Students Answer: What Does Beautiful Really Look Like?

It was early in the fall. As I distributed student portraits from picture day, I heard several of my 10-year-old students whispering things like “Eww, look at how shiny my forehead is”; “I hate my smile”; and “Ugh, I don’t like seeing my picture.” I was struck with a sadness that invaded my thoughts for weeks. How did society get to the point where even fifth-graders thought their value was based on appearance? How could I help change this?

I immediately started planning an original literacy unit for my ELA class based on the theme “What does beautiful look like?” I wanted students to read, reflect, and possibly be transformed by new thinking. I also wanted to make sure that I was teaching skills and concepts aligned with CCSS.

Using the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio, I planned instruction for analyzing overall structure and character perspective (RL.5.5 and RL.5.6, respectively).  I wanted to teach students to look at how ideas and concepts relate within and among texts and to “Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably”  (RI.5.3 and RI.5.9). This is where Newsela came in. We know that rather than teaching literacy skills in isolation, they are best taught through larger concepts, or themes. It was easy to find plenty of articles about people who confronted challenges and overcame hardship, people who have tried to make the world a better place, and people who are changing perceptions about what beauty looks like.

For this particular unit, students read and discussed several Newsela articles. Some of the articles came from the Text Set “Redefining Beauty Standards”. Some articles that students analyzed were: “Beautiful art blooms on ugly Afghan walls”, “Art student tries to help the homeless by redesigning their signs”, and “Opinion: Ignore the bullies and dare to be different, Jeremy Lin says. Students also read self-selected biographies, searching for stories of hardship and perseverance.

At the close of the unit, each student wrote an essay about how their thinking changed during the unit, and which texts contributed to their new thinking. They started off as simple essays of the five-paragraph variety. The introduction was to explain what they used to think beautiful looked like, and the conclusion was supposed to explain how they perceive beauty now. This is where things really started to get beautiful. “Mrs. Hoffman, can I add a paragraph about another book we read in class? The Last Stop on Market Street really changed my thinking, too.” “Mrs. Hoffman, may I write about more than one article?” “Mrs. Hoffman, can I add a paragraph about someone I know who has a story of hardship and perseverance?”

When the time came for me to read the essays of my fifth-graders, I was amazed. Each individual student articulated changes in his or her thinking about beauty. As I read, I could hear their voices, and was inspired to do something to pull their voices together. I decided to create a video compilation of the essays, in which each student shares a part of his or her own writing. One student wanted to be seen, but not heard, and two students wanted to be heard, but not seen. They figured out how to address this on their own. Students recorded each other and I edited it all into iMovie. Using only their words, their sentences, and their voices, this turned out to be a beautiful story of how their thinking has transformed.

Julie Hoffman is an ELA educator from Somonauk, Illinois. Follow her on Twitter at readeologist.

Current Events Jump from the Mundane to the Mesmerizing

Step into my classroom during our weekly Current Events segment, and you might see students standing in opposite corners debating whether or not colleges should base acceptance on kindness. You may find students using Play-Doh to sculpt their own ideas for testing the speed of snakes.  There might be even students using their sweatshirts and a marble to mimic a “closed time-like curve.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 1.29.53 PMI first implemented Current Events five years ago. Back then, it was a pretty lackluster undertaking. Students would choose an article, often cutting it out of our local newspaper, which offered stories about road repair and sports victories – hardly fodder for meaningful conversation. They would summarize the article to the class and then ask two “discussion” questions. The entire process left the class withdrawn and bored.

So what has caused the huge shift from detached reading to relevant interaction?

First, I found Newsela. Here is a website that is a powerhouse of articles that students are interested in, written in ways that they can understand. They’re no longer limited to what they can find in the small supply of print newspapers or what they can decode from the wordy adult “news” sites. Second, I created a system that has students using Bloom’s Taxonomy to create activities for the articles they choose. The process is relatively easy once you explain it to the students, and they absolutely love being able to play teacher.    

Students begin by choosing an article of their choice from the current quarter. They fill out a brief organizer explaining why they chose this specific article and how it connects to our lives. Next, the students plan six activities to lead the class in. The six activities correlate to Bloom’s Taxonomy and they allow our class to become engaged with the text on a much deeper level. When I first explain this to my kids, I do my own Current Event presentation modeling the process, and provide a list of possible suggestions for each level. Students always impress me with their creativity as they get more familiar with the activity.

