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

Reflections on Working with iBook Author

At the core of the creative process is the willingness to step back, reflect on what you’ve accomplished, ask how it’s going and then get back to working on it some more. So after a few weeks of using iBooks Author (IBA), I thought it was time to practice what I preach. I’ll use this post to explore my initial reaction to working with IBA framed with by thoughts on the reflective process. A good warm up for a keynote I’m giving on the reflective process in a few weeks.

I got my first iPad recently (I skipped versions 1 and 2) and was very excited about using the new iBook Author program to create an iBook. As I took a closer look at IBA, I realized that while it presented some interesting opportunities, IBA had some notable shortcomings. On the plus side, it’s very easy to create an engaging mix of text, images, recordings, and videos. Perfect for my first IBA project – a document-based history iBook. I had already posted lessons on the homefront in World War II and realized there was a wealth of government films, posters and other artifacts that all fell within the public domain. So I got very excited about making an iBook that embodied my approach to empowering the student as historian.

Stay tuned for my finished iBook on Homefront USA. If you’d like to be notified when the book is finished, leave a comment below or send me a tweet @edteck. I’ll be offering a free sample for my beta testers. Here’s a sample of some of the great content that’s available. (1942) Walt Disney made this short film for the US War Production Board

Find patterns
While IBA supports a more interactive reading process – searching text, adding bookmarks, highlighting text, defining words – at the core IBA is designed for traditional instructional methods. For example, iBooks built-in note taking feature is designed to create flashcards (don’t you use flashcards to memorize stuff?). Its built-in test feature can only be used to create an objective questions – not the tools I was looking for to support critical thinking skills. There doesn’t seem to be away to copy and paste text from my books author into some other iPad program. I don’t see ways for students to share their thinking without leaving the iBook.

Videos are very interesting components of iBooks, but here’s the challenge. The more videos you put in the book, the bigger the file size of the book. Not only does iTunes place a 2 gig limit on the size of an iBook, but in practical terms no one wants to fill up their iPod with your book. One option is not embed the videos, and instead, link to them with a YouTube widget. That keeps your iBook’s file size smaller, but it means your reader will need to be online and not in a school network environment that blocks YouTube.

Ask for help
I spent a lot of time on Apple discussion groups reading IBA-related threads, and posting questions of my own. I posting a poll on Twitter to ask educators what they thought about the YouTube link vs embed the video question. Results – nearly 90% of them voted to embed the videos into the book. Reflection can be a social experience. Framing questions and sharing your progress forces you to construct models that capture what you’ve accomplished and better define the tasks that lie ahead. Hat tip to my friend and colleague Mike Gwaltney who took a look at my concept iBook and offered great feedback.

Share what you’re learning
As I found online resources for using IBA, I posted them to a collection I started at My Publishing with iBooks Author began to attract viewers, many of whom proved to be great resources for me. As I tweeted out my new online resource finds, more leads came in and I found myself connected to a group of educators exploring the same topic. One contact, Luis Perez, made me realize that I wasn’t taking full advantage of the iBook’s accessibility features. He’s also working on ways to compress video size, and still be able to have caption videos for accessibility.

Motivate yourself with design thinking
Open yourself up to the cycle of planning, execution, reflection you might expect to see in an artist’s studio – it’s addictive. I find myself thinking about and working on this iBook all the time. (that’s why you haven’t seen any posts from me in a few weeks) The self-directed project provides all the essential elements of motivation. I chose the content, process, product and was doing my own evaluation. Through it all, I was exploring the frontier of what I knew and what I didn’t know. After all – this is why project-based learning works.

Learning Catalytics: BYOD Managed Student Centered Learning

I’ve long held that staff development should model what you want to see in the classroom, and for that reason I wouldn’t do a workshop without using a student response system. (SRS)

I’m not interested in using a SRS to pose objective questions or host a “game-show” style workshop. I see a SRS as a discussion catalyst and a tool to model instructional strategies. For example, I can ask a Likert scale question, post the audience results, and ask them “Does anyone see any patterns in the data?” I get responses and discussion that I never got in my pre-SRS “raise your hand and tell me what you think” days. Likewise, I can easily model a problem-based approach and give teachers first-hand experience in what that type of learning “feels” like to a student.

