Blended Learning

Moving Beyond Tech-Rich Classrooms

Imagine being tasked with teaching a class of restless adolescents, all of whom have different learning styles, strengths, interests, and needs. Or perhaps this daunting scenario is not so farfetched at all.

A team of innovative teachers at Middletown Middle School (MMS) in Frederick County, Maryland, decided to try something vastly different in an attempt to increase student success in their classrooms: blended learning.

Blended learning is a personalized, competency-based learning experience including increased student control over the time, path, or place of learning. When combined with devices in a one-to-one classroom, this model can increase student achievement, empower students to take more ownership of their learning, and create efficiencies that allow teachers to reinvest time saved in their students.

These dedicated MMS teachers muddled through the reading, research, and planning necessary to make the shift, not simply to technology-rich classrooms, which they do in fact have, but they've made the full instructional shift necessary for authentic blended learning. They have read Blended by Michael Horn, Moonshots in Education by Esther Wojcicki, and Blended Learning in Action by Catlin Tucker. They have turned to the Internet, relying heavily on materials provided by the Christensen Institute. They have spent countless hours after school, late nights at home, and weekend afternoons next to the pool discussing how to leverage technology and personalize instruction to increase student achievement and close the achievement gap. They have sacrificed blood, toil, tears, and sweat as they were brutally reminded of the dreaded "implementation dip" common when one encounters an innovation that requires new skills and understandings. But these teachers persevered, knowing they were on the verge of a revolution. Before long, their efforts paid off. The positive impact on students is impossible to miss.

Two sixth grade language arts classes that meet simultaneously at MMS, populated with a high percentage of students with IEPs and 504s, are supported by two content teachers, Cindy Cregar and Sarah Harrison, and a special education teacher, Amy Newkirk. Two sixth grade mathematics classes that meet simultaneously, populated with many of the same students with IEPs and 504s, are supported by two content teachers, Meagan Byrd and Amy Clipp, and the same special educator, Amy Newkirk. These two teams of teachers work together to plan and facilitate a station rotation model of blended learning. Each week, they pre-assess their students and use the results to create personalized playlists that support each student's learning as he or she rotates among various student-led, teacher-led, high-tech, and low-tech stations across two classrooms.

Initially, students moved through four stations, which these teachers coined Personalized Learning Time, Tech Time, Guided Instruction, and Collaboration. Sometimes the Personalized Learning Time was independent, but at times, it was collaborative. At times it involved technology, but at other times, it was more paper/pencil-based. Tech Time always involved technology, but these teachers felt strongly that the technology should always support new learning, not just reinforce past learning. Guided Instruction was always small group instruction with the teacher, in which she was better able to learn each student's unique interests and needs because of the small group setting. The Collaboration station always involved students working together to complete a task, sometimes using high-tech, while other times using low-tech strategies. Initially, these stations were very rigid in terms of expectations and pacing, but students struggled. So, their teachers adapted. As Newkirk reflects, "When implementing blended learning, you have to follow the kids, not the model. Flexibility is key when responding to kids' needs." Now, particularly because so much of the complex reading and writing that must occur in language arts classes requires sustained, uninterrupted time, the stations have become more fluid. Sometimes they are 20 minutes each; sometimes, depending on the tasks, they are 40 minutes. The key is to be flexible and responsive to students' needs.

When asked what they think of blended learning, these sixth graders report:

  • "It gives us a chance to move around."
  • "It lets us collaborate on our ideas."
  • "I'm more in charge of my own learning."
  • "It allows us to learn in different ways."
  • "We're doing something new every day."
  • "It's more challenging."

Lesson planning is complex, as most stations have three levels of difficulty and digital resources to support the various needs and interests of students. At first, these five teachers spent hours scouring the Internet to find digital content and videos to support their curriculum. They would become frustrated when they would find a near-perfect video, only to find that it interchanged a key vocabulary term. So, rather than being at the mercy of what they could find on the Internet, Cregar, Harrison, Byrd, Clipp, and Newkirk began creating their own differentiated videos using free online video recording tools.

By incorporating and creating so much digital content, students have 24/7 access to learning materials. When students are stuck, instead of turning to their teachers for the answers, they have learned to use the resources at their fingertips to solve problems. As a result, the types of questions students are asking teachers has changed drastically. Instead of asking recall or surface level questions, students ask deeper, analytical questions, and they work alongside their teachers to solve complex problems and tasks.

It's no secret that planning for blended learning is more time consuming and complex than traditional lesson planning. But the juice is worth the squeeze! Cregar explains how much more meaningful data analysis is. For the past few years, teachers at MMS, and many schools across America, have been asked to set Student Learning Objectives and use data to monitor students' progress toward that goal. With more traditional, or linear, lesson planning, very little differentiation happens as a result of the data analysis. Teachers may create a differentiated lesson that offers two texts, one more complex than another, or they may offer extension activities for students who demonstrate mastery earlier. But in a traditional classroom, it is nearly impossible to differentiate to a level that meets every student's needs. In a blended learning classroom, every station is differentiated. Personalized playlists are created to meet the needs of each student. Students have access to learning 24/7, and all of their learning resources are constantly at their fingertips. Technology is leveraged in a way that frees up the teacher to offer more small group and one-on-one instruction and opportunities for real-time feedback. In a blended learning classroom, data analysis becomes a natural part of the planning process, and the findings are used to personalize learning for every student in the room.

So, are there any other critical components for blended learning success? A supportive administration. Everett Warren, principal at MMS, has been a key player in their blended learning success. He purchased books so these teachers could participate in book studies about blended learning. He moved teachers' classrooms so Cregar, Harrison, Byrd, and Clipp were physically near each other in the building, allowing them to easily "share" students. He arranged to have their electronic gradebooks merged, so all three teachers in each content area were the official teachers of record. He worked with central office staff to provide devices to every student. But most importantly, Warren approached these blended learning pioneers early to say that they had "the freedom to fail." He knew that these teachers were dedicated, passionate professionals who would do everything in their power to increase student success, but he knew that the shift in instruction would be unconventional. He knew that these teachers needed the space, the freedom, and the permission to think outside of the box and learn what worked best both by extensive research and trial and error. Warren created the environment for success, and then stepped back, confident that these teachers would not settle for anything less than success.

This semester has been a journey of an educator's lifetime, but Cregar, Harrison, Byrd, Clipp, and Newkirk now find themselves with more opportunities for small group instruction, one-on-one support, student choice, and development of 21st-century skills. The sixth graders at MMS, who often come to middle school with significant gaps in understanding and a heavy dependency on the teacher, are notably more engaged, autonomous, and successful.

Kristi McGrath Schmidt taught language arts at the middle school level before taking a position as the teacher specialist for secondary English/language arts in Frederick County, Maryland.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2017.
Author: Kristi McGrath Schmidt
Number of views (3681)/Comments (0)/
That Was Then, This Is Now: Gifted in the Middle

That Was Then, This Is Now: Gifted in the Middle

Committing to the challenge of addressing the needs of gifted learners

That Was Then

Middle schools and their guiding philosophies were created in reaction to junior and senior high schools' lack of attention to developmental and academic needs of young adolescents. This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents and other writings of the last 60 years include the tenet that every student should be challenged and held to high expectations and the fundamental belief that all students should have the opportunity to engage with challenging curriculum. Prior generations addressed this through tracking, which in many schools was implemented for political reasons and resulted in discrimination and labeling that harmed many students. So this conflict between excellence and equity is not new.

Tom Erb's 1997 book, Dilemmas in Talent Development, presented opposing views by Paul George (of National Middle School Association (NMSA)) and Joe Renzulli (of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC)), which identified problems without offering any solutions. There didn't seem to be common ground between developmental responsiveness and advanced academic and intellectual potential, between using achievement grouping and the value of heterogeneous classroom experiences, and about the role of education to meet individual needs or meet standards that were adequate for most, but not all.

