Common Core Skills: Deeper Reading and Critical Thinking

First automobile on the Index-Galena road -1911

Across the county teachers are looking for lessons and resources to implement new Common Core standards. While some see Common Core skills as something new, most of these skills are exemplified in the well established, document-based approach to instruction.

  • Close reading of non-fiction
  • Interpreting primary source documents
  • Comparing multiple texts
  • Finding evidence and using it to support arguments
  • Recognizing historical context and point of view
  • Utilizing higher-level thinking to analyze and form judgements

As a long-time advocate of DBQ’s, I’ve re-posted sample lessons that demonstrate how to build student skills in literacy and critical thinking, while supporting mastery of the Common Core.

Lessons that demonstrate how to think and behave like a historian

Elementary – Interpret Using Summaring Skills 
US Westward Expansion on the Frontier

In life, we purposefully craft summaries for a specific audience (directions for the out-of-towner, computer how-to for the technophobe). In school, the tacit audience for most summaries is the teacher. If students are going to learn to summarize they need to be given a chance to genuinely share what they think is important for an audience other than the teacher.

Here’s a three-step summarizing process I followed in a second grade classroom using a popular Currier and Ives print from the mid-19th century. We scaffold the lesson from “right-there” observations, to telling what they think is important, to framing a summary.

Middle School – Recognize Historic Point of View
European Views of the New World

This lesson improves content reading comprehension and critical thinking skills and examines European views of Native American and the New World in the Age of Exploration. While it is a rather one-sided account, the documents also reveal a great deal about the cultural “lenses” that the Europeans “looked though.”

I developed this lesson to assist high school history teachers working with struggling readers. I wanted to show them how they could scaffold learning so that all students could participate in doing the work of historians. I built the lesson around a theme which was central to their curriculum. It was designed as an essential question that would engage students in reflection about how they allowed prejudice to color their perceptions. I selected images which could be “decoded” by students with a minimum of background knowledge.

High School – Analyze and Make Judgements
The Impact of Industrialization

The Industrial Revolution transformed humanity’s age-old struggle with material scarcity by using capital, technology, resources, and management to expand the production of goods and services dramatically. But while new technologies improved the American standard of living, industrialization concentrated great wealth and power in the hands of a few captains of industry. As economic growth increasingly touched every aspect of American society, it created both new opportunities and new social problems.

Three DBQ’s are designed to improve content reading comprehension through the examination of a selection of primary and secondary documents, graphics, cartoons, tables, and graphs. Each is keyed to a historic theme and focused on an essential question of enduring relevance. They are designed to demonstrate how student engagement can be “powered” by an essential question.

Secondary - Interpreting Primary Source Documents and Comparing Multiple Texts
Why We Fight: WWII and the Art of Public Persuasion

Designed as multi-touch student text, it focuses on the American response to WWII – especially the very active role played by government in shaping American behavior and attitudes. “Why We Fight” gives students a chance to step back to the 1940s and experience the perspective of Americans responding to the Pearl Harbor attack and WWII. Americans were hungry for information, and Washington responded with a PR blitz to sell the war to the American public.

The iBook provides access to the digital content, so users can remix the historic documents into their own galleries and projects. Students can use an iPad-friendly historic document guide to analyze all the source material and share their observations with peers and teachers. “Why We Fight” is filled with “stop and think” prompts keyed to Common Core State Standards and includes a student guide to learning from historic documents and links to a teacher’s guide to related activities and free iPad apps.

Image Credit: First automobile on the Index-Galena road, 1911 (Washington State)
University of Washington Libraries

14 Provocative Questions for the Faculty


It’s back to school time. Get ready for that opening day faculty meeting where you sit and listen, while wishing you could be getting some actual work done in your classroom. Here’s some questions you might ask at the meeting to generate more meaningful back to school discussion.

Can students learn to be innovative in a school driven by the routine of test prep?

