Skip to main content

pencil on notebook paperStudents are no longer the only ones planning, experimenting, and dissecting when engaging in lab experiences. Educators in my district have participated in the transformation of job embedded professional learning from a traditional “sit and get” professional learning time to Learning Labs, a dynamic method of collaborative planning and classroom observation, where teachers are actively involved and feel ownership in the learning. 

Knowledge gained in this type of learning adds richness to the discussions found in Collaborative Teaching Teams as we strive to develop a Professional Learning Community mindset in our district.  

With the implementation of the Iowa Teacher Leadership and Compensation framework, collaboration in these labs with the assistance of instructional coaches helps teachers blend standards and create a clear vision for learning targets and instructional practices that guide learning.

The process toward quality learning begins with the standards and includes monitoring where students are in relation to where they need to be.  So what does this look like in our school district?  It begins with the teacher and instructional coach conferring about a lesson, crafting a focus question centered on standards and learning targets, and discussing how the standards will be assessed.  

Learning targets used to move students toward mastery of the standards are delineated and formative assessments are determined that will inform instructional practices and provide differentiation along the way.  A lesson is then co-planned, and teachers are invited into the classroom to observe, using a note-taking sheet to provide feedback to the teacher during a debriefing session later in the day.  The purpose of the task of the observing teachers? To note evidence of student learning and observations about practices used during instruction.

An example of this process in action is a science lesson our Learning Lab team observed that was focused on the question: How can I demonstrate science and engineering literacy?  Students designed and tested models, recorded their observations in their science journals and engaged in a student discussion protocol. The discussion was rich and filled with the vocabulary found in the student science notebooks which contained Newton’s Laws and corresponding notes. I heard one student say: “I hear what you are saying, but would you add more detail to your explanation?” It was interesting to hear them connect the concepts from their designs and Newton’s Law with real-world examples. 

The final step was the creation of an ABCDE paragraph – assertion, background, citation (data, text, and diagram), discussion, and end.  This writing organizer provides a connection to the ELA writing and speaking and listening standards embedded within the science classroom. The lesson was filled with student engagement, higher order thinking, and critical conversations, one where I gained a newfound respect for the power of student conversations focused on learning and application.

Our day ended with a debriefing session.  Each person who had been part of the observation gave reflective feedback to the teacher, asked questions, shared what they had learned, and the conversation ended with the teacher’s reflection on the lesson. The host teacher explained what she learned from the lesson, what changes she would make, and what her next steps were going to be based on the evidence of student learning.  

The choice of a student-centered learning lab was a good fit for our middle school science department team as teachers strive to use student evidence in daily decision making and possess a strong sense of collegiality and commitment to continuous improvement.  It was a powerful learning experience for the teacher, and observers and ultimately for the students – establishing a learning-centered culture for all. 



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 : jschmidt@maquok...

5 speed gear shiftWhen I was a classroom teacher, I had an underappreciation for how important understanding the Shifts in the mathematics standards, Focus, Coherence, and Rigor, were to implementing “The Iowa Academic Standards for mathematics.” I knew the three Shifts as a list, could parrot them back when asked and understood what the definitions meant.

The Why

However, since I did not have a deep understanding of the Shifts and the relationship to the implementation of the standards, I treated the standards as a checklist and called it a curriculum, but they are neither. This lack of understanding prevented me from making the impact on curriculum, instruction, pedagogy, or assessment practices that I wanted to make in my classroom. For example, if I understood the first Shift, Focus, then I would have spent more time on linear functions than my curriculum recommended because it is one of the major works. As a result, I feel my students were not as prepared to be College and Career Ready to successfully pursue career-training programs, the military, and attend college without taking a remedial math course.

In the article The Structure is the Standards, Phil Daro, William McCallum, and Jason Zimba, the authors of the Common Core State Standards Mathematics, explain what the standards are: “The standards are meant to be a blueprint for math instruction that is more focused and coherent. The focus and coherence in this blueprint is largely in the way the standards progress from each other, coordinate with each other and most importantly cluster together into coherent bodies of knowledge. Crosswalks and alignments and pacing plans and such cannot be allowed to throw away the focus and coherence and regress to the mile-wide curriculum.” 

These authors are describing the Shifts in instruction and the relationships that cannot be ignored to fully implement the standards in the way that better prepares students to be College and Career Ready for the world today.