When Carol Tomlinson's differentiation work was first published in 1999 by ASCD (perhaps taking its title from Virgil Ward's 1980 book Differential Education for the Gifted), many middle school advocates saw this as the solution for gifted and advanced learners who were not being adequately challenged and for whom expectations were often not high enough to stretch them. Tomlinson and others from NMSA and NAGC met and, after sometimes acrimonious debate, developed the 2004 NMSA/NAGC position statement and Call to Action. Personally, as a teacher with one foot in middle grades education and one in gifted education, I was excited and optimistic. It was designed to guide middle school teachers, administrators, and support personnel in creating developmentally appropriate, academically challenging experiences for gifted and advanced young adolescents. Interestingly, the word "gifted" was omitted because it carried too much baggage (political and social) and instead, the words "high ability and high potential" were substituted. Of course, this ignored the social and emotional aspects of intellectual and academic giftedness…but it was a good start for significant change. Or so I thought. Sadly, by 2011, my optimism had begun to fade.

The Call to Action section of the statement urged district and school leaders to ensure that there is a welcoming climate; help teachers gain "meaningful knowledge" about gifted learners and how to meet their needs; develop flexible identification systems for diverse populations; use organizational structures to meet the needs of high ability adolescents; encourage collaboration to ensure appropriate services for gifted learners; ensure a continuum of services; provide counseling; develop and communicate written plans to guide educational planning for advanced learners; and regularly evaluate the effectiveness of curriculum, instruction, resources, and other services. Based on my experiences in the middle level over the last decade or so, few of these have taken place in most schools. In fact, in many districts, middle school leaders are rarely aware that this initiative ever existed.

The Call to Action section of the statement also urged teachers, gifted education specialists, and support personnel to: be knowledgeable about gifted students and those with potential to achieve at exceptionally high levels; meet regularly to discuss high ability students; provide curriculum and instruction as well as other opportunities to meet these students' needs; use developmentally appropriate instructional practices; collaborate with elementary and high school colleagues to ensure smooth transitions for gifted students; and keep parents informed about their children's growth and provide them with a voice in educational planning. Again in my experience, preservice and inservice experiences provide little or no information or skills for meeting the needs of gifted learners. Team meetings are more about struggling and misbehaving students than gifted learners, especially the gifted who are cooperative and meeting the school behavior norms.

Developmentally appropriate instructional practices often omit the intellectual dimension of the development of the whole young adolescent, instead tending to focus on the typical young adolescent needs (frequent activity, hands-on experiences, socializing, basic skill building) and an outdated model that believes students are unable to do analytical and abstract thinking at this age.

While students may have received gifted programming and opportunities in elementary school, and while there are frequently conferences between elementary and middle school special education teachers, there are rarely such smooth transitions for gifted learners or their parents. High school teachers and counselors are rarely given important information about students entering their honors and advanced classes or those who were identified as gifted earlier in their school careers.

This Is Now

A 2017 study published in the Journal for the Education of the Gifted (Callahan, Moon, & Oh), "Describing the Status of Programs for the Gifted," looked at elementary, middle, and high schools. The middle school data provided "a picture of current practices (that) was often a mirror of practices from 20 or more years ago." More than 40% of the middle schools responded that they did not use any particular approach supported in the gifted education literature, indicating a continued lack of collaboration or "cross-pollinating" that was the goal of the joint position statement.

While the vision of gifted education identified in the position statement may need to be revised or updated, it would be naïve and useless not to reflect on some of the obstacles that have contributed to the stall in progress. No Child Left Behind and its subsequent incarnations demand for accountability and testing—with its accompanying pressure on teachers—as well as new teacher evaluation rubrics that emphasize students' test scores. Once advanced students meet the minimum standards of their grade level, it is easy for teachers to ignore them and focus on "the bubble kids" and others who are not achieving where others believe they could or should be.

Increasing populations of second language learners and special needs students and the accompanying federal and state requirements certainly require our attention and our resources. And their needs are often urgent and sizeable. We have a responsibility to do our best to help bring these students up to grade level whenever possible and to identify gifts and talents that are easy to miss in these underserved populations.

In addition, misunderstanding of cooperative learning and groupwork (and their impact on gifted and advanced students) as well as outdated views on grouping (accompanied by the belief that any kind of achievement grouping is "tracking") stand in the way of helping gifted and advanced learners maximize their potential. The current emphasis on "grit" and "effort" has contributed to our failure to recognize talent and inherent ability when and where it exists.

The students most affected by these biases are gifted minority students and those from poverty—exactly the individuals we were hoping to protect by eliminating honors and advanced classes and within-class achievement groups. While middle and upper class majority students and their families will build on their abilities through activities outside of school, it is our minority students who need our programming the most. This is why early and continual identification processes are essential, and for transient and late-blooming students we need to continue to look for academic and intellectual potential throughout middle school.

While elementary schools often have gifted intervention specialists on-site, middle schools might have part-time, itinerant gifted teachers who rarely have time to build relationships with or provide ongoing professional support to teachers, counselors, and parents.

And the Future?

The first steps in making change are knowledge and commitment. There are many resources—print, electronic, and human—to assist any middle school that decides that educating its gifted and advanced students is of importance, rather than waiting to just acknowledge students through MathCounts competitions or as National Merit Scholars later in high school.

State and local gifted conferences provide opportunities to network with other middle school educators as well as share resources and ideas.

Including in their observations and evaluations how teachers are addressing the needs of their gifted students may provide the incentive teachers need to add to their repertoire of skills and knowledge. Often this support can be provided in-house by the district's own gifted intervention specialists.

Shared reading and study groups on this issue by teams and departments could shed light on how others are approaching this issue. For example, the English department could read the NAGC publication Using the Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts with Gifted and Advanced Learners. There are also similar volumes for mathematics and science.

It's really about our will. Do we have the will to tackle this challenge and follow through on the commitments to action made decades ago by our professional organizations?


Callahan, C.M., Moon, T.R., and Oh, S. (2017). Describing the status of programs for the gifted: A call for action. Journal for the Education for the Gifted, 40(10), 20–49.

Erb, T.O. (Ed.). (1997). Dilemmas in talent development in the middle grades: Two views. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.

Tomlinson, C.A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Van Tassel-Baska, J., & Hughes, C. (2013). Using the Common Core State Standards with gifted and advanced learners in the English language arts. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Ward, V. (1980). Differential education for the gifted. Los Angeles, CA: National/State Leadership Training Institute on the Gifted and the Talented.

Susan Rakow, Ph.D., is a long-time middle level and gifted educator and an associate professor emerita at Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio. She currently works as a licensed professional counselor at Menlo Park Academy in Cleveland, Ohio for gifted students in grades K–8.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2017.
Author: Susan Rakow
Number of views (8108)/Comments (0)/
Differentiation: Closing the Gap between Frustration and Success

Differentiation: Closing the Gap between Frustration and Success

Teaching and learning in diverse ways.

As middle school teachers, we are well aware of the many ways in which our student populations vary. From physical appearances and stages of development to prior experiences and ethnicities, students' compositions highlight the importance of getting to know our students in order to create learning experiences that reflect their needs and interests. Student populations are diverse yet young adolescents also have similarities. One commonality among students is their desire to learn. You may question me or even disagree yet one significant responsibility of teachers is to unlock that desire and encourage its development.

In order to uphold this responsibility, teachers investigate and analyze students' written work, verbal responses, and participation in classroom life. Teachers often witness students who struggle and become frustrated during the learning process yet, frustration is a part of cognitive development. There are many sources that cause frustrations, and one source may be the teacher.

Unfortunately, many teachers view students as a data set. We need to become experts at turning that data set into a learning plan for success for each student. Where do we make the time to help all students based on their needs? How do we transform perspectives and mindsets to embrace frustration? Differentiating learning experiences is one way toward aligning instruction with students' needs and interests.

AMLE talks with author Kelsey Eursery about Differentiation

What is differentiation and how can I make it work in my classroom? In order to address differentiation in the classroom Hall, Strangman, and Meyer (2004) state, "The model of differentiated instruction requires teachers to be flexible in their approach to teaching and adjust the curriculum and presentation of information to learners rather than expecting students to modify themselves for the curriculum.” The key word is flexible. Education is an ever-changing area in our society. Classrooms of today are vastly different from those of 10 years ago; we can only imagine the world in which we will live in 10 years. For many, these continual changes are overwhelming. Our students need to develop skills not just to survive in the world, they need the skills necessary to THRIVE!

As teachers, we need to evolve as our students evolve. There is no magic lesson that will work the same way, year after year, using the same resources. That filing cabinet that holds the same lessons, PowerPoints, organizers need to be revolving doors that is constantly modified and adjusted to reflect the diverse needs and interests your students. The way a learning experience is facilitated in one class, may need to be modified for another. Knowing when and how to modify experiences requires flexibility and knowing your students.

