The Right Fit

This post was written in 2013. Funny how truth outlives fads–in education and elsewhere. “Learning styles” are discredited now, so my jargon is out of date. But the truth isn’t: there’s more than one way to approach a topic–or answer a question–or learn a subject–and a good teacher makes knowledge accessible by opening more than one door.

One night this past week I awoke at 2 A.M. thinking about the Parts of Speech Notebook I produced when I was in the 7th grade. Sounds like a school kid’s nightmare. But it wasn’t—then or now. In fact, for me, it was quite the opposite.

The Parts of Speech Notebook was, naturally, eight pages long. Mine was bound in a green presentation folder with brass fasteners. Each page was labeled at the top—Noun, Pronoun, Verb, etc.—and illustrated with words and pictures cut from magazines and glued down with white library paste. Mine was messy and aesthetically unpleasing, I am sure (I was not a neat child), but no matter. The task served its purpose: Suddenly, unexpectedly, sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor, sticky with paste and covered with the colorful confetti that cut-up magazines generate, I got it. Parts of speech, I mean.

What I remember is that electrifying moment of revelation when all the bits of information (not the paper) coalesced and the whole thing made sense. And then came the worry that my grasp on the topic would slip. Did I really understand? Could I rely on this new knowledge? Would the clarity continue? I remember reciting the definitions over and over again in my head. Yes! The mystery had evaporated!

Next day, I sprinted up the stairs to the second floor of my junior high school, raced through the classroom door with my finished notebook, and nearly knocked over my teacher, Mrs. Moeller, a rather stern individual who was, I thought, as old as Methuselah’s wife, demanding that she affirm my brilliance—and more importantly—share the excitement of my epiphany. I remember that she did.

Once I had the building blocks, the rest of it came easy—sentence patterns, clauses, phrases, verbals. I caught on quickly to diagramming—we did that in my day—and eventually I became an English teacher.

But this is not a story about a 7th grade assignment sparking my career—heaven knows, I had been on the path to becoming a teacher since I’d learned to read. Nor is it a story about how a single teacher sparked my love of English—no, I already loved English when I entered Mrs. Moeller’s class. Rather, it’s a story about a galvanizing moment in my education and how it happened and what I hope for, for every child in every classroom: Revelations that last.

I have been thinking a lot lately about differentiation, the term we use in the education world to describe the purposeful design of instruction to meet the varied needs of our diverse clientele. That is, the need to provide instruction that will help all kids have “notebook moments.”

No doubt some of the kids in my class understood the parts of speech just by reading about them in the textbook and identifying them in sentences. Some had luck with the “drill and kill” workbook that accompanied the text. For some, diagramming—that elaborate and either cherished or despised graphic organizer—did it. And for others, like me, it was the notebook. Today we’d label all that cutting and pasting a “hands-on” learning experience, designed for kids who are kinesthetic learners—the ones who can’t sit still, the ones who need to touch things and move them about, the ones who like to learn by doing.

I can’t begin to know if Mrs. Moeller was ahead of her time in realizing that not all children learn the same way. Did she know instinctively that children have learning preferences, ways of comprehending information that are as complex and various as children themselves?  Maybe she required the notebooks because she was tired of grading papers or maybe just because she thought they’d be “fun.” I rather doubt it was the latter, remembering Mrs. Moeller, but whatever her motivation or pedagogical reason, the notebook was the right fit for me.

As teachers, we’ve been schooled for a long time in the need to structure tasks that appeal to visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners, but differentiating our instruction is so much more than that. These days we think about grouping strategies, about whether a child understands things that are laid out logically and sequentially or understands them in non-linear ways, about attention spans, about creativity and conformity, about reflective learners versus action-oriented kids. We think about multiple intelligences and ask ourselves if a student is analytical or verbal or musical or artistic. We even think about the learning environment we create in our classrooms and the impact our seating arrangement might have on our students. Round tables encourage collaboration, but not every child wants to work in groups. Rows represent order and calm—but they can stifle learning for very social students.

The task of the teacher is to know every child’s learning profile well—and then to capture each student at the point of readiness and offer content that challenges but is not too much of a stretch to be defeating. Of course, we have to interest students in the first place in the topic we are studying or the skill that we are teaching. An uninterested student won’t learn much and won’t carry the lesson beyond the classroom walls or past the perfunctory quiz on Friday.

Knowing the students, structuring the lesson and designing activities that appeal to all these variations is no mean feat. Sometimes we “mix it up” serially—something for the visual learner one day, something for the kinesthetic one the next. Other times we provide a number of activities simultaneously—through learning menus or learning stations—sometimes we group kids and sometimes we have them work alone. Computer programs offer variety—though they’re no silver bullet for learning—and so do games and art activities.

But it’s not just mixing it up for “fun,” and it’s not just mixing it up for variety. Differentiating instruction is about intentionally designing learning activities to offer all the kids in the class the chance to experience those “notebook moments.”

If Mrs. Moeller had only had us do workbook pages, I might never have learned the parts of speech. Oh, that’s not true. I would have learned them, but painfully, slowly, and without that wonderful moment of sudden clarity when everything fell into place. If she’d only done diagramming, three-quarters of the class would have been permanently lost in space and rolling their eyes to this day. But she didn’t. And even though the Parts of Speech Notebook sounds today like a pretty conventional assignment, it wasn’t conventional then and it wasn’t conventional for me. For me, it was the avenue to understanding.

Mrs. Moeller, you weren’t old at all. You were wise. More likely related to Solomon than Methuselah.

Halfway There!

We’re halfway from the day we left for Faux Spring Break to the last school day of the year: May 15. The first thing I want to do in this post is to express my admiration for all the teachers I know.  This post is a shout-out to you in the form of a quick tour of some of the things I’ve seen during the past two weeks as I’ve visited your living rooms and kitchen tables or communicated by email, Facebook, phone, and Google Meet. And I know this isn’t the half of it. 

You’ve become technologically creative, utilizing aspects of Canvas many of us have never considered before—Discussions, for example.  Many of you have put up choice boards on Padlet, used Flipgrid for student presentations, even created Google Slideshows that capture your instruction all the way to the end—all the links are embedded; everything is in one place.

