10 Strategies and Tools to Activate Knowledge

Understanding what your students already know is key to building initial knowledge that they need. Activating Prior Knowledge is important in students understanding, because it allows them and helps make connections to the new information. Using what students already know, helps teacher assist students with the learning process.

Most teachers utilize a K-W-L Chart for activating knowledge and in 2012 I wrote a blog post Beyond KWL Charts describing eight different strategies, I thought it was time for an update with some new strategies and tools that help “honor what students bring to the classroom and provides them with necessary context and connection to the purpose and payoff of what is to be learned. It is essential to culturally relevant pedagogy,” according to Jeffery D. Wilhelm, Adam Fachler, and Rachel Bear are the authors of the book Planning Powerful Instruction: 7 Must-Make Moves to Transform How We Teach–and How Students Learn.

KWHLAQ – These updated charts extend the range of a basic KWL chart to incorporate more metacognition, and follow-through towards continuing learning and related action. This chart includes How, Actions, and Questions alongside of the traditional what do you already know, what do you want to know, and what have your learned.

BRAIN POURS/BRAIN DUMPS – Brainstorming comes in many forms and asks students to write down everything they remember about a topic or subject. This is similar to a free write where students write all the things that come to their mind or they are thinking about without worrying about spelling, punctuation, and proper usage.

CAPTION THIS – One of my favorite activities from Matt Miller of Ditch That Textbook, the teacher selects an image and students annotate, comment, and even write a story to describe what they see in the image.

PADLET – This platform is great for collaboration and curation of ideas and activities. I use Padlet with my grad students and middle school students to share ideas, explain concepts, and collaborate in the brainstorming process.

ANSWER GARDEN – Another great online tool to post a question to the class and have students respond in 140 or 170 characters, what is great about this platform is that it creates a word cloud of all the responses with the most repeated words larger than others.

ANTICIPATION GUIDES – An anticipation guide is a comprehension strategy in any content area that poses statements or questions for students about the larger themes and ideas presented in the unit. I use anticipation guide often prior to a reading unit to gauge students thinking about themes connected to the unit of study. You can preview the one I created on Google Forms on WW2 and the Holocaust

GALLERY WALK – During a gallery walk, students explore multiple texts or images that are placed around the room. I use this strategy for students to respond to a collection of quotations, images, and textual excerpts. This strategy requires students to physically move around the room, it can be engaging to kinesthetic learners. Texts should be displayed “gallery style,” in a way that allows students to disperse themselves around the room, with several students clustering around each particular text. Texts can be hung on walls or placed on tables. The most important factor is that the texts are spread far enough apart to reduce significant crowding. Students walk around the room to read or view the texts around the room and then respond or comment on poster paper, a graphic organizer, or later during a large class debrief.

GAMES like Kahoot, QuizletLive, Quizalize, Quizizz – Test what students already know about a topic or idea by asking a series of questions on a game platform. Students love these games and they are perfect to access prior knowledge with low stakes or can also be utilized at the end of the lesson to see what students learned.

SURVEYs/QUESTIONAIRES – Make a list of 10-15 statements related to the subject content, including commonly held misconceptions. Have students mark “true” or “false” next to each statement.

WORD WEBS – Provide students with a word web of key words and concepts related to the topic or concept to be learned. Ask students to circle the words they already know or write a sentence using a 4-5 of the words that explains the connections between the ideas presented in the word web.

Have more ideas that work well with your students, share in the comments section for our readers.

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8 Activities to Help Students Understand & Experience the National Parks

I recently took a family trip to Maine for a week and during our trip we visited Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor. Visiting the park that was breathtaking, the gorgeous views of the ocean and surrounding Maine Islands. We travelled up to Cadillac Summit, the highest peak on the Eastern Seaboard – note I am afraid of heights so this was scary and it took me awhile to get out of the car as my kids jumped around on the rocks! We drove down to Jordon Pond, a glistening 187 acre pond formed by the Wisconsin Ice Sheet during the last glacial period. Driving around Park Loop Road we stopped to take in the incredible rock formations, cliffs, ocean, and tried to hear the waves crash at Thunder Hole.

Our excursion made me think about the research reports that students have to do about the park and does that really give them an immersive experience to the awe-inspiring beauty of the National Parks. Not really, so here are some alternative activities to help students see the beauty of our planet, maybe become rock nerds, and experience the gems of nature.

