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Archive for February, 2011

One Day Interdisciplinary Unit

Thinking about designing and implementing an interdisciplinary unit?  Why not start with a one day unit? It’s a positive first step at working collaboratively through the design process.  A one day unit is also a fantastic opportunity to spotlight a critical skill or concept that cuts across all curriculum areas. The concentrated time of a one day unit allows for focused direct instruction and practice, making it more likely students will master the new learning.

Here are some thoughts on planning a one day interdisciplinary unit:

1. Scope must be very focused

  • A skill (for example—citing evidence in an open ended response or deciding which websites to use in a research project or using Animoto for project work)
  • A concept (for example: interdependence or culture or fairness or exploration of social issue like racism or discrimination, etc.)

2. Learning styles should be addressed

3. Unit should encompass all parts of the learning experience

  • Decide on outcome(s)
  • Access/build prior knowledge
  • Introduce content
  • Use instructional strategies that engage students and require higher thinking skills
  • Provide multiple times for reflection, assessment for learning & feedback (these can be informal and short)
  • Require a demonstration of learning
  • Plan how to sustain learning after unit

Some questions to use to help plan:

  1. What outcomes do we want?
  2. How will we make it relevant to our students?
  3. How will we create BUZZ to hook students in the week before we begin?
  4. What will be our content? What instructional practices will work best? What type of formative assessment will we use to make sure students are understanding and mastering the material?
  5. What type of reflection pieces will we build in? What process should we use to give students time to revise their work for quality?
  6. How will we assess the students’ demonstration of learning?
  7. How will we check in with each other to ensure everyone’s on board throughout the planning and implementation of the unit?
  8. How will we sustain student learning after the unit is over?

Here’s a sample one day unit focusing on the reliability of websites:

Be a Black Belt in Internet Savvy

What outcomes do we want?

Students will learn to

  • Check who owns a website & do a quick check for bias
  • Recognize what .com, .org, .edu, etc. mean
  • Become more skeptical of what they read on the web
  • Learn some Boolean search tips
  • Use other search sites besides Google to locate info

How will we make it relevant to our students?

  • Connect to their own use of internet
  • Perhaps a 3 K chart

What I know for Sure!!!     What I think I Know!?!       What I know Now!

How will we create BUZZ to hook students in the week before we begin?

  • Gallery Wall— designate a wall in our rooms as a the Gallery of Upcoming Attractions.  Post pictures of websites and have students vote on their reliability.
  • Question Box (use this as a sponge activity at the end of class)–write a bunch of provocative questions about the topic: If something is printed on the web, it’s probably true because someone is checking out these web pages—true or false?  Why do some URL’s end in .com and others .edu and others, .org?  What does URL stand for? Pull one out the last 3 minutes of class and have students speculate.  Invite students to add their own questions.  We’ll be dramatic when we pull out a question, or we will ask a student who does enjoy a bit of drama to be the picker and reader.
  • Graffiti Wall: put up chart paper and have students list skills a good Internet searcher needs.  Review on the day of the unit.  It will give us some information about what students know.
  • 3 K Chart

How will we build/access prior knowledge?

What will be our content? What instructional practices will work best?

How to read a website & finding out who publishes a website (http://novemberlearning.com/resources/information-literacy-resources/) Reflection—Why is this skill valuable?

How to check the history of website & check on external links (http://novemberlearning.com/resources/information-literacy-resources/) Reflection—How will this knowledge help us be better consumers of internet content?

Boolean searches (http://www.education-world.com/a_tsl/archives/01-1/lesson0012.shtml) Practice—students do some on their own and reflect on when they terms would be most helpful to them at school and in personal life.

Becoming a skeptic of web material using resources using at November Learning (http://novemberlearning.com/resources/information-literacy-resources/iii-websites-to-validate/)

Different search windows: Searchme (http://www.searchme.com/), Yippy, (http://clusty.com/), etc.  In groups students decides pros and cons for each search engine.

