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Archive for September, 2011

More About Project-Based Learning!

Many teachers and teams want to know more about incorporating project-based learning (PBL) into their classrooms before they start experimenting with this curriculum approach.  I’ve seen evidence of this trend in the blog–an earlier posting on PBL has received many, many hits.  It’s time to share some more resources beyond the great ones at Edutopia from the January post.

1. The YouTube video below offers a visual explanation of project-based learning.  It was produced by BIE, an organization that advocates for PBL.

2, BIE’s website offers some tools and a blog that might be useful to an individual team member or the entire team when they are collaborating  on a PBL interdisciplinary unit.

3, Another website to check out is Project Based Learning.  This site offers a variety of resources including some strategies for getting started and online courses.

4, Project Foundry is an online management system for project-based learning.  Needless to say it is not free, but they do have a free 14 day trial–just enough time to get a feel for how it works.  The video below was created to help educators visualize just how Project Foundry’s management system helps both students and teachers write challenging projects and then manage them.

5. 4Teachers.org has PBL checklists that you can customize.  They can be created in either English or Español!

6. Webquests are online project-based units. They are collaborative in nature and provide scenarios for the students to explore. At Webquest.org there is a collection of units ready to use or to be adapted.  They have been created by classroom teachers and vetted for quality.  It’s possible to search their matrix in the QuestGarden by grade level and topic. Here’s a quick look at just a couple of possibilities:

a screen shot of webquests available at Webquest.org

Screen Shot of 6-8 Social Studies Matrix at Webquest.org

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Collaborate to Help Students Master Note Taking

Note taking–whether from print or digital sources–is a valuable skill to master.  However it is not a favorite classroom activity.  Students gripe as they struggle to figure out what is important to note and what they can leave out.  They  also often resist following formats that are complicated or tedious.  Some teachers hope that someone else has taught the skills and too often precede with assignments assuming students can successfully take notes.

A masterful middle grades team, however, realizes that if they collaborate on teaching and reinforcing this skill, their students will benefit.  Also by taking the time to teach/reinforce this skill early in the year, the teachers know that lessons will go more smoothly in the future.  Any lost time to teaching note taking will be made up later as students develop a certain level of automaticity with the process.

There are a variety of note taking protocols to choose from: Harvard outline, Cornell double column, webbing, etc. I came across the Tree Map approach through Stenhouse’s website that links to  http://www.screencast-o-matic.com/watch/cXQiFr0q2

The speaker is using a model for a Tree Map similar to the one below.

As you watch the video you will notice several things about the instructional process:

  • The nonfiction text she is using is a literature textbook.
  • She has already done some preteaching about headings and subheadings in a text book.
  • She is modeling the thinking that goes along with the note taking process.
  • She is using a gradual release of responsibility model–turning the thinking and writing over to the students after she has modeled the process.

Tree Map note taking will work in any subject.  Below are two other examples–one for Social Studies and one for Math.  The text I used was from Wikipedia, but it could be a traditional textbook.

Let’s watch from afar how Team Penobscot manages the process of teaching Tree Mapping:

  • The Language Arts teacher  introduces Tree Mapping to the team’s students in a very controlled lesson and follows up with an additional lesson or two.
  • Then the Social Studies teacher reinforces the note taking strategy in his class. By putting some of the information in the template the teacher uses  a think-aloud approach about what would be important to note and then turns the rest of the note taking activity into a guided practice.  The class continues to practice throughout the unit on the pre-revolutionary era.