The What

The Shifts are Focus, Coherence, and Rigor and the order is purposeful. Without Focus, then Coherence and Rigor are less likely to happen. Likewise, without having Coherence, Rigor is unlikely to happen. An educator will see evidence of these Shifts across the grade-levels, grades, and daily lessons.  

  • Focus – across the grade level, not during a single lesson
  • Coherence – in lessons that build on prior learning meaningfully and in lessons that successfully connect supporting standards to major work of the grade
  • Rigor – daily, within a daily lesson, as defined by the particular lesson standards

There are many resources to learn about the Shifts:



Before the adoption of the mathematics standards, mathematics education was a mile wide and an inch deep, with too many topics to cover at each grade level. If it still feels like that now, then focus may be missing. Focus is a greater focus on fewer topics that happens across the curriculum and not in a daily lesson. The major works and clusters of a grade level can take up to 85 percent of classroom time. The Focus on Number and Operations and Algebraic Thinking in K-8 is intentional to ensure students are ready for the expectations of high school and those of College and Career Readiness.

Resources for Focus

Coherence is linking topics within the grade and thinking across grades. Mathematics topics are connected understandings and cannot be taught through tricks and mnemonics. Within a grade, “supporting” standards are labeled as such because they have very strong connections to the major work of the grade level. As educators, what we do in the fall matters for the spring; likewise, what we do in kindergarten matters for high school. The Coherence Map linked below is dynamic, and is frequently updated with new resources such as tasks, progressions, and assessment items. Some of these resources can be used to identify learning gaps in the standards or used for extension activities.

Resources for Coherence

Rigor can be described as three-legged stool because it requires that educators balance conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application with approximately equal intensity.

Resources for Rigor


The How

Want to learn more about the Shifts in mathematics and how to impact curriculum, instruction, pedagogy, and assessment? Join the IA Core Advocates for Mathematics. This is a community of Iowa educators interested in learning more about the Shifts and their impact on ensuring all students in IA are College and Career Ready in mathematics.

Call to Action: Join the IA Core Advocates - Mathematics today and participate as much or as little as you like: G+ groups, Twitter Chats, webinars, or just receive the email updates.


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 : april.pforts

It has been 10 years since the Legislature first established the Iowa Core Standards as the required standards for all Iowa students. We have learned through different professional development: leadership training, Investigations, Deeper Investigations. Certainly by now, everyone knows everything they need to know to implement the Iowa Core, right? It would be a mistake to make that assumption. 

The Iowa Department of Education’s Bureau of Standards and Curriculum is hard at work to ensure that the Iowa Core standards are the best for K-12 students and that we support the best resources and materials to implement them. Since the adoption of the Iowa Core standards, former Governor Terry Branstad issued Executive Order 83, which requires that the Department of Education maintain a regular cycle of standards review to continually improve the standards. This means that the standards will change as Iowa’s students learning needs change; the standards will continue to be updated so they always represent our best thinking about what students should know and be able to do.

This also means that the state may be adopting new sets of standards, as we did in the cases of science and social studies. We’ve learned going from adoption to implementation usually takes a three- to four-year plan. We are in the first year of our Social Studies implementation plan. The plan directs teachers and teacher teams to attend the Area Education Agency-led social studies standards overview professional development. Using information from that training, teachers need to identifying and gather materials and resources they’ll use to teach to the standards. Social studies teachers are strongly encouraged to use the Best Practices Rubric to reflect on their current teaching practices. Through reflection, educators can determine if best practices are the focus of their instruction. These are two important actions every social studies teacher should be taking and there are others outlined in the plan, in addition to actions for districts, AEAs, instructional coaches, and parents.  

While Social Studies is focused on learning the new standards, science, in year three of its four-year Implementation Plan, is focused on implementing the standards in every K-12 science classroom in the state. The Science Implementation Plan spells out yearly actions for teachers, teacher mentors and model teachers, districts, and AEAs. This year, all educators should continue to attend professional development. The focus of the training is on gathering and using evidence of three-dimensional learning. Teachers should regularly be using resources such the EQuIP rubric to evaluate lessons, units of instruction and instructional resources and modify lessons/materials to more completely align with all dimensions of the standards.

