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“Why do I have to revise and edit my lab report?  This is science class, not Language Arts!”

“Why do you give essay tests?” This isn’t an English class!”

“Journaling in Math?  We do those in Language Arts; why are we doing them here?”

“You want me to write about an artist’s style? Why can’t I just show you with images?”

Most of us have experienced student complaints when writing-based tasks are assigned.  Students often compartmentalize skills by subject area, and in their minds writing belongs in Language Arts class. However, writing is a skill that crosses all disciplines and is a requirement for most professional jobs.  In fact, salaries often increase in proportion to one’s ability to write well.  Look at the infographic below.  It details the results of a study conducted by the folks at Grammarly.com, a popular web-based grammar checking service.

Grammarly.com Infographic

Grammarly.com Infographic

Over the next couple of blog posts, I will share several ideas for making the teaching of writing a team-based enterprise. Step 1 might be that the language arts teacher shares this infographic with his teammates and begins a conversation during common planning time by asking, “I wonder if it might not be worth our time to review how we reinforce good writing skills across our team classes, and then explore one or two additional ways to support our students as they work on becoming better writers?”

Next time: How Grammarly.com could be useful to students in all classes.

Take advantage of common planning time  to support one another as you address Common Core or state literacy standards in all of your classrooms.

Teachers planning in Sierra Leone

Teachers planning in Sierra Leone

Three actions you can take as a team to better help your students become proficient readers and writers in the middle grades:

1. Compile a list of what your students actually read and write in your various classes. Categorize them:

  • Reading (materials your students actually read, not what you read to them)
  1. Literary
  2. Informational
  • Writing
  1. Argument
  2. Narrative (Convey an Experience)
  3. Informative/Explanatory
  4. Other (i.e. poetry)

Look at the entire mix and determine if your students’ reading and writing assignments fall within the Common Core guidelines.


Common Core Reading45 % Literary                    55% Informational

Remember, you should be considering all of the reading your students do, not just those texts in language arts class!


Common Core writing35% Argument

35% Narrative

30% Informative/Explanatory

Remember to think about all classes, not just language arts.  Writing is everyone’s responsibility.

With this information at your fingertips, the team will be better prepared to have conversations with administrators and parents about the ways you are addressing the Common Core. Also, knowing what each other is teaching lends itself to collaboration. Provide students with multiple practices in different contexts to build their proficiency levels in literacy.

2. Talk about inferences–don’t assume everyone on the team has the same knowledge. Make sure everyone on the team understands what they are and how they apply to each subject area’s reading assignments.

Good readers readily make inferences. Others need explicit instruction and practice to apply this skill in their reading.

Good readers readily make inferences. Others need explicit instruction and practice to apply this skill in their reading.


Some useful links:


3. Have students practice citing textual evidence in all classes. The lesson may or may not to end up as a piece of writing. Small group work, class discussions, 4 Corners, and other oral strategies provide opportunities for students to practice this skill.   Remember to ask, “Would you please show me the details in the text that support what you just said.”

Here’s a video of a direct teaching lesson focused on citing text. https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/teaching-about-textual-evidence


laptops4Students explain their project to a visitor.

Collaborating as a team to coordinate and reinforce learning benefits all students.


1:1 Digital Learning

1:1 Digital Learning Opens Many Doors!

  Briasco-BrinnSchools across the country are adding technology at a fast pace. iPads, laptops, Chrome Books, and tablets are appearing in classrooms, often without a plan of action for successful implementation in place. This June there is a fabulous opportunity for teams to learn from experts on the best way to implement and sustain a widespread technology project.  The “experts” are educators who have a decade of experience in integrating 1:1 digital learning into their instruction. assessment, and curriculum. The place is the gorgeous coast of Maine in late June!  1:1 Digital Learning Institute–June 26-27 in Kennebunk, Maine

Here are all of the details!

1:1 Learning Experts to Share Best Practices and Practical Advice

Digital 1:1 Learning Summit Scheduled for June 26-27 in Kennebunk, ME

KENNEBUNK, MAINE (March 5, 2014)–Digital 1:1 learning has revolutionized the learning experience, empowering teachers to personalize learning and connect students to the world like never before. An effective 1:1 program goes far beyond the purchase of laptops or tablets—yet, many schools don’t know where to begin.