A typical Current Events presentation lasts 45 minutes to an hour.  Sometimes we get through all of the activities, and sometimes I let students pick and choose a few of their favorites. Not only do the kids look forward to it and remember what they read, they’ve also started referring to the articles in other classes and choosing follow-up articles for their next presentation. Students often try to “trade” for an earlier presentation day because they are so excited about their article. It’s wonderful to see how the Current Events segment has been transformed from a mundane obligation to a noteworthy classroom event.

Erin Vanek is a gifted intervention specialist for Brunswick City Schools in Ohio where she teaches fifth through eighth grades. She is also the author of the blog, Creative Teacher’s Classroom.  To purchase her graphic organizers for your own Current Event, click here. Follow her on Twitter at CreativelyTeach.


Students as Changemakers: A Letter From Fifth Grade


I want to thank you for another opportunity to enrich our classrooms with your online news source. Last year the robotic hand offered a unique experience! This year, it was a celebration of “GAGA!”

Gaga ball

Soon after we read this article, the fifth-graders at Western Salisbury Elementary School got started with their plan, a plan to get a Gaga Pit! The students began by writing letters to decision- makers within the school district and the community. While one group of students crafted their invitations, the others planned and developed keynote presentations to be shown at the event.

On Jan. 26, our fifth-grade class unveiled their plan to purchase and build a Gaga Pit. Approval was almost immediate from the individuals attending the event. Each attendee received an edible Gaga Pit!


Fundraising was our next challenge. Several students applied for a grant from the Salisbury Education Foundation, an organization that helps fund school projects. We were granted half of the money necessary to build the pit. Our Building and Grounds team designed and built the game. The students were charged with raising the other funds to cover the cost of the building materials.



We designated a week to collect donations to cover the rest of the money for the pit. The students made commercials to be shown after the morning announcements. Two videos were selected from each classroom and played during the collection week. We successfully raised the extra funds.

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This is just another example of NEWSELA and the wonderful extension opportunities it brings to students!

– Chris Adams and Kathy DeBona and the fifth-graders at Western Salisbury Elementary in Allentown, Pennsylvania



Emojis, Chickens, Dinosaurs, and (April) Fools: Unintended, but Welcome, Outcomes


I was hoping they wouldn’t notice it.

You see, on April Fools’ Day, Newsela added a little rectangular button under the lowest reading level bar. Overly showy? No. Enough to induce curiosity in 12-year-olds who know their Newsela screens by heart? Absolutely.

We made it until fourth hour.

And then, a click and an “Oooooooooooohhhhh!” The next thing I knew, heads were popping up all over the classroom like deer in a forest who just heard a twig break. Three quarters of my class ran to the rebel’s computer screen. The brave student who made the first click announced, “It floods the article with emojis!” In perfect synchronicity, there was a mad dash back to laptops like velociraptors on a hunt.

Among the squeals of joy, one conscientious doubter, ready for me to put a kibosh on the fun, looked up at me woefully and said, “But Mrs. Sheets, you love emojis!”

It’s true. I do. I have a behavior management system that consists entirely of emoji stickers. But my mind flashed through the lesson I had ready, and had already completed with my first two classes. Since getting our PRO membership set up in December, we had finally gotten to the point where almost all students had read eight articles (the students only have my class every other day for 45 minutes, so this was no small feat) and we were ready to sift through our data. After writing down their performance percentage on each standard and graphing their quiz data, my students were ready to form small groups. They formed small groups based on their personal least successful standard on Newsela (or Next Level, as we call it in my classroom) and were taking screenshots of and paraphrasing the two quiz questions (from an article of their group’s choosing) that corresponded to their “Next Level” skill. Then, we used Google Classroom and Google Docs to turn in their work.

So, all of this planning was swirling in my head, but what I said out loud was, “OK, I gotta see this!” and I perched next to the student, plastering my face next to his screen so he had to move over a bit. I saw the article I had used earlier in class to model paraphrasing. The article was about how scientists are able to give chickens dinosaur legs (I’m completely obsessed with dinosaurs, but that’s for a whole different blog post … or Text Set).