Literacy and Mathematics are launching a new Iowa Core Advocate Network this fall. Through monthly webinars, Iowa Core advocates will gain a deeper understanding of the shifts required by the Iowa Core and the best standards-aligned resources, tools and instructional practices in English/language arts and mathematics. This network is a community of teachers, teacher leaders, instructional coaches, AEA consultants, and others interested in learning more about the shifts and their impacts on instruction. Also, the Iowa Core advocate will be keeping abreast of the best tools available to support standards implementation. Interested educators can register by completing the Iowa Core Advocate Sign-Up Form:

In addition to the required standards, the Department now has undertaken the writing and approval of voluntary standards, beginning with Fine Arts standards, the first set to go before the Board of Education this November. In addition, the Department has convened a highly qualified group of computer science stakeholders to make recommendations regarding writing standards in that curriculum area.

So, while standards may seem like “old news,” we are working to make sure they represent the best current thinking around academic learning K-12 and that we have the best support possible for schools and teachers. The content consultants in the Bureau of Standards and Curriculum are passionate about their respective content areas and it shows in the work that they do. I have been a lead on the Iowa Core since its inception and I have never been more excited about the work that we are doing and its potential to impact Iowa’s students.

Posted by : rita.martens

winding roadFor 15 years, I taught high school social studies at North Scott Community School District in Eldridge, primarily in the subjects of geography, sociology and psychology. During most of those years, our curriculum was guided by the previous Iowa social studies standards. Those standards helped to guide my instruction and frame my courses in meaningful ways for my students, and gave me a framework for assessment of the student learning in my class.

However, as we begin to embark on a new trail with the passing of the new Iowa Core Social Studies standards, I cannot help but be envious of my colleagues who are still in the classroom. The new standards will bring about some positive changes to the “whats” and “hows” of Iowa social studies instruction. Among some of the changes which will have the largest positive impact are:

  • A focus on student inquiry, engaging students in the process of inquiry as the new inquiry standards outline skills such as developing compelling and supporting questions; analyzing primary and secondary sources of information to generate claims; drawing and evaluating arguments to claims; and communicating conclusions to inquiry rooted in evidence.
  • Deepening student learning by driving home higher order thinking through student-centered inquiry challenged by engaging in primary and secondary sources.
  • A renewed effort for intentionally addressing Iowa’s connection to social studies through standards addressing Iowa history.
  • A three-year implementation planned which includes professional development and learning on how to effectively implement curriculum using the Iowa Social Studies standards, along with an abundance of resources and tools that teachers will be able to easily access and utilize.

However, with change comes uncertainty and uneasiness. As a secondary instructional coach for the past two years, I have helped several teachers across multiple disciplines with their standards. Whether the work was individual, teach alike teams, or department-wide Professional Learning Communities (PLC) teams, the same questions seemed to surface every conversation:

  • Why do these standards matter anyway?
  • How can I cover all these standards?  I only have so much time and too much content.
  • Which standards are the ones I/we HAVE to cover?  
  • How do I break down these standards so the students can understand what it is asking them to learn?

As I prepare to help our district and potentially other districts implement the new Iowa Social Studies standards within the next three years, I anticipate the same types of questions. Here are some of the answers and insights into implementing the new standards.

  1. Should we prioritize and pick certain standards? This simple and complex answer to this question is no. The bottom line is this: If the standards are there, they are already deemed as important. As a part of the state of Iowa Writing Team for the new Social Studies standards, I know the research, time, and effort it took for that team to create the new standards. And then a second team of dedicated educators reviewed those standards through a lens of public feedback and revised and edited those standards into the document that the state of Iowa has today and was approved by the State Board of Education. It is now part of state law that ALL standards MUST be covered and mastered by the time a student graduates with a high school diploma. So for any district or teacher to eliminate the standards as being unimportant to their curriculum is a dangerous path to travel. It can lead to gaps in learning, and opens the door to different students in different classrooms getting a different education. I stated earlier that this is a simple and complex question to answer. Within any given unit of study for any grade level and/or course, you will have standards that are assessed and given a high priority, while other standards may be supporting standards that are covered but not necessarily to the same depth within that unit. However, ALL of the new Iowa Social Studies standards need to be covered and assessed at some point and time within the grade level and/or course.
  2. How can I include content standards, new “inquiry” standards, and Literacy in Social Studies standards? Over the past two years, there has been professional development available on the instructional shifts within teaching and implementing the Literacy in Social Studies standards. This professional learning is still available (contact Stefanie Wager at the Department of Education, or your local Area Education Agency for more information). As the state of Iowa released the new standards, they also released a three-year implementation plan. During year one, professional learning will be available through AEAs on the new Inquiry Standards, and eventually information and resources will be available on how to incorporate all three sets of standards into content units within each grade level/discipline.
  3. Unfortunately, school districts across the state are feeling the pinch of less time, less resources, and less finances to spend time on training teachers on curriculum development and planning. Many teachers and districts then fall into a trap of attempting to save time and money by simply fitting standards into their current curriculum. While this may be the fastest and easiest path to take with the new standards, it could lead to “watering down” the standards in a best case scenario, and worst case could lead to standards being misplaced or omitted from curriculum. As a teacher leader in our district, I have had to advocate for time and resources to help teachers and teams to work on aligning their standards and curriculum both within a class and across grade levels. Time and time again, this has led to discovering gaps in learning, content that is missing or needs to be eliminated, and a refined product where teachers can ensure that what they are teaching and what their students are learning is exactly what is being assessed.