Teachers want to support students as they develop the ability to think, create, innovate, reflect, and contribute to the world around them. Providing them with opportunities to develop such skills and dispositions is essential. Meeting each learner on their level through differentiation provides teachers with a way to accomplish this. Let's put it in terms of going on an adventure:

1. Examine the destination

Before you begin a trip, you determine your end point. This is also true for teaching and learning in that we need to envision what we want students to be able to know, do, and be as a result of learning experiences. As the teacher, or facilitator of learning, you are the co-driver on this journey. A teacher also helps navigate and support students during their journey. As you consider your end point, you also analyze the different paths you and the students may take.

2. Map out the journey

As the navigator you have the ability to see the big picture. You can see the road map in front of you. Looking at the possible paths you can take the driver (student), is where the differentiation is brought into the picture. While there is one destination, not every driver will take the same path. You may have some drivers who will take the shortest path, and need extension activities to further their trip while they are waiting for their friends to arrive. You will have some drivers who may have car trouble and need pit stops for tune-ups and repairs. A teacher needs to take into account many variables to determine how she can assist students in getting back on the road quickly and safely. Teachers must to take into account students' prior knowledge and experiences, assets, and needs in order for every driver to arrive at the destination.

3. Fuel up the Car

Cars require fuel in order to perform. Igniting students' passion and filling their “think tank” is as crucial as mapping out the journey. In order for students to take charge of their learning, (or control of the steering wheel) they need to know their navigator is right beside them through this journey and they are never going to be stranded or left in the dust. If a student feels defeated before he begins, why would he even want to start the journey? Ask yourself whether or not the student is prepared and excited about the trip. If the response is no, return to mapping to determine what this student needs in order to begin the journey.

4. Enjoy the Ride

The main thing to remember during the ride is to expect the unexpected and be flexible. You will likely encounter “teachable moments” disguised as detours or roadblocks or you may discover a new pathway. Be flexible; not everything on the journey is going to go as planned; it is important the driver doesn't perceive the roadblock as an end to the journey. Use challenges as opportunities to enhance students' abilities to problem solve.

Through differentiating your instruction, you will likely close the gap between frustration and success as well as provide opportunities to grow as a learner for both yourself and your students. You will shift from being the water that was putting out the fire for learning, to the match that ignites it! So buckle up, the road to student success is a windy one.


Hall, T., Strangman, N., & Meyer, A. (2004). Differentiated Instruction and Implications for UDL Implementation. National Center on Assessing the General Curriculum: Effective Classroom Practices Report.

Kelsey Eursery is a special education teacher for the Archer Learning Center in Springdale, AR.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2016.
Author: Kelsey Eursery
Number of views (14606)/Comments (1)/
Differentiating Structure, Not Content

Differentiating Structure, Not Content

Changing the classroom structure can be as effective as differentiating content.

Konawaena Middle School was created as a school within a high school to meet the unique needs of the early adolescents. One of the outstanding features of this school is its commitment to the heterogeneous grouping of students.

When I began teaching at Konawaena Middle School, supported by a degree in middle level education, I understood that each student had a combination of strengths and challenges and that mixing these varied abilities not only created groupings that could support themselves academically but also reflected the true nature of the greater society.

However, I did not know how to challenge my high-achieving students when I also had kids in the class who read or computed at a second-grade level.

Throughout my first few years of teaching, I tried several strategies. Most of these had to do with "dumbing down" content so that it was accessible to lower-level learners. The thought behind these efforts was that it was important for students to get some understanding of the content, even if it was an elementary understanding.

Of course these efforts did nothing to challenge the abstract thinkers and naturally curious students who made up the "top" of the class. In the end, none of the content-focused scaffolds made much of a difference in the success of my students. Struggling students still struggled and accelerated learners were still bored.

Early Experimentation

After about 10 years of teaching, some gifted mentor teachers and I began using performance tasks connected to simulations to measure student achievement. By constructing activities that allowed students to "walk in the shoes" of people associated with the different content subjects and measuring student understanding through a scaffolded set of assessment tools, we were able to challenge our high achievers to express their learning in ways that forced them out of their comfort zone while making the content concrete for everyone in the class.

My favorite example was a unit on immigration based on the experiences of people going through Ellis Island. Students assumed the identity of a European immigrant entering the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Students kept a diary and wrote a reflective essay, which we used to measure their understanding.

Although overall, the students' writing displayed a wide range of performances, the experiences students shared were authentic and eerily reminiscent of the primary sources used throughout the unit. I understood that by scaffolding structures rather than content, we more effectively met the needs of all of our students.

Creating Structures

Since then, the influence of publishing companies and the subsequent focus on standardized testing has put pressure on all of us to "teach to the test." For a lot of new teachers, this has made heterogeneous grouping an artifact of the '90s. They want to create "leveled groupings" that allow them to teach one thing in one way in each of their classes.

To me, this idea is based on a flawed presumption. In every class, no matter the level, the strengths and challenges for each student are unique. Given the ever-evolving creature that is the young adolescent, ideas that were successful on Monday may make little impact on Tuesday. The best we might do is to create structures within our classes and develop instructional activities that give all students the opportunities to learn.

Today, my classes are organized in table groups. In this way, students can have small-group peer discussions about questions before we discuss answers as a class. In fact, no question is discussed as a class without allowing for small-group discussions. Students who are quick to formulate answers can share them and students who may lack understanding can get clarification in a relatively low-stress format.

These groups are supported by a random-selection process using table colors and seat numbers. This holds all students accountable to share ideas they have generated themselves or ideas they heard. Groupings can be shuffled to allow focused instruction for the few students who need extra support in a specific skill.

Another structure I've incorporated with the help of our special education department is the use of adapted notes. Konawaena Middle School is an AVID school, so we use the Cornell Notes template. The notes are taken directly from our class text—the language is identical to that of the text but there are blanks that must be filled in by students. In this way, students are exposed to formal academic language without having to struggle with summarizing information on the fly.

Lower-level learners are required to generate questions for each section of the notes and to use answers to these student-generated questions to summarize the reading. This process is valuable in that the end result of this note taking is identical to that of the general education learners in the room.

The most important structures within my class are the hands-on learning experiences that my grade-level partner and I have developed to support textual information.

Without a concrete experience on which to hang content, I'm not sure any student can truly understand the topics that are covered. It is important to take time and plan for experiences that illustrate through active learning, ideas that are covered in the curriculum.

Experimentation, simulation, and dramatization are some of my favorite hands-on learning activities. These activities, however, must be connected to some sort of reflection that connects it to the content being studied. Without this reflection, and the thinking it requires to complete it, the value of the experience is greatly diminished.

Keys to Success

In the end, it is important to realize that no one strategy, structure, or technique is ever 100% successful 100% of the time. Flexibility and adaptability are the key to creating a classroom environment accessible to all learners.

Guy Gambone is a sixth grade social studies teacher at Konawaena Middle School in Kealakekua, Hawaii.

Published in AMLE Magazine, September 2016.
Author: Guy Gambone
Number of views (13707)/Comments (0)/

50% of the Class; 100% of the Learning

You are in the middle of a lesson and all the students are following along—except that one student who has lots of questions. The questions are good, engaging, and you can tell the student is making every effort to grasp today's concept. However, the other students are not interested in the answers. By trying to bring this one student up to speed, you've lost the engagement of the rest of the class.

It's difficult to teach to all the students' needs at the same time without losing some students' focus. It's not fair to the rest of the students to focus on this one student for the next five minutes, nor is it fair for that single student to be a casualty of not being able to keep up with the rest of the class. So I started brainstorming methods that would allow me to teach to each student's needs.

The solution? Stations! I know stations are not new and inventive; they've been used in classrooms all over the world. They'd never been used in my classes. With stations, I would be able to seemingly cut my class size in half. Stations could provide me the ability to create a smaller teacher-to-student ratio and therefore a more personal teaching experience. Stations could provide a self-paced learning environment for each student to have a more personal, organic learning experience.

I devised three methods to integrate stations into my classroom; each allowed me to meet the individual needs of each student without losing engagement and rigor. These methods were developed for a middle school math class with a class set of iPads, but they can be used in any subject area.

