Skip to main content
Wednesday, May29, 2019

Group photo“She thought I was capable of doing a lot in math. That’s what really motivated me. She lets me know I can be cool and smart at the same time.” (Middle School Student)

When I talk with teachers from across Iowa, I am often asked how they can effectively teach students of color. When I get this question, I trust teachers want to do the very best for their students yet they are experiencing the same kind of achievement disparities in their classrooms that we see across the state and the nation (see, for example, the student achievement section of Iowa’s Annual Condition of Education report). The state legislature’s Closing the Achievement Gaps report (page 7, 8 & 9) further highlights the state’s equity status as it relates to students. Teachers see these gaps in achievement in their own classrooms and they desperately want to know how to help.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) acknowledges these realities.  In their 2014 publication Principles to Action, the very first essential element for effective school mathematics programs is Access and Equity: “An excellent mathematics program requires that all students have access to a high-quality mathematics curriculum, effective teaching and learning, high expectations, and the support and resources needed to maximize their learning potential.” (p. 59). I believe the teachers who approach me believe this, but they are struggling with understanding what to actually do to enact these principles.

This is certainly a complex question that requires a complex set of solutions. This spring, I had the opportunity to hear NCTM President Robert Berry at the State Mathematics Leadership Team meeting. I was reminded of one particular aspect of the challenge that I think is worth highlighting: Effective teachers affirm positive mathematical identities among all of their students, especially students of color.

During his presentation, he talked about the importance of students’ mathematical identities. “Mathematical identity has to do with how one sees themselves as doers of, or learners of mathematics, the knowledge, skills, habits, attitudes, beliefs, and relationships that students need to develop as successful mathematics learners (Aguirre, Mayfield-Ingram, and Martin 2013; Anderson 2007; Boaler 2002; Grootenboer and Zevenbergen 2007).” One’s mathematical identity is comprised of beliefs about one’s self as a mathematics learner, one’s perceptions of how others perceive them as a mathematics learner, beliefs about the nature of mathematics, engagement in mathematics, and perception of self as a potential participant in mathematics (Solomon, 2009). Identity affects student success. Positive identity traits are part of the goals for mathematics programs. Mathematical identity influences life-long decision making (Williams, 2018).

Through work we have done in the Waterloo school district, I was encouraged to think about how my own identity impacted me as a mathematics educator and learner. Those of you who know me know I am from Cameroon. I grew up in a culture where at the time, women did not pursue education, let alone mathematics. Because I went to a missionary school, I was encouraged to excel in school and mathematics and my father reinforced the idea that I could become and accomplish anything I wanted. I grew up believing that I could not only do mathematics, but I could do mathematics really well.

I continue to think about how my mathematics identity might have been different under different circumstances. If I were a student who had just immigrated to the United States today, what do you suppose my teachers might assume about my previous educational background? With that, what might their expectations be about my mathematical identity? How might their assumptions and expectations affect me?

While teachers truly want the best for their students, and many teachers do hold high expectations for students as an explicit value, there are myriad ways that implicit or unconscious expectations we hold are getting in the way of our craft. I truly believe that those of us who want to more effectively teach students of color must start by looking within ourselves. I am realizing that teachers have been asking me for different instructional strategies, but what I need them to do is first start by building or deepening their awareness of race, disparities, and the potential for implicit bias and unhelpful stories about students and their families to trip them up.

The good news is that, we can work together to overcome this!  I invite you to join us as we work to deepen our awareness of equity!  Here are just a few ideas:

  • Read NCTM’s The Impact of Identity in K-8 Mathematics and check out its five equity-based teaching practices. Educators can find a great deal of insight and ideas in this book. They offer that “access to rigorous, high-quality mathematics, taught by teachers who not only understand mathematics but also understand and appreciate learners’ social and cultural contexts in meaningful ways” is critical. They further describe the importance of “classroom environments that foster a sense of community that allows students to express their mathematical ideas.”

    Within this highly readable book are five equity-based teaching practices that I believe every teacher can access: going deep; leveraging multiple competencies; affirming mathematics learners' identities; challenging spaces of marginality; and drawing on multiple resources of knowledge.

  • Find an organization that will help you think about equity, implicit bias, and cultural competency (I can help you find one if you need help).

    Seek professional development that is ongoing (one-shot experiences are not sufficient to address this complicated learning task); offers ways to examine your own knowledge, habits, and beliefs rather than starting with exercises to understand “the other”; and skillfully facilitated (poorly handled conversations about race can lead to misunderstandings, bitterness, hurt feelings, and blocked learning, while well-facilitated conversations can help participants to better understand the history and function of race in society, contemplate their own values, beliefs, and emotions, and practice strategies to overcome the influence of implicit bias and to proactively engage students of color).

  • Join the Iowa Department of Educations' statewide mathematics leader this summer by June 7 at for a book study. As a community of mathematics leaders in Iowa, we are collectively committing to reading/re-reading Principles to Actions through an Access and Equity lens. Every two weeks we will gather virtually to discuss NCTM’s Reflection Guide questions in the Principles to Actions Toolkit. Times, dates, and platform will be determined by those who sign up.

Teachers, school leaders, policymakers, and those of us who implement policy all can help students – in both subtle and explicit ways – as they navigate their paths. I would suggest empowering students to realize their mathematical identities is as important as helping them to learn key mathematical concepts. To do this, we must spend time understanding how our own and our students’ multiple identities intersect. How we all are susceptible to unhelpful assumptions about students’ identities and what that means about their potential. Just like the teacher whose student is quoted in the opening statement. We all can play a role in empowering students to see themselves as mathematicians and to develop agency around their mathematical identities.

Thank you for engaging in this work; I trust you will experience joy as you continue to deepen your own work on equity in the years to come.


  • Aguirre, J. M., Mayfield-Ingram, K., & Martin, D. B. (2013). The impact of identity in K-8 mathematics learning and teaching: Rethinking equity-based practices. Reston, VA: NCTM.
  • Anderson, R., 2007. Being a mathematics learner: Four faces of identity. The Mathematics Educator, 17(1): 7–14.
  • Boaler, J. (2002). The development of disciplinary relationships: Knowledge, practice and identity in mathematics classrooms. For the Learning of Mathematics, 22(1), 42–47.
  • Grootenboer, P., & Zevenbergen, R. (2007). Identity and mathematics: Towards a theory of agency in coming to learn mathematics. In J. Watson & K. Beswick (Eds.), Mathematics: Essential research, essential practice (Proceedings of the 30th annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia, Tasmania, Vol. 1, pp. 335-344). Adelaide: MERGA.
  • NCTM. (2014). Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
  • Solomon, Y. (2009). Mathematical literacy: Developing identities of inclusion. New York, NY: Routledge.