The Social Studies State Leadership Team has spent countless hours developing and creating both resources and professional learning that will assist teachers, teacher leaders (such as instructional coaches), administrators and school districts as a whole implement the new Social Studies standards. Here are a few suggestions to prepare for this process in order to implement these standards with fidelity.

  • Take...your...time! This is a three-year process, and in order to implement the standards in the best way, teachers need to truly take their time and study the standards. What are they asking? What content do I need to adjust to support these standards? How can I make these standards accessible in order for all students to achieve proficiency?  
  • Seek help! Whether it be from a teacher leader who can research ways to unpack the standards and develop protocols for teacher teams to develop the curriculum, or from state of Iowa resources like the newly-revised Social Studies Resources webpage, or even from several professional learning opportunities that will be available on a local, regional, or state level, there is a wealth of resources and information accessible to all teachers and districts to assist with this important work.
  • Keep your focus on students! While this work in implementing the new standards will be difficult and time consuming, ultimately the new standards will help teachers and school districts provide a clear, consistent, relevant and challenging curriculum that will prepare all students for college or career education. It will allow teachers and school districts to challenge students to think in new and innovative ways that will prepare those same students to be productive citizens of our communities.


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 :

book with a key“At the intersection of poetry and literature sits drama.” Such were the words that framed the college-credit class populated with high school students. Much has been written about literacy standards and their integration into science and history classes, but do the standards effectively integrated into our K-12 literacy classes prepare our students for success in a college literature class? The best place to seek an answer for this question is by examining a college-level literature class and sample what is expected of students to be successful at this level.

I visited the college course Introduction to Literature at Eastern Iowa Community College (EICC) in Maquoketa. Maquoketa is fortunate to have an EICC satellite located next to the high school, making it convenient for our students to take college-level classes for dual credit while attending high school. Seth Archer, an EICC instructor, is an out-of-the-box educator who is passionate about making literature come alive for students. His challenging questions and layers of instruction prod students to think and formulate opinions. His expertise was evident as he led students to dig deeply into the meaning behind words, music, and performance. How do all three come together to create meaning?

This day was the class’s first foray into an analysis of the Broadway blockbuster Hamilton. Students had the book containing both text and performance photos from this play, adding a dimension beyond an analysis of the text as they listened to the music, analyzed written lyrics and examined performance photos.

The students were organized at tables with a partner. Directions were to reconfigure into groups of three and write discussion questions using concepts, terms, and elements the class had learned in a previous short story and poetry unit, questions designed with a focus on the musical Hamilton. Groups selected one of their questions to write on the board. A few student-created samples included the following:

  • In what ways does Hamilton take liberties with historical accuracy in order to connect with a modern audience?
  • How does the reoccurring rhythm found in the first stanzas of Hamilton’s “A Winter’s Ball,” “Guns and Ships,” and “Your Obedient Servant” describe Hamilton and forward the plot?

Standards used in this class extend those found in English-language arts (ELA) classes in high school. Those standards were:

  • RL.11–12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text.
  • RL.11–12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
  • RL.11–12.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.

Previously, the class had studied Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas, so they were asked to consider the following question: Does Hamilton hold up to the best poetry we have read?

Mr. Archer emphasized that when the lyrics are read, it does not feel like poetry. The words do not have the rhythm – the music holds the rhythm and establishes a mood that the words alone do not create. Students determined that the lyrics need performance to create the mood by bringing in additional contrasts. The class was encouraged to listen to the lyrics for tone and mood. Then a new layer was added as Mr. Archer described the costuming which provided the accoutrements of power.

As students compared the written lyrics to the photos from the performance, they considered how all of the elements alter what the audience perceives in terms of characterization. Their next step – what other songs would be good to analyze through the lens of lyrics, music, and performance?

