Category Archives: Lesson Ideas

The Great Thanksgiving Listen

Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching; it’s my personal fave because it celebrates reflection…and food, of course! At Thanksgiving, I’m reminded to reflect on the year that has passed and remember all of the things for which I am thankful. At this point in my life, most of those things have to do with the exceptional relationships I am fortunate enough to have. Yet, it can also a difficult holiday, particularly for some of our students who may be dealing with trauma in their lives. Still, we hope we can support all members of our school family and help them connect to someone of significance.


So, when I came across The Great Thanksgiving Listen (TGTL), it seemed there would be something for everyone. Sponsored by StoryCorps, “…this is a national education project that empowers…students to connect with an elder [neighbor, friend, loved one] over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and record an interview, [which can] be entered into the StoryCorps archive in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.”

Although TGTL officially targets high school students, I noticed in samples of interviews taken from the StoryCorps Podcast (after the inaugural TGTL of 2015), interviewers ages ranged as young as 13. Participants download the StoryCorps App for free on iTunes (iPhone) or Google Play (Android) and register as a user. They will use the app to record and potentially upload the interview.

A Teacher Toolkit outlining the project, its guidelines, Common Core aligned lesson plans (intended for grades 9-12) and more is available on the website. The toolkit also includes variations for students under 13 who may not be granted permission to use the app or for those who may not have access to a smartphone.

The whole process, downloading and getting comfortable with the app, choosing questions (a bank is available) and practicing interview skills can be done in or out of Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 9.51.04 PM.pngclass (or a hybrid) in a matter of days, and the interview itself can range from 5-40 minutes. If it doesn’t happen for Thanksgiving, no biggie. Nothing says it has to. Interviews can occur any time. TGTL just happens to be a community effort.

All in all, the idea behind The Great Thanksgiving Listen is brilliant! We are ever the consumers of information, but we tend to think only experts in the field (whatever that is) have the right to contribute information. What a great opportunity to provide an authentic audience for students and to encourage their contributions to the vast internet bank of knowledge we all access on a regular basis.


Visual Thinking

I’m kind of a New York Times (NYT) junkie. A few years ago, we bought a subscription to the Sunday Times at home, which additionally provided us unlimited digital access. I signed up for news alerts and a few news digests, like “Education” and “Tests and Assessments,” so I’m sent short abstracts of articles that pertain to those categories.

It was in one of these digests, recently, that I encountered the headline: “40 Intriguing Photos to Make Students Think.” Not the catchiest of titles, but the photo accompanying it piqued my interest:screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-9-27-02-pmSo, I clicked. That’s where I was reminded of another great service The Times offers: The Learning Network. In essence, they deliver education resources like lesson plans, news quizzes and the like all based on NYT articles, photos, graphics and more. Better yet, you can access the Network’s many features without a digital subscription.

Back to what brought me to The Learning Network in the first place: the above picture. It’s part of a weekly feature called, “What’s Going On in This Picture?” Readers are asked three standard questions about a visual text:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

Then, they are encouraged to acutely observe (a.k.a. closely read) the image, find evidence, and post and respond to comments of others online. Partners, Visual Thinking Strategies facilitate the online discussion Mondays between 9a – 2p Eastern Time (6a-11a Pacific). On Thursday afternoons, Learning Network writers reveal a caption and backstory below the photo on the site.  Check out this week’s photo below (week of October 17):


As for classroom applications, I immediately thought of a warm-up. Whether you participate live through the Learning Network or want to spark an in-class dialog, there are images that relate to nearly any subject are. Five minutes at the beginning of class is plenty to take in the photo and respond, turn to a partner and compare perceptions. Cogs are turning, awareness is heightened and students are engaged in analysis–great practice for getting into the day’s content. And, what a great way to build a community of inquiry, teacher included!

In 21st Century literacy, when we hear or say text, we need to be mindful of the myriad forms that word may conjure. Our students are consuming these many texts in record numbers, daily. Teaching the tools to become informed about what they consume doesn’t get more real.


