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5 Strategies for Using Primary Source Documents in Social Studies Classrooms

Use of primary sources was once remarkably scarce, both during in-class instruction and in textbooks. The availability and accessibility of primary sources on the Internet has revolutionized social studies instruction. But how are primary sources used in the classroom? Are students working with primary sources to make their own claims supported by self-selected evidence?

Those questions are becoming increasingly relevant as historical thinking skills are embedded in Common Core literacy standards, Advanced Placement exams, International Baccalaureate courses, and so on. It is not enough to include primary source images in teacher PowerPoints or include primary sources sporadically on assessments. Students should be conditioning their historical thinking skills with primary sources, daily, as active learners in a 21st century social studies classroom.

Looking back some 60 years, the progression of social studies instruction becomes clear. A 1950’s textbook was generally a static, authoritative source that left little room for multiple perspectives and primary source analysis.

Consider this excerpt from the 1st edition of the “American Pageant” textbook in 1956:

The average ex-slave, freed by the war and the 13th Amendment, was essentially a child. Life under the lash had unfortunately left him immature—socially, politically, emotionally. To turn him loose upon the cold world was like opening the door of an orphanage and telling the children they were free to go where they liked and do as they wished. One of the cruelest calamities ever to be visited upon the much-abused Negro was jerking him overnight from bondage to freedom, without any intermediate stages of preparation… The hapless Negro was in some ways even more of a menace to himself.

This simplistic, false, condescending narrative was presented as fact, with no quotes from African Americans living through Reconstruction. This, unfortunately, was not an anomaly, even 40 years later. James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” reached this conclusion when he first surveyed 12 U.S. history textbooks for the first edition of his book in 1995.

He wrote, “No book can convey the depths of the black experience without including material from the oppressed group. Yet not one textbook in my original sample let African Americans speak for themselves about the conditions they faced.”

Fast forward another 20 years, and textbooks are increasingly digital, with rich primary and secondary sources in a variety of multimedia formats to enrich the classic textbook narrative. Modern students, in a student-centered classroom focused on content inquiry and literacy skills, can now corroborate secondary accounts with primary source material. The teacher, no longer the “sage on the stage,” can provide these sources and tasks and guide and facilitate inquiry.

Inquiry-based, student centered instruction requires extensive lesson planning. Locating primary sources can be a cumbersome and time consuming process. But once located, providing these resources to students alone is not enough. Sources may need adaptation for different reading levels, and scaffolds to make the sources accessible for all students.

This underscores the need for collaboration, both within course teams at the school level and digitally across the Internet. Many teachers are now forming Professional Learning Networks (PLN’s) to share resources and ideas digitally. Teaching on an island is becoming increasingly difficult.

Here are some suggestions for using primary sources for learning.

Use primary sources to corroborate secondary sources.

Provide students with a secondary interpretation—a recent newspaper article, an encyclopedic narrative, a passage from a book—and provide primary sources for students to corroborate the claims. If the textbook provides an overly simplistic narrative, students can examine primary sources on the subject and re-write the narrative. This conditions corroboration and historical interpretation skills.

Brainstorm dialogue of historical figures based on primary source analysis.

One way to foster student-centered instruction is to have students brainstorm dialogue based on primary source analysis. This forces students to synthesize multiple viewpoints to draw conclusions.

For example, if students read Alexander Hamilton’s economic writings from the 1790’s, in which he advocated for an industrial America and a government that amassed debt, alongside Thomas Jefferson’s words on agriculture and fiscal restraint, students could construct a debate between the men. They could insert speech bubbles on images of the men, act out a skit, or participate in a mock debate. The primary sources are the catalyst for creativity and to contextualize a time period.

Move past the “main idea.”

Teachers should instruct students to think past the “main idea” or “summary.” These instructions are fine, but alone can allow students to skim a source and not really read it closely for historical thinking. Focusing in on vocabulary in context, asking students to corroborate multiple sources, analyzing the point of view of the source, among others, are ways to condition historical thinking with rigor.

Let all people in history speak for themselves

Teachers should think about who is speaking in their history class. If all the primary sources focus on politicians and notable figures, the everyday folks driving history, making history, are left out. Analyzing the words of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln are important, but so too is hearing from those not so famous and those often marginalized in society.