Then, he started reading to me. Out loud. Without being asked. But, before I dive into what he sounded like as he read aloud, let’s think about what reading, unfortunately, often becomes.

I’m sure all of us teachers have had the experience where you know students’ eyes are moving over the words, but that’s just about all that’s happening. Kelly Cartwright discusses this at length in Word Callers (2010). Some traits of “word callers” are: less sensitivity to meaningful relations among words, difficulty inferring the meaning of unknown words in context, difficulty arranging words into sentences that make sense due to less knowledge of syntax, less likely to monitor understanding, and difficulty making connections between prior knowledge and the text. Cartwright also tells us that word callers struggle with flexible thinking – the ability to hold more than one idea in mind at a time. Word Callers contains entire chapters about how to increase students’ flexible thinking with laughter and pictures. Check and check. Emojis bring both of those to the table.

Reading like a “word caller” is like driving while immersed in thought. You get from point A to point B and go, “Wow, I don’t remember that part of the drive at all,” and yet, there you are. Sometimes I fear that this phenomenon of glossing over the words with our eyes, but not really using our minds, happens more often when reading is on the computer versus on paper. There is such a barrage of information online that we can become numb, and reading becomes more of a scanning process than anything else, just in order to figure out what deserves our full attention, and what does not.

As the student read to me, something glorious was happening. Here’s what the article looked like:


“Dinosaurs lived on … what is that thing? It looks like Epcot … oh! Earth … when there were sad families? Wait, no. Sad people? No. Dinosaurs didn’t live with people … maybe that face means no? No people? … They lived on land and in the whale — what? Oh. I think they mean ocean.”

The emojis interrupted his reading in the best way possible. He was forced to pause and interrogate his own understanding. He knew that the article probably had nothing to do with Disney based on the title and first sentences, so Epcot wouldn’t work. He had to think of something else. Perhaps he has been to Epcot and knows that the park is themed around different countries of the world. Perhaps he just fixated on the shape of the emoji, and used the word on to figure out that they were using the emoji in place of the word Earth, since “on Earth” is a common phrase. So, he had to think through his background knowledge to come up with another possible meaning for an emoji when his original guess didn’t fit the structure and syntax of the sentence.

This was an unprecedented level of audible, capture-able thinking, and independent checking of understanding, in my classroom. In teacher training, we are often told that we need to make thinking visible for students, and it’s very difficult to think through and teach all of the steps that one needs to use in order to, for example, find the main idea, in order to explicitly teach the skill. What I love about the emoji articles is that it forced students to verbalize their thought process to me in a truly spontaneous way. Those things that word callers tend not to do – the familiarity and lightheartedness of the emojis encouraged and helped bridge the gap.

He read on to the sentence that says “one dinosaur looked …” and got stuck. “One dinosaur happy a chicken? That makes no sense …” He knew he was stuck. He didn’t fast forward automatically and ignore that he was stuck. The emojis made the article have a sort of secret code that the kids felt they just had to crack. Many times, students aren’t able, or willing, to acknowledge when they are stuck and they just keep trucking, hoping for the best, or worst of all, not caring.

Then he said, “Is there an emoji dictionary translator? I’m going to Google it.” He was going to do research. Without. Being. Asked. He was not going to go on in the article without figuring out what the sentence meant.

My original lesson plan was about paraphrasing. In decoding the emojis, my student was activating some of the same processes that are needed in order to paraphrase. Before you can ever paraphrase, you absolutely have to understand the original. Also, the emojis were Newsela’s own way of paraphrasing parts of the article. I’m even wondering if having students replace words with emojis might be a fun and useful paraphrasing technique we can use in my classroom in the future.

In the end, I’m so glad that one of my students wasn’t a Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 3.56.15 PM and that he dared to click. Just like students sometimes fast-forward their reading without really settling into the meaning, we teachers can be guilty of fast-forwarding to just get through our lesson plans at all costs. On a Friday, April Fools’ Day, I too was reminded not to be a Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 3.56.15 PM when it comes to stopping, relaxing, listening to, and following my students. I wouldn’t want them to think I’m an old Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 4.00.27 PM, and not stopping to listen to them would’ve made me the fool. Even though this experience was not an intended outcome of my lesson plan, and maybe not even an intended outcome of the April Fools’ emoji button for Newsela, I am overjoyed that it happened.