We’ll plan lessons together, then divide the kids up and teach all of the lessons to the same group of students.  If we can grab our technology teacher for the day, then groups would be smaller.  Note to selves: Is this too much information—we may want to cut it down????

What type of formative assessment will we use to make sure students are understanding and mastering the material?

After each lesson, partners will complete an independent practice; we will use checklist to verify which students are successful.  We will follow-up with those who aren’t during the day.  If necessary, we will reteach with other examples.

What type of reflection pieces will we build in? What process should we use to give students time to revise their work for quality?

  • Ticket to Lunch (10 minutes)

3 things I learned this morning about being a good consumer of web info.

2 questions I still have about searching the Internet (These questions will help us know what to address later)

1 thing I will always do now when I’m searching the web for new info

How will students demonstrate their learning?

Students pair up and choose a slip out of a hat that has a topic on it.  Their task is to develop a list of potential sites that they might use for a research project.  They will present their findings (with a visual) to a larger group where they will indicate the following: (1 hour & 15 minutes)

  • Boolean strategies and search engine used and why
  • Why they deem each site reliable (minimum of 2 reasons)

Wrap up—retake of quiz that started the day so students can check their acquisition of new learning (15 minutes)

How will we sustain student learning after the unit is over?

  • We will map out a schedule for reviewing the key ideas on reliability of website for the rest of the year.  Each content area will integrate their review into their regular instruction where they are using digital resources.
  • Chart of Boolean search terms for each classroom—refer to them during instruction
  • Chart of possible search engines and their advantages in each room—refer to them during instruction
  • Perhaps the students could teach some of this info to parents? Teachers? Other students?

Teaming at the Middle Level: Focus on Student Social and Academic Growth

Recently I asked middle level colleagues to comment on teaming from their perspectives.  This post was written by Sandy Nevens, principal of Warsaw Middle School (Pittsfield, Maine), a New England League of Middle Schools’ Spotlight School.    Sandy is also the president of the Maine Association for Middle Level Education (MAMLE).

Sandy and several Warsaw MS teachers collaborate during a professional development event.

My fondest memories of team teaching take me back to my work on a five
core teacher plus allied arts interdisciplinary team. The units we
developed and the collaboration led to our reaching far beyond the
curriculum.  In my many years in the classroom, however, I have one
regret: that I never taught with another teacher on a two-person team.
Having read The Power of Two and the works of Mark Springer, Gert Nesin,
John Lounsbury, and many others, I recognized that power of two or three
person teams. In my work as an administrator at Auburn Middle School, I
was able to see for the first time, the power of two and three as we had
one two and three two person teams during my time there. These small teams
were new to the school as well, and they and I experienced the joys and
mysteries of exploring small teams. One team also piloted Expeditionary
and the democratic classroom. I “got” the advantages of teacher
to student ratios, teacher collaboration, and, most important, the
stronger bond between teacher and student when you have fewer students and
have them for a large chunk of time.

My last four plus years at Warsaw Middle School have given me an even
closer look at small teaming. Warsaw Middle School in Pittsfield, Maine
has ten plus years of experience with two or three person teams. Warsaw is
a 5-8 middle school that began as a middle school with two large
interdisciplinary teams, but our present model of two or three person
teacher teams has been in place for eight years now.  Several factors make
the small teams especially successful as a model at Warsaw: all four
grades 5/6 teams are two person teams; all four teams teach the four core
subjects; and all four teams keep their students for two years. Each grade
5 and 6 teacher teaches either language arts and social
studies or math and science. Of course, teachers often co-teach a unit
and may also teach or co-teach a unit or lessons that may be in the
partner teacher’s domain, and this is the case with 7 & 8 teams as well.

In Grades 7 & 8 there are three teams, two three-person teams and one two
person team. In each three-person team one person teaches all math, and
one person teaches language arts. Social studies is taught on one three
person team by one teacher, and teaching science is shared by the team; on
the other three person team one teacher teaches science, and social
studies is shared between two of the teachers. On the two-person team for
Grades 7 & 8 one teacher teaches math and science and the second teacher
teaches language arts and social studies. It should be noted that all
teams are engaged in units throughout the year that may blur the lines
between the subjects taught and by whom!

