Authentic Learning Trumps Scantrons

finishing togetherTeachers can see it dancing in front of them:  the finish line, a.k.a. summer vacation.  But in order to cross that finish line into summer paradise, they must first create, administer and grade the dreaded final!

And honestly, no word creates such a chorus of groans among teachers and students as that time-worn word.  Finals are the final attempt to measure our students for one last time before we release them for summer.  But really, what good is this measurement at this time of year?  And our creating, administering and grading this measurement only creates:

  • anxietystress
  • frustration
  • exhaustion
  • overeating
  • sleep deprivation
  • death by chocolate

And this is just on the side of the teacher!  One could only imagine what it creates in the students!

I am not, as this point, advocating ending finals.  But I am advocating shaking it up a bit and trying and new final, an authentic learning final that involves the parents and the students.  And rather than a final of drudgery, making it a night of celebration.I am advocating making the final an authentic learning project.

Steve Revington states that, Authentic learning engages all the senses allowing students to create a meaningful, useful, shared outcome. They are real life tasks, or simulated tasks that provide the learner with opportunities to connect directly with the real world.” 

So how does an authentic assessment differ from a well-worn final stored away each year in filing cabinets?  Tom Gram of Gram Consulting lists the qualities of an authentic tasks and here is a portion of his list:

1. Authentic tasks have real-world relevance:  Activities match as nearly as possible the real-world tasks of professionals in practice rather than decontextualised or classroom-based tasks.

2.   Authentic tasks comprise complex tasks to be investigated by students over a sustained period of time:  Tasks are completed in days, weeks and months rather than minutes or hours, requiring authentic learningsignificant investment of time and intellectual resources.

3.   Authentic tasks provide the opportunity to collaborate:  Collaboration is integral to the task, both within the course and the real world, rather than achievable by an individual learner.

4.   Authentic tasks provide the opportunity to reflect : Tasks need to enable learners to make choices and reflect on their learning both individually and socially.

5. Authentic tasks are seamlessly integrated with assessment :  Assessment of tasks is seamlessly integrated with the major task in a manner that reflects real world assessment, rather than separate artificial assessment removed from the nature of the task.

6. Authentic tasks create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else:  Tasks culminate in the creation of a whole product rather than an exercise or sub-step in preparation for something else.

As a final, what does and authentic task look like?

Pattie’s English students saved their essays in files in the classroom over the year.  Their goal for their final was to:

  • examine weaknesses and strengths in past papers
  • choose two things to improve on
  • create a written plan on how to accomplish the improvements
  • conference with teacher and two peers on contract of improvement
  • incorporate the improvements into a new paper to be showcased on the night with the parents

And then the fun began!

  •  We choose a night to invite parents to the media center where,  from 5:30 to 7:30, parents could drop in and students would share their file of past papers.  This would ensure that the students knew they were writing for an audience and not for a grade
  • Students would explain to their parents their weaknesses and strengths in writing and what they did to improve their new paper
  • The parent would read the paper and compare it to the others and then write a written review
  • The parents would then have a five-minute conference with the teacher explaining their review, eat some cookies, drink some minted water and go home, happy that their students showed growth and could explain their work

How they Prepared:

  • Pattie allowed them to choose from two topics, one expository and one narrative
  •  They wrote their first draft at home and brought it to class.  Points awarded
  • Reflective process on first draft using Kelly Gallagher”s STAR method
S ubstitue overused words
weak verbs with strong verbs
weak adjectives with strong adjectives
common nouns with proper nouns
“dead” words
T ake out unnecessary repetitions
unimportant or irrelevant information
parts that might belong in another place
A dd detail
new information
figurative language
clarification of meanings
expanded ideas
R earrange the sequence to produce a desired effect
the order for a more logical
  • Sharing papers with peers, showing changes and accepting comments and question about changes
  • Papers rest in class for one day
  • Following day, students re-read papers and re-write following their STAR process  Reflection: How did the process of Starring the paper improve it?  Should it be done again?
  • Written revision  No editing!  Just writing.
  • Papers rest in class fo another day
  • Reflection:  does their paper have detail that makes it interesting?  Is it too broad?  Fix it!writing
  • Sentence length and variety of sentence structure modelled by teacher, and students examine their papers to incorporate where needed
  • One re-write in class (points awarded)
  • Compare paper to original contract and reflect on what needs to be fixed
  • Share with partner and teacher (points awarded)
  • Begin editing process
  • Final conference with teacher
  • Final copy
  • Presentation to parents
  • Note:  Not all parents can make it, so I was always a parent to one or two.  And I did have translators in Russian and Spanish to assist the parents.

On the Day of Final:  On that day, her students wrote a reflective response to the process.  They addressed their initial groaning and their elation at the final project.  Those were the best finals she has read because the students believed that what they were doing had meaning.  finish line

Honestly, you have to try this.  It is the best!  And I know you will have the time of your life! We can make crossing the finish line into summer a celebration for everyone!

















Posted in Authentic learning vs. finals, Education, How can I help my studnets with their finals?, How do I create projects that will have meaning/, Incorporating parents into the learning, Uncategorized, What is a good English final?, Writing, Writing for an audience | 2 Comments

Civil Rights Must March On!

  Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  two teachers challenging the status quo

Selma Bridge

Giving us the wonderful movie, Selma, Hollywood allows us to peek into a transformational  biopsy of American history and view the  emotional, physical and spiritual struggles that created change in our country.  This film is a must see for every student.  Bringing to light the agony of decision-making to create a sustained movement, it allows us to see the debates surrounding the march on the Selma bridge.  And although the movie paints a flawed picture of President Johnson, viewers realize the importance of this moment.  And they see the courage it took to attempt to right a wrong and create change in America.

The Civil Rights struggle is such an important part of our American experience because it created an awakening in so many areas of our society.  But classroom teachers struggle elevating this moment in the lives of students, and often times it becomes nothing more than searching for parallel structure in the “I Have a Dream ” speech.  Yikes!

Once, when Pattie began her Civil Rights unit, a student wailed, “Ms. Sloan, I am civil-rights out!”  

