Three Epiphanies about Content-Area Learning

Do you ever feel like with everything you have going on in your life, it can move through time like a freight train, with events, activities, and schedules just coming and going when you don’t stop to take it all in? I certainly do! Sometimes, I make goals for myself to reach a certain point in the year or to complete a set of tasks, only to find that when I get to that point, it’s off I go to the next goal. Not this time!

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Photo Source (No artist listed)

Stop and Reflect!

I am just completing another course in my Masters program, and as fast as summer classes go, I have decided to stop and reflect on this one. My point is not to “stop and smell the roses” as I finish another class; rather, I need to stop and think about everything I’ve learned and synthesize it. What did I gain from my time in this class in content-area learning? How can it change my practice for the better? With what I’ve gained since June, how can I apply it for the betterment of my students, especially for those kids who need the most intensive work and encouragement I can give them?

Epiphany #1: “We are all math people” (Brown, 2016)

(Brown, 2016)

One of my family’s favorite shows to watch together is PBS’ Arthur, based on the book series by Marc Brown. I love the episode “Sue Ellen Adds It Up” because it’s encouraging, and the message at the end shows kids that everyone can “do math”, it just sometimes needs to be framed into their world of reference. But every time I watch this episode, it occurs to me that my struggling learners live this character’s reality every day. During math class, she excuses herself to the restroom upon being stressed during the lesson, saying, “I have a confession to make: I’m not a math person. Sometimes, when I’m in math class, it seems as if Mr. Ratburn (her teacher) is speaking a different language” (Brown, 2016). This highlights one epiphany from my course this summer! I have experienced first-hand that my students can relate to Sue Ellen’s character, but now I am seeing precisely why. Though it’s not the same for every student, I now know more about what specific struggles some students encounter when they step into core-content classes, math being one of these struggle zones. For example, I have come to realize that some kids could struggle because when a concept is presented, it may have taken more explicitly presented background knowledge. Or maybe such a student as Sue Ellen was taught a small measure of background information, but due to a learning disability, the concepts didn’t stick within her long-term memory, as she needed more time, practice, and work with that idea. Perhaps the way the concepts were presented was to rapid, or was presented in a way that her struggles weren’t anticipated before the lesson was taught, and she struggled to learn it before her peers moved on to another concept in the unit. No wonder some of our most challenged learners decide, as the cartoon character, “I’m not a math person”, and any notion of success is tainted with this mind set. I’ve learned this summer why my students are struggling, yet I’ve also learned how to help them see that “we are all math people” (Brown, 2016).

Epiphany #2: Grow their “Growth Mindset”!

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Photo, License

After this semester, I now feel like I have more specific tools to employ to help my students to see beyond their learning “limits”. Sometimes, it begins with the premises of planning. For example, one tool of which I had never before heard is content enhancement, “an instructional method that relies on using powerful teaching devices to organize and present content in an understandable and easy-to-learn manner. Teachers identify the content that they deem to be most critical and teach it using powerful teaching routines that actively engage students” (The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, 2009). By using content enhancement principles and routines, we as teachers can better plan to help students to experience confidence and to anticipate growth in the core content subjects with which they may struggle, rather than to present it ways that may counter-affect their success.

Beginning with student success in mind thus takes planning, but more than mere lesson planning. Another part of this epiphany I’ve had encompasses so much more: the growth mindset. I have come to realize that building this as an underlying framework for my students who are challenged in their learning could turn the tides for them, giving them a path beyond a “fixed mindset”. When interviewed by writer James Morehead, Carol S. Dweck of Stanford University defined the difference between these defining ways of thinking:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.

In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it (Morehead, 2012).

The definition and difference opened my eyes! I want to show my students that they can grow through struggle. I love the lesson from Khan Academy:

Yes! My enlightenment in a three-minute nutshell! Now, finally…

Epiphany #3: Data, data, data!

I want to think that I’ve always known data is important. I don’t think I had fully realized up until this point, however, that the data I collect with purpose and planning will drive my success, as well as the success of my students. This may sound like a really crazy thing to have just fully realized, but haven’t we all given assessments of various kinds and then not used the data to move forward? I will admit it here and in the open: sometimes, that’s me. Or, I will have SO many students to assess that I just don’t get all of the data I need to properly use it, to see my efforts either failing or coming to fruition. Covering this more explicitly has made me see that it’s vital to develop and give good assessments, look at the data I collect from all learners, and to then use it to guide what I need to do for their best benefit. Through the IRIS Center, teacher Jessica Weisenbach Sellers said of assessment, “I can see if my instruction is increasing student learning and make adjustments throughout the year… By the end of the year I know I’ve increased student learning through my instruction because I’ve tracked their growth all year” (Weisenbach Sellers, 2017). Knowing this, I now feel that I am better equipped to move forward in helping my students to grow since I began my course in June!

What epiphanies have you had in teaching and learning? I’d love to hear about them, so click on the comment icon and let me know your thoughts! Thank you for reading my blog! 🙂

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Photo source


Ballard, E. (n.d.). Believe Quote. Retrieved July 27, 2017, from

Brown, M. (2016, June 07). Sue Ellen Adds It Up/Wish You Were Here. Retrieved July 27, 2017, from PBS Series.

Brown, M. (2016, July 30). Arthur Season 19 Episode 2 – Sue Ellen Adds It Up Wish You Were Here. Retrieved July 27, 2017, from Cartoon Entertainment.

Kansas Center for Research on Learning . (2009). Content Enhancement. Retrieved from

Khan Academy. (2014, August 19). Growing your mind. Retrieved July 27, 2017, from

Morehead, J. (2012). Stanford University’s Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset and Education. Retrieved July 27, 2017, from

Nature Floating Flying Flower Growth Dandelion. (n.d.). Retrieved July 27, 2017, from

Time. (2017). Retrieved July 27, 2017, from

Weisenbach Sellers, J. (2017). IRIS | Transcript: Jessica Weisenbach Sellers, MEd. Retrieved July 27, 2017, from

Learning From Others

When I became a teacher, I remember gaining ideas that I liked from my more seasoned colleagues and I felt guilty about adapting them into my own classroom. My kind coworkers would tell me, however, that it’s not like stealing someone’s ideas to adapt them into what you do; rather, we share ideas as a community of educators and that is what makes us stronger, and in turn, this benefits our students. I have found this to be true in the blogging world, as well, because there are so many talented teachers out there, sharing their wealth of ideas to strengthen others. I would like to share a few blogs that I really find to be inspiring.

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(Adams; Photo source)

Amazing Blog

The first is written by an awesome teacher classmate of mine named Gretchen (Hall) Kimpel. Her blog titled “Can’t We Just Google It?” is full of great ideas and experiences from her classroom. The URL is

I really like Kimpel’s blog not only because her writing style is easy to read and relate to, but because it’s also very informative and carries weight to educate her readers about content-related issues, ideas, and experiences. I also like her work because she writes about what has worked for her in her classroom, and welcomes input and connections about it from her readers. For example, Kimpel wrote, “So we know what the issues are, but the real question is… how can we fix it?  What can we as social studies teachers do to help kids comprehend the texts we give them?” (Kimple, 2017). Her blog both informs and engages the reader.

I have found Kimpel’s specific examples to be very useful, and though I won’t be able to apply them yet in my own classroom (I don’t teach core content at this time), I would like to make use of what I read in her blog by saving it for future reference. One example I enjoyed was the bookmark she made for reading strategies.

Kimpel, 2017; Photo source 

She made her students bookmarks with steps they could follow to connect them to any text they might be reading, and to bolster their comprehension of what they read. I loved this (and want to borrow this idea in the future!) because she made tangible tools with strategies for her students to interact with and learn from what they were reading. I can see this being a great idea for all students in any core content course, including those students who struggle in their learning. Great ideas, Gretchen, and thanks for letting me learn and glean from you!

Another Great Blog

I have to admit that I needed to search around for core content blogs I liked, since I wouldn’t seek out ideas to use from them for my present teaching assignment. In a recent search for such blogs, however, I found a great math blog written by a math teacher named Sarah Carter. Her blog can be found at:

Carter’s blog was one I really enjoyed reading because there were a variety of posts to inspire new and useful ideas within the realm of teaching math. For example, she recently posted about her use of interactive math notebooks in her classroom. Her students had found a lot of success in creating and implementing them, and she gave several examples of ones that would be helpful for other teachers, too. Another post I liked was her “Monday Must-Reads” (Carter, 2017), where she compiled suggestions for reading for other math teachers to learn from, including the blogs of other math teachers. She used others’ strategies, suggestions for activities, and inspiration for those in this field and I thought this was such a wealth to have been shared.

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Carter, 2017; Photo Source 

There was so much information that I can consider useful in this blog, even though I would need to bookmark the ideas for teaching math. I really liked this blogger’s posts about math, but what really drew me in as a special education teacher-in-training was what she wrote in her “About Me” section: “It makes my day/week/month/year/life to see students excited to take Algebra 2 who entered my Algebra 1 class hating math.  Words I love to hear: ‘I miss your class, and I NEVER thought I would ever say that about a math class.’  I am more than a math teacher.  I am a difference maker.  A life changer.” (Carter, 2017). To have a mindset that you as a teacher are “a difference maker” and “life changer” for your students holds a lot of power and I love that Carter made this point. Our students, especially those who struggle in their learning, need us to share this mindset and to put it into action. As a teacher who is “borrowing” ideas from others in the field, I will definitely be making use of this mindset in whatever content I am teaching, both now and in the future! Thank you, Sarah, for what you do for everyone that is learning from you!

Why Pay Attention to Others’ Work?

After reading numerous blogs by numerous teachers, it becomes increasingly clear to me that we must learn from each other in order to reach our most important goal: helping our students be the best they can be. My fellow teachers can provide me with an incredible wealth of information if I take the time and effort to search for their ideas and listen to what they can teach me. I’m just glad my colleagues explained to me that learning from and using the ideas of other teachers is “legal”!



Adams, H. (2017). A Teacher Affects Eternity. Retrieved July 23, 2017, from–teacher-gifts-teacher-stuff.jpg

Carter, S. (2017). Math = Love [Web log post]. Retrieved July 23, 2017, from

Edutopia. (2015, August 25). Teacher Collaboration: Spreading Best Practices School-Wide. Retrieved July 23, 2017, from

Kimpel, G. (2017). Can’t We Just Google It? [Web log post]. Retrieved July 23, 2017, from


A New Roadmap: Charting a Course to Success for All Learners

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Imagine that you are a young student sitting in math class. You would like to do your best in what is being asked of you, but math doesn’t come easy for you. In fact, you say that you hate math! It feels like you study harder than your friends, and just when you feel like you understand a concept you’ve been taught, there are new ways of using this information to solve problems that you don’t understand. Keeping this in mind, now imagine that your teacher has finished a lesson on addition, and she is asking you to read and solve numerous story problems for homework before a big unit test… maybe reading is hard for you, too, and tests only bring out your anxiety! Oh no! I began to wonder how this would feel if I were in this student’s shoes when I found a website to simulate what he might experience: Simulations of Learning and Attention Issues

As this site continues to add, “It’s one thing to read about learning and attention issues. It’s another thing to see them through your child’s eyes” (, 2017). What does this feel like to you? Isn’t there a way to help?

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Photo Source:

Yes, there is a way to help your students!

Now imagine that you are an amazing teacher (or maybe you already are!) and you would like to try employing “powerful teaching devices to organize and present curriculum content in an understandable and easy-to-learn manner” (The KU Center for Research on Learning, 2017). In order to best help your students as in the above scenario, those students who may not specifically struggle in their learning, those kids who may be challenged by a learning disability, and those students who excel in what you present to them, all parties engaged could benefit from a way to interact with any curricular content at any level: “content enhancement”.

Content Enhancement

When I recently came across this concept, I have to admit it was new to me. If it’s new to you, too, the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning describes that, “Content Enhancement is an instructional method that relies on using powerful teaching devices to organize and present content in an understandable and easy-to-learn manner. Teachers identify the content that they deem to be most critical and teach it using powerful teaching routines that actively engage students” (2009).

Deshler and Ehren also describe it here:

Albeit that this solution is not the only one to help both challenged and gifted learners, I think that the tools provided in applying content enhancement could prove to be very useful as a framework for educators to teach all students valuable content in ways that will help them to make the connections to understand it more deeply. As a teacher myself, I think in particular about my students who struggle and when I can find any new way to assist them, to build them up, and to further their understanding, I’m in!

How specifically does it help?

It seems like a great concept, but if you’re a teacher and are curious about the in’s and out’s of how this works, it really begins with your process of planning what you will teach and how. There are seven main steps in the SMARTER Planning Process, including to begin with a ‘determination of the critical content that your students must master, constructing or choosing graphic organizers to map this content, anticipating where students may struggle in learning what you will present, and to keep teaching strategy in action as planned when the content is taught” (Aceves & Fritschmann, 2016). As we teachers know, planning with much forethought is important, and content enhancement begins with this in mind for all students to understand and apply what you set out to teach them.

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Comic by Randy Glasbergen

Next, teachers would use CER’s, or Content Enhancement Routines, so that students of all ability and knowledge levels can make connections to prior knowledge, interact with current content, and understand how this will be used once you are ready to move on to another unit of instruction, in what is referred to as “Cue, Do, Review” (GIST, 2017). There is a breakdown of “routines” and strategies to use for these three action steps. One such routine, in the “Cue” step, would be to have your students use specific graphic organizers to map main ideas in a unit, when certain concepts within that unit will be learned, how the unit relates to former units of study and to enact some background knowledge, and to plan some questions to be answered by the end of the unit (The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, 2006).

For the Teachers

If you are thinking, “I don’t have time to learn another strategy or to change how I plan my lessons!”, Aceves and Fritschmann also report that, “when surveyed, teachers trained in CERs have reported being able to easily learn the routines, found their instruction more complete, and shared high levels of satisfaction” (2016). Maybe you already use content enhancement in your classroom. If so, what do you like about using the various planning techniques and routines? I welcome your thoughts, so please let me know. Thanks for visiting my blog!


Aceves, T. & Fritschmann, N. (2016, January). A Focus On: Content Enhancement Routines. Retrieved from

Glasbergen, R. (n.d.).

GIST. (2017). Developing Literacy Through Content Enhancement. Retrieved July 09, 2017, from

GISTv2. (2016, March 15). Content Enhancement and SIM Don Deshler and Barb Ehren. Retrieved July 09, 2017, from

Kansas Center for Research on Learning . (2009). Content Enhancement. Retrieved from

Learning Disabilities. (2013). In Testing for (Comp.). Retrieved from

Meme Center – Largest Creative Humor Community. (n.d.). Retrieved July 09, 2017, from

The KU Center for Research on Learning. (2017). SIM Content Enhancement Routines. Retrieved July 09, 2017, from

The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. (2006). The Unit Organizer Routine(PowerPoint Presentation). Lawrence, KS. 2006

Through Your Child’s Eyes. (2017). Retrieved July 09, 2017, from
Simulations of Learning and Attention Issues

What I’m Reading This Week: New Strategies!

Hey, fellow teachers: have you ever planned and prepped what you thought was an AMAZING lesson, only to teach it and have your students not connect to it well at all? When I think back to the days when I began teaching, I tend to be critical of myself for this reason. Though I feel like I had some great lessons with good levels of engagement, I also had some lessons that were less than award winning in terms of student engagement, interaction, and concept building. When I would begin a new concept, I tried to explain it first, but I can think of several times when I turned around from lecturing and writing on the whiteboard to see the blank stares on my poor students’ faces! This is how I imagine these moments:

We’ve all had those challenging days in our classrooms, right? (Ok, hopefully, not like that example!) Looking back and sometimes even now, I realize that I needed a set of strategies that could help students at various levels of learning to get the most out of a lesson with new concepts and vocabulary.

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So, in ‘what I am reading this week’, I pose the question: what can I add to my teaching toolbox to increase student engagement and improve retention and understanding of a new concept or vocabulary for kids with a variety of gifts and challenges in learning?

One sample from what I discovered this week included a video example of * Dr. Anita Archer’s lesson for an eighth grade geometry class. She did an amazing job using explicit instruction, making me wish I’d watched this before my weaker moments beginning this profession!

After watching her lesson, I could put several key points in my teaching toolbox, and I think you might find them useful, too, fellow teachers. I loved how she included several levels of engagement, including garnering responses from the whole class, having students draw the examples of definitions on their own slates, and then having the students turn to respond or explain to pre-assigned neighbors. During these types of engagement with the information, I also appreciated her use of explicit instruction, that she ‘promoted the use of math vocabulary’ (Archer, 2017) and gave her students more accurate terminology as they were having dialogue about the material. “Students with learning difficulties and disabilities often struggle to learn these types of associations” (Okolo, 2017), so this master teacher showed me the tool of “listing critical attributes with definition… Students can then list the attributes to determine if an exemplar is an example or a non-example” (Archer 2017). Lastly, Dr. Archer also was looking for responses from her students “using examples and non-examples” of their vocabulary (Archer, 2017). Her use of explicit instruction strategies proves valuable in really ensuring both students who master the information easily and students who struggle to comprehend, remember, and apply the knowledge can engage with the new vocabulary. I feel like I can definitely apply some of these strategies when I’m explaining new concepts for reading pitches and rhythms in my music classroom, but they certainly could be used for any content you may teach.

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Maybe you’ve already used the strategies Dr. Archer presented, but if you’re like me and need more tools to ensure your students aren’t yawning from non-interactive boredom and that they are truly learning from what you are teaching, maybe you’d like to check out another resource I’m reading this week? On her website, *, Jennifer Gonzalez explains her strategy of using Concept Attainment. No matter what content you teach, her great ideas could be applied to any content at any level. Gonzalez explains that instead of just giving your students the definition of a new concept, you should first give them examples and non-examples. In light of visual art instruction, “Instead of providing any terminology or any kind of definition, you could simply tell students that you’re going to study a new style. To learn the style, you’ll show them paintings that use that style, and paintings that don’t- Yes and No examples” (Gonzalez, 2013). If you’re thinking this might be just another strategy that would take extra time and thought to implement, there is research to back this one up! The author explained, “This strategy uses two (classroom practices) from that list: identifying similarities and differences… and generating and testing hypotheses” (Gonzalez, 2013). She framed it as a way to bring students into what is presented to them, almost like having to solve a mystery in their learning (Gonzalez, 2013), and I know that would intrigue my students. Bringing this element of mystery and deeper thinking and comparison into what my students are learning would be yet another great tool that I definitely plan on using.

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If you’re looking for a teaching strategy specific to vocabulary, I’m reading one more resource about growing this very tool. Todd Finley’s blog on Edutopia focuses on * 8 Strategies for Teaching Academic Language. One of my favorites that he introduces is to use summary frames. “Students read a section of text to themselves before verbally summarizing the passage to a partner” (Finley, 2014). They can use sentence frames to do this, filling in the blanks of premade sentence starters. I think this would be a great way to get my students talking about a variety of ways to learn, like listening to a piece of music, and then telling their partner about what they heard or what the composer intended to say through the music. It would be a great way to give my struggling learners a simplified path to discuss what they heard and what they thought or felt when they listened. Finley also gave the strategy to “Dynamically Introduce Academic Vocabulary” (Finley, 2014). When I read it, it seemed simple enough, but I hadn’t thought of, as he wrote, to give kids “first encounters with vocabulary sticky. Use the word in a funny or personal story. Show a short video from VocabAhead that features 300 SAT words and categories vocabulary by grade level (Finley, 2014). Just merely explaining new vocab to my students didn’t stick in their minds. If we were to use this tool, our students could relate to their own experiences and stories, giving them another pathway to put their new info to use.

Do you have other resources or tools you use in your classroom beyond what I’ve found here? If so, I’d love to hear about it! Please click the speech bubble icon to the right and leave me a comment!


Archer, A., Dr. (2017). Explicit Instructions | Effective and Efficient Teaching. Retrieved July 03, 2017, from

Finley, T. (2014, January 02). 8 Strategies for Teaching Academic Language. Retrieved July 03, 2017, from

Gonzalez, J. (2017, March 04). How to Use the Concept Attainment Strategy. Retrieved July 03, 2017, from

Hughes, J. (Director). (1986). Ferris Bueller’s Day Off [Video file]. USA. Retrieved July, 2017.

Okolo, C. (2017). Explicit Instruction. Retrieved July 03, 2017, from