Posted in education


Introducing Students to the Anatomy of Nonfiction Books

When students understand the various parts of nonfiction texts, they’re more prepared for college or work after high school.By Benjamin BarbourAugust 19, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

Today’s high school students, often called “digital natives,” generally feel comfortable navigating the internet or learning a new app. On the other hand, these same students may have less familiarity using physical nonfiction books. Many teachers grew up around books and may not realize that students don’t share the same level of proficiency navigating nonfiction texts.

Students will need to be able to use books for research and academic assignments, especially if they plan on college. By teaching the parts of a book, educators can help students become more efficient at reading nonfiction texts.

Hand a student a scholarly book, and two questions pop into their head or out of their mouths: Isn’t this online, and do I have to read the whole thing?

The answer to both questions is “not necessarily.”

Teaching students the anatomy of a book is a lesson that will serve them well in the entirety of their academic and professional careers for several reasons:

  • Not everything is digitized. In college, students may have to enter the library stacks for research.
  • Books have information that the internet doesn’t always provide.
  • Learning how to use a book for research and academic work will help students work smarter and not necessarily harder in any number of professions.
  • Students who prefer hard-copy books cannot search for a term or word with the click of a button and need to know how to expeditiously find information.


Review the anatomy of a book with your class. I have found including this lesson before a writing or research project to be most beneficial. Students then feel there is a relevant purpose to learning about the parts of a book, and they can employ what they have learned when starting the assignment.

In a brief lecture, I have covered the following: title page, edition notice or copyright page, table of contents, appendices, notes, bibliography, index, and author’s bio. This lecture typically takes the form of a PowerPoint with images of each part of the book.

Give a quiz on the material after the lesson, when the material is still fresh in the students’ minds. The assessment can be straightforward with multiple-choice, true-or-false, and fill-in-the-blank questions that fall under the Webb’s Depth of Knowledge level 1 category. Some examples:

  • Where might I find out the author’s credentials?
  • If I wanted to know the titles of each chapter, which section of the book might I want to read?
  • Which section of the book would give me information on what edition I am using?
  • If I wanted to discover the page numbers on which a term or name was located, what section would I want to flip to?

Handing out books to the class may seem overly simplistic, but students sometimes have little experience with nonfiction, hard-copy books (besides, maybe, textbooks). Some students might even be a bit intimidated by what seems to them a dense and daunting publication.

Ask students to make a quiz on their book that features questions concerning the anatomy of a book. Instead of generic answers, these questions would ask for specific information (e.g., “David McCullough,” “page 82,” or “Harvard University Press”). Here are some possible questions you might encourage kids to ask on the quiz they make.

  • Where would you find this specific topic? (using the index)
  • Who publishes the book? (edition notice or copyright page)
  • What is the author’s name? (title page or cover)
  • What is one source the author used? (bibliography)
  • What is the name of Chapter 7? (table of contents)

Then have students pair up and switch their book and quiz with another student. Each student takes their partner’s quiz using the book on which the quiz is based.


Once the students understand the parts of a book, explain how this knowledge can make research, paper writing, and other assignments easier and quicker. Stress, for instance, that they don’t have to read the whole book.

Demonstrate how the index and table of contents can help students pinpoint relevant information. Maybe students need only read a chapter or a few pages to extract what they need.

Remind your class that the bibliography, footnotes, and endnotes are gateways to further research—in many instances, their work is done for them. Consider requiring students to add a codex to their paper or research assignment in which they list several sources Kira Retana from the bibliography of a book they used that might help them conduct further research. This will compel students to comb the footnotes, endnotes, references, and bibliography.

Posted in education

SCHOOL CULTUREInterest-Based Events Can Boost Students’ Sense of BelongingMany secondary students pass on pep rallies and whole-school events, but smaller gatherings can help them connect to the community.By Dave EddyJuly 12, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

Many high schools across the country have student government groups, such as a student council, class board, or an associated student body, typically with the purpose of enhancing the culture and climate of the school.

When planning activities to engage students, for years the student council at my school created large events like dances and pep rallies with over-the-top, unrealistic expectations of their impact on the student body. As the student activities coordinator, I saw it over and over again: No matter how well intentioned and even well planned these events were and how many students attended, there were inevitably significant numbers of students who didn’t participate.

If the goal of these events was to engage the entire student body and establish a sense of community, we were missing the mark. The student leaders and I needed to collaborate to shift our approach to student engagement.


