Tag Archives: To Kill a Mockingbird

“Mockingbird” Should Be Part of Larger Lesson

The following essay was written for School Library Journal. To read the post on the SLJ website, click here.

When PBS announced To Kill a Mockingbird was voted America’s “Best-Loved Novel” on The Great American Read, the selection was not met with universal celebration. Many believe Harper Lee’s classic novel to be problematic, if not outright racist. When teaching Mockingbird, we cannot and should not ignore those issues. Instead, we should use those elements as part of the lesson and build on it with connected historical sources and contemporary novels that explore the same themes from different perspectives.

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I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, and the more I read and reread it with my eighth grade students now, the closer I examine the story and craft that makes this book so memorable. In our current time, when race relations are so contentious, To Kill a Mockingbird brings to the forefront issues of race, gender, class, and speaking out when we see injustice. Throughout the novel, the perceptions of the young narrator Scout become keener as she examines these issues. Yet her observations also remain limited. She is a white, upper-middle class girl, and she can provide the audience with only that narrow insight into her small-town world.

In an article for the New York Times, author Roxane Gay recently wrote, “To Kill a Mockingbird is a book for which a great many people harbor reverence and nostalgia. I am not one of those people.…

“The black characters—Robinson and the family’s housekeeper, Calpurnia—are mostly there as figures onto which the white people around them can project various thoughts and feelings. They are narrative devices, not fully realized human beings,” she wrote.

This is true. Calpurnia and Tom are not developed characters, and we only see them from Scout’s perspective. Gay continued, “Perhaps I am ambivalent because I am black. I am not the target audience. I don’t need to read about a young white girl understanding the perniciousness of racism to actually understand the perniciousness of racism. I have ample firsthand experience.”

Gay’s essay is important. Teachers must offer multiple perspectives. Our reading and understanding of any text is shaped by our own knowledge and experiences. I teach in a school that is predominantly white and upper-middle class. Most of my students do not have experience with racism beyond what they read or see on film. Their lives are white-centric, and reading Mockingbird brings to the forefront a conversation about race, class, gender, and injustice.

Literature, as Grace Lin describes in her TED Talk Mirrors and Windows of Your Child’s Bookshelf (2016), “can show you the world and also show you a reflection of yourself.” We strive for our students to connect with books in a way they can see the potential and possibility for making the world a better place. Books not only are reflections of ourselves, as Lin points out, but they should also allow readers to see life from another perspective. Books should help readers build empathy and question injustice. They should create new opportunities that depict strength, adversity, and the responsibility to speak out against wrongdoing.

When reading Mockingbird, students can explore the issues with further reading, both historical and contemporary. From a historical point of view, supplemental readings about gender in the South during the 1930s can be paired with gender inequality today. Historians tell us that Lee based what happened to the novel’s Tom Robinson on The Scottsboro Trial and Emmett Till. To build background around Mockingbird, have students learn about Till as they study Reconstruction. The students can also read and discuss excerpts from Clarence Norris and Sybil D. Washington’s The Last of the Scottsboro Boys: An Autobiography. Susan Chenelle and Audrey Fisch’s Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird offers a collection of informational texts that support the novel, along with writing prompts and discussion questions.

In addition to primary documents and historical texts, there has been an explosion of contemporary young adult novels that address police brutality and the senseless shooting of young men and women of color, all of which parallel current news events and Mockingbird.

One of the first books I used as a parallel text was All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kieley. Since then, there has been an insurmountable collection of well-written texts with diverse voices. Books such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles, Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro, and The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater are excellent contemporary books that complement Lee’s masterpiece and immerse readers into issues of race, gender, and social justice. These books can be read aloud in class, used for independent reading during reading workshop, or used for comparative reading with selected passages.