A team of education experts from the Maine Association of Middle Level Educators (MAMLE) and the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS) have organized the first annual Digital 1:1 Learning Institute, which will take place at the Middle School of the Kennebunks in Kennebunk, Maine June 26-27, 2014.

Keynote speakers at the two-day event include Senator Angus S. King, Jr., a visionary leader who, as governor of Maine, launched the world’s first and most comprehensive 1:1 initiative to bring learning technology into all Maine middle level schools; and Dr. Mike Muir, a Maine educator and expert on engaged learning for all students. A member of the original advisory team for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), Dr. Muir helps lead the nation’s first full primary iPad project in Auburn, Maine.

Kids writing

 Organizers say the conference will provide participants the knowledge and confidence to develop a vision and plan for their specific educational setting, as well as practical advice on what to do – and what not to do — from Maine teachers, administrators, and technology education leaders who have been at the forefront of digital learning for over a decade.  A panel of students whose learning was transformed by 1:1 will share their experiences.


Participants are encouraged to bring a team from their school that includes teachers, administrators and technology professionals. There will be three tracks from which to choose—elementary, middle school and high school—so participants can learn strategies appropriate to the level they teach. ipads - 14-2

The cost of the conference, not including accommodations, is $295 per person if registered before May 15; when a five-member team is registered together, a sixth registration is free. Participants will receive 12 continuing education credits for attending this conference. For more information or to register, visit http://www.nelms.org/pages/conferences/1to1learning.html


Chris Toy

Jill Spencer



Students must become efficient, effective, and ethical researchers

~school, college, career, life~

Common Core Literacy Anchor Standards

Research to Build and Present Knowledge

7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Address these standards (informational literacy) systematically–don’t allow your students to leave your team with a hodge-podge of strategies for locating accurate information quickly:

  • Identify the specific skills students need in order to meet standards.
  • Create a team folder on the school server or a team wiki where all of the materials can be located in a central location so everyone has access.
  • Adapt and add to lessons as needed.  The librarian/media specialist should be the team’s number one resource–bring him or her lots of freshly baked cookies and other goodies.
  • Design a team plan of action for teaching and reinforcing information literacy skills across the curriculum. Set up a calendar and hold one another accountable.

teachers working together1. Identify places in the curriculum that are a natural fit for these skills.

2. Divide these skills up and teach them in the context of units across the curriculum.
3. Remember! Every assignment does not have to include the entire research process.  Some assignments may only include locating resources and evaluating them for reliability, and others may focus on taking notes, paraphrasing, and summarizing.
4. Chunk up research assignments into segments with checkpoints in order to monitor student progress.

Check resources on the web for ideas, lessons, and resources:

Big 6The Big 6: Information and Technology Skills for Student Achievement (http://www.big6.com/ and http://www.big6.com/kids/). These sites are multi-faceted and include some free lessons, descriptions of units where teachers have integrated the Big 6 components, and free resources such as graphic organizers and note taking templates.  This is also a commercial site and offers products and staff development.  They take advantage of social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook, and also have a RSS feed. This approach has six components in the process:

  • Task Definition
  • Information Seeking Strategies
  • Location and access
  • Use of information
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

Noodle Tools (http://www.noodletools.com/) is a subscription site that also offers free tools that are extremely useful. Their free tools include “Choose the Best Search,” a tool to help identify how to use search engines and their features for efficient searching and several resources for becoming an expert in the tricky world of citations.  There are also some interesting resources for teachers including one very valuable one on being an ethical researcher.

ISTE Standards (http://tiny.cc/ISTE144) are published by the International Society for Technology in Education.  These standards are related to the entire world of the integration of technology into education and are worth a close look. The third standard relates directly to research and information fluency:

Students apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information.


  • Plan strategies to guide inquiry.
  • Locate, organize, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and ethically use information from a variety of sources and media.
  • Evaluate and select information sources and digital tools based on the appropriateness to specific tasks.
  • Process data and report results.

21st Century Information Fluency (http://21cif.com/) This is a commercial site that was originally connected to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. There are free tutorials and wizards that help both the budding and accomplished searcher become even more proficient with information fluency skills.  Many students often feel because they use the internet so much that there is nothing new to learn.  The search challenges on this site will test the skills of each and every student.