My favorite “clicker-based” SRS is TurningTechnologies‘ TurningPoint system. It’s been a central feature of my workshops for many years. But my quest to develop a more highly-interactive webinar PD model led me to investigate “bring your own device” (BYOD) web-based SRS systems. My goal was to offer webinars that rose well above the typical “listen to the presenter’s voice while you look at their PowerPoint” model.

Learning Catalytics kept us engaged more than simply sitting and consuming. You modeled everything you were suggesting we try.

Thus I found Learning Catalytics – a powerful BYOD-SRS system. After getting great reviews in my webinars, I thought I’d give Learning Catalytics a try with a live audience of about 100 secondary teachers at a recent workshop I gave at the Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS) in St Louis. (I’m still using TurningPoint clickers. I bought along a set to use in a separate session with about 50 MICDS elementary teachers.)

I thought I share some observation from my experience with Learning Catalytics to encourage other educators to give it a try. Learning Catalytics is currently running a free 30-day trial for use with up to 100 students.

Learning Catalytics is a web-based system that allows the teacher to create a wide variety of open-ended responses beyond the usual multiple-choice, priority, and ranking. Creating new questions is easy and the system allows for copy / paste of text – it even lets you use that function to paste in multiple responses to a question in one action. There’s also a growing (and searchable) library of questions to draw from. Teachers deliver questions and manage the presentation via the web from their laptop (or tablet).

… appreciated the modeling of Learning Catalytics – great examples of how to use it across different disciplines. ..the idea of placing us in our students’ shoes – which felt very uncomfortable at times – was really useful in the end.

The system has an array of powerful response monitoring and reporting tools, and it’s a stand out at fostering peer discussion. Teachers can easily create a student seat map and use it to quickly see who “gets it.” Learning Catalytics can review student responses and direct them to discuss their answers with nearby peers who may have different views. It even send out a message telling them to talk with specific class members. “Cameron turn to your right and talk to Zoe about your answer.” Questions can be asked multiple times and students can teach their peers before the next re-polling. Collaborative learning is one of the driving principles behind Learning Catalytics.

Students can use any web-based device they already bring to class to answer questions – laptop, tablet, smartphone. You don’t even need to project Learning Catalytics on the presentation screen since all questions (including graphics and results) get pushed out to the student units. (Note: I’m already testing an iPad + Apple TV approach to integrate presentation and SRS in a wireless delivery model.) The system ran flawlessly on the MICDS wifi network. (The internet bandwidth we were pulling during the polling sessions was about 30MB for about 100 participants.)

Our workshop at MICDS explored teacher and student perceptions of “Rigor, Relevance, Reflection: Learning in the Digital Age.” Learning Catalytics’ great variety of question formats spawned some lively group discussion and teacher reflection on those themes.

As a defining exercise I posed the following: “The MICDS mission statement notes that ‘Our School cherishes academic rigor.’ Write 3 words (or phrases) that you associate with academic rigor. 

While Learning Catalytics can gather short or long responses as a list, I chose to have it create a “word cloud” out of participant replies – imagine the power of instant “Wordles.” (See resulting word map left)

Learning Catalytics provides a “composite sketch” question. Students can use their mouse or touch screen to indicate a point or draw a line on their device. The results are aggregated into a single response by overlaying all the individual responses. To emulate a “classroom walkthrough” I shared a sample lesson and asked teachers to plot their perceptions of its rigor and relevance on an X / Y axis. The resulting overlay graph of the variance in their responses (below) was a powerful discussion starter.

There’s other question formats that add interesting functionality, and teachers can incorporate graphics to create more engaging questions. For example: Students highlight words in a body of text – the frequency results become a “heat map.” Students indicate priority or sequence by promoting or demoting choices – the results show the relative strength of each choice. Students indicate a region on an image by touching or clicking on a point – the results aggregate on a “regional map.” I’m still exploring Learning Catalytics and I give a big hat tip to Brian Lukoff, it’s CEO and co-founder. He’s helped me translate my instructional goals into interesting questions and has been very open to my suggestions for new formats and control panel features.

To round out my post, here’s some MICDS teacher responses to a few of my evaluation prompts:

To what extent did the workshop model effective instructional techniques?