Whether teaching literature or history, we cannot be limited by a single story. In her TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains that only showing one perspective impacts our understanding of others and ourselves. A single story is limiting and confining. Adichie states, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Regardless of your personal experience with To Kill a Mockingbird, consider the novel a catalyst for conversation about the elements of a great read—books that impact our lives, change our thinking, tug at our emotions, challenge our perceptions, and shape our history and identity. Lee’s Mockingbird shouldn’t be the one and only story that defines America, but it can play a key role as part of the larger narrative and spark much-needed discussion and exploration of issues, history, and complementary fiction.

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Racism, Black Lives Matter, and Young Adult Literature

When Jason Reynolds gave me an advanced copy of his book, All American Boys (Scholastic, 2015) four years ago, I knew I held in my hands a powerful book that initiated authentic discussion about racism today. At the same time, it helped my students draw connections across texts and see the relevancy of reading To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960) in our classroom today. Racism still exists and police brutality has hit record heights.

Since Reynolds and Kiely’s groundbreaking YA Novel, a number of new young adult titles have continued to address racism, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement in poignet ways. Here are five new ones:

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is now being made into a major motion picture and what I love about Thomas’ book is that the protagonist, Starr, is honest, heartfelt, and conflicted at times. As one of the few African American students at a prep school, Starr is torn between the assumptions made by her peers at school and the neighborhood she grew up with. The protagonist’s voice throughout this novel is reflective and authentic.  

 

Similarly, Dear Martin (Crown, 2017) by Nic Stone tells the story of Justyce McAllister, a sixteen year old African American student at a predominately white private school. When Justyce is driving with his best friend, Manny, with the music blaring from their luxury SUV, a verbal altercation at a red light with a white off-duty police officer leads to shots fired by the police officer and Manny dead. The event shakes Justyce. He writes to Martin Luther King, Jr. after studying King’s legacy in school in order to reflect and understand the appropriate actions he should take in response to the media, his friends, and classmates and America’s treatment of African American males.

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Whereas Dear Martin calls attention to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writings and teaching, Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little Brown, 2018) brings Emmett Till to the forefront. After twelve year old Jerome is shot because the police mistake his toy gun for a real gun, Jerome is a ghost observing his family, friends, the police officer and his family. Guided by Emmett Till, Jerome learns Till’s story and how racism and the murder of innocent African American boys has been happening for over a century. Able to communicate with the police officer’s daughter, Sarah, who is struggling to come to terms with her father’s actions, both realized that we can make the world better. Jerome is not the only ghost boy but there are hundreds of ghost boys who roam the world reminding readers of the many lives lost in the hands of police officers who are suppose to “serve and protect.”

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Jay Coles’ Tyler Johnson Was Here (Little Brown, 2018) is the newest YA Novel to add to this growing list. First, I have to talk about the cover of the book which looks so much like one of Kehinde Wiley’s portraits. Los Angeles native and New York based visual artist, Wiley’s “larger than life figures disturb and interrupt tropes of portrait painting, often blurring the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation and the critical portrayal of masculinity and physicality as it pertains to the view of black and brown young men.” The stark image of an African American young man staring at the reader enveloped in bright, colorful flowers (a Wiley signature) draws you in. Tyler and Marvin are twins brothers. When Tyler disappears from a party, he quickly goes from a boy who disappeared one night to another black boy who was murdered at the hands of police brutality. This book addresses family, education, poverty, and racism. Coles presented characters who go beyond stereotypes and it blurs between fiction and reality.

Whether you are looking for summer reads, new books to incorporate into your classroom library, or a book that is going to grab a students and make them sit up, read and want to talk. All of these books are worth reading, sharing, and talking about.

 

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What Makes a Great Student Essay?

My students have been writing essays for their summative assessment after reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Students had a choice between three essay prompts:

  • A dominant theme in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the symbolic importance of the mockingbird. In the story, Atticus tells Jem and Scout “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” (pg. 119) In a well written essay, chose TWO Characters in the novel and analyze how the mockingbird is a metaphor for their characters and actions. Use specific examples and direct textual quotes to support your claim.
  • In the novel, those who do not conform to what society expects of them are punished directly or indirectly. Choose TWO characters (other than Boo Radley and Tom Robinson) and discuss how their inability or refusal to  conform to social norms contributes to their status as outsiders and or outcasts. Use specific examples and direct textual quotes to support your claim.
  • As Scout and Jem mature, they notice that people in Maycomb lead hidden lives. Among these characters are Calpurnia, Dill, Mrs. Dubose, and Atticus.  Choose two characters in To Kill a Mockingbird who lead double lives and explain what circumstances cause them to do so. Use specific examples and direct textual quotes to support your claim.