Can't see the commenting block or comments below? Check that social media is not being blocked on your network. We are using a product called Disqus for the commenting portion of the View from a Field blog.

  • It is easiest to post comments to this blog through your Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Disqus account.
  • Another option is to comment as a guest. After typing your comment in the box, place your cursor and type your name in the Name field. Then, type your email address and mark the "I'd rather post as a guest" check box. Finally, submit your comment by clicking on the gray button with the white arrow.
Posted by Dr. Comfort Akw...

Tuesday, April23, 2019

A Path We Need to Navigate

We all know how curious children are about their world and how natural phenomena fascinates them. Testing ideas and observing the world to try to figure out how it works is something our children begin to do as infants.  Unfortunately, our children’s innate curiosity and drive for learning are not always supported in elementary schools. Science in elementary school is often considered unimportant and only included if there is extra time in the day. That needs to change. High-quality science education in elementary schools is necessary for building a strong foundation for learning science as well as supporting children’s fascination and natural drive for learning. Being in a classroom where students are encouraged to share their ideas and investigate things they find fascinating is inspiring.

Stellar Questions: The Beginning

Space Science is something that many people find fascinating and young children are no exception. Children question: How far away is the sun? How big is the sun? Who turns on the sun? Who turns on the stars? All of these questions present possibilities for helping students develop a strong foundation in space science. They are full of questions and this curiosity drives their learning.

Curiosity Leads to Infinite Possibilities: An Elementary Framework

In our elementary classrooms, students are encouraged to ask questions and share ideas. After generating a list of questions on a given topic, the class holds a discussion to determine which questions are testable in our learning environment and which questions require learning from an expert. As the teacher, I use questioning to help guide their thinking. Once the class chooses a testable question, we begin a discussion on how the investigation could be designed to test the question. It is important for me to give them opportunities to figure things out for themselves rather than just telling them how they must design their investigation. This is an important part of the learning process. As they proceed with their experiment, they begin to notice some students coming up with very different results. At that time, we stop and students share observations of things they noticed about how different groups are doing the investigation in different ways. Over time, in this student-centered, inquiry-based environment, students’ observation and communication skills grow.

Elementary Science: Specific Examples That Shine

Kindergarten students begin to learn about sunlight warming the Earth’s surface. The students decide they want to measure the temperature of the playground surface every day for a week. We record the data on a class chart. At the end of the week, students look at the data we collected and notice the playground surface temperature changed day by day. As I guide them with open-ended questions, the whole class engages in the discussion to explain the changes in temperature. One student comments that grass feels cool in the summer even when the sidewalk is hot. They wonder if the surface temperature is different at different times of the year and on different surfaces. The class agrees there are more questions they need to investigate.

First grade students begin to learn about patterns in our universe. They have questions such as: Does the sun always rise from the same side? Does it always set on the same side? What direction does the sun rise and set? We make a list of questions and decide which are testable. The class decides to make observations about the location of the sun at certain times of the day and to record the data. At the beginning of each day for a week, students look outside to see where the sun is and we record the direction on a class data sheet. At the end of the school day, students do the same. They begin to notice a pattern that the sun is in the east when school starts and is in the west at the end of the school day. As they continue to make observations of the sun, someone notices the moon is also in the sky. This generates additional questions for the class to investigate and the study of science continues.

Fifth grade begins to learn about shadows and how they change throughout the day. They decide to work with partners to photograph their shadows at different times of day. One student notices people are taking photographs from different spots and wonders if that will make the shadows look different. Through discussion, students come to consensus that the photographs need to be taken from the same direction by everyone. As they share their photographs, they begin to notice patterns. This inspires new questions: What causes shadows? Why do their shadows change during the day? The next sunny day, students go out to look at their shadows while also noting where the sun is located in the sky. This activity inspires a discussion about the sun being a star and why it is so much bigger than the other stars.  They wonder about the planets and how scientists investigate the planets. Their curiosity leads to investigation questions which leads to more questions and the foundation for science continues to be strengthened.

Here are some resources:

Posted by lisa.chizek

Tuesday, February12, 2019

If your district is like many others, “equity” may be a buzzword that you’re starting to hear more and more frequently. What is equity, why is it the focus of so many initiatives right now, and how does it relate to social studies?

Equity-oriented classrooms and schools are ones in which educators work to ensure fairness and justice for all students. Kids and families who have not historically been served well by public schools (e.g., the differently abled, girls, people of color, working class families, non-Christians, and LGBTQ students, for example) have long known about and struggled against inequitable education – schools that are segregated, that discriminate against them, that forcibly assimilate them, that denigrate their home cultures and traditions, that impose deficit beliefs of their worth or abilities. Because of these families’ activism over generations, conversations about how to ensure equity have become more common among administrators and classroom teachers today.

To some degree, these conversations have also picked up steam because of policies and legislation like No Child Left Behind that have forced districts to disaggregate achievement data by different “sub-groups.” In most districts across the country and in Iowa, there are clear and troubling gaps showing that kids from marginalized groups are at higher risk for disciplinary action, not graduating, not matriculating, scoring poorly on standardized tests, not engaging in advanced coursework, and not participating in extracurricular activities.

While some people may see these gaps as proof that some kids or families are simply not smart, lazy, apathetic towards school, etc., decades of research not only debunk those theories but show that the gaps are actually evidence of deep and systemic inequities that both intentionally and unintentionally reproduce social inequalities.

Quite simply, equity-oriented educators see it as their professional obligation to disrupt that.

Unfortunately, districts’ responses to these gaps have often been to try to “fix the kid” with no attempts to examine how the school systems themselves are producing these outcomes through policies, classroom practices, and curriculum. It is very common for administrators to ditch or downplay “non-essential” content areas (like social studies!) to focus exclusively on test prep in reading and math. Again, decades of research shows that this is absolutely, no doubt about it, the wrong response. In fact, a rich and rigorous social studies curriculum is what has the best potential to connect kids from all backgrounds to schools, to engage them in interesting and relevant critical thinking, and to result in better test scores, graduation rates, and all the other data that districts feel so much pressure to improve. As one example, check out the documentary “Precious Knowledge” for a fantastic story of how a high school ethnic studies program in Tucson did just that.

It is worth noting that this approach to social studies is beneficial not just for kids from marginalized backgrounds, but for kids from dominant backgrounds, too (e.g., boys, white students, straight students, Christians, able-bodied children, wealthy kids, etc.). These young people need to be cognizant of historical and contemporary social inequalities, demonstrate empathy towards people from non-dominant communities, be self-aware, and have the ability to engage in their community in non-oppressive, thoughtful, and inclusive ways. These kids need social studies rooted in equity just as much as kids from marginalized backgrounds. Frustratingly, what is more common are social studies that teaches them (whether implicitly or explicitly) that their voices are the only ones that matter, that their experiences are “the norm,” that oppression is in the past, or that they have been the sole and/or most valuable contributors to our communities.

