What Gift Does Your Content Area Give to Children?


Creativity, Problem-Solving, Self-Expression, Lifelong Communication Skills, Science, Thrive not Just Survive, Communication through Images; these thoughts, along with numerous other words and phrases that were shared, are gifts teachers give to their students through their content areas. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to work with a group of educators from GHVS. The focus for the day was Cross-Discipline Literacy Strategies. Along with strategies to support literacy skills across the disciplines, I wanted the educators to keep in mind two points. First, every content area offers kids gifts; and second, to remember, they are the best reader and writer in the classroom.

While a common misconception is that cross-discipline literacy requires the use and study of non-relevant texts in content areas (ex. the teaching of Huck Finn in Industrial Technology), this was NOT a belief shared by the staff members at GHVS. A separate post could be written about the administration team at GHVS, but for now, I will simply state, the climate and culture in this district is one I wish I could share with others around the globe. First, the administration team has a clear focus and it is communicated with staff members, who they treat as professionals. Secondly, staff members believe that all students are the responsibility of ALL staff members. Finally, each educator came to the day with an open mind and collaborative spirit, helping each other through the sharing of strategies and practice is a norm for this staff!

With a positive culture, educators can do anything! And although the gifts that they felt their content area gave to students differed, they all agreed that promoting content-related literacy was something that helped to make these goals achievable. Providing instructional strategies, reading strategies, and writing strategies that are applied to content-specific “texts” increase comprehension and students’ ability to create similar forms of communication. We want savvy consumers of information, but also creators of content!

My passion, in education, is helping to support these gifts we give to students, specifically in the areas of literacy and technology. Here are a few of the strategies we used during the learning, as well as technology to support:

Sharing Cross-Discipline Literacy EDventureTo kickoff the day, staff members were randomly sorted into teams. Each group was given a pre-made set of slides (click on the image to the left to view an example set of slides). On each slide there was a link to a “point” on a Google Map that contained a text type and questions to answer. After each slide was filled out for the appropriate “point”, teams clicked on the next link (located on the bottom of the slide) which took them to the next “point” and text type. Staff members felt this game-based competition was engaging, relevant, and immersed them into thinking about text types! In fact, they have set up a time for further training on how to create a Google Map Adventure to use in their own classrooms.

When the Skill is Lacking, What Strategies  Will You Use to Make Meaning?

Cross-Discipline Literacy- A Focus on Pedagogy, Reading, and Writing (1)


Reading Strategy #1: Question and Purpose   Each staff member was required to bring 2 pieces of “text” that their students would read/view with them to the Professional Learning day. After the opener, they paired up with someone who was not in their content area. Each person shared their “text” and their partner then answered the following questions: If the “text” is the answer, what is the question? and What is the purpose of this text? This activity was eye opening. Staff members recorded their thought on a Padlet.(a virtual bulletin board where one can post text, images and video; collaborative and easy to use).

Cross-Discipline Literacy- A Focus on Pedagogy, Reading, and Writing (2)

Reading Strategy #2: Text/Me/So                    For this next strategy, the teachers actually applied it while digging into the Cross-discipline reading standards (click the image to view the template). This strategy requires the reader to use text evidence in the “Text” column, interpret and write in own words in the “Me” column, and finally make the connection or explain their understanding or application in the “SO” column. This effective strategy can be used on any “text” and is an easy fit cross-disciplines.

Cross-Discipline Literacy- A Focus on Pedagogy, Reading, and Writing (3) Reading Strategy #3: KWHLAQ                       This reading strategy takes a contemporary spin on the traditional KWL charts (click on this image to make a copy of this template to use in your classroom) that we have used in the past. While applying this strategies, educators read the Iowa Core cross-discipline writing anchor standards. The “K” column helps to activate prior knowledge by asking the reader what they already know about a topic or concept. Each letter of this acronym provides a specific task/purpose for the reader. This strategy could be used for a short piece of text, or could be utilized across a whole unit (for instance, when we studied Romeo and Juliet, my students used this organizer).

RAFTs Writing Strategy #1: RAFTs                                RAFTs strategy is a writing to learn strategy to help students understand lens and bias. (click on the image to read my blog post detailing RAFTs strategies). Staff members applied their notes from the KWHLAQ reading strategy to RAFTs. Each team chose a specific role (which could be anyone or anything,from a teacher or future boss to the voice of a pencil), a specific audience (student, parent, board member), format (letter, blog post, list), and purpose in the form of a strong verb. The topic was the same in each piece written: Iowa Core Cross-discipline Writing Standards.