After writing and editing student essays for more than a week, I received a handful of outstanding essays. I wanted to screencast the student exemplars to showcase for all my students the elements that identify the essay as an exemplar. A few of the characteristics include: robust textual evidence, a clear thesis or claim, strong vocabulary, and distinct voice.

By screen casting my read through, I am thinking aloud my annotations of the student’s essay.  Posting the videos online help my students (and parents) see, read, hear, and understand the learning targets we are aiming for in our writing and guide the student writers in my classroom still looking for models and mentors. Check out the two essays I showcase in the videos below.

 

Looking for more students examples and samples of writing to use for professional development or as a teaching tool with your own students? Achieve the Core has a library of student writing samples by grade level and types of writing prompts.

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Mash Up March: To Kill a Mockingbird Alternative Assessment Playlist

This month I have been mashing a few ideas and technology tools to share with you different ways to present information and for students to showcase their learning. I have been playing with hyperdocs and playlists a lot this year and have produced a few as choice menus and game boards to help guide my students through a reading or writing unit. Hyperdocs are digital learning experiences where students use technology to create, communicate, and think critically about learning and understanding. Playlists are synonymous with hyperdocs and offer students the opportunity “to Engage • Explore • Explain • Apply • Share • Reflect • Extend the learning.” 

With these ideas in mind, I decided to offer my students a summative assessment choice for our reading of To Kill A Mockingbird. Students can either write an essay in class about their reading and understanding of the text OR complete the game board with ten smaller assessments to showcase their reading and learning. Below is the hyperdoc that includes students creating videos, writing short responses, making text to text connections. Students are utilizing Google Docs, Google Slides, iMovie, Edpuzzle, and Google Forms.

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So, how are you going to mash up your lessons and assessments so that students are utilizing technology in thoughtful ways to showcase their learning?

 

 

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To Kill A Mockingbird Socratic Seminar

This year I implemented socratic seminar into my classroom to encourage close reading. The trial scene in To Kill A Mockingbird is a perfect place to encourage discussion and deep reading. Prior to the seminar, students were to prepare a “One Pager” – A one pager is a single-page response to reading. Some might say that the purpose of a one pager is for students to own their reading and showcase their understanding with images and words.

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The One Pager Contains the following:

  1. Choose three or more meaningful quotes from the reading: passages/quotes that relate to the theme or main idea of the story. Be sure to use quotation marks, and include the page number where you found the quote.
  2. Provide a thought provoking explanation of the importance and meaning of the quote: (how does it help you, the reader, get a better understanding of the story, character, theme, etc.).
  3. Use graphic representations: a drawing, magazine pictures, or computer graphics that go with the piece you read, and the quotes you chose.
  4. Include a personal response to what you have read: this is NOT a summary of the story. This is a thoughtful, insightful response. Think about the message the author is trying to get across, how the author uses different types of literary devices (suspense, mood, point-of-view) to make the story more interesting. This response must be a paragraph minimum, with specific examples from the story.
  5. Remember the following guidelines for this assignment:
    •   It MUST be on a standard sized (81⁄2 x 11) unlined sheet of paper.
    •   It MUST fill the entire page (no white space showing)
    •   Writing MUST be in ink or typed…no pencil.
    •   Use colored pencils, crayons, or markers
    •   The title and author of the story (correctly formatted) MUST appear somewhere on the front of the paper.
    •   Reference the page number in parentheses after each excerpt.