University of Maryland University College (http://tiny.cc/Research574) Although this site is designed for older students, it has resources that are useful to teachers.  It is divided into seven modules: Doing Research, Copyright, Using the Library, Call Numbers, Finding Books, Finding Articles, Finding Websites.

One last note…if you really want to your students to internalize the research process so that they can apply it to situations beyond the classroom, allow them to research topics that interest them!

This posting is adapted from Chapter 8 of Teaming Rocks! Collaborate in Powerful Ways to Ensure Student Success — available from AMLE (AMLE.org).


Celebrate World Book Day!

World Book Day is March 6.  Initiated by UNESCO, World Book Day celebrates the joys and the transformational experiences of reading.

Larry Ferlazzo, a prolific educational blogger, suggests some of the best sites related to World Book Day. Here are just a couple:

  • Larry’s list of best sites for intermediate readers– a lot of his suggestions include informational text resources.
  • The World Book Day official site from the UK

World BookDay

Infusing the joy of reading into our curriculum and instruction is a worthy goal for middle grades teams.  Here are some cool quotes to have on your wall…

  • “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.” George R. R. Martin A Dance With Dragons
  • “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”
    Lemony Snicket, Horseradish
  • “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
    Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!
  • “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
    Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

There has been a lot of debate recently about what students should be reading in school.  If you believe in the power of student choice, grab a copy of Smith and Wilhelm’s new book from Scholastic, Reading Unbound.

Reading Unbound

Celebrating World Book Day as a Team:

  • Take time during class (all teachers) to share an excerpt from your favorite book and a short explanation why it is cherished.
  • Invite students to dress as their favorite character (teachers too) and take time for students to share their thoughts.
  • Invite the librarian in to do book talks about the latest books in the library (print or digital).
  • Have a reading fest where students bring in their favorite children’s books and read aloud from them.  (Good activity to practice fluency)
  • Write a book together as a class or team.
  1. Use a web tool like SlideShare.net where students or sets of partners create a slide on a topic and then compile those slides into a slideshow and publish.  Topic should be something of high interest to students.
  2. Create an eBook using iBook Author or other web tool.  Here’s a link to a book on critters in Florida written by a middle school science class.  It includes images, videos, and text. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/creatures-plants-and-more!/id521854684?mt=11
  3. Invite a local author to visit or participate via Skype or Google Hangout.
  4. Have students research authors across time and then have them role play in a scenario:  Dinner at the White House, Panel discussion on a hot topic, Interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah, or Arsenio Hall, etc.

If you have to link everything you do to a standard–think about the speaking and listening ones, close reading, writing informational text, etc.  Never let the standards keep you from doing something beneficial with your students!

In the spirit of the day, here are some of my favorites:

What are some of  your and your students’ favorites?  Happy World Book Day!

The following post is a set of responses to questions that came up at a recent workshop Chris Toy and I did on block scheduling.  The participants’ questions and the responses may be of interest to others transitioning to block scheduling.

Questions From Staff

Two most important resources:

  1. Yourselves—ask each other questions…”How are you dealing with absences?” What strategies seem to really work with our ELLs? There is a collective wisdom that can be tapped.
  2. Create your own PD by posing questions via the Internet.  Use natural language and end with a ?    ex. What are some good strategies for teaching social studies in the block?

A number of the questions focused on teaching strategies:

Some books:

Everyone’s Invited: Interactive Strategies That Engage Young Adolescents  Jill Spencer available from AMLE   http://www.amle.org/Shop/tabid/135/Default.aspx

Ten Differentiation Strategies for Building Prior Knowledge and Ten Differentiation Strategies for Building Common Core Literacy by Jill Spencer  http://www.amle.org/Shop/tabid/135/Default.aspx

Teaching in the Block: Strategies for Engaging Active Learners by Rettig & Canady   http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Block-Strategies-Engaging-Learners/dp/1883001234

Differentiated Instructional Strategies for the Block Schedule by Gregory & Herndon  http://www.corwin.com/books/Book228236

Anything by Carol Ann Tomlison

Edutopia has great resources on a variety of topics including inquiry learning, technology integration, etc.: http://www.edutopia.org/grade-level-6-8

Jill says…I follow Edutopia and ISTE on Facebook where I find all sorts of ideas: Edutopia – https://www.facebook.com/edutopia & ISTE – https://www.facebook.com/LikeISTE

MAMLE website—Instructional practices tab: http://mainemamle.org/publications/

Google “heterogeneous class teaching strategies” and you will find many sites full of ideas.