Strategy 1. Self-Paced Learning

I create stations for each element covered during a unit. Each station has a folder with a QR code attached to it that the students scan. The QR code directs them to a video tutorial that walks them through the element for that particular station.

When the students complete the tutorial, they retrieve a quiz from inside the folder and complete it. The students bring me their completed quiz, and if they show mastery of the concept, they move on to the next station. If they don't show mastery, they return to the station, re-watch the tutorial, and try the quiz again. If students still struggle to gain understanding after the second attempt, I personally walk them through the process until they gain understanding.

All students begin at the same station and work at their own pace from that point on. Students who finish all the stations ahead of their classmates are assigned to help one of the struggling students. This really tests the student's understanding. If they can teach it, they know it.

A benefit of stations is that students are able to learn at their own pace. Students who "get it" right away are not punished by having to wait for those students who don't. And no one is getting left behind because they can't keep up. It also allows me to see which students need extra help and provide that help myself or ask one of the accelerated students to help a struggling classmate.

Strategy 2: Half-and-Half

I situate enough tables (stations) at the back of my room to accommodate half my students. Each station has a tablet open to a specific game app that reinforces basic math skills. The devices are "locked down" so the students cannot leave the app. I set a timer and allow five to seven minutes per station. When the alarm sounds, students rotate to the next station.

Meanwhile, the rest of the students are at the front of the classroom working with me on that day's lesson. Having a smaller group to work with allows me to give more personal attention to these particular students. And, with the class size seemingly smaller, the students are more willing to participate and share their understanding of the subject matter with their fellow students.

The stations give students a chance to strengthen the important basic math skills that I don't have time to give them in class to do otherwise. All students are on task the entire time.

Strategy 3: Home Base

Strategy helps prepare students for an upcoming test. The students receive a review packet that covers each element of the unit that I want the students to go over. The guided practice for each element has a corresponding QR code directing them to a video tutorial to help them in the review processes.

While the students are engaged with the video tutorials, I call each student back to my desk for a short tutoring session. This time there is only one "station" and it's me. Again, with the rest of the class engaged in the review packet and tutorials, I'm able to spend meaningful one-on-one time with a student who may need extra help.

This strategy is great for review, and it allows me to have the personal, one-on-one time with each student. It's also a great way to find what students grasp and what they may be struggling with.

Making It Your Own

My goal was to give you ideas for implementing stations into your classroom—you most likely will not use stations the same way that I have. I would love to hear from those who have tried using stations in their classrooms. Share what changes you made and how you made it work for your class, what worked and what didn't. As class sizes are on the rise everywhere, it's up to teachers to be creative in how we can make them seem smaller.

Ryan Fuderer is a middle school math teacher at Covenant Day School in Mathews, North Carolina.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2016.
Author: Ryan Fuderer
Number of views (12512)/Comments (1)/
Flipping the Social Studies Classroom

Flipping the Social Studies Classroom

More reasons you should consider flipping your classroom.

What's so great about flipped classrooms?

Flipped teaching is a great way to create an active, vibrant classroom and enhance student learning. It requires students to complete lower levels of cognitive work outside the classroom and focus on the application, analysis, evaluation, and creation in class. The classroom activities are largely hands-on, teacher-guided, higher-level cognitive work.

Teachers become facilitators as students gather information, discuss, problem solve, and engage in project-based learning. As the students work individually and in groups, their active learning creates deeper understanding and improved retention of knowledge gained.

AMLE talks with author Melissa Dugan about Flipping Your Social Studies Class

Flipping the classroom is a good example of differentiating lesson plans. Students are given basic assignments of material they must cover at home by way of teacher-generated videos/lectures which they can study at their own pace with as much review and repetition as they require.

Time to Learn

When classroom instruction is lecture-based, students are taught to take guided notes. A disadvantage here is that some students write faster than others and are bored, while others rush to keep up with the pace of the class.

Under the flipped teaching plan, students study the material at home, where they can take notes at their own pace. Without the stress to "keep up," students have time to better absorb the information.

Also, reviewing content and taking notes at home allows students time to formulate questions they may have about the material.

Incorporating Technology

Having a basic knowledge of material assigned and studied at home, students are now ready to apply that learning to hands-on classroom activities. Here are some examples of engaging social studies activities that incorporate technology and brings students' ideas to life.

1. Students research an historical event, such as the Great Depression, World War II, or the Vietnam War, collecting information from the Internet, books, and family interviews. They write their presentation, then pair photos with their narration and use an app like iMovie or their smart phone/device to create a movie. Students share their work via iBook, on a classroom website, or even on a YouTube channel.

2. Students create a 30-second video explaining a social studies topic, such as the cause of World War I, using their own cell phones or devices. They email their videos to the teacher, who can quickly assess their grasp of the material.

3. Students use Glogster ( to create animated posters about an historical event. Glogster is user-friendly and offers lots of bells and whistles to include in animations. Students can use graphics, original photos, Internet images, and videos to create class presentations that are easy to share.

4. A popular group activity that keeps students engaged incorporates Kahoot ( which is a fun, interactive game.

In small groups, students compete against other groups by correctly answering teacher-created or contributed questions in a timely fashion.

Addressing the Challenges

Incorporating flipped teaching isn't always easy; there will be challenges. For example, teachers must find the time to create videos for students to view at home and ensure they have meaningful enrichment activities for students during class time.

They also must ensure all students have access to a computer and the Internet. Teachers and administrators might provide computer time for those students who need it before school, during a study hall, or after school.

Flipping the classroom requires time and effort, but seeing students engaged in their own learning makes it worthwhile.

Melissa J. Dugan is middle school dean of students and a language arts/history teacher at Elgin Academy in Elgin, Illinois.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2016.
Author: Melissa J. Dugan
Number of views (18606)/Comments (3)/
Letting Students Succeed at Their Own Speed

Letting Students Succeed at Their Own Speed

A self-paced unit helped students take control of their learning.

"Challenge every student." That was my goal for the quarter. As I peruse the results of students' latest math assessments, my goal again crosses my mind.

The test scores are fine, but upon closer scrutiny, I can see the divides.

My high fliers meticulously showed their work and defended their answers, as requested, taking additional time to point out any typos or to make humorous comments about word problems. Clearly they had plenty of time on their hands.

The majority of students naturally grouped themselves into specific content specialties based on their understanding. Most of them did a decent job on the test, but specific strengths and weaknesses surfaced.

Then, with a sigh, I look over the results of my struggling students. Their answers seem to reflect a foreign understanding of the topics covered in this assessment. I recall their hands in the air during the test, constantly seeking clarification and reassurance. Some have left questions blank or have written something entirely illogical. Hmph.

As a class, we strive to learn from our mistakes. It was my turn to reflect on the last unit and see where I could have done something differently, something better.

The problem always returned to pacing. I was covering material too fast or not fast enough. I knew students learned at a different rate depending on the content, but how could that knowledge shape classroom instruction on a regular basis and still be manageable? These thoughts led to an experiment in self-paced instruction.

Making Progress

In theory, I wanted to design a system that kept track of students' progress, held them accountable for their learning, and enabled them to tackle increasingly difficult learning goals at their own pace. In practice, it surpassed these expectations, leaving my students—and me—with a sense of accomplishment and a desire to interact similarly with future material.

Math often lends itself nicely to sequenced levels of understanding: one concept must be understood in order to successfully progress to the next concept. With this idea in mind, I considered an upcoming mini-unit on inequalities. Students would need to progress meaningfully from one step to the next: from introduction to basic understanding to mastery and finally to enrichment and review.

I organized the content, then turned to the procedures. If this experiment was going to have a chance of success, it needed to be clear and student-friendly. I dedicated a large bulletin board to the cause and incorporated a higher education theme. This particular theme represented a topic about which I was personally passionate. At the time I was working on my master's degree, and it lent itself well to the idea of progression.

I partitioned the bulletin board into a grid that left enough space for each student to have his or her own column. To the side, each row was labeled with a colored circle, starting from the bottom:

  • Yellow – High School Diploma
  • Green – Associate's Degree
  • Blue – Bachelor's Degree
  • Red – Master's Degree
  • Purple – Doctoral Degree
  • White – Continuing Education.

Students would each have a pushpin that monitored their progress from yellow at the bottom to white at the top. The theme was expressed in a Chinese proverb posted above the bulletin board: "To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping."