For years, our director of student activities, Dr. Ted Goergen, and I had worked together to increase student participation at dances and pep rallies, but none of our adjustments worked. One day, Ted landed on a metaphor to describe the challenge: The student government was overly focused on “bonfires” (big, over-the-top events) and paid far less attention to “campfires” (smaller, more personal events). Once I shared the metaphor with our student government, creating many small campfire events became a priority, alongside less-frequent bonfires. The metaphor has guided the student government’s work ever since.

When we framed our work as a transition from bonfires to campfires, the student government needed to back up and clarify why the group existed. After watching a TED Talk by Simon Sinek about starting with why, we sat down together and created a mission statement. Students researched what made a good mission statement and examined those of other schools and even those of companies like Apple and Facebook. Together we arrived at a mission statement:

Our student government exists as the steward of the school climate and to build a sense of belonging in our entire student body through outreach and engagement.

From there, the mission statement guided every action taken with respect to events: If the action served our mission, then it worked, and if the action didn’t serve that mission, then it needed to be reconsidered. With that framework established, student leaders could more clearly see how to diversify its offerings.


Our school invested in a student activity management system called 5-Star Students to determine which students were attending the large events, clubs, and activities regularly, and which students were not engaging with student events and organizations at all.

Posted in education

LITERACYRolling Text Sets Make Content Accessible for All StudentsTeachers can encourage critical thinking by giving students reading assignments that build their knowledge gradually.By Christine BoatmanJuly 13, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

As teachers, our goal is to see every student succeed. Students enter our classrooms with a wide range of reading skills, and it’s our responsibility to use teaching methods that meet their needs. I’ve found a strategy called rolling text sets to be very effective for all of my middle school students—and particularly those who may need extra reading support.

Rolling text sets allow students to build deep knowledge while keeping the cognitive load manageable for them. Many readers who do not feel confident in vocabulary and background knowledge are intimidated by long, complex texts. Mary Ann Cappiello, a professor of language and literacy, explains that text sets make “texts at higher reading levels more accessible for all students” because they intentionally build student vocabulary and background knowledge before introducing students to more complex texts that stretch students to think critically about a topic.


Rolling text sets are a short series of articles that allow students to build content knowledge and vocabulary in a way that is very attainable. Essentially, a rolling text set contains five to 10 articles that are taught during a one-to-two-week unit and that sequentially increase in length and complexity. The articles in the beginning of a rolling text set are very short. Cappiello says that “shorter texts have the greatest potential for building prior knowledge on a topic so that students can later tackle longer, more complex texts.” At the end of a text set, students are reading very complex, high-level articles.

Text sets can be adapted to fit any grade level or for any topic. Here is an example of a rolling text set I use with my sixth-grade social studies students.

Posted in education

CURRICULUM PLANNING4 Ways to Enrich World Language ClassesExploring complex cultural issues with students provides a sense of meaning that can inspire improvement in the target language.By John Paul Obillos Dela RosaJuly 14, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

World language instruction offers a natural opportunity for students to learn about social responsibility and international understanding. Teaching Tagalog has shown me how to use language instruction as an inroad to complex cultural issues that add meaning to life both inside and outside the classroom.

Over time, I’ve landed on several engaging strategies that go beyond grammar and vocabulary to build my students’ compassion and empathy and enrich their appreciation of the issues facing the Filipino community.

These approaches can easily be adapted for any world language classroom.


I routinely turn to age-appropriate documentaries to uncover details that lie behind what’s typically written in textbooks. A good documentary can help students learn more about the way of life in a particular culture, including its values and belief systems, and be entertaining at the same time.

For example, my Tagalog class follows the YouTube channel of a local TV station in the Philippines called UNTV: Istorya (“Story” in English), which features personal narratives of Filipinos that are both educational and inspiring. I’ve had my students watch the story of a jeepney artist, for instance, which explores how jeepneys (open-air public vehicles in the Philippines) came about as one of the national symbols of arts in the country. Through the documentary, students learn about the life stories of jeepney artists who struggle to make ends meet for their families and pursue their creative passion. By watching documentaries, students also strengthen their viewing and listening skills.