Every summer you get to reinvent yourself as a teacher. I’ve used the time to brainstorm a few disruptive questions I would pose to subvert the status quo in school. This post is directed to teachers and administrators thinking about their school at the program level. Its companion post, 13 Subversive Questions for the Classroom, offers reflective questions for teachers to consider when thinking about their approach to instruction.

  1. When’s the last time we talked about who’s learning, who’s not, and what we are doing about it?
  2. How much of what is taught in our school is only useful for passing state tests?
  3. With new and cheaper technologies giving students greater control of their information landscape, when will our school become totally irrelevant to students and fully isolated from their personal learning environments?
  4. Do we dumb down instruction for the “low achievers” in the belief that they cannot handle higher order thinking?
  5. Are the “honors” students critical thinkers, or just willing to memorize what we give them?
  6. Are teachers’ informal social media connections more valuable to them than our district-mandated PLC’s?
  7. Which is the better driver’s test – the written DMV exam or the road test? What does that tell us about state assessments?
  8. If we accept the notion that the careers of the future have not been invented yet, how do we justify the rigidity of our 19th century, departmentalized curriculum?
  9. When do students actually get to work on that “life-long learner” goal in our school mission statement?
  10. What would happen if faculty meetings and staff development had to use the strategies being advocated for the classroom?
  11. When we host a parents’ event, do we use the instructional strategies we promote for the classroom or simply lecture at them?
  12. Is our school program thoughtfully designed to give students increasing responsibility for their learning?
  13. What meaningful career looks like filling out a worksheet?
  14. Can students learn to be innovative in a school driven by the routine of test prep?

Comment below to add a question you’d like to see posed at the opening day faculty meeting.

Image credit: Banksy – subversive street artist.

How to Motivate Students: Researched-Based Strategies

The student feels in control by seeing a direct link between his or her actions and an outcome and retains autonomy by having some choice about whether or how to undertake the task.

A new Center on Education Policy report, Student Motivation—An Overlooked Piece of School Reform, pulls together findings about student motivation from decades of major research conducted by scholars, organizations, and practitioners. The six accompanying background papers examine a range of themes and approaches, from the motivational power of video games and social media to the promise and pitfalls of paying students for good grades.

Researchers generally agree on four major dimensions that contribute to student motivation (below). At least one of these dimensions must be satisfied for a student to be motivated. The more dimensions that are met, and the more strongly they are met, the greater the motivation will be.

Four Dimensions of Motivation

  1. Competence — The student believes he or she has the ability to complete the task.
  2. Control / Autonomy — The student feels in control by seeing a direct link between his or her actions and an outcome and retains autonomy by having some choice about whether or how to undertake the task.
  3. Interest / Value — The student has some interest in the task or sees the value of completing 
  4. Relatedness — Completing the task brings the student social rewards, such as a sense of belonging to a classroom or other desired social group or approval from a person of social importance to the student.

As the report authors note: The interplay of these dimensions—along with other dynamics such as school climate and home environment—is quite complex and varies not only among different students but also within the same student in different situations. Still, this basic framework can be helpful in designing or analyzing the impact of various strategies to increase students’ motivation.

The report singles out a number of approaches that can motivate unenthusiastic students including inquiry-based learning, service learning, extracurricular programs (like chess leagues) and creative use of technology.

I think increase motivations begins with giving students more responsibility for critical decisions about what and how they learn. I detailed these in my post The Four Negotiables of Student Centered Learning and they are summarized in this table. Teachers need to consider the extent to which they are asking students to manage the four central elements of any lesson – content, process, product and assessment. Any or all can be decided by the teacher, by the students, or some of both. All will assist in building Common Core skills in deeper thinking and analysis.

Students also need guided practice in reflection. Reflection can be a challenging endeavor. It’s not something that’s fostered in school – typically someone else tells you how you’re doing! At best, students can narrate what they did, but have trouble thinking abstractly about their learning – patterns, connections and progress. One place to start is with the reflective prompts I developed in my Taxonomy of Reflection.

