Cash in on Learning: Engaging and Authentic Learning through Essential Questions

Richard Cash EdD, FSP AuthorThis past April, I had the incredible honor of working with the Bureau of Education in Hong Kong to train teachers on depth and complexity. The Chinese government as a whole is moving toward great reform in how curriculum is constructed and how teachers instruct. One of my charges was to help teachers take what is considered “mandated” curriculum (in textbooks) and deepen the material for greater, more authentic learning. In this blog, I’ll share with you the initial process we used to take textbook material into greater sophistication. You can use this same process with your textbooks to “raise the floor and remove the ceiling,” defining what really matters and challenging students to ask good questions.

First, we reviewed the overall intent of the units of study the teachers were asked to teach. As an example, I’ll use a unit all sixth-grade teachers are required to teach within a humanities course. The unit covers topics such as global climate change, pollution, and environmental protection. Students are exposed to different text types, including poetry; they develop reading strategies such as identifying main theme and mood/tone in poems about nature and learn to create expanded responses. The teacher text states that the overarching theme is “the environment.”

Air_.pollution from power plant_public domain via wikimedia commonsWhile the environment is a worthy theme, I questioned the teachers as to why a sixth-grade student would really care about this thing called the environment. After much discussion, the teachers realized that the aspect students cared most about was how the environment was changing. At this point we were then able to extrapolate what all students must know, be able to do, and understand by the end of this unit:

  • Students will know specific causes of pollution and global climate change and specific steps in curbing pollution and global warming
  • Students will know different types of poems, vocabulary related to poems, and techniques used in poetry
  • Students will be able to analyze the causes and effects of humans on pollution and global warming
  • Students will be able to identify main theme or ideas in a text
  • Students will be able to interpret tone and mood in a poem
  • Students will understand how humans have changed the environment for better or worse
  • Students will understand how people communicate through poetry

Now that we have our objectives clearly spelled out, we can begin the process of making the learning authentic beyond the textbook. One method to create more authentic and engaging learning is to develop good questions that spark a student’s drive to dig deeper into a topic. This all begins with developing what are called “Essential Questions.”

Earth_On_Stove_ by Lesserland shared through wikimedia commonsEssential questions (EQ) are those questions we ask throughout our whole lives. They are questions that have real meaning for the human experience and may never be fully answered. EQs are what scientists, mathematicians, scholars, musicians, artists, actors, and thinkers ask on a daily basis. They have meaning to all people no matter what subject we are working in. I like to break essential questions into two categories: Universal Essential Questions (UEQ) and Content Essential Questions (CEQ). Universal Essential Questions are just that: universal. They are often devoid of subject matter and personification (such as we, you, humans, people, etc.). Content Essential Questions take UEQs and embed the subject matter or personification into the question, bringing it closer to the curriculum. From the UEQ and CEQ you can then construct quality Unit Questions (UQ) to better guide the learning within a unit of study.

Using the unit on the environment and the concept of “change,” here are some examples:

  • UEQ: Why is change both positive and negative?
  • CEQ: How have changes to the environment been both positive and negative?
  • UQ: In what ways have changes to the laws regarding pollution both positively and negatively impacted the environment?

Note that I began the UEQ with “Why,” I began the CEQ with “How,” and I began the UQ with “In what ways.” This rule of thumb can assist you in going from very broad to more narrow questions.

Here is an example based on the concept of “revenge” in a unit on Hamlet:

  • UEQ: Why would revenge be justified?
  • CEQ: How does the desire for revenge propel character actions?
  • UQ: In what ways did Hamlet’s desire for revenge move the plot?

Another example based on the concept of “measurement” in a math unit:

  • UEQ: Why is standardized measurement important?
  • CEQ: How do various countries’ differences in measurement cause confusion?
  • UE: In what ways can we better prepare people to be less confused by differing measurement standards?

AdvancingDifferentiationTo begin the process yourself, you can check out Chapter 2 in my book Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. In that chapter, I provide a lesson sample (pages 18–19) and template called the “Concept Development Workshop” (page 20) to assist you in getting your students to craft their own essential questions. I’ve found that when I have students generate the EQs, they are more likely to pay attention to answering the questions because they own them. Try it in your classroom; I know you will find that students will enjoy the process and even begin crafting their own EQs without your initiation.

Do you have a class or textbook you can challenge through essential questions? Tell us about it in the comments.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally. His most recent book is Differentiation for Gifted Learners, coauthored with Diane Heacox, Ed.D. He is also author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century.


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Guest Post: 7 Steps to a Classroom Free From Bullying

by Phyllis Kaufman Goodstein, author of Stand Up to Bullying!