To inspire social responsibility, I usually ask students to participate in an activity called Paano kun (“What if…”). I ask them two hypothetical questions, such as “Paano kung ikaw yung jeepney artist—ganoon din ba ang gagawin mo?” (“What if you were the jeepneyartist—would you do the same?”) and “Paano kung may pagkakataon kang tumulong—ano ang gagawin mo?”(“What if you had the chance to help—what would you do?”). Then, the classroom discourse becomes more dynamic and meaningful as students justify their answers based on the details of the documentary.


World language teachers can also distribute news features or articles written in the target language that can nurture social responsibility and international understanding. The challenge, of course, is to share articles that explore compelling issues that require solutions.

In our class, students read about the issue of fauna endangerment, such as the diminishing number of haribon(Philippine eagle) in the country. From there, they can identify deforestation and exploitation of natural resources as root causes for the dwindling populations of these birds, and explore solutions like environmental education and reforestation.

I sometimes ask students to do role-play using Model United Nations (MUN) simulations; they act as panel members, mimicking the job of UN representatives. Once they have read the articles, they present their resolutions on environmental issues by modifying procedures from Model UN.

First, I encapsulate the procedures into four simple steps to make the activity easier to digest. Then participants introduce themselves to the class and provide a one-sentence opening statement. That second step allows students to present and expound their drafted resolutions in no more than five minutes. Then, their classmates ask the speakers relevant questions. Lastly, the students deliver one-minute-long concluding statements.

This activity works well with students who have advanced knowledge and fluency in the target language, as they need to produce more sophisticated discourse to support their reports and claims.


Amid many social issues in many countries, inspiring individuals work as advocates to make a difference in their communities. Once they’ve done research to identify important social issues (e.g., climate change, poverty, illiteracy) in the target culture, my students set to work identifying who those advocates are in the Philippines so they can learn from the individuals themselves.

Posted in education

COMMUNICATION SKILLSHow a Simple Presentation Framework Helps Students LearnExplaining concepts to their peers helps students shore up their content knowledge and improve their communication skills.By Joseph ManfreJuly 14, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

A few years ago, my colleague and I were awarded a Hawai‘i Innovation Fund Grant. The joy of being awarded the grant was met with dread and despair when we were informed that we would have to deliver a 15-minute presentation on our grant write-up to a room full of educational leaders. If that wasn’t intimidating enough, my colleague informed me that he was not going to be in Hawai‘i at the time of the presentation. I had “one shot,” just a 15-minute presentation to encapsulate all of the 17 pages of the grant I had cowritten, but how?

I worked hard to construct and deliver a presentation that was concise yet explicit. I was clear on the big picture of what the grant was composed of and provided a visual of it in practice. I made sure the audience understood the “why” behind the grant. I showed how it worked, the concrete elements of it, and how they made it successful. I finished with a scaffold that would help others know how to initiate it within their context, giving them the freedom to make it authentically their own.

I received good feedback from the presentation, and more important, what was shared positively impacted student learning in other classrooms across the state.


That first presentation took me over a month to prepare, but afterward I noticed that my prep time for presentations shrank exponentially from a few months to a few (uninterrupted) days. Interestingly enough, as a by-product of creating the original presentation, I created an abstract framework that I have used for every professional learning presentation I have delivered since then. The “What, Why, How, and How-To” framework goes as follows:

  • What? What can the audience easily connect to and know as a bridge to the unknown for the rest of the experience?
  • Why? Why should they care to listen to (and learn from) the rest of the presentation? What’s in it for them to shift from passive listeners to actively engaged? The audience needs to know why you believe in this so much that you are compelled to share it.
  • How? What are the key elements that make it unique? How is it effective in doing what it does? What are the intricacies of how it works?
  • How-to? How could they start doing this on their own? How could this knowledge serve as a foundational springboard? Connect it to “why.”


One of the best parts of presentations is that they help the presenter to improve their communication skills. The presenter is learning how to give a presentation by doing it. To prepare a presentation, the presenter must know the intricate elements of what they are presenting and the rationale for their importance. In the presentation delivery, the presenter must be articulate and meticulous to ensure that everyone in the audience is able (and willing) to process the information provided.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that preparing and delivering presentations could provide a valuable learning opportunity for my students.

I recall teaching mathematical concepts whereby students would immediately apply knowledge learned to accomplish the task in silence and without any deeper questioning. Only after I asked them to provide presentations on these concepts did they regularly ask me, “Why is this important, again?” or “What makes this so special?” My students’ mathematical literacy grew through preparing presentations Kira Retana with the “What, Why, How, and How-To” framework, which supported them in their ability to demonstrate content knowledge through mathematical rigor(balancing conceptual understanding, skills and procedural fluency, and real-world application).