Whoa!  So how do we keep apathy, even on the part of the teacher, from weakening the power of this awakening in our country?  If we  continue to treat the Civil Rights Movement as one more lesson, we totally miss the fact we are living in a time when the rights of people around the world are challenged for their gender, religion, or ethnicity.


Challenge: let’s take civil rights global and connect it to our history.  Let’s take it out of the books and make it about today, too.  Civil rights struggles are universal, so let’s assume a different posture and involve our students in what is occurring globally.

At the recent 7oth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the dangers to Jews was outlined and this was addressed:

  • Boys in France afraid to wear yarmulkes
  • Burning of synagogues
  • Attacks and burning of Jewish businesses
  • People of the Jewish faith fleeing to Israel and other countries for safety

He wasn’t talking about Nazi Germany but France’s current reality.

Making our lesson  global allows us to examine the change agents in countries like China, Burma, or Iran where dissidents leaders  are attempting to alter their countries treatment of its people.  And we can connect that global information to our own history and current struggles.  There have been and are so many people working to create change that we can create a lesson that will allow our students to come to terms with the struggles throughout our shared history.  They will  appreciate it as a struggle by people for a better world rather than a box to check in February.

Going Global Lesson Plan:

Begin the unit with the Essential Question to guide conversations.

The Essential Question:  Should people be peacemakers or changemakers?  Can they be both?

After a discussion, visit and share the website Biographies Online and lead the class discussing the achievements of the various women and men on the website.  Refer to the Essential Question as the conversation progresses.  Not one of the people represented was perfect in character or loved by all, yet they worked to turn their society right side up!

In groups, chose a man/woman to research and using the  format I-Search, research and answer the following questions:

Questions to answer as they gather their information in computer search groups:

  • What is the nature of the societal injustice they fought?
  • How and why is the injustice accepted by the society?
  • What changes did the change-makers try to carry out and what resistance did they meet?
  • What is the result?
  • How does their struggle parallel  Dr.  King’s struggle and the Civil Rights Movement in the United  States?
  • Teaching Tolerance offers a free documentary on Selma.  Share that with the class and include it in your discussion

Note to teachers:  using the I-Search format allows for more reflection on the part of the student, and you can adopt the I-Search to the essay style required on your curriculum map.

Change your Civil Rights a lesson and make it global and  transformational. individuals Make it a lesson that will create awe rather than apathy.  We are teaching real people who will someday remember this lesson and change their part of the world.  Adjust, adapt, and inspire.  Hey, you can do it!  You’re the teacher!  We’re cheering you on.

















Posted in character development, Character education, Civil Rights, Civil Rights Movemtn, global civil rights, I-Search paper, the movie Selma, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Questions That Invite Thought

thFor teachers who joined us at this year’s Oregon Reading Association’s Winter Institute, thank you.  We enjoyed our time at the conference and really appreciated our conversations with you after our session.  As promised, here are our materials from the presentation:

We’d love to hear from you about your work with essential questions from your classrooms.  Please consider leaving a comment or emailing us about your triumphs, struggles, or questions.

Happy Reading!

Joan and Pattie

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Embracing Productive Risk-Taking

thWe’ve noticed a change in the school climate this year as we strive to incorporate the new national literacy standards, the Common Core, into our classrooms.  Joan’s observed over 150 classrooms in her school district since September and reports the following trends in practice:

  • Evidence-based thinking, writing, and discussions–this is a huge shift from Joan’s learning walks three years ago. Everywhere, from K-12 classrooms, we’re seeing students dig into to their sources to discuss why they think what they think, cite the evidence that supports their thinking, and explain why that evidence is valid or invalid. We’ve seen teachers who encourage student voices, and then turn to the class, asking, “Do you agree or disagree with X’s thinking and use of evidence?” It’s the norm to see students turn and talk to each other, and then take the floor in discussing their agreement or disagreement in academic language.
  • Argumentation–three years ago, the only teacher in Joan’s district who took on argument in formal study was the speech and debate coach. Most of us weren’t sure how to begin, what a warrant was, and how often we needed to practice claims, evidence, and counter claims. Now, third graders articulate stances on whether or not a main character in a narrative text is a hero, cite evidence, and acknowledge and answer counter claims. Not only do we know and practice the differences between persuasion and argument, teachers, such as Trost Elementary’s Abbie Perrin, feature arguments that students eagerly linger over and share. The idea of teaching argument was overwhelming three years ago; now teachers make it look easy.  Three cheers for that!

But let’s step back a bit.  Our learning curve was stressful, and the continual learning that educators face is, well, an ongoing process that unfolds with or without funding.  Considering Oregon’s public school funding crisis during the last five years, how did we persevere through that rough transition of new, rigorous standards and almost no professional development?  We believe most teachers triumphed because of the only two consistent magic solutions we know of:

  • teacher collaboration in worthy risk-taking
  • courageous embracing of imperfection

We’re still in our learning curve with Common Core, still trying new things, still forging into uncharted territory, still understanding ourselves as colleagues and as learners, which is akin to Salman Khan’s claim that “the most important skill that anyone can learn is how to learn.”  Even so, it’s hard to embrace imperfection. Some teachers are more zen-ish and graceful at it than others.

Teachers Kate and Maggie Roberts write:

We are in the age of teacher evaluations and multi-faceted performance assessments. While these new initiatives offer insight into what makes good teaching, it is equally true that our current climate does not lend itself to a spirit of  “hey you guys, let’s mess up a lot!” But without this spirit, we will be in a choke hold. We will hang back. And if we hang back, it often means our students’ needs are not met. Hanging back means we don’t get better; we stay scared longer. Hanging back means we plague ourselves with doubt or guilt.

The Roberts offers the following suggestions for embracing productive imperfection in their blog Indent:

1. Pick a unit/topic/issue/text you have always wanted to teach but aren’t sure how:

Do you love graphic novels? Teach your kids how to write them! Frustrated by the lack of poetry in the CCSS? Teach the heck out of poetry, knowing that the skills found there will certainly be used elsewhere. Dive in and try to do it right, knowing that even if you are clumsy now, you will teach it better next time.