  1. Take A Virtual Trip to a National Park – Many of the National Parks like Yellowstone and Channel Island National Parks allow people a 360 Degree Video of the geological features in each national park. Some parks provide videos and virtual tours for students to immerse themselves in the rich marine life underwater at Channel Island National Park or watch the sun rise over Garfield Peak in Crater Lake National Park. Check out this virtual tour down to Jordan Pond in Acadia.

2. Geology Connections – America has a rich geological legacy and the National Parks help us understand the Earth’s history and formation. Students can study rocks and minerals, plate tectonics, land forms, geologic time. Ask students to look at the rocks in their neighborhood and community as an entry point to understanding larger geologic fundamentals. Or students might create a chocolate Rock Cycle model.This topic is also lends itself to a lesson on weathering and erosion.

3. Learn About Indigenous Land – Maine is the homeland of the Wabanaki, the People of the Dawn. At the beginning of the trail to Acadia National Park is the Abbe Museum, which showcases the history and cultures of the Native people in Maine, the Wabanaki. All of the land in the United States and Canada was the homeland of Indigenous people and we need to recognize that and teach students about the people who came before us. There is a history before the “explorers founded and settled on American soil. This can include lessons on deconstructing stereotypes, Colonization, and Human Rights.

4. Observe & Respect the Wildlife – Our national parks is home to incredible wildlife. Wildlife Webcams allow students to observe the incredible wildlife in our National Parks. From bear cams to ocean cams, and eagle cams, students can see these animals in natural habitats. Watch, study, and research more about your favorite animal living in the National Parks to share with others.

5. Let’s Play Games and Challenges – What do you know about our National Parks? The National Parks Service has curated a page of games and challenges that any students can play. Test your knowledge of wildlife and bird calls, draw, design, or create something inspired from the parks, or play virtual national parks bingo. Students can try out one or many of these games and challenges or create their own game. If you love games, Underdog Games created a fun game that I have played with my family called Trekking the National Parks board game to learn more about the National Parks and makes you want to visit all of the 60 National Parks across the U.S.

6. Literature & Poetry – Through America’s history, writers and poets have found beauty and inspiration in nature. After taking a virtual tour of the National Parks or sharing images from different parks around the United States, students can write their own poetry and writings inspired by the landscapes. Forest Poetry, POV piece from a Grizzly living in the park or coyote climbing Bubble Mountain, write a narrative based on the people who first lived on the land, these are three different writing activities to inspire students creativity and learn more about the National Parks.

7. Read Literature and Writing Inspired by Nature – There are many writings about nature that students can read and analyze or use as mentor texts for their own writing. The National Parks Service has a lesson plan deconstructing Carl Sandburg’s Poem “Fog.” Here is Book Riot’s curated list of 33 poems on Nature that Honor the Natural World.

Fog

BY CARL SANDBURG

The fog comes 
on little cat feet. 

It sits looking 
over harbor and city 
on silent haunches 
and then moves on.

8. Conservation is Key – Conservation is the protection, preservation, management, or restoration of natural environments and the ecological communities that inhabit them. According to the recent United National Climate Report, Climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying.” It is imperative that we take bigger steps to helping reduce this window to climate crisis. Students can use this report as a catalyst to conducting projects and reports to show ways we can all make a difference to slow down climate change. Educators 4 Social Change publishes articles, lesson plans, videos, and informational sites to help teach climate change.

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The Benefits of Physical Notebooks

Even in this digital age, the benefits of a physical reader’s and writing notebook outweigh the paperless ideals. Yes, interactive notebooks can be messy with all the glue and paper scraps, but the ways in which paper notebooks aid in learning and understanding, I am adamant to bring them back into my classroom after a year of going 1:1 and paperless.

This past year with the pandemic our school issued every student a Chromebook. Going 1:1 reduced my paper consumption in the classroom tremendously but at the same time and I moved into utilizing digital notebooks for students to access content and showcase their learning. Throughout the school year I noticed aspects of digital notebooks did not meet the same prosperity the paper interactive notebooks in English Language Arts had in the past.