If using a source from Frederick Douglass, also use Kale’s letter to John Quincy Adams, an 11-year old captive on the Amistad. If using Abigail Adams’ words on gender equality in the founding era, also use excerpts of diaries and letters from lesser-known women to help contextualize a time period. Students need to see themselves in the curriculum.

If sources used in instruction are overwhelmingly from white men in positions of power, students are less likely to engage with the content and feel empathy for the foot soldiers of history.

Consider multiple formats of primary sources.

Primary sources are not always text-based. Common Core, C3, and other skills standards that guide social studies instruction require students to examine a variety of multimedia sources to draw conclusions. Rather than read a speech, students can listen or view a speech.

Teachers can present students with old newsreels from the days before television. Students can analyze images, posters, photographs, cartoons, and many other visual primary sources to learn content and build skills.

Primary source analysis is increasingly the cornerstone of social studies instruction in the 21st century classroom. The Internet makes these sources much more accessible than ever before. Teachers are responsible for crafting inquiry-based, student-centered lessons so these sources are used in meaningful ways to achieve various learning outcomes.

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4 Go-To Strategies for Engaging Digital Learners

Today’s students live in a world of constant stimulation. Whether it’s Xbox, social media, or television, students have continuous access to highly enticing visual information, entertainment, and connectivity with friends.

How do your teachers capture students’ attention and engage them amid all the distractions? The era of the teacher as the sage on the stage is over. Students thrive on problem-based, interactive, authentic learning. Classrooms must be just as engaging, interactive, and exciting as all of the competing stimuli in students’ lives. Putting technology in students’ hands is not enough to engage today’s digital learner in a meaningful way.

Student engagement models differ, but research and practical experience tell us that high levels of student engagement occur when the following are present:

1. Well-planned lessons with memorable beginnings and endings

Most of us are familiar with the work of David Sousa related to how the brain learns. Sousa reminds us that during a learning episode, students tend to remember best that which comes first and they remember that which comes last. They are least likely to remember what is presented during the middle of the learning episode.

Sousa refers to the time at the beginning of the lesson as Prime Time 1 and the time at the end of the lesson as Prime Time 2. He refers to the time in the middle of the learning episode as Down Time. His work goes on to examine the percentage of time for prime learning in learning episodes of different lengths. His recommendation is for teachers to present lessons in well-planned, twenty-minute segments that maximize learning by capturing student interest at the beginning of a twenty-minute segment, presenting new information in the first ten minutes to twelve minutes of a segment, allowing students to apply the information during down time, and then having students summarize the big ideas presented during Prime Time 2. Teachers can then have students switch activities and repeat the pattern to take advantage of a second round of Prime Time 1, Down Time, and Prime Time 2.

Planning lessons in this way maximizes engagement because it takes advantage of how the brain learns and it takes into consideration that twenty minutes matches the attention span of many adolescents. Shorter, well-planned learning episodes are probably best for younger learners.

2. Collaboration and interaction with peers

Today’s digital learner places a great deal of value on interacting with peers and employers tell us that they want future employees to have the ability to work well with others in collaborative teams. Therefore as educators, we encourage and support collaborative learning.

Collaborative learning requires students to work together to construct knowledge. It acknowledges that students learn best when they are actively involved in working with others in a social setting to deepen their understanding of core concepts and develop both discipline-specific skills and the skills needed to interact effectively as a member of a group.

When they set up collaborative teams, effective teachers explicitly teach the skills involved in working as a member of a team. These skills include:

  • Leadership skills such as goal setting, time management, and organizing the team to complete the task
  • Collaborative decision-making skills such as generating alternatives, collecting and sharing information, and agreeing on a choice
  • Communication skills including both verbal and non verbal communication skills, as well as active listening skills
  • Conflict management skills such as being aware of and respectful of differences, clarifying issues, resolving concerns within the group or seeking the teacher’s help to resolve the concern.

Perhaps students and teachers value well-designed and implemented collaborative learning assignments because of the emphasis on teaching and using these valuable skills.