2. Try out a new “thing”

Maybe it’s a new device, like using your iPad to track student conferences (try Evernote App for your notes), or maybe you’d like to start a class blog. Or you were at a workshop where someone shared how their students made movies to go along with the stories they wrote and you thought, “my class would love that!” Take this year to play with something new.

3. Take on an impossible challenge

Do a full court press this year on a challenge you believe in and see what happens. Educator Lucy Calkins suggests that teachers choose one child and decide to change that child’s life this year. Yes, more would be better, but if we do everything we can for one of our students, while still doing a great job with the rest, we can make a huge difference.

4. Invite people to watch you teach (and vice versa)

Of course, the ultimate test of our desire to find areas of imperfection in our work is to work publicly. Teaching in front of colleagues is the heart of our work, learning from each other, seeing what works, brainstorming solutions to tricky bits, leaning on each others’ expertise. Set up some classroom visits this year with people you like (or are intimidated by). Practice with each other with light, brave hearts.

5. Learn how to frame your failures

a8bd23271230e954140eafa41ae691b4To tackle productive risk-taking, you must make a choice. Do you treat the chaos around you as something to be ashamed of and apologize in nervous tones? Do you smile and say, “Welcome! We are working on our debate skills. Today we focused on being sure to debate with passion and a sense of the counter argument. Clearly, we need to work on a structure for our conversation. Any tips?” Framing imperfection against the goals you are aiming for allows you to name what your focus is, while allowing room for growth.

With any challenge, self-selected or not, it’s important to have appropriate support. Find trusted colleagues in your building to talk to and to learn from.  Support each other with gentle humor and honesty.  Finally, recognize wins as they happen and celebrate them.


Pattie and Joan

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Not All Disabilities Are Visible

Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  two teachers challenging the status quo.

drowsy studentYou probably know her, that dear student to the left of the text.  Students like her appear inattentive, drowsy and forgetful, and  they  can sometimes drive us crazy. And what usually happens is we categorize them as simply lazy or disorganized, and we try to tackle those less-desirable classroom behaviors missing the root cause.  Many times they aren’t bored or tired or even disrespectful to an education; they could actually be struggling with the side effects of the medication they take for their epilepsy.  Because they are often controlled, we do know and do not give them the attention and modification needed for their success.

November was actually Epilepsy Awareness Month and who knew?  The Epileptic Foundation reports that  1-26  will develop epilepsy in their lifetime so the odds are high that we have controlled epileptics in our classroom.  Because of theslogan stigma that accompanies the disorder, many of them are hesitant or afraid to ask for modifications that will make them successful.  They want to avoid drawing attention to their condition.

The Cure Epilepsy website offers these stats, but their following statement demonstrates why we are so in the dark and somewhat hesitant to discuss this disorder:  “Historically, epilepsy has been neglected, feared, and misunderstood. A veil of secrecy surrounding the disease has resulted in myths, superstitions, and a general lack of knowledge…. Admittedly, we are still somewhat murky on the facts of epilepsy and how best to teach a student with a seizure disorder.”

As this is the 21st century,  we believe we are aware and enlightened.  But are we?  Epilepsy is a loaded word, and the literature we teach where the characters  have seizure disorders make it more problematic.  So we have to ask ourselves how we handle the subject in the classroom.  Or do we?

  • Simon of The Lord of the Flies:  Considered touched by the boys on the island, after a gran mal seizure, the evil on the island reveals itself and its plan to him.  As a result, he is savagely murdered by the boys.
  • Julius Caesar of Julius Caesar:  Making a speech before a crowd, he falls down and foams at the mouth.  He is mocked by the other Senators for his seizure.  He is later murdered by the Senators.
  • Sefelt and Frederickson of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest:  The side-effect of an anti-seizure drug causes Sefelt’s teeth to fall out so he gives the drugs to Frederickson who takes them for him. They represent two men who are institutionalized because of a seizure disorder and represent how often individuals with epilepsy are perceived by the mainstream society.

girls brainYikes! A student with a seizure disorder would not want to self-reveal and have their condition equated to the characters in literature.  Their condition is beyond their control and is something they are learning to manage and the characters do not represent their lives.   The many causes for their disorder ranges from severe illness to head trauma and is defined as, “Epilepsy is a controllable condition caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain resulting in temporary seizures. It is not a disease! Epilepsy is actually an umbrella term covering about twenty different types of seizure disorders.”

Young people have to learn how to handle the disorder, but the personal demons that accompany this for many is only it magnified by their adolescence and can impact their classroom participation and behavior:

  • Low self-esteem:  With the awareness that they have a conditions that is not openly talked about, they try to hide that condition, making them feel a little ashamed.  For all their talk about wanting to be different, students  have to feel a part of the pact.  Their shadowsdifference is highlighted by the meds, their regimen and their fears of a seizure.
  • InsecurityIs there anyone more insecure than a teen-ager?  Under that proud chest bests a heart of a human that questions themselves at every turn.  Am I enough like the others?  Do I have a place in this culture?  Will anyone like me if I have a seizure?   An epileptic is aware that they, like every teen-ager, do not fit into their unstable environment, but add the knowledge that their brain is different and they have no control, makes them emotionally fragile.
  • Anxiety: Not aware when they could have a seizure, they stay in familiar/safe areas.  Afraid to venture from their comfort zone, they chose to stay with the familiar in case their worst fears are realized. As a result, they will withdraw and not take the chances, preferring to be safe.  However, that safety does not allow them to experience the success that could change the trajectory of their lives.
  • Fear:  Afraid of losing control in front of their peers, they choose a life of routine and consistency.  Staying close to ones they trust, they are ruled by their fear of humiliation rather than the desire to stretch themselves and take chances.  Often coming to school the day after a seizure is the greatest risk they want to take.

disabilitiesOur profession is about helping all students.  But if we are truthful, as teachers preparing for our profession, there is usually one class period in one methods class on helping students with special needs that addresses  epilepsy.  And that is it!  Because teachers make a profound difference with their acceptance and encouragement, developing a better awareness of epilepsy is foundational for every good teacher.

