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What makes a great lesson? Innovation? Yes, but sometimes the most straightforward lessons, well taught, are the best. Collaboration? Sure, but some kids do best working on their own, at their own pace, with help from you. Dramatic delivery? That can work, but the bells and whistles can get in the way of a clear concept. The best lessons, quite simply, can be taught by any teacher, in any classroom, and they don’t follow a script or a template, but are the result of an engaged teacher communicating something that resonates, and sticks, with his or her students.
Below, we take a look at some amazing lessons taught by seven State Teachers of the Year, as named by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a nonprofit that works to amplify the voices of teachers to affect state and national policy. The lessons range from a letter-learning dress-up party to an environmental project for third graders involving chocolate (!) to a STEM lesson challenging fifth graders to create models of tornado-resistant structures. We hope you enjoy reading about these teachers as much as we enjoyed talking to them about their great lessons!
Word Party: What’s in a Letter?
Who: Becca Foxwell
What: Grade 1
Where: Lickdale Elementary School, Jonestown, Pennsylvania
To explain how one of the sounds that y spells is long e, I build excitement by sending my first graders home with a formal invitation inviting them to a “Fancy Y Party” in honor of y as long e. On the day of the highly anticipated event, students come to school dressed in their fanciest clothes, and we learn how y often (but not always!) becomes Fancy Y when it appears at the end of words with two or more syllables.
We start by reading and writing down all of the words we can find in Fancy Y’s favorite book, Fancy Nancy, by Jane O’Connor. To continue practicing reading words with y as long e, we play party games, including hunting for Fancy Y words on pictures of pastries and using starry wands in a team game of identifying the correct Fancy Y word. Students also use the words they learn by writing and illustrating a page for our “Classy Book of Fancy Y Words.” We end our day with a fancy, tasty treat!
My students walk away from this meaningful learning experience not only having learned a phonics skill that will help them be successful in reading and writing but also with the memory that learning is fun! For tips on how to throw your own Fancy Y Party, visit bit.ly/FancyY.
Photo: Adam Chinitz
Against the Wind: Engineering Tornado-Resistant Towers
Who: Shelly Vroegh
What: Grade 5
Where: Lakewood Elementary School, Norwalk, Iowa
My students thrive on any and all STEM experiences I can provide, and I try to take a cross-curricular approach when teaching reading, writing, and science. Because we live in an area of the country well known for experiencing tornadoes, I thought the kids would enjoy using an engineering design process to create tornado-resistant structures. I wanted my students to use reading, writing, and research skills, along with critical thinking and creativity, to collaborate on their projects.
First, students did a close read of “Twister Trouble,” by Joe Bubar (Scholastic News magazine). This information was critical as they began to design their structures. Once they had some background knowledge, students worked at first individually and then in collaborative groups to design tornado-resistant towers. They were given a $20 budget to purchase building materials such as index cards, straws, tape, craft sticks, string, and pipe cleaners. Each group then tested the structure in a simulated tornado complete with wind, rain, and thunder and lightning, courtesy of a fan, a spray bottle, and some sound and visual effects from YouTube.
By infusing reading, writing, research, and science, my students found they could enjoy designing, building, testing, and revising in a collaborative environment while creating structures that withstood the “elements.”
Photo: Courtesy of Shelly Vroegh
Birds of a Feather: Great STEM Solutions
Who: Darbie Valenti
What: Grade 5 Math and Science
Where: Minnie Cline Elementary, Savannah, Missouri
The saying “Birds of a feather flock together” is very relevant to my class. What bonds us is our love for math and science, which is why we love STEM projects!
For one memorable project, we learned about birds and different types of beaks. Students worked in teams to design beaks that would be successful in catching flying insects (popcorn), fish in water (gummy fish), seeds, worms, etc. Each teammate was responsible for designing and building a unique bird beak.
To integrate math into the project, I had teams work together to solve math tasks. Completed tasks provided codes that would unlock boxes with supplies helpful in building the beak. Students had never been so excited to complete fraction problems before! This project helped my students with important life skills such as communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, all while teaching math and science concepts. It also proved that rigor doesn’t have to mean hard!
Photo: Courtesy of Darbie Valenti
Chocolate Factory: Making Global Connections Local
Who: Pam Ertel
What: Grade 3
Where: Minden Elementary School, Minden, Nevada
When I was working on my National Geographic Teacher Certification last year, I found great resources that helped to bring the world to my third-grade classroom, including a unit on the rainforest. For our capstone project, we read a wonderful book called No Monkeys, No Chocolate, by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young. The book gave insights into the interconnectedness of rainforest animals and the cocoa trees, as well as [how the environment] impacts the people and the land.