Again, equity-oriented educators see it as their professional obligation to disrupt that.

Hopefully you’re on board and asking yourself, “How do I do that?” Consider a conveyer belt of sorts with four “stops” on a factory floor that you have at least some control over. First, equity-oriented educators ask themselves about access – do all kids have genuine access to materials, opportunities, spaces, etc.? In social studies, this means we differentiate or scaffold or offer support services to students who may need it (e.g., include lots of images as primary sources for students struggling to read or who are learning English). We look for ways to de-track or remove barriers to advanced placement coursework – and then work hard to actively recruit kids who may not believe that they are truly welcome in those spaces. And we make sure that our physical space is as inclusive as possible (e.g., posters and artwork that reflect the diversity of the school and broader community). This is especially important in schools that are more or less homogeneous. Check out the wonderful “What If All the Kids Are White?” for more ideas.

The next step is the curriculum itself. What is it that we are giving kids access to? If it’s oppressive (e.g., racist, sexist, classist, etc.) curriculum, then forget it. As social studies educators, we must constantly scrutinize our materials and lessons to make sure they are as inclusive as possible. If we teach a U.S. history survey course, for example, are we focused on a chronological march through wars and presidents? If so, talking about women or people of color will always seem like something “extra” that we tack on or read about on the literal margins of a textbook. Equity-oriented educators reframe their courses so that fundamental issues, social movements, and diverse communities are at the center of the curriculum (e.g., units about immigration, women’s rights, and foreign policy throughout US history). This is important at the elementary level, too. At the most basic level, we must ensure there are windows and mirrors in the books we read our students. Are we only reading about “white boys and dogs” as young educational activist Marley Dias asks, or are we including stories about people from all backgrounds and walks of life? Are we making space for kids’ questions and curiosities about the world, including current events and “hot topics”? Are we teaching kids about active citizens who are identifying problems and working to make change? If so, then we are equity-oriented. Check out this website for more ideas about how to integrate this content with specific Iowa connections.

Next up is our teaching practices or pedagogy. We could have the most equitable curriculum ever that is inclusive and thoughtful and multicultural, but if we teach it to students through lecture, popcorn reads, or worksheets, then we are not being equity-oriented. Instead, the National Council of Social Studies calls for teaching that is “powerful and purposeful”. This means using strategies that are constructivist and student-centered (“active”), connected to other disciplines (“integrated”), responsive to students’ questions (“meaningful”), tapped into students’ critical thinking rather than rote memorization (“challenging”), and rooted in dialogue that is inclusive of multiple perspectives (“value-based”). If all the desks are facing the teacher and students are discouraged from asking questions, discussing topics with their peers, and challenging each others’ ideas, then our classroom organization and pedagogical strategies are implicitly conveying the message that good citizens are compliant, uncritical, and obedient. Of course, a healthy democracy demands the opposite and classrooms K-12 must provide students opportunities to engage with ideas and each other. It may take some time to help acclimate students to a classroom with the expectations that their voice, ideas, and questions matter – that’s OK. Equity-oriented educators help students practice these skills and hold high expectations for all members of the class.

Last, but not least, equity-oriented educators pay attention to outcomes. They use kids’ scores on tests, summative assessments, formative assessments, comments in class, conversations outside of class, and even many different forms of resistance to reflect on what might need adjusting in the first three categories: access, curriculum, and pedagogy. Rather than “fixing the kid,” they look first to making adjustments in these three areas and consider how their actions may be contributing to inequitable outcomes. It’s not that every student will get an A+ in every class or exceed every standard and benchmark – but, at the very least, equity-oriented educators are watchful of patterns and trends that make it all-too-easy to predict who will fail and who will succeed.

As you commit to being an equity-oriented social studies educator, keep in mind the fundamental value of public schools in a democracy: to prepare citizens who can and want to engage in their communities in order to improve them. If we lived in a monarchy or a dictatorship, having educated citizens would be less of a concern other than for economic reasons – in those types of societies, the voice of “the people” is irrelevant in decision-making. In our collective efforts to build and sustain a healthy democracy, however, it is vitally important that young people learn how to identify and solve social problems, think critically about multiple perspectives, analyze evidence, and engage in constructive dialogue across difference. What better place to do this than public schools? And what better discipline than social studies? As equity-oriented social studies educators, we must commit to ensuring access to rich and rigorous curriculum and instruction that will equip all students with the necessary commitment, skills, and knowledge to be the kind of citizens that our democracy needs.

For more information about orienting towards equity as an educator, check out “Equity Literacy for All” by Paul Gorski and Katy Swalwell.

Posted by katy.swalwell

Friday, January11, 2019

Future Ready and Iowa Core are critical components within the Sioux City Community School District – components that work together and impact student outcomes.

The Sioux City Community School District has been designated a #FutureReady district by the U.S. Department of Education. The characteristics of #FutureReady districts include:

  • Building the right infrastructure;
  • Imagining the classrooms of the future;
  • Ensuring teachers are ready to utilize and benefit from technology;
  • Preparing administrators to lead and support teachers as they utilize technology; and
  • Including parents, community members, school board members, and others in discussions.

Learn more about the U.S. Department of Education’s #FutureReady program.

We know that the future for our current students will include technology. There is a great demand within the United States for skilled workers with degrees in computer science. Gary Beach, in CIO, recently reported that there are 120,000 new jobs created each year in the United States that require a computer science degree and there are 49,000 individuals acquiring the degree annually. There are three programs in the Sioux City Community School District that address technology skills for students (and teachers) and prepare students to be Future Ready.

We took what we learned from the U.S. Department of Education about being #FutureReady, combined that with industry needs to prepare students to be Future Ready when entering the workforce and purposefully integrated quality instruction rooted in the Iowa Core standards.

Career Academy

Sioux City Career Academy offers 30 pathways for students. Each pathway is a career-focused sequence of high school courses that integrates core academic knowledge with technical and occupational skills to provide students with a pathway to post-secondary education and careers. Students can follow a pathway from start to finish or can explore a variety of possible career opportunities. Visit our Sioux City Career Academy website.

Computer Programming Specialty Elementary School

Students at Loess Hills Computer Programming Specialty Elementary School learn, beginning in kindergarten, fundamentals of computer programming. Core subject material taught while infusing learning with technology skills, concepts and tools, prepares students to be productive citizens in an ever-increasing technological world. Teachers incorporate interdisciplinary teaching and daily technology instruction emphasizing programming (the process of writing and maintaining the source code of a computer), offering students opportunities to develop creativity, analytical thinking, and problem-solving. Students master the Iowa Core standards in a collaborative, multi-disciplined approach, with technology continuously woven into every aspect of a child’s learning. Recently Loess Hills Computer Programming Specialty School developed a Blueprint for the State explaining the steps taken to become a Computer Programming Specialty Elementary School.