Before launching the mini-unit, I gathered materials and designed tasks, activities, and assessments to correspond with each color/level. Student interest was piqued as I prepared the bulletin board. I was ready.

On Their Own

The first day of this adventure was built on their anticipation. We spent time discussing elements and expectations. I asked them to consider the bulletin board and describe what they noticed or what they predicted we would be using it for.

Because we live in a college community, many students personally related to the progression. Several had parents who were pursuing a degree or taught at the university level. Other students had friends or family members who were in higher education. In most classes students also tangentially referenced their own goals for their education. This naturally segued to a discussion about what it could all mean for our classroom.

I handed out a study guide to be used as a common resource, then we looked at the yellow station together.

The yellow circle on the bulletin board corresponded to the yellow level on the study guide and to the yellow circle station at the front of the room. At that location were steps that followed this general outline:

  1. Watch a short video or read a given passage (via 1-to-1 technology).
  2. Complete the station's activity.
  3. Fill out the matching study guide section.
  4. Check the study guide with a posted key.
  5. Study and ask any clarification questions.
  6. Request a quiz. Must score 80% or better to advance.

On that first day I kept emphasizing that students would be able to work at their own pace and decide what their learning would look like. Since so much of our classroom was normally large- and small-group work, many students relished the opportunity to work on their own.

For some students this meant quickly progressing through the topics, and several students surprised me in this area. I expected my advanced students to run with this unit, but there were others who stepped up and loved the competition element or the ownership they had in their learning. By the time they progressed to Continuing Education, they were challenged with enrichment material and acted as classroom consultants for struggling students. Still others worked with partners or in small groups to tackle station elements.

They were individually held accountable when it came to their quizzes, so nearly all the students were motivated to make sure they understood the content and did not just float in the background of a group's efforts.

Our classroom rules were represented by the acronym PRIDE. Students were empowered by the "I" which stood for integrity; they would make positive choices while allowing me to display my trust in them. If students chose poorly, there were natural consequences.

Because keys were posted for the study guides and all of the station activities, students had the opportunity to cheat, To do so, however, was to their detriment. If they did not understand the material and therefore did not pass the quiz, they had to repeat the steps of the level. Retake quizzes were available as needed.

A benefit of having immediate quiz results was that my time was freed up so I could work with students who were not passing quizzes, had questions, or sought clarification.

The posted keys for the activities gave me time to distribute and assess quizzes as well as work with students who required help. Anytime I had additional adult support in my room, I enlisted their help as well. An undergraduate methods student assisted and my team specialist also participated. Para-educators would be another valuable resource.

Assessments and Outcomes

Quizzes consisted of five questions. A score of 80% or higher was required in order to progress, inspiring them to study. They knew they could get only one question completely incorrect or miss two components worth a half a point each.

When they passed, I handed back their quizzes with a smile and said, "Congratulations! You may progress to the next level!" If not, we looked over their results and students watched a different video and attempted the quiz again. All study guides and quizzes were kept on record in a classroom folder.

I was pleased with the results of this unit; students thrived in an environment that made it possible for them to take ownership of their learning and pace themselves accordingly.

Not only was I satisfied with the outcomes, most students also shared in the excitement. During an exit interview, I asked them if they liked working at their own pace, and more than 85% responded positively with either "kind of" or "a lot." When asked how they felt they understood the material, 63% said they thought they learned better through this method and 25% indicated that they felt they learned about the same amount.

Although it demanded a great deal of advance preparation, the design of the unit was beneficial to me as a teacher. It organized my teaching. It engaged students and allowed them to work at their own pace. And, it helped me achieve a goal I set for myself as an educator: it challenged each student.

Diane Krueger is an eighth grade English teacher, formerly a seventh grade math teacher, at Valley Middle School in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2015.
Author: Diane Krueger
Number of views (23783)/Comments (0)/
Differentiating Instruction for ELLs

Differentiating Instruction for ELLs

The core tenets of differentiation should guide our education of ELLs.

His first name was Mauricio, and he was from Uruguay. As a class assignment, one of his teachers in his new school in the United States asked students to construct Venn diagrams about themselves, showing how the different aspects of their lives converge.

Mauricio chose to represent his life in Uruguay in one circle and his new life in the United States in the other. The teacher noted that he included playing soccer as part of his life in Uruguay but not in the convergence of his Venn diagram. Mauricio explained that in the United States, he could no longer play soccer every day.

From that day onward, Mauricio’s teachers and coaches used his interest in soccer to bridge the gap between his first language and English. They succeeded not only in connecting him to classroom tasks but also in engaging him socially, thereby demonstrating just one of the ways that differentiated instruction (DI) can support our work with English language learners (ELLs).

Honoring Strengths

This We Believe encourages us to employ “multiple learning and teaching approaches” that address the varied backgrounds, range of abilities, and multitude of skills that our young adolescents bring to the classroom. By addressing our students’ strengths, we increase the likelihood of engagement and content knowledge retention. Furthermore, we model the respect for diversity that is a hallmark of middle level education.

Many of us have understood, believed, and practiced DI for a long time, yet we still find ourselves wondering how to serve our ELLs—even fearing that we simply can’t help our ELLs if we don’t also speak their native language. However, we (the authors) have come to believe that teachers who already practice DI should not be afraid of the additional “challenge” of teaching ELLs. In fact, all the reasons for which DI is valuable for our native speakers of English also make DI a valuable approach to instruction for our ELLs. Indeed, DI is based on the idea that we should honor the natural learning strengths inherent in all students—and that’s no different for our work with ELLs.

In the following sections, we briefly discuss each of Carol Ann Tomlinson’s six major tenets of DI. In each case, we explain implications for our ELLs and discuss implications for working with ELLs.

Student Characteristics

The first three tenets deal directly with student characteristics: readiness, learning preference, and interest.

Readiness. The first major principle of DI is readiness, which is assessment in three areas: 1) readiness of the student to begin learning; 2) readiness of the student to speed up or slow down learning; and 3) readiness of the student to move on to the next topic or skill.

DI requires that sound teaching decisions be based on solid assessment data, but those data don’t have to come from standardized test scores. In fact, readiness in a differentiated classroom is often best determined by quick assessments like hand signals to confirm agreement/disagreement or levels of understanding, or tickets-out-the-door to gauge the impact of the day’s classroom experience.

In terms of ELLs, it is important to have knowledge and realization of the linguistic capabilities of the student, but it is just as important to gauge levels of understanding of the content. Both hand signals and tickets-out-the-door can provide content assessment data while respecting the fact that a student’s productive language skills (speaking or writing) may be behind his receptive language skills (reading or listening). A hand signal or a ticket-out-the-door may require little or no linguistic production but can reveal much about content comprehension.

Learning Preference. The second major aspect of DI is learning preference. DI theory maintains that students learn in a combination of several different ways—not through just one approach. Some students prefer to learn visually; other students retain information better through auditory input. Still others are kinesthetic learners and prefer to learn through physical movement. It’s important to realize that learning preference is just that: it’s the way that a student finds learning to be easier, but it doesn’t mean that there is no function in the other modalities.

In differentiated classrooms, teachers use all three modalities (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic), but when re-teaching or working one-on-one, it is best to try to match a student’s strongest modality. When working with an ELL, visual support for language is always important. Kinesthetic work helps develop stronger connections among items stored in the brain for increased likelihood of recall (for both content and language). An ELL’s native language or culture (which may be more oriented to either visual or auditory structures) may also influence the preferred learning approach.

Multiple intelligences also are a factor in learning preference. The link between multiple intelligence theory and English language instruction is that students learn better if the content is made relevant to them and to their lives. Howard Gardner identified nine naturally occurring intelligences that teachers can use to help every student learn. For example, a musically gifted student might be able to learn some material faster/better if the material is presented in a melody or song.

A teacher who differentiates varies instruction with student preferences in mind and then makes every effort to provide further instruction and feedback that is more individually tailored to students. For the ELL who uses primarily musical intelligence, melodies or songs from the native culture could be used to further enhance motivation and learning.

Interest. The third major tenet of DI is interest. Motivation theory suggests that expectancy (expected level of success) multiplied by value (the value that the student places on the task) is the best determination of a student’s motivation for an individual task (see Middle and Secondary Classroom Management: Lessons from Research and Practice, by Weinstein and Novodvorsky).