Teachers can begin by reading posts or articles online that will help them understand the young persons struggle with their meds and condition.  Self-education maximizes our opportunities to help our students as we gently guide the student through our classes.

It follows that if we have little awareness of the condition, we will not know what to do when a seizure occurs.  Following these basic steps from Dr. Reza Shouri, MD will give teachers  control when a seizure occurs:

  • Do not panic and be calm.
  • Do not attempt move the person having seizure to another location, since this may injury you, the person having the seizure, or other bystanders.
  • Do not leave the person having the seizure. Stay with them until the seizure stops.
  • Look for bracelet tag and contact information for contact information or verification that the individual has epilepsy.
  • Protect the individual from any kind of injury. You can do this by moving chairs or other hard objects away from the person.
  • Do not attempt to open the mouth and put anything in the mouth, since this could pose as a choking hazard or you could injure yourself.
  • Gently put a soft pillow under the head to prevent injury to the head during the seizure.
  • Carefully and gently turn the individual to their side and allow any fluid to come out of the mouth
  • Do not attempt to give anything to drink or eat while the person is having a seizure.
  • Seizures usually last for a short period of time (1-2 minutes). If a seizure lasts longer than about five minutes, you should call an ambulance immediately.

Pattie chose this post because, as a teacher and an epileptic, she knows first-hand the struggle living with the condition brings.  After a serious case of the measles in the third grade, she joined the 1-26.  Later, as a theatre-speech major, she stood in front of crowds, secretly wondering each time if this was going to be the time her brain would rebel.  She remembered leaving the classroom to have a seizure and then return only to be quizzed by the teacher about where she went and why it took so long. And she had made every teacher aware of her condition.  Her compassion for her students with the condition made her their advocate.

Pattie outed herself in American Lit during the study of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  The classes insensitivity to the plight of the characters helped her find her voice and she shared her life-struggle.  The class was quiet, and then hugs came from everywhere.  Later students took her aside and shared their secret condition, and she realized it was a pretty cool moment to share struggles.don't flatter yourself

November is National Epilepsy Month, and who knew?  We can do better for all the people in the class.  But don’t be discouraged by what we do not know but be encouraged by how we are going to change.  We can do better.












Posted in character development, Education, How copmmon is epilepsy?, How do I handle a gran mal?, How do I help a student with seizures?, How do I teach a student with epilepsy?, Literacy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

In Praise of Short Texts

imgresAs career teachers, we know there is one certainty that all teachers face: when it comes to thinking, reading, and writing, we must all teach process.  If we want students to read, view, listen, think or produce, we can’t make assumptions about their processes (as in, they actually know what to do what we’re expecting them to do).

Every time we’ve assumed our high school students knew how to handle a difficult text, we were wrong, and our class discussions or essays fell flat.  We discovered that even our juniors and seniors either kept moving their eyes over the words and called it reading or read a page or two and gave up.  At the beginning of the term, most of our students have no process in persevering to understand a difficult text, which means we must be strategic in easing the way to rigorous thinking until they get stronger and more confident.  How do we do that?  Read on!

First, until we absolutely know our students as readers, we stay away from long, rigorous texts.  Teacher / author Cris Tovani writes, “If we are constantly giving students text that is too hard for them to read, they may get through it, but probably not without cheating.  Many of my students who are struggling readers feel defeated before they even begin.”  That’s definitely not what we’re after.

Poetry, short stories, and essays–short pieces that we can use to model close reading in one class session–mark our starting point.  With this approach, students begin to lean into short texts, paying attention to their processes in making and noting meaning to inform their discussions, but not without a lot of modeling from us.

We applaud Regie Routman’s Optimal Learning Model approach as an effective progression in tackling complex thinking.  Not sure what that means?  Here’s a recent close reading / discussion lesson that Joan successfully led for eighth-graders and then for English language learners:

  • Joan read William Stafford’s poem, “Traveling Through the Dark,” aloud
  • Students volunteered to each read aloud one stanza so we could hear it again (we embrace whole-to parts-to whole teaching, as opposed the maddening parts-to parts-to whole teaching that No Child Left Behind encouraged.  This lesson is a good example of whole-to parts-to whole).
  • Highlighters in hand–students love highlighters, even at high-tech Canby School District where Joan teaches–students marked everything that has to do with color, or lack of color (3rd reading)
  • With a different color, highlight everything that is man-made (4th reading)
  • Have students section off the poem into chunks of action or meaning–most students will see Stafford’s poem as a five-act play because of the five stanzas; some will argue that it’s a three or four act play.  That’s fine.  It’s the reasoning and thinking that we’re after (think engagement, people!–this move also invites multiple layers of reading).
  • Joan models her thinking for the first chunk she marked–the first stanza, which sets the temporal and spatial setting for the drama that’s about the unfold: it’s night on a narrow, dangerous coastal road; the narrator is alone, and it’s quiet as he stops to do the right thing for fellow travelers.
  • Most students will have the stamina and interest to do their remaining chunks of text; some may want partners to help; some may only be able to do one section.  That is fine–your students have different levels of thinking and grit; the important part is that they’re all moving beyond what they had 15 minutes ago.
  • Ask students to share their noticing behind each section of text–we like the turn and talk method, and then we might ask 2-3 students to share their thinking with the class.  Use your teacher spidey sense to discern this move–or experiment and notice the results to help you gain your teacher spidey sense.
  • Ask each student to pick a compelling quote from the poem and to create a question imgres-1(this move is huge for the coming work that students will do with novels, but use this time now to model “compelling quotes” and “quality questions”–trust us, you don’t want to assume they know how to do this work.  They don’t.  Not yet).
  • Collect their questions and quotes, but have a series of back up questions ready.  If you’re class session is over, the quotes will help pull them back into the poem for tomorrow.  If you still have 20 minutes left, the questions can launch partner, small group, or Socratic seminar discussion, as you wish.  Joan prefers Socratic seminar; Pattie prefers small group discussion.  It’s up to you, as long as the students are genuinely discussing the academic content.