My students took the information we learned to heart and began to apply it to their daily lives, many miles away from the rainforest, its animals, and the cocoa trees. At school, we recycle cans, bottles, cardboard, and paper; grow a school garden; and turn off water and lights when they’re not in use. Even a year later, families of these students tell me that they are only allowed to purchase “fair trade” chocolate!
Kids’ curiosity about a familiar product, chocolate, turned into local actions of becoming responsible citizens, as well as honing communication skills. By writing opinion essays and creating instructional posters, they worked to convince others to take care of our planet, both locally and globally.
Photo: ©Michel Gunther/Biosphoto/Minden Pictures
The Music Man: Tension and Release in Music—and in Life
Who: Chris Gleason
What: Instrumental Music
Where: Patrick Marsh Middle School, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
The goal of this lesson was to explore the growth of tension and the necessity of release, both in music and in students’ own lives. I wanted them to not only discuss tension and resolution but to feel it.
“Let’s think about the patterns and cycles of your own lives,” I said. “Some cycles are busier—full of ideas, activities, stress. At other times, you might find yourself with the space to reflect and recharge. In music, it’s similar. We refer to music layers of activity and energy as tension, and the sounds that move us away from this energy as release, or resolution. Composers may do this in obvious or subtle ways. All music depends on these patterns.”
I then had students form small circles. Each group had a large elastic band I called a “tension show-er.” I had them face inward, holding the band, and express moments of tension and resolution in music that I played. Afterward, they discussed how they felt as the music moved from tension to release. Finally, I said, “Now consider this: The composer decided at what moment the release was needed. How is that determined in your own life?”
Living Book: A Photo Spurs a Text Connection
Who: Gloria Pereyra-Robertson
Where: Washington Elementary School, Medford, Oregon
On my journey as the 2017 Oregon State Teacher of the Year, I was fortunate enough to go to Washington, D.C., and take pictures of historical sites that many of my students have only seen in movies or in books we share in the classroom. After looking at the photos I took in D.C., my students kept making references to a book we had read five months prior to my trip: Young Martin’s Promise, by Walter Dean Myers. Upon seeing a particular picture from my trip, one of my students squealed, “OMG, teacher! You are standing where Martin Luther King was standing in our book. You are where he gave his big speech.” (We were standing with the Washington Monument in the background.) Immediately, another student went to my bookshelf and took out the book and said: “Guess what, teacher? She is right. You are standing in a special place, just like the characters in the book.”
My students taught me in that moment that when you select great literature, with great illustrations, and combine it with art, video, and writing, you can, as an educator, truly take a complex concept and have young students comprehend and retain the information for future use. Maybe, by sharing this book, my students can teach others about the need for equality to make our society stronger and a better place to live.
Photo: Adam Chinitz
Math Magic: Asking the Right Questions
Who: Jessica Solano
What: Grade 3
Where: Highlands Grove Elementary, Lakeland, Florida
As students entered my room one day, a few began guessing what the sticky notes piled in the center of their teams’ desks were for. Students brainstormed ideas like measuring how tall they were or creating bar graphs. Asking questions is something we’ve normalized in my class. We know that math helps us understand our world, but first we start with a question. “How many sticky notes would it take to cover the top of your desks?” I asked, sending them into a frenzy to solve the day’s math mystery. Some placed their sticky notes in organized rows, while others tried to fit as many as possible onto their desktops. We paused so that I could provide a few clues, pointing out examples and non-examples as we walked around the classroom. Behind me, I could hear them whispering to one another, “Did you notice that team didn’t have any spaces between their sticky notes but it’s still a non-example? I think it’s because they’re overlapping. I know what we need to fix!”
As teams finished, I wrote the word area on the board and asked them to discuss possible definitions. Knowing that their creations represented this new word, teams began sharing their thoughts, eventually creating a vocabulary-rich definition that they could say was all their own.
The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) operates the National Teacher of the Year Program, which is the oldest, most prestigious national honors initiative that focuses public attention on excellence in teaching. This group is composed of one exemplary State Teacher of the Year from each U.S. state and territory. Each April, America’s Teachers of the Year are announced by CCSSO and honored at The White House by the President of the United States.
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