If a student places high value on the task and has a high expectation of success, then motivation will be at its maximum. For many students, value is closely tied to interest in the topic. A teacher can add value by discussing the importance of the lesson and providing examples relevant to the student’s life. If the teacher knows the interests of the students and uses those interests in designing lessons, value for the task is enhanced even further.

The expectancy times value equation is even more important with the ELL student. Students might be interested in the content and context, but their language difficulties may cause them to have such low expectations of success that motivation and interest are actually at their lowest.

In Mauricio’s case, his teachers used his interest in soccer to increase his interest in classroom tasks. Interest in the subject matter also may be increased for an ELL by linking content to the student’s interests, native culture, or homeland.

Curriculum Decisions

The first three tenets deal directly with student characteristics; the next three involve curriculum decisions made by the teacher. The curriculum tenets are process, content, and product.

Process. The area of differentiation that teachers have the most control over is process—the instructional strategies they use to teach the lesson.

The simplest way to differentiate by process is to vary instructional strategies over time. No single method works for all the students all the time and ELLs need the same variation that other students need. Further, varying the instructional strategies can provide opportunities for the ELL to practice each of the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing).

Content. Content differentiation refers to the level of material to which students have access. There often is a wide range of reading skills and levels in any heterogeneous classroom, especially when ELLs are present. Differentiation theory states that providing different levels of scaffolding and allowing for different reading speeds by controlling the amount of reading is best for students reading in their native language. If this is true for native speakers of English, it surely would also apply to the ELL.

Product. The sixth component of differentiation is product. There are many different ways students can demonstrate their knowledge and skills. Differentiation theory states that students should have choices in terms of the way they demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Some students might be most comfortable sharing their knowledge through a written document; others might be most comfortable with a presentation. Still others might prefer to create a product that integrates their learning.

For the ELL, it is important to consider that a written product might be outside the linguistic capabilities of the student. Therefore, offering choice in product can actually accommodate language proficiency levels.

Best Practices

In many ways, the combination of DI and its implications for work with ELLs is, quite simply, best practice. What happened to Mauricio the soccer player? Through solid instruction with appropriate ELL accommodations including DI approaches, he was successful not only in achieving academic success, but also in helping his high school win numerous soccer championships.

David H. Vawter is an assistant professor in the Richard W. Riley College of Education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Kelly M. Costner is an associate professor in the Richard W. Riley College of Education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Previously published in AMLE Magazine, November 2013.

Author: David H. Vawter & Kelly M. Costner
Number of views (48786)/Comments (2)/
Encouraging Students to Embrace Academic Challenges

Encouraging Students to Embrace Academic Challenges

As I introduced a new geometry topic to my sixth grade class, one of my students immediately reacted to my mention of a new skill—classification of solid figures—by blurting out, “Again? We know everything about that. We learned it years ago.”

Learning is about building on prior knowledge, and at that moment I needed to acknowledge that some of my students did, in fact, know something about this topic, but that there was more to know and learn. Adding a meaningful activity that encouraged higher-level thinking was essential to validate the lesson, but I needed to do it in a way that met the various academic needs in the classroom.

Thinking Bigger

Middle school is the ideal time to embrace a rigorous, in-depth problem-solving curriculum. Ira Glass of NPR’s This American Life noted that, “Middle school is when kids open up to the world. It's when they think about bigger things … This is the time of biggest growth for a human being, aside from infancy… It's this important time for your brain. It's this use it or lose it time.” (

Understanding how young adolescents value their own capacity for learning plays a key role in academic success. Using their knowledge of what they think they already bring to the classroom is important to creating a rigorous lesson that challenges them academically.

Even when what a student knows about a topic doesn’t exactly match the declaration of “We know everything about that,” such a statement shows a sense of confidence. It’s time to introduce a thought-provoking problem to solve—to push academic risk-taking.

Stretching Knowledge

Back in the classroom, I asked students about nets and classification of solid figures. I asked for examples of what they knew, piecing together a puzzle of skills and missing links. I asked questions like “What did you know then and now and why?” and taught mini-lessons based on class discussions to encourage higher level thinking. I asked them which geometric nets could be combined to create the fastest toy to travel down a zip line. Students enthusiastically predicted outcomes, competitively applying the math terms they learned.

Students then were tasked with designing, creating, and racing their own toys as a culminating activity. We added an element of math to each phase of the project. We explored the practicality of combining various nets during the design phase. While creating the toy, students had to calculate the angle that their creation would hang and travel down the zip line to maximize speed and remain competitive.

Then the students reflected on their initial predictions. How did the actual findings compare with what we thought would happen? What can we learn from the textbook math in class as it is modeled and applied to a real-life situation?

This project built on the knowledge the students brought to the classroom, and challenged them to learn more and to think critically. And, how about the student with the doubting attitude? A rigorous, real-life approach provided an opportunity for him to apply what he knew as an individual while stretching the limits of critical thinking for all students in the classroom.

Sandra Vorensky teaches math at Edgar Middle School in Metuchen, New Jersey. E-mail

This article was published in AMLE Newsletter, a benefit of all AMLE membership levels.

Author: Sandra Vorensky
Number of views (57670)/Comments (0)/

Using Chants and Cadences to Promote Literacy Across the Curriculum

Chants and cadences engage students in creative writing and critical thinking.

Daniel (a pseudonym) had benefitted greatly from the idea that students can creatively represent their ideas in a content area in ways other than traditional spoken and written responses. He was a preservice teacher enrolled in a teacher education program at a small northeastern university. During one class, he shared the following experience he had as a science student in school.

In science class, I wrote [a song] to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” I thought it was pretty cool because, while writing it, I had to think about all of the scientific concepts involved and then figure out how to make them rhyme. I was always thinking about this piece. I could really hear the rhyme in my ears and picture the concepts in my mind. The most important thing, however, is this: Because I had to think about, work with, and write about these concepts, I didn’t memorize them. I really learned them. I still remember them today.

Daniel explained that his teacher often used popular songs to teach important concepts in science class. In this instance, his teacher invited students to write new versions of popular Christmas carols to demonstrate their knowledge of science concepts covered in class. Daniel composed a new version of “Jingle Bells” to demonstrate his understanding of Newton’s laws of physics. He composed this new carol to help him actively learn, not passively memorize, these important laws. The experience left a lasting impression on him. Today, Daniel remembers his Christmas carol vividly and fondly, can sing it without any prompting, and still uses it to identify and explain Newton’s laws of physics.

We were impressed with Daniel’s story. Writing a new version of a famous Christmas carol or any song can be difficult for a student who, like Daniel, is not an experienced or professional songwriter; and it may be especially difficult if it is about a complex topic such as Newton’s laws of physics. We were also inspired by Daniel’s story. Like all teachers, we always look for innovative ways to help students learn effectively and efficiently across the curriculum. For Daniel, creating a new version of a familiar Christmas carol like “Jingle Bells”—with a distinct rhythm, rhyme, and cadence—was an enjoyable, effective, and memorable way for him to learn difficult science content. We wanted to see what would happen if we used a similar strategy with our students, all of whom are middle school teachers enrolled in a graduate course entitled Reading and Writing across the Content Areas.

This article shares a demonstration lesson from our graduate course in which we showed teachers how to use chants and cadences to teach content area material across the curriculum. We selected chants and cadences for two reasons. First, in the past we had used a variety of musical genres such as marching songs, rap music, jump rope rhymes, hand claps, and patriotic songs across the curriculum. We wanted to explore other musical genres, such as chants and cadences, to teach content area material. Second, we wanted participating teachers to actually use chants and cadences in their own classrooms. To achieve this, we felt it was important for the teachers to actually experience the activities that we ultimately wanted their students to experience (Harste, 2004).

