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Archive for April, 2012

Tackle the Common Core Literacy Standards–Together!

Every teacher on an interdisciplinary team would be delighted if all of the students read well.  It would make teaching many lessons a little easier–not having to worry about who can read the assigned text and who can’t. Therefore  a common goal of a team has to be to find ways to improve reading comprehension of all of the students.  How fortuitous! Anchor standard # 1 of the Common Core reads, “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

Savvy teams, like the mythical Sagadahoc team pictured here, know that by working together teachers working togetherthey increase the likelihood that their students will master skills and internalize new information.  The team would check the grade level indicators for Reading anchor standard # 1 in both language arts and the content areas.  They would find these benchmarks:

Language Arts: Students must be able to “determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course

of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.”

Social Studies: Students must be able to “determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.”

Science & other technical subjects: Students must be able to “determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

An aha moment! Whatever class students are in they need to be able to “determine the central ideas” of informational text. Perhaps, the team muses, there is a way to create a common lesson or two that addresses this particular learning target of determining the central idea. Then the teachers could follow-up with additional content-specific lessons (the social studies teacher might employ primary sources and the science teacher would use scientific text, etc).

Someone on the team is probably more familiar with the Common Core than the others and might suggest looking at the other standards for connections.

Team memeber thinking about connections between Reading and Speaking and Listening Standards.Sagadahoc team pulls up the Thinking and Listening Common Core Standards and finds,

Comprehension and Collaboration

1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners,

building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

3. Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

A bolt out of the blue hits them all at once–ADVISORY!

Team of teachers working

Advisory is the perfect place to help students develop excellent listening skills that help them determine the central idea of a presentation or video. Next they could use those central ideas to  participate in varied conversations where they build on others’ ideas and express their own clearly and persuasively.

The team decides they need authentic listening experiences if they hope to engage their students in any serious way.  Their school subscribes to Film Clips for Character Education so they decide to investigate the website. The Resources page includes clips suggested by educators.  There they find two clips–one from the Rachel Maddow show and another from YouTube that relate to sportsmanship.

Using these two clips as the “text”,  the teams craft several advisory groups sessions where students will focus on listening closely, determining the central ideas, and then using evidence from the clips to help them express their ideas clearly.

In the non-threatening atmosphere of advisory where there are no grades, students can practice extracting the big ideas from a video and using specific information or evidence from the video to back up an opinion or idea they express in ensuing conversations with their peers.

Later, in classes, the teachers will refer back to these experiences as concrete models of what students need to be doing as they read printed or digital text. “Remember when we discussed sportsmanship in advisory and we asked you to use specific information from the two video clips rather than relying on just your own experiences?  That is what we are going to do today with the primary source documents from the Salem Witch Trials.  We are going to read closely and identify evidence in the document that will help us understand the beliefs of this era.”

As middle grades teams you have the advantage that you can work together to help your students master the Common Core and other state standards. You also realize that knowledge is connected and  by looking for those connections you can create authentic and powerful learning experiences for your students. Use the proven characteristics of middle level philosophy such as collaboration through teaming and integration of subjects, ideas, and skills to tame the Common Core!

Help Students Understand and Manage Their Digital Footprint: Free Webinar!

 Chris Toy and Ed Brazee and I are offering a free webinar through JK Thomas & Associates Ltd. entitled In Your Online World...Perception is Reality! Creating and Controlling Your Online Reputation.

It is sometimes difficult for an adolescent to think beyond next week, let alone several years in the future. In addition, they have tendencies to occasionally act first and think later.  In today’s world of instant access to information about everything and everyone, impulsive postings  have long lasting ramifications.  Colleges, businesses, even parents checking out their child’s prom night date use the web to ferret out information about applicants.  Our young people must learn to be proactive in building their online reputations, and it is incumbent on the adults in their lives to help them understand that process. This webinar will be an invaluable resource for understanding the possibilities and challenges inherent in one’s online life.

Intended audience:

  • students
  • parents
  • teachers, administrators, counselors and other school staff members

Ways a team might use this information:

  • In advisory
  1. Share the webinar  with students in 10 minute segments and structure conversations around the salient points of each segment.
  2. Use the information in the webinar to create your own interactive lessons.
  • Digital citizenship lessons
  1. Use quotes, statistics, etc. from the webinar to frame a lesson on cyberbullying or other topics
  2. Explore the topic of social entrepreneurship using examples of adolescents doing good in the world through online social activism; perhaps spur students into starting a service learning project.
  • Parents’ night
  1. Use it as the central focus of the parents’ night program to (1) help them understand the positive aspects of their children’s online participation and (2) give them some tips for guiding their children through the maze of web.
  2. Share the registration information as a good resource for parents to access.
  • Information to put in parent newsletters
  1. Create a section of your newsletter entitled “Tips & Facts” for Digital Parenting” and use information from the webinar to give parents some concrete advice.
  2. Copy links from the webinar for parents to use  (e.g. Common Sense Media).
  • Educate your community
  1. As you advocate for additional technology (hardware, software, & curriculum integration), use information from the webinar to demonstrate the urgency of providing 21st century resources for your students.
  2. Volunteer to go to the Rotary (take students!) and other civic organizations to do a program that emphasizes the world your students will be entering as they graduate. Use webinar information to help make your case.