PhyllisKaufmanGoodsteinPix2ForFreeSpiritBullying has become an omnipresent word in media headlines.

That’s not surprising, because bullying occurs every 25 minutes in classrooms and every 12 minutes on school playgrounds. Peer-on-peer aggression has been part of human culture for centuries, but that doesn’t mean we have to live with brutality. The simple fact is that bullying happens because adults and children allow it to continue.

Teachers can say “NO!” and put a stop to abuse. In fact, some educators already do; researchers found that bullying varies in classrooms from 0 to 54 percent. Educators at the lower end of the spectrum are ending harmful behavior by proactively creating anti-bullying plans. The best time to start is before the school year begins.

These seven steps will jump-start your anti-bullying plan.

1. Create an anti-bullying environment. Saturate classrooms with posters illustrating the types of bullying, its painful consequences, and ways students can counter aggression. Use catchy slogans such as “The End of Bullying Begins with You” and “Be a Buddy, Not a Bully.” Search “anti-bullying posters” under Google Images for more ideas.

Prepare classroom supplies that have anti-bullying-themed labels attached. For example, include erasers (“We will erase bullying from our classroom by speaking out against harmful behavior”), stickers (“We will stick together by including everyone in all activities”), and pencils (“Getting adult help is the ‘write’ thing to do, if we can’t stop bullying ourselves”).

Later on, let students design their own posters, work on anti-bullying projects, and discuss bullying, tolerance, diversity, and acceptance.

girl_being_bullied_in_classroom_3_girls-c-monkeybusinessimages_-dreamstime_com2. Explain your position on bullying. On the first day of school, tell students that bullying hurts, and that because you value and respect each student, you will not allow abusive behavior in your classroom. You must back up your words by immediately intervening in bullying incidents and using each incident as a teachable moment. Discuss what happened, the harm it caused, and positive ways to meet needs. Appropriate consequences that teach, not punish, should round out the lesson.

3. Nonnegotiable expectations. Bully free behavior must become a nonnegotiable expectation, giving its elimination the same priority as rules about calling out, standing on desks, and getting out of seats. When these actions occur, teachers stop what they are doing and respond, “Joe, you can’t stand on your desk because you can fall and hurt yourself.” Addressing aggressive behavior every time it occurs sends a strong message: Bullying will not be tolerated or accepted.

4. Classroom rules against bullying. Create anti-bullying guidelines with the class and prominently post them on classroom walls and doors. Afterwards students can create and sign a contract agreeing to the rules. Tape a copy to children’s desks or inside notebooks as a gentle reminder not to bully and to help those who are bullied.

5. Focus on improving relationships. Bullying experts refer to bullying as a relationship problem. One such expert, Dr. Debra J. Pepler, endorses using “social architecture” and “social scaffolding” to effectively develop healthy relationships and erase bullying. Social architecture, according to Pepler, is “the opportunity to structure children’s peer groups to promote positive peer experiences and to minimize or deconstruct negative experiences.” Social scaffolding is defined as a set of “supports required to provide children with the skills, capacities, and social cognitions to move out of the bullying and victimization roles.”

Boxwood_PS_Street_signs_Empathy upload by CHinaFlag public domain on wikimedia commonsYou can help improve students’ relationships by providing a bullying education; teaching friendship, conflict resolution, and social skills; setting up activities that encourage relationships, respect, and kindness; creating peer support programs; increasing empathy; stressing the role of bystanders and their accountability; and using strong classroom management skills.

6. Encourage bystander intervention. Increase prevention and intervention by showing bystanders the contributing role they play in bullying even when they think they are doing “nothing.” Teach safe and effective ways to stop abuse, as well as empathy; share research that shows the majority of students do not like bullying and want it to stop.

7. Increase inclusion. Exclusion is the very essence of bullying. Inclusion decreases bullying. Select teams, groups, and partners and make seating arrangements. If teachers don’t do this, students will gravitate toward their friends and leave less popular students alone on the sidelines, increasing their risk of being targeted. Create situations in which classmates work with those they don’t normally associate with. Select games that require many players, are easy to learn and play, and are more fun with lots of participants. Make Vivian Gussin Paley’s “You can’t say you can’t play” rule an ironclad part of your classroom. When children work and play together, they get to know one another, planting the seeds of friendship.

These suggestions will provide the groundwork for caring, accepting, tolerant, and respectful environments where educators are able to devote 100 percent of their time to teaching.

In what ways do you prevent and address bullying?