Warming-up: Just do it

As I age, I’ve noticed that warming up before exercise is becoming more and more important. Walking a couple of blocks before I start jogging really does help me get my body and mind ready for the task ahead and avoid injury. When I think about applying the metaphor to school, it makes sense: I may not get “injured” in the academic aerobics in which I participate, but it’s certainly helpful to take a bit of time to reset and remember, before engaging in new learning. Thus, whether anticipating physical or mental exercise, I am a proponent of warm-ups.  Like preparing myself for a run, I find them to be a way of refocusing my students’ minds on math during the first five minutes of the period.  The key word in that sentence is “five.”  Unless I set a timer for myself, that five minutes can easily turn into 10 or 12. Like when I run, if I don’t push a little harder, my progress is going to be slow.

Forty-five minute class periods do not allow teachers to be as effective as we would like to be with our students.  When trying to figure out how to structure that precious time, we have to think hard about what which pieces have the greatest impact on student learning.  One piece that is often under fire is the daily warm-up; I’m here to remind you: it’s worthy!

...but warm-ups are!

…but warm-ups are!

Beyond using warm-ups to review the concepts of the previous day and/or to preview the day’s upcoming lesson, Jessica Bogie a high school level Geometry and 6th grade math teacher (and blogger – Algebrainiac),  proposes that warm-ups are good for conversation about math ideas – a worthy idea! Jessica hosted an episode on  Global Math called Warm-ups = What Are They Good For? .    She suggests a two-week rotating schedule of warm-ups:

Two-week warm-up rotation idea.

Two-week warm-up rotation idea.

I’ve blogged before about my love for Estimation 180 here and here  and Would you Rather here, so I was happy to see both in her 10-day rotating schedule.  I love the Visual Patterns site and Math Mistakes well and will likely blog about them in the future.

With much buzz about Carol Dweck’s Mindset theory applying in education, having a Mindset Moment Monday every month is  a great way to continue the conversation all year.  Check out the list of short videos that Marisa from the blog, La Vie Mathématique, posted on the topic.

Another warm-ups resource Jessica mentions, is Lisa Bejarano’s Filing Cabinet of Warm-ups on the Crazy Math Teacher Lady blog.  Lisa teaches Geometry and blogs about the lessons she teaches. This list repeats some sources I’ve listed but offers new ones as well.

So, praise be to warm-ups; just as physical ones get our bodies ready for the exertion of exercise, these mental ones get our minds ready for the hard work of learning!

Rigorous Reading Across Content Areas: Text-Dependent Formative Tasks

Back in February, I had the opportunity to attend the Oregon Reading Association’s Winter Institute, featuring Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. For a self-professed literacy geek like me, this experience was akin to IT folks hearing from Steve Jobs, Classical Violinists spending a day with Itzhak Perlman, or Craft Brewers (hey, we are in Oregon) being addressed by Fritz Maytag. It’s not often we get to see our professional mentors live and in person, at the Holiday Inn PDX Airport, no less.

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Their presentation provided guidance for teaching complex texts and raising the level of rigor in the classroom, which are Common Core literacy cornerstones. A bonus of our participation in the session included walking away with a copy of Fisher & Frey’s 2013 title, Rigorous Reading, 5 Access Points for Comprehending Complex Texts. Although each access point is worthy of its own blog post , the one this post is devoted to is Access Point #5: Demonstrating Understanding and Assessing Performance. In this section of the text, the authors posit the need for after-reading “Text-Dependent Tasks” such as the following:

Perspective Writing: Perhaps too often, we teachers assume the role of audience for a student’s writing. Writing from differing perspectives or to a different audience can stretch students’ decision-making powers. Who is the audience? What then is the purpose of my writing? What register must I employ in my style?