3. Relevant, Problem-Based Teaching and Learning

Well-designed collaborative learning assignments often also involve problem-based teaching and learning. The energy and time needed for effective collaborative learning makes sense when students are involved in studying the type of real-world problems that are at the center of problem-based learning units. Good problem-based learning units are built around open-ended problems that have multiple solutions and require students to consider many variables before developing how they would solve the problem. These units give students the opportunity to use problem-solving skills and strategies that are specific to the discipline and spend concentrated time developing these skills. Upon completion of the study phase of the unit, students are usually required to develop a way to share what they have learned with classmates and/or with an authentic audience interested in the area of study.

Students value the opportunity to develop skills used by professionals in the field, and they value the opportunity to consider and study problems that genuinely need solutions.

4. Routine Access to Varied Digital Tools

Our students view technology as a natural and required component of their world. They naturally use smartphones, tablets, laptops, digital cameras, and other devices to gather, organize, and share information.

According to Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up survey, 40 percent of K-12 students tell us that they find online videos to help them better understand concepts that they are learning in school. More and more students are spending time creating digital content (YouTube videos, slideshows, interactive games, etc.) and they expect to use these kind of multimedia resources to learn. In fact, 42 percent of the 6-8th graders completing the survey say taking an online class should be a graduation requirement. Students see the skills they develop while using digital tools as excellent preparation for college, career, and life success.

The National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies was established to improve the opportunity to learn for all Americans through technology and research. They have identified a number of ways that digital resources can support the use of key research-backed principles that have a positive correlation with improved student learning. In the hands of well-trained and knowledgeable teachers, digital tools have the potential to support the following:

  • Personalized, differentiated, and self-paced learning
  • A positive emotional climate, and social and emotional learning
  • Authentic real-world learning
  • Collaborative learning
  • Data gathering, analysis, and timely feedback

Education in 2017 is an exciting world that is juggling new standards, new assessments, new curricula, new instructional delivery models, and new requirements for teacher evaluation. While much is changing, the heart of the matter when it comes to engaging learners remains unchanged: effective teachers know their learners, they know the content and the curriculum, and they know good pedagogy.

Karen Beerer, Ed.D. has 28 years of experience in public education as a teacher, reading specialist, principal, supervisor of curriculum and professional development, and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. She received her Ed.D. from Lehigh University in Curriculum and Instruction. Dr. Beerer has a passion for professional development, specifically, helping educators utilize research-based practices in instruction to help all students achieve.

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Disciplinary Literacy: Helping Students Develop Insider Knowledge

If we want students to learn biology, why not teach them to think, read and write like biologists? If we want them to learn history, shouldn’t they learn to think, read and write like historians?

Approaching core subjects from this perspective is at the heart of disciplinary literacy. Now more than ever, it’s become vital that educators instill literacy skills grounded in real careers, creating students with an expert’s eye for real-world materials, regardless of the medium.

Content-area reading uses generic reading strategies, regardless of the text that’s being read. But disciplinary literacy is a way of approaching text with the reading strategies employed by experts in a given field — experts have specialized ways of thinking, talking, and writing.

Historians require the lens of multiple perspectives, reading between the lines of several writers to arrive at their conclusions. Mathematicians seek absolute answers, first and foremost, using abstract reasoning and pattern recognition to make their findings. Scientists employ analytical skills to parse the validity of data in research reports, finding logical links between various findings before formulating their hypotheses.

These experts don’t just rely on one resource. Their expertise is contingent on their own observations, along with the perspectives of others, expressed across several media types. Likewise, the days of using a single textbook as a teaching resource are over. Educators must begin using new types of resources in the classroom, including digital content and media to immerse students in real-world reading, writing and thinking.

The disciplinary literacy approach to reading reinforces the new era of teaching, which welcomes multiple resources and multiple media types, to help students form a grounded understanding of a subject that even experts would respect. Just recently, a superintendent said, “the combination of media integrated into the informational text makes students want to read.”

The hallmark of any focus on literacy — disciplinary or otherwise — is instilling the need and the desire to want to read.

Each discipline has unique ways of asking questions and solving problems. Similarly, each discipline has unique expectations for the types of claims that are made and the way those claims are supported. These differences play out in the ways that texts are written and in the demands those texts place on the readers. For these reasons, we can say that each discipline has its own discourse community, a shared way of using language and constructing knowledge.” [1]

Although there is much debate about the purpose or primary job of schools, most who work in education would agree that an important purpose of a school is to develop literate individuals. The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts[1] identify the capacities of a literate individual as follows:

  1. They demonstrate independence.
  2. They build strong content knowledge.
  3. They respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline.
  4. They comprehend as well as critique.
  5. They value evidence.
  6. They use technology and digital media strategically and capably.
  7. They come to understand other perspectives and cultures.