The “Computer Science is Elementary” grant through the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council plans to replicate the success of Loess Hills Computer Programming Specialty Elementary School. Six high-poverty elementary schools will be transformed and showcased as they develop computer science education. The Loess Hills Blueprint serves as a resource for Iowa educators to use as they develop an application.

#FutureReady Cohort Program

Since 2017, the #FutureReady Cohort program provides teachers from elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the Sioux City Community School District with training on instructional approaches that highlight the use of technology to personalize student learning. Selected teams of teachers participate in intensive summer training where they work in teams to outline tangible ways of incorporating digital tools with instructional units they create and/or revise. At the end of the summer, the teachers have new lesson plans and instructional materials aligned with the Iowa Core standards.

At the elementary level, teachers have created lessons on sequencing, estimation, foundational reading skills and problem solving that incorporate robots. Using a grid with numbers, pictures or text, the teacher creates the basis for problem-solving challenges. Students then use coding to program a robot known as a Bee-Bot to hover over the cell in the grid they think correctly solves the given problem. At the high school level, geometry and physics are merged in one course. To expand students’ learning beyond the classroom and engage the community, teachers offer authentic project-based learning opportunities to the students based on their interests. One of the learning experiences culminated in the students developing proposals for local businesses on ways to save energy and reduce costs to their businesses based on an energy audit that was completed.

The Sioux City Career Academy, Loess Hills Computer Programming Specialty School and #FutureReady Cohort program start with an understanding of the Iowa Core standards. The skills and concepts contained in the Iowa Core standards form the foundation for instruction. Tools, such as Bee-Bots, and instructional strategies, like inquiry-based learning, engage students in a new way. Students are taking charge of their own learning. Because students are engaged in more meaningful learning, it is leading to deeper learning outcomes. Sioux City Community School District students will enter college and/or careers a step ahead of the competition and Future Ready.

Posted by kim.buryanek

Monday, December10, 2018

Recently, I took a group of Iowa State University students – all of whom intend to teach in public K-12 schools after graduation – on a three-week study abroad to Rome, Italy. When we weren’t enjoying all the gelato and carbonara the city offers, we were studying disciplinary literacy: that is, the specific ways students consume, understand, and produce knowledge in and across the disciplines.

During our course, we discussed a variety of disciplinary specifics, including best practices for infusing discipline-specific classroom talk, writing, comprehension, and assessment into our instruction. As a way to demonstrate their ability to foster their future students’ disciplinary literacies, my students completed a disciplinary unit plan comprised of five Iowa Core-aligned lessons. That our group came together from a variety of academic backgrounds – students who planned to teach agriculture to elementary students, history to middle school students, and English to high schoolers – deeply enriched our conversations.

Newly minted Romans of five days, our group bravely ventured on bike tour through the heart of Rome. We did not know at the time that this decision was a brave one.

That realization came later.

The experience proved to be one of the most challenging, and rewarding, moments of our trip.

We arrived at the bike shop early on our first Sunday morning in Rome. There we met our endlessly patient tour guide, Miguel, who was born and raised in Rome. Miguel spent several minutes helping us adjust the bikes for our comfort, all the while explaining what we could expect during the nearly four-hour tour. Be careful of uneven bricks in the road, and of cars that frequently run the lights, he cautioned. As much as possible, move as circular unit, not a single file line, or we will be divided, he calmly explained. Wide-eyed, we nodded, all secretly hoping we wouldn’t meet an untimely end at the hands of a rogue Vespa.

Uncertainty was etched on my students faced. I’m sure it was on mine as well.

Our trek started off a bit rocky: Some of us hadn’t ridden a bike in years, and none of us had ridden a bike through a major world city with, quite literally, ancient roads. We moved through the city, stopping to enjoy the sites: cruising downhill past the Colosseum, circling the Pantheon, and climbing the Spanish Steps. We snapped pictures. We ran into stationary objects and narrowly missed colliding with lackadaisical pedestrians. We took turns laughing at our many bike-tour-in-Rome faux paus.

At each stop, Miguel provided us with background information on the magnificent site in front of us. But he also prepared us for the next leg of our mission: what to expect when we traveled through the more car-heavy fashion district; to walk, not ride, the bikes through crowded city market of Campo de’Fiori.

Each time we stopped at a site, I couldn’t help but notice how my students interacted with Miguel. When he dismounted his bike and turned to face the group, they instantly stopped their conversations, leaned in closer and, once Miguel finished speaking, asked him clarifying questions. If the spellbound looks on their faces were any indicator, my students recognized that Miguel’s expertise was vital to their successful navigation of an unfamiliar environment. Their rapt engagement was the stuff teacher dreams are made of.

As we continued – more collectively cohesive and comfortable with each stop – I began to reflect on how the experience served as a metaphor for what teachers of disciplinary literacy must do in order to welcome students into the disciplines. Researchers in the field of literacy education have described the ways in which disciplines act as communities. And, just as communities of people enjoy and intimately know their own unique practices – their ways of doing things – so, too, do disciplines have distinct practices that mark them. Though not an academic discipline per se, the bike tour certainly required us to understand and apply a unique set of rules, or literacies.

Still ruminating on the experience, the next morning during class, I asked my students to complete a quick write, responding to the questions:

  • How did the bike tour require you to “read” the texts around you to draw conclusions?     
  • What discipline-specific skills did you need to apply to successfully complete the tour?     
  • What did it feel like having to learn a set of practices with which you were unfamiliar?     
  • How can you relate this experience to your own future teaching of disciplinary literacy?

When we came back together to discuss our writing (I completed the assignment, too), students buzzed sharing their thoughts. My students discussed how humbling it was to learn how to navigate a new terrain, particularly when the new experience was one they experienced so publicly. They expressed feeling uncertainty, embarrassment, even anxiety at times. Some students admitted they had to fight the urge to quit and go home. This led us into a discussion about the implications for our own disciplinary practice. How might riding a bike in Rome analogously speak to helping students understand the particulars of science, math, history, or English-language arts? 

One resounding commonality emerged: the important role of our tour guide, Miguel. Time and again, students voiced their appreciation of Miguel, who did not assume our understanding of the unfamiliar practices or terrain. Instead, Miguel prepared us for the realities to come: what to look for, avoid, and expect. How to navigate the city safely while calling our attention to spectacular sights that might have otherwise escaped our attention.

Though riding a bike through Rome was second nature to him, Miguel took care to make explicit the practices he, through years of practice, now effortlessly applied. Miguel discussed; he modeled. He (quite literally) led the way. He did not make us feel ashamed for not knowing how to work within a reality that, though easy for him to navigate, was challenging, even daunting, to us.