Many teachers have heard of and have used the RAFT strategy developed by Santa and Havens (1995) requiring students to understand the Role, Audience, Format, and Topic for each piece of writing. Fisher & Frey resurrect it here as a strategy for formative assessment. In one example they cite, an English teacher learns she needs to review author’s purpose and the introduction to The Metamorphosis because her students don’t show evidence of understanding beyond the literal level when presented this RAFT:

Role – Gregor Samsa

Audience – Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, his parents

Format – Note

Topic – Why don’t you notice me?

Though, RAFT is not only for the realm of the English Teacher. Apply RAFT after reading a famous historical speech, such as Susan B. Anthony’s “Women’s Rights to the Suffrage, 1873.”

Role – Participant

Audience – Susan B. Anthony

Format – Letter

Topic – Reaction to this speech

In Science: After reading the article, “West Coast starfish are dying, but why?” convince Congress that the plight of sea stars is farther reaching than just one species:

Role – Researcher

Audience – U.S. Congress

Format – Speech Talking Points

Topic – Explanation of metaphor: “…starfish are sentinels about conditions in our oceans….”

Here are a few other Text Dependent Task ideas to include in your repertoire:

  • Admit Slips: Akin to Exit Tickets, students instead respond to an assigned topic as they enter the classroom. “Describe the water cycle.” “Why are irrational numbers important in science and engineering?”  “What factors motivated the character to commence her journey?”
  • Found Poems: As students reread a text, have them find key phrases to arrange into a free-verse poem, linked with connector words (articles, conjunctions, “to be” verbs, etc.)
  • Yesterday’s News: Summarize the information presented the day before, from a film, reading, lecture, or discussion.
  • Write a letter to people who have made a difference. Write to Albert Einstein about the negotiations for a present day nuclear deal in Iran. Write to an author about his/her influence on a particular topic (TC Boyle on the environment; Roald Dahl on imagination, for example).

Students beginning some of these tasks may need a reminder to go back to text and quote or paraphrase in their responses. Sentence frames to introduce text are helpful aids to guide students:

  • (author) states, “….”
  • In her book _______, (author) maintains that, “….”
  • X disagrees when he writes, “….”
  • According to the text, “….”

Supplemental frames to assist students with explaining their evidence can prevent the infamous “hanging quote,” when students mistakenly think that quoted text speaks for itself:

  • Basically, X is saying _______.
  • In other words, X believes ________.
  • X‘s point is that ________.

Finally, writers also need to make a distinct connection, identifying the reason for including the quote/evidence. Simple connector frames could be:

  • This statement is important because ______.
  • This relates to _____.
  • This contradicts _____ because ______.

Perhaps May isn’t the time that you’re thinking about doing “heavy lifting” in the classroom, but consider these ideas seeds. Let them germinate over the summer if you’re not ready to harvest them today. You never know what you might reap in the Fall.

Poetry: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

When I first sat down to write this post, I thought I would virtually chest-bump my English Language Arts peeps–the topic is poetry, after all, the domain of the English teacher, right? I shortly realized narrowing my audience would mean I would simultaneously be turning off other content area teachers. As I come back to revise, I’m thinking how poetry could add a dimension to literacy in Science and Social Studies while addressing CCSS Literacy Standards in the process: WHST.4, WHST.5, and WHST.10, to name a few. I’m not suggesting other content area experts start teaching poetry, but I am suggesting you might consider offering such a literacy opportunity in response to a scientific or social studies topic.

Today, April 30th, marks the end of National Poetry Month, but like many of the “month” celebrations, poetry could and should be showcased throughout the year–definitely as part of an English class and perhaps even outside of English. At Gresham High School, the opportunity to have Paulann Petersen, past Oregon Poet Laureate, lead a workshop for interested students happened to coincide not only with National Poetry Month but with prolific poet William Shakespeare’s birth/death-day, April 23rd. What you’re about to read is a chronicle of a poetry writing process. The process (minus the lesson on imagery) can remain the same, regardless of the content: Emancipation, Meiosis & Meitosis (I wrote a verse of a song about this once in high school Biology), The Holocaust, Bacteria, Imperialism, Atoms & Molecules….