Struggling readers: Locating the problem

When students struggle with learning in the classroom, all too often, teachers assume the problem lies primarily, if not exclusively, with the learner. This “way of looking” (Wheatley, 2001) at struggling learners has been particularly prevalent in reading education. When students struggle with reading, teachers tend to look at the reader and not the reading materials. Some teachers, however, know the value of looking elsewhere, or at least looking in more than one place, to explain student disengagement in reading. As one teacher explained:

I’m required to teach special standards in my content area. That’s a good thing. My challenge is not teaching standards. It is understanding why students are bored in class and finding ways to get them engaged. Many teachers think students are just lazy. I don’t think that’s the problem. My hunch is they are bored with the reading materials I am using to teach the standards. I feel like a chef. Each day I plan a meal of delicious readings, but students don’t even nibble. I suspect it’s the curriculum. I need to find ways to make curriculum more appetizing. (Bintz, 2011, p. 34)

This teacher recognized that when things go wrong in the classroom, of course teachers need to look at the learner, but they need to look at the curriculum too. She is right! Middle grades educators need to find ways to create an “appetizing” reading curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory, as recommended by This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (National Middle School Association, 2010; see also Anfara et al., 2003; Erb, 2005; Jackson & Davis, 2000). Chants and cadences are excellent tools for developing integrated curriculum across the content areas—they have the potential to make the curriculum more appetizing.

History of chants and cadences

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (1999), a cadence is “a rhythmic sequence or flow of sounds in language” (p. 159) and a chant is “a rhythmic monotonous utterance or song” (p. 191). Chants are similar to cadences, in that both possess easily recognizable rhythms; however, chants are different, in that they are most commonly used in sports settings by coaches, fans, and cheerleaders.

Cadences have been used primarily in the military. For example, during the American Revolutionary War, cadences were used by soldiers to gauge the number of steps a marcher or runner took and also to count the sequence of loading and firing a musket. Over time, many cadences have been written and performed by soldiers in the Army, Navy, and Marines. Today, they are used primarily as a way for soldiers to build unity and establish and maintain rapport.

One of the reasons chants and cadences are so popular is that they have recognizable patterns and catchy rhythms and, therefore, are relatively easy to learn. Many use a “call and response” rhythm in which a lead person, such as a drill sergeant, calls out one line and other members respond back. Chants and cadences that use this particular rhythm include “I Don’t Know, But I’ve Been Told,” “Mama, Mama,” “Everywhere We Go,” and “Sound-Off” (also known as the “Duckworth Chant”). Here, we build on this history by using chants and cadences to learn across the curriculum.

Chants and cadences in content area literacy

Little research has been conducted on using chants and cadences in content area literacy. Recent advances in brain research, however, provide some interesting findings related to chants and cadences. For example, much brain research indicates that, from birth until death, the brain actively develops strategic thinking behaviors to make sense of the world (Medina, 2008). Specifically, throughout life, the brain focuses on recognizing patterns and connecting these patterns to larger and larger patterns over time. Humans learn by copying, imitating, and mimicking other people’s behaviors, speech, habits, and mannerisms. In this sense, humans are “patterners” (Gardner, 1985, p. 152) who recognize, utilize, and learn with, from, and through patterns. According to Tankersley (2005),

The brain likes patterns and seeks to connect new learning to prior knowledge and experiences, so it makes sense to provide it with as many ways as possible to connect new information to known information as we are reading. The more ways that knowledge is grounded and secured with links within our mental storehouse, the more accessible and usable the information becomes. (p. 114)

Chants and cadences support what the brain naturally does continually throughout life. They are also entertaining, enjoyable, and innovative ways to learn content area material. According to Silberg and Schiller (2002), “All it takes to unleash the power of rhymes, songs, poems, finger-plays, chants, and tongue twisters is to have fun. And while children are having fun, they will also learn listening skills, vocabulary, and humor” (p. 12).

Chants and cadences are also effective alternatives to memorizing and recalling information from traditional textbooks. Schoenbach, Greenleaf, Cziko, and Hurwitz (1999) captured the importance of alternatives to traditional textbook learning through the voice of one social studies student: “When I think about studying history, the things that come to mind are boring fact and memorizing dates. I think of a boring teacher and a big, huge textbook, and endless nights of studying, outlining, and cramming” (p. 108). This student’s experience is far too common. As Chapin (2011) observed,

Too frequently, students think history is boring because the class is the same from day to day and does not capture their interest. Although content and skills do need to be revisited, if the repeated instruction is at low levels with little or no development of complexity, students gain little. (p. 176)

Chants and cadences are useful alternatives because they draw on the power of rhymes, rhythms, and songs. They can help students make content area material more engaging, informative, and memorable and less boring and dull. Because students become more engaged, they may also learn at a much deeper level than through traditional instruction.

When students create chants and cadences, they apply critical-thinking skills: investigating possibilities, using problem-solving skills, and demonstrating creative thinking. The process of selecting a chant or cadence that best fits a particular subject area involves a variety of critical-thinking skills. Simply stated, “critical thinking involves a complex set of dispositions and abilities including seeking reasons, trying to be well informed, taking into account the total situation, and looking for alternatives” (NCSS, 1994). Creative thinkers use “basic thought processes to develop constructive, novel, or aesthetic ideas or products” (Sunal & Haas, 2011, p. 75).

Lastly, chants and cadences can support writing growth and development. Using the pattern and rhythm of original songs to create new versions helps inexperienced writers stand on the shoulders of expert writers. Hoyt (1999) found this strategy particularly beneficial for reluctant writers interested in writing rap-style music: “I find that even the most reluctant writers enjoy the format and gladly engage in lots of revision to make their phrasing match the rhythm they select” (p. 187).

A demonstration lesson on using chants and cadences

Many students struggle to learn challenging content area material across the curriculum (Ness, 2009), largely due to lack of student interest, even apathy, in important topics like experimental design in science, order of operations in mathematics, cultural and social change in social studies, and inferential thinking in language arts. Many teachers struggle, too, to find innovative ways to help students become interested in topics in which they currently have little or no interest. One method is the use of way-in books. Way-in books are high-quality and often award-winning books that provide students an interesting and engaging “way-in” to a world of topics they might otherwise find uninteresting and even boring (Keene & Zimmerman, 1997). Teachers can incorporate way-in books at the beginning of an instructional unit lesson to generate student interest and “promote student exploration of topics across the curriculum” (Bintz, 2011, p. 35). We decided to develop a demonstration lesson that used way-in books to generate interest in using chants and cadences across the curriculum. The aim of this lesson was to help teachers in our graduate course effectively teach content they themselves had difficulty teaching or their students had difficulty learning.

We introduced the lesson with a text set on chants and cadences (see Figure 1). A text set is a collection of texts that are connected by a theme, topic, genre, or some other feature (Short, Harste, & Burke, 1995). Teachers may use text sets in a variety of ways in all content areas (Bintz, 2011; Bintz & Batchelor, 2012; Bintz, Moore, Wright, & Dempsey, 2011; Bintz, Moran, Berndt, Ritz, & Skilton, 2012: Bintz, Moran, Berndt, Ritz, & Skilton, 2012; Bintz, Wright, & Sheffer, 2011). Students use text sets to read broadly and deeply about a theme or topic and make intertextual connections across texts. Here, we used a text set to introduce chants and cadences to participating teachers.

We invited teachers to browse the text set and, while browsing, read several chants and cadences to become familiar with different rhythms, rhymes, and sounds. Next, we invited them to select a favorite chant or cadence and write a new version that taught content area material they had difficulty teaching or their students had difficulty learning. Finally, teachers wrote and illustrated the new version and performed it aloud to the class. As a culminating event, teachers wrote reflections on the experience. The following are samples from the demonstration lesson organized by content area. The samples were selected because they represent different content areas; accurately reflect the original chant or cadence; contain accurate and substantial content area material; use rich and descriptive language; and read smoothly and fluently, as if to create a musical reading that rolls off the tongue (Tunnell, Jacobs, Young, & Bryan, 2012).

Social studies: “My First Amendment Rights” Figure 1 depicts a chant written by a middle grades teacher about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He wrote it for a very personal reason: “First Amendment rights are important. In school I had been taught many things about First Amendment rights but didn’t remember any of it.” He hoped this chant would help his students really learn this content and not easily forget these important rights.

This chant identifies important aspects of the First Amendment. It highlights that this amendment provides U.S. citizens with certain freedoms and rights, such as freedom of religion, speech, and the press; the right to assemble peacefully; and the right to express and resolve grievances. The author did not write this chant to provide young adolescents with a deep and thorough understanding of the First Amendment. Rather, he wrote it to help build student background knowledge and spark interest in this important amendment. He also wanted it to function as an invitation for students to start conversations and ask new questions as they developed a deeper understanding of and appreciation for this and other amendments.