We deeply appreciated Miguel and his efforts to initiate us into his community. But what would have happened if Miguel, an expert at his craft, had assumed we knew how to navigate the streets of Rome? Likely, my students would have experienced frustration. They may have even given up on the task entirely.

Similarly, what happens if a teacher, an expert in her field, does not make clear the processes she engages when solving an inequality, evaluating a primary source, or balancing an equation? The students will experience frustration. They may even give up on the task entirely. 

But the consequences of giving up in an academic setting are far more dire than bailing out of a bike ride. Without a disciplinary leader, students are left to navigate unfamiliar terrain with no one to show them the way. Without a teacher to welcome them into a disciplinary community, students are left on the fringes of their classroom, a marginalization that will likely make it difficult for them to meet mainstream markers of success.

As facilitators of disciplinary literacy, it is our job to make clear for our students what to us comes naturally. Moreover, it is our job to be generous with our expert knowledge. This generosity allows us to usher our students into our disciplinary communities rather than to dismiss them as outsiders. By warmly inviting our students into a disciplinary community, we show students they are valuable, capable members of our classrooms.

I am often asked how teachers can work toward creating more disciplinary-rich experiences and environments for students. The bike tour experience revealed to me a new understanding of how we might more efficiently honor our work as teachers of disciplinary literacy. 

We can be explicit.

We can be generous.

We can be Miguel.

Check out the Department’s Statewide Social Studies and Science Leadership Teams’ disciplinary literacy professional learning opportunities:

Find additional resources from national organizations:

  • CEEDAR Center Disciplinary Literacy Course Enhancement Modules - A compilation of resources intended for use in the development and enhancement of teacher and leadership education courses, as well as for professional development programs for practitioners.
  • Literacy Design Collaborative - An open education resource that offers educators practical and proven tools, templates, and instructional procedures for improving students’ ability to read and write complex text with intention and deliberate purpose in every subject. Sign up for a free CoreTools account.
  • Knowledge Matters Campaign - Connects the research behind knowledge and language comprehension.

Posted by jeanne.dyches

Tuesday, November13, 2018

Standards are often seen as checklists. “Yeah, we do that already” is sometimes a common sentiment. I also hear, “There are so many standards, so we must prioritize which ones we teach.” So, what is the purpose of standards and how should they be used?

Simply put, standards outline what students should know and be able to do in a certain content area, but the implementation of standards is much more complex. First, standards impact individual teachers, but they should also impact districts from a systems perspective. Many standards are written to build upon one another and Iowa’s new K-12 social studies standards are no exception. Consider the two standards below:

Inquiry Anchor Standard Inquiry Standard
Gathering and Evaluating Sources 1st Grade SS.1.3. Determine if a source is primary or secondary and distinguish whether it is mostly fact or opinion.
Gathering and Evaluating Sources 9th-12th Grade SS.9-12.3. Gather relevant information from multiple sources representing a wide range of views while using the origin, authority, structure, context, and corroborative value of the sources to guide the selection.

The first standard is a 1st grade standard from the Gathering and Evaluating Sources anchor standard and the second standard is from the same anchor standard in 9th-12th grade. As you can see, this anchor standard gets more complex as students move from grade to grade. Individual teachers might look at the standard that applies to their grade level and think about what it means for their own classroom. They might unpack the standard by looking at the verbs used and think about the complexity of the standard. Once that is done, they might think about how the standard would be used within a unit of instruction. Could this one standard show up in multiple units or should it only be used once? In this case, the standard might show up in multiple units throughout the year. Perhaps the teacher might introduce this concept in the first units of the year and keep building on it throughout the year. It might not be until several units into the year that a teacher would summatively assess this standard with students. In this sense, standards cannot be seen as checklists, but a spiraling bridge helping teachers and students in recognizing and continually revisiting what they know and are able to do with growing complexity over time.

A district might need to think about some of the same things a teacher would, but would need to also consider how the standards work together in a PK-12 system. In thinking about the standards used above, there are broad implications for districts. For example, a district would need to have K-12 vertical and horizontal discussions so that the standards are not viewed in isolation. Additional questions to think about could include:

  • How much time are we devoting to social studies at the PK-5 levels so that these standards can be best implemented?
  • What are the social studies standards in the Iowa Early Learning Standards (IELS) used in our preschool program?
  • How does our kindergarten program build upon the IELS to provide opportunities to revisit and build upon concepts and standards provided in preschool classrooms? How can these be reinforced?
  • How are social studies standards reflected in our own classroom environments and actions to support not only content but conceptual learning, i.e. democracy and individual voice in classroom meetings, etc?
  • How much professional development in social studies is available to teachers across the district?
  • What does quality social studies instruction look like PK-12? (A helpful tool to use might be the Best Practices Rubric.)
  • How do we know if students in our district have mastered the Iowa Core social studies standards? What do we do if they have not?
  • Do we have common assessments to monitor and measure mastery of the Iowa Core social studies standards?

The statewide professional development being offered this year helps address how to put the standards together into cohesive units of instruction and make sense of the standards as a system, rather than a checklist. This is the second year of implementation for Iowa’s new social studies standards. So, what is happening to support implementation this year?

Questions? Contact

Posted by stefanie.wager

Wednesday, October17, 2018

Originally, when I began including the “why’s” behind my art lessons, it was simply to coax my seventh graders into deeper levels of engagement. Yet while all fully participated, had fun, and mastered the rubric objectives, my kiddos could not independently recall or apply the learned content in the next lesson. In trying to prompt recall, I’d say, “Do you remember what we learned about color schemes?” In response, as if hearing the words for the first time, their puzzled expressions spoke volumes. When I began to acknowledge their struggle for basic understanding, it was then I realized the greater importance of “why”: the facilitation of transfer.

The difference between my students knowing visual art concepts (like color schemes) and understanding them is their ability to transfer that knowledge to new experiences and disciplines, to explain the concept in their own words, or to even teach it to another. If my aim is for learners to integrate artistic learning as they move through different art classes, or more important, throughout life, I had to ask myself, “Do my assessments really prompt students to think critically and make connections that show true understanding?”

Olivia Gude noted, “Many in the field of art education have perhaps become too complacent about using the finished artwork as the only evidence of student learning” (Sweeny, 2014, p.10). Given our national standards history, our coziness with assessment denoting mastery of knowledge and skills is understandable. However, our new standards offer pathways to artistic ways of thinking — creating, presenting, responding, and connecting — that require us to shift from product-based experiences to process-based ones.

Unpacking Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards

If our “why” is to cultivate makers and problem-solvers able to respond to and appreciate the world around them, we must acknowledge the need for multiple assessments that reflect the layered and integrated, process-based nature of art production. We value what we assess, and what we assess communicates to students (and other stakeholders) its importance. As content advocates, we can attest to our disciplines’ potential to teach connective knowledge and skills related to academic success, but what evidence do we actually gather to reflect and nurture the transfer of big idea outcomes needed in life?

