves and how they are putting it to use in the classroom. Some keep journals on a continuing basis, while others find partners to talk with regularly. All are working to connect with their strengths and interests in a way that will pay off for their students and themselves.
Negotiate for Your Needs.
Bringing the personal face forward requires that teachers know how to negotiate for what they need. Whether it's money to attend a conference or time to visit another classroom, teachers should be able to ask for what they need and be prepared to give something in return. This might mean sharing a professional skill or insight with other teachers, taking on a new responsibility, or using a special talent for the benefit of colleagues.
Negotiating and bartering are significant skills for teachers to master and practice. They are never taught in education courses or in workshops, but they can be learned in life and in the workplace. For teachers who want their classrooms to reflect a personal face—to be about who they are—the ability to bargain is critical.
Is there enough of you in your teaching? Possibly not. All too often the need to see yourself in your work is overshadowed by the lockstep of the latest new fix or the demands of the next new program.
Putting a personal face on teaching requires a different way; a way centered in who you are. It thrives on thinking and talking, receiving and giving back. It is independent of new programs, recycled reforms, big money, or debilitating pressures. It simply asks you to go inside yourself to find what you believe in, what you enjoy, and what you are good at doing.
Carolyn Bunting, a former teacher and public school administrator, and teacher of teachers, now writes about education. She is author of
Getting Personal about Teaching, a small book of stories and reflections on teaching.
Published August 2018.
Connecting school and community in project-based learning
It's easy to stereotype "kids these days." Always on their phones, always taking selfies, tethered to a virtual world but disconnected from the real one. If you don't work with kids, or know what is happening in schools, it can be easy to think of young adolescents in a negative way or with a deficit mindset. In many cases, this mentality is far from the reality of what is happening in schools.
Our communities rely on the creation of civic minded, engaged citizens that can become productive members of our towns, states, and communities, and more and more, schools are pulling these community members into the education process.
A growing number of schools are inviting parents and community members into their learning, using project- or problem-based learning as a model. Our organization uses project-based learning as a model, which focuses on these elements, based on the work of the Buck Institute for Education and others to make learning relevant, connected, and engaging. These are the components of project-based learning:
- A driving question to promote inquiry
- An exciting, relevant entry event to stoke excitement and curiosity
- Student interest-driven research and inquiry with support and guidance from the teacher
- Regular reflection to make meaning, connections, and solidify learning
- Creation of a project or product for an authentic audience
- Sharing this project with a wide, engaged, and relevant audience.
Teachers and students are finding ways to bring the community into this process at all levels in various ways. There are many reasons that connecting schools to their community is valuable, and the idea has been around as long as the constructivist philosophy of John Dewey and his groundbreaking 1899 book, The School and Society.
When students see themselves as learners that are creating products and projects for a purpose greater than the classroom and an audience of more than just one teacher, they develop strong bonds to the community and establish their own place in it. Students learn that their work matters to people outside of school, and they see adults in their community as co-learners and co-creators. This in turn can lead community members into seeing their middle school students as valued members of their communities, capable of making a positive impact. It is a WIN-WIN.
We are privileged to work in many Vermont middle schools that strive to be developmentally appropriate and student-focused learning centers. Our work often is to help teachers employ the practices of the project-based learning model, which includes creating authentic audiences for student work.
In these three examples, teachers meaningfully involved parents and community members in project-based learning during project creation and during the culminating event for meaningful feedback and an authentic audience.
Parents and Community as Critiquers
As community members walked into the eighth-grade classroom in Dorset, they were handed a clipboard, pen, and stack of feedback forms. On this day, parents and community members were invited to view prototypes of chicken coop designs and asked to give feedback and critique the students' work. The informal panel of volunteers lined the room with a sense of purpose.
This rural Vermont town asked their eighth grade students to consider the benefits of raising chickens at their school. Students engaged in inquiry and research from a variety of levels, then worked in small groups to design a prototype coop that would be sustainable, efficient, and responsive to the needs of both the chickens and their farmers. The Chicken Coop Project is a great example of project-based learning, and what made this one special was the way the parents and community engaged with the project.