These broad statements about what it means to be literate led the standards’ authors to decide that developing literacy in students is a joint responsibility that English Language Arts (ELA) teachers share with content area teachers. And while the foundational skills associated with literacy are infused in the K-5 ELA standards, the more specialized disciplinary literacy skills are listed in the Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects[2]. The standards that ELA teachers are responsible for teaching are listed under the following headings:

  • Reading: Literature
  • Reading: Informational Text
  • Writing
  • Speaking and Listening
  • Language

Content area teachers are also expected to teach standards related to reading informational text and standards related to writing. Because research has shown that experts in a field have specialized ways of thinking, talking, and writing about information that separate insiders within the field from the general public, the authors of the standards want content area teachers to teach students the specialized knowledge and skills that readers and writers use within the content area or discipline. In an article in the Harvard Educational Review[1], Cynthia and Timothy Shanahan present a model of literacy development that includes three stages.

  • Basic Literacy: literacy skills such as decoding and knowledge of high-frequency words that underlie virtually all reading tasks.
  • Intermediate Literacy: literacy skills common to many tasks, including generic comprehension strategies, common word meanings, and basic fluency.
  • Disciplinary Literacy: literacy skills specialized to history, science, mathematics, literature, or other subject matter.

They argue that until recently, secondary (grades 6-12) educators have not focused enough attention on helping students master the discipline-specific ways of reading and writing that are characteristic of the content area that the teacher is teaching. Instead the literacy focus in secondary classrooms remained on the intermediate literacy skills that are common to many disciplines, such as previewing the text, activating prior knowledge, using graphic organizers, and summarizing the text. While these skills are necessary and have a definite place in the secondary classroom, literacy instruction that fully prepares students for college, careers, and adult life also includes a focus on the more specialized literacy skills of each discipline. When students are asked to think, read, write, speak, and listen like an expert in the field, they develop the insider knowledge needed to succeed with intellectually challenging tasks.

By studying professionals working within a discipline, researchers recognized that the way historians read, write, and think is different from the way scientists or mathematicians use literacy skills within their work. A broad body of research on adolescent literacy development[2] suggests that while the literacy demands of school and the workplace have increased over time, the way we approach teaching literacy skills has not changed enough. The thinking and reasoning skills that individuals need to thrive in 21st century daily life and professional careers are developed as content area teachers focus on teaching both the content of the field of study and the specialized literacy skills associated with the discipline.

The standards for Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects do not replace subject area standards, but instead complement them. These standards require teachers to use their content area expertise to help students master the challenges of thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and listening in the various subject areas.

In keeping with the standards, the focus of disciplinary reading should be on the following:

  • Key Ideas and Details
    • Citing Evidence from Text
    • Central Ideas, Details, and Summary
  • Craft and Structure
    • Vocabulary
    • Text Structure
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
    • Text Features
    • Author’s Point of View, Fact or Opinion
    • Comparison
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity

Disciplinary writing should focus on:

  • Text Types and Purposes
    • Argument Writing
    • Informational/Explanatory Writing
  • Production and Distribution of Writing
    • Clarity and Coherence; Attention to Task, Purpose, and Audience
    • Writing Process and Revision
    • Use of Technology
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge
    • Generating Questions and Conducting Research
    • Gathering Relevant Information
    • Drawing Evidence
  • Range of Writing

Let’s take a brief look at the literacy demands of selected subject areas outside of English Language Arts and think about how teachers develop students’ thinking, reasoning, and communication skills by emphasizing the specialized way that experts in that subject area approach some of the focus areas listed above.

Thinking, Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening in Social Studies

Extensive work has been done on elucidating the skills historians and other social scientists use to do their work. Broadly speaking, historians study documents and other artifacts from the past to develop and communicate an understanding of what was occurring at a particular time in history. They are keenly aware that documents…

  • present an incomplete picture of an actual event
  • represent a particular point of view, and
  • reflect the thinking and perspective of the author.