The 7th & 8th grades teams also keep the same students for both grades 7 & 8 (looping).

There is a method to our madness, of course. Warsaw teachers have a solid
background in and understanding of the developmental needs of young
adolescents. The transition from child to adult begins and moves along in
these four years, and students benefit from knowing their teachers. In
four years at Warsaw a student will have only four or five core subject
teachers. The academic and interpersonal benefits are clear when students
begin two of their four years here knowing their teachers well, and their
teachers knowing how they learn without having to begin the second year at
square one.

FISH Philosophy

I imagine some schools may have an advisory program that is also within
teams; however, Warsaw Advisory (called FISH Groups after the Fish
) calls for all Allied Arts and Core teachers to have a Fish
Group of 11-12 students from all four grades. Eighth graders are in the
group with fifth graders, as well as sixth and seventh. These groups are
not grouped according to teams at all.  It is possible that a teacher may
have a FISH group with no one on it on his or her academic team!  This
configuration we believe serves two goals: to have one adult serve as
advisor to each student for all four years, and to have students mingle
with older and younger students, thus creating less of a barrier between

Parent-teacher meetings are either with the academic team or individual
teachers, and we schedule time for conferences in the fall and by

We also have a unique approach to our student portfolios in that they are
kept in each student’s FISH Group classroom, and students spend the year
collecting work for their portfolios from all of their classes. Students
are given time occasionally to add to and organize their portfolio work.
In the spring parents sign up for a time to have their child share her/his
portfolio with them. This portfolio sharing is conducted with the FISH
Group Advisor in the room, but it is the student who does all the talking.

Teaming at Warsaw is about relationships: teacher to student and student
to student!

Civil Rights Team Helps Warsaw MS build healthy relationships.

Appreciate Your Teammates!

Have you told your teammates recently how much you enjoy working with them? Middle grades teams like partnerships need to be nurtured, and everyone shares that responsibility!

One team leader I worked with would on occasion bring in muffins or a carnation for each of us.  This small gesture put a smile on our faces first thing in the morning, and the day seemed to go more smoothly.  It also served to say, “Each of you is important to this team and its success.”  When the team is functioning well, the students benefit.

It doesn’t take but a minute to say…

  • Thank you for helping me sort through that problem yesterday.
  • You know it’s really fun brainstorming with you all!
  • I appreciate your sense of humor!
  • I’m glad you are my teammates!

Random acts of kindness help build a strong sense of community within a team.

*Take a teammate’s duty when you know s/he is having a particularly stressful week.
*Bring flowers or fresh tomatoes and basil from your garden.
*Brush off cars when it snows during the school day.

*Bring in a funny cartoon to help folks laugh.

*Share a no-fail strategy that works across the curriculum.

*Bring in brownies or blueberry muffins for everyone–think of the antioxidants you will be providing your team.  Dark chocolate or blueberries!

Here’s a grand blueberry muffin recipe adapted from The Maine Collection, cookbook published by the Portland Museum of Art:

6 tbps of butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp of vanilla

1/2 tsp salt

2 tsps baking powder

1/2 cup milk

2 cups blueberries (Maine wild blueberries are best (-:)

2 tsps each of cinnamon and sugar mixed to sprinkle over the top.

Cream butter and sugar well. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat well. Add flour, salt and baking powder. Slowly add the milk, stirring until just moistened.  (You do not want to over stir a muffin mix.) Add the blueberries and fold in gently.  Spoon into prepared muffin tin–either greased or with liners. Sprinkle cinnamon-sugar mix over each muffin cup.  Bake at 375º for 30 minutes.  Test with a toothpick–should come out clean.  Enjoy!

Take time in the next week to show appreciation for your team.  Don’t expect anything in return; just do it!  Continue–the next week, the week after, and the week after that….