The CEP’s summary report and accompanying papers highlight actions that teachers, school leaders, parents, and communities can take to foster student motivation. The following are just a few of the many ideas included in the report:

  1. Programs that reward academic accomplishments are most effective when they reward students for mastering certain skills or increasing their understanding rather than rewarding them for reaching a performance target or outperforming others.
  2. Tests are more motivating when students have an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge through low-stakes tests, performance tasks, or frequent assessments that gradually increase in difficulty before they take a high-stakes test.
  3. Professional development can help teachers encourage student motivation by sharing ideas for increasing student autonomy, emphasizing mastery over performance, and creating classroom environments where students can take risks without fear of failure
  4. Parents can foster their children’s motivation by emphasizing effort over ability and praising children when they’ve mastered new skills or knowledge instead of praising their innate intelligence.

Many aspects of motivation are not fully understood, the report and background papers caution, and most programs or studies that have shown some positive results have been small or geographically concentrated. “Because much about motivation is not known, this series of papers should be viewed as a springboard for discussion by policymakers, educators, and parents rather than a conclusive research review,” said Nancy Kober, CEP consultant and co­author of the summary report. “This series can also give an important context to media stories about student achievement, school improvement, or other key education reform issues.”

Big Ideas and the Relevant Classroom


I just finished reading a provocative NY Times Op Ed piece “The Elusive Big Idea by Neal Gabler. 

Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world… The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.” … In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world … Bold ideas are almost passé. … Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show.

Big ideas have given way to 140-character tweets just as engaging interdisciplinary learning has been annihilated by the monotonous factoids of test prep.

My thoughts quickly turned from Gabler’s thesis to its implications for teaching and learning. Certainly our assessment mentality has narrowed the curriculum. In many classrooms, instruction has moved away from engaging and open-ended investigations to the monotony of test prep. Interdisciplinary projects have given way to measuring student achievement on routine standardize tests. Guess we can’t blame the loss of big ideas all on Twitter – NCLB is helping to stamp them out as well.

I can still remember a warm June day back in the mid ’70’s. I was in the final review for my 11th graders about to take the NYS Regents exam in American Studies. As I worked the blackboard trying to pull it all together, a student in the back row finally made some connections and blurted out something like, “I get it now, all those southern and eastern European immigrants came to the US to work in the new factories!” I publicly congratulated his “insight,” but inside I realized that I needed to stop the relentless parade of historical facts and focus on better connecting my students with history and its relevance to their lives.

One change I later made was to begin the course by administering a survey of a broad array of questions on issues such as civil and criminal rights, gender, social class, environment, economy, public policy. We would tabulate the results to reveal that we had different perspectives on many issues. First, we respectfully discussed them in small groups, then whole class. Eventually we looked to see how these perspectives had come to influence US history.

When it came to time to study the debate over the ratification of the constitution, my students didn’t have to ask the question – “why do we need to study this?” They realized that they were looking at “Round 1” of an ongoing debate over how strong the central government should be.

“Big ideas” flourished in the form of timeless historic questions that gave my students a connection to a more relevant, engaging history. With a more personal connection to history, they also developed a greater mastery of content and shifting historic perspectives. PS – they also scored well on the state tests. 

For more ideas see my post and downloadable Slideshare,  ”The Student As Historian – Resources and Strategies.”

Image credit flickr/nhuisman

edcampPDX – Educators’ Unconference – Portland, Oregon


Calling all teachers, instructional technologists, IT directors, principals, admins and teacher librarians who live in the NW. Join us at La Salle Catholic College Preparatory (map) on Thursday, August 18, 2011 from 8:30-3:30 pm for our first edcampPDX. Details and sign up here. It’s free and followed by an optional happy hour social – how Portland!

edcampPDX is free, democratic, participant-driven professional development. It’s an unconference built on collaboration and dialogue, not keynotes. I’ve been part of the steering committee for the upcoming edcampPDX. Here’s our goals:

  • Networking: Connect educators in the Portland / Oregon area
  • Instructional Practices: Learn new curriculum ideas, best practices, and/or tech integration ideas from other educators
  • Personalized: You customize your own PD by suggesting, facilitating and attending sessions about topics that interest you!