Despite assumptions or stereotypes about the agrarian way of life in Vermont, most of these kids had little to no experience farming. As a way of gaining appreciation for the lives of both farmers and chickens, students visited a local chicken farm and interviewed its owner. After the visit, students worked in small groups to design a prototype of the ideal chicken coop, including materials and blueprints. But in order to select and hone a perfect coop prototype, these students needed feedback and critique. Enter parents and community members.
Parents of these students received an open invitation to both prototype presentation days. They reflected on each design and gave constructive feedback to each group. After each critique session from parents, students in the group would alter and adjust the design. In this example, parents were a critical part of the research and development phase of the project.
This work continues at The Dorset School. Students are now raising funds for building materials and supplies in order to build the coop on school grounds in the spring. The engagement with community and parents for these eighth graders was memorable and lasting. Students conveyed a keener sense of purpose and engagement because of the real audience and community context for their work.
Community Members as Project Partners and Mentors
At Burke Town School, in West Burke, Vermont, eighth grade students gathered in the gym where they found more than 15 community members who had set up tables about their local organizations, which seek to improve community life. The event was a hive of activity on an otherwise gray winter day.
Students eagerly traveled between stations of community organizations to learn more about the ongoing work and the mission. They braved the sub-zero temperatures out to the snow cave set up by an outdoor education professor from Lyndon State College to learn about their outdoor education programs.
The students were embarking on a semester long project-based learning experience called Projects for Hope, and the entry event, or project launch, was a community event that partnered students with community members who were representatives of their organizations. After learning about the United Nation's Global Goals and brainstorming what they thought was important and what they were interested in learning more about, students considered their local community. They brainstormed questions they wanted to ask community members, and walked around, clipboards in hand, interviewing the adults.
What followed were lively, personal, relevant conversations about their work and potential partnerships. Community members saw that the students were interested and focused on improving their community. The students saw adults in their own communities working to make a difference, saw potential career paths, and made connections with adults so they could help give feedback on projects.
Students continued working with community members in their task forces. Some students are coordinating increased access to wilderness first aid because of the Kingdom Trails trail network in their town. One group of students are taking a wilderness first aid course from community members and business owners and then teaching the skills to other students to increase the safety of their community. Others are working with rural development groups to secure grants and provide public relations for those efforts. And still others are partnering with local biologists to create maps and resource guides for the school campus. Community members are an essential part of the Projects for Hope at Burke, from the inception of the projects, to their culmination in the spring.
This work is bringing the community together in many ways. It promotes deep connection between students and adults in the work of improving their community.
Community Members as Readers and Literature Circle Participants
At Compass School in Westminster, Vermont, teacher Julia Taylor wanted to create a relevant, engaged audience to help her students explore the novel The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas. She wanted her students to explore topics such identity, courage, fighting injustice, and community/belonging, with an authentic audience for their writing. Her students created blogs using the Blogger platform and wrote four entries focused on themes from the book.
And that is when she reached out to the community, asking if folks in her parent and educator circles who had read the book would be willing to partner with a student, and read and comment on the posts. Community member partners would read the student's deep thinking about their own identity, courage, and sense of belonging.
The exchanges were rich and full of quotes from the book and descriptions of lived experiences. The students were able to write for an engaged, interested audience that was beyond the teacher. The community members were able to understand a teenager's perspective more fully, and to participate in the learning of a student around high quality literature. This was another win-win for all parties involved: teacher, students and community members!
In the three very different ways described here, community members are playing an important role in project-based learning—as collaborators, co-learners, engaged audiences, and another generation of people interested in a shared purpose. This is a powerful tool for motivation, for relevance, but also for creating stronger connections and bonds in a community. And these are only three ways schools are engaging the community through project-based learning.
What are the ways your school works with the community?
Katy Farber, Ed.D., is a professional development coordinator at the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, Burlington, Vermont, and a former sixth grade teacher. She has authored several books, including Real and Relevant: A Guide for Service and Project-Based Learning.
Rachel Mark is a professional development coordinator at the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, Burlington, Vermont, and a former middle school literacy and social studies teacher at Tarrant partner school Manchester Elementary-Middle.
Published August 2018.
