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When you think about your own best lessons, what do you come up with? It might be a lesson that lasted a few weeks, or one that worked magic on your students in just a couple of periods. It may be a lesson inspired by something you heard at a conference or while talking with a colleague—or one that came to mind while reading a book or attending a play!
One of our favorite things to do is talk with teachers like you to see what makes their classrooms sing—and then share those ideas in our pages. So once again, we are thrilled to present lessons from eight amazing 2018 Teachers of the Year, chosen by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which works to bring the voices of teachers to the state and national stage.
In the following pages, meet a music teacher who has her young students prepare and teach their own lessons, a second-grade educator who has her kids crumple, smash, and melt substances to explore matter, and a kindergarten teacher who has children mix paint to find their very own skin tone, which could be “rich caramel,” “cafe con leche,” or “French lace.” Happy inspiration!
Kids as Teachers
Students Plan and Teach Lessons to Parents
Who: Kaitlin D. Young
What: PreK–8 music
Where: Regional School Unit #68, Dover-Foxcroft, Maine
During a lesson for my kindergartners and first graders I call “Informance,” the lines between students and teacher are blurred as I challenge kids to take ownership of their learning. In this interactive assignment, students invite guests into the classroom to share what they are accomplishing in music. (Imagine “Take Your Child to Work Day,” just reversed!)
Prior to the Informance, my students choose their favorite activities and plan a lesson within the framework of a typical music class. Then, on the big day, they begin by sharing the learning targets with their guests and inviting them to participate. The guests become learners as they engage in purposeful play; this may include singing songs, performing folk dances, or playing different instruments!
The lesson concludes with take-home extension activities based on the skills gained that day. Having students teach and encouraging their families to engage with them in the learning process provides a glimpse behind the curtain to showcase what goes on in our classroom.
The Power of Perseverance
A STEM Challenge Teaches Students to Not Give Up
Who: Melissa Romano
What: Grade 4
Where: Four Georgians Elementary School, Helena, Montana
In this lesson, students work in teams with the primary purpose of understanding what it means to persevere. I give each group four paper clips, a gummy worm, a gummy lifesaver, and a clear cup. I challenge students to come up with a way to maneuver the gummy worm out from under the cup. When they’ve achieved this, they must thread the worm through the lifesaver using only the paper clips. To finish, they have to place the worm, wearing the lifesaver, on top of the cup.
After their attempts or completion of the challenge—only half finish all the steps—we discuss what it means to persevere. Students list frustrations and successes. They talk about giving up, starting over, and not knowing how to begin. We talk about what led to success; kids list ideas such as planning, team participation, and trying several different approaches. I guide them to see the connection between math/engineering and the activity; in both, they must work hard to find a solution, even when things are challenging, and they must persist when things don’t go as planned.
Photo: Adam Chinitz
Hands-On Learning to Understand an Abstract Concept
Who: Mabel M. Uncangco
What: Grade 2
Where: Tamuning Elementary School, Guam
In one of my favorite science units, I have students explore matter with their senses to understand its various states and properties. Vocabulary weighs heavily in this unit, but instead of a typical word wall, students begin by observing items such as coins, wood, clay, and plastic pieces. Then, in teams, they mold, roll, crumple, smash, mix, and melt various substances to understand how matter can change. As they work, I can hear them saying things like “Matter changes because…” and “Only the shape changes, not the mass.” There is no right or wrong, just critical thinking to explain “Why is...?” and “What is...?” and to define, compare and contrast, and reason about matter. After students have a chance to explore, I make connections to the lesson objectives and provide an essential question so that what they learn “makes sense.”
Photo: Michelle McMahon/Getty Images
Debating to Create a Constitution
Who: Paul Howard
What: Grades 7–8 social studies
Where: LaSalle-Backus Education Campus, District of Columbia
Part of my Constitution unit involves an intricate simulation of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Each student is a representative for one of the 12 states that attended the convention. Their task is to create a constitution, without having seen the actual one. They must decide how to represent their state when creating the new government, based on information from the 1790 Census and excerpts from James Madison’s “Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.”
When they’ve finished their analyses and understand the different perspectives each is going to represent, they’re ready to begin the simulation. It doesn’t take long for them to encounter roadblocks when trying to get at least nine states to agree on anything. Students begin establishing alliances. Some kids get frustrated, some want to give up, some even get a little petty with their peers—all of which happened at the actual Constitutional Convention. Experiencing the struggle to come to political compromise (particularly the struggle that surrounded the U.S. Constitution) is the underlying purpose in this lesson. My role is to help them understand the perspective they’re representing and clarify what they’re saying during negotiations. Kids come to see how difficult it is to build a government, but more important, how human the process was.
