Tag Archives: planning documents

Review Essay: Online Learning, with a Cultural Literacy Worksheet and Some Questions on the Last Mile

Online learning was touted as the next big thing in education when I became a teacher in 2003. As it happened, I entered the profession, after abandoning a doctoral candidacy at the University of Wisconsin, via the New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification route contrived to bring new teachers into New York, which is chronically short of teachers.

Fellows in the Program were required to complete a Master’s Degree at an institution to which the Program assigned them. I ended up in what I basically regard as a diploma mill; part of my experience as a graduate student in this institution involved classes conducted partially online. Having spent, by that time, a great deal of time in graduate seminars, I saw the online component as a poor substitute for an actual face-to-face seminar, where one is required to think and communicate extemporaneously–a hallmark of an educated person by any standard I’m prepared to recognize.

So, thinking that online learning was at best laughable, I waited for it to die its richly deserved natural death. It turns out I underestimated the power of commerce over art, of marketing over facts, and of credulity over careful analytical thought. 

Online learning did indeed take off, and brought us, among other things, as one careful blogger has observed, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow Scandal (and if you need more documentation of this large-scale ripoff, you can find it here). One of the reasons I was compelled to leave my teaching job in New York City was this post on the “flipped classroom” I wrote and sent to an assistant principal and his coterie of friends pushing this bad idea at our school; I wrote it at the end of the 2017-2018 school year, and when I returned the following year to a campaign of harassment, I just walked away. I was, I am pleased to say, later vindicated in my assessment of the “flipped classroom.”

The coronavirus pandemic brought online learning back, and I’m sure I don’t need to belabor the fact–to parents or students–that little has improved (if there was indeed anything to improve) in this method of delivering instruction. In fact, I think few people remain who need to be convinced that online learning has been, is, and will remain, a disaster. The news reporting on this fact has been nothing short of a deluge: an Internet search using a phrase like “problems with online learning” will return pretty much all the information you’ll need about the failure of online learning.

Which brings me to this Cultural Literacy worksheet on the Last Mile. This is a fairly broadly used term now, but for the purposes of this worksheet, and the thrust of this essay, it refers to the last mile of wire required to bring information at high speeds to households, particularly those in rural areas. The last mile is the most expensive distance to cover where the economics of telecommunications technology and labor is concerned. Because of resistance in wires that carry electrical signals, it is also the hardest to deliver because the signal slows and weakens as it travels along the length–resistance increases along that distance–of the wire conducting it.

So, there are two areas of critical inquiry related to the Last Mile problem. I haven’t written them into the questions on the worksheet above, but since this is a Microsoft Word document, you can alter it as you wish. The first critical issue is the economics and politics of the Internet. As the world becomes more dependent on the Internet, the question arises about its ownership: should the Internet be a public utility, or a public good? Much has been written about data as the new oil–but should it be? This question is urgent as the coronavirus pandemic continues and online learning becomes de rigueur in many places around the world. The Latinism cui bono? (“to whom is it a benefit?”) applies here. Who benefits from the Internet, and who should? I know that my own monthly charge for high-speed internet just went up twenty bucks a month, so I have some sense of who benefits: Comcast. As companies and government agencies transfer their customer service functions to the Internet–and therefore to their customers–and public education moves increasingly online, this question takes on new urgency.

The second critical issue is a science-related question. If you follow science news, you probably know that superconductivity is a perennial area of research and discovery in physics. The question for a student interested in this is simple: what materials will increase conductivity across the Last Mile and make delivery of high speed Internet possible to the most remote locations? Can this be done through the air, as in a 5G cellular data connection, or is wire necessary? The student might also ask, or be asked: What is resistance? What is conductivity? How does one reduce resistance and increase conductivity? Even more: What is an electrical circuit? How does electricity “travel”?

Internet access has been a big problem for some families here in rural Vermont. There is very little competition (if any in some markets) among internet service providers, so in general there is very little motivation to make high speed internet access available in remote locations. This has, of course, impeded students’ educational progress. So the big question here, to my mind, is this: How far do we let corporations control something like the Internet that has become an essential part–especially during this pandemic–of our lives?