Manage the Schedule to Advance Student Learning

Teams have the capacity to manage time creatively in order to support student learning. Because they share a group of students during the same class periods, team teachers can, on occasion, suspend the march of time.  Instead of period 1 automatically morphing into period 2, a team should carve out a chunk of the schedule for a specific purpose.

Perhaps the team notices that 10 or 15 students are struggling with a research project or the math teacher has identified a group that just can’t seem to master a critical concept they need to understand before moving on to the next units. Someone says during common planning time, “If I could just have these kids for an extra hour or so, I could give them some hands-on experiences that would help them understand the concept more clearly!” Well, why not make that time available!?! Suspend the regular schedule and declare a “Rewind” or “Hit the Pause Button” or “Backspace” Day when everyone on the team takes a deep breath and works on those skills and concepts that need attention. It might be for the entire day or just a portion of it.

Think about the possibilities:

  • By recruiting some extra hands to help out during this time — a special ed teacher, the librarian, an administrator, tech integrator, or parent volunteers — the teacher/student ratio can be reduced to smaller numbers necessary for small group interventions.
  • By thinking about instruction differently on this day, large chunks of time can be devoted to reteaching in new ways.  Perhaps the special ed teacher and the math teacher team-teach a hands-on application of a concept, and the language arts teacher involves students in bringing a novel alive by video taping a reader’s theater production.  In another space, a teacher is supervising those students who seem to be understanding all the material but are missing assignments. Some students may be involved in an enrichment activity.
  • By focusing on the positive outcomes of such a day, a mini-celebration of learning can be planned. Students  demonstrate their new understandings and are intellectually prepared to return to their regular schedule.

It’s important that the team present such a day in a positive light.  Students should not perceive that some of them are winners and that others are losers or that this time is a punishment.  The day should be portrayed as an important part of the learning process–multiple paths to the same outcome for each student.


I used to dread parent conferences.  When I was young teacher, I was afraid the parents would figure out I didn’t know what I was doing.  Later on, the conferences were often negativity-fests focused on a 12 year old.  The team spent way too much time enumerating deficits and missing assignments. Very little was accomplished.

Teams, with a little planning, can takes steps that are more likely to lead to positive outcomes for parent conferences:

I. Take time before the conference to summarize the team’s concerns and devise a plan of action.

  • As a team read “Motivation and Middle School Students” (ERIC Digest); it contains ideas that the team might incorporate in their plan.
  • Share concerns that stretch across the curriculum.  Keep the list very short.  Too long and it becomes impossible to effectively brainstorm solutions.
  • Look at the data you have available, all of it.  There’s more to a student’s progress than just test scores.
  • Be prepared with specific, doable ideas that include teacher actions.  Chances are the student’s behaviors are long-standing, and if the parents could change them by themselves, they would have done so already.

II. Choose your setting:

  • Find a space that is neutral.  Meeting in the classroom of a teacher whose course the student is failing sets a negative tone right at the beginning.  A conference room or a guidance counselor’s office is better.
  • Think about the furniture.  If the only choice is an rectangular table, make sure one of the team members sits on the same side of the table as the parents. Sitting across the table can signal an adversarial position.  You want the parents to see you as a partner, not the enemy.

III. Start the conference with positive attributes of the child.

  • One of the benefits of being on a team is that the different teachers have multiple perspectives.  Some may have a better relationship with the student than others and know more about his/her interests and strengths.  A team is able to use the information gathered through their different perspectives to connect with parents by acknowledging a child’s strengths.
  • Give parents an opportunity to comment on their child’s strengths and their hopes for his/her future.  Parents concerns may surface, and it’s important that the team note and address them.

IV.  Use a third point of reference–by having paper or a chart or some other exhibit to focus on, the conference becomes about the information, not the person delivering it.