Kristin Lin, a Band teacher at MHS, for example, assigned YouTube videos to her students to teach them the language of orchestral conducting. I “sat in” on the lesson and learned that being a symphony director is a whole lot harder than it looks! Try this and see if you can do it! 

Kyle Harris, the 7th grade World History teacher at BGM, created a Padlet for his students to post art from Hudson School of Landscape Painting of the 19th Century. How beautiful is this spread?  Other teachers are using Padlet as a vehicle for organizing the students’ lessons throughout the week. Here’s MHS biology teacher Abi Bymaster’s Biology Padlet.

A teacher in the FACS national Facebook group created a choice board using  a different vehicle: Goggle Docs. MHS teachers Laura Cole and Laila Wilson added to it. Check out this impressive and comprehensive Google Doc choice board that blends practical ideas with creative opportunities. My personal favorite: Clean the Refrigerator!  

Most teachers are using Google Meet frequently and effectively, but sometimes an asynchronous meeting is better. As an alternative to Google Meet, Julie Riley uses Flipgrid with her 7th Grade English classes at WRM. Here’s a link to Honors English 7. If you have never used Flipgrid, this is a good chance to see it in action.

Some of you have created timely lessons out of this health crisis and period of confinement, engaging your students completely:

  • Dawn Grinnage, an English teacher at WMS, had her students, who are reading Anne Frank’s diary, keep journals of their own confinement. Read Sue Scott’s article about this thought-provoking project. 
  • Tasha Ploss’s Health Sciences classes at MHS are learning about pandemics and relating to an earlier read—Hot Zone
  • Jake McIntyre and Scott Royer, who teach social studies at MHS, are directing students to “current events” activities centered around Covid-19 because the subject is and will be a big part of American History. “They’ll be telling their grandchildren about this!”

There have been inspired ways of reaching out and keeping our kids connected

  • Suzi Ryan, A special ed teacher at MHS,  created a Google Meet for the kids that hang out in her room during her prep. She called it a “Virtual Coffee Break.”
  • Sarah Gustin’s entertaining Tik-Toks will be the stuff of legend when this is all over. Who knew principals knew about Tik-Tok?
  • This past weekend, the WMS team produced a YouTube video: Remote Learning, Too, that entertains and certainly lets students know their teachers are in this together with them
  • Encouraging emails from our principals have kept us motivated and made us feel appreciated.
  • Extra-curricular groups are still Meeting: Speech Team gatherings, World Food Prize, Academic Academic Super Bowl for starters.
  • At ETM, Band and Choir recruited current 5th graders using the school’s Facebook page. Here’s Andrea Bube’s YouTube for Choir. 
  • Camden Ritchie, music teacher at SMS, has been staging Ultimate Gimkit Smashdown competitions—open to the whole of SMS.
  • Sarah Gessel’s Mavericks Changing Minds (MCM) group is putting together a motivational video on 4 topics: creativity, self-care, learning, and connection. Interested in creating a 3-5 second video for the project? Contact Sarah at MHS.
  • And Mav TV is still broadcasting—if you haven’t seen last week’s episode, here it is. Watch all the way to the end and hear the inspirational message from Noah.

I’ve gleaned some tips from you that may help other teachers: 

  • If kids aren’t responding to Canvas, email them separately. Some (believe it or not) still don’t “get” Canvas; others will delete emails that come from Canvas—but not one that comes directly from you.
  • Instead of answering their questions over and over again, Jeremy Bloyd, ICE teacher at MHS, prepared a FAQ sheet to send out when the questions for the umpteenth time. It’s been working!
  • If no one shows up for your “Office Hours,” it could be that they don’t want to bother you. After all, they’re new to this themselves and may think Office Hours are sort of like doctor’s appointments. Email the students you need to see directly. Chances are, they’ll show up by direct invitation. 
  • Short on whiteboard space? Use your shower wall! Just be sure your markers will clean off afterward! (Thanks, MHS chemistry teacher Tasha Ploss!)
  • Kids having trouble with their computers: Remind them that they can make an appointment at their school with one of the unsung heroes of all this e-Learning: the tech team! A friend of mine’s daughter made an appointment with MHS’s Christina Bennett the other day. The whole transaction took place through the front desk. The students waited in the lobby for 10 minutes while Christina swapped out the battery (and carefully wiped everything down, before and after the repair).

And if our students didn’t really know it before, they know it now: We are human!  We have bad hair days. Our children “Google bomb” our Meets, wave at the screen, show off their birthday presents, and ask Mom to come see the new kittens—RIGHT NOW!  Our pets nudge the screen, scratch at the door, bark at the onscreen conversation, even knock over great-grandma’s lamp. 

I kind of like it, this informality. It gives us all something to laugh about, something not to take too seriously in this time when everything is so very serious. 

So great work, TSC Teachers!  From what I hear from administrators and families, I’m not the only one who is wowed by the efficiency with which you have learned how to navigate these waters, the grace with which you have adapted to the circumstances, and the ingenuity with which you have problem-solved. 

Have a great week! 


Forward to Finals

Just two weeks ago we were in the throes of final exams, stressed about whether we’d get all that grading done before dismissal for Winter Break, whether PowerSchool would be operating and we could get our grades in on time, whether the stress that got to our students would abate or build as they waited for the verdict on each of their classes. So I hate to bring that all back.

Nevertheless, I can’t write this post without summoning the Ghost of pre-Christmas Past. During finals week, I talked to many teachers in my building about their final exams. How they planned them, what accommodations and adjustments they made, and the creative ways they devised to assess their students’ knowledge.

In the Media Center, where my office is located, students were making round table presentations about their research into a dietary staple or a food of economic importance in a selected third-world country. “The Hunger Project” in this AP Biology class caught my attention because each student had created an Infographic to capture the essence of their investigation. Google provides templates for infographics; the students supplied the creativity.

It made me wonder what other creative delivery methods teachers were utilizing to assess their students’ learning. It didn’t take long to hear about other alternatives to standard essays, multiple choice, matching, and short answer questions. An AP History teacher uses podcasting as a tool. Instead of a traditional research paper, students create entertaining scripts in which they investigate the truth–or the fiction–behind popular historical topics. Who knew that Napoleon changed his wife’s name to a moniker he preferred? Josephine Bonaparte’s real name was Rose. But wait! There’s more! Listen to this Podcast.  And this one.