Interactive notebooks help students’ process information, study and review for assessments and personalize the content knowledge being presented. In my own English class I allow my students to use their notebooks on assessments because I am not testing them on memorized information but helping them grow as readers and writers. If they need to access the foldable and notes on different ways to start an essay or follow a guide to writing a body paragraph, then they have that support in front of them. Writing helps students process their thinking. Yes, there are benefits to digital notebook too like multimedia and the fact that students cannot lose their notebook in the cloud. At the same time, the actual tangible notebook is what is key. Students need to touch, see, read, reread in order to help them learn deeply.

On the blog Minds in Bloom it states, “An interactive notebook works as a textbook for students that is theirs. Not only are they taking beneficial notes, practicing, and reflecting on material, but they are also using that information as they work on future activities. Students are going back and reviewing the prior pages repeatedly and therefore building exposure to the material each time.”

◈ The purpose of the interactive notebook is to enable students to be creative, independent thinkers and writers. 

◈ Interactive notebooks are used for ALL class notes and other activities where the student will be asked to express his/her own ideas and process the information presented in class.  

◈ The interactive notebook is a resource for students to build throughout the school year, refer back to during assessments, essays, and quizzes.

This year I created a hyperdoc that helps students set up and organize their notebook so we are ready to learn with them the first week of school. I am excited to get back to physical notebooks with students and observe how using them along side of their Chromebooks help to support learning in a blended environment.

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Creating Immersive Experiences in the Classroom

We are one month away from the start of school and after experiencing Van Gogh’s Immersive Experience and walked through the ultimate sensory exposure to Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings.

Upon entering the experience, the expansive open rooms are rooms are dark until the Van Gogh’s paintings appear along the 20,000-square-foot room featuring two-story light projections and animations that bring Van Gogh’s paintings to life in front of your eyes. The paintings bleed into each other and music carries the story of his paintings, life, and struggles through his art work.

The images barely tell the story, because they only capture still images when this exhibit moves and changes shapes throughout the 40 minute experience. Overall, the experience was breathtaking and I walked away with a new appreciation of Van Gogh’s work. I was also interested in knowing more about him. The immersive experience heightened by understanding, gave me a strong sense of background knowledge, and encouraged me to ask more questions by peaking my curiosity.

How do we create similar immersive experiences with our students to teach our content areas: provide necessary background knowledge, deepen understanding, and ignite inquiry?

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Invite all our senses. I am reminded of Dave Burgess’ Teach Like a Pirate who says, “Provide a classroom environment that will allow your students to interact with the lesson and with their peers.” In order for all members of the classroom to be engaged and learning, students need to feel the learning experience and content being presented in your classroom. This might include props, music, and full on immersive experiences. Learning does not just include sitting at one’s desk, but can be kinesthetic and hands on.

2. Create a Gamified Experience. Gamification immerses students into the learning experience and game by sustaining playfulness with challenge and purpose. In gamifying you classroom you need to choose a theme, create epic learning experiences, and set up the game mechanics. You might use current games like Kahoot and Booklet or life size Scrabble to great a gasified experience. You might even turn your entire class and unit into The Great American Food Truck Race like Tisha Richmond describes in her book Make Learning Magical. I love starting a unit and lesson with a fun game to get everyone involved in the activities and learning. I might even layer the elements of the games like with my Legends of Hidden Courage game I created based on 1990s Nickelodeon game show Legends of Hidden Temple to kick off a unit on social justice. You can read more about this game here.

3. Problem Based Learning & Project Based Learning. Include problem solving and collaborating on activities that require speaking, critical thinking and analyzing to spark interest among students. I am talking about hands on, student driven learning that challenges them to engage them in the learning experience. Put your students in the drivers seat and ask them what they want learn about, research, create, and solve. Immersive experiences support real-world connections to lessons and help students develop life long skills.

4. Immersive Technology. I am talking about AR and VR – augmented and virtual reality. As Discovery Education highlights, “Immersive technologies add layers of powerful impact to learning. Augmented, virtual, and mixed reality have the power to astound and engage learners while helping educators present complex concepts more easily, and with a depth of understanding that other technologies cannot always achieve.” Providing these AR and VR experiences with students allows them a front row seat around the world, under water, walk into history, and do so much more. If you are a Nearpod user, you can access the AR available in their platform or use an AR or VR platform like Discovery Education, Google Expeditions, Merge Cube, and more.