Enough said. I’m not sure how this simple blog post turned into this prolix slog. 

If you find typos in this document, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Write It Right: Around for About, Round for About

“Around for About. ‘The debris of battle lay around them.’ ‘The huckster went around, crying his wares.’ Around carries the concept of circularity.

Round for About. “They stood round.” See Around.”

Excerpted from: Bierce, Ambrose. Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010.

Blog Post No. 4,001: A Tentative Start to a Unit on the History of Hip-Hop

OK! I published my 4,000th post on this blog two days ago, which is something I’ve been pushing toward since the COVID19 pandemic began in March. Now that I’ve reached this point, I’ll be taking a break to look for a job, and to begin to review works in progress with an eye toward finishing some of them. And reading and resting, with an emphasis on resting often. I’ll continue to publish, just not at the frenetic pace I’ve set in the past five months. And, again, I hope I’ll have some new materials for your consideration, review, and use.

Before that, though, as has been my custom each time I’ve passed another thousand posts, I’ll publish some unfinished materials to store them for future use, and to offer users and readers of this blog some preliminary documents to develop from the ground up should they be so inclined.

Throughout my career as a teacher, and in every school in which I’ve served, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, my students have been deeply interested in Hip-Hop music. Since I’ve been present for the entire history of Hip-Hop–I remember vividly discovering the first album by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and its electrifying single, “The Message”–but I’d heard Kurtis Blow and The Sugarhill Gang before that, I knew at the beginning of the genre’s life I was hearing something new, original, and, man, oh so danceable. I started playing Hip-Hop records in 1981 when I began to DJ the occasional party. I still have Hip-Hop songs in my playlists (have you heard the song and album “Back on the Block” by Quincy Jones? You should).

So, when I showed up to teach at a school on Jackson Avenue in the South Bronx in the fall of 2003, I quickly started to think up ways to reach the students in my classroom. One thing that always stuck with me, as I watched Hip-Hop develop as a genre, was the remark Chuck D made that Rap music was the CNN of young, urban Black people (and I thank Quote Investigator for clarifying that paraphrase).

Chuck D’s aphorism became the guiding principle for the development of my unit on Hip-Hop. Broadly, I saw this unit as an exploration of the oral traditions that are common to cultures worldwide. Moreover, I wanted to situate Hip-Hop in the context of global oral traditions so that students would be able to move between the general (oral tradition) and the specific (Hip-Hop music). In any case, I knew that I could use Hip-Hop to engage my students.

When I first conceived of this unit, as I say, I was a new teacher in New York. Instead of outlining a unit plan, which at that time I still didn’t fully know how to do, let alone understand the purpose of, I just improvised. I can tell you in that improvisation, the first lesson involved a choral reading of the first twenty-five lines of Homer’s Odyssey, which I presented as the world’s first Hip-Hop song. My students were very self-conscious about choral reading, so I subsequently shortened that exercise to eight lines. I proceeded to the medieval troubadours as messengers, hewing to the greatest extent possible to the idea that musicians could be deliverers of the news in that (or any) world. From there I moved on to the Griot tradition in West Africa, then on to a review of  popular music in the United States, particularly blues songs from the world of Chess Records. Then, while continuing to focus on the oral tradition, I included material about and by The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron as the progenitors of Hip-Hop. Finally, I moved on to the earliest Hip-Hop recordings, as above, by The Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Later, as I began to deepen my research into the history that informs this unit, I also would include material (as below) on the Black Power Movement and DJ Kool Herc.

After running through this a couple of times in an improvisational mode, I began outlining a unit and preparing reading and writing work for its lessons. It was at that time that the New York City Department of Education, alas, abruptly changed the approach we were using with special needs students and struggling learners. Teaching to the Regents Examination became de rigueur, and this unit fell by the wayside.