Scaffolding a Tree Map for Boston Tea Party Note Taking

  • The Math teacher picks up two weeks later, still modeling the process, but leaving more and more blanks for the students to handle on their own,

  • Now  Team Penbscot is interested to find out how well the students can use Tree Mapping independently.  The Science teacher agrees to  use the technique as she begins a new unit and chapter in the science text. It will be a formative assessment of the students’ progress in acquiring this skill. She reminds  the students about the importance of headings and subheadings in a Tree Map.  She asks them to take notes on the first several pages of the chapter in the Tree Map format.
  •  She takes these notes to the next team meeting where the team looks at them and quickly sorts them into two piles: students who have demonstrated that they can do Tree Mapping independently and those who can’t.  Then they take a closer look at the the latter pile and identify 3 problem areas:
  1. About 5 students just haven’t internalized the process at all.
  2. About 10 are just copying every single detail into their notes–they can’t decipher what is important and what is not.
  3. About 7 students have too little information–they also have trouble figuring out what is important and what is not.

The team looks at their calendar and decides to use the upcoming study hall  to address the needs of  the students who are still having problems with Tree Mapping.

  • The Language Arts teacher is going to pull the five students who are really struggling aside during that time to reteach.  He is going to ask the special ed teacher to help him plan and implement the new lesson, thinking that the special ed teacher’s expertise in learning differences might give him a new perspective to develop a more effective lesson plan for these students.
  • The Social Studies teacher will take the 17 students who have trouble identifying what is important and what is not.  He will work with them using think-alouds and guided practices. The students really need to see the process modeled several more times.
  • The math and science teacher will carry on with the rest of the students in a quiet study hall.  Both have students in that group that need some additional attention.
  • The team teachers then agree that a follow-up formative assessment will be necessary to see whether or not the identified students are now able to apply Tree Mapping as a note taking strategy independently in their classes.

Teams in the middle grades have a tremendous opportunity to help their students succeed academically by collaborating and building scaffolded instructional plans that span the content areas–multiple practices and varied contexts. ACT’s report, “Forgotten in the Middle” stresses the importance of skills, attitudes, and habits internalized in the middle grades–they have more influence on students’ future academic success than anything that happens in high school.

Other note taking protocols that teams could teach in a collaborative fashion:

Cornell Style Notes: http://coe.jmu.edu/LearningToolbox/cornellnotes.html  and   http://www.solida.net/notes/

Topic and Concept Cards: http://www.muskingum.edu/~cal/database/general/notetaking3.html

Five Notetaking Methods: http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:57qHoBsoz1cJ:www.redlands.edu/docs/StudentLife/1Five_Methods_of_Notetaking.docx_UPDATED_7-09.pdf+five+notetaking+methods&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESgS17CnoF8BxKpKbyJp4UHzR7py1TQr1Yj-UG2F8Xw9spSMwMcsx-PxkRsSg3Ixk37GBf61w4taVe7VDt1rLRk8j42DmmmNDHGqF8fsMeHj5NBVIWohzktUXAScwf1YMOnkIy8z&sig=AHIEtbQEiqiJlWunxYVxcRG-bHSbs-PtGA

Free Literacy Strategies Resource

Many middle schools have a mandate to incorporate literacy strategies across their curriculum.  Quite often there is no professional development to go along with this mandate, and many middle grades teachers have no background in literacy acquisition.  Hence a huge disconnect occurs between the mandate and reality.

Middle grades teams have an advantage in that they can choose to use some of the their common planning time to work together to figure out how to approach literacy in the content areas.  They recognize that this type of planning is critical to the success of their students because:

  • The middle grades curriculum and now the Common Core Standards require that students read and write more complex material.
  • Many reading/writing skills are common across the curriculum and providing students multiple guided experiences in a variety of contexts will improve their skills.
  • It is impossible for one teacher to provide all-inclusive instruction and practice in the myriad of reading and writing skills that young adolescents need. (Spencer,J. (2010) Teaming Rocks! Collaborate in Powerful Ways to Ensure Student Success. Westerville, OH: NMSA.)

An excellent resource for teams to use is a free download from the Internet! The Content Area Literacy Guide is from the CCSSO’s Adolescent Literacy Kit. You can find simply by googling “Content Area Literacy Guide”, and you will be directed to a downloadable PDF file. For a quick look, go to tiny.cc/literacystrategies  — there are over 20 strategies.

The Guide provides a description of each strategy and suggestions for how it might be used in Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies. These strategies are certainly applicable in other content areas as well.