StandUpToBullyingPhyllis Kaufman Goodstein, LMSW, is an anti-bullying advocate, social worker, writer, and magician. She lives on Long Island, New York, with her husband Arnie, sons Eric and Steven, and dogs Bandit and Chewy. Phyllis is the author of How to Stop Bullying in Classrooms and Schools and 200+ Ready-to-Use Reproducible Activity Sheets That Help Educators Take a Bite Out of Bullying, and coauthor of Stand Up to Bullying!


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


Suggested Resources
Stand Up to Bullying! (Upstanders to the Rescue!) by Phyllis Kaufman Goodstein and Elizabeth Verdick has helpful ways students can intervene in bullying.
How to Stop Bullying in Classrooms and Schools (Using Social Architecture to Prevent, Lessen, and End Bullying) by Phyllis Kaufman Goodstein has more strategies on setting up bully free classrooms.

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Counselor’s Corner: Connecting and Collaborating with Your School and Community

 connections-teachers-desk-suplies-Dreamstime-(c)-PhotkaAs a school counselor, one of the most rewarding aspects of your job can be connecting and collaborating with members of your school and community. I like to think of school counseling as a boat. Building relationships with educational staff and with key people in your city or town can help bring them “on board” your counseling program. Here are a few ways you can partner and pool resources with other faculty, staff, and members of the public.

Teachers
You are probably already working with teachers to provide classroom lessons and possibly co-teach lessons that align with both American School Counseling Association standards and teaching standards. You can also plan field trips, projects, and other activities with teachers that will meet the needs of all parties.

Last year I was able to teach my career lessons in a math teacher’s course. It was a great tie-in to her curriculum because she’d been teaching students about financial literacy and higher education. We both benefited. I also took all of our school’s 6th graders to a local career and technical college to expose them to one means of higher education.

Specialty Teachers
drum lessons wikimedia commons botmultichilltSpecialty teachers include art, music, physical education, and any other special content area teachers with whom you may interact in your school. These are great people to join forces with—I always feel inspired and amazed by the creativity of these individuals! Specialty teachers can be helpful when you need a creative solution or idea for a program or project.

At schools in my previous positions, I collaborated with art teachers to co-teach lessons in which we focused on a school counseling–related theme and then led an art project to correspond with the theme. This past year, I teamed up with a family consumer science teacher to host a knitting and crocheting group during our school’s activity period.

Specialty Professionals
Specialty professionals you can liaise with include nurses, speech pathologists, school psychologists, occupational therapists, special education teachers, technology/IT professionals, and any other professionals with whom you interact in your school.

These staff can be great allies because of their expertise. You can work with them to support a common cause or run counseling groups on specific topics. It is also great to have specialty professionals to consult with on your cases, as well as on best practices for the issues and concerns they are trained to deal with.

In the past year, I had the wonderful experience of running a social skills group with a special education teacher at my school. Collaborating in this way helped me build relationships with the special education students she served.

Support Staff
receptionist_working_at_desk wikimedia commons by OttawaACSupport staff are some of the hardest working people in your school! They include administrative assistants, paraprofessionals, custodians, and others. I recommend recognizing them and thanking them for their hard work anytime you have an opportunity. Many support personnel work year-round and therefore don’t get a break over the summer. Look for ways you can collaborate with or bring support staff in on various projects and initiatives throughout the school year. It is important to include all members of the school community.

Parents
There are many ways you can build relationships with parents inside and outside of school. I recommend connecting with your school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) or parent groups that exist in your community. You can ask parents what needs they have and address them throughout the year. If parents are looking for programming on a particular topic, you can work with the organization to provide it.

Last year I organized a book group for middle school parents that I called “Thriving in the Middle.” We read two books over the course of the year and had multiple meetings to discuss them. I hosted one of the meetings at a local bookstore and another at my school. It was a fun way to dialogue with parents both in the classroom and after hours. It also helped me learn some of the concerns they had about their children.

How do you connect and collaborate with members of your school and community?


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Summertime’s a Busy Time for Teens

For many years I worked in a university career center. Part of my job was to match incoming first-year students with available on- and off-campus part-time jobs. I read several hundred résumés from high school students every summer. So much for the living being easy in the summer—these kids were working, volunteering, traveling, and studying during much of the summer. The experiences they shared on their résumés helped them get into college. They demonstrated initiative, commitment, a strong work ethic, and the desire to learn about things that they may not be encountering in school.