As I look over the documents I accumulated in the run-up to writing out this unit, I can see that I envisioned an interdisciplinary reading and writing unit that analyzed the sociology of language, knowledge, and culture, and how all this was held together by music to synthesize Hip-Hop. I definitely wanted to focus on DJ Kool Herc’s ability to bring communities together in celebration with music–i.e. his famous block parties. To sum up, and move on to the documents, let me say this: the history of Hip-Hop offers a trove of possibilities for conceptual instruction that deals with continuity and change, poetry and poetics, tradition and innovation, mythology and earthbound humanity, modes of communication within and across cultures, the sociology of culture, registers of language from vernacular and dialects to the rule-bound and stylistically formal, the business of the music industry, what constitutes “news,” and the politics of, bumantity, equity, and liberation. As the music changed over the years, and I discussed these changes with a colleague (thanks for your insight, David) in New York, I saw that there was room in this unit for a discussion lesson on the corporatization and commodification of Hip-Hop driven by a question about how we got from the socially conscious lyrics of “The Message” (or, earlier, but lesser known among younger people, Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” or the beautiful “Lady Day and John Coltrane“) to songs glorifying murder, mayhem, and misogyny.

Anyway, let’s get on to the documents. First, the planning materials: here is the preliminary unit plan, which shows its age by my citation of New York State Standards. Those standards mean I started writing this before the Common Core Standards arrived and were adopted in New York State (if you need something shiny to show to an administrator, here are the Common Core English Language Arts Standards for grades 9-12 in Microsoft Word, so you can copy and paste from this document); this is the lesson plan template and this is the worksheet template. And here, as a do-now exercise, is a Cultural Literacy worksheet on the troubadours.

Now the texts I accumulated, haphazardly, for this unit: here are three pages of mixed text, including a definition of “Oral Tradition” from The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theorythe first eight lines of The Odyssey from the Fagles translation of that work by Homer, and the lyrics from three classic songs–one from Willie Dixon and two from Elias McDaniel (aka Bo Diddley)–from the Chess Records catalogue that anticipate the good-natured, playful, boasting of early Hip-Hop songs. This reading on The Last Poets, that I all but certainly took from the pages of either The Source or XXL magazines–and which I did a very bad job of scanning and citing–outlines the history of these proto-Hip-Hop writers and performers. Here’s a reading on DJ Kool Herc along with its vocabulary-building and comprehension worksheet. From elsewhere on this blog, here is a reading and comprehension worksheet on Public Enemy, the seminal Hip-Hop group. Finally, here is a reading on the Black Power movement and its accompanying vocabulary-building and comprehension worksheet.

As always, I seek your peer review on this material. In this case there isn’t much to review. But if you do use this material or its ideas to build a unit of your own, I would be interested in hearing about that. If you need or want anything in the way of ancillary materials to develop this unit, for example a context clues or Cultural Literacy worksheet, please advise; if they’re not already available on this site, I’ll write something for you and attach it as an addendum on this post. As far as typos and the rest, if you think it’s important, please advise. When or if I use this material, I’m sure I’ll revise it extensively.

Get well soon, Jacob Blake. I deeply regret and am ashamed of the assault on your dignity and your life.

Now: on the Blog Post 5,001.

Adapted Research Papers 5: Darfur and the Government of Sudan

I’m fairly certain that I intended that this structured research assignment on Darfur would be informed by the Wikipedia page on “The War in Darfur.” To be honest, though, I am not entirely certain about that. Part of the problem with the series of research papers I was adapting was that some of them were highly dynamic, changing situations.

In any case, this is a seven-page document that can, as everything else in this series of Adapted Research Papers posts, be manipulated (it’s in Microsoft Word) to the needs of you and your students.

If you find typos in this document, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Adapted Research Papers 2: Children During the Industrial Revolution

As below, this adapted research paper assignment includes this readings on children in the Industrial Revolution along with its questions and structured citation blanks. The material works together, but if students are able, they might be better served, in order to develop the kinds of procedural knowledge for research and writing this assignment aims to inculcate, to find their own sources to answer these questions.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Adapted Research Papers 1: Supporting Documents

By 2008, when I started my third and final job working in the New York City Department of Education, I was (or at least I thought I was) beginning to hit my stride in preparing differentiated instruction for struggling learners. When I arrived at my new posting, however, I found I needed to create some sort of differentiation for a research paper project that was a joint requirement of the global studies and English departments.