Photo: Traveler1116/Getty Images
A Rainbow of Colors
Exploring Beyond Black and White
Who: Randi House
Where: Theodore Jones Elementary, Conway, Arkansas
After a walk around the neighborhood to notice all the colors around us, I read The Colors of Us, by Karen Katz, and we discuss how there are different names for skin colors beyond just black and white. The book explains that any shade can be created by mixing the right amounts of red, yellow, black, and white. Children then mix paints to create their shade of skin tone, and trace one of their hands and fill it in with their unique color. (Hint: Mix equal parts red, yellow, black, and white to create a dark base; to lighten, add yellow or white.) Next, I bring in paint chips of various shades and tones, and we spread them out on the rug. I read aloud the names of the colors and invite students to find one that matches their own skin tone. So, instead of a student being labeled “white,” they can call themselves “French lace.” Or instead of saying they are “black,” they can say their skin is “iced mocha.” This activity lets kids discover that while we may look different from one another, we are all a mix of different colors and shades. It’s also a great lesson for learning new vocabulary!
Colonial Job Fair
History Leads to Future Career Skills
Who: Christopher W. Albrecht
What: Grade 4
Where: Fred W. Hill School, Brockport, New York
This lesson helps students understand the history of Colonial America, develop research skills, and learn how to construct an advertisement and a persuasive letter. I have them begin by reading about eight early American trades on the Colonial Williamsburg website. Each student selects a trade to research further. I help them work through the writing process, and at the end, they publish an advertisement for a job opening for their trade. Students have to use trade-specific vocabulary and talk about the skills, responsibilities, and money system used in the era. This first part takes a few weeks.
We then display the job advertisements and have a colonial job fair. Kids select a job that is different than the trade they researched. We talk about how to write a persuasive letter to apply for a prospective job. The project finale happens when each colonial “employer” reads the applications/letters of other students and picks one person to work for him or her. Students use evaluation skills when choosing an applicant, which reinforces the elements of strong persuasive writing, and then explain why they hired that applicant. The kids love this project!
Photo: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
It All Adds Up
Finding the “We” Solution Through the “Me”
Who: Christina Gillette Randle
What: Grade 1
Where: Soaring Eagles Elementary, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Every day, I have kids do a math word problem in their journals to showcase their problem-solving abilities. Students begin setting up their math journals by labeling the top part of a page “me” and the bottom section “we.” After reading the day’s problem aloud as a class, we analyze the givens, along with what we are trying to figure out. However, we do not discuss specific strategies to solve.
My kids then take independent time to use strategies they’ve learned to persevere through problem-solving however they see fit. They jot down their thoughts and solutions on the “me” section of their journals. Finding the “right” answer is less important at this point than whether my students can explain their thinking. This exercise also allows me to understand common misconceptions and analyze error patterns to address later.
As they finish, students partner up and a math talk ensues. Partners take turns explaining their solutions, always justifying the reasoning with “because.” To wrap it all up, we come together as a group and I explain my solution. I articulate my reasoning through each part of the problem; students record the steps that I show them in their math journals under the “we” section.
This problem-solving process allows us to not only learn from our mistakes but to explore the variety of methods used to arrive at the same solution!
Photo: Saowakon Sukrak/EyeEm/Getty Images
Bringing Cultures Together Through Song and Friendship
Who: Beth Davey
What: K-5 Music
Where: Iveland Elementary School, St. Louis, Missouri
“Mi Caballo Blanco” (“My White Horse”) is a folk song most often attributed in origin to the Chilean Andes. The lyrics speak of a horse, a true friend and companion who accompanies the rider through the joys and sorrows of life. The piece is beautiful with its lilting phrases and plaintive melody, and it challenges my fourth and fifth graders with its dotted rhythms, minor mode, and triple meter. We use this piece to explore not only musical creativity but also the theme of friendship.
First, students work in small groups to create repeating body percussion patterns as an accompaniment for the song. I emphasize that just as the patterns repeat to create musical harmony with the song, so should acts of friendship repeat to create harmony with others.
We also explore the theme of friendship by studying what life is like in the mountains of Chile, looking particularly at connections with family members and the community. Students compare and contrast the way they interact with their own friends, and investigate how our neighborhood in St. Louis operates as compared to daily life in a Chilean village. It is vital that my students understand there is beauty and diversity around the globe, and in so doing embrace the beauty and diversity within our classroom. By the end of our work with “Mi Caballo Blanco,” students have a deeper understanding of their connections to one another!
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.
Activities for all ages, CCSS-ready lesson plans, and more.