Student choice, curiosity, and passion drive inquiry-based projects
Middle schools devote attention to good beginnings such as orientation programs, building tours, and icebreakers meant to ease the transition. But what is the fitting end? Before middle schoolers pack up their lockers, cross the graduation stage, and say their goodbyes, what do we hope for in their last classes? At Hommocks Middle School in Mamaroneck, New York, eighth graders conclude with Capstone Projects demonstrating inquiry skills imparted throughout three years of middle school. Students finish middle school engaged in highly motivating individual projects, each researching a question of their own choosing.
What makes a Capstone Project worthy? First, it must spark intense curiosity and heartfelt passion. Second, there must be a "So what?" a meaningful purpose for the information in the wider world. Third, conclusions must be justifiable using evidence.
Capstone Projects have been as remarkable and diverse as our 400 eighth graders graduating every year. In the closing weeks of middle school, the interests of young adolescents are pursued and their voices heard.
- Students advocated for social justice in the world, in the US, and in our school. Animal rights, racism in the judicial system, and Asian American stereotypes held by peers have been among the issues explored.
- Capstone Projects stimulated creativity. Connecting her violin to a cutting-edge Makey Makey device, one student converted her violin into an electronic instrument, then wrote and performed a musical composition. Combining newfound knowledge about physics and neuroscience, some redesigned football helmets to prevent concussions.
- Students thought deeply about a question. A student amended provisions of the Patriot Act, arguing for a better balance between civil rights in a democracy and the need for national security. After considering both sides of the controversy, a student recommended revisions to our school's homework guidelines, addressing a question that excited his passion: Is homework helpful or harmful
- Individual and social psychology subjects were common. The impact of divorce on children is one example of students examining deeply personal concerns. After researching the effects of social media on teenagers, a student embarked on a weeklong "social media cleanse," while chronicling her thoughts and feelings in a journal.
Planning for Capstone Projects began three years ago. Our faculty was fortunate to learn about the inquiry process firsthand from experts including Barbara Stripling, past president of the American Library Association and founder of the Stripling Model of Inquiry; Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas; and Steph Harvey, literacy specialist and author of Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action.
A faculty committee dubbed the "Dream Team" inventoried inquiry skills already taught in the curriculum, identified gaps, and planned how Capstone Projects would work in our school. During faculty meetings and teacher conference days, staff learned to relinquish their roles center-stage and instead became inquiry guides advising student-centered projects. A handbook supported the inquiry guides with day-to-day instructions and useful materials. The leadership of our school librarian, Kelsey Cohen, was indispensable.
With every eighth grade core and encore teacher, guidance counselor, and administrator serving as inquiry guides, the student-to-staff ratio was 7:1. Students were matched with particular inquiry guides either because there was an existing close relationship or because they shared a similar interest. Students choosing social psychology topics, for example, were paired with their guidance counselor. Students investigating the physics of pitching a curveball were assigned a science or a physical education teacher.
Capstone Days were scheduled in May and June after most state testing concluded. On these 19 days, six minutes were carved from regular instructional periods and consolidated at the beginning of the school day to form a 48-minute Capstone Period. Students began these days consulting with inquiry guides or with their seven-member cohort, or dispatched to the library or the hallway to work on their projects independently.
Capstone Days followed the sequence of the Stripling Model of Inquiry (figure 1). The first four days were dedicated to refining the inquiry question. Stripling calls these stages of the Inquiry Model "Connect" and "Wonder." It's a recursive process. Inquisitive students started with a broad interest, conducted preliminary research, reflected, then revised the initial question. The new question typically led to more introductory research and further reflection, followed by a new iteration of their question. The three-part criteria cited in the first paragraph (the student feels passionate, the inquiry has a meaningful purpose, and whatever the students' answer might be is provable with evidence) determined when an inquiry question was Capstone-worthy.
The Stripling Model of Inquiry
The "Investigation" stage (figure 2) of the Stripling Inquiry Model was scheduled over seven Capstone periods. Students acquired background knowledge from both print and online resources, recorded notes in a journal, and cited sources.
Investigation Stage Planning
A distinguishing component of our Capstone Projects was a field study requirement. The objective was for students to realize they were capable of contributing new information to the topic they were exploring. There were several field study options.