  • Finally a presenter who modeled what he preaches.
  • It was interactive, engaging, and collaborative.
  • Learning Catalytics kept us engaged more than simply sitting and consuming. You modeled everything you were suggesting we try.
  • Asking us to be in position of actual learners was a good reminder of what students feel and suggested ways to promote actual learning.
  • I thought it was interesting how you tried to manage speaking and teaching 100+ adults with minimizing the lecture format. I was impressed at your use of think/pair/share.
  • It provoked my reflection on my teaching, i.e. students take ownership evaluating and sharing.

What, if any, impact will this workshop have on your practice?

  • It reassured me that I’m on a good track in terms of relevance and innovation.
  • I will look to use more driving question, more peer sharing, and more student choice.
  • The workshop makes me seek ways to develop and practice student to student conversation.
  • I am going to immediately revamp how I plan to intro the genetics experiment and make it more open ended and student centered
  • Reinforced my call for increased relevance to student world and understanding the skills that students need to operate in the digital world.
  • I would like to give students more control over their work.
  • It has caused me to think about giving students more responsibility for their learning.

Any comments on the Learning Catalytics response system? 

  • Love the Catalytics…
  • I really liked it–very intuitive, very useful in creating class feedback and interaction.
  • I liked how the Wordle was embedded in the presentation. It was automatic and quick. I would like to be able to do that in my classes.
  • I like the Learning catalytics system as a way to engage everyone, with immediate access to the results. I like the open-ended questions.
  • I liked how the technology was used to get our feedback. There was collaboration, discussion and evaluation happening.
  • LOVED LC. In love. I wanna use it.
  • I particularly appreciated the modeling of Learning Catalytics – some great examples of how to use it across different disciplines. Also, I think that the idea of placing us in our students’ shoes – which felt very uncomfortable at times – was really useful in the end.
  • I liked seeing others responses. I always appreciate immediate feedback.
  • Love LC!!!!

Mental Mapping: Video Game Maps Drawn From Memory

Games are interaction with rules. They mimic the scientific method – hypothesis tested to overcome obstacles and achieve goal while operating inside prescribed system of boundaries. Video games provide failure based learning – brief, surmountable, exciting. While failure in school is depressing,
in a video game, it’s aspirational.

Super Mario World world map by fliptaco
Super Mario World world map by fliptaco

Josh Millard recently began curating a growing collection of video game maps drawn from memory at his site Mapstalgia. He writes,

We spend time in video game worlds, learning our way around the constructed environments.  We make mental maps of these places as part of the process of trying to progress through them.  We learn where the good bits are hidden, remember the hard bits that got us killed every damn time.  The worlds may be fictional but our mental maps of them are as real as anything else we remember.  And they’re shared experiences: my experience in Super Mario Bros. was a lot like yours, and even if we never played it together, it’s a space we have in common.  And the way our memories overlap, and the ways they differ — the commonalities and contrasts of our individual recalls of these shared spaces — is a really interesting and as far as I’ve seen mostly undocumented emergent result of decades of videogaming experiences. So let’s draw these remembered maps.  Let’s put it down on graph paper or napkins or MS Paint. 

The Legend of Zelda world map by themadjuggler
The Legend of Zelda world map by themadjuggler

Submissions range from detailed renderings to simple sketches. They all demonstrate a great way to teach mental mapping skills – spatial relationships, sequence, causation, scale, location, and measurement. Use Mapstalgia to inspire your students. Then give them a chance to have fun while demonstrating their ability to translate gaming worlds into two dimensional representations. Let them compare maps of the same game to design their own mapping rubric. Explore different representations of game elements for clarity and design.

Super Mario 64 Peachs Castle by GNM
Super Mario 64 Peachs Castle by GNM

Get students hooked working with something they know intimately – video games. Then transfer those visual literacy skills to more traditional mapping instruction as well as exploration of symbolic representations of all kinds.

Sonic Adventure 2 City Escape by cubeybooby
Sonic Adventure 2 City Escape by cubeybooby
Zork excerpts by ErWenn
Zork excerpts by ErWenn

Image credits: Mapstalgia

Following the Backchannel at COSA 11


At my morning keynote I urged the 450 attendees to start tweeting using the #COSA11 hashtag. A few have started and here’s a Wiffiti visualizer that displays their tweets. COSA 11 is the 2011 Summer Assessment Institute sponsored jointly by the Oregon Dept of Education and the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators. (Eugene Oregon. August 3-5, 2011).

Since a group of 450 seemed too large to pass out evaluations. I used Storify to gather up feedback via Twitter.