Here are some of our favorite student-written questions:

  1. How would the tone change if the speaker had been traveling with someone else? If the setting was during the day?
  2. How does the fact that it was not just a deer but a pregnant deer change the situation?
  3. Stafford uses a lot of punctuation for a short poem.  What impact does all this punctuation have on the poem?  How does it read without the punctuation?  What’s lost?
  4. If you could interview Stafford, what would you ask?  How do you think he would answer?
  5. What, aside from driving at night, do you think Stafford means by “Traveling Through the Dark?”
  6. Create a different title for this poem.  What would you title it?  Why?
  7.  Listen to Stafford read “Traveling Through the Dark.”  What do you hear in his voice that helps you understand his hesitation, his swerving?
  8. What matters more in this poem: the narrator’s actions or the narrator’s thinking behind the final action?

Please don’t think that students automatically know how to write questions like this–we get plenty of questions about whether the deer is female, what model of car hit the deer (yikes!), why the narrator hit the deer and then came back to examine it (double yikes!), or if the narrator should have called Animal Planet to save the fawn.  Wrestling with the disequilibrium of doing the right thing will be a theme for our academic work together, but we want to steer students away from those nit-picky comprehension questions that they’ve come to expect from English teachers.

imagesOnce we’ve workshopped a short text like this, we usually have students write about their processes, what they noted in their own thinking or in the quality of the group discussion, or we have them write a Quick Passage Analysis to explore further.  Our writing choice depends on where we are in our teaching progression.  Joan likes an essay per week with her students, but she has small classes of 17-20 students.  Pattie’s classes were more typical with 35 students, so weekly low-stakes writing was a better match for her.

The point is that students will learn from each other and from the workshop procedure, and as they learn, they’ll grow strong enough for Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Cather, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Bradbury.  And all that low-stakes writing will ease the way for formal academic writing (more on that move in future posts).

Not sure which poems, short stories, and essays to employ as students learn to read closely?  We recommend Kimberly Hill Campbell’s Less is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts–Grades 6-16.  See page 69 for a thematic list of short stories to use in place of novels until you know your students can and will read longer, rigorous texts.

Have a great week!

Joan and Pattie

Posted in character development, classroom lessons that change the world, classroom projects that change children, Education, Literacy, Social Action | Leave a comment

How Authentic Texts Lead to Engaged, Socially-Aware Students

change 2

We are in a season of educational change with teachers required to move  into unchartered waters with the new curriculum focus. The Common Core emphasizes reading informational texts, which for many English teachers is a departure, a powerful change, from the curriculum we have historically taught.

Creating connections between the classroom curriculum, world events, and the informational texts can be problematic–teachers wonder, where and how do I start?  

It’s actually an easier connection than we first thought: with an awareness of world events and students’ interests, we can transition into a curriculum relevant to  current events, creating students who are knowledgeable citizens of the world they live in.  We need to stop, look around, and investigate what is happening in the world.  And then we need to process how that can be best used in our classrooms to create informed, critical readers, and thinkers.

Currently the Middle East is a battleground where ideologies are fighting for control of regions, and many of the participants in this war are children the age of the students in oimagesCAUIPW76ur classrooms.  It’s difficult to wrap our minds around the atrocity of child soldiers because our job is to protect children.

Children forced to join the military, leaving their dreams, innocence, and homes to become warriors,  are forever changed.  As ugly and obscene as this is to us, it is an opportunity for us to connect our students to past and current conflicts while introducing them to the human rights abuse of using child soldiers.  Out of this learning, we create empathetic students who will  better understand the importance of an education and their role in eradicating injustice.

Experiences of child soldiers parallel the autobiographical novel, A Long Way A Long Way GoneGone, a great resource to use in the classroom.  Although the book is the story of a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s former civil war, the horrors are similar to the plight of child soldiers elsewhere in the world. This information about child soldiers and their role in conflicts, can be instrumental in engaging students in the current global crisis or the fragile state of our world.

child soldiers 3Child soldiers have been used throughout history, and today global agencies believe that there are well over 250,000 child soldiers in the world, but it is impossible to document as rebel forces and cartels do not release the number of girls and boys they abduct.  Preyed upon by older men, fighting in wars becomes their reality and their nightmare.

So, what do we honestly know about this human rights abuse?  Do lists 11 facts about who the child soldiers are and how they became involved in the conflict.  Two of the most compelling reasons are:

  • Children who are poor, displaced from their families, have limited access to education, or live in a combat zone are more likely to be forcibly recruited.
  • Children who are not forced to be soldiers volunteer themselves because they feel societal pressure and are under the impression that volunteering will provide a form of income, food, or security, and they willingly join the group.

We must understand that many of the  participants are vulnerable young people who do not have an opportunity for education or for a future.  This is an excellent opportunity to engage our students in investigative reporting, allowing them to become the teachers as they research, learn, and teach others about this practice.

Lesson plans for this topic can begin like this:

Part 1:

  • Essential question:  What should our response be to global injustice?  In our post Eight Essential Questions, we examined essential questions to guide the students to examine the bigger ideas of the text.  We want not right or wrong, but thought-provoking questions that can facilitate critical thinking and conversation in the classroom, keeping in mind that is what they will be required to do when they leave our classrooms.
  • Have students access prior knowledge about child soldiers by making a list.prior learning
  • Then have them move around the room, sharing their list and practicing give one get one.  Using this template may make it easier for the first time.
  • Put the 11 facts on child soldiers on the overhead and share out the different ideas students have on this topic.

Part 2

Divide into small groups and assign one of the following countries to each group:  Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia, and Thailand.   As a group, they will do a computer search using the following questions as guidelines for their research:

  • Where is the region ( a map) and what is the conflict that involves child soldiers?
  •  How are the children recruited?
  •  What are the tasks they are to carry out in the military?
  •  Describe their life in the military.
  •  Is there an attempt to rescue than and if so, is their rehabilitation?
  •  How does their service change their lives?
  •  What are the international groups currently involved in rescuing child soldiers?

