The Learning 2.0 School

Shifting Perceptions of Teaching and Learning in and out of the School Library

Reflections on Planning Authentic Teaching & Learning in Geography Class

Posted by Michelle Torrise on January 29, 2012

Last week I met with my colleagues to work on developing a collaborative geography unit that focuses on authentic learning.  The majority of our 3 hour meeting was spent on discussing the overarching themes and essential questions of the unit, which led to a discussion on rethinking the entire course.   I left the meeting excited about the project, but a little unsure of what we accomplished.

Then I came across a post in one of my favorite blogs, Thinking Mind, published by Neil Stephenson (PD Coordinator, Calgary Science School).  In a post on Student Centered Learning,  Neil talks about his experience when planning an inquiry unit on the Italian Renaissance with two grade 8 Humanities teachers.  He commented, “In our planning sessions, almost all the time was spent developing and clarifying the central question (and sub questions) of the inquiry. ”   I was relieved to learn that this planning is essential to creating authentic learning.   Neil further explains the importance of inquiry and authentic learning in his post Creating Authentic Learning.

This position of authentic learning is also supported by the National Council of Social Studies.  The NCSS states in their position statement of the qualities of a powerful and authentic SS curriculum, “(the) skills necessary to help our students thrive in a world of continuous and accelerating change are emphasized. These include discipline-based literacy, multi-disciplinary awareness, information gathering and analysis, inquiry and critical thinking, communication, data analysis and the prudent use of twenty-first century media and technology. Skills are embedded throughout meaningful social studies lessons, rather than added on at the end.”

Beyond my professional reading, my mind hasn’t stopped spinning about the conversations I had last week with my colleges on Bloom’s Taxonomy, essential questions, and developing critical thinking and problem solving skills in the Geography curriculum.    I wanted to share my thoughts on connecting our conversation and goals to the bigger picture.  As I reflect on our work,  my inquiring mind wants to know…

What is the ultimate goal of education?  My thoughts today (they’re always evolving) are, “whether we are teaching students who are rich or poor, white or brown, conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, gay or straight…high school teachers are in a unique position to engage and empower youth in ways that prepare them to be active and productive citizens of the world they will inherit.”

What does this mean at the high school level?  “This might mean something different within each content area, but I think we all should have the same goal of developing the skills students need to be “globally competent.”  Specifically towards Geography, I think Ryan Goble (who is part of our team) referenced the perfect term, “geo-literacy.”  This leads me to a follow-up question that is somewhat of a paradox in education, “How do we build global competency [or geo-literacy] while respecting the unique backgrounds of ALL students WITHOUT sterilizing the curriculum?”  One answer might be, “by encouraging students to share, develop, and synthesis their thoughts and ideas in a safe and culturally responsive environment, i.e., modeling cultural responsiveness in the classroom.”  See, Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers (Villegas and Lucas, 2002).

Within this context, what geo-literacy skills might be taught in geography class? These skills might include: the ability to identify and value the unique aspects of a culture and land; being able to identifying a particular community’s needs, assets, and human resources; understanding how to do research within the field of sociology (e.g., what is the difference between big university/funded research and action or participatory research, etc.); assessing solutions and outcomes for community issues and growth; and, articulating how different agents impact particular communities.

What does this look like from a planning perspective? One example unit objective might be….”Students will develop, articulate, and support their own perspectives on the following guiding questions of inquiry within the context of specific geographic areas of study.”

How do everyday experiences shape quality of life and culture within society?
Why are some communities resistant to poverty while others are not?
Why are some communities able to develop sustainable resources while others are not?
How do communities draw on natural and human resources to strengthen communities?

What is the overarching essential question to frame the unit?  

An overarching essential question  (and there are many, e.g., insert big business, history, migration, etc.) to frame these questions as a unit might be, “Does [geography] play a positive or negative role shaping community and culture”?

The beauty of this question is there is no one answer because in reality there are many positive and negative aspects of geography (or business, government history, migration, etc.)…This essential question will engage students in some very relevant discussions on geography and its impact on cultures, societies, economics, environmental issues, industries, and sustainability.   The outcome, “students will uncover the interdisciplinary complexities and authentic study of geography, leaving with more questions then they started with. “

Just a few thoughts and ideas to share.


Villegas and Lucas. Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers: Rethinking the Curriculum.  Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 53, No. 1, January/February 2002 20-32


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Deprogramming Math Students

Posted by Michelle Torrise on January 14, 2012

When I came across Dan Meyer’s Ted Talk, I almost passed it over.  Why? Meyer is a high school math teacher.  I really enjoyed math as a student–made it through precalculus–but retained very little of what I’ve learned, and I wasn’t sure if his was information I needed on a Saturday morning.   But,  I had time while enjoying a cup of coffee, and his talk had an impressive 687,331 views, so I hit the play button.

In his talk, Meyer talks about how the majority of his students, many of whom are at the remedial level, start the semester with a virus of impatience and lack of initiative.  They don’t want to take the time to define a problem or seek the information they need to solve it.  They thrive on the textbook approach, which is: provide students with the problem and then give them the information and substeps they need to solve it.  This is dangerous, Meyer says, because this is not how real world problems are actually solved.    He goes on to provide clear examples of how to address this instructional issue by dissecting a traditional text book problem and demonstrating  how to rewrite the problem for real world application.

I’m so glad I took the time to watch Myer’s math curriculum makeover,  because it less than 12 minutes, I was reintroduced to the exciting and integral nature of mathematics.   So much so, that I think math word problems should be integrated into every subject area as a strategy to develop critical think and problem solving skills!  Here’s Meyer’s ideas for Social Studies  and Language Arts through Digital Storytelling

You can see Meyer’s talk on Ted.  See > Dan Meyer: Math Class Needs a Makeover.

Follow Dan Meyer’s Blog at dy/dan, less helpful.

Read more about Dan Meyer in Education Week.

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Teaching Research Skills: Is Daily Integration Possible?

Posted by Michelle Torrise on October 10, 2011

In my work of supporting our staff towards an increased focus on research in the curriculum, it’s been important to me to take the time to understand their concerns with the research process.  I’ve been especially eager to understand what might, in general, prevent a teacher from teaching research skills or assigning research projects on a regular basis.  It is my understanding that some teachers feel:

  • Research projects take too long–when will I find the time when I have to teach content?
  • Research Projects take too long to grade–what about time for lesson planning?
  • Students don’t know how to research–shouldn’t they know this already?
  • Teachers don’t know how to teach research–shouldn’t the media specialist or English Department be teaching research skills?

These are all valid concerns, and my first response has been to try and fix them all.  I thought, I could work with every teacher on every research project to help reduce the work load.  I could help teachers grade research projects to save time.  I could come up with skills sets and rubrics and ask teachers to integrate them in their classes.  I could teach all these skills myself.    And, I would love to do all of these things, but would these goals be realistic?  

And, then I thought, “we are/I am over-thinking the research process, and in over-thinking it, we are/I am avoiding the teaching of it because it looks like too big of a problem to address in one class, one semester, one content area, with one media specialist.”


I realized I had to refocus my efforts and so decided to look at strategies for authentic research. Most of us problem solve and use our research skills every day in various areas of our life.  In fact, in real world applications, we rarely pull off a full blown research project.  How do we do this?  Most of the time we address larger problems or information needs by completing smaller, more manageable research activities incrementally over time.   Most research that we actively engage in on a daily basis–even when it’s related to larger problems–is done in chunks, we chunk by problem type (financial, parental, professional);  we chunk our time (set agendas, to do lists), we chunk our information sources (read paper for politics, hire attorney for legal matters, search internet for health issues, ).


This “chunking” is part of the project management process.  I believe that it is our ability to “chunk” that allows us to manage daily research.  We research daily when we question things in the news,  look something up on the Internet, call a reliable source on the phone, plan for a day of work, interact with other people to solve relationship problems, or raise a family.   In all of these situations we activate prior knowledge, seek new information, synthesis what we have to come up with new ideas, evaluate what we’ve done (or not done),  make decisions/plans, and take action.  Most of us, even seek feedback from others, in the process.  So what happens when we don’t know how to chunk?  Life becomes overwhelming We stop problem solving.  We get stuck, among other things.


Looking back at our teachers’ concerns above, I would say, it’s not at all necessary to assign a full research project to teach the skills students need to be effective and efficient researchers.   In fact, these large projects (if not scaffolded properly) can be overwhelming and stifle the problems soling process.  Why not emulate authentic research processes by “chunking” research into daily lessons.  Put another way, why not integrate research across the curriculum by asking students to (themselves) ask questions, look something up, evaluate a source,  call on a reliable source, or write a reflection on something new they learned.


What about content?  We can easily integrate content by focusing on research within particular content areas, asking students to think like a researcher in that field.

How do historians do research?
How do Economists do research?
How do environmentalists do research?
What questions do they ask?
What sources do they use?
Who are the experts in their field?
How do they evaluate decisions made within their field?
How do they write about these issues?
In what medium?
Who critiques their issues?
Who advocate for them?
Who protests against them?

If you think about it, we don’t all need to be a media specialists or English teachers to teach research!  Amazing research projects can start by:

  • Posing essential questions around issues, current events, famous people.
  • Encouraging students to explore multiple political, social, and cultural perspectives of all topics.
  • Giving students a rubric up front, so they are clear about expectations.
  • Helping students evaluate and find reliable sources.
  • Require students to cite sources properly.

As important (if not, most importantly), we don’t need to wait for that once-a-year, 30 page research project to teach research skills.  Assign smaller research projects that scaffold research skills so that when you get to the larger projects, you can focus on content and writing.


There are many great ideas for alternative research projects.  See >

Sample (Research) Assignments: Ideas for Research Assignments Incorporating the Use of Information Retrieval Systems, Buena Vista University (Iowa).

Not a Research Paper: Alternative Assignments to Teach Research Practices, Western New England University.

For more ideas, use Google to search the terms> alternative research assignments, alternative research projects, mini-research projects, teaching research skills, teaching information literacy skills, teaching critical thinking, teaching problem solving.

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Why is Critical Literacy Important?

Posted by Michelle Torrise on October 4, 2011

As I look at the Common Core Standards, one skill set that stands out to me as a media specialist (although not specifically named) is Critical Literacy.  And, one analytical facet of Critical Literacy is identifying stereotypes in print and other media.  I’m making this statement because I just opened an article of interest, “Turning Digital Natives into Digital Citizens” by Dave Saltman, and to my surprise, I read.

Today’s K–12 students are commonly called digital natives because they have grown up with digital technology. But natives can run wild, using the Internet to (wittingly or unwittingly) plagiarize others’ work or bully peers using social media.”

At first glance, this passage [published in The Harvard Education Letter (Sept/Oct 2011)], seems like a very appropriate statement.

Now, read the passage again, this time noting the underlined text.

“Today’s K–12 students are commonly called digital natives because they have grown up with digital technology. But natives can run wild, using the Internet to (wittingly or unwittingly) plagiarize others’ work or bully peers using social media.”

The stereotype (that natives “run wild”) might not be obvious at first glance; however, if the text is read critically, one can see that even an op-ed in The Harvard Education Letter (a blog published by The Harvard Education Publication Group) can/must be criticized.

Why is this important? 

In an age of information overload, students must be able to critically analyze the information they seek and receive—regardless of authority, regardless of reputation, even, and especially if, the information they published out of Harvard.

If you are interested in reading the entire article, see >

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Reading & Professional Development Opportunities for History Teachers

Posted by Michelle Torrise on September 19, 2011

Chicago, IL

American Historical Association, What We’re Reading.   A great resource for historical perspective on current events.  My favorite link, The Jackie Kennedy Tapes (September 15, 2011).

126th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, January 5-8, 2012, Chicago IL.  One of many interesting sessions include Teaching the Past in a Digital World: New Perspectives for History Education.

An American Studies.  A Blog published by two New Trier teachers, Spiro Bolos (Social Studies) and John S. O’Connor (English).  I was fortunate to have attended one of Bolos’s professional development workshops at the 2010 ICE conference, where he presented on copyright.  Bolos and O’Connor’s Blog exemplifies best practices in teaching and integrating media literacy, critical thinking, and problem solving.    Also, don’t miss Bolos’s Modern World History Blog.   Notice how the students are actively communicating on the blogs–an indicator of best practices in tech integration.

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School 2.0

Posted by Michelle Torrise on September 18, 2011

What will schools look like in the future?   Some interesting perspectives on what teaching and learning will look like over the next 10 years.

21 Things That Will Be Obsolete by 2020

Envision the School Day of the Future

The School Day of the Future is DESIGNED

Reshaping Learning from the Ground Up

Transforming Information Flow in School Libraries

My favorite…school will be open 24/7, as lessons will be posted online and available to students around the clock and around the world.   Khan Academy offers over 2,400 videos free of charge.   The irony, Khan posts all their videos on YouTube, which is blocked by many schools.

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Character as a Predictor of Academic Success

Posted by Michelle Torrise on September 18, 2011

I came across the article “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” (Paul Tough, NYT, September 14, 2011) and was intrigued by the approach of two schools in integrating character education into their academic program.   As co-founder of A Better Community for Clissold, an parent group formed initially to raise awareness of bullying in one Chicago public elementary school, I’m very familiar with the concept of character education.   However, the approach two very different New York middle schools,  KIPP and Riverdale, was truly a comprehensive and integrated approach to educating the “whole child.”

David Levin and Dominic Randolph, principal and headmaster of KIPP and Riverdale, respectively, took character development to the next level by commiting to placing equal importance on students’ character development.    Both were influenced by the work of Angela Duckworth, Assoc. Professor at Penn State, whose published research [See >  Self-discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents, Duckworth & Seligman  (2005)]  showed that character is “at least” as important as grades in predicting long-term success. 

As I was reading through the study, I wondered if students with high self-discipline are also better critical thinkers and problem solvers–making this research even more important to educators who are seeking ways to improve the critical thinking skills of students.

At KIPP and Riverdale students receive (along with their regular report card grades) evaluative feedback scores on character traits based on a 12 point Grit Scale (Ex.1)–a research based tool developed by Duckworth that measures traits such as perseverance, passion and self-regulation. See > Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals, Duckworth & Peterson (2007).   What makes this so effective is that the Grit Scale is a part of students’ regular assessment.  Jessie Courburn (10th grade AP History teach), for example, incorporates attitude and professionalism in his student self-evaluations..  See > Socratic Seminar Self Evaluation.

At Westmont High School (WHS), I believe that we take the emotional well being of our students very seriously.  We employ a full time psychologist, we have a very dedicated and knowledgeable special education team, and we sponsor the always well attended Snowball Retreat, among many other activities that keep our students engaged in the school community.   WHS teachers are also very dedicated to the social and emotional needs of students–as affirmed by students participating in last year’s (2010-2011) senior focus groups, who stated across the board that one of the attributes of high quality teaching demonstrated at WHS was the dedication of WHS teachers in supporting the individual needs of students.

It is because of the school-wide dedication at WHS, that can’t help but wonderHow might our students benefit from an integrated approach to utilizing the Grit Scale (or something similar) in individual course curricula?

Other Essential Questions

How strong is the correlation between a student’s level of self-regulation and perseverance and their critical thinking and problems solving skills?
How can a focus on traits of self regulation and perseverance be built into projects that require a higher level of critical thinking and problem solving?

Exhibit 1Duckworth’s Grit Scale

Consistency of Interests:
I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one
New ideas and new projects sometimes distract me from previous ones
I become interested in new pursuits every few months
My interests change from year to year
I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest
I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete
Perseverance of Effort:
I have achieved a goal that took years of work
I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge
I finish whatever I begin
Setbacks don’t discourage me
I am a hard worker
I am diligent

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Critical Thinking and U.S. History Texts

Posted by Michelle Torrise on September 17, 2011

Teaching and learning about American Indians can be challenging, especially because of the many misconceptions about the American Indian culture and the lack of a balanced perspective on the experiences of Native American people in U.S. History texts. While many text books have been edited to eliminate stereotypes of American Indians, there is still a great deal of misinformation out there.  The following article, while of value to us as teachers, would be a great critical literacy assignment for students, who could select a literary or information text and critically evaluate the resource.  See> Evaluating American Indian Textbooks and Other Materials for the Classroom (Montana Office of Public Instruction, 1996).

I thought it very pertinent in today’s time to uncover some of the new research on the retelling of Native American History.  For ideas and lesson plans, you might be interested in The Westward Expansion: A New Curriculum, published by The Choices Program.   See > The Western Expansion: A New Curriculum (1st Ed.) .

I came across this website on the American Indian Mascot Issue and thought it a relevant current tie in between the current protest unit and the start of the unit on Native Americans.  There are some great articles here that students could read and analyze in class.  See > Understanding the American Indian Mascot Issue: A Collection of Writings on Team and Name Logos. (STAR, 2003).

Another great resource for tying in to the social protest movement is this lesson plan on Dramatizing Native American Resistance Movements.   See > Dramatizing Native American Resistance Movements (Freedom Archives, n.d.)

Here is an article that outlines important teaching strategies when teaching about Native Americans.  This would also be an interesting uncovering activity with students.  See > Appropriate Methods to Use When Teaching About Native American Peoples (, n.d.)

This is a Great Article about the Myths of Native Americans.  This would be an excellent supplemental text and a great way to introduce a mini research project.  Ask students to pick one myth and make a connection with another culture that has experienced a similar disconnect. See > Myths of Native Americans (Flemming, 2006).

For other lesson plans on teaching Native American culture.  This document contains some great opportunities to make connections to Native American literature.  See> American Indian Culture and Language: A Curriculum Framework.

To find additional information search the following terms:  alternative texts for teaching U.S. History;  alternative perspectives for teaching about Western expansion; alternative perspectives on American Indian History.

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Essential Questions – 9/11

Posted by Michelle Torrise on September 9, 2011

I just wanted to pass along a few 9/11 resources that were shared with me.   As a side note, my husband is a lieutenant on the Chicago Fire Department.  He was deeply impacted by the event.  He visited New York shortly after 9/11 with a group of fireman to attend funerals and memorials and still wears an engraved bracelet in memory of one of the fallen fireman.  This year (being the 10th anniversary) we have been talking a great deal about the event and how it changed America.

I’m sure you are/will be having similar conversations in your classrooms.    Consider posing  one or more essential questions to guide these discussions…to learn about what students are thinking…to encourage students to reflect of life experience…to reinforce connections between school and the real world.  A few interesting essential questions that came to my mind when I looked at the resources from Rights Working Group were:

  • How has 9/11 impacted my family/community?
  • Do I have a personal connection that I can reflect on?
  • How has life changed in my community, city, state as a result of 9/11?
  • What rights am I willing to give up to protect the nation as a whole?
  • What are the connections between 9/11 and history, law, science, etc.?

Just a few resources….

Discover Education 9.11: Rise, Reconnect and Remember – Resources, Free Webinars, 9/11 Theme Pages, Discussion Guides, and more.  Contact Michelle Torrise for Pass Code to access premium web site.

Free 9/11 Documentaries – Thank you Mr. Landreth!

Remembering 9/11:  Resources for the 10th Anniversary, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.

Reflecting on our Loss and Reclaiming our Rights Resource Packet, Rights Working Group.

The 9/11 Tapes, New York Times

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What is Quality Professional Development?

Posted by Michelle Torrise on August 22, 2011

What is Quality Professional Development?  For me, it’s learning from and with peers in ways that get me excited about teaching.

This summer a group of teachers, administrators and fellow specialists, known as the District Leadership Team (DLT),  spent 8 non-consecutive days exploring quality teaching.  Using the same differentiated learning strategies that model quality teaching in the classroom, we dissected Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching.  We considered how our teaching practices at Westmont High School compare to Danielson’s Framework and how can it be used to guide us towards continued growth as quality educators.  We then worked together to plan our District’s first Institute Day.

As a media specialist, I was excited at the opportunity to focus on working with teachers and administrators to increase our focus on information literacy and 21st Century Skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, within the context of quality teaching.   In addition to my work on the DLT, I worked with our reading specialist to outline a research model that focusing on common core skills, and I worked with our assistant principal, Nancy Bartosz, to interview exiting seniors on their ideas of quality teaching.

Before I knew it, summer was over, but I wasn’t disappointed.   As far as I was concerned, I was excited about the new school year and ready to start implementing all the new tools I had discovered over the summer.

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