5. Teach with Passion. Passion is enthralling but it can take so many different guises. Again, I am going to refer back to Dave Burgess because he invites teachers to think about their Content Passion, Professional Passion, and Personal Passion. If you are not passionate in any of these three places than why would your students be passionate and curious to learn with you? Identify what you are passionate about and embed these passions into your teaching. Be present for your students and help them see the power of curiosity and learning.

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A Curated List of Hyperdocs, Playlists, & Choice Boards Presented at #ISTELive21

Playlists, Hyperdocs, & Choice Boards . . . What’s the difference?

Playlists are a series of activities focused on specific content and matched to student needs. The intent of playlist-based instruction is to differentiate instruction while providing students control over various aspects of learning, including path, pace, or modality. 

Hyperdocs are interactive digital documents where all components of a learning cycle have been pulled together into one central hub. Within a single document, students are provided with hyperlinks to all of the resources they need to complete that learning cycle.

Choice Boards or Learning menus as Kasey Bell of Shake Up Learning defines “are a form of differentiated learning that gives students a menu or choice of learning activities. It is simply a menu of choices from which students can choose. Student choice is the big idea behind learning menus and choice boards.”

Here is a list of different playlists, choice boards, and hyperdocs I have created in the past three years for middle school students (and showcase at edtech conferences). Feel free to make a copy of these and adapt for your own classroom use. Please be sure to credit those whose materials you are using, adapting, and borrowing. 

Humanities:

Anti Asian Hate Now & Then: Parallels W/Japanese Internment & WW2 

WW2 & The Holocaust

World War II Military

The History & Fiction of Hunters on Amazon Prime

19th Amendment Centennial

Literature & ELA:

Animal Farm Week One & Week Two 

Raymond’s Run Hyperdoc

Ransom of the Red Chief Hyperdoc

Poetry Choice Boards

Mystery Writing

Social Justice Choice Menu

Movie Viewing & Media Literacy:

Black Panther Origins (Pre-Viewing Guide) & Viewing 

Black Panther Movie Analysis Choice Board

Twilight Zone

Getting to Know Your Students:

Get to Know You Think Tac Toe (Choice Board)

Link to Slide Deck

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Multigenre Projects

In my book New Realms for Writing (ISTE, 2019) I introduce a multi genre project my students create based on a World War II topic, research, and historical fiction.

As stated in the book, “Why just box students into writing one genre per unit? There are limitations to teaching narrative, informative, argumentative writing in isolation. Each genre has its strengths and drawbacks. In fact, when we read essays and articles these genres are often blended together.  If teachers allow students to show their understanding and knowledge of a topic with a variety of genres there is choice and creativity. This goes beyond just allowing students to choose the genre or format to showcase their understanding, what if students could blend genres in one assignment to produce a multi-genre piece.  In this chapter I introduce  the concept of multi genre writing: the ability to write in more than one genre to present understanding and build new knowledge.”

Multigenre Projects are not new, educator and author, Tom Romano describes in, Blending Genres Blending Styles (2000),  “In short, multigenre projects entail a series of generic documents that are linked by a central premise, theme, or goal. They may forward an argument, trace a history, or offer multiple interpretations of a text or event. They are rigorous forms of writing, involving all of the elements of a traditional research paper: research and citation, coherence and organization, purpose and aim of discourse, audience awareness, and conventional appropriateness.”

As an end of the year project I wanted to create a multi genre project where my students were at the forefront. Since we just finished reading books and discussing themes of identity, I adapted a project I found online that focuses on our stories and identities. Students were to create multigenre project as a means of reflecting upon middle school and how that has shaped us into who we are today.

Here are the specifics: 

  • A title page with a creative title.
  • An introduction serving as a guide to readers.  This will introduce the event you’re reflecting upon and help us understand why this topic is important to you.  Likewise, it gives you an opportunity to explain how we should read your documents.  This should be ½ to 1 page long.
  • Three (3) separate documents from three (3) different genre categories:
    • The  Narrative Writing Category
    • The Persuasive Writing Category
    • The  Informational Writing Category
    • The Poetry Category
    • Visual Artistic Category

*You can add a fourth category and document for extra credit

  • An artist statement paragraph for each document at the end of your project answering the following questions in complete sentences:
    • What is the message of this document? 
    • Why did you pick this genre for this specific part of the story? 
    • How does this document show the larger theme of your story? 