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To help guide my students’ analysis of the trial scene in Mockingbird, I included eight (8) questions on the back of the one-pager assignment and suggested that students answer three (3) questions regarding the trial and to answer with direct textual support. The questions addressed how likely is it that Tom Robinson committed the crime of which he is accused, Mayella Ewell’s attitude about race, the response the children had to the trial, who is the mockingbird, was Atticus successful during the trial, and Atticus’ character displayed during and after the trial. For students not sure which quotes to pull from the text, these questions helped students hone in on some key ideas. In addition, they were the jumping off points for our Socratic Seminar.

The one pager assignment was completed in class and then if extra time was needed, students could work on it outside of class. The quality of the one-pagers I received from 95% of my students was exceptional and helped to carry out a robust Socratic Seminar.

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The procedure for the Socratic Seminar included moving all the desks into a large circle for all the participants to see each other. Students put all books away and only had their one-pagers out in front of them with the text. I reminded my students that this is a conversation and not a debate, rather it is a chance to uncover deeper meanings about the author’s central ideas within the text and communicate our interpretations with the class. I told students that there are no right  or wrong answers. In even posted discussion stems on the SMARTBoard to help students frame their conversations and support one another throughout the discussion.

While students were speaking, I kept track of who spoke and contributed to the discussion in meaningful ways. I told students that in order to earn points during the discussion they had to speak at least three times and build on another’s point using specific examples. I told students that I won’t call on them to speak, they are to jump into the conversation and say something to receive full credit for the discussion. In one class, students spoke around the first question for more than twenty minutes.

I have to give credit to my amazing co-teacher for introducing me to both the one-pager and encouraging me to do a Socratic Seminar with my students. It was such a success that I wish I had done these activities earlier in the school year and conducted the seminar more often. This is something that I will implement with all the units that students read and write in the new school year.

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New Ways to Use “Old School” Bingo in Your Classroom

Old School games are a great way to bring gaming into any content area. Whether playing  Jeopardy, Who Wants to be A Millionaire, or Jenga, these types of games build collaboration and can help students deepen their content knowledge. One of my “go to” games with my students is Bingo. Here are a few ways that I have adapted Bingo for learning and assessment.

1. Text Dependent Questions – I will fill an entire bingo board with text dependent questions or problems and students have a specific time to fill out the Bingo board. You might utilize this as a homework assignment for the week (each night complete one row or column), assessments (A = complete the entire board correctly, B = complete 4 rows of Bingo, C = 3 rows of Bingo), or an in class activity. Below is a class activity that I use to review Chapter 7 & 8 in To Kill A Mockingbird.

2. Pursuit – Give students a Bingo board with situations or actions and students are required to find specific textual details (or direct quotes) that highlights the situation. I recently made a Bingo board like this for MidSummer Night’s Dream Act 3. The pursuit gave students a mission to uncover key events and show their understanding while reading the play in class.

3. Picture Bingo & Empty Bingo Boards – Use pictures instead of text or give students a word bank to fill in their own Bingo Board. Then,  ask questions related to the words in the word bank or images.

4. Persuasive Bingo – When I taught speech and debate I created five different Bingo Boards with a variety of persuasive speaking tasks: Persuade your parents to increase you allowance, persuade your sibling to do your chores, persuade your teacher to give you an extra day to complete an assignment. The key was that the students couldn’t bully, blackmail, or bribe to achieve Bingo. When a number and letter was called the students had to persuade the entire class effectively in order for it to count.

Bingo is fun and interactive. Bingo boards can be adapted for any content area or grade level.  Plus, they are easy to make. Depending on the task created for students the questions can tap into Bloom’s questioning, critical thinking, and allow teachers to assess student understanding.

 

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Looking Forward to 2016 by Reflecting on 2015

This past year has been a whirlwind professionally. I delved into the world of #gamification, attended a plethora of conferences expanding connections and teaching ideas. As a teacher, I selfishly love to learn and sharing knowledge with others.

Below are the highlights of the conferences I presented and guest blog posts I wrote in 2015.

Get Your Game On guest blog post for ISTE Project ReimaginED.