A culinary arts teacher could have elicited pretty boring paragraph answers to questions about safety and sanitation. Instead, the students put their creative minds and a sense of humor to work creating Tik Tok videos. Fun to make, fun to watch!

Dual credit speech students delivered Commencement Speeches in the auditorium; students in other speech classes made award presentations and delivered acceptance speeches. Theater Arts students wrote and performed original scripts. In a Special Education speech class, students drew topics from a hat and delivered impromptu speeches. Although I didn’t see any this semester, in other years, I’ve watched as students delivered their knowledge in the form of TEDx talks. Of course, performance is a natural when the subject is oral communication–or art or music or PE–but there are others: a portfolio of creative writing, a photography exhibit, a display of ceramic or wood art objects, or a musical rendition.

This is not to say that essays, multiple choice, and matching aren’t important or don’t have their place. Many of the teachers who devised the alternate forms of assessment I’ve just described also had written tests. But the range of formats throughout the building gave students a break from the tedium of pencil and paper and the opportunity to creatively demonstrate what they’ve learned, to work together, to learn new skills (e.g., infographics and podcasting), to show their humor and to laugh a lot (the Tik Tok videos). Refreshing.

And so was the PE exam I was invited to watch unfold. The class was Weights. When I showed up at the beginning of the exam period, I went to the wrong room. Wouldn’t you, too, think showing up to the weights room would be logical? But no. The kids were all in the gym itself–and dressed for gym class. I was puzzled, decided it must be a performance exam–but why not in the weights room? Turns out, the performance part of their exam is incorporated into the two 9 weeks grades. The students were in the gym for an old-fashioned paper and pencil test.

Unlike the 9th grade biology teacher, whose students sit cheek by jowl in an overcrowded classroom, who creates multiple versions of her exams so that no two students have all the same questions, the Weights teacher has the luxury of space. Spread out on the gym floor, armed only with a pencil–no sleeves to tuck a crib sheet in, no phones to sneak a peek at–these students, clad in their gym uniforms, sprawled on the floor and watched a video the teacher had made of former students executing the 26 lifts they had learned over the course of the semester. The present students filled in the blanks with the names of the lifts and completed a vocabulary test as well. And then what?

Something wonderful: They got to play dodge ball. They loved it! And they needed it. After a week of tests, whether paper and pencil, electronic or even performance: release!

Which is what we all felt, too, when the final bell rang.

So why am I posting this now? Why not just before that final bell? To be honest, no one would have had the time to read it before the bell rang–or the inclination to do so afterward, during Winter Break. But now that we are back in school and beginning a new semester, it’s a good time to take a look ahead to possibilities for May. Maybe this post will spark an idea that will change it up for you and your students. Even if it doesn’t, welcome to second semester!




Museum of Civilization

It’s nearing the end of the semester. Teachers are writing final exams; students are presenting culminating projects. I’m visiting classrooms to see some of the exemplary work my colleagues and their students have been doing.

Earlier this week, my colleague Sarah Gessel and her students mounted an exhibition in the Media Center called the “Museum of Civilization.” It was a curation assignment, inspired by Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel that has become a staple of the English curriculum following an all-community read that our English teachers had a hand in designing.

A character in that novel establishes a “museum of civilization,” an exhibit at the deserted airport, of the world as it used to be. Mrs. Gessel wanted her students to understand how objects become symbols of individuals as well as of the collective. She wanted her students to understand that their individual dreams and ambitions, their likes and loves, their pastimes and pleasures, their actions and accomplishments encapsulate them as individuals and, collectively, characterize their generation. She wanted them to think critically about the objects in their lives that capture the essence of each of them. Here was Mrs. Gessel’s assignment:

Background: In Station Eleven, we learn that Clark is the keeper of the Museum of Civilization at the airport. There, he preserves items of the past that represent mankind before the flu. 

Question: What three things would you personally put in a Museum of Civilization a hundred years from now that would represent you as a whole? You may not use a phone.


  1. Choose three items that represent you as a person.
  2. Create a display “From the collection of ___________ (you)”. Your collection should contain a brief description of who you are (written in 3rd person!), including birth year.
  3. For your display, you must have the actual item.  If that is not possible, a picture will have to do.
  4. For each item, you will create an informational label (like you see in a museum under an artifact). It should contain:
    1. The time period it is from
    2. Its use or symbolism
    3. Why the object was important to him or her
    4. What it tells the future about the person  
  5. Here is a very basic, rough idea of what I am looking for…except yours should be real…not on a document.

Here are some of the items students brought to school:

Some of their artifacts were poignant–a necklace made with a dear friend, now deceased; a stack of recipes from a grandmother; an old movie camera that launched what might well become a career:

Yes, there were earbuds and screens, but not many. In fact, what I noticed in addition to the wide variety of artifacts was the overwhelming lack of electronics. Admittedly, Ms. Gessel forbade phones, but earbuds and other electronic paraphernalia did not dominate the displays. Instead, there were the indicators of family, friendship and faith. Of interest in the arts, organized sports, and individual artistic pursuits. In children, in 4-H, in books, in cooking. Ms. Gessel’s students, like most teenagers if critics would just look beneath the surface, are not the zombie-like, plugged-in and tuned-out youth so often caricatured. These are kids I want to know better, unique and interesting individuals who are going to be in charge of a world I want to live in.

And here’s what happened afterward, after the spectators left, after the voting by gallery-goers was over, after the grades were assigned: The students looked at each other’s displays and something spontaneous occurred. Here’s what Ms. Gessel wrote to me:

My heart is full as I am sitting here thinking of the time we just spent last hour enjoying each other’s company as a class. All of their “stuff” is great, but what made so many of those items in there come to life were the kids. Watching them ask each other to play their instrument or sing or dance or compliment each other’s artwork or just comment on how nice it was just to chill with each other and listen…WOW. No museum can hold that amount of wonder or life. This is why I teach and am still teaching!