  • Free 45 minute webinar
  • Option to purchase 6 additional + 2 bonus modules that go more in depth on the topic
  1. First Impressions Matter: Putting Your Best Foot Forward
  2. Improving Your Digital Footprint
  3. “To Be or Not to Be” Personal Branding
  4. Being Safe Online: Ensuring Online Safety and Privacy
  5. Presenting Yourself Online—Where Will You Be Found? (Hint: More than on Facebook)
  6. Weighing the Options — Making Choices

Bonus module # 1: But, What About Young Adolescents (10- to 15-Year-Olds)? A Primer for Parents, Teachers, and 10-15 Year Olds

Bonus Module # 2: Raising Children in the Digital Age—Any Century Parenting

I cannot post the direct link to register on WordPress. However if you go to my webpage the live link is there: http://jillspencer.net/


Use Common Planning Time to Increase Your Team’s Technology KnowHow

Common Planning Time–Use It Creatively

It’s OK to use Common Planning Time to expand the team’s knowledge base.  Digital devices are multiplying and morphing at an incredible speed.  At a recent NELMS session I did a quick survey on the number of devices participants owned.  Everyone had at least one and most had more than three. The same is true for our students.  Class instruction needs to keep pace, but often teachers do not have time to explore and reflect on available digital tools.  However, middle grades team teachers do have a structure for designing their own professional learning opportunities–common planning time.

Designate one Common Planning Period a month as techno day.  Choose one new app or digital tool to explore together.  Here’s an article that identifies 10 blogs that will feed your need and professional obligation to stay up-to-date in the area of effective technology integration.

Picture of the headline for an eSchool News articlehttp://www.eschoolnews.com/2012/04/06/ten-education-blogs-worth-following/2/?

The blogs mentioned include…

* The Ultimate Guide to Facebook’s New “Groups for Schools”

* COMIC: Will Texting Replace Raising Your Hand in Class?

* Students Making Flipped Videos

* Every Student an Individual

* Alpha Maps

* Qwiki Creator

* Learning, Feedback, Validation

* Jux: Simple Media Literacy  Tool

These are just 4 out of the 10 blogs and a few examples of their postings mentioned in the eSchool News article–Check it out!

New Twist On Canned Goods Drive!

A sculpture of Pooh Bear made out of canned goods and jars of peanut butter

Pooh Bear

During the recent NELMS conference, the elevated walkway between the Westin Hotel and the Rhode Island Convention Center  was populated with whimsical sculptures of critters, earth moving vehicles, and angry birds. The sculptures, created out of canned goods, were part of a project to support the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

  Canned goods sculptute of a bulldozer

Teams could adapt this event for their own service learning projects. Often schools have canned food drives.  Why not have each homeroom or each team design sculptures out of the cans they collect and open the exhibit to the community for viewing as part of the plan to build awareness of the issue?  Or, the designs could be part of a project – based unit focusing on a driving question such as What is the long-term impact of hunger and starvation on a society? Part of the exhibition could include information and/or solutions the students have discovered through their research.

Several Common Core anchor standards could certainly be addressed in such a unit:

  • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  •  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  •  Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

More importantly, students would be delving into a long-standing and relevant issue that affects every state and country. Think about taking your annual canned food drive to a new level!

  • Help your community
  • Build students understanding of a real-world problem
  • Involve students in seeking long-term solutions

Canned goods sculpture of a lobster in a pot.

Poster of categories in the Rhode Island project

Lewis & Clarke Dine at the White House: Middle School Students Engage In Research

Teachers report  they are being discouraged from doing interdisciplinary units because of the Common Core. That’s just wrong-headed thinking!  Recently.  I was at Eastport – South Manor Junior-Senior High School on Long Island and talked with Ken Hanlon, a social studies teacher.  He shared with me details about an interdisciplinary unit his team developed that focuses on the Lewis and Clarke expedition.  The culminating activity is dinner at the White House with President Thomas Jefferson.  Students assume roles and each brings a guest.  Their charge is to discuss the flora and fauna they discovered along their route to the Pacific as well as to speak in detail about the Native Americans they met. Students use primary source material to do their research. Excerpts similar to the one below are available online:

June 28, 1804
William Clark

(They repair the perogue, clean out the boat, sun their powder and woolens, examine their goods, weigh the specific gravity of the two rivers, speculate on the headwaters of the Kansas, and write about the decline of the Kansas Indians)

… I am told they are a fierce & warlike people, being badly Supplied with fire arms, become easily conquered by the Aiauway & Saukees who are better furnished with those materials of War, This Nation is now out in the Plains hunting the Buffalow…the high lands come to the river Kansas on the upper Side at about a mile, full in views, and a butifull place for a fort, good landing-place, the waters of the Kansas is verry disigreeably tasted to me.


Ken described  the students’ enthusiasm for this project which didn’t surprise me. The unit provides just the right mix of academic rigor with active learning to engage and intrigue young adolescents.

We didn’t talk about the Common Core but as I flew home I reflected on my day and thought about this unit. An interdisciplinary unit such as Ken’s one on Lewis and Clarke provides teams a great opportunity to work together to help students master the Common Core standards.  Immediately these anchor standards came to mind:

Reading primary source material is certainly a way to address Reading for Key Ideas and Details

 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.


There are multiple opportunities in an interdisciplinary unit to address Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 

Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.*

Interdisciplinary units usually include research and the development of a product to demonstrate learning.  That work most certainly addresses the standards related to Research to Build and Present Knowledge

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

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

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

Collaborating  to address the complex array of Common Core literacy standards just makes sense. Historically, interdisciplinary units  are known to engage young adolescents at high levels.  When students are involved in positive and meaningful learning experiences, achievement will increase.

My thanks to Ken Hanlon for allowing me to share this idea with my readers.

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