Paulann Petersen, 2013

Paulann Petersen, 2013

When I joined the workshop, student writing was well underway. Petersen guided the process through Springboards. Some of us might call them brainstorms, focused freewrites, or fastwrites; her’s are a bit more involved. Ours began with brainstorming a list, but it also branched out to include reading an exemplar poem, “to know what’s possible.” With this group of high school writers, we were prompted with a common topic: food. We could list foods, describe rituals around food, categorize those we liked or disliked, etc.  Following the listing activity, Petersen introduced the poem, “Good Hotdogs,” by Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street). She stated she chose this poem because she wanted a “new to you” poem. Next she asked a simple question: “What do you notice?” Student volunteers responded: “line endings,” “specific details, like ‘the little burnt tips/of french fries.'”

Our lesson followed: Image/Imagery. We started with definitions. An image, Petersen defined, is something you can see/perceive visually, whereas imagery is a word/phrase that makes a sensory connection. She described that writers constantly battle the domination of sight imagery, and she encouraged us to do the same.

Often, Petersen relayed, students (of all ages) have a tough time getting started. Here are a few ideas:

  • Mimic the start strategy of the exemplar poem: in this case, the price of the hotdog.
  • Use first-person experience, “I take the first bite….”
  • Set up imagery: We take the first step through the doorway and smell….”
  • Start with a simile or metaphor: “It tasted like….” or “The steam was….”

Once we had a starting point, we were tasked to Fastwrite for 10 minutes straight. “Don’t stop; get down as much as you can. If you begin to hesitate or stall out, look back to your brainstorm list. Focus on imagery details.”

As time was called and pencils quieted, I noticed students stretching and massaging their hands, most of them smiling. Writing is hard but rewarding work! Our next job was to pause: take a moment to breathe, then determine a next step. That might mean setting the writing aside to let it percolate or re-reading and beginning to tinker. Petersen asked for volunteers to read works in progress; as they did, we celebrated their heroic bravery and their imagery.

She then moved us along to a new topic topic (Mammals that fascinate) and another writing Springboard. Before the workshop came to a close, time was set aside to simply share. Petersen bounced from table to table, asking if anyone wanted to read one of the pieces they’d written. In each and every example, there was at least a line, an image, something that provoked emotion…a smile, a gasp, a chuckle. And, that’s good poetry regardless of topic!

If you’re interested in a clear path to this process, see the steps below:

Step 1: Brainstorm a list.

Step 2: Read aloud an exemplar poem followed by “What do you notice?” discussion.

Step 3: Good place for a mini-lesson of choice.

Step 4: Jot down your starting point.

Step 5: Fast write for 10 minutes straight. Focus on imagery details.

Step 6: Pause.




Academic Vocabulary, Language, and Math

Ask yourself this seemingly simple question: What’s the difference between Academic Vocabulary and Academic Language? They sound similar, right?  We not only need to recognize the similarities and differences of these two concepts, we need to provide opportunities for all students to engage in both in our classes, including Math. Earlier this month, I had the privilege of collaborating with our district’s Sheltered Instructional Coach, Maranda Turner, and six of our talented high school math teachers doing just that.

Our work was centered on deepening our understanding of instruction that supports all students, particularly students struggling with language and literacy in math. We walked away with a solid understanding of the difference between academic vocabulary and academic language, along with engagement strategies to help us plan specific activities aligned to research based strategies to help all learners succeed.

Vocabulary Word Box used during the session.

Illustrated Vocabulary organizer used during the session.

The first part of our morning was spent making sure our next unit was aligned to the Common Core Learning Targets in our pacing guide. Research by John Hattie shows students make academic growth when we communicate and engage our students in learning targets. Besides students being able to really answer their parent’s age-old question: “What did you learn at school today?” they also have a defined purpose for doing the work being assigned to them.

