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What do the most memorable lessons have in common? They stimulate kids’ curiosity, getting them to ask more, and deeper, questions, and they make them excited to get to school in the morning. They may even put them on a path to doing something they love. Every year, each state chooses one teacher who has gone the extra distance, and it’s no easy task. Teachers like Kim Thomas, whose “mathtastic” lessons engage at-risk middle schoolers, or Kelly Stomps, who uses nature to create a symphony of sound. We hope you’ll love hearing about these teachers and their lessons—and that you’ll share your own best lessons with us!
Baker’s Mystery: Asking the Right Questions
Who: Revathi Balakrishnan
What: Talented and gifted specialist
Where: Sommer Elementary School, Austin, Texas
Rigor is asking a high-level question and getting high-level answers. But what if students are trained to ask those higher-level questions themselves?
I often use pictures to generate these questions. In one lesson, I had a drawing of a record-setting 401-foot-long baguette projected on a screen. The students’ task was to share a question they had about this picture. It could range from simple to complex, from fractions to measurement. For example: What is a baguette? How much does it weigh? How many eggs were used in the recipe?
Some questions could be answered almost immediately by doing the math. Some required research that students were eager to do, because now they were curious! They answered in different ways, but the key was to find a solution.
This activity allowed them to ask rigorous questions and find answers, and to see that math is used in the real world. Use pictures to generate questions for warm-ups every day, and you will find that your students cannot wait to learn!
Field Studies: Real-World Labor History
Who: Chelsea Collins
What: Grade 6 ELA
Where: Woodstown Middle School, New Jersey
When I was teaching third grade, I wanted to help students conceptualize the conditions of modern-day migrant workers. I began by reading Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez to discuss Chavez’s contributions to the migrant worker movement. While I was reading, I asked students to stand up and begin “picking potatoes” from the ground and placing them in their “baskets.” After about four minutes of bending, picking, standing, and sorting, their routine grew noticeably slower, and they realized why Chavez organized a strike for migrant workers so many years ago. Together, they began to walk around the room, “picketing” for their rights. With this lesson, they learned about the power of ordinary people to change things. And they learned empathy through active participation in their learning.
Thinking in Color: Essential Ideas Revealed
Who: Cathy Whitehead
What: Grade 3
Where: West Chester Elementary, Henderson, Tennessee
My students were doing well writing in response to an essential question from one text, but they struggled to synthesize across two. So, we brought in some color!
I distributed two different passages to pairs of students, giving one student a yellow highlighter and the other blue. Armed with an essential question, they quietly read, highlighting evidence to support their answers. When they finished, they swapped papers and repeated the task. When they compared their papers, something magical had happened: The details they agreed on were now green, where the yellow and blue highlighting had overlapped!
We regrouped as a class and charted all the green findings—one chart for each text. We discussed commonalities between the two sets of evidence. Where did we see similar ideas? Could we group evidence into categories that made sense?
With details synthesized across the texts and color-coded, the kids were ready to write! They found that ideas in the same group formed paragraphs naturally. The thinking behind synthesis was finally visible, which is so important for kids who are moving from concrete to abstract thought. My students’ writing soared, and I saw huge growth in all learners.
Living History: Pioneers Pave the Way
Who: Heather Anderson
What: Grade 4
Where: Juniper Elementary School, Bend, Oregon
I love to make history come alive for my fourth graders. My favorite unit is studying westward expansion, where students become pioneers on the Oregon Trail. It encourages collaboration, creative thinking, and communication. Along the trail, students make decisions as a “wagon team.” They learn to analyze primary and secondary sources while discovering the hardships pioneers faced.
To begin, each student was given a character to develop. They took a photo and kept track of what was happening in a digital diary they created in iMovie. The virtual journey started in Independence, Missouri, and made stops in Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, etc. On the last leg, the “pioneers” either floated down the Columbia River or took the Barlow Trail to arrive in Oregon City. Collaboratively, they made decisions that impacted their survival, such as how much food to pack, when to spend money on additional supplies at forts along the way, how to cross a river, what to do when a trail splits, how to hunt for food, and so on.
This project not only integrates reading and writing throughout the unit, but it meets Oregon standards for the study of state history.