FSP Teen Advisory BoardAnd those are some of the qualities we appreciate in our Free Spirit Teen Advisory Council (TAC) members. Living in all parts of the country, the 49 kids in grades 6–12 (and some in their first years of college) help Free Spirit by previewing books, sharing ideas, and responding to surveys. We emailed the group with this message:

We would love to hear from you, the TAC members. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to tell us about what you have been up to this summer. You may send us a couple of sentences or a couple of paragraphs—it is up to you!” 

Rachel, a high school senior this fall:

Madrid_Plaza_de_Espana_by Superchilum wikimedia commonsI traveled to Seville, Spain, for a pre-AP Spanish immersion program with the organization Centro Mundo Lengua on a full scholarship. I stayed with a host family and took classes at a local school on the weekdays. I visited numerous interesting places, such as the picturesque Plaza de España and the Real Alcázar. In addition, I also took day trips to the beaches of Tavira, Portugal (where I experienced my first sunburn), and Cádiz, Spain, during my stay. By the end of the trip, I’d gained so much more confidence in speaking Spanish than before, especially when shopping or ordering food at a restaurant. I also made new friendships with other students, teachers, and the locals there. It was definitely an experience that I will not forget.

Mara, a high school senior this fall:

My favorite part of this summer was my week as a counselor at a camp for middle schoolers. The campers swam, kayaked, and played kickball. There was even an obstacle course set up, and it had a zip-line! I enjoyed hanging out with the other counselors and the campers. We had some awesome kickball tournaments! I can’t wait for next year!

Andrew, recent graduate:

My summer started off with high school graduation. It’s funny because I already started my freshman year of college as well. I ended my summer semester of college on June 24. I went to Florida for the first time with my girlfriend and her family! We also drove down to Georgia to pick up her little brother. I’ve gone hiking, played Xbox, and helped my girlfriend’s volleyball team hold a camp for elementary and middle school girls. I’ve had a pretty active summer, and it’s been a blast!

Margarita, a high school senior this fall:

I spent the first six weeks of this summer taking physics and the second semester world history to catch up in school (I just finished junior year, my first year of high school since transitioning from homeschooling). I’m visiting family in Wisconsin and watching a lot of Doctor Who and Castle (and cat videos, who am I kidding). I am going camping with friends for the last two weeks of summer before my 18th birthday (and senior year of high school).

Diana, a high school senior this fall:

I started the summer with lots of plans, but family things came up and I couldn’t follow through on them all. There is a bright side to this: I finally got to go to my all-time favorite bookstore! I got four books, mostly by Sherrilyn Kenyon, who is my all-time favorite author, and one book from Christine Feehan, my second favorite author. I almost hyperventilated I was so happy! Also, I emailed Christine Feehan for advice on writing a book since I had gotten stuck writing once again, and she actually emailed me back with feedback! This has been a really good summer so far.

Diabolo_large_and_small by MartinRoell wikimedia commonsKirsten, entering ninth grade this fall:

I take part in a youth circus every summer. My favorite classes are Commedia dell’Arte (a form of Italian comedy), diabolo (Chinese yoyo), and Stage Combat. I’ve also been performing tricks with shaker cups. This year I’m helping out with hip hop and tumbling classes. The circus is great for kids to find new ways to let out their creativity.

Nicole, entering eleventh grade this fall:

This summer I’m in China. I’m here to spend time with my family and learn Chinese at the same time—I’m taking classes at a university here. Being in a different country is amazing: the people, the culture, the surroundings, the food are all curiously unique and so unlike that of the United States, so much so that every day has something new and unexpected. Moreover, students from all over the world—Norway, Russia, Italy, France, South Korea, to name just a few—come here to learn and experience this part of the world, so during my time here I am not only learning about China, but also about Norway, Russia, Italy, France, and South Korea. Nothing beats a break from school more than a break from school in another country.

Kassidy, entering eighth grade this fall:

Over the summer I have been doing a play at the Sheldon Theatre. The play is Cinderella. I’ve also been going to a new bookstore in my town. They have great books at really low prices. I’ve also been going up to our cabin a lot. It’s by a lake so we go fishing and water-skiing quite a bit.

Kody, entering eleventh grade this fall:

It’s a bright and sunny morning here at Table Rock Lake. As I sit here writing, I watch the boats drive by and listen to the waves hit the dock. Ah, how I wish this was how I had spent my entire summer vacation. Unfortunately, back home in Kansas City, my life wasn’t so peaceful. After school ended I left home for a three-week program at the University of Missouri. I stayed in a dorm with 300 other students and had the opportunity to choose certain classes and activities that sparked my interests. For those three weeks, I felt like a college student, but then it was back to the real world. This year I decided to get a summer job with a property management company in their pool maintenance department. That might sound really fancy, but really it just means that I have been working at neighborhood pools as a so-called “pool boy.” Training and conditioning for my upcoming cross country season has also kept me busy—to meet the total summer mileage required by my coach, I have to run almost every day.