So, I got right to it. The theme of this research paper assignment was oppression, and there were at least a dozen topics from which to choose. I chose three, made adapted research papers for them, and worked with students on them.

The next year, the scope and content of the assignment changed; the following year, it changed again. I tried to keep up, but in the end I thought it best just to write a set of broad assignments and use those. I’ve posted those in slightly different formats elsewhere on this blog.

Anyway, here are two documents I prepared as supports and instructions for working on these assignments: the first is a learning support that explains research topics and the second is the rules for completing these differentiating assignments. The five posts above this one are the assignments themselves. Let me forewarn you that this is not some of my best work; but rather than throw away these assignments, I’ll post them here in the possibility that someone might be able to use them. Like everything here, these are formatted in Microsoft Word, so you can edit, rewrite, and manipulate them to suit you and your students’ needs.

This series of documents continues for six posts above.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Document-Based Questioning Unit: Coda

All I know about this document that is ostensibly a DBQ exercise on ancient Egypt on ancient Egypt is that is was something one of my co-teachers used when I worked with him several years ago. I also know that it and the teacher’s copy of the same document were by themselves, without lesson plan or short exercises, in the folder that held the ten-lesson unit posted immediately below. And looking at them now, I think I know I never developed a lesson around this because I didn’t think there was enough primary material in it.

Rather than throw them away, though, I post them here. As with about 98 percent of the documents on Mark’s Text Terminal, these are in Microsoft Word format, so you can manipulate them to suit your circumstances.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

A Ten-Lesson Unit on Document-Based Questions

OK, this post begins a run of eleven (twenty-two including the interstitial quotes) that comprise a global studies unit dedicated to the document-based question (DBQ).

I wrote this unit in the late summer and early fall of 2018 after a late-spring meeting that year with the assistant principal of humanities at the school in which I then served. He stressed the importance of DBQ work in our classroom. The next year’s New York State Global History and Geography Regents Examination, he assured us, would require students to possess a strong ability to interpret primary source material–i.e. complete the standard DBQ.

Because I was a doctoral candidate in history before becoming a high school teacher, and because I respect the importance of inquiry in primary sources, I knew I needed to get to work on creating DBQ materials for the struggling students under my purview–even though in principle I fervently resent teaching to tests. (Aside: I am still surprised at how many of my students, past and present, link their sense of themselves as students, and indeed their self-esteem, on achieving “success” on the kinds of crude instruments that constitute our standardized testing regime.) The problem I faced was at once simple and complicated: DBQs require interpretation, which means students completing them must be able to think abstractly. Many if not most of the students I served struggled with abstract thought. I knew they could learn to deal with DBQs, but I also knew it would be a careful, even painstaking process that would take place over a relatively long period of time.

So, I started with the standard textbook we used in social studies classes in my school, to wit, McDougal Littell’s World History: Patterns of Interaction (Beck, Roger B., et al., Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2007) and wrote materials based on the primary documents in that book.

Unfortunately, I never used this unit. When I returned to school that fall, I found I’d simply had enough of working (after ten years of it) in a building without windows, an hour-long commute twice a day, and living below heavy-duty partiers in The Bronx. I resigned, sold my apartment, moved to New England, and forgot about this unit.

But now it’s back. I’ve spent a few hours revising the lesson plans and making sure everything is formatted correctly and consistently–something I think is important in meeting the needs of struggling learners. If you’ve made it this far, here is the payoff–the documents.

This is the unit plan with all the scholarly and pedagogical apparatus–i.e. standards and works consulted page. If you want to rewrite or edit this unit for use in your particular classroom, here is a lesson plan template, a context clues worksheet template, and a primary worksheet template for your use. Finally, here is a couple of pages of assorted cut-and-paste text to prepare new lessons.