Historians want to know more than what happened in the past. They also want to understand why certain events happened. Why did people do what they did? How does what happened in the past connect to and inform the present? What does the past tell us about what might happen in the future?

Key ideas in the Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies standards for reading include:

  • Analysis and Summary of Primary and Secondary Sources
  • Meaning of History/Social Studies Words and Phrases
  • Description and Analysis of Text Structure
  • Identification, Comparison, and Evaluation of Aspects of Text that Reveal Author’s Point of View
  • Integration of Visual Information, Quantitative and Qualitative Information, and Multiple Sources
  • Analysis of Author’s Claims
  • Comparison of Treatment of Topic in Primary and Secondary Sources

The writing standards do not differ by content area, but assume that the writing will be specific to the content of the discipline. The following is a sample of expectations from the writing standards. These examples are for students in grades 6 to 8.

  • Introduce claim(s) about a topic or issue, acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.
  • Develop a topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.
  • Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) drawing on several sources and generating related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.

Many social studies teachers address the literacy standards as they teach social studies content by structuring their classes with a focus on social science inquiry and asking questions. They present students with primary source materials and guide students to ask important questions related to the documents they are reading. The Stanford History Education Group has developed a free online curriculum entitled, “Reading Like a Historian.”[3] Each lesson in the curriculum is focused on a central question and includes a set of primary source documents. Students are expected to investigate the set of documents using the following historical thinking skills:

  • Sourcing – Who wrote this? What is the author’s point of view? Why was it written? When was it written (a long or short time after the event)? Is this source believable? Why? Why Not?
  • Contextualizing – What else was going on at the time this was written? What was it like to be alive at this time? What things were different back then? What things were the same? What would it look like to see this event through the eyes of someone who lived back then?
  • Close Reading – What claims does the author make? What evidence does the author use? What language (words, phrases, images, symbols) does the author use to persuade the document’s audience? How does the document’s language indicate the author’s perspective?
  • Corroboration – What do other documents say? Do the documents agree? If not, why? What are other possible documents? What documents are most reliable?

Students using the Stanford materials improved their reading comprehension, historical reasoning skills, and factual recall.[4] A major strength of the Stanford materials is that they provide a model that school districts and individual teachers are using to develop additional instructional materials. The historical thinking skills listed above certainly help students who wish to become historians, but they also provide students with reasoning skills that serve them well in a wide range of situations.

Thinking, Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening in Science

The traditional science class has included a number of assignments that appear on the surface to replicate the kinds of reading and writing that scientists do. Students read laboratory investigations to prepare for labs. They develop lab reports to tell about laboratory experiments they conducted in class. However, in the past, many science educators have worked to eliminate the need for students to struggle with the literacy demands of science laboratory work because they wanted to focus on laboratory skills and the science content.

Well-taught science classes have always emphasized collecting and analyzing data. Students have been taught that scientists respect data; they spend time developing powerful representations of data such as graphs and charts; and they value being able to replicate an experiment and get data that is similar to the data collected by other scientists who did the same experiment. However, science classrooms have not always emphasized the literacy skills that are an integral part of the work of scientists.

In their professional work, scientists…

  • Read research reports that include abstracts, section headings, figures, tables, diagrams, drawings, photographs, reference lists, and endnotes. Often scientists do not read the entire document, but only the parts of the report that are of special interest.
  • Use technical vocabulary which often contain Latin or Greek roots. The vocabulary terms sometimes have one meaning in everyday discourse and a different and highly specialized meaning in science.
  • Use categories and taxonomies that represent abstract ways of thinking that are not typically captured in everyday thinking.
  • Analyze research reports of scientific findings through the lens of scientific reasoning. Key questions they consider include the following:
    • What are the functions of the investigation—to explore, check previous results, test the explanatory power of a theory? The functions of the investigation will influence how the reader evaluates the evidence presented.
    • What data has been collected and how has it been analyzed? Is the data appropriate to the questions and conclusions reached?
    • What are the trade-offs of the research design, weighing what we can learn from experiments with controlled conditions versus what we can learn from naturalistic or direct observations?
    • What are the logical links between data, findings, previously related research and widely accepted theory?
    • What are potential sources of bias that may influence the findings and recommendations?[5]

Key ideas in the Grades 6-12 Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects standards for reading include the following:

  • Analysis and Summary of Science and Technical Texts
  • Following a Multistep Procedure
  • Understanding Symbols and Key Terms
  • Analysis of Text Structure
  • Purpose of Explanations and Procedures
  • Integration of Information Presented in Diverse Formats
  • Analysis and Evaluation of Reasoning and Evidence Presented in Text
  • Comparison of Findings from Varied Sources

Although the writing standards are the same as for history/social studies, they assume that the writing will be specific to science and technical content. The following is a sample of expectations from the writing standards. These examples are for students in grades 9 to 10.

  • Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly supplying data and evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both claim(s) and counterclaims in a discipline-appropriate form and in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concerns.
  • Introduce a topic and organize ideas, concepts, and information to make important connections and distinctions; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., figures, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
  • Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to manage the complexity of the topic and convey a style appropriate to the discipline and context as well as to the expertise of likely readers.
  • Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

Engaging students in well-designed scientific inquiry in the classroom, including developing scientific explanations after completing experiments, allows them to develop the skills and the habits and thought processes of scientists. Helping students identify areas of interest within science and then working with them to conduct in-depth research over time allows them to gain detailed insight into how knowledge within the sciences develops. Teaching students how to question evidence and the logic of others helps them develop a set of skills that serve them well in any number of settings. For example, these same reasoning skills can be used in making personal health decisions, in making financial decisions, as well as in making decisions related to civic and political issues.

Thinking, Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening in Mathematics

During the first year of their Carnegie-sponsored research on disciplinary literacy, the Shanahans (see footnote on page 1) worked with experts in history, mathematics, and chemistry to understand more about the specialized literacy skills of each discipline. The mathematicians in the study emphasized the importance of reading and re-reading text. They spoke to the importance of specialized vocabulary and understanding that the meaning of symbols may change depending on the context. Mathematicians also spend much of their professional time reading and interpreting graphs, charts, and tables.

A major goal of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics is to ensure that students spend time thinking about and solving worthwhile mathematics problems. The goal is to have students develop the habits of mind of the mathematician. The Standards for Mathematical Practice[6] identify eight skills that teachers at all levels should seek to develop in students. The standards are as follows:

Mathematically proficient students

  1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them
  2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively
  3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others
  4. Model with mathematics
  5. Use appropriate tools strategically
  6. Attend to precision
  7. Look for and make use of structure
  8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning

In the mathematics classroom, students should have opportunities to address the standards for Grades 6-12 Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects, but the emphasis should be on the mathematics practices. Mathematics educators see practices 1 and 6 as reflecting overarching habits of mind of the mathematician. Many see practices 2 and 3 as practices that all contributing members of the mathematics community use on a regular basis as they communicate with others. They see practices 4 and 5 as being particularly relevant to how people use mathematics in many work settings, while practices 7 and 8 relate more closely to the work of theoretical mathematicians.

When students work with rich, real-world problems, they have the opportunity to use and develop many of the mathematics practices. The modern mathematics class requires students to collaborate and work with others to solve problems. Teachers give students opportunities to discuss different approaches to the same problem and ask them to think and talk about whether the answer makes sense in a real-world setting. Students also discuss whether or not their approach yielded a correct answer. Was the approach efficient? Can it be generalized, and will it work for all numbers? Why or why not? Through rich discussion, students develop mathematical thinking and reasoning skills as well as the ability to critique their own reasoning and the reasoning of others. Again, the reasoning and thinking skills serve students well in a wide range of settings and situations.

Thinking, Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening in Other Subject Areas

Although researchers have not shared in-depth studies related to the disciplinary literacy skills of artists, musicians, athletes, chefs, and a variety of other professionals, educators in many places are working to apply the principles of disciplinary literacy to the secondary subject areas that they teach. Teachers of art, music, physical education, career and technology education, and other subject area classes recognize the applicability of the general concepts of disciplinary literacy to the work they do with students and they also recognize that they have a role to play in developing literate graduates.