As we examine the ELA standards at the secondary level, teachers are encouraged to take reading skills to a deeper level by integrating knowledge and ideas through an analysis of multiple interpretations.

According to Johnston High School English teacher and the 2010 National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling, “The Core is designed to enhance the cognitive dexterity of our students by getting them to focus more precisely, to transfer more fluidly, to construct more readily.”

A focus on depth of knowledge and text complexity in our instruction creates in our students an additional layer of analysis that can go beyond an English class and be applied in other subjects while developing authentic enjoyment of performance. It can also prepare our students for postsecondary success in a college-level class.


Principles for the Postsecondary Teachers of English (from the National Council of Teachers of English website)

Supplemental Information for Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy: New Research on Text Complexity (from Iowa Core website)

Simplifying Text Complexity (from TeachingChannel website)

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 : jschmidt@maquok...

FocusLast spring, I attended the most inspirational professional development sessions ever. Steve Leinwand, one of the lead authors of Principles to Actions, Ensuring Mathematical Success for All, spent the day in Iowa with the Statewide Mathematics Leadership Team. I left feeling reinvigorated and committed to make a small, yet significant, change to my teaching.

Steve’s challenge to us was to think about how we can encourage colleagues to implement the teaching practices for effective mathematics instruction. It has to start with our own practice. This made me wonder, “how am I working toward implementing the practices in my own instruction?”

One of Steve’s main points really resonated with me. He said that it is ineffective to expect to change everything all at once. Instead, Steve proposed to focus on one practice, do it really well, and then add another focus later. This seemed so simple because it is easier to focus on one thing rather than several. That’s a change from the past, when too often I have found myself leaving a professional development wanting to try everything. Then, I rarely continue any of them because I did not allow the time for those practices to become an innate part of my craft.

From the reflection of my own learning experiences in mathematics and permission from Steve to focus on just one practice, I committed to focusing on implementing tasks that promote reasoning and problem solving. According to Principles to Actions, implementing tasks that promote reasoning and problem solving means that “effectively teaching mathematics engages students in solving and discussing tasks that promote mathematical reasoning and problem solving, and allow multiple entry points, and varied solution strategies.”

This focus has helped me improve my instruction because I now encourage a variety of strategies for solving problems from my students. Creating a space for students to discuss how different methods are similar and different helps me know that they are engaged in the mathematics and are experiencing mathematical reasoning and problem solving.  

The students are willing to share their ideas and discuss with each other how to find the most efficient strategies. We often compare and contrast their solutions and, when someone comes up with a new or interesting method, we will give the student naming rights for the method. For example, a new method for factoring polynomials might be called the “Charles Method.” They feel pride in finding a strategy that helps their classmates understand how to solve a problem. 

Before I had a focus, I used to use a number of open-ended tasks that easily lent themselves to this type of group work and discussion. However, some students would struggle to interpret these more complex tasks. I would usually give students a handout with the task printed in paragraph form at the top of the page; then, the task would be followed by questions for the students to answer. We would read the problem together as a class and I would instruct them to work together in small groups to answer the questions. I knew that this was not working for many students because often students would not know what they were supposed to do or even what the problem was.

Steve helped me to see how to improve the equity of access to these tasks and introduced to me a new strategy to present tasks to my students. He suggested that instead of introducing all of the text at once, introduce the text one line at a time. Using this strategy, revealing each line of information with a pause for students to think, allows students the opportunity to reflect on what their background knowledge tells them about the situation. This gets the students engaged with the task, the reasoning, and the problem solving.

For example, consider the problem of calculating the amount of fertilizer needed to cover a specific area. First, I would first tell the students that Anne wants to purchase fertilizer. Now I would ask the students, “what do we know about Anne?” Some students might suggest she’s a farmer, some might say she runs a golf course. Already, they are curious about Anne, and curiosity is a powerful engager.  

As I introduce each line of information, the students are able to narrow down what they know about the situation and refine their beliefs about the problem. This is the point where the magic happens: After students have all the information they need about the task, I ask them, “What is the question?” Usually the question I was intending them to answer is one they most frequently suggest, but often the students suggest other questions that are more interesting and challenging to answer.  

Sometimes I let them choose which question they want to investigate or I will purposefully suggest which one they might want to start with first. Rarely are there questions about what they should be trying to find, and even when students are stuck, they can correctly tell me a lot about the context of the problem. Usually this is enough to get them engaged and ready to start even the most challenging tasks. 