Gamification Webinar for ISTE

Your Students Are Your Best Resource for Gamification guest blog post for Classcraft

Utilizing Interactive Notebooks to Support ELLs your Classroom  a workshop for NYS TESOL Annual Conference

Unpacking Race in To Kill a Mockingbird a presentation for Critical Questions in Education Conference in Baltimore, MD.

Tech Based Alternative Assessments in Lieu of Book Reports & 5 Paragraph Essays presented at ILA in St. Louis, MO

Twitter in the K12 Classroom: A Collaborative Tool for Learning Webinar presented for ISTE

Attaining Common Core Reading & Writing Standards with Interactive Notebooks presentation for Long Island LILAC/NRC Conference

And lots more to look forward to in 2016: ISTE, ILA, NCTE and other awesome conferences, EdCamps, and professional development opportunities.

#ISTELitChat is going to be awesome in 2016 with new guest moderators. We meet the last Sunday of each month at 9 PM, just type in the hashtag #ISTELitChat in Twitter to join us.

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy 2016 and look forward to learning, growing, and collaborating together.

 

 

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Text Pairing for To Kill a Mockingbird

With the Common Core initiating a push for more informational text into the ELA classroom, teachers are always in search for rich informational texts for close reading.

With my eighth graders this year, I have adopted Kelly Gallager’s Article of the Week assignment. Each week my students are required to read, annotate, and write a one page reflection to show evidence of close reading and their thinking about the reading. I have compiled historical texts, primary documents, contemporary articles, and even some poetry for the Articles of the Week. Below is an annotated list of informational texts I assigned to my students to coincide with their understanding and reading of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harper Lee Biography

FDR’s Inaugural Speech “The Only Thing We Have to Fear . . .”         Connect with the allusion mentioned in Chapters 1

Gender Codes in the 1930s: An Interview by Claudia Durst Johnson          This is an excerpt from a chapter in Using Informational Text with To Kill a Mockingbird by Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle (2011).

The Scottsboro Boys (PBS)

Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why. by Nikole Hannah-Jones (ProPublica)

Deadly Force, In Black and White by Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones And Eric Sagara (ProPublica)

Blink Your Eyes by Sekou Sundiata

Fear Factor: How Herd Mentality Drives Us (CBS News) This is a great article to pair with the Mob Scene in Chapters 15 and 16.

Letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Jury in TKAM: What Went Wrong by Judge Royal Ferguson

Harper Lee’s Failed Novel About Race (The New Yorker)

Do you have informative and engaging informational text pairings for To Kill a Mockingbird? Please share your ideas in the Comments section.

 

 

 

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Unpacking Race in To Kill a Mockingbird and A Raisin in the Sun in Response to Ferguson and Baltimore

This week I presented at the annual Critical Questions in Education Conference in Baltimore, MD. I presented with my esteemed colleagues, Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle, authors of Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird (2013) and Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun (2015). 

Texts like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Raisin in the Sun are widely taught in language arts classrooms throughout the United States.

But how are these texts being taught? What kinds of questions are students being asked to think about in relation to these texts? How can we use these seminal literary works to unpack and uncover the difficult “hidden history” of race in the United States? How, using text pairings with informational and other literary texts, can we support our students in engaging in difficult but informed conversations about race in our classrooms? This panel will offer specific strategies and assignments developed in relation to best practices, research, and classroom experience.

With Raisin, for example, we offer strategies to incorporate readings on the violence associated with housing desegregation and on restrictive covenants and duplicitous housing practices like redlining and contract selling to underscore the kinds of obstacles families like the Youngers faced. We also offer strategies to incorporate readings about the current state of housing discrimination and research about the inequalities of opportunity in order to underscore for students the ways in which the issues in Raisin continue to resonate and impact society today.

With Mockingbird, we suggest ways to think through the troubled racial politics of Harper Lee’s 1959 novel, allowing students to explore the ways in which Atticus is not a hero and the blindspots in young Scout’s unreliable and incomplete narration of the events in the novel. Working with material about lynching and about African-American maids and nannies, for example, students can unpack Mockingbird’s complex racial politics. Sections from the new Go Set a Watchman can be used to further complicate our understanding of and the continuing relevance of both works.