Cross-Discipline Literacy- A Focus on Pedagogy, Reading, and Writing (4)Writing Strategy #2: Mindmapping                 Another writing to learn strategy is mindmapping. Here students demonstrate their understanding of a concept or topic through a visual, in the form of a map. Using Google Draw, the staff members created their own mindmap (cause-effect, flow chart, sequential) utilizing Google Draw to demonstrate their own understanding of a group members “text”. (Mindmaps are great for graphic organizers. Google Draw could also be used as formative assessment, think Exit tickets)

Cross-Discipline Literacy- A Focus on Pedagogy, Reading, and Writing (5)Writing Strategy #3: Infographics                   In almost every content area, Infographics can be used as a writing to learn strategy. Analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing; all of these cognitive operations can be applied to a text and then comprehension demonstrated through the use of an infographic. Canva (click image to access website) provides free templates for creating professional-looking infographics.

The day ended with a return to the gifts that we give to students in our specific content-areas, a sharing of the work that we did during the day, and a reflection on the value placed on pedagogical practices that support the students’ comprehension and creation of “text” across the discipline. On the way out the door, a student teacher stopped me and said, not only was this a fun day, but in college, it is hard to understand your role in literacy as a music teacher. Having a collaborative environment that even the physical education teacher could share ideas for me to use was nothing like I ever experienced before! I am a teacher of literacy, and the gift I give to students is communication through music!

My Mission – Accomplished!

All of my slides from the day can be found HERE

A Powerful Lesson: Dismantling Hate Rhetoric

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As an advocate of literacy, I believe that it is essential to equip students with the necessary skills to not only communicate their message effectively and on multiple platforms including digital ones; but also to create critical consumers of information. Modeling and honing these skills allows students to discern digital information, analyze and evaluate what they read, and develop clear arguments. The Common Core has placed great emphasis, not only on reading standards, but also on writing standards, to prepare students for the increasing rate at which information is generated and distributed.

Discernment of digital information is daunting. Reliable and relevant resources are intermixed with fictitious and fallacy-laden websites. Today, our students must sift through the plethora of resources, identifying information, not only for learning, but for social and entertainment. As an educator, I have many stories of students citing unreliable sources, but one specific example that happened years ago helped to shift my thinking.

It was during senior writing class, and students were sharing their multi-genre iSearch projects. A young man shared his view on Martin Luther King Jr., and informed the class about the “truth” concerning man that we consider a great leader. He had information, graphics, and even small cards to pass out to classmates who wanted to learn more…

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Upon further investigation, I realized he was citing information, as well as printing, from the website,  MartinLutherKing.org,  which, at first glance, seems like a credible resource; but upon further investigation, one learns is hosted by StormFront, a white supremacist group. This teachable moment fueled a shift in my thinking from one of just simply promoting digital literacies, to one of empowering students to be advocates for themselves and others.

Hate is real and ubiquitous. From conversations and propaganda, to digital information and the wilds of college, I knew that my students were unable to identify and argue against the fallacies that invaded their lives. I needed an activity that not only encouraged students to examine language, but required them to dismantle the hate that was now burning in their hands from the flyer their classmate just passed out. And all of this, without seeming biased, leading, or threatening.


I had forgotten about this unit until a recent #CAedchat. The topic, “Making Safe Spaces for LGBTQ Youth” moderated, that week, by my friends @LS_Karl and @JStevens009 evoked a memory of this unit, and a promise to share in a blog post.

Disclaimer: This unit was influenced and created through the ideas and sharing of many educators. Teaching Tolerance is a great resource for educators interested in “diversity, equal opportunity and respect for differences in schools”;  and because of this, it was where I started.

Driving Question: Does the right to Free Speech extend to hate groups?

To begin the unit, students, individually, completed the Anticipatory Activity which allowed them to reflect on their current thinking. At the end of the unit, these prompts were again revisited and reflected upon.

As a large group, I read the following except  from the NAAWP (National Association for the Advancement of White People). Found Here  I gave each student a copy as I read it aloud to them. Next, students returned to the text, highlighting information they felt may not be true, but sounded like the author was stating it as fact.

Through a class discussion and a sharing of textual evidence, emotions, and frustrations, I introduced the concept of fallacies. Very few students had an understanding of fallacies and how language was used to manipulate the intended audience. A short introduction, followed by the completion of this Common Fallacies used in Hate Rhetoric sheet, students were paired and invited to select a paragraph from the NAAWP text I shared earlier and label their highlights with the corresponding fallacy.

The next day, I modeled the dismantling of the Martin Luther King website, hosted by Stormfront. I not only identified fallacies used in the text, but also analyzed and evaluated the website as a whole, using this sheet as a guide.