When asked what disciplinary literacy looks like in music, Tim Shanahan replied

Some fields draw from one or more disciplines and that means their reading and writing experience will be similar to the reading and writing routines, language, and insights of those related to those fields. I think that is something to be candid about with students: musical scholarship requires the ability to handle technical materials like a scientist, historical materials like a historian, and criticism in the fashion of a music critic; and students would necessarily have to recognize the diversity of those demands and adjust accordingly.[7]

Some educators working within the arts, however, feel strongly that there are ways of thinking and communicating that are specialized to their subject areas and feel that articulating these specialized skills and developing them within students will enrich how students approach problem solving. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction suggests the following eight steps to building knowledge in the arts through literacy:

  • Build prior knowledge.
  • Build specialized vocabulary.
  • Learn to deconstruct complex visual representation of ideas.
  • Use knowledge of artistic elements and genres to identify main and subordinate ideas within the piece.
  • Articulate what the graphic representations mean within a work or ideas to support its main components.
  • Pose discipline-relevant questions.
  • Compare artistic elements of the work to other artwork.
  • Use reasoning within the discipline (What counts as evidence to evaluation claims?)[8]

Karen Beerer, Ed.D. has 28 years of experience in public education as a teacher, reading specialist, principal, supervisor of curriculum and professional development, and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. She received her Ed.D. from Lehigh University in Curriculum and Instruction. Dr. Beerer has a passion for professional development, specifically, helping educators utilize research-based practices in instruction to help all students achieve.


[1] Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content- Area Literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40-59. Retrieved January 29, 2016, from

[2] Lee, C. D., & Spratley, A. (2010). Reading in the Disciplines: The Challenges of Adolescent Literacy | Carnegie Corporation of New York. Retrieved February 1, 2016, from

[3] Intro to Historical Thinking | Stanford History Education Group. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2016, from

[4] Reisman, A. (2012). Reading like a historian: Document-based history curriculum intervention in urban high schools. Cognition and Instruction, 30(1), 86–112.

[5] Lee, C.D., Spratley, A. (2010). Reading in the disciplines: The challenges of adolescent literacy. New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

[6] Standards for Mathematical Practice. (2010, June). Retrieved February 04, 2016, from

[7] Shanahan, T. (2014, December 15). Shanahan on Literacy. Retrieved February 10, 2016, from

[8] Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (n.d.). Disciplinary Literacy in Art & Design. Retrieved February 11, 2016, from

[1] English Language Arts Standards. (2010, June). p. 7. Retrieved February 1, 2016, from

[2] English Language Arts Standards. (2010, June). Retrieved February 1, 2016, from

[1] Rainey, E., & Moje, E. B. (2012). Building Insider Knowledge: Teaching Students to Read, Write, and Think within ELA and across the Disciplines. English Education, 45(1). Retrieved February 1, 2016, from

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Myth-Busting Middle School Student Engagement

Picture a student-centered classroom full of inquiry and engagement. Seventh-grade students are in groups—some students are around a computer conducting a virtual lab, others are working with their teacher reading an informational text about the phases of the moon, and others are on the floor exploring interactive glossary terms with an iPad.

The principal walks in and is amazed by what she sees. She comments on the powerful use of digital tools and level of student engagement. Only I knew what lurked below the surface of this classroom. What the principal viewed as effective instruction, I saw as a failure in my work as a coach.

I had worked with this middle school teacher in the planning and preparation of the lesson a few days before, and the planning process had been challenging for me as a coach. The teacher was excited about the possibilities of Discovery Education Techbook and wanted to dive into its interactive resources because she knew they would engage her students. While I shared her excitement, the instructional coach in me was concerned. I tried instead to guide her toward determining what she wanted her students to understand and be able to do at the completion of the lesson. She needed to let that essential information guide her toward choosing the right resources within Techbook.

Our coaching conversation took place in a 40-minute block, so the teacher was tasked with completing the lesson plan on her own. Unfortunately, the lesson had no clear learning targets or outcomes. Students were working in stations that were unrelated to one another. There was no unity or cohesion, and the work didn’t push students toward deep understanding of the scientific content. On the surface, however, it looked fantastic because middle school students were so engaged in the work.

What this example illustrates is the superficial engagement we see too often in schools. How do we as leaders support our teachers in creating routine learning opportunities that promote authentic student engagement?

Engagement Defined

We must first dig deeply into our existing definitions and perceptions of student engagement. Traditionally, we deemed students “engaged” when they were on task, participatory, and well behaved. While we’d love to see this occur in all of our classrooms, we must set our expectations for student engagement much higher.