For example, one strategy is Cue Questions Based on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Below you see examples of questions on two of the Taxonomy’s levels.

Here are suggestions from the Guide for using these cue questions in the content areas:


Check out this useful resource and work together to incorporate some of these strategies into your instruction.  Be sure to start small–one strategy at a time!

  • Choose one that will work for everyone.
  • Decide who will do the initial introductory instruction.
  • Brainstorm ideas on how to model and use this strategy in your different classes.
  • Plan out when the other teachers will use the strategy and reinforce it in their instructional plans.
  • Reflect as a team on how well the strategy is working:
  1. How has it been used?
  2. What is the students’ reaction? What problems, if any, are they having applying the strategy to their work?
  3. How might the team tweak the strategy to make it more effective?
  4. To what degree is the strategy improving the students’ understanding of their work?

Teams = “Cast of Contagious Characters”

I was reading Bernie Schein’s  If Holden Caulfield were in my Classroom when I came across the phrase “…there is no substitute for a cast of contagious teachers.” I immediately thought…what a great description for creative, effective middle level team teachers!

Contagious in their…

  • Love of and belief in the young adolescent
  • Belief that learning should be engaging, challenging, and fun
  • Excitement for the subjects/topics they teach
  • Conviction that all students can achieve at high levels
  • Desire to model life-long learning
  • Certainty that with their students they can build a team culture that is welcoming and inclusive

There is research that supports the concept of contagious emotions.  One definition I found is “a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioral attitudes.” This quote is attributed to  Sigal G. Barsade, a professor at the Wharton School of Business. In a recent article in US News and World Report,  Justin Ewers writes that “Two business professors, Sigal Barsade of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Donald Gibson of Fairfield University, found in a recent study that employee moods have a measurable effect on just about everything anyone does at work-job performance, decision making, creativity, turnover, teamwork, and leadership.”

Another study done at Harvard found “Happiness really is contagious, according to a new study released by Harvard Medical School. Happiness can spread through social networks like social contagion. One happy person can trigger a chain reaction that benefits friends, friends’ friends and friends’ friends’ friends.

Obviously, then, the team’s teachers’ attitudes, actions, words, and body language are going to have a huge impact on the team’s culture.  The next question might be…what can a team do to nurture a contagious positive environment for both their students and themselves?  Some things to consider:

1. Be crystal clear about your purpose as a team.You need to know what your contagion is!

  • Why will your students be better off for spending a year with all of you?
  • How is your whole (team experience) more than the sum of your parts (individual classes)?  (Aristole’s thought, not mine.)
  • How will you create synergy–“… may be defined as two or more things functioning together to produce a result not independently obtainable.” (Wikipedia)

2. Develop rituals that focus on the positive.

  • Weekly meetings with the entire team to build community and spotlight accomplishments (Avoid team meetings to chastise everyone —praise in public, discipline in private.)
  • Team teachers eat lunch together once a week to chat and laugh
  • Celebrate birthdays
  • End of the quarter celebrations of learning

3.  Set a team goal that everyone believes in–goals might focus on any one of a variety of things:

  • Add more interactive lessons
  • Increase technology integration
  • Improve advisory
  • Review lessons together to ensure higher level thinking skills are embedded

4. Help students assist others by adding service learning component–check out…

5. Ask yourselves before every lesson–would I want to study this topic in this fashion or read this text?  If the answer is no… find an engaging alternative! Don’t settle for mediocre curriculum and materials.

Sometimes it is hard to stay contagiously upbeat. Throughout the year go to Ted Talks or search RSAnimate on YouTube  and view one of their  videos.  The ideas will pump you up and send you back to the classroom  with a positive, can-do attitude.  Some of my favorites are below:

RSAnimate on Daniel Pink’s book Drive (motivation)

RSAnimate in Changing Education Paradigms

Sir Ken Robinson & Creativity

After School Writing Program

Tinkering School

Child Driven School

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