Mathematics: “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”

The chant in Figure 2 was written by a middle grades language arts teacher who was interested in integrating literacy and mathematics. In the past, she had collaborated with math teachers and noticed that students had difficulty understanding order of operations, an important concept in the math curriculum. She wrote this chant to share with math colleagues in the hope that it would help students learn this concept more effectively, enjoyably, and meaningfully. The chant identifies and explains some fundamental understandings of order of operations. In mathematics, an operation can refer to adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, squaring, and so forth. The order of operations refers to the sequence or rules that need to be followed when doing calculations. The catchy phrase “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” is the basis for the mnemonic PEMDAS, which is commonly used by mathematics teachers to help students understand, remember, and correctly use the order of operations. The letters stand for:

1. Items in Parentheses
2. Exponents
3. Mmultiplication and Dvision (left to right)
4. Addition and Ssubtraction (left to right)

Language arts: “Verbs”

“Verbs” was written by a middle grades language arts and special education teacher (see Figure 3). She wrote it because each year she struggles to teach parts of speech, primarily because her students find the topic dull and boring. She hoped this chant would spark student interest in this topic. Moreover, while this chant focuses on verbs, she also hoped it would motivate students to write their own version of the chant on a different part of speech.

The chant introduces students to verbs, particularly action verbs, as an important part of speech. It provides several examples of action verbs and italicizes each for emphasis. Non-action verbs are also included (e.g., am, is, are). The teacher wanted to use this chant to highlight differences between action (talk) and non-action verbs (am) and to help students understand that non-action verbs are forms of the verb “to be” and represent simple tense verbs. She also wanted to use this chant to teach writing—specifically, to show students that action verbs are more descriptive and powerful than passive verbs.

Science: “Rainforests Have Four Layers”

A language arts teacher wrote a cadence related to science titled “Rainforests Have Four Layers” (see Figure 4). She wrote it primarily for her young daughter who, at the time, was studying the rainforest in kindergarten and, secondarily, for her middle grades students who enjoyed earth and environmental science. She wanted to help her daughter and her students better understand the term “ecosystem,” the complexity of an ecosystem (i.e., a rainforest), and the variety of species that live in a rainforest ecosystem. The cadence teaches that a rainforest has many layers, identifies and names the different layers, and provides hints that each layer is almost its own biome. The cadence separates each layer, describes the primary occupants who inhabit those layers, and includes animal names and interesting information about them. Additionally, this cadence orders the layers in terms of height (i.e., highest to lowest) and concludes with a dramatic ending about how the rainforest is being eradicated. Many species are disappearing, along with indigenous groups who have called the rainforest their home for centuries, due to over-logging and the quest for new pharmaceutical resources.

Lessons learned

We learned several lessons from this experience. First, we learned that the participating teachers were actively engaged throughout the lesson. Specifically, they were actively engaged in problem posing and problem solving. They spent time posing and reflecting on questions about content they have difficulty teaching or their students have difficulty learning. They also spent time solving problems, such as deciding which chant or cadence would be best to use to write a variation that could teach content area material and determining how the chant or cadence could be written to teach content area material while maintaining the catchy rhythm and rhyme of the original. Participating teachers also actively engaged in personal reflection as they shared with others how this experience helped them be better teachers and learners.

Second, we learned that participating teachers became authors, not recipients, of integrated and exploratory curriculum. That is, they personalized their own curriculum by creating and sharing new interdisciplinary curricular resources. These resources were meaningful to them and responsive to their students’ needs. In this instance, they personally created interdisciplinary curriculum by developing, performing, and reflecting on writing chants and cadences to integrate content areas.

Finally, teachers in our course were actively engaged in critical thinking. In their written reflections, many teachers discussed how this experience broadened and strengthened their thinking. One teacher’s reflection was particularly illustrative:

I have a real sense of authorship and ownership about my chant on the amendment. I have never felt that before. While writing it, and especially when revising it, I started thinking about the amendment in a much deeper way than I ever had before. In many ways, it was a balancing act. Not only did I need to make sure I was communicating historically correct and accurate information about the amendment, I had to stay true to the original chant. I had to analyze what was most important for my students to know while creating language and manipulating words to fit the rhythm of the chant. I was surprised at how deep my thinking became when I worked on word manipulation. I had not envisioned this being a major factor. However, throughout this experience I was proud of the amount of thinking and learning I did and am looking forward to passing this experience on to my students.

Final thought

All the participating teachers found this experience enjoyable, personally rewarding, and professionally informative. According to them, the keys to their success and enjoyment were personal interest, active engagement, and thoughtful writing and revision. We hope this article will be a key to success for other teachers interested in developing and implementing relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory curriculum in the middle grades and, more specifically, for teachers interested in using chants and cadences to teach content area material across the curriculum.

This article reflects the following This We Believe characteristics: Meaningful Learning, Challenging Curriculum, Multiple Learning Approaches

Previously published in Middle School Journal, November 2012


Anfara, V. A., Jr., Andrews, P. G., Hough, D. L., Mertens, S. B., Mizelle, N. B., & White, G. P. (2003). Research and resources in support of this we believe. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Batchelor, K. E., & Bintz, W. P. (2012). Hand-clap songs across the curriculum. The Reading Teacher, 65(5), 341–344.

Bintz, W. P. (2011). “Way-in” books encourage exploration in middle grades classrooms. Middle School Journal, 42(1), 34–45.

Bintz, W. P., Moore, S. D., Wright, P., & Dempsey, L. (2011). Using literature to teach measurement. The Reading Teacher, 65(1), 58–70.

Bintz, W. P., Moran, P., Berndt, R., Ritz, L., & Skilton, J. (2012). Using literature to teach inference across the curriculum. Voices from the Middle, 20(1), 16–24.

Bintz, W. P., & Shelton, K. (2004). Using written conversation in middle school: Lessons from a teacher researcher project. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literature, 47(6), 492–507.

Bintz, W. P., Wright, P., & Sheffer, J. (2011). Using copy change with trade books to teach earth science. The Reading Teacher, 64(2), 106–119.

Chapin, J. (2011). A practical guide to middle and secondary social studies. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Erb, T. O. (Ed.). (2005). This we believe in action. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Gardner, H. (1985). Frames of mind. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Harste, J. (February 27, 2004). Jerome Harste, Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award. Retrieved from

Hoyt, L. (1999). Revisit, reflect, retell: Strategies for improving reading comprehension. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Jackson, A. W., & Davis, G. A. (2000). Turning points 2000: Educating adolescents in the 21st century. New York, NY and Westerville, OH: Teachers College Press and National Middle School Association.

Keene, E. O., & Zimmerman, S. (1997). Mosaic of thought: The power of comprehension strategy instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

McLaughlin, M. (2009). Content area reading: Teaching and learning in an age of multiple literacies. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. (1999). Cadences, chants. Retrieved from http://www.
Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

National Council of Social Studies. (1994). National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Retrieved from http:// standards?keys=critical+thinking&tid=All&tid_1=All

National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

Ness, M. (2009). Reading comprehension strategies in secondary content area classrooms: Teacher use and attitudes toward comprehension instruction. Reading Horizons, 49, 143–166.

Schoenbach, R., Greenleaf, C., Cziko, C., & Hurwitz, L. (1999). Reading for understanding: A guide to improving reading in middle and high school classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Silberg, J., & Schiller, P. (2002). The complete book of rhymes, songs, poems, finger plays, and chants. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House.

Short, K., Harste, J., & Burke, C. (1995). Creating classrooms for authors and inquirers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Sunal, C., & Haas, M. (2011). Social studies for the elementary and middle grades: A constructivist approach. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Tankersley, K. (2005). Literacy strategies: Reinforcing the threads of reading. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tunnell, M. O., Jacobs, J. S., Young, T. A., & Bryan, G. W. (2012). Children’s literature, briefly (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

Wheatley, N. (2001). Luke’s way of looking. San Diego, CA: Kane/Miller.

Lisa Ciecierski is a doctoral candidate at Kent State University in Ohio. E-mail:

William P. Bintz is a professor in the Department of Teaching, Leadership, and Curriculum Studies at Kent State University in Ohio. E-mail:


Related Resources

Topic Matter Experts

Bring professional learning to your school. More info...