At the end the year it is inspiring to see students write with gusto about topics related to friends, sports, uncertainty, grades, losing a loved one and procrastinating. One student even said to me that this was the best project they have worked on so far — that is something you do not hear often when it comes to a writing assignments.

As for the different writing examples within the genre categories, students had lots of choices.

As these final projects are turned in, I cannot wait to share some of the highlights.

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Where I’m From Book Assessment

I came across the poem “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon, an American author from Kentucky, who has published in many genres, including picture books, poetry, juvenile novels, and articles.:

Where I’m From

I am from clothespins,

from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.

I am from the dirt under the back porch.

(Black, glistening,

it tasted like beets.)

I am from the forsythia bush

the Dutch elm

whose long-gone limbs I remember

as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,

          from Imogene and Alafair.

I’m from the know-it-alls

          and the pass-it-ons,

from Perk up! and Pipe down!

I’m from He restoreth my soul

          with a cotton ball lamb

          and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,

fried corn and strong coffee.

From the finger my grandfather lost

          to the auger,

the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box

spilling old pictures,

a sift of lost faces

to drift beneath my dreams.

I am from those moments–

snapped before I budded —

leaf-fall from the family tree.

The poem has so much vivid imagery. The moments are also metaphors and requires students to make inferences reading and rereading the poem. The reader gets a clear picture in their mind of the childhood farm George Ella Lyon grew up on in Kentucky. The poem highlights the role of family, culture and childhood help to develop ones sense of identity.

My students read the poem silently first and then I read the poem aloud. After hearing the poem and reading the poem students sketched an image that stood out from their understanding of the poem. Students shared their sketches with their elbow partner.

Students were asked to work in small groups to deconstruct the poem:

  1. Go back into the poem and count how many times the lines begin with “I’m from…”
  2. Find a sensory description with vivid imagery using smell, touch, taste, or sight
  3. Find a metaphor and decipher it’s meaning
  4. Identify the memories vs. present time
  5. What else do you notice?

After ten minutes we returned back to the large class to discuss our findings. We discussed how each of the choices that Lyon made when writing her poem were significant, small items in her life that helped to shape who she was. T.

Now I love the idea of students creating their own “Where I’m From” poems about themselves but since we have been reading choice novels about identity, I had students create an “I Am From” poem based on the protagonist in their reading book. Students were asked to think of significant items in the protagonists life, things that helped shape their identity, family beliefs that molded what they believe, and a description of their place within their family using figurative language. The results were awesome.

The first student example is based on Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue:

I am from a land that no longer welcomes me

A country where I cannot return, despite all the people demanding I do

Surviving, not thriving, in a new land that is almost as welcoming

Stuck with a name that isn’t my own

Where it is normal for me to leave school bloody and beaten

Working with classmates who refuse to acknowledge who I am

Who continuously mix up my home country with another, collectively deciding to turn away and disregard the differences

I am from a mom who is stronger than any hero

A sister who’s as smart as a textbook, but as cold as my favorite ice cream

We don’t talk anymore, all that’s left behind are memories

And even those are fading

I am from a step-dad who beats my mom to a pulp, but also keeps us afloat

A biological dad who decided we weren’t worth the trouble

Who moved on without a second glance in our direction

I am from riches and wealth, turned to dirt and no lunch

I am from a wonderful childhood, cut too short

Forced to grow up too soon

Missing my culture that encourages respect 

Unlike my new home, where respect is scarce 

Trying to keep my light alive by cracking jokes, although they are always met with silence

I am from everyone I had to leave behind

Everything I couldn’t save

Everyone I couldn’t protect 

I am one with the stories of the past, only true to me

Built from the everlasting tales, allowing me to live and learn

I am from a jasmine house where the memories are fond and my life began

Reminiscing in the scent of flowers, swans, sapphire blue rivers, and chests full of gold doubloons

I am from everywhere, everyone, and everything

A mosaic 

A reflection

A montage of the past

A collection of moments

Here is another student example based on Elizabeth Acevado’s Poet X:

My family is from the small religious island of the Dominican Republic

Where my Mami fled for America

But I am from the city

Where nobody sleeps

The part of Harlem where creepy men lurk at every corner 

I am from a school just a train ride away

Where most students skip class and fool around 

I am from a town that sees me not as a person but an object to mess around with

My life welded to live invisible, trying to hide from all those demanding to play with me 

I am from a life in which I can trust only me to stick up for myself

I am from a family in which respect is nowhere to be found

From disappointed looks and lecturings parties

From church every Sunday and an Earth rotating around God

I am from a mother who resorts to violence at every given second and a father who seeks no part in my life 

I am from a safety net that is my twin brother by whom I am connected to by twin powers

Yet from a family in which my gay brother is unjustly unaccepted and my freedom seeking self is restrained by thick chains and barbed wire

I am long gone from the days of the ice skating rinks and peaceful church with Father Sean

No longer remembering the love my Mami and I once shared

I am from a suffering family through and through working to mend our knotted, beaten family back together 

I am a little girl inside a big body who seeks safety and acceptance yet gets met by hatred and harassment

I am a girl who wants everything she’s never supposed to have

Someone who wished for a boy but gets meet by misogyny 

I am from hours of being discriminated against and named a ‘cuero’ and days of questioning who I am 

I am from a tight ship revolving around strict rules

From a confusing and curious brain that goes against my family’s teachings 

And a girl who wishes to write poems peacefully 

From a life scarred by the appalling cent of my burning notebook filled with my problems I never solved 

I am from the secret poetry club restricted by my hate filled Mami and knees that burn from the rice buckets 

From the safe warmth of Ms. Galiano the only women who showed kindness and encouragement

I am from a world of great bravery learning how to express my pain and share my joy

A place in which I shall share my poems freely and safely to the world

I am a woman who shall honor and stay true to herself

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End of the Year Activities for Students

Here are five fun literacy activities you can use with your students to close out an interesting year of blended learning due to the pandemic.

1) Send thank-you emails

What better way to end the year than helping students learn how to craft notes of appreciation and sending them to faculty, staff, and other students?  Everyone has worked hard the last few months and could use kind words.  In times of quarantine, social distancing, and hybrid learning, taking time to stop and acknowledge individuals with heartfelt gratitude helps students realize both others’ impact on them and their impact on others.

2) Progressive stories

Begin a new document with a list of randomly-ordered student names with your class.  Write a starting sentence in the document and share the document with the first person on the list.  The first student has to continue the story with a sentence of their own, then share the document with the second person on the list.  Continue this sequence until every student has contributed.  For variation, start a couple of different stories with the list of names in different order.  See what creative and humorous stories emerge!

3) Found poem gallery

Students can use their mobile devices to snap a photo of an existing block of text (such as a page in a book).  Students can use an annotation tool to strategically and thoughtfully mark out words, leaving a small number of words uncovered that result in a poem.  Students can post their finished poems to Padlet or some other platform for others to comment on their creations.  You can see an example on Kate Hutchinson’s blog.

4) Six-word memoirs

Students can summarize their pandemic-shortened school year in six cleverly-chosen words.  You can read more about this project idea HERE.

5) Video & Film Challenges

Give your students a prompt to make a short video to close out the school year. Tim Needles @timneedles always has some inspiring video and art challenges from untraditional selfies to self portraits. You can find a lot more creative ideas on his YouTube Channel and the Jacob Burns Film Center Education Blog also posts different film challenges students can partake in.

Hopefully these five suggestions get you started thinking about other ideas you can incorporate. 

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Scope and Sequence of 8th Grade ELA

As the end of the school year is on the horizon, it is a good time to reflect on what worked well and where the curriculum needs some editing and attention. I teacher recently asked me the scope and sequence of the school year and I thought to provide all my readers with a look at the reading and writing units that are in my curriculum.

The course study for 8th grade revolves around themes of Standing Up for What is Right with a selection of texts and focus questions within the theme. The goal is the provide curriculum that supports students becoming strong independent readers, writers, and thinkers.

Our first reading unit was specific to the overall theme “Standing Up for What is Right.” Whereas some teachers and parents took concern with the topic of social justice, these books highlight people who speak up and stand up against injustice. These books include I Am Malala, Internment by Samira Ahmed, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and Melba Patillo Beals’ memoir Warriors Don’t Cry. In this particular unit students wrote a thematic essay at the end of the unit. This was the first reading and writing unit of the school year.