Having a focus of one of the practices has made a significant difference to how my students experience mathematics, reasoning, and problem solving. Focusing on one thing has allowed me to implement and refine my practice and for it to become an innate part of my craft. I will purposefully pick a new focus for next year.

Call to action:


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 : Mary Watson

students in a science classroomJustin Uhlenhopp and Tyler Wedemeier are science teachers at Forest City Middle School (FCMS). As a first-year teacher at FCMS, Justin was introduced to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which are the basis of the new Iowa Science Standards, by Tyler, who explained how he had used these standards the year before. Now three years later, they have jointly developed a plan of attack for the implementation of the standards. In this blog, they are sharing what they learned over the past three years.

The new Iowa science standards are complicated and even overwhelming at times. They are clearly nothing like the prior Iowa Core standards that most of us were accustomed to using to design instructional units. The complex language is enough to hold back many teachers from full implementation. But there are ways that teachers can dig into the standards to help them create the experiences students need to learn them.

Unwrapping the standards

First, it is important to discover what students actually need to know and be able to do. Starting off with the “Big Book of Standards” can be very intimidating. Take for example, MS-ESS3-3: Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing human impact on the environment. We remember thinking, “Wow, what does that even mean?” It sounded like a ridiculous expectation and we had no idea what students would do to demonstrate understanding of that standard. We quickly realized that we needed to dig deeper and that is when we began the process of unwrapping our standards.

Although it is a long process, in our opinion, unwrapping (also called unpacking) is the most important piece of understanding the standards. The Sample Unit Unwrap document is an example of how we unwrapped a standard and then how we used the unwrapping process to help develop engaging tasks and assessments. While we tackled this unwrapping process on our own, educators undertaking this process today are lucky because Area Education Agency science consultants are currently offering professional learning workshops (called Module 2 in most AEAs) that include bundling and unwrapping/unpacking the standards. If you take a minute to review the process we used you will see all of the legwork that went into pulling this standard apart. In a nutshell, unwrapping will help you:

  • Identify the prior knowledge that your students are “supposed” to know when they come into your class;
  • Determine what students need to be able to do by looking at the practices/verbs of the standard;
  • Select core ideas of content concepts that students will need to know in order to be proficient on the standard;
  • Use cross cutting concepts taken directly from the NGSS evidence statements;
  • Write essential questions that students will need to be able to answer as a result of your core instruction;
  • Create learning targets for your unit; and
  • Design instruction, lesson plans, formative assessments, labs, activities, and summative assessments aligned to the standards.

It took us about a year to complete the unwrapping process for all of our standards, but the time was well-spent. Unwrapping all of our grade-level assigned standards has made the rest of the implementation process much smoother. We now know specifically what students are supposed to learn and how they should best demonstrate their learning. As teachers, the process also gave us an idea of what content we might need to brush up on ourselves. I admit, as a new teacher, there were some times of major struggle in having to relearn some of the science content, but fully unwrapping those standards really helped me to focus and understand my content in a new way.

It is hard work, but worth the effort

At Forest City Middle School we take chances. We push the limits and are always looking for new ways to improve our instruction. Implementing these standards was challenging. Many hours went into unwrapping them, and then aligning them with what fit our building and district needs. We made changes as we implemented and found support when we needed it. There were definitely times of struggle, but our science department is no doubt better because of it. We now have better consistency in our science department across sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. Our students are coming into our classrooms with a better ability to be proficient scientists.

As our elementary school begins implementation of the new science standards, we hope to see the content gaps that currently exist start to dissipate. Over time we know that the standards are undoubtedly a major step forward in science education. Our students are asked to do things that they never would have been asked to do with our old standards. When implementing these standards, remember that anytime you try something new, things aren’t going to be perfect. Chances are the new things you are doing will be better than what you did before.

Implementing new standards, especially standards written in a way that focuses on all three dimensions of science learning, is not always easy; actually it is really messy. However, we determined that when we take the time to really unpack and learn our standards, and when we keep a growth mindset, we are successful. Overall, we really like the new standards and the process we have used for implementation. Our science curriculum is now focused on 21st century instruction, there is better alignment in grades 6-8. We teach with a big picture in mind and focus on how the science and engineering practices overlap and build on each other across the grade levels, and we have consistent language to use when talking with our peers and with parents.