  • The “what” served as the mathematical concept.
  • The “why” demonstrated the real-world application of the concept.
  • “The “how” demonstrated conceptual understanding of the concept.
  • The “how-to” demonstrated skills and procedures of the concept.
Posted in education

CURRICULUM PLANNINGReprioritizing Standards for Middle and High School StudentsAfter a challenging year, focusing on social and emotional learning and vital standards may be the way forward.By Heather Wolpert-GawronJune 24, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

We keep hearing about “the new normal.” But that term, to me, still longingly looks backward. I would argue that we need to rethink our word choice to embrace, more joyously, the abnormal. This will take front-loading because it will be a slow boil this summer to prepare teachers to launch the year, not with normal in mind, but with new.

The next school year will not be off and running the way normalcy allows. We’ve learned too much. Those first couple of weeks will be about building community in the school and building community in the district. Those first couple of weeks will be about ensuring that students know the social and emotional resources that have been developed during this time: how to find the wellness center, how to make an appointment with a counselor, and how to set up a peer-to-peer meeting. This is the time to begin learning the students’ strengths, their interests, and their Covid stories. It’s the time to administer a quick academic or skills-based assessment, not for a grade, but to learn about each student’s growth area and about the leaps they may have made during this time.

But it isn’t going to end after two weeks.

This touching base will be ongoing because grief and sadness come in waves. And many of us will be reentering life in August still grieving the loss of a school year.


Throughout the year, we’ll be meeting students where they are. Throughout the year, we will be building social and emotional learning into our lessons and units. There may be more assemblies to stimulate the school community in a deeper way, additional lunchtime activities, and increased trips to the counselors’ offices.

All of this takes time—necessary time—out of our school day. But research shows that comfort in the learning environment and comfort with the people in the school positively impacts academic achievement. It’s worth the investment. After all, we can’t deny that there is a trade-off, a worthy one, but one that takes intentional planning.

We talked about prioritizing standards during distance learning, but this is our new normal. The need to prioritize and cull our standards has not ended. We can no longer go page by page through the textbook or the pacing guides that were designed in 2019. We need to examine what standards and skills are most vital and trim without remorse. This may also take focusing on more student choice and more skills-based assignments. It may mean more cross-curricular opportunities with other teachers to teach more efficiently and share the burden.

As an educator who promotes project-based learning, I have always talked about the need to prioritize standards. After all, not every single standard is worth the invested time of a single lesson when one can integrate it more organically into a project. For instance, if students are solving the problem of local home insecurity by designing micro homes for their city’s homeless population (10th grade), those students will most likely be applying the distributive property organically and daily without a worksheet or full day’s review. If a student is writing a new law to lower the voting age (eighth grade), they will most likely learn how to use subheadings simply by reading models of laws to help prepare their own argument. No need to set aside a day to do so.

Educator and National Geographic Fellow and Explorer Jim Bentley asks, “What are the ‘billboard standards’ that students will pass en route to the more foundational, ‘destination’ standards?” The billboard standards can certainly be called out explicitly, but time doesn’t need to be set aside for that level of learning. Think about what are the standards you simply can learn along the journey.


When I think about prioritizing standards, I think about three tips I learned from PBLWorks. These can help you decide on a focus for a project, sure, but I think they can also help you prioritize your quarter or semester as well.

1. Is the standard a foundational one? Is it one from which others are built?

2. Does the standard require deep thinking? Or is it merely Google-able?

3. Is it a cross-cutting skill that needs to be taught in other subjects as well? Does it need to be reinforced in order to highlight transference between subject areas?

I once learned a little trick from brilliant curriculum designer and coach Alicia Peletz to determine importance: “Close your eyes. Picture the next two months. Only the next two months. Now think about what skill or content topic you most need students to know during this time. That first thought is most likely your first priority standard.”

Sit with a team, walk through the protocol, and see if you all open your eyes with a similar answer. Create your list of priorities together. Only then do you look at the list and see what was never mentioned. Only then do you reflect on the remaining standards left behind. Think critically and without remorse. What can you all walk away from knowing that a student won’t be damaged by not learning it at this time?