Students then began writing an investigative journalism piece related to science and grounded in research. Students created infographics of their research and then recorded podcasts of their investigative findings. We looked and listened to lots of models and mentors of investigative journalism articles and podcasts to help develop our own stories.

At the beginning of January Animal Farm was an all class read. This short unit was three weeks and set up some key elements of dystopian fiction which students then selected book club choices of contemporary dystopian texts: Traci Chee’s The Reader, Neal Shusterman’s Unwind and Scythe, The Giver by Lois Lowry. Students wrote a literary essay about their dystopian novel showcasing the modern day connections in the dystopian fiction.

March Madness brings about mystery writing and students participate in a writing contest to write their own creative mystery short story. Students have a choice of reading Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious or Agatha Christie as mentor texts for their own original mystery story.

In conjunction with the social studies class learning about World War II, students participate in book clubs to read a historical fiction or non fiction text about World War II and the Holocaust. Book club choices include The Diary of Anne Frank, Irena’s Children, The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, Salt of the Sea and Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, The Book Thief, White Rose, Refugee, and Librarian of Auschwitz. While students are reading these novels and discussing the elements of the book, they complete concrete found poems, a one pager, and smaller formative assessments.

To end the school year, students are reading choice novels connected to themes of identity. Students are reading Poet X, Piecing Me Together, Everything Sad Is Untrue, Stars Beneath Our Feet, and The Truth According to Mason Buttle. To end this unit and the school year students will create a multi genre project as a means of reflecting upon middle school and how that has shaped us into who we are today. A Multi-genre Project presents multiple perspectives on a topic in order to provide a rich story and present a visually appealing product for an audience.

Here are the specifics: 

  • Students need to have a title page with a creative title.
  • Include an introduction serving as a guide to readers.  This will introduce the event you’re reflecting upon and help us understand why this topic is important to you.  Likewise, it gives you an opportunity to explain how we should read your documents.  This should be ½ to 1 page long.
  • Four separate documents from five genre categories:
    • 1 genre from the  Narrative Writing Category
    • 1 genre from the Persuasive Writing Category
    • 1 genre from the  Informational Writing Category
    • 1 genre from the Poetry Category
    • 1 genre from Visual Writing Category
  • An artist statement paragraph for each document at the end of your project answering the following questions in complete sentences:
    • What is the message of this document? 
    • Why did you pick this genre for this specific part of the story? 
    • How does this document show the larger theme of your story? 

Note that there is poetry, non fiction, video essays, and short stories included with each unit of study. I am putting together a document for students next year “The 100 Texts You Should Read Before Middle School” to update the battle of the books I created three years ago — I will share this on my blog soon. It will include all different titles and texts. I am also speaking with my science teacher about doing a collaborative unit on environmental justice and thinking about both sci fi titles or non fiction. Here are are few of the titles we are considering:

Pacifica by Kristen Simmons

Wargirls by Tochi Onyebuchi

The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman

Orleans by Sherri Smith

Marrow Theives Cherie Dimaline

The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco


NonFiction:

Poisoned Water by Candy Cooper (Water)

Omnivoire’s Dilemma (Food/Environment)

Radium Girls (Chemistry)

Same Sun Here (Water)

What are the books and writing units that you teach? Do you offer book choices and book clubs or do all class readers? Are you able to change up books each year or are you still teaching the same books? I would love to know what other middle school ELA teachers are doing. Share your insights in the comment section of this blog. I am always looking to diversify and connect with other ELA teachers.

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Creativity and Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

The pandemic has brought to the forefront mental health of students and teachers. Social Emotional Learning. Research shows that creativity can be beneficial for mental health and can help build critical skills such as empathy and introspection. As Kathryn Fishman-Weaver writes in an article in Edutopia (2019), “Creating art is a practice in both communication and empathy that affects the storyteller (in this case, the student artist) and the person viewing the story (peers, teachers, and counselors).” Creative communication and expression elevates learning experiences and can drive social emotional learning (SEL). As the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning  CASEL notes, SEL –  “involves managing emotions and achieving personal and collective goals, showing empathy for others, establishing and maintaining supportive relationships, and making responsible and caring decisions – is an integral part of education and human development.