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 : Justin Uhlenhop...

children at desksIn my role as a literacy consultant for Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency, I have the opportunity to work with teachers in many different school districts. I often hear from teachers that the majority of their day is spent teaching reading and math. As they struggle to find time to teach social studies and science, many teachers are using content area trade books and other text sources during their literacy block.  What does this look like and how can it benefit students?

Content area literacy instruction happens in all classrooms, kindergarten through 12th grade. By complementing content-area textbooks with other sources, teachers can provide motivation for reading and may improve content-area learning.

If children are to be prepared for the literacy demands of the future, they need access to informational trade books, magazines, newspapers, and electronic text. Content-area literacy focuses on the similarities of literacy in the content area with general strategies – like summarizing, questioning, and making inferences – that help students with comprehension and can be applied universally across content areas.

teacher in classroomJodi Jacobsen, a fourth grade teacher at Manson Northwest Webster, has been successfully integrating literacy into content-area instruction.  I recently visited Jacobsen’s class to observe what she calls "workshop" time. This is when her team integrates literacy instruction with science and social studies content.

Currently, students are studying inventions and energy. Jodi began the lesson by having three students hold up three different objects: a Thermos, a blanket, and a thermal headband. Students concluded that these objects all have something in common – heat and energy. Jacobsen then showed a short video clip from StudyJams website related to heat energy. Tying both of the previous activities together, Jacobsen then read aloud from the trade book, Destinations in Science, stopping periodically to ask students if they could make connections between the book and video.

During all units such as this one, the fourth grade team ensures that their read-alouds fit into the content. For example, they’re currently reading a Magic Tree House book about inventors while they study inventions. The learning from these content-rich read-alouds is also a perfect way to spark student-led investigations or lead to students engaging in engineering design challenges.

During guided reading, the team pulls in nonfiction books that align with content-area standards. Their use of content area literacy is embedded into a Balanced Literacy classroom environment through shared reading, read aloud, guided reading, and independent reading. Content-area writing is also included throughout the day in all subject areas.

It was obvious to me while visiting Jacobsen’s classroom that a positive culture and climate exists, where students are engaged in collaborative conversations and learning that encourages the success of all. Throughout the lesson, students were asked to share their thinking with a partner or small group. As I listened to the students’ reflections, their grasp of the new material as well as their background knowledge of previous lessons was evident. Jacobsen’s lesson used a variety of instructional strategies, student groupings, and an excellent model of how the integration of science and literacy instruction can achieve deeper understanding of both.

If you’re interested in exploring more about content-area literacy, excellent resources can be found on the Iowa Core website. Check out the Science Resources webpage, which will lead you to the Curriculum Planning webpage from the website, where you can find ways to integrate using science to support literacy in English language arts.

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 :

civil war imagesSo what are the major differences in practice that one should expect to see when the Iowa Core Standards in Literacy are being implemented? Those differences in classroom practice, materials, and assessment are described by what are called the shifts. So what are the English Language Arts shifts? The first shift is regular practice with complex texts and their academic language. Next, reading, writing, and speaking are grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational. Finally, students should be building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.

When I first read these, I thought the avenue to apply them was through social studies and science. So I decided to dig deeper into what each shift meant while applying them to literacy and social studies in my third grade classroom.

I looked at social studies to meet the standard SS.3-5.H8 Understand cause and effect relationships and other historical thinking skills in order to interpret events and issues and SS.3-5.G.1 Understand the geographic tools to locate and analyze information about people, places, and environments. Then I considered the ELA shifts and standards.

I coupled literacy: RI.3.1 Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers; RI.3.3 Describe the relationship between a series of historical events using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect; RI.3.7 Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text; and W.3.10 Write routinely over extended time frames and shorter time frames for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

You are probably thinking, “How could I possibly meet all those standards in a lesson?” It is actually a series of lessons that connect all these standards that takes a week’s time in reading, writing, and social studies.

So, what would that look like? It all started with a question posed as an inquiry to my students: How was our country divided during the Civil War? When considering the first shift: regular practice of complex texts and academic language meant infusing the close reading strategy during my shared reading block with the passage, “Slavery, the Civil War & Reconstruction: Background to the Civil War-Balance Sheet.” (Note: This passage and many others are available from, where you can sign up for a free account.) Each day had a “standards” purpose for rereading the text.