In an Educational Leadership article[1], Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda cited four keys to student engagement:

  • Clarity—What am I asking students to do?
  • Context—Why is it important?
  • Culture—How do I show my support?
  • Challenge—How do I balance challenge and skill?

While these four elements are equally important, I see most teachers and school leaders struggling to grasp the balance between challenge and skill. Jackson and Zmuda go on to describe how teachers can ensure this balance exists for all students. Their descriptors for this key factor of student engagement connect to Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset—focus on effort rather than ability, know that you can get smarter, use feedback to promote growth, and build academic stamina and resilience. 
We’ve read the research and we know these are important habits we want all middle school students to develop. However, putting this theory into action can be a daunting task for any school administrator faced with the complexities and demands of college and career readiness standards.

How Challenging Tasks Foster Student Engagement

There is no secret to student engagement in the Common Core era. The standards and the pedagogical shifts demanded of today’s students make it pretty clear for us. Building complex learning experiences, where students are routinely thinking at high levels, interacting with their peers, and receiving careful guidance and support from their teachers, is what grounds authentic engagement.

This type of cognitive engagement promotes productive struggle and helps teachers create an environment where students feel safe taking risks, because they know the nature of the work doesn’t allow them to earn an A on the first try. This is especially important to consider at the middle school level, where a desire to earn points has not only been ingrained, but expected.

Teachers can’t focus on their students’ efforts and help them understand they can improve if they’re using traditional approaches to learning. Assigning vocabulary or comprehension questions are both good examples of such traditional tasks that students work to compliantly complete. As school leaders, we must support teachers in building deeper tasks that challenge students and prompt them to want to acquire new knowledge and skills.

This type of cognitive engagement can be accomplished in classrooms if teachers have the support and guidance of their administrators. Here are four steps you can take to help:

  • Remind teachers to use the standards in their planning. Teachers cannot create complex learning experiences that aren’t aligned to the expectations of their grade-level standards. Help teachers gain a comprehensive understanding of what each standard is asking students to do, and support them in using the standards to create lesson plans, learning tasks, and assessments. The standards should guide every instructional move in the classroom.
  • Emphasize the value and importance of formative assessment. If we want middle school students to feel comfortable taking risks and failing, we need to provide consistent opportunities for them to do so while giving meaningful feedback along the way. This shifts the traditional learning cycle from “teach, test, reteach” to “learn, attempt, retry.” This isn’t an easy habit for most teachers to embrace, because it’s not aligned to what we’ve always done. Teachers will need support with managing both student and parent expectations related to this new way of learning.
  • Encourage teachers and students to embrace the silence. Most students are unaccustomed to being asked to consistently think at high levels. Answering one rich, text-dependent question or solving a complex math task in a 45-minute block is much different than responding to 10 questions at the end of a chapter, receiving points, and then moving on. This shift will feel awkward for middle school students and teachers, and there will be uncomfortable moments of silence. This isn’t a bad thing—help teachers understand that this silence affords students the time and space needed to think.
  • Ensure curriculum clarity. Articulate the importance of the depth of instruction with less emphasis on what needs to be “covered.” If we want teachers to promote cognitive engagement in their classrooms, they will undoubtedly need to slow down. Let them know this is not only accepted, but that it’s an encouraged approach to teaching and learning. If teachers are worried about coverage, they’ll be afraid to take the instructional risks necessary to help their middle school students become independent thinkers and problem solvers.

Engagement with Cognitive Impact

Engagement has become a buzzword that is grossly overused and misinterpreted in education. A traditional strategy—numbered heads, for example—certainly promotes active engagement in the classroom by keeping students on their toes, and digital learning tools like Kahoot! and Socrative engage students because they’re fun and interactive. However, it’s clear that these practices do not encourage the deep teaching and learning we want to see in our middle school classrooms.

It’s our responsibility to help teachers move beyond superficial engagement and support them in creating cognitively engaging environments for all students.

Jaime LaForgia is the director of professional development content at Discovery Education.

[1] Jackson, R., & Zmuda, A. (2014). Four (secret) keys to student engagement. Educational Leadership, 72(1) 18-24.

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