Rules for presentation:

  • The participants must become the experts and guide the class to new learning.IMG_3378
  • All members of the group must actively participate.
  • They must share equally in the presentation, which will require planning.
  • There must be a PowerPoint that underscores their
    presentation, but presenters must speak to the audience, not just read the slides aloud to the class.
  • All audience member must take notes and can ask questions at the end of the presentation.


Part 3:

We suggest a persuasive / argument essay of your choosing.  An excellent way to begin is with a persuasive letter to your congressmen.  Because students are addressing an authentic issue that matters to them (and the plight of child soldiers will speak to them after all work they’ve just engaged in) to a real audience, we find that quality writing follows.  We don’t have to nag them to edit and revise–they are keen to mail flawless writing to stakeholders.  Trust us on this: authentic purpose + caring about the audience = quality writing.  

What we do in the classroom must have lasting meaning in the lives of the students.  Teach with a zen urgency.  Our students can develop–and have developed— into global, thoughtful citizens who make positive differences in the world.  Our time with our students is limited; make it count.  Think in terms of whole to parts to whole teaching patterns*–it’s the pattern that delivers us success in creating young people who learn to stand up in their lives.


*look for future posts on whole to parts to whole teaching patterns; hint, it’s the pattern we’ve used in all of our posts over the last two years.  That skill isolation temptation (parts to whole teaching) to which many teachers fall prey is exhausting and doesn’t deliver results.  Stay tuned.






Syria Sudan  Somalia

Posted in character development, Child soldiers and global conflicts., Child soldiers in the Middle East, classroom lessons that change the world, classroom projects that change children, Creating a project on child soldiers, Creating empathy in students., How do I create projects that will have meaning/, How do I teach global conflict?, Injustice in the world and how children are involved., Project-based learning about current issues., Teaching studnets to care beyond themselves, Transforamtionbal projects | 2 Comments

Practicing Close Reading to Inspire Social Action

Joan Flora and Pattie Sloan:  two teachers challenging the status quo

If you are familiar with Common Core reading standards, you probably already know–and maybe dread–standard #10: read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Fisher_&_Frey_Model_-_Structure_for_Instruction_that_WorksFor now, let’s think in progressions–leave off the “independently and proficiently” part for now; that’s our goal, not our starting point. Remember, too, the these standards are benchmarks for what students will know and be able to do by the end of 10th grade. We have time, but we need to get started now.

But which texts merit close, critical reading? We recommend you begin with less complex texts (think vocabulary, academic language, concepts) to build stamina and reading as thinking habits. We’ll address more complex texts in future posts; for now, we want to get good at progressions of text complexity and text difficulty (sentence structures).

Students won’t understand close, critical reading unless we teach it, so we think it’s vital that we understand how to teach it.  We don’t resort to simply assigning it and rewarding students who happen to already read analytically while accidentally teaching the rest of the class to hate close reading.  To ease the way, educators Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Diane Lapp share these guidelines for choosing a text for close study:

  • Select a short passage that is complex and worthy of study focus and time
  • Choose a section within a novel or another body of work that demands close reading for deep comprehension

In a sample lesson below, Fisher and Frey highlight Chief Joseph’s surrender speech, “I will Fight no More Forever.”  To understand the progressions of close, layered reading, follow these steps:

  • First reading: What does the text say?  This is the literal foundationScreen Shot 2014-10-11 at 6.24.00 AM
  • Second reading: How does the text work? Notice the structural features–how does the author communicate?
  • Third reading: What does the text mean? This is the inference layer, which is the heart and soul of reading for us.  Without this, we wouldn’t love reading and thinking about it. You may be tempted to  rush this part; don’t.  Your patience will pay off in rich classroom discussions and writing if you follow the text-dependent questions.  With time and consistency, your students gain stamina and strength to tackle this work independently.

Insist that students hold their thinking via notes, guiding students each step of the way–don’t just throw this list at them.  Slow down and do it with them; show them your notes for each layer.  Be patient.  Be zen.  This is teaching as art.

  • annotating_textAnnotate the text in the service of comprehension; this becomes students’ visible footprints of thinking and future evidence for discussions and writing
  • Underline major points
  • Circle key words  or phrases that are unknown or confusing (this helps students monitor their comprehension and stops them from saying, “I didn’t get it.  Fix it for me.”)
  • Write margin notes restating author’s ideas
  • Consider additional annotations for students, once they understand the process; add “customized” notes that correspond with the text.  For example, we like highlighters for Tracy Chapman’s song, “Fast Car,” marking evidence that indicates success for escaping poverty in one color and evidence that refutes success in a second color; look for facts vs. dreams.
  • Ask text-dependent questions (some literal, some structural, some inferential)—see progression of text-dependent questions chart above.
  • Give students a chance to struggle a bit—pause in disequilibrium to wrestle with problem-solving (aka thinking).  Use your teacher spidey sense to read the room, allowing students to think not sink into frustration and quitting.

Close reading of Chief Joseph’s surrender speech from Fisher and Frey:

  • Chief Joseph speech text-dependent questions via PowerPoint
  • Who is delivering the speech? What happened? (General understanding: what does the text say?)
  • What concerns does Chief Joseph have about the health and welfare of this his people? How do you know? (What does the text say? Key details)
  • What does Chief Joseph mean when he says, “From where the sun now stands?” (How does the text work? Figurative language)
  • What’s the tone of this speech?  What words and phrases support your claim? (How does the text work? Vocabulary)
  • How does the structure of the speech convey Chief Joseph’s mood? (How does the text work? Structure)
  • Consider this line: “I will fight no more forever.” What is it about the word “forever” that makes this statement so memorable? (How does the text work? Structure)
  • Who is Chief Joseph referring to in this line: “I want to have time to look for my children?  What other parts of the speech support your claim? (What does the text mean? Inferences)
  • Consider the second passage of his father’s deathbed plea (see PowerPoint above to access).  How does this help you better understand the speech?  What inner conflict would Chief Joseph have experienced?  Where do you find evidence of conflict in the speech? (What does the text mean? Inference)

Essay challenge:  What is the role of surrender?  After reading and discussing Chief Joseph’s speech, write an essay that defines courage and explains the courage of his decision to surrender.  Support your written discussion with evidence from the text.  What conclusions can you draw from this speech?