On Day 1, I read the text to my class focusing on finding the main idea (which they wrote at top of the page) and vocabulary (Tier 2 words: confident, opinion, experienced, terrain, attitude)(Tier 3 words: cavalry, cannon, Confederacy). On Day 2, we choral read the passage and the students found the big ideas related to the main idea. They highlighted them in yellow and recorded them on their note taking graphic organizer). On Day 3, the students read the passage with a partner and found five to seven details to go with each big idea (highlighting them in red and recording the big ideas on their note taking sheet). On Day 4, the students reread the passage with a partner, wrote the author’s purpose in the left margin and asked a question in the right margin. On Friday, we discussed their questions and possible sources that could help when answering them. The students read the passage on their own, answering the questions within the passage (right there and inferential) while citing their evidence in orange. During writing time on Day 5, students wrote a summary for the passage using their notetaking planner as a guide.

Another piece of this shift is considering text-complexity, the Lexile band range for third grade is 450-980. The Lexile measure is a readability scale used in many schools in Iowa to match readers’ ability to text. Knowing that the Lexile (670) for this passage, coupled with the rich academic vocabulary, it met the criteria for allowing students to move forward on the staircase of complexity.

The second shift, reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and nonfiction, incorporates the close reading passage already referred to with the lesson as well as including additional text, Pink and Say, a historical fiction story by Patricia Polacco. I connected this story to another text, “Slavery, the Civil War & Reconstruction: Background to the Civil War-Balance Sheet.” Pink and Say is read during my interactive Read Aloud time where students free respond at designated stopping points. I read a few pages to the students and then say, “free response.” The students write for one-and-a-half to two minutes in the first box of the four on their notebook paper with a response to one of the following prompts:

  • Ask a question about what has been read so far.
  • Make a prediction about what will happen next.
  • Write about what you like or dislike (and why) about what has been read so far.
  • Make a connection to another text we have already read.
  • Tell how you feel about the text that has been read.

When the time is up, the kids pair/share their response with a partner and tell the evidence that supports his or her thinking. I continue throughout the book in this manner. I have specifically chosen stopping spots that relate to time sequence and cause/effect since that is one of my standard focuses.

Finally we hit the third shift, building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction. A part of this shift is realizing that nonfiction texts can be more than just books. In his article, “You Want Me to Read What?,” Timothy Shanahan identifies nonfiction as “biographies and autobiographies; books about history, social studies, science, and the arts; technical texts, including directions, and information displayed in graphs, charts, or maps, and digital sources on a range of topics.”  With this in mind, I couple my literacy and geography standards by playing an I Spy game focusing on inquiry for my lesson. Watch a video clip of a lesson where students are locating places on the map, determining geographic features, and making connections to the story, Pink and Say, and references to their own independent research.

After incorporating a variety of both literature and nonfiction texts, providing space for inquiry and opportunity to dig deeper into how was our country divided during the Civil War, students were assessed through a quick write. Here is a student example and class sharing of quick write responses.

Connecting social studies and literacy is the perfect way to gain time in your day, allow students to develop a rich understanding of concepts and skills, and provide sources to support students in systematically developing knowledge about the world. It is time for all of us to shift our thinking.


ELA Shifts:

Article: You Want Me to Read What? by Timothy Shanahan

Mapping Lesson Plan

Close Reading Procedure linked to third grade ELA standards:

Reading Passage from: Slavery, the Civil War & Reconstruction: Background to the Civil War – Balance Sheet

(Note: This passage and many others are available from, where you can sign up for a free account.)

Free Blank United States Map

Note Taking Graphic Organizer

Literature books:

Pink and Say by Patrica Polacco (lesson focus)

Other Related texts:

  • Words That Built A Nation (Marilyn Miller; 1999, Scholastic.)
  • Addy's Surprise: A Christmas Story (American Girls Collection) (Melodye Benson Rosales (Illustrator), et al; 1993, Pleasant Company Publications)
  • Addy Learns a Lesson: A School Story (American Girls Collection) (Melodye Benson Rosales (Illustrator), Connie Rose Porter; 1993, Pleasant Company Publications)
  • Abe’s Honest Words (Doreen Rapport; 2008, Hyperion Books for Children)
  • If You Lived At the Time of the Civil War (Kay Moore; 1994, Scholastic)
  • Under the Freedom Tree (Susan VanHecke, 2014, Charlesbridge)
  • Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation (Pat Sherman; 2009, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.)
  • Abe Lincoln Comes Home (Robert Burleigh, 2014 ,Macmillan)

Video clips:

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 : kheckart@crprai...