These big idea teachings that foster Artistic Literacy are found within Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards’ Enduring Understandings (EU) and Essential Questions (EQ). EU’s are the long-term outcomes sustaining the whole-child focus of our work. EQ’s promote thoughtful inquiry and “conceptual connections” that deepen learning and facilitate transfer of these outcomes.

In creating curriculum and assessment to aid acquisition of big idea outcomes, I determined to unpack standards while linking skill development to its EU’s and EQ’s. I found using the “Inside Out” Method, a resource offered on the Iowa Fine Arts website, allowed me to both clarify my thinking about transfer goals and envision multiple activities throughout the production process. As a result, my unit performance tasks not only encouraged and examined what learners could do, it also promoted transfer by helping learners understand and articulate why artistic learning is important to them.

Using the “Inside Out” Method Worksheet

As noted in both the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS) Conceptual Framework and in our Department of Education Fine Arts Standards Guidance Document, use of McTighe’s and Wiggins’s Understanding by Design (UbD) Framework® can guide us in determining outcomes, evidence and performance tasks through a backward-thinking approach to curriculum planning. The Understanding by Design (UbD) Unpacking Standards “Inside Out” Method worksheet utilizes a three-stage process to “carefully think through what will count as evidence of real learning” (McTighe & Wiggins, 2012, Module A: The Big Ideas of UBD. Good Design = ”Backward” Design section, para 6).

To illustrate how I used this tool to promote teaching of big idea outcomes, and therefore the facilitation of transfer, let me review the “Inside Out” Method steps used to create the linked Visual Art and Theatre examples.

VA-Cr.1.1.7a Unpacked
TH-Cr.1.1.7a Unpacked

  • In stage one, I identified desired results by asking questions like “What is the ultimate transfer wanted as a result of this unit?” [This is the Anchor Standard.] “What should students know, understand, and be able to do?” [This is the Grade / Proficiency-Level Performance Standard.] “What enduring understandings are desired?” [This is the EU.] What essential questions will be explored in-depth and provide focus to all learning? [This is the EQ.]” After recording the Iowa Fine Arts Standards information in the appropriate worksheet sections, I analyzed the standard to note nouns (for what), the verbs (for action) and adjectives/adverbs (for clarity).
    Then, I pulled together the standard, EU and EQ to articulate and summarize the transfer goal (indicated in blue text) by asking “What should a student be able to do independently when the learning is done?”
  • In stage two, I began thinking of performance tasks and assessment evidence by asking questions like “How will I know if students have achieved the desired results?” “What evidence will I want to see of students’ understanding and their ability to use (or transfer) their learning in new situations?
    With a goal to push past the art product towards transfer and acquisition of artistic processes, I created multi-part learning experiences that allowed students to actively construct meaning of big idea outcomes.
  • To complete the UbD Framework, in stage three (not reflected in the worksheet examples), I would next create the learning experiences and instructional plan.

Iowa’s Fine Art Standards conceptual structure (Artistic Processes, Anchor Standards, and Performance Standards) and its philosophical foundations (Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions) make big idea outcomes attainable. And, with our rotation schedules and class offerings resulting in fine arts programs of 30 to 60 days, masterful teaching and learning that can make day-to-day, week-to-week, and year-to year connections that grow in sophistication, is vital. 

Use of the UbD Unpacking Standards “Inside Out” Method worksheet can both advance the teaching of the knowledge and skills developed throughout process-based experiences and the learner’s understanding of its value. More important, it does this while gathering evidence about the profound, whole child development that results from education in the arts.  Unpacking standards has strengthened my practice as an art educator. It has been exhilarating to witness my students deepen their understanding, grow more engaged, and make insightful connections as a result.

Each of us are in different places in regards to our understanding and comfort with the new standards. To learn more about teaching Iowa’s Fine Art Standards, take advantage of five new self-paced modules now offered via AEA Learning Online that can be bundled together for license renewal credit or purposely selected to differentiate your own professional development. The module topics include: Overview of Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards, Understanding Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards, Applying and Connecting Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards, Assessing Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards, and Resources for Implementing Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards. You can access them here. I encourage you to investigate enrollment with your Personal Learning Community (PLCs) or independently to enhance your own teaching and learning potential.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach me at


McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2004). Introduction: The logic of backward design. In ASCD, Understanding by Design professional development workbook. (pp. ?-?). Retrieved June 6, 2018, from ASCD:

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2012). Understanding by Design framework [White Paper]. Retrieved June 6, 2018, from ASCD:
McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2012). Module A: the big ideas of UbD. In ASCD, Understanding by Design, guide to creating high-quality units (pp. ?-?). Retrieved June 6, 2018 from ASCD:
Marilyn G. Stewart (2014) Enduring Understandings, Artistic Processes, and the New Visual Arts Standards: A Close-Up Consideration for Curriculum Planning, Art Education, 67:5, 6-11, DOI: 10.1080/00043125.2014.11519285
National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, (nd). National core arts standards: A conceptual framework of arts learning (pp. 1-27). Retrieved June 8, 2018 from NCAS:
Robert Sweeny (2014) Assessment and Next Generation Standards: An Interview with Olivia Gude, Art Education, 67:1, 6-12, DOI: 10.1080/00043125.2014.11519252

Additional Learning Resources

Eisner, E. (2002). The Arts and the creation of mind. In Chapter 4, What the Arts Teach and How It Shows. (pp. 70-92). Yale University Press.

Poulin, J. (June 4, 2014) What You Need to Know About the New National Core Arts Standards. Retrieved June 25, 2018 from Americans for the Arts Blog:

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2012). Understanding by Design guide to advanced concepts in creating and reviewing units (pp. ?-?). Retrieved June 6, 2018 from ASCD: (this is where I found the 2.0 version of unpacking worksheet)

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2007). Moving Forward with Understanding by Design User Guide (pp. ?-?). Retrieved June 6, 2018 from ASCD:

Commenting to this blog

Can't see the commenting block or comments below? Check that social media is not being blocked on your network. We are using a product called Disqus for the commenting portion of the View from a Field blog.

  • It is easiest to post comments to this blog through your Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Disqus account.
  • Another option is to comment as a guest. After typing your comment in the box, place your cursor and type your name in the Name field. Then, type your email address and mark the "I'd rather post as a guest" check box. Finally, submit your comment by clicking on the gray button with the white arrow.
Posted by cappie.dobyns

Monday, September10, 2018

Activist and author Maya Angelou left behind many legacies, including her regard for self-reflection as a means to improve one’s self and situation, which is illuminated in one of her unforgettable quotes: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

Following this same line of logic, as educators, we have known instructional coaching increases student achievement and based on recent research included below, we know that content-specific coaching has an even greater impact on student achievement. However, even with this knowledge there is a lack of commonly used teacher observation and evaluation rubrics that encourage content-specific feedback. Most rubrics focus on generic aspects of instruction, such as student engagement, with little focus on what is being taught (Aligning Content and Practice: The Design of the Instructional Practice Guide). 