Watch Doug Fisher deliver this lesson to students:

Once students comprehend a short passage at a deep level, we find that they’re ready to move beyond the three steps of close reading into the fourth level of social action:

  1. Reading and re-reading with you as the tour guide
  2. Annotating the text to hold thinking
  3. Creating text-dependent questions (literal, structural, inferential)
  4. Paying attention to social action challenge–what does this text move us to do?

The fourth level of close reading is where your students will likely out-pace you in passion and energy.  You’ve empowered them with deep understanding of one worthy text.  Let them discuss and problem-solve disparities they discover in their lives.  We don’t have to tell them that authentic learning carries the responsibility of action–they’ll feel it.  We need to get out of their way to let them lead.

Meanwhile, you’ll be selecting the next worthy passage to study, repeating the steps above. We’re cheering you on and will post resource sites and strategies for worthy, short passages for future study.


Joan and Pattie

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Transformational Service

imagesCA1ENGO5Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  two teachers challenging the status quo

There is a  cock-eyed, optimistic belief we hold that, within each student, is the desire and ability to take a step of faith, do something dangerous and make a change in their world.  That belief drives so many of us to keep on keeping on–searching for new ways to channel that energetic goodness.  It keeps us off the ledge, the therapists couch, or over-dosing on fair-trade chocolate.  This knowledge gives us purpose and direction and keeps us sane until summer break.  Well, kinda sane.

But the reality is that our students put themselves in a maze of activities, most unproductive, in an attempt to wow colleges and universities and to make a statement that they did something in high school.  They served. Those activities will fill a day-planner and a résumé, but are they life-changing activities that create future leaders or  divergent thinkers?  If we are honest, we can agree that they are probably not.  But they are safe activities and someone has to do them at the school.  Or do they?maze 2 Does this look familiar:

  • Third Vice-President of Environmental Club in charge of honoring teachers who turn out their lights in their classroom.
  • Sergeant of Arms for Honor Society monitoring the rowdy members who do not raise their hands before they speak in the meeting.
  • Treasurer for Computer Club  (aren’t they using Bitcoins?)
  • Lunar Calendar Wizard for Astrology Club, where in the Northwest, it is cloudy 256 days a year

It is a silly list, but students are anxiously filling their calendars with this emptiness and calling it service.   They don’t possess the necessary wisdom to understand that busyness does not equal productivity and growth. And frankly, they are not often given opportunities for authentic service that creates leadership skills or character.  The authentic projects that will attract colleges and universities take time to research and commit to, but they are also the ones that will transform our students into true college material.


Kristin van Ogtrop, in the Time magazine article, lists learning activities that will create more  humane students by enlarging their capacity to help others.  From writing a real letter on real paper to doing something nice for a neighbor without expecting credit for it, she reminds students and teachers that unselfish good deeds will strengthen their humanity.  Number ten was  important because it is probably students rarely here in their attempt to get ahead: “Don’t race to the top.  Never race to the top.  If you want to aim for the top, good for you.  But try to get there slowly, deliberately, without knocking everyone else out of the way.  Or missing the beautiful view.”

Ouch!  How often do we entice students to be involved by reminding them that it will look good on their college applications?  So they rush into shallow projects and miss commitment to a project that will give them a mind-blowing adventure and deep satisfaction when they sit back on their heels and view their accomplishment.

Pattie sent a  group of students with their new coach, Bryan Haws, to work with Eden Reforestation  in Haiti this summer, and her buttons are popping off her shirt as she considers all they were able to do for the environment of Haiti and for themselves.reforestation Haiti

Haiti.  How to describe the poverty of mind and spirit that is the very essence of this country?  Again, a country ruined by the slave-trade and colonialism, its environment has been violated by others making money from their vulnerability. Haiti When the quake came four years ago, because of the deforestation that occurred earlier, the land was most fragile without a network of trees and their root systems, and so the devastation was greater.  Home to so many NGO’s and much foreign aid, the people of the country have learned to wait for other nations to do the work for them, resulting in the people having no personal investment in their own country, leading to even greater problems.  But we cannot walk away from Haiti: remember, it is in our hemisphere; it is our neighbor.

In our last post Pattie shared her adventure in Madagascar and how it changed her and her worldview.  While she was in Madagascar, her students were working in Haiti  at a university, clearing the property and increasing the nursery size.  They were helping the Haitian teachers prepare their reforestation lessons for their Haitian students.  This may sound simplistic, but it is a radical change from global aid they receive that simply gives the government money and then walks away, with no accountability.  This is a grassroots effort that gives the Haitians an opportunity to learn, teach and carry out reforestation.  And best of all, they have complete ownership.Eden 3Haiti project

When Pattie’s students returned, they were ecstatic because they made a difference.  Interviewing her students,  she learned that service taught them:

  •  Service doesn’t have to be big or results happen now.  They learned that service is about the future.  There are few immediate changes, but long-term changes are the changes that count.
  • Service is done, not to impress others, but to change yourself.
  • Service taught them to change their worldview and look from the Haitian viewpoint rather than the views taught in school.  They learned empathy and respect.
  • Service taught them that they could do something that scared them, and because of that, they were stronger and more competent human beings.
  • Service allowed them receive kindness from the very people they served.
  • Although schooled in environment and social and global issues, facing the challenges of reforestation made lessons relevant and enduring.

Students can be transformed by the opportunities of service we offer them.  Rather than throwing stones at the devil, we should allow them to go into the field to confront, make changes and leave their mark.  They can do it.  We just have to direct and impart.  Really, when you think about it, that is what we were hired to do.