SEL is more than a buzz word, it is vital to students emotional, social, and academic success in and out of school. Here is is a lesson I do with my students to promote creativity, project based learning, and social emotional health.

Comic Creation & Script Writing Illustrating a Community Problem

Objective –  Students will be able to understand the elements of storyboarding and map out an issue in the community using storyboard and digital comic creation tools to inform and persuade others. Students create digital comics or storyboards to highlight a problem in their community and encourage positive social activism among students.

Description – This lesson encourages and guides students towards social activism. By asking students to brainstorm the problems in their communities they are embarking on an authentic challenge and project based learning  opportunity while using social emotional skills of communication, decision making, and social awareness. Students have a voice in the topics they care about. Students are taking charge of their own learning.  

The storyboard is a powerful tool in the classroom for meaning making. A storyboard is a road map and guiding influence for story making. Michele uses storyboarding for comprehension and creativity in her 8th grade English classes but this activity can be adapted for any content area. In this activity, students create a storyboard that highlights a problem in the community using comic creation tools like Powtoons, StoryboardThat, Bitmoji and BookCreator. 

ISTE Standards for Students

3. Knowledge Constructors – Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.

4. Innovative Designer – Students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.

6. Creative Communicator – Students communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals.

Materials – 

  • Short Documentary Films and PSAs
  • Storyboard Template

Procedures – 

Hook:  Post the following question for students to brainstorm and respond to: “What are the issues in your community that need to be brought to the forefront and exposed to seek change?”

Mini-Lesson:  Storyboarding helps filmmakers to outline a story visually before going to production.  Just like writers outline and use graphic organizers to map out the direction of their writing, before a film or even commercial begins production, the visual elements of the film are mapped out using a Storyboard. Studiobinder defines a storyboard as, “A visual representation of a film sequence and breaks down the action into individual panels. It is a series of ordered drawings, with camera direction, dialogue, or other pertinent details. It sketches out how a video will unfold, shot by shot.” Film producers might use a professional artist to help create the visual layout on a storyboard. Many storyboards are works of art themselves. The teacher should showcase examples of famous storyboards. This article from StudioBinder provides many). 

Today we are going to create our own storyboards to highlight a problem in our community you wish to change. Think about how you can effectively showcase this problem in a way that draws attention to this matter.   As a director, you have several elements to consider when preparing your storyboards. You first need to evaluate your topic and break it down into shots. Then, as you plan each shot panel, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is central to this frame?
  • What needs to be communicated in the frame?
  • What type of shot (close-up, wide-shot, establishing shot, and so on) do you need?
  • What is the shot’s angle (where the camera is shooting from)? Is it a high angle? A low angle?

Let’s get started. You might use the storyboard templates I have provided or feel free to sketch out your ideas in your notebook. 

Active Engagement : At this point, Students begin sketching an outline how they would present their topic and issue to others using a storyboard template (to be provided). As students are working on their storyboards they can also “research and gather information from multiple sources as they deepen their search for finding answers to their questions about the real world problem committed to.” (Laur & Ackers, 2017)

Allow students a choice to begin the storyboard by hand before moving to an online platform. This might take more than one class period. Allow students the necessary time to complete their storyboards and share with their peers for feedback and revision opportunities. If students are uncomfortable drawing by hand, using comic creation platforms like Powtoons, Storyboardthat, or Bitmojis and Bookcreator, students can create their own original stories in comic book form.  

Variations & Differentiation  –  Teachers can provide sentence frames or word banks to help students with the dialogue and writing. Utilizing digital storyboard platforms like Powtoons or Storyboard that provide students with templates and stock images depending on the needed adaptations. 

For an added challenge, students can follow up their storyboard by filming their ideas. Students can create a Public Service Announcement or Mini Documentary using iMovie or Adobe Spark to showcase this problem.   

Culturally Responsive Teaching Connection: As this activity hinges on students choosing a social issue in their community and world, a cultural connection is built in through the current issues from homelessness, endangered species, racism, and pollution. The topics are generated from the student and driven by student inquiry. Students take ownership of the issue and their project as well. 

Resources – 

Powtoons

StoryboardThat

Bitmojis & BookCreator

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