If you would like to know more about curation as an instructional tool, click here to read this article by Jennifer Gonzalez in Cult of Pedagogy.

Improve Their Reading While They’re Reading

You’ve set them up to read with understanding, but is there anything students can be doing while they are reading that will help them understand?  A lot of kids just seem to drift away when they start reading…

Students are taught “during reading” practices throughout elementary school. When they get to secondary school, teachers stop using the language of reading and stop reminding students to employ the practices their elementary teachers have taught them. Maybe we should take a step back. Here are several of those “during reading” practices that secondary teachers can encourage, too:

Self-monitoring: All readers need to stay on top of their understanding. Most of us do all right with stories, but when it comes to non-fiction, especially if the text is difficult, we can get lost–or drift away. One strategy that helps is to consciously summarize the text at the end of each paragraph or chunk of text. Many of us do this automatically. A teacher taught us the trick or maybe we learned it on our own.

So it is with students. If a student can’t articulate the main idea of the paragraph, then understanding is incomplete. Coach them to stop, summarize (to themselves) what they’ve just read, and then go on. That means reading will take longer. Tell them that taking longer is okay. Non-fiction, especially, is harder than fiction–words and concepts are new, not as easily assimilated as when you are reading a story.

This lack of understanding is also one of the main reasons plagiarism happens. The student doesn’t understand what he or she has read; thus, can’t summarize. What sometimes is called “laziness” or mistaken for deliberate cheating is really lack of comprehension. Have the student practice summarizing a chunk of reading aloud–as if explaining to a parent–before writing a sentence or paragraph for their research report.

Visualizing. Elementary students are taught to make a movie in their heads. If it’s fiction, they are taught to create a mental storyboard. If it’s non-fiction, they’re taught to diagram, chart, map, or create a mental table as well as storyboard the content. The very popular sketch noting, or visual notetaking, is a variation on this theme. Ask students to draw what they have read and see what happens. Some kids thrive on this way of processing information.

Relate to prior knowledge: When reading an informational piece, ask students to form hypotheses about the text (predict) rather than simply recall prior knowledge. They’ll read with the purpose, then, of discovering whether their hypotheses are correct.  Also, by NOT asking for personal experience stories (elicited by the “Have you ever…” question), their connections will be connections to real content, not just to the mention of a topic. For a really insightful description of this kind of questioning, read The Comprehension Experience. (If you’re local, borrow it from me.)

Make connections to the text as they read: This is similar to the concept of connecting to prior knowledge, but it’s about teaching students to make even more connections while they are reading than they already have. To consider how the idea they are reading is like, unlike, supports, contradicts, etc. something they’ve read, seen, heard, tasted, or experienced before. For example, any cook will tell you that when they read a recipe, they’re thinking not just about the ingredients for the recipe at hand, but how that recipe is a variation on another they know–how the addition of one certain spice and the removal of another will affect a taste they already know.

Recently, I watched a video of a teacher working with her 7th grade class on a percent problem. Before they ever learned the formula for solving the problem, the teacher asked the students to consider how this problem was like other percent problems they’d encountered and how it was different. Later, the students went on to solve the problem, of course, but first they considered “same” and “different” and that helped them make sense of the new problem.

Use text structures to help them understand: In fiction, text structure means the story arc. Students learn this structure from the cradle (if their parents read to them).  As humans, we’re “hard-wired” for story anyway. That means we try instinctively to make a story out of information we receive.

Except for chronological order (which is, of course, related to “story”), the structures of non-fiction aren’t so readily apparent: cause/effect, problem/solution, analysis, order of importance, comparison/contrast. Help students learn the markers for these structures so they can get a mental outline of the text before they start reading. For example, you can augment understanding by simply saying something like this: “In this article, the author discusses two different interpretations of this historical event and gives his opinion on those interpretations.” By outlining the article for the students, you’ve boosted their comprehension of it from the get-go. Probst and Beers eludidate non-fiction structures in their second Notice and Note book, Reading Non-fiction. (You can borrow this one from me, too.)

Question themselves: Do I understand? What can I do if I don’t? Where did I stop understanding? Should I go back? Should I slow down?  (The answer is “yes.”)

When a text is difficult because the content is new, or we’re tired, or too much is going on externally, all of us stop paying attention when we read. This can happen with fiction and non-fiction. Students have been trained to be conscious of having lost the thread. Most know to go back to the place where they last remember understanding and start over at that spot. As secondary teachers, we can remind them of that strategy for recovery.

Be conscious of skimming patterns: What students are liable to do when they first start drifting is to skim; that is, to puddle-jump across the lines of text, one line at a time. Skimming is a perfectly fine way to take in information when all you want is the gist or if it’s the first time through a piece of difficult text.  But all too often, this “academic” skimming turns into Z and F.

Z and F skimming styles are unconscious but entirely natural patterns of eye movement that web designers capitalize upon to ease our intake of social media and website content. Because so many of our students spend so much time on social media, these skimming patterns may have become second nature to them.

The layout of a social media page like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter is an F pattern. Google searches come back in an F pattern. Websites, especially places you want to order merchandise from, are set up to read in a Z. Neither of these skimming patterns is efficient for academic articles or for textbooks, whether print or electronic.

The task for us is to alert students to Z and F so they can monitor their skimming behavior and adjust to the kind of skimming that’s appropriate for academic texts and textbooks, whether in print or electronic: puddle-jumping.

 Reading comprehension is an amorphous, abstract thing. Our ability to understand what we read doesn’t grow in a linear fashion or at a measured pace. It’s hard to pin down–no different than holding on to a cloud. What we do know is this: The more we read, the more we understand; the more we understand, the more we bring to the next text we read. Learning how to help yourself understand what you read doesn’t end after elementary school, and there’s a lot we secondary teachers can do to boost our students’ understanding.

Reading Comprehension: Set Them Up to Understand

I’ve been immersed in the world of reading comprehension and strategies for teaching reading for quite a while now. My last post was about reading e-texts successfully, but for the next several weeks I am going to back up and write about reading comprehension itself, especially as it applies to secondary students and teachers. The next several posts are specifically for classroom teachers of all subject areas, but if you’re a parent reading this, the concepts and strategies I outline constitute a significant part of the reading comprehension instruction in an American classroom.

Did this ever happen to you? Your college professor told you to read a huge chunk of text by, say, Wednesday and come to class prepared to discuss what you read.  Because the topic was new to you, it was sometimes hard to figure out what to focus on. You got to class and found out you’d paid attention to things the professor didn’t think were important at all. High school and middle school students have problems like this, too. 

We teachers can set our secondary students up for success in the same ways elementary teachers do.  First of all, we can “preview” what’s important. Here are some ways to do that: 

New words: Think about the important vocabulary that the students will encounter in the reading you’ve assigned. If the words are technical, and they’ll be encountering them for the first time, you can increase their comprehension by explaining those words before they read the text.  For example. You might say, 

“When you read tonight, you’re going to come across these three words: ________, _______, and ________.  They’re really important to understand, so here’s what they mean.“

And then explain. 

When the student encounters these words in the text that night, it will be for the second time, not the first, and they’ll already have a little bit of “prior knowledge.” That will help them make sense of the new term in context. 

Create a Trailer: Alert students to a key scene in a story or a concept in non-fiction so they’ll know when they get there that this matter is important.  Naturally, you don’t want to spoil the suspense or give away so much they won’t read the chapter, but you might say something like “In tonight’s reading, Juliet is going to fake obeying her father. Pay attention to what he does next. It will be important to the rest of the story.”  

You can go farther than hinting at a significant scene and even dramatize an upcoming chapter. You still don’t give the ending away, though. The point of a trailer is to build suspense, not satisfy curiosity.

If it’s non-fiction and the students will be reading about a new concept–say a principle in biology–explain the basic concept first. When they read the details, they’ll already have the main idea and will be filling in the blanks.  

Refresh and Move Forward: Take a minute to summarize the previous day’s reading. That quick summary creates the flow that’s so necessary when you’re working with information that moves from one point to the next. 

Set a purpose: Explain to the students why they are reading something. Understanding skyrockets when students know the purpose and what they are going to be doing with the information. Here’s part of why: The reading method they–or I–employ usually matches the purpose for reading.

  • If I am reading for basic information, I may skim the selection.
  • If I am reading to understand an argument, I’ll read the selection carefully.
  • If I am reading for specific terms that I’ll be expected to remember, I’ll scan.
  • If I am reading to add to prior knowledge, I will make the connections as I read.
  • If I am reading for amusement, I’ll probably read in a comfy chair.

Make an explicit homework assignment: This is related to the purpose. If it’s basic information you’re after, supply a graphic organizer or a guided reading sheet or even a set of questions to direct the reading. Let students know they’ll be quizzed on the material (if they will). Let them know if you intend to go over the information or if you plan to take off from there on the assumption that they understand all the basics. If you’re not going over the reading, but they’re expected to understand it, they’ll read more carefully if they know that ahead of time. 

Even if you do intend to discuss the reading in class, without a task to complete–like filling in a graphic organizer–many students will skim the text, not read with attention. Here are some other ideas for explicit homework assignments.  Notice how differently a student would read a text for each of these assignments.

  • Select what you think is the writer’s strongest argument and explain why.
  • As you read, think of another story (or character, or situation, etc.)  that is like this and explain how they are alike.
  • Keep a timeline of significant events.
  • Copy 5 figures of speech the author uses in these ten pages and name the figure of speech.
  • Write down what you thought was the most surprising part of the story so we can take a class poll and discuss why these parts were surprising.

Make sure they know how to use the tools they have in their hands: Many secondary students still have trouble understanding the function(s) of the parts of their textbooks. They may never have been shown the index, for example, so they don’t know what it’s for. 

Here are the usual parts and common text features of textbooks:

  • title page
  • diagrams
  • sidebars
  • table of contents
  • labels
  • highlighted text
  • headings
  • illustrations
  • italics
  • photographs
  • graphs
  • bold print
  • tables
  • captions
  • color coding
  • charts
  • bulleted lists
  • bolded words

Secondary students generally have the most trouble understanding the difference between the Table of Contents and the Index. If they’ve never used the Table of Contents or the Index in their texts, they will not use these two tools well in a reference book that is NOT a textbook. In fact, they have to be explicitly shown how to use these two aides to understanding. So, if you are sending them off to research something, be sure to remind them that the Index will help them find a specific topic and the Table of Contents will reveal the organization of the book and the main ideas.

When a science teacher (for example) says “Read pages x to y,” many students think “read” means reading like a novel in English class. If you teach a subject that relies on charts, maps, diagrams, tables, and illustrations to deliver information, be sure to tell your students that valuable information is packed into these study tools and that they should pay attention to these parts of the text, too. Once again, the students have to be explicitly shown. 

Finally, obvious as it is to us, many students think the color coding, fonts, and different font sizes in a text are artistic flourishes. Even the text features like these are deliberate keys to understanding. Make sure your students are aware of these text features. 

All of these “before reading” strategies have been taught to students by their elementary teachers, but secondary teachers can learn from them: A little pre-reading instruction goes a long way toward understanding what you read.


Building a Workforce for the Digital Age

21st Century skills: What are they? How can we prepare our students for the workplace of the future? Guest blogger Nathan Hartman, the Dauch Family Professor of Advanced Manufacturing and Head of the Computer Graphics Technology Department at Purdue Polytechnic Institute, gives us some insight on the path of manufacturing education from the Industrial Revolution to the present day and shares his assessment of the tools students will need for the future.

Full disclosure: Nathan Hartman is one of my former students. Working with him on this blog post has been a distinct pleasure. Welcome back to my American Classroom, Nathan!

According to several studies, somewhere around the year 2025, the typical U.S. worker will have around 20% of the information they need to do their job created and delivered to them by a machine, likely some type of computer. Near that same time period, the world will experience over 35 billion connections to the Internet. Living in such a connected world will no doubt have an influence on how people work, as well as how they are prepared for such work. A very good example of this playing out before our eyes today is in the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Nathan Hartman and his Purdue Polytechnic student, teaching and learning for the future

According to many of those same studies, by 2025, the U.S. will have likely experienced the creation of roughly 3 million manufacturing jobs that do not exist today and will still have roughly 2 million unfilled jobs that have been digitally transformed to require a new skill set. This scenario will create even more strain on an already burdened labor market in manufacturing. Couple that strain with new models of working, such as a borderless workforce and non-hierarchical organizations and the design and manufacture of wearable products and continuously connected devices, and one can see that an entirely new ecosystem of work is developing. One for which our current education systems and methods have but minimal preparation. Current life expectancies in developed countries point to a person born today living to be nearly 100 years old. How do we educate a person born today to exist in a world where they not only change jobs multiple times but potentially change careers multiple times?

By most accounts these days, the manufacturing sector in the U.S. is doing well, even with the recent downturn in the automotive industry. However, it is difficult to pick up a newspaper without reading something about the challenge companies are facing in hiring. According to numerous recent studies by the likes of Gartner, Deloitte, McKinsey, and others, the current manufacturing output is high, but the future looks a bit bleak. Not necessarily due to competition with low-labor-cost countries or some governmental policy per se, but to a lack of a skilled workforce coupled with rapid technological change. Most authorities peg the shortage between 2 million and 3 million manufacturing workers by 2027. Regardless of the cause, even if the worker shortage is “fixed,” it will not likely address a more fundamental trend in the U.S. people choosing other career fields over manufacturing. But before diving into a discussion about education and workforce development, let’s look briefly at the technological transformation at the heart of this predicament.

Most of us grew up learning about the Industrial Revolution – the mechanization of work to ease the load on human beings and to increase their efficiency. However, what many people may not be aware of is that we have had several industrial revolutions over the last two hundred years. Industry 1.0 began with the mechanization of work, which led to the electrification of work during Industry 2.0 in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the early 1960s with the rise of personal and industrial computing, electrification of work gave way to the automation of work to create Industry 3.0. And as those technologies became commonplace and we saw the uses of data expand, we have arrived in the 2010s at Industry 4.0 – the digitalization of information to support the automation and computing backbones that already have been built. Not only are we on our fourth industrial revolution, but the elapsed time between the revolutions has been substantially decreasing.

In parallel with the technological gains in efficiency, accuracy, and sustainability that it is experiencing today, the manufacturing sector is struggling to transform its workforce. For every industrial revolution the world has seen, there has been an accompanying educational revolution. In the U.S. and Europe, those transformations came in the movement away from the master/apprentice model (Education 1.0) to the movement around Manual Arts and Industrial Arts (Education 2.0), which focused on basic job skills for the growing mass production economy. Over the 20th century, we saw the move towards Technology Education, with its focus on domain-specific content areas and a systemic view of technology as a discipline in and of itself (Education 3.0). The current education transformation relative to manufacturing is now focused on design thinking and a ‘system of systems’ view (Education 4.0) of developing and implementing technology and using digital data to assess, diagnose, and implement solutions to problems.

Yet, if we have had parallel revolutions between industry and education, why does the manufacturing sector find itself with such a shortage of skilled workers, and how might we begin to address this shortage? How we can adapt our Education 4.0 revolution to better address the needs of the manufacturing sector of our economy? The dawning of technologies such as additive manufacturing, high-performance computing and data analytics, generative design, and artificial intelligence means that humans will no longer have the cognitive playing field to themselves. Machines will be able to process more quickly, more cheaply and with fewer errors than their human counterpart, at least in some activities. That could make the hollowing-out of human tasks, now cognitive as well as manual, far greater than ever before. So what do humans have left? What should we prepare our students for?

Project-based Learning offers students opportunities for critical thinking, creative problem-solving, communication, and collaboration: all, 21st Century skills. This picture is from the Purdue D-Bait project at McCutcheon High School, reported in a previous blog post, It’s Not about the Lure

Demand for skills of the head (cognitive) have dominated those of the hands (technical) and to a lesser extent, those of the heart (social) over the past 300 years.  In the future, a tighter coupling will need to exist between a person’s cognitive knowledge and their technical and affective knowledge. During the first three Industrial Revolutions, the skills workers needed to keep ahead of the machines were largely cognitive. Machines were doing manual tasks and cognitive tasks were the exclusive domain of humans. However, with the rise of social networks, artificial intelligence, and the digitalization of information, Industry 4.0 threatens to change the balance of power in what had been exclusively the human’s cognitive domain. Students must be exposed to and become proficient in multiple modes of problem-solving; that is, they will need an education that prepares them to perform cognitive tasks requiring creativity and intuition. They will need to solve problems whose solutions require great (but logical) leaps of imagination. There will remain a demand for skills to program, test and oversee machines. Personalized design and manufacturing will become more common as the information needed to customize products for individuals is more readily available. A student’s ability to use social skills to execute, and when necessary, lead initiatives that require emotional intelligence rather than cognitive intelligence alone. Preparing graduates solely for cognitive skills will not be enough for the 4th Industrial Revolution.

We must build upon the traditional literacies of reading, writing, and mathematics. Students still must be able to take in information, assimilate it with what they already know, and form a conclusion. They must still be able to understand the physical and temporal phenomena expressed by modern mathematics and science. However, we must move them past simply assimilating and synthesizing information and towards interpretation and systematic decision making based on that information synthesis. New types of literacy might include:

  • Data literacy: the ability to read, analyze and apply information. Advanced data gathering and analytics tools will increase the quantity and quality of information available to people, and use contextual cues to help them in understanding what is presented to them. It will be incumbent on our students to know how to apply that information to their problem and to be able to discern accurate and useful information from that which is not.
  • Technological literacy: coding and engineering principles. Technologies have been created and used since the beginning of humankind, which is arguably one of the things that separate humans from their ancestors. Yet this new incarnation of technological literacy will enable our students to incorporate factual and procedural, process-oriented information into the physical tools and objects they design and build, thus creating a more “intelligent” products.
  • Human literacy: humanities, communication and design. Our ability and willingness to connect to fellow human beings through, and in spite of, our technologies will become increasingly important. Solving complex problems will not only require the rational theorems and postulates of our mathematical techniques, but the empathy that comes from being human, as we have yet to develop a computing technology with the human capacity to assimilate, interpret, and feel.

Finally, as we develop in our students these higher-order literacies based on digital tools and information, we must also move them towards higher-order mindsets and ways of thinking about and viewing the world. We must encourage them to embrace systems thinking, not necessarily the abstract mathematical representations of it, but the Gestaltist view that yields the ability to view an enterprise, machine or subject holistically, making connections between different functions in an integrative way. Entrepreneurship will become increasingly important, although not in the economic sense per se, but in the application of creative thinking to solve problems and take risks in implementing those solutions in our social institutions. Our students must also become culturally agile as physical, geographic borders become less and less relevant in an age of global commerce and the economic viability of singular customers. And we must encourage and challenge our students to embrace ambiguity as a fact of life and to employ critical thinking as much as possible. The habits of disciplined, rational analysis and judgment will serve them well in a world that increasingly relies on digital information and the accompanying networks to disseminate it.

The manufacturing sector and the education system that supports it cannot hide from these technological changes. It would be like trying to away from a tsunami: We will eventually be overtaken. As an educational community, we must embrace these changes, engage with the manufacturing sector, and adapt our respective curricula to meet the needs of a future and a transitioning workforce. By doing so, we can provide the manufacturing sector with the workforce it needs, and we can provide the manufacturing workforce pipeline some sense of stability in an otherwise rapidly advancing future.

It’s Not About the Lure


  • Aquarium net
  • Transparent plastic containers
  • Plastic buckets
  • Golf balls
  • Magnifying glass
  • Ice cube tray
  • Parametric software
  • 3-D printers


  • Students in Honors 9 Biology, AP Biology, and Principles of Engineering

Put them all together and what do you get?

Fishing lures!

Except, it wasn’t about the lures.

Teacher Zach McKeever supervises as students float golf balls in tin foil boats to understand buoyancy

Teams of students from these three classes at McCutcheon High School joined forces to learn about the fish that swim in Wea Creek, the insects that attract them, and the design process engineers use to create any new product. The standards addressed by this bioengineering module pulled from biology, physics, math, technology literacy, and environmental systems. The students spent time at the creek in waders, capturing and identifying fish through electrofishing techniques guest instructors from Purdue University showed them. They identified aquatic insects–also caught in the creek that runs behind our school–and preserved them in transparent containers to learn about biomimicry. Using a decision matrix to guide their design choices, the student teams created fishing lures that looked and moved like the insects they’d observed. They floated golf balls in tin foil “boats” and used their math skills to determine the buoyancy of their designs. Ultimately, the students used Inventor, a parametric modeling software program, to visualize a prototype. The most promising prototypes were printed using a 3-D printer.

20180911_121840When they weren’t outdoors, the teams met together in the Media Center where large round tables and lots of space facilitated consultation and collaboration. The four teachers, whose schedules had been specifically arranged to accommodate this project-based learning endeavor, floated among the groups. The large space also improved the efficiency of the project. “It was much easier to walk between tables to answer a question than to send an email from one classroom to another,” commented engineering teacher Zach McKeever.

Finally, each team made a PowerPoint presentation of their experience, including a reflection on their performance in terms of communication, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and computational thinking. An expert angler was present for some of the final presentations and inspected the lures close-up. The students listened intently to his critiques.  One group was surprised when he told them, “You could market this if you’d make just this one little change.” 

And then, on a warmish October Saturday, they tried out their lures. Total catch: a few nibbles.


But that’s all right. It wasn’t about the lure.

In their wrap-up discussion, students (predictably) commented that they liked going outside and enjoyed the fishing expedition at the end. They wished they’d spent more time at the creek! They appreciated the hands-on learning and real-world application of their learning. They enjoyed the guest lecturers from Purdue who opened their eyes not only to a new way of fishing, but to the presence of specific species of fish as an indication of water cleanliness, to the connection between bioindicators and our own drinking water, and to watershed ecosystems in general.

Students test their hypotheses about the number of golf balls their vessels will hold as teacher Amanda Cox looks on

Some students did say they prefer a more traditional approach to learning: They wanted textbook learning first, then the application. However, the majority of students said they liked putting the pieces together even though they experienced some anxiety at first when they weren’t sure what was going to happen, how they would get from the assignment “Create a Lure” to the final product without the familiar front-loaded vocabulary lessons, textbook assignments, and the quizzes and tests that usually accompany traditional classroom instruction.

Other students had suggestions for their teachers for improving the unit’s design. The project had been set up to differentiate for experience (Honors 9 Bio and AP Bio) and course credit (Engineering vs. Biology). The AP Bio students, for instance, experienced the electrofishing and were responsible for conveying that information to the rest of their team. The engineering students used Inventor–and explained it to the others. The Honors 9 students did the insect study and relayed what they learned to the rest of their team. That structure led to some problems of communication, so the students suggested ways to ensure better communication and more accountability for each team member. 

Many students commented at length on the communication and collaboration skills they had needed to develop in order to be successful. Some teams reported, quite frankly, that they hadn’t started out working together well–but they overcame those obstacles because they had to. That admission–and the ultimate resolution of the problem–brought smiles to the faces of the teachers because, of course, learning to work together as a team was one of their goals. 

The principles of design apply across the board and collaborative problem-solving among individuals with different areas of expertise and different perspectives will always be the case. For example, Mr. McKeever explained, civil engineers may be commissioned to create a dam. That will certainly disrupt the ecology of a river, so the goal will be to design a structure that minimizes impact but still does the job of holding back the water. Chemical engineers may develop vaccines and the packing materials for those medications. They’ll need to take the impact of chemical emissions, waste, and the product itself into account as they develop the product.

“The biggest takeaway for me,” Mr. McKeever continued, “was the relevancy. The biology part helped the students create lures for a specific fish in a specific environment, making the whole project much more authentic. Without the biology component, the assignment would have been ‘Design a lure you think will catch a fish’.”  Not nearly so relevant and not nearly as challenging. 

For students who have never experienced project-based learning, the first venture into this way of learning can be intimidating.  But in the end, biology teacher Abi Bymaster asserts, “This project forced students to feel uncomfortable, to ‘not know the answer,’ and they couldn’t just look the answers up on Google. However, it is because of this discomfort that they learn; this is what I love about PBL.”

“Learning ‘this way’ made the learning real,” many biology students said in summary. They liked the independence, the taking charge of their own learning, the creativity expected and allowed. The students clearly saw that while the biomimicry and the buoyancy achieved by the unique anatomy of fish were concepts important to understanding predator/prey relationships, understanding the whole ecological system–and the ability to generalize that to other systems–was the greater lesson. 

Teacher Mike McKee watches as his student tries out a lure

No one misunderstood the real learning goals of this endeavor. It wasn’t about the fishing lures. It was about the interdisciplinary nature of learning and the teamwork needed to pull a project together, hallmarks of project-based learning: authentic experiences that reflect real-life problem-solving and decision-making.

This project-based learning experience has a formal name: Designing Bugs and Innovative Technology (D-Bait). It is one unit in the TRAILS curriculum designed by Jeffrey Holland, Todd R. Kelley, Euisuk Sung, and Nathaniel W. Cool at Purdue University and supported with funding from a National Science Foundation grant. The project was new this year to two of the four collaborating McCutcheon teachers, all of whom were trained during previous summers. All four of the high school teachers are looking forward to doing the project again next year–and implementing lesson design modifications suggested by their students, the bioengineers.





Thinking Made Visible

Used to be, when students would stare off into space, we wouldn’t know what they were thinking about. Now, with all the screens in front of their faces—and ours—we at least know the topic of their attention.

But what are they actually thinking? How can we get inside their heads to discern their thought process? If they’re on the mark, terrific!  But if they’re stuck, how can we know?

My colleague used these cool, washable markers and the tables in her science lab to do just that: Get inside her students’ heads.


We were co-teaching a lesson in AP Biology about food insecurity in Afghanistan—the primary and secondary causes and the various effects interruptions in growing and marketing food have on the health and well-being of the people in that war-torn country.  It’s a complex topic with complicated connections.

So after we set the stage by introducing new vocabulary, after we had shown a short film about microcredit and talked about food aid from foreign donors, after we’d discussed the topic as a group, we distributed a paper for students to read and a guided reading activity to accompany it. The weekend homework was for students to read the paper, which proposed some solutions to the problem, and think through the questions on the guided reading sheet.

Sure enough. Come Monday, several students hadn’t read the paper. Even more tripped up on the questions because what was called for weren’t easy, fill-in-the-blank, seek-and-find responses. The students had to think about what they had read and make connections. It was a tough assignment. The reading itself was daunting.

But what my colleague did next was not to berate the students or express exasperation. Instead, she put them in groups and asked them to draw the connections, as they understood them, between the causes and effects of food insecurity–right on her lab tables.

As the students sketched out the author’s ideas, my colleague and I were able to move from table to table and with a glance, see where thinking had gone awry, where gaps in understanding occurred. When we’d point out the exact place where the students had not understood, we could sometimes hear sucked-in breaths or audible exclamations. “Oh! I get it now!”

For us, this exercise was thinking made visible. Because of it, we could lead students to a better understanding of what had previously been confusing or even mystifying.

I began to think about where else thinking is visible and what kinds of opportunities teachers construct to make that happen. After all, a check for understanding isn’t meant to be a check for recall. It isn’t just about getting the right answer. A check for understanding is supposed to clue teachers in as to what our students actually have comprehended or taken away from a lesson.

In math class, teachers ask students to “show their work.”  That’s how the teacher can tell if the answer was a lucky guess or the product of a thoughtful approach to the problem.  If the teacher can see the steps the student took to arrive at the solution, the exact point of un-understanding is visible—just as in the table talk my colleague and I conducted with her students.  In fact, math teachers look at “showing your work” as a road map. The point where thinking breaks down is the precise place to apply the red pen—not just on the answer itself. Or, as the teacher in this video does, apply the yellow highlighter.

Geometry offers the same potential for revelation of thought.  Proofs are mental processes revealed. In evaluating a proof, the teacher has to follow, step by step, the student’s logic. That makes checking proofs time-consuming—just as, when reading students’ essays, the English teacher has to follow the student’s train of thought in order to make actionable comments.  But from heavy duty assignments like proofs and essays, teachers learn precisely what students don’t understand—or do, as the case may be.

Old-fashioned sentence outlines are also great revealers. Students prefer the bullet points of a topic outline, of course, because they can bluff their way through an outline check or turn in something when they haven’t really started thinking about their topic. But when ideas aren’t connected with transition words and complete sentences aren’t available for examination, the teacher can’t really follow the student’s train of thought. When a sentence outline has gaps and misunderstandings, the teacher can direct next steps.

One of my favorite lessons when I taught composition was an exercise in understanding how sentence outlines work. I’d find or construct a fairly complicated sentence outline of a research topic, cut the sentences into strips, remove the numbers and letters, and assemble sets of these sentences, all jumbled up.  Students would form groups, and I’d hand each group a set of the sentences. They’d spend the rest of the period figuring out the outline based on logic and the clues provided by transition words. Then, of course, I’d require them to construct their own sentence outlines.  

And when I really cast my thoughts far back into the recesses of my life in an American classroom, I remember sentence diagramming. I’m not advocating for bringing that back necessarily, but I do have to say, faulty diagrams revealed exactly what students didn’t understand about sentence structure.

Whenever a performance is required, whenever students do something, we see thought in action: Their level or degree of understanding is immediately evident in the performance of a musical piece, the execution of an art project, the preparation of a recipe, the construction of a garment, the reassembly of an automobile system. The problem is, when what we seek to understand is a mental process, it’s not so readily visible. Sketch notes help. Graphic organizers and graphic summaries help. Models and puzzles and other manipulatives do the trick.

But what else? Send me your pictures and tell me about the activities and processes you employ to make thinking visible.  I’d like to put together a gallery of thought-tracking possibilities.

And if you purchase some of those neon markers?  Be sure to get some Windex and a roll of paper towels, too. You’ll need them!  This activity is addictive!

Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?  

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific paper for students to read and dissect and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition,  qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us—for me, this kind of coaching—where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.