Project based learning resources:

Edutopia: http://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning

Buck Institute: http://bie.org/

Seven Essentials for PBL: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/sept10/vol68/num01/Seven_Essentials_for_Project-Based_Learning.aspx

Thoughts about planning when doing project learning:

–You will still need to have some focused direct – teaching episodes on specific skills students need to apply in their project work.  e.g. (1) Deciding what is important and what’s just kind of interesting when doing research and taking notes. (2) How to conduct an interview.

–You will still want to plan some sort of closure for each class when students self-assess their effort & progress and reflect on what they have learned.

–You may want to include a check-in where kids tell you what they will be specifically working on during class, and then  follow-up with them individually to check on their progress.

Learning Centers in the Block—These comments come from Sarah Lange Hayes, a math teacher in Amherst, Massachusetts. Although these ideas relate to math, they can be applies to other subjects:

Learning Centers

  • Use formative assessments to determine where students are in their learning–who is ready to extend, who needs reinforcement, and who needs some remediation within the standard(s).
  • Develop 6 or 7 different activity-based learning stations that address students’ needs, one of which is a  “Create Your Own Problem/Activity” station.
  • Determine which students will start at which activities based on your formative assessment data.
  • Develop and share guidelines for moving through stations with students.
  • Work at various stations for 2-3 class periods (total), depending on progress and effectiveness of stations.  I track which stations students are visiting/have visited, and give suggestions to students about where to go next for those who seem to need it.  I and any other adults in the room (special education teacher, special education paraprofessional) move around the room as students work, observing, questioning, guiding.
  • Assign nightly homework based on the stations that the students participated in during class.

In my experience (from Sarah Hayes), a few things that helped this strategy be successful are:

  • Assigning starting stations to students based on formative assessment data help me make sure that each student begins working at an activity that will help move him/her forward in his/her understanding (not too challenging/frustrating to start and not an activity for a concept for which s/he already demonstrated mastery).
  • A variety of stations help with the “time factor.”  It has always been a challenge for me about how to approach the fact that students can work at such different paces and for such different reasons.  Providing enough stations so that students have plenty of activities to explore, combined with the expectation that all students continue working throughout the class period (the number of stations completed is not emphasized, rather the quality of the effort at each station is), helped with this issue.
  • An element of student choice is helpful, but it also important that I monitor these choices myself to make sure students are making effective use of their time.
  • Flexibility to move to a different activity if the current station isn’t a good “fit” is also important.

Special Education

Here are some resources that you may find helpful:

–Universal Design in Learning (http://www.cast.org/udl/ ): is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.  UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.

–Don’t forget that the iPads have text to speech and speech to text capacity—Settings/General/Accessibility/make sure Speak Selection is on.  It will read Internet material as well as other text.  Students with reading issues can listen to text; students who struggle with writing can use the  speech to text capacity to begin to get their ideas down by just speaking. (Click on microphone on keyboard)

–Remember you can get rid of extraneous and distracting material on a website by hitting the 4 straight lines icon on left side of address bar.  distractons

Helping students (1) catch-up when they’ve been absent and (2) retain new learning over vacations, holidays, etc.    Many teachers are using technology resources for these purposes:

  1. Create short videos of lessons and post them online for students to access 24/7.  Two good apps are Show Me and Educreations.  Sometimes the teacher creates them, or often the videos are created by students. After the video is created, the app assigns a URL where the video is posted.
  2. Use Wikis and sites like Edmodo to communicate with students.  Students can ask questions and get responses from their teacher.  Assignments and models of exemplars can be posted for easy access by students and families.
  3. Some teachers do online office hours—very structured and specific times. Google hangout, Google Docs, Skype, IM, etc.
  4. Web tools like Quizlet can set up activities students can access from home or the public library to learn vocabulary.



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