Interview an expert. A student investigating penal reform, for example, solicited the views of a parent who was employed as a prison guard.
Conduct a survey. The student questioning the value of homework polled classmates to ascertain how much time they spent on homework each night.
Visit a museum, historic site, laboratory, business, etc. The world was their classroom.
Next was the "Construct" stage in which students drew conclusions and constructed new understandings. They were making the inquiry their own. We used the visual metaphor of "connecting the dots" to explain the concept. A graphic organizer guided students to review their notes, to identify the most important thinking, and to ask "What does all this mean?" and "What ties together all your thinking?"
In the next stage, "Express," the student presented what was learned. At Hommocks Middle School, the Dream Team named the public exhibition Hommocks-Con, a play on words of the popular Comic-Con event. Hommocks-Con took place over two mornings in June: the first morning for seventh graders and the second morning for eighth grade parents. In viewing eighth graders' Capstone Projects, seventh graders were exposed to the type of work they were expected to complete the following year. Hommocks-Con took place in classrooms, with individual student desks arranged in a horseshoe pattern around the periphery of the room, an eighth grade presenter behind each desk, equivalent to a booth.
Striving for authentic presentations, eighth grade students considered the audience and the essential message they sought to convey. There were tri-fold poster boards, PowerPoint slide shows, and models. Some students put their audience to the test. A student researching how color influences marketing decisions programmed a marketing survey that uncannily predicted color choices based on the test-taker's age and gender. Two students advocating for a therapeutic dog in our school borrowed a golden retriever "employed" as a campus dog in another school district. A boy investigating the growing popularity of food trucks constructed a food truck from red-painted cardboard, which he used to cook and serve three varieties of pancakes. Concerning equity issues in our economically diverse student body, we required students to fashion projects out of common school or household supplies or to use iPads dispensed to all students at the beginning of the school year.
"Reflect" is the last stage of the Stripling Inquiry Model. In this stage, students reflected on their learning. Students maintained an Inquiry Journal from the beginning. Summarizing their learning at the end, they responded to final reflection prompts, for example: "What were some of your 'aha' moments?" "What obstacles did you encounter, and how did you overcome them?" After some debate, the Dream Team decided to assess projects (there was an anti-assessment movement) using a rubric rating four dimensions: Evidence of Quality Research and Sources, Originality, Organization/Preparedness, and Works Cited.
Before Capstone Projects, and typical of many New York middle schools, Hommocks Middle School concluded with final examinations preceded by weeks spent preparing for exams. In contrast, our students now finish middle school practicing inquiry, a lifelong learning skill, and making learning their own. In masonry, a capstone is a large stone on top of a structure holding together the smaller stones beneath. That's a fitting metaphor for Capstone Projects: students complete middle school putting together the most important lessons we've taught them the previous three years.
Seth Weitzman, Ed.D. was principal of two middle schools in suburbs of New York City for a total of 27 years.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2018.
Creating meaningful learning experiences through language arts and mathematical connections
Examining the Evidence
For centuries, traditional American schooling has taken place in isolated silos of math, language arts, science, and social studies. However, once entering the workforce, students find that the increasingly global and interconnected world does not discriminate between disciplines. Artists, athletes, and authors require problem-solving and computational skills as much as engineers, entrepreneurs, and electricians depend on the skills of strong and effective communication. To develop citizens who are well-equipped to consider and analyze current world issues, we draw upon interdisciplinary learning to " ... expand student understanding and achievement between all disciplines [and] enhance communication skills" (Jones, 2009).
Current educational research has given rise to STEM and STEAM initiatives across the nation. Along with these initiatives, project-based learning and service learning are essential components of a middle school student's education. However, language arts and mathematics have historically been areas with little overlap. As middle school educators, we must find meaningful connections between disciplines to emphasize the truly integrated nature of our world. Unfortunately, little to no training is provided for a language arts and mathematics (LAM) program.
This article combines research-proven concepts of project-based learning with new collaborations between two disciplines whose partnership is typically overlooked. Ultimately, our goal is to create, implement, measure, and sustain a math and language arts interdisciplinary program that meets these goals.