We know that our pacing guides and drive to get through the standards prior to Covid was a fast-moving train that never allowed for the depth of learning we wanted to convey. Think of this time as an evolution in education, a forced deepening of the material to help us do what the textbooks won’t. And then don’t look back. If we deepen the exposure to the foundational content, to the content that needs teachers Kira Retana to coach them through understanding, and to the cross-cutting skills, we can’t mourn the loss of the rest.

We say we are prioritizing the standards now, but really, by prioritizing the standards, we are prioritizing the students. All the rest may not have been that important in the first place.

Posted in education

INTEREST-BASED LEARNINGUsing Simple Outdoor Science Lessons to Inspire StudentsOpen-ended prompts can guide students to explore life science processes in the world around them.By Matt CarityJune 11, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

Providing meaningful pedagogical change for my students’ benefit in a way that is organic and impactful is my ultimate goal, and it has proven difficult to achieve.

When I recently reflected on my teaching, it showed far too much time spent on content-driven sprints instead of focused, process-oriented marathons. I could see that the science process had fallen away from my instruction. There had been no opportunities for students to “do science”—they had just been learning about science concepts. Students learning about life science and natural science behind a classroom desk every day seemed a bit backward. Hoping to rekindle curiosity about the outdoors and a desire to reconnect with students, instead of learning science only in traditional ways, we moved outside.

Participatory outdoor experiences and student choice proved foundational for me in helping students begin to like and appreciate science and learning again. I will share one example of that process.


My sophomores and I spent time outside at the beginning of the school year, doing simple observational tasks. My outdoor lesson prompts were open-ended: “Write down some observations you can make.” Observations were the focus; moving beyond visual identifications was the goal. We made cursory observations first and then focused on sensory mapping, a practice where students find an isolated spot and chart, in real time, the changes they observe around them. 

My students mapped a grassy area east of our building. After that, we discussed common themes that they chose to represent their surroundings. How many students noticed the plane flying overhead? How many recorded the dump truck driving by? With these questions, they became more attuned to their surroundings and thought about their environment in a new light.

Later that week, we went back outside, and they recorded biotic and abiotic factors using the skills learned earlier. Eyes widened—they were getting excited. 


Here are some of my initial observations of students getting outside:

  • Laughing after inadvertently walking through a spiderweb
  • Admiring a praying mantis mimicking wind movement
  • Discovering a shoelace used for nesting material
  • Furrowing brows while asking about bagworm cocoons

The classroom content was composed of small details of students’ learning. Experiences became our vocabulary. They were all fluent. This is the school I want.

My students still talk about those couple of days spent outside, discussing rudimentary science concepts. Genuine outdoor learning stirs wonder in us—wonder about the natural world, questions asked without thought, and excited anticipation when interacting up close with bugs and critters.


Teaching in a free-form style is difficult. Many students commented that making observations was difficult because of the lack of instruction. My students often want to know the task, and they work to complete it so they can be absolutely sure that they’re meeting the desired expectation.

I feel that education is more poignant when it’s discovery-based.

Hoping to get my students outdoors even more, I tasked them with taking pictures of three plants and three animals. That was it. No further directions were given because I wanted to see what the students’ responses would look like.

The results from the assignment were staggering. My students submitted pictures ranging from pets to houseplants and livestock to landscaping. For them, it was a matter of convenience. “What is close? What can I do quickly to check this box?”


In response to their submissions, I uploaded two clarifying videos, reframing the task for my students. It was time to make the expectations a little more overt—to clear the muddy waters.

Pictures came rolling, and the results were astonishing. The dirt was settling and the waters were clearing. So many amazing plant and animal picture contributions were submitted for the assignment.

After posting three of the plant submissions, students could choose one picture and one prompt. The tasks were as follows:

1. Pick one picture.

2. Pick one of the following tasks:

  • Tell me why you picked this picture. (“Because I like it most” is not good—what do you like best about it?)
  • What does this picture mean to you?
  • Write a short poem about the photo.
  • Draw or paint your version of the picture.
  • Describe the picture using five words. (These words cannot make a sentence.)

3. Share your work.


Less than 12 hours after I posted these prompts, six of my students replied and two completed submissions—and this was a completely voluntary assignment, posted on a Saturday.

Extremely small, intentional steps to change the direction of my teaching have been ongoing and quite slow. However, these small practices have led to significant positive changes in my students as learners. They show genuine interest in being outside, have excited questions Kira Retana about nature, and go down rabbit holes of question-laden investigations. These are the foundations for meaningful life science instruction.