In addition to these two iconic texts, we will share contemporary titles like The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (2010) and Jason Reynold’s When I Was the Greatest (2014) that offer poignant glimpses into urban America. Participants will walk away with a list of more than a dozen contemporary Young Adult texts to expand classrooms libraries and build text sets that support units on race, ethnicity, and identity.

Events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere demand critical conversations in our classrooms about race and ethnicity in the United States. Teachers need to expose young people to diverse texts that help them understand the troubled history that produced the segregation, the urban blight, the hopelessness, and the abuses of power that characterize these troubling events. Our students need to have conversations about these issues that are grounded in historical facts and texts. Literary masterpieces, like Mockingbird and Raisin, are the ideal places to begin these difficult conversations, but only when these texts are thoughtfully conjoined with other contemporary and classic, fictional and informational texts and resources that allow our students to be informed thinkers.

Below are the slides for my presentation and a link to the valuable information from Audrey & Susan’s power point.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/dasdiouypyp0twe/Baltimore%20presentation2015%2010-31.pptx?dl=0

How are you using these texts or others to engage in critical conversations with your students?

I would love to know. Post your comments below.

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Close Reading Practice: Station Work with To Kill a Mockingbird

The beginning of fall means To Kill a Mockingbird in my 8th grade classroom and it is also the time to immerse students into the practice of close reading. The more and more students have opportunities to reread chunks of texts, the better their ability of peeling back the layers of a text. To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful (and complex) text to use for close reading of a story still relevant today and the beauty of Harper Lee’s craft of writing.

Early in the school year students need support with close reading. I have students chunk parts of the text and read it first for the basics or literal understanding. The second and third readings are reading with more purpose: language, craft, vocabulary, and mechanics. I want students to actively use the information from their readings to talk, share, write, illustrate, and or debate the theories and ideas they are formulating in their mind while reading.

To help students read and reread the text, I created three different learning stations this week. Each station had students practice towards mastery and gain more confidence with close reading. Students were to choose two of the stations to complete within a forty minute period. Each station was leveled based on students’ understanding of the text.

Station One – Level One – Literal Understanding of the text. I created a Bingo Board with twenty five questions about the plot in To Kill a Mockingbird. Students had 15 minutes to complete double bingo (or for additional points, complete the entire board for homework) with questions addressing Who, What, Where, When, and simple How questions.

Station Two – Level Two – Notice and Note Signposts in the Text. Students were to go back into the text and pull out examples of the six signposts from K. Beers & B. Probst’s Notice and Note. This text is one of the fundamentals in my teaching repertoire because it requires students to be engaged with and analytical of the text.

Station Three – Level Three – Text Dependent Questions How the Text Works, What Does the Author Mean, and Synthesis. These questions were the challenge questions for my students. Students who really were looking to grapple with the text and go back and do deep digging within the chapter chose this station. These questions might include:

  1. The beginning of Chapter 7 Scout refers back to what Atticus told her about “climbing into another man’s skin and walk around in it.” This is the second time Atticus’ maxim is repeated in the story — it’s something to note and notice (repetition). What does this metaphor do for us as the reader? What does this metaphor help the reader to understand?
  2. Chapter 7 is a series of vignettes about mysteries Jem and Scout find: The sewn up pants, the gifts in the knot hole, the soap sculptures of the children. What is the author doing here? What is the mood among the children in the beginning of this chapter versus the end? How do we know?

I work with an amazing Math teacher who levels all his math work in the class. Students choose the math work based on their understanding of the math concepts taught in class. The basic work is labeled “Mustard” whereas the next level of work has a bit of a kick with a few challenge  questions is labeled “Wasabi.” For those students who rock the math concepts and want a brain teaser, they select “Naga Jolokia,” — the world’s hottest pepper! I always model his class work when I am differentiating my lessons. Not only does the station work allow for differentiation, it also encourages student choice. Choice and practice get students closer to mastery with key ideas, concepts, and strategies.

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