Algebra 1 Semester 2 Unit 7

Algebra 1 Semester 2 Unit 7

The rest of the day we zeroed in on the particulars of academic vocabulary (words specific to the content area) and academic language (how to communicate the vocabulary in a “math way”). Each teacher pair chose 2-3 priority academic vocabulary words for the next unit, determined an appropriate activity, identified opportunities to practice the academic language, and establish where it would fit into the unit. Activities included the use of Illustrated Vocabulary Boxes, Frayer Models,  (low/no prep) Word Sorts, and Sentence Stems and Sentence Frames.  We discussed the importance of allowing students plenty of written and spoken rehearsals as they worked to use new academic language.  

Academic Language Frame for Math.

Academic Language Frame for Math.

After each instructional component (learning targets, academic vocabulary, academic language), teachers were provided 30-60 minutes to plan these tools into their instruction. It wasn’t nearly enough, considering the work needed in all units, but it’s the right work, and teachers appreciated the supportive start.  We know that when change is hard, we must narrow the path.  Consider this: take one strategy; use it once or twice a week in one course. How soon would the strategy become automatic and in all courses?   

Let me know if you are interested in spending some time working on how to support kids in their math language and literacy. I know a coach….


Geeking out on the (Math) Holidays

In an effort to keep our post light this week since winter break is right around the corner, I wanted to share clever but relevant (read “standards-based”) ways in which to infuse a holiday theme into your math lessons this week.  If you know me at all, you know that I am NOT one for taking a day off from math instruction regardless of the calendar.  After all, I don’t need a special day to be fun; I’m sure my students would say my math lessons are always fun!

Upon further reflection, I realized that I actually do infuse holiday related themes into my math class, just not the winter holiday ones.

For instance, what math teacher has not celebrated March 14th, Pi Day? In fact, this school year is particularly special because we actually get to celebrate more of Pi’s extrapolation: 3.14.15!  Last Spring, I visited a teacher who celebrated by purchasing several pies for her classes, while another teacher allowed students to decorate his room.  The students wrote as many digits of Pi as they could around the room, then found a Pi rap to share with class. Other teachers I know have a specific outfit or t-shirt they wear in honor of the day. Pi Day is a special day you can count on occurring every year.

But have you ever celebrated Fibonacci Day?   It occurs on November 23 (1,1,2,3,…).  I know this day was a couple weeks ago, but put it on your calendar to celebrate next year.  Watch Vi Hart’s You Tube or Arthur Benjamin’s Ted Talk on the Fibonacci Sequence.  And by all means check out #Fibonacciday on Twitter for more Fibonacci Fun and geekiness!

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There are some special dates we have time to plan a real party for as they don’t come around very often. One is on November 13, 2015,  National Odd Day (11/13/15).  In fact, I believe it is the last one for the rest of this century.  We better make this a big one!

Another elusive math holiday is Square Root Day on 4/4/16.  To celebrate you could purchase the Square Root Puzzle or play the Square Roots Game online.  Don’t forget to bring root vegetables to eat, too.

Thinking far ahead, it’s never too early to plan for Pythagorean Theorem Day on 8/15/17 (the next Pythagorean Triple). Check out The Best Pythagorean Theorem Rap and a demonstration of the Pythagorean Theorem by folding a circle.  Both would really add to the hoopla you are sure to be planning.

I’m sure there are other dates out there that should and could be celebrated (i.e. e Day).  So don’t feel too bad if you’re not taking a day this week to graph a Gingerbread Man or determine how much money was spent in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. However, if you do have time (insert laugh track here), take a look at Pascal’s Triangle 12 Days of Christmas. You know we math geeks all love Pascal’s triangle.  This blog post  inserts the patterns the triangle creates into the 12 Days of Christmas.    My favorite patterns highlighted are the Intertwining Petals and the Powers of Eleven.  Way Cool!

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Last but not least, Beth and I want to wish you and yours a safe and relaxing break and warm holiday wishes for whatever holidays you may celebrate in the next couple of weeks, math related or not.