To support content-specific coaching and aligned instructional practice, the national nonprofit organization Student Achievement Partners ( created the recently revised Instructional Practice Guide: Coaching Tool, which is part of a Suite of Tools, and focuses on the specific actions teachers and students should take to address the Shifts required by college- and career-ready standards. When we talk about aligning to the standards, it is far more than just the alignment of the standards to courses, units, and lessons. For instructional practice to be aligned to college- and career-ready standards, the content must be featured at the center of the lesson. Aligned instructional practice can be observed when the content and teacher’s instructional choices allow students to fully access the standards’ complexity.

To fully understand aligned practice, you must first understand the Shifts in order to apply the "Actions" and "Indicators" of aligned instruction. The “Core Actions” and the “Indicators” of the behaviors they promote are based on the Shifts.

The three Core Actions in ELA/Literacy are:

  • Core Action 1 - Focus each lesson on a high-quality text (or multiple texts).
  • Core Action 2 - Employ questions and tasks, both oral and written, which are text-specific and accurately address the analytical thinking required by the grade-level standards.
  • Core Action 3 - Provide all students with opportunities to engage in the work of the lesson.

Note: In ELA/Literacy, each guide is specific to either K-2, where reading comprehension lessons are based in read aloud and listening, or 3-12, where students are reading.

The three Core Actions in Mathematics are:

  • Core Action 1 - Ensure the work of the lesson reflects the Shifts required by the Iowa Core Standards for Mathematics.
  • Core Action 2 - Employ instructional practices that allow all students to learn the content of the lesson.
  • Core Action 3 - Provide all students with opportunities to exhibit mathematical practices while engaging with the content of the lesson.

Student Achievement Partners offers an Instructional Practice Guide professional development module, which includes a review of the three instructional Shifts in ELA/Literacy and Mathematics, and activities and discussions based on the Core Actions that will prepare participants to use the Instructional Practice Guide as a resource for observation and reflection.

You can find a set of companion resources in the Instructional Practice Guide Suite of Tools that all use the same language to describe the specific, observable actions that demonstrate whether the Shifts are being implemented in instruction. Educators can use the resources in the Suite to plan, observe, and norm expectations around aligned instruction. Each of the tools can be used on its own, but they are designed to be used together to facilitate conversations about college-and career-ready-aligned instruction.

The four main tools in the Suite include:

  • Coaching Tool - Names the specific actions (“Core Actions”) and behavioral indicators (“Indicators”) to look for to determine whether students are getting to the intent of the standards through the content of the lesson. This set of observable actions and indicators helps teachers, coaches, and peers identify evidence of where and when standards-aligned instruction is taking place. The tool, revised in August 2018, can better support you in identifying instructional areas to focus on and in reflecting on your goals all year long.
  • Beyond the Lesson Discussion Guide - Supplements the Coaching Tool rubric. Since each Core Action and Shift cannot be observable in every lesson, this guide offers questions for teachers and coaches to consider to ensure effective college- and career-ready aligned implementation over the course of the year.
  • Lesson Planning Tool - Takes the Core Actions and Indicators of the Coaching Tool and reframes them as prompts to consider while planning. The Lesson Planning Tool encourages teachers to plan lessons in a way that will ensure the Shifts will be observable in instruction.
  • Instructional Practice Toolkit and Classroom Videos - Offers a professional learning module to support understanding of planning and instruction aligned to college- and career-ready standards for ELA/literacy and mathematics through the observation of a lesson and analysis of a lesson plan and student work samples.
    • Supplemental Lesson Videos - Additional full-length lesson videos, lesson plans, and student work samples to supplement the content found in the Instructional Practice Toolkit.

For more information on the research support for content-specific observation, read Aligning Content and Practice: The Design of the Instructional Practice Guide, which details the research underpinning the Core Actions and Indicators of the Instructional Practice Guide Coaching Tool and explains how the design of the tool supports content-specific observation and feedback.

Now that we know better, we can do better. Take time to explore the tools and resources that support aligned instruction to the Iowa Academic Standards in ELA/Literacy and Mathematics and share them with educators in your district to improve teaching practices and increase student achievement.

Commenting to this blog

Can't see the commenting block or comments below? Check that social media is not being blocked on your network. We are using a product called Disqus for the commenting portion of the View from a Field blog.

  • It is easiest to post comments to this blog through your Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Disqus account.
  • Another option is to comment as a guest. After typing your comment in the box, place your cursor and type your name in the Name field. Then, type your email address and mark the "I'd rather post as a guest" check box. Finally, submit your comment by clicking on the gray button with the white arrow.
Posted by destiny.eldridge

Tuesday, May15, 2018

Educators are focusing heavily on future ready practices in their classrooms. One way to do this is through personalized and authentic learning experiences where students engage in the Universal Constructs (skills like critical thinking and problem solving) by working on a local project or solving a local problem through collaborative efforts with businesses, organizations, and community members.

Naturally, these projects are interdisciplinary and in them, the Iowa Academic Standards can really come to life for student learning. Teachers at Danville Community School District are approaching the Iowa Science Standards through an innovative learning program called Iowa Learn Excel Achieve Develop (ILEAD). With the adoption of the new standards and the shift toward a more student-centered learning of science – moving from covering materials to discovering concepts and ideas – students are engaged in their learning by exploring natural phenomenon and are challenged to come up with solutions with the new focus on Science and Engineer Practices.

Danville CSD and New London CSD have piloted an authentic, student-centered program in which 11 pilot students receive core and elective credit. Through a sharing agreement, two teachers from Danville and two teachers from New London are the project mentor teachers who oversee the student work. Through the ILEAD program (which occurs during 6th, 7th, and 8th hour of the school day), students engage in authentic projects in partnership with local businesses and industry.

Danville CSD science spotlight

Through ILEAD, Danville students are able to get an Environmental Science credit. Gail Kunch, Danville’s secondary school science teacher, worked with students in an independent study fashion, providing feedback on students’ projects and guiding them through the necessary learning that comes about in engaging in authentic projects.

“The students not only gain valuable science experience but they really are gaining those 21st century skills we need to see more of in our core classes,” Kunch said.

One of the big projects students are undertaking as part of the environmental science course involves a partnership with local Department of Natural Resources representative, Caleb Waters. The students have been following the work of the Lake Geode Restoration project; the lake is just six miles away from the Danville High School.