Math-o’-Lanterns: Discovering Surface Area
Who: Kim Thomas
What: Grades 7 and 8 math
Where: Peoria County Alternative School, Illinois
When students walk into my room, it is like math is giving them a big hug. My goal is to make the time students spend in my class be one of the best “fractions” of their day. Because math is not a favorite subject, kids come to class with negative parabolas—I ask them to give me 1/60 of a minute to let my mathliciousness rub off. Their negative parabolas rotate into positive ones (smiles)!
Math is not about quickness, it is about understanding, and my best lessons engage kids to discover math on their own. In one project, my students created a net, a 2D pattern they cut and folded to make a 3D model. They began by tracing the face that appeared on a cereal box, and then they measured and labeled each dimension. Next, they applied their knowledge of area to figure out how much paper was needed to cover the prism. After gluing the paper to the box, students cut and folded a variety of nets to create facial features. After decorating their math-o’-lanterns, they wrote limericks describing them. They then took turns sharing their formulas and limericks for a mathtastic ending!
Leaf Symphony: Using Nature to Teach Rhythm
Who: Kelly Stomps
What: K–3 music
Where: Woodlake Elementary School, Mandeville, Louisiana
As an elementary music teacher, I see my students once a week for 40 minutes. To maximize my time with them, I look for cross-disciplinary lessons that reach all learning styles.
I decided to use Leaf Man, by Lois Ehlert, as inspiration for a song I composed for my first graders. I created an activity for teaching quarter notes, eighth notes, and quarter rests using leaves and branches as visual icons for the rhythms.
The lesson began with students singing the song to accompany the story. Then, I modeled composing with the visual icons on my Promethean board. Students worked in small groups to create four-beat rhythm patterns with the leaf and branch icons. The fun really began as I informed them that they were going to add instruments to their compositions—and that the “instruments” were leaves! I asked kids to share ways they could make sounds with their leaves. The groups eagerly leapt to complete their task, and sounds of tapping, rustling, and crackling filled the room. I even had a group that swayed their leaves in the air to mark the rests in their rhythm pattern. When they were ready, each group took turns performing their composition to accompany the rest of the class on the song I’d composed. After each performance, students asked questions, gave compliments, and recommended changes.
At the end of the lesson, the students answered questions like “If you could do this project again, what would you do differently?” I knew then that students had grasped the concepts of analyzing, evaluating, and refining their work.
Author, Author: Words to Pictures
Who: Natalie DiFusco-Funk
What: Grade 5
Where: West Salem Elementary School, Salem, Virginia
I use the GRASP (Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, Product) model to practice inferring and descriptive writing. Goal: to use descriptive language to go with the pictures in the wordless book Good Dog, Carl, by Alexandra Day. Role: Author. Audience: Frankie, my 18-month-old son. Situation: Frankie is coming to visit our classroom. One of his favorite books is Good Dog, Carl! Work with a partner and use your knowledge of inferring and descriptive language to write words for each page. Product: Good Dog, Carl with descriptive language, so Frankie has words to go with the pictures.
My students responded so positively because of its real-life purpose. Not only did they practice making inferences and writing with descriptive language—they used technology and collaborated. They were authors. They were presenters. They had a purpose, and they were proud of their work.
Buddha’s Temple: Persevering to Innovate
Who: Melyssa Ferro
What: Grades 7 and 8 science
Where: Syringa Middle School, Caldwell, Idaho
Collaborative, innovative, persevering: These are the traits of a 21st-century scientist. Helping my middle school students find these traits in themselves involved nothing more than a small square board and a pile of nails.
My young scientists were skeptical when I gave them the challenge of seeing how many nails they could balance on the head of a single nail, but when I told them I could balance 15, 20, or more, the game was on! Eventually, at least one group began to think outside the box and built their structure on the “table” instead of the head of the nail. Synergy happened as others began to pay attention to what classmates were doing, and before long, a small “Buddha’s Temple” sat on every lab table.
My kids were surprised that they could think and act like real scientists. Through this, we built teamwork, practiced real science skills, and learned that failure can be an option, as long as you don’t give up.
The National Teacher of the Year (NTOY) Program, run by CCSSO, began in 1952 and continues as the oldest, most prestigious national honors program that focuses public attention on excellence in teaching. The NTOY is chosen from among the State Teachers of the Year by a National Selection Committee representing the major national education organizations. Each April, the NTOY is introduced to the American people by the President of the United States.
Image: Mark Tomline/Getty Images
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