  • Avoid going around the table and having each teacher list all of the missing assignments. This information just becomes overwhelming.
  • Instead of listing missing work, share exemplars of grade level work. Help parents compare them to examples of their students work.
  • Share appropriate test data. Share a data chart that shows the percentage of work completed in every class.  Have a colleague observe your class and make a chart of on and off task behavior.  If it’s a behavior issue, look at written documentation together and identify patterns.
  • Share documented quantifiable student action, not personal characteristics. Suggesting a student is lazy to a parent, no matter how tempting, is usually not helpful.

V. Be specific about what the student must do to improve achievement or demonstrate mastery of a skill.  Don’t focus on grades or test scores; focus on skills and knowledge.

  • Share what steps will occur in school.
  • Ask what parents feel they can supervise at home. Today’s reality is that parents are working two jobs and not home.
  • If the student is at the conference, include him or her in the discussion.  Be very descriptive about specific next steps that are within the student’s control.  Focus on the task of becoming more proficient at a skill, not completing homework.  Students have had the homework lecture numerous times and nothing changes.  Try a different approach.
  • Be prepared to suggest some web-based strategies that might engage the student.  This is the digital generation.

VI. End the meeting with a follow-up plan.

  • Make sure both the student and the parents know how progress will be assessed and  shared.
  • Set a date for a follow-up meeting in person or via Skype or phone call.
  • End with a strong affirmation that the team likes the student and recognizes his or her strengths.

Something to note–student-led conferences often make some teacher-parent conferences unnecessary because the student is showing evidence of his or her effort and progress in a portfolio.

Sites for info on teacher-parent conferences:

Mix and Match: Vocabulary Review Strategy Podcast

Here’s one more strategy for helping students master new vocabulary.  It will work in any curriculum area and is especially effective with content-specific words:

Just for your information, this enhanced podcast was made using Garage Band and Keynote on a Mac. Podcasts are another way that students can demonstrate their learning.  They are also an excellent way for teams to share information and good stories with parents and the community.  It’s not a complicated process and an easy way for a team to experiment with digital learning. Here are a couple of sites that explain how to make a podcast–they are not all Mac specific:

Develop Study Habits With Students

Generations of teachers have reminded students to review their notes nightly. Generations of students have ignored that advice and crammed the night before the exam.  Is there a way to turn that behavior on its head? Perhaps.

Teachers send messages about what they value by the amount of time they spend on a topic or skills or procedure. If we want students to develop the habit of regularly reviewing class notes/work, then we ought take the time to teach them how to do that. The middle grades are an opportune time to help young adolescents develop study habits that will serve them well in high school, college, the military, or on the job.

Looking closely at the team schedule may reveal time where team teachers can build in guided reviews of class notes and materials.  Perhaps it’s during homeroom or the fifteen minutes before lunch that often gets frittered away. Set up a schedule–Tuesday is social studies, Wednesday is science, etc.  As a team come up with easy prompts to get the students talking about the material they are reviewing:

  • What are the 3 things you bet will be on your quiz on photosynthesis?
  • Think solving algebraic expressions–List 3 things you know so well you could could me who hasn’t studied algebra in 20 years, two things you still have questions about, and 1 thing you will do to answer your own questions.
  • Use this 3 x 5 index to card to write down everything important from your notes from the past two weeks.
  • Have students work together to create a visual representation of the big ideas they are studying.

    Big Kids!

By collaborating to build in regular study time, the team sends a strong message to their students and parents that they value regular and consistent review.  When you see results from this review, be sure to celebrate with your students.

Here are a couple of variations:

  • Overtime allow students to take control of the review.  Help them become responsible for building their own study habits.
  • Talk with other teams in your school and build a systematic approach 6-8.  Over the three years gradually release the responsibility for studying to the students so that by the last quarter of eighth grade, most of them are on their own.  Some may still need additional scaffolding.

Gradual Release of Responsibility Model


  • I do it  (Modeling)
  • We do it together  (Modeling)
  • You do with a partner  (Teacher coaching and giving descriptive feedback)
  • You do it independently (Students demonstrating what they have learned)

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