Throughout the project, students were engaged in writing professional emails and setting up meetings with Waters and were an integral part of the planning efforts for the Danville’s Earth Day Clean Up of Lake Geode and Geode State Park on April 20.

ILEAD students lead their peers in this day of cleanup to show that teams of students can make an impact on their environment. The students are currently working on a second part of the project involving GPS mapping and naming of new trails around Geode. Students will have cross-disciplinary experience integrating technology in their map design of the trails and they will physically be able to go out and explore the trails for their project. Some of the standards that rise to the surface through this experience are the following:

HS-LS2-7. Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.*

HS-ESS3-4. Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.*

HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural and environmental impacts.

When students take on a project they are passionate about, it creates the need to know more. Learning becomes relevant and this is where the learning comes alive and can reach students beyond a textbook or a paper they will turn in and forget about. When you put them in a position to make an impact and have an authentic audience for their work, their buy-in is great and long-term memory prevails.

The ILEAD projects such as the Danville environmental science project are supported with the help of consultants at the Great Prairie Area Education Agency (GPAEA) and the Iowa Authentic Learning Network (ALN), a network for resources, projects, and professional learning originating in GPAEA and Green Hills Area Education Agency. In this case, the 21st Century Learning consultant at GPAEA helped to serve as the broker of local projects by working with local chambers, city partnerships, community colleges, IOWA STEM, and other stakeholders who are passionate about future ready learning.

In part, this work is just a foreshadowing of what is yet to come with the recently approved Statewide Work Based Learning Clearinghouse. The clearinghouse will be an online repository of various work-based opportunities for students statewide. Not only will it include a place to post opportunities such as internships, job shadows, tours, and connection to experts in different fields, but it will offer a wide variety of projects from which students from all over Iowa can engage that teachers can easily embed into their classes as curriculum.

For another example check out this 7th Grade Social Studies Example and for more on embedding authentic learning as curriculum contact Laura Williams, or attend the Future Ready Learning Event on June 13.

For more information about projects as science curriculum, contact

Posted by laura.williams

Monday, April9, 2018

Fine ArtsIowa adopted statewide standards for Fine Arts covering the K-12 areas of dance, media arts, music, theatre, and visual arts last November. It has been a long time coming and many fine arts teachers across our state are rejoicing. 

We know the arts promotes creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, global awareness, and self-discovery within our students. We thank the Iowa Department of Education for responding to the public request to adopt these standards and we are excited it has been approved by the State Board of Education.

Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards are the 2014 National Core Arts Standards (NCAS), with minor revisions in the strands of General Music and Theater. The standards unite the disciplines of Dance, Media Arts, Music, Theater, and Visual Art. For the first time, the fine arts disciplines share a common language and standards structure; all disciplines are now united by four artistic processes and eleven anchor standards. The artistic processes and anchor standards, serving as a foundation for all of the fine arts regardless of grade level or art form, are built on the bedrock of critical thinking, artistic literacy, and inquiry.

When I first heard about the NCAS Standards for Music, it was overwhelming. Change is often difficult and at first glance, these seemed so very complex. But I gave myself some time and then sought out professional development through various arts organizations. I gradually came to understand the beauty of these standards. They are amazingly inclusive, thorough, and rigorous, yet also allow teachers flexibility of curricular design.

A major focus of the new standards is the shift from emphasizing the artistic products to emphasizing the artistic processes a student actively engages in when studying the arts. The emphasis is a departure from “Did the student complete the task and complete it well?” to “What did the student learn from beginning to end of an artistic task?”  We know that, whether students are in an elementary art room or high school theatre classroom, fine arts students are constantly planning, revising, communicating, collaborating, refining, critiquing, and presenting; these vital skills are emphasized and clearly represented in our new standards, regardless of grade/proficiency level or fine arts discipline. 

I encourage you to access the Guidance for the Implementation of Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards, written by the Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards Adoption Team who led the standards adoption process in our state, to gain an understanding of the connections across the arts to advocate and support the artistic learner. It gives succinct information of work at the national level done prior to state standards adoption, and tips on how to read, understand, and implement Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards. There are helpful links for assessment and guidance on using the standards for students with disabilities. Additionally, the document concludes with a discipline-specific section, which offers lenses through which to view each unique art form through the standards. Taking time to read it will give you a clear idea of the structure and nature of these standards.

I believe you’ll see that much of what you are already doing will line up nicely, yet you will also be motivated to make changes in order to boost critical thinking, emphasize inquiry, and elevate the artistic experience for your students. By aligning your teaching practice to Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards, you will ultimately enhance the artistic growth of your students by underscoring artistic processes rather than final performances or products.

One specific “A-ha!” moment I had while implementing these standards is the understanding that the four artistic processes (Creating, Responding, Connecting, and Performing/Presenting/Producing) are not meant to be equally implemented all the time. All four processes do not need to appear in each lesson or even each unit of study. The balance will be different for each artistic foci and we need to thoughtfully consider the balance unique to our specific art form and classrooms. The Model Cornerstone Assessments serve as a wonderful resource in showcasing how the processes and standards can work together in different ways in different units of study.

We know when students engage in artistic experiences, there is a unique sense of euphoria, connectedness, harmony and balance. These experiences help students imagine new possibilities. They add a much needed spark to academics and enhance student’s lifelong wellbeing. 

By 2020, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), major depressive illness will be the leading cause of disability in the world for women and children. Mental illness is on the rise in Iowa and that one tool we can give our students is finding the comfort art can bring to their lives. The safety, beauty, belonging, and self expression art promotes could be one of the ways a student rides out the storms of depression, anxiety and just stress in general. 

The arts keep the joy and love of learning alive. Let’s promote these standards by starting discussions with our colleagues to improve student comprehension. With these standards, we can work together to promote statewide equitable access in quality artistic experiences for ALL students, regardless of race, disabilities, gender, sexual orientation, or cultural heritage. We need to accept our students’ modes of self-expression and encourage their journeys through artistic endeavors. Together we are better and together we’ve adopted statewide standards for the arts that unite our disciplines under a common framework. We have created and will continue to create resources for understanding those standards.

What insights or questions do you have concerning Iowa’s Fine Arts Standards? I hope you found this blog helpful in some way and if you have specific questions or comments, I encourage you to post them here or contact me at

Commenting to this blog

Can't see the commenting block or comments below? Check that social media is not being blocked on your network. We are using a product called Disqus for the commenting portion of the View from a Field blog.

  • It is easiest to post comments to this blog through your Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Disqus account.
  • Another option is to comment as a guest. After typing your comment in the box, place your cursor and type your name in the Name field. Then, type your email address and mark the "I'd rather post as a guest" check box. Finally, submit your comment by clicking on the gray button with the white arrow.
Posted by michelle.droe