Seattle_Space_Needle_by Tim Adams wikimedia commonsIn July I got a break when I accompanied my aunt, uncle, and their daughter on a trip to Seattle. The weather was warm and sunny every day with a great breeze coming in from Puget Sound. There was so much to do and so many places to visit. If I had to choose my favorite part of the trip, it would either be traveling to the top of the famous Seattle Space Needle, taking a ferry tour on the bay, or seeing the underground portions of Seattle that are now abandoned. Right now I am enjoying my family’s annual vacation to Table Rock Lake. This is my last hoorah of the summer before it’s back to school. This week I can relax and just have fun! It’s a great way to wrap up the summer and mentally prepare for the school year ahead.

Thanks to all the TAC members who shared their summer stories with use!

We are looking for new TAC members. If you know a teen who would be interested, please send them to our Teen Turf pages and ask them to consider applying. Email us with any questions.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Author Spotlight: Goldie Millar and Lisa Berger

The staff at Free Spirit is privileged to work with many amazing authors. We will be sharing more author spotlights with you, and hope you enjoy learning about these writers who are dedicated to helping kids succeed. The following interview was recently published in our newsletter, Upbeat News.

F is for FeelingsAugust’s author spotlight is on two debut authors, Goldie Millar and Lisa A. Berger, whose book F Is for Feelings releases this month. Both Goldie and Lisa are child psychologists hailing from the Toronto area with a mission to help young children better understand the vast emotional range of human experience so that they can learn to express and work through their many feelings.

Q: How did the two of you team up? Tell us a little bit about your journey and decision to write F Is for Feelings.

Goldie Millar, Ph.D.

Goldie Millar, Ph.D.

Goldie: I was fortunate to meet Lisa during our graduate studies in psychology. As time passed we came to learn that our interests, values, and life experiences complimented each other. When we both became mothers and more established in our careers as psychologists we were very aware of the need to get children talking about their feelings. I approached Lisa about writing a children’s book that would be a support in developing emotional health for all children. Lisa and I really enjoyed the chance to be creative.

Q: What was the best part of developing this book?

Goldie: The conversations! We know talking about feelings can be hard for many people. Lisa and I found the conversations we had with each other, our children, our families, and our colleagues and friends very helpful, rewarding, and challenging. It gave us a chance to connect with others and grow from their ideas and experiences, especially when they were different from our own.

Q: It seems like we’re increasingly seeing news stories about the importance of building empathy and resilience in kids. Why the sudden interest in social-emotional learning? How does F Is for Feelings help build these skills?

Lisa Berger, Ph.D.

Lisa Berger, Ph.D.

Lisa: I think we have been experiencing a slow building of interest and recognition of the importance of social-emotional learning that is just now reaching a peak. Children who are supported in developing healthy social-emotional skills are better able to express and manage their feelings, demonstrate empathy, develop a strong sense of themselves, and more easily connect with others. F Is for Feelings is an important tool to help introduce children to the world of words that express how we feel. This supports the development of a language for communicating about feelings. In using the book and the included guides and suggestions, F Is for Feelings can really move children along in their social-emotional development.

Q: What books inspired you the most as a child?

Goldie: I loved all books as a child and got excited by all the different places books could transport me! Books opened my eyes and mind to new places and new ways of seeing things. I was a fan of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

Q: What was your favorite thing about school as a kid?

Lisa: Talking about my favorite thing about school feels a little complicated. I struggled in school. I had two older brothers who were academically very strong and for whom school came very easy. This was not the case for me. Therefore, as a young person, I valued time in the gym engaging in sports. This was a place where I felt very competent and it kept me interested and engaged.

Q: What was your least favorite?

Goldie: In grade four, I had a teacher who was interested in dance of all kinds. He wanted to share this passion and taught the whole class a dance we would perform together. There were many steps and some partner work. I frequently put my left foot where my right foot needed to be! Twirled when I needed to jump and even knocked a classmate over by accident! I can laugh about it now, but it was embarrassing at the time.

Q: What makes you a “Free Spirit”?

Lisa: My love of the woods and trees in particular makes me a “Free Spirit.” I love being on my mountain bike riding through a forest, whether it is lush and green, overgrown, or tall and awe inspiring. I feel centered in myself and able to really breathe. I also see myself as an enabler of “Free Spirits.” I value and accept people for who they are and where they are on their journey in life.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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