Let me close with this unsurprising statement: there is a lot of room for expansion, adaptation, and improvement in this unit. As with the lion’s share of documents on this site, all of these are in Microsoft Word, so you can revise and edit them to suit your classroom’s needs.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Review Essay: An Educational Planning Book for Parents

As the COVID19 pandemic drags on, I’ve followed with great interest the reported experiences of parents as they work at sustaining their children’s educations while simultaneously dealing with the realities this crisis foists upon us. It’s clear that parents–particularly parents who themselves must work from home–have struggled with figuring out how to contrive a home school, as Diane Ravitch has noted here and here (and by the time I publish this, no doubt, elsewhere as well) on her excellent policy blog.

Extensive reporting on the challenges of distance learning, remote learning, or whatever it is we want to call communicating via screen technology over the internet has, in my view, exposed it as a failure. A friend and colleague in New York reports to me that one of his classes meets for two twenty-five-minute (!) periods a week, and that he assigns one piece of work (again: !) for this class. Under these circumstances, there is richly justified concern that students will fall behind. In fact, from what I hear and see, this has already occurred. All of this results from our schools’ fixation on training students to pass tests rather than to learn to think, imagine, and apply knowledge in real situations.

Ideally, learning, becoming educated, is something a person does every day across the span of his or her life. Every time we read instructions, ask a friend of family member for help with or an explanation of something, or–especially–use prior knowledge to understand something new, we are learning. There is in fact a rich literature on the learning we do outside of our educational institutions. My own teaching practice (by which I aim, among other things, to produce disciplined, skilled autodidacts, and thereby render myself superfluous) has been heavily influenced by Ivan Illich’s book Deschooling SocietyWhile some people might object to the obvious influence of Marxism in its pages, I have also found Paulo Freire’s great book Pedagogy of the Oppressed serves as an explanatory manual for the importance of relevance and application when teaching; Freire’s successes in educating illiterate Brazilian peasants is well documented, and he was amply honored for it. The late Theodore “Ted” Sizer had much to say about learning and school–particularly the frequent and tragic disjunction of theory and practice. I highly recommend his Horace trilogy, which brilliantly exposes the way that our schools have essentially subverted authentic learning in favor of a test-and-punish regime.

To no small extent, the problems in our public schools are the problems of commodification of education and, more specifically, the credentials that education produces. I know, as I hope most parents do, that contractual teacher salaries are often based on credentials. That makes a master’s degree a commodity, another thing for sale in the marketplace. David Labaree of Stanford analyzes the commodification of credentials in his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). As the title indicates, this is a book which describes the manner in which the quest for a credential, a marketable commodity, has replaced actual learning–and actual love of learning that compels learners to pursue knowledge for its own sake and for their own edification. The commodification of education and credentials is intimately connected with the adoption of curriculum produced by large corporate publishers. Again, we teach kids to assume possession of a body of bland, decontextualized facts that they must and will repeat on tests–produced by the same corporations–in order to earn their credential. Through all of this, students really don’t learn to think as much as memorize, they don’t learn to analyze and question so much as repeat and parrot. It is an intellectually deadening process. We should not be surprised that students resent and resist teaching and learning as presently constituted, and that we have such shocking dropout rates in our schools.

Despite the constant fascination with gimmicky pedagogy and electronic gadgets in our schools (an example of which I wrote about here and here, which so offended the administrators under whom I served when I wrote it that I think it may have cost me a job), teaching and learning are well-researched, well-understood, and stable procedures. We can start, as we should, with history’s first teacher, Socrates, that master ironist of feigned ignorance. Socrates asked the big conceptual questions, and he remains relevant to teachers today. Put another way, teachers should understand that in terms of the way people learn, and therefore the way people should be taught, they really must understand underlying concepts and big ideas; we know that little has changed in these procedures since Socrates held forth in the Agora.

In fact, a number of studies in the past generation or so have affirmed this. Most important among them is the National Research Council’s magisterial and definitive book How People Learn (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000). Martha Stone Wiske’s (she edited) Teaching for Understanding (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997) predates the publication of How People Learn but demonstrates its principles in action through the related experiences of classroom teachers. Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ book Understanding by Design (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005) and its ancillary titles (including the excellent Integrating Differentiated Instruction + Understanding by Design by Mr. McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson) are the teacher’s user’s manual for applying the principles of teaching and learning outlined in How People Learn. Over the years, I have relied heavily upon Understanding by Design to create and adapt instructional materials for my students. Indeed, my planning book is rife with typescripts of material from these books.

What all these studies and their subsequent books share is one relatively simple certainty: rather than running students through tedious, decontextualized rosters of facts (then supplying anxiety-producing tests to “assess understanding”), we must teach students concepts that enable them to find the connecting tissue between the facts that serve as manifestations of concepts. Put another way, we must help students gain understanding and knowledge that transfers both within domain-specific curricula, but also across the entire common branch curriculum, by moving back and forth between general (conceptual) understanding and specific (factual) knowledge. Put yet another way, rather than teaching students to pass tests, a rather narrow piece of procedural knowledge, we must teach them an understanding of how to use prior knowledge to understand new material; put yet one more, and final, way, our schools must teach kids to learn how to learn.

For parents at home with their children, particularly parents who in some degree now serve as surrogate teachers, the good news is this: teaching and learning in their essence are fairly simple procedures. To learn, one uses prior knowledge to understand something new, which is then integrated in and with prior knowledge. When we talk in casual conversation about the “learning curve,” this is the process we’re discussing. In an effective learning environment, the teacher’s first task is obviously to locate prior knowledge and establish it as the basis for understanding new things. This is where teaching complicates learning: assessing prior knowledge is a subtle exercise. If it is not done accurately or correctly, learning can falter or even fail. There are a number of ways for teachers to pin down and exploit prior knowledge for learning. Good old Socratic questioning is still one of the most effective ways to proceed. The student’s role in this is to both answer the question and (or) ask the teacher to refine or vary the question in a way that will yield potential results. In the ideal classroom, as students receive and consolidate new knowledge, they themselves begin to ask the kinds of Socratic questions that arouse further curiosity, stimulate inquiry, and activate the will to learn and understand. These Socratic questions become teachable moments and vice-versa. This creates a productive cycle of inquiry and understanding. Thing of Socratic questions as productive questions in the sense that they are likely to produce discourses, not pat answers–i.e. the way understanding is arrived at in scholarly communities.

Which is not to say that every learning opportunity, every teachable moment, occurs in the kind of structure a Socratic dialogue prescribes. I very highly recommend this post on the acquisition and cultivation of soft skills from David Berliner and published on Diane Ravitch’s Blog.

How can parents use the procedures in the previous paragraph to engage the young minds at home because of the COVID19 crisis? First, let’s stipulate that everyday life, especially where and when curious young people are present, offers a plethora of teachable moments. Any time a child observes something, there is an opportunity to ask questions about the thing observed–and any time a child asks a question, there is a teachable moment in play. A couple of fairly simple questions, which can then deepen as a discourse ensues, can keep kids thinking, learning, and therefore in the process of acquiring an education. Fortunately, my planning book contains a set of documents that I’ve accumulated over 17 years of planning instruction for struggling learners and teaching them. All of this material is relevant across a range of abilities.

And now that I’ve bloviated beyond the limits of most the reasonable person’s patience, let’s run through the contents of my planning book in an attempt to help you learn what they are and how to use them. With this material I hope to aid you, gentle parent, in keeping your children learning during this crisis. All of this material has been, I think I should mention, previously posted elsewhere (including the top pinned post during the COVID19 pandemic) on Mark’s Text Terminal.

First, here is a list of ten laws of and three keys to simplicity that is actually on the cover of my planning book. I took this from John Maeda’s book The Laws of Simplicity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006). I use these simple rules to remind me that no matter how grand an act of synthetic thinking, learning, and writing I aspire for my students to do, I must keep their needs in mind–and sometimes, for their needs, simpler is better. These 17 Teaching Tips are of a piece, I think, with Mr. Maeda’s imperatives to simplicity of design, so I keep them together to remind me that no matter the complexity of a topic, no matter how much sophisticated the thinking a topic or issue in the curriculum requires, teaching and learning are at bottom fairly simple and straightforward endeavors.

All teaching begins with a question. The type of question one asks tends to be domain specific in some respects, and universal in others. For the latter, here is a taxonomy of questions from Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership (Roland C. Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet, eds., Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1991). Just as the document’s title indicates, it taxonomizes questions and gives examples of how to apply the taxonomy to structure questions. I use this document all the time. To complement this taxonomy, here is a list of question stems for structuring the kinds of questions that stimulate thinking–and therefore learning.

As above, I think the best planning framework out there, and the best explained by its authors, is Understanding by Design. So, here are 16 pages of planning materials to help identify big ideas and essential questions from the pages of Understanding by Design. In the time I worked in classrooms, I compiled this list of essential questions I contrived for my social studies and English language arts classes. Essential questions are Socratic questions, and vice versa.

Now that you have some questions to ask, you might want to know how to structure the kinds of activities that will yield results. I have a couple of things that I grabbed from articles in The Cambridge Companion to the Learning Sciences (R. Keith Sawyer, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) that might be helpful here. First is this table of activity structures from Janet L. Kolodner’s article “Cased Based Reasoning” which is apparently one of her areas of expertise. From Allan Collins in the same Cambridge volume, this outline of the principles of cognitive apprenticeship explains how that method of pedagogy operates. Cognitive apprenticeship is just what it sounds like–students are schooled by participating in the kinds of scholarly work professionals in a field do. Put another way, cognitive apprenticeship gives both teachers and students a shortcut to the big concepts that inform and connect knowledge within and across domains.

To pull this all together for the children in front of you on any given day, I find this table of cognitive styles from Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Kids Like School (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009) helps me gain insight and understanding on how kids are thinking, and therefore how I can make learning more accessible to them. Also from Dr. Willingham, from his book The Reading Mind (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017), is this table of conclusions with practical implications for reading instruction.

Finally, if you have emergent or struggling readers on your hands, you might find this short glossary of linguistic terms from Denise Eide’s excellent Uncovering the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy (Minneapolis: Pedia Learning, Inc., 2011) useful when thinking about how to explain the parts of words to kids.

That’s it. Remember: there are a plethora of situations every day that can be turned into teachable moments by dropping a simple but essential (or Socratic, or productive–you choose your modifier) question into it and thereby beginning a discourse.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

The Great Debaters: Planning Materials

Over the next several days, I will post an entire unit I wrote, inspired by the Denzel Washington film (he directed and stars as the story’s protagonist, the peripatetic poet and teacher Melvin Tolson)  “The Great Debaters.” on the real-life subjects of that fine film. My original intention was to teach this unit every February in observation of Black History Month. For reasons that involve a long and frustrating story, I was only able to use these materials a couple of times. I’ve parceled them out in dribs and drabs over the years.

I cannot think of better time than now, while students and parents are homebound during this pandemic, to post this unit in its entirety. There are eight lessons in all. I should note, as I do at some length in the unit plan, and as the unit’s title–“Seminar on Prior Knowledge”–that one of the purposes of this unit is to demonstrate for students how learning happens. I want them to understand who the main characters are in “The Great Debaters” before watching the movie. This leads students to understand why it is important for all learning to possess as large a fund of prior knowledge as they can manage to accumulate, or find on their own with the numerous, powerful knowledge-gathering tools–the smartphone is Cold War computing power in the palm of one’s hand–now at our disposal.

In the event that you want to revise or otherwise adapt this unit to your students’ needs, let me start by posting the planning materials for this unit. First, here is the unit plan. This is the lesson plan template. If you want to build some new context clues worksheet for this unit, here is the worksheet template for that. Similarly, here is the worksheet template for building new reading comprehension worksheets for each lesson. This list of definitions for the context clues worksheets already embedded in each lesson will help that part of each lesson proceed without a hitch. Here is a squib on Wiley College, which is at the center of this heroic story, which I grabbed from that institution’s website. Finally, here is another squib on Historically Black Colleges and Universities that I wrote myself and synthesized from a variety of sources, including my own knowledge of these schools; it’s meant to be inserted just about anywhere along the way in this unit.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.