Students then chose a specific website to, independently, practice the skills. I shared with them the  Hate Directory  as a place to start (fyi, many of these sites had to be unblocked at school because they were filtered automatically).

The following day students had 3 mins to share their findings.

Reflection… This is still one of my most fondest memories in teaching . No matter gender, race, or creed; all students were engaged, viewing information, dismantling language and sharing their analysis. In fact, years later, I had a student share with me that this unit, and the understanding of fallacies and language use, was something that “they actually used” after graduation. They were involved in a conversation with a group of new friends and recognized the fallacies and inconsistencies that spewed from the mouth of another. Not only were they able to refute the claims, but they were also able to support their rebuttal by naming the fallacies! (I was smiling the whole time my former student was sharing the story!)


Teaching Tolerance

Hate Directory 

Videos for Teaching Fallacies

Practice What We Preach: The Art of Coaching Kids for Transfer



As a child, my love affair with the sport of soccer helped me to develop skills, self-esteem, and friendships. Throughout high school, you could find me sporting brightly colored Pumas, juggling between classes, and joining pickup games on the weekend. I was a bit obsessed.

As an adult, I have shared my love of athletics through coaching; and I have been privileged to coach incredible, young-women throughout my life! I believe I am a better teacher because of my coaching experience and often find much of the same philosophies interchangeable. It is with this interchangeable lens I wish to approach the topic of “practice” within the classroom.

If you don’t know about Train Ugly, now is the time to start investigating. Marrying Growth Mindset and Motor Learning to Train Ugly, Trevor Ragan’s video on block vs. random practice was shared at my last AIW meeting and has inspired this blog post.

My Takeaways:

  1. As teachers, we aim to maximize retention and transfer of skills.
  2. A skill is much more than just “technique” it also includes the “reading” and “planning” before the execution.
  3. Very few skills in life are stagnant and repetitive in nature, but the majority of practice we request of our students is just that, skill and drill to show mastery.
  4. Research supports the use of random practice as a more effective way than block practice for high-impact retention and transfer of real learning!
  5. We need to find better ways to track progress (another resource to add in the case against letter grades).
  6. When practicing a skill, students need a growth mindset and randomization; never do the same thing twice (different opportunities to use skills).
  7. Finally, poor practice is a teacher issue, not a kid issue. We fear the uncontrollable, we want improvement but are not used to a slower process that takes more time, and we slip back into traditional practice because it is comfortable.

Reflecting back, there were many times I resorted to block practice, whether on the field and having athletes take hundreds of penalty kicks, or in the classroom, the repetitive use of worksheets to drill grammar rules; I was contributing to the transfer problem and reconfirming the notion of “work for school’s sake.” Unknowingly, and through the implementation of PBL (Project Based Learning) and the Workshop Writing Classroom my focus and practice shifted resulting in more Random Practice. When I no longer taught to “The Test” but focused on moving all students forward, the transfer ensued (even on the high-stakes tests).


Blogging Community, Connecting Iowa to Sweden

Originally publish on my old blog

What began as an off -the- cuff request on twitter has snowballed into a collaborative project connecting BCLUW AP Literature students with students from The International School of Helsingborg in Sweden. Each year I teach Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” and struggle through the lecture, questions, and discussions over Existentialism. At the beginning of the school year I met John Noonan a philosophy teacher in Sweden. I approached him for help and a possible guest lecture spot, but after many discussions we decided to connect our students for a collaborative lesson.

Starting in early October, students have connected through twitter(using the hashtag #iowaish), blogs, and Skype.  October 12, will be the first face to face meeting between the two schools. Throughout the next couple of weeks, students will identify characteristics of Existentialism, participate in a Skype video lecture on Existentialism given by Mr. Noonan, and apply their understanding of the philosophy to discussions, readings, and blogs. In November, students will be placed in small groups with members from both the BCLUW AP Literature class and ISH Philosophy class. Collaboratively, they will defend an argument based off of a question posed by myself and Mr. Noonan. A debate will conclude the project.

The 2009 -2010 school year was the first year of the BCLUW 1:1 laptop initiative. The ISH is also a 1:1 laptop school, making the collaboration and connection accessible outside of the walls of the school and hours of the typical school day. Having an opportunity to collaborate with students other than their normal peers, plus with a diverse group such as the one found in Mr. Noonan’s International School, cultivates an understanding of different countries, cultures and opinions. The collaboration increases the writing, speaking and debate skills of the students by constructing an audience other than the typical teacher they interact with daily. The project has already exceeded expectations and the students are looking forward to future connections and the final project.
I will update this blog periodically with our progress!