Posted in character development, Character education, classroom lessons that change the world, classroom projects that change children, Eden Reforestation in Madagascar-changing Africa, environmnetal change through reforestation, hope for Haiti through reforestation, Pattie and Gary in Madagascar, Social Action, Teaching studnets to care beyond themselves, The devistation of Haiti, The environmnet can be healed by students, The rebilding of Haiti, The teacher's optimism, Transforamtionbal projects, transformational service projects, Uncategorized, What can be done to help Haiti?, What students mistakenly call service | Leave a comment

Behind Every Success, There is a Wise Teacher

IMG_0347Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  two teachers challenging the status quo

Indulge me a little.  This summer was full of life-changing experiences for me, and many of the adventures directly relate to your classroom. And before I continue, yeah, that’s a lemur on my shoulder.

I  need to share what I lessons I learned with a cast of dedicated professionals who want the best for every student. Even though  school has begun, and many assigned the “How I Spent My Summer Essay,” please allow me to share mine.

How I Spent My Summer by Pattie

My husband I travelled to Madagascar this summer to visit the reforestation projects that we have sponsored for the last eight years.  Although we sponsor sites in Ethiopia and Haiti with Eden Reforestation, they  invited us to join them on their summer filming in Madagascar.  We would visit the 60 million mangroves planted and thriving on the coast in the village of Mahabama and the many nurseries of dry deciduous ready to plant inland on the island.

MADAGASCAR!  My mind was filled with adventure of lemurs, exotic foods and new sights, but nothing prepared me for the adventure we had and the wonderful people we met.  Nothing.

A little background on Madagascar.  It is an island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa, believed to have broken off of India during the great Continental Drift.  In 1883 the French made Madagascar a part of their territories, and from 1895-1925, the island lost 70% of their forests under French rule.  This was largely due to the farming of coffee and the slash-and-burn for agriculture.  All of this has led to desertification, water resource degradation,  and immense soil erosion that impacts the people of Madagascar plus the global environment.  Madagascar could be saved, and it was so simple:  plant trees.

Our adventure began in Antananarivo over breakfast where my husband and I met our travelling companions: one tall Texan (of course) and two energetic Canadians.  The young men were relevant, adventurous, and committed to reforestation.  The Texan, Chris, was an experienced photographer who had just returned from Nepal, and he was our video man for the expedition, equipped with a drone and more camera equipment than Best Buy.  The two Canadians, Kalen and Stephen, were entrepreneurs from Saskatchewan who founded a t-shirt company called  tentree and whose business supplied the Eden Reforestation site in Madagascar with $20,000 a month for trees.  Since trees cost 10 cents to plant, that is quite a few trees making them the TOMS of the environment!

Deforestation of the mangroves on the coasts of the island is a serious environmental issue and this is because mangroves have the greatest impact on cleaning our carbon emissions from the air.  Plus, the mangroves massive root system holds the soil in place, ending erosion.  Ending erosion creates an  environment for fish, shrimp and fowl to thrive providing a sustainable lifestyle for people of the island.  And that is what we were there to observe, but I learned so much more.

Tramping through reforestation sites lush with mangroves planted by the people of Madagascar through Eden, I was reminded again and mangrovesagain that four years ago, this was a sandy wasteland, useless to the people and harmful to the environment.  My excitement for the transformation was matched by the young men, especially Stephen and Kalen. I wondered what made those men so excited about something that was happening light years away from their office in Saskatchewan?  So I decided to sit them down and find out, and although their stories of involvement and interest are completely different, they intersect, creating change in their lives, our lives, and the environment of Madagascar and the world.

Stephen’s Story:  His name was Mr. Gibbons, and he taught first grade in Toronto, Canada.  His project for his students their first year in school was to raise their every own African violet.  So each student learned to care and nurture a plant that was all theirs.  They also learned the importance of the environment, and were taught how to treat a the environment with respect.  Sitting them down, his passion and common-sense approach taught them simple things such as the importance of a tree.  He started an after-school horticultural club for first graders where they experienced first-hand the care and feeding of a plant. He grounded them in the importance of respect for the environment, mentoring them on the playground and in the classroom. He was Stephen’s first grade teacher, and Stephen’s mother still has the African violet thriving in her home. At an early age, from a wise teacher, Stephan learned to care and protect the environment.


Kalen, Stephan’s cousin, saw the need to create an on-line retail shop that protected the environment.  Out on one of his adventures in the wild, he realized that there were few organizations that were actively protecting the environment he played in.  He left a job with the Canadian equivalent of Wall Street, and began creating tentree, an on-line retail shop that supports the environment by planting trees.  For every shirt a customer buys, ten trees are planted in re-forestation areas all over the world.  Stephan saw this potential to reforest parts of the world, left his job in Toronto, flew to Saskatchewan and followed his cousins and friends in this enterprise that would require personal  sacrifice to begin.  They began  selling cars, moving back with parents, liquidating assets to make it happen.  tentree

And it did!

  • Today they have over 12 full-time employees.  IMG_0156
  • They support over 12 reforestation sites around the world, contributing $20,000 a month to the ones in Madagascar.
  • This contribution allows villagers to have jobs as planters and as guards;
  • It allows the village to hire their own teacher for their children from Mahajanga.
  • Families are protected from human trafficking because they have jobs, and they are protected from loan sharks that prey on the poor.
  • Their goal is to protect the world they play in and give everyone an opportunity to be involved in reforestation by buying their shirts.
  • They reforest in India, Ethiopia, Canada, Malawi and on the list goes!6 month mangrove

My trip to Madagascar was about more than playing with lemurs and planting mangroves:  it was about meeting extraordinary young men who were  touched by a wise teacher and the result changed their lives, the lives of children of the village, and our environment.  I want this to be a story I can write about all professionals as they create lessons that move the curricular standards into the a world and create change!

Hey, you can do it!

Posted in character development, Character education, classroom lessons that change the world, classroom projects that change children, Eden Reforestation in Madagascar-changing Africa, Education, environment, environmnetal change through reforestation, Hope for deforestation of Africa, human trafficking, Pattie and Gary in Madagascar, Social Action, tentrees on-line t-shirts, The environmnet can be healed by students, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment