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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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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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

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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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


Roadblocks. Hurdles. Brick walls. Sometimes the challenges we face can have the ability to shut down our efforts to proceed. We can tend to focus on the negative, allowing challenge to cripple growth that could occur despite encouragement and proper planning with guidance to move forward toward a specific goal. As an educator, I see this within my students, particularly in those who have specific challenges in their learning, including learning disabilities. It is, of course, of vital importance to implement specific measures to help these students; another equally important key to adequate support, however, is to understand why these students encounter these challenges. This could serve as the first step to removing a roadblock for our students’ success.

One content area where students with learning disabilities may face challenge is mathematics. There are several points that can stand at the source of this. Wright wrote that mathematics learning disabilities can result as combinations of issues with language processing, problems with memory and sequencing, or visual-spatial disorientation (Wright, 1996). As my undergraduate studies in education are not centered in special education, considering Wright’s first point here, that language processing challenges can affect one’s math performance, seemed simple enough, yet profound. During my recent practicum assignment time working with students in a resource room setting, I witnessed this first hand. Several of my students who were considered to have an LD in math struggled with the meaning of their multi-step word problems. Before these students could even think about the computations needed, and even which steps to perform in order within an equation, they first had much difficulty with what the problem was even asking. I learned the importance of breaking up the roadblock they encountered, reading each sentence and helping my students to find meaning and thus the clues to begin a plan to solve the problem. This specific point is another challenge that these same individuals may face within the content of math: sequencing. An article by (2012) stated that “a student with a deficiency in this skill may… have difficulties sequencing multiple steps…” Another challenge that my students faced during my observation of their curriculum and its implementation, the multi-step problems in their grade level’s work created hardship for them at first. I got to witness one of my mentor teacher’s solutions to this, in that she helped them to organize their thoughts or the directions given to process through them more efficiently. She likely would not have made this an option for them, however, if she did not first understand the cause of their difficulty with this part of mathematics. Lastly, one other challenge point within math can be motivation. According to Okolo (2017), “After years of failing in mathematics, middle and high school students may be, not surprising, unmotivated to study mathematics. When mathematics content is abstract and unconnected to students’ lives, as higher-level math often seems to be, students may be even less motivated to make the effort needed to improve their chances of success”. A teacher who takes this into account before instruction begins with a much-needed perspective to use in tailoring her lessons to accommodate the difficulties students with LD’s face.

The bottom line with all of these described challenges is this: that when we understand what challenged learners struggle with and why, we will be in a better position to find the best course of action for breaking through the challenges themselves. It is then that we can strategize to help these students to grow beyond the challenges that may initially hinder them from flourishing.



Okolo, C. (2017, June). Challenges in Learning Mathematics (Continued). Retrieved June 19, 2017, from

Signs of a Math Disability. (2012, July 17). Retrieved June 19, 2017, from

Wright, C. C. (1996). Learning Disabilities in Mathematics. Retrieved June 18, 2017, from