How to Start
The easiest way to begin a cross-curricular collaboration is by examining the school's vision, grade-level themes, and current projects teachers have already developed within their disciplines. Through purposeful reflection, common themes and areas of overlap can be determined. A math project may have communication, reading, and writing components, whereas a language arts project may have the potential for rich mathematical understanding. In our case, the math teacher engaged the students in an annual budgeting project while the language arts teacher conducted a business-themed unit. These two projects showed clear overlap.
During the initial implementation at our school, we connected a study of Hoot by Carl Hiaasen with an analysis of environmental issues using ratios and proportions. The students read the novel and completed a writing assignment that sparked interest and further discussion of statistics in math class.
As our interdisciplinary explorations evolve, projects form from many aspects of student need. While novels may be the starting point for one unit, development of student character may be the beginning for another. Some units and projects are launched with student interest in mind, while others come from a specific academic need.
Language Arts Novels
Research consistently supports the fact that successful teachers of literacy provide their students with ample time to read and write. Guthrie and Humenick (2004) found that reading volume predicted reading comprehension, and that dramatic increases in reading volume are important for literacy proficiency. It is paramount that language arts students not only receive explicit reading instruction, but spend lots of time actually reading. According to Lucy Calkins and Mary Ehrenworth (2017) in A Guide to the Reading Workshop: Middle School Grades, by the time students are in middle school, two-thirds or more of their curriculum will be in content classes. Because language arts teachers carry the responsibility of supporting students in their transition from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn, we use class novels and nonfiction as the foundation for cross-curricular planning.
Once class novels are determined, we identify themes. During our study of The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis and No Place by Todd Strasser, students analyzed the factors that influence poverty and homelessness. More subtle themes included an understanding of identity and finding one's own path and place of belonging. Once themes are identified, teachers can begin to think about how content can be taught through these big ideas.
The world of mathematics learning is changing. Gone are the days when timed tests, memorization, and quick recall are valued above all else. According to Jo Boaler (2015), "Real mathematics is about inquiry, communication, connections, and visual ideas. We don't need students to calculate quickly in math. We need students who can ask good questions, map out pathways, reason about complex solutions, set up models, and communicate in different forms."
Math topics at the middle school level are inherently connected to all other disciplines. Recognizing these connections within the classroom not only increases student engagement in the task, but also creates real-life connections that provide opportunities for students to solve problems.
Once themes of study are identified in the language arts classroom, we take inventory of which mathematical concepts connect to those themes. Percentages easily connect when studying poverty rates. Fractions can be practiced through baking for a homeless shelter. Geometry skills naturally connect to discussions and designs of dream homes. Integers and functions can be explored through a budgeting project. Integrating the themes into the math classroom connects learning between classes while providing experiences and simulations for student engagement.
Kids are surprisingly similar across the globe. Nonetheless, the social and emotional needs of students can vary depending on the school community, home and family support, socio-economic status, and other factors. Berkowitz and Bier note that, "(m)any of the American founders understood that education is vital for self-governance and the success of our form of representative democracy. Schools simply have to contribute to the formation of civic character if the nation is to survive" (2005). The incorporation of character development through an analysis of various perspectives and exposure to a variety of content is not only essential to developing global citizens but promotes academic learning.
Evaluate what the kids need. Consider the experiences they do not encounter on a regular basis and formulate projects that expose them to these life moments. For example, while poverty and homelessness is a relatively unfamiliar experience for many students, it is an issue to which they must be exposed in order to be agents of change in the future. Do the students need leadership development? Consider a partnership with younger students. Do the students need a lesson in kindness and compassion? Perhaps a partnership with a local organization or a trip to a food pantry could open their eyes to an unseen world.
Pokemon Go, SnapMap, bottle flipping, fidget spinners, escape rooms, and basketball. The games and activities our students are interested in can connect to curriculum with some foresight and planning. We use these activities as a vehicle for learning deeper concepts. For example, through a study of identity, students created personal Pokemon characters and used math review concepts to capture each other's Pokemon across the school's campus. Students enjoyed a school basketball game as they studied percentages and wrote feature articles about the players and coaches. If teachers can capitalize on current fads and transfer them to the classroom, learning engagement will skyrocket.
We would be remiss if we did not address the fact that student interests change year to year, month to month, and sometimes day to day. The nature of student interests, along with the fluctuation in emotional, social, and academic needs, requires that projects, simulations, and experiences change, or be adjusted, with each new group of students.
Project One: A Study of Poverty
This interdisciplinary LAM unit project begins with the theme of "poverty and homelessness" derived from the novels The Mighty Miss Malone and No Place. Studying this topic gives the students a chance to dive into an important social issue. Connections to ratios and proportions in mathematics allow students to analyze data and statistics that connect to the stories being read in language arts class. This study spans two and a half weeks of math class and four weeks of language arts.
Language Arts Assignments
- The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis, novel study
- No Place by Todd Strasser, novel study
- Comparison of novels to current events - nonfiction reading strategies
- Definition of poverty and minimum wage
- Annotations, readings, discussions, and writing assignments concerning the following:
- Social, economic, and political factors that make up a novel's setting (and our own environment)
- The connection between poverty and unemployment
- Race and poverty
- Factors that perpetuate poverty
- Cost-of-living for basic needs and the implications
Analysis of graphic representations of poverty by location
- Study of local median annual incomes
- Calculations of minimum wage
- Finding unit rates to compare income by race
- Proportional reasoning to determine number of people in poverty
- Fractional modeling to bake cookies for a food pantry
- Scale drawings to build a home for those in need
Project Two: Business and Budgets
This simulation is a quarter-long experience in which students use design thinking, collaboration, and experimentation to budget for a family, adopt an egg baby, obtain a "job," create a product, pitch their idea to "sharks," market their products, and produce and "sell" their creations. Unlike the poverty simulation, this experience begins with student interest, the social need to expose students to the difficulties of budgeting, and the need to connect learning to real-world experiences. This connection allows students to see possible applications of their learning that could be useful in their future. In math, students explore functions, percentages, and integers, while they utilize non-fiction writing, presentation skills, marketing techniques, and research skills in language arts.
Language Arts Assignments
- Cover letter and resume
- Business proposal
- Poetry for "egg baby"
- Comic strip story
- Shark tank presentation
- Commercial script
- Business and economics articles - nonfiction reading strategies
- Mission statement
- Letter of thanks
- Press release
- Response to complaint
- Calculation of salary and taxes
- Calculation of car payment, rent, monthly loan charges
- Calculation of cost of a child
- Coupon creation
- Cost analysis of business
- Comparison to minimum wage from poverty study
- Graphing daily balances on coordinate plane
- Find line of best fit
- Creation of circle graph to compare spending
- Analysis of profits and losses
Building connections across disciplines takes time and planning. One cannot only plan for the needs of their class; one must place an equal focus on the other teacher's class and curriculum as well. Additionally, as unit projects or simulations occur, consistent check-ins, updates, and adjustments keep the experience both rich in academic value and implemented smoothly.
Tips and Tricks
Math teacher reads novels. It is vital that the mathematics teacher
be aware of and well-versed in the novels and themes being discussed and
studied in the language arts classroom. This allows for authentic
communication and more clarity in the planning process.
Be flexible and communicate. To stay on track and adjust due to
student ideas, we update a Google Doc each day with what was
accomplished and where we need to go next. This allows each teacher to
be aware of the status of the other discipline and make adjustments
Set deadlines. Prior to beginning the project, teachers need to
decide which assignments have strict deadlines and which are more
flexible. Prioritizing the assignments that have a direct effect on the
other discipline allows each teacher to continue progressing through the
Use math content to guide pacing. To authentically connect projects
to curriculum, the language arts teacher must allow the math content to
guide the pace. Students need time to explore math content prior to
diving into tough discussions that require analysis.
Kids take the lead. It's important to allow students to guide the
experience. If a student takes the project in a new direction, let him
or her. We often find that these are the most valuable moments within a
Introduce projects together. Introducing projects as a team tells the students that the teachers value
this collaboration and builds the connection from day one.
Communicate with parents. Emphasizing that parents can contact both
teachers with questions or concerns is helpful when dealing with any
issues that arise. This also allows parents to feel connected as their
child experiences learning in a way that may be different than what the
parent is used to.
Be sure to differentiate. With projects, simulations, and the use of
design thinking and iteration, students' needs can be met through
individualized studies and depth of analysis.
Don't force it. If it doesn't fit, it's ok. Not all units connect well. Aim for authentic experiences.
Keep anecdotal records of student discussion and "aha" moments. These
reminders will help with planning and adjusting of projects in future
Berkowitz, M. W., & Bier, M. (2005, February). What works in character education. Retrieved from http://www.character.org/uploads/PDFs/
Boaler, J. (2015, May 7). Memorizers are the lowest achievers and other Common Core math surprises. Retrieved from http://hechingerreport.org/memorizers-are-the-lowest-
Calkins, L., & Ehrenworth, M. (2017). A guide to the reading workshop: Middle school grades. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Guthrie, J., & Humenick, N. (2004). Motivating students to read: Evidence for classroom practices that increase reading motivation and achievement. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 329-354). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
Jones, C. (2009). Interdisciplinary approach - advantages, disadvantages, and the future benefits of interdisciplinary studies. ESSAI, 7 (Article 26), 76-81. Retrieved from http://dc.cod.edu/cgi/
Sonam Shahani is a sixth grade language arts teacher at Columbus Academy, Gahanna, Ohio.
Katie Castle is a sixth grade mathematics teacher at Columbus Academy, Gahanna, Ohio.
The authors wish to thank middle school librarian Stacy Nockowitz for advising on this article.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2018.
Students discover how science and social forces can affect crime scene analysis
We value our young adolescents. Our mission is to provide an exceptional education to students in grades 6–8 and, in particular, "build on our nation's promise of opportunity by exemplifying the role social justice holds in shaping a community of the people, by the people and for the people." We also believe in developing curriculum that is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant (see This We Believe, www.amle.org/twb). Thus, we modified a science unit for our seventh graders to more deeply align with our social justice mission and ensure that our students had opportunities to explore the often complex intersection of science and society. We know it can be challenging to plan curriculum that explores issues in social justice, so we hope that sharing this experience will spark ideas for other middle school teachers.
Each year our science students further their skills in observing and inferring, predicting and hypothesizing, making claims supported with evidence and reasoning, and isolating variables to examine scientific phenomenon. Like many other science teachers wanting to engage students in active learning, we set up a crime scene in the classroom. This crime scene looks as official as possible: yellow police tape, outline of a body, evidence left at the scene to analyze, and background information and alibis about suspects. Students enjoy this unit as it offers them the opportunity to reflect the work of a crime scene investigator similar to the roles many have viewed on television in popular series such as Law and Order, SVU: Special Victims Unit and most recently, Sherlock.
Suspects always emerge from the analysis but never have students been told whether or not their chosen suspect is "the correct one." Students are, however, tasked with writing their claim (i.e., the suspect) supported with evidence and reasoning from the analysis of the crime scene investigation. We appreciate this aspect of the unit as it portrays the scientific enterprise and theory building.
While we focus on the importance of evidence to support a theory, we also attempt to create a deeper awareness of how evidence can be construed under certain conditions and where hidden bias—often based on race, gender, ethnicity, or age—can exist that may either benefit or disadvantage an individual or group of people. Thus, to engage with our school mission of promoting social justice, we expanded this unit to explore ways in which science and social forces could affect a crime scene analysis, specifically introducing students to the concept of wrongful convictions and the work of the Innocence Project. The organization was founded by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck with the mission to free those wrongfully convicted and reform the criminal justice system (www.innocenceproject.org).
Our students examined the crime scene and investigated artifacts including yarn fibers, DNA fingerprints, powders and liquids, and hair strands through different scientific tests. Students also considered alibis and testimonies of each suspect. By the end of week two, students presented their suspect with supporting evidence. After all presentations, we posed the question to students, "How confident are you in your suspect? What would happen if your suspect is convicted based on your evidence, yet your evidence is faulty?" This question led us into the second half of the unit where we explored the work of the Innocence Project.
We introduced the concept of the wrongfully convicted by allowing students to become acquainted with people the project has helped to free. We created ID cards using information from the Innocence Project website. The front of the card presented a picture of a person wrongfully convicted and the back of the card provided narrative including age, crime charged with, years served for the crime, and the date freed from prison. Students were asked to hang this card around their neck and to move throughout the classroom to meet others who were wrongfully convicted and collect information on a graphic organizer. Students found this introductory activity powerful and came to the realization that it was possible for a person to be incarcerated yet innocent of the crime. Students also explored possible patterns that may exist specific to the race, age, gender, or ethnicity of those wrongfully convicted.
We then introduced students to Ryan Ferguson who was wrongfully convicted and eventually freed through the work of the Innocence Project. He tells his story and those of others on the MTV show, "Unlocking the Truth." Our students watched the beginning episode that detailed his own story and recorded their thoughts on the work and mission of the project along with the stories of the people interviewed.
To gain a broader sense of the problem, students examined data of incarcerated Americans from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=kftp&tid=1). Many of the students were startled to find that almost one of every 110 people lives behind bars. We asked students to consider the following: (1) Do you think all of these people currently incarcerated are guilty? (2) Do you think that some people are in prison or jail but are innocent? (3) Could there be flaws in the work of scientific investigators? (4) Could flaws exist in our own legal system? If so, in what ways? We had students discuss their responses in partners, and then we discussed as a whole class.
Students wanted to know how wrongfully convicted individuals are freed, so we reached out to the Innocence Project to request someone from the organization come to our classes and share more about their work. Sara, a policy associate, joined one of our classes and presented students with information about the roles of the organization within both the legal and scientific communities to support the exoneration of those wrongfully convicted. Our students asked many questions including (1) When did you start working at the Innocence Project and what do you love most about working with them? (2) How long does it take on average to help a person?, (3) What happens when you do not successfully help a person in a case?, and (4) What is the hardest part about trying to prove someone innocent?
Putting It All Together
Synthesizing information across activities, we asked students to reflect on the work of the Innocence Project and to weigh evidence and consider errors in the scientific work of crime scene analysis. Our students returned to their suspect and reviewed the case categorizing each piece of evidence used in their original conviction as either strong (and why it is deemed to be highly accurate) or weak (identifying where misrepresentation, bias, or testing error could have occurred). This was an interesting day as many students realized that some of their evidence seemed less reliable now than prior. They commented that the evidence actually could point to multiple suspects, or that the evidence was fairly weak in nature.
This led our students to re-examine the other suspects that they initially believed to be innocent (or at least not as guilty as their final suspect) by reviewing both strong and weak evidence linked to each. For the weak evidence, students considered which of the suspects could have also been linked to the data. With regard to the strong evidence, students reviewed and ranked each data finding as to the percent doubt inherent in the evidence (i.e., 100% confident to 0% confident/high doubt).
A majority of our students concluded that there was greater doubt in their conviction than once thought, so we introduced the skill of refuting arguments by successfully countering it through evidence, often known as "refute grounds." Using our writing program, we provided students with prompts to allow for a written reflection around (1) lack of data, (2) how the data is misinterpreted or misrepresented, (3) critical evidence not being used or ignored, or (4) seeking to uncover suppressed evidence.
Lastly, we selected four stories from the Innocence Project website that were written by the wrongfully convicted. Each story reveals the person's history around the crime, how he or she survived being incarcerated as an innocent person, how a relationship with the Innocence Project was established, and the specifics of re-opening their cases. The stories conclude with ways the individual had moved forward in their newly found freedom. Students were tasked with writing their own story in the voice of their initial suspect embedding the refuted arguments from their prior writing task. We chose a few stories to be videotaped similar to those found on the website.
This project allowed for much discussion with our students on the science of crime scene analysis, what constitutes reliable evidence, and how intended and unintended biases stemming from issues of race, gender, age, and ethnicity, along with errors in scientific evidence collection, can have dire effects on individuals. We believe that this type of project offered our students an opportunity to examine a social injustice prevalent in our society and ways people can become actively engaged in fighting for a more just society.
Tracy Hogan, Ph.D. is an instructional coach at New World Preparatory Charter School, Staten Island, New York. She is also an associate professor of science education at Adelphi University on Long Island, New York.
Jennifer Brown is a seventh grade science teacher at New World Preparatory Charter School, Staten Island, New York and has been teaching for more than six years.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2018.