Cartwright, K. B. (2010). Word callers: Small-group and one-to-one interventions for children who “read” but don’t comprehend. Portsmouth, N. H.: Heinemann.

Shelley Sheets is a middle school educator from Omaha, NE and a Newsela Certified Educator. Find her on Twitter at SheetsLegitLit.

“Enough is Enough”: D.C. Students Take Action for Detroit Public Schools


I call Detroit, Michigan, home. While I didn’t attend Detroit Public Schools (DPS) after Kindergarten, I am still very aware and connected to the troubles and triumphs that happen in the school system because they affect my family, friends, and people who look like me and my students. Teachers held “sickouts” and students of DPS walked out to protest crumbling ceilings, raised floors, broken heating systems, and unwanted rodents.  As a teacher in the Washington, D.C., school system, social justice is a core value of my classroom. So I knew it was imperative to integrate these protests.

We started the friendly letter writing unit covering the purpose and components of a friendly letter.  According to my young bright minds, we write friendly letters to “say nice things”, “to encourage” so that we can “make people feel good”.

I visited Newsela for the first time in hopes of finding an article that covered the protest and, to no surprise, the article was front page news. To an even bigger surprise and relief, it was available at each student’s reading level. The article defined new vocabulary words and explained the issue in such a way that was manageable for my second-graders.

The next day, we read “Detroit teachers stage massive sickout protest over ailing conditions of schools”. They first read the article silently and independently, underlining important facts and circling words that were foreign to them.  My budding activists couldn’t help but to react aloud. Loud gasps and sighs filled the room as they underlined facts about the crumbling ceilings and the rodent problem.  After this first reading, they participated in small group discussions to share their reactions. Many were outraged at the deplorable conditions. “If we don’t have to go to school like that, they shouldn’t have to either! It isn’t fair!” one student exclaimed.

We then watched a video of the teachers in Detroit protesting. Next, they reread the same article and filled out a graphic organizer with a partner. They made sure to highlight the “who”, “what”, “where”, and “why”. This eventually lead to a whole class discussion centered on the “why”. Students were discussing who should be held responsible for these conditions. Most students held Gov. Rick Snyder accountable for this. Many of them were angry and upset because it was “unfair” to the students attending DPS.

One student started to chant, “Enough is enough!”

The following day, I asked my students how they felt about writing letters to teachers in Detroit. Their faces lit up. I asked, “Why should we write them a letter anyway?” They told me that they thought it was important we tell them we support them. Over next the two days, my students wrote friendly letters to the Detroit Federation of Teachers.  In the body of their letters, they introduced themselves, where they lived and went to school, what they had learned, how it made them feel, and why they supported the teachers.

I had never seen my students engaged for one of my lessons as they were in this lesson. Hands and heads were up. Most importantly, they were exercising their voices for social justice. At the end of this unit, not only did my students know how to effectively write a friendly letter, but they now understand why people protest, that people who look like them are being treated unfairly, and that they can contribute to the cause.

Since then, we have continued to use Newsela to discuss current events and brainstorm solutions to many social issues. When an article from Newsela is placed on their desks, my students know we mean business. Newsela is the bridge that connects my students to the world. And this is only the beginning.

Patrick Harris teaches second grade at Achievement Prep Academy in Washington, D.C. Find him on Twitter at @PresidentPat.

Getting Rhetorical With Students Vote 2016

Over the last two weeks, at almost any point during our reading block, you could walk in and hear students involved in heated but respectful conversations. Reading, annotating, and discussing Newsela articles is a normal part of our reading block. As a part of this routine, we have been working all year on how to discuss an article before, during, and after reading it.

Reading, annotating, and discussing

Students select a partner to read with and then select an article to collaborate on. They begin by reading and annotating the article independently. After the first read, they discuss together with a focus on their annotations, questions they each had, and vocabulary they need to clarify. The last step they take is to complete the Newsela quiz questions together. This routine is a favorite and, even though I only require them to complete this with one article each week, students often read, discuss, and quiz on multiple stories. Introducing my crew to Students Vote 2016 on Newsela was a no-brainer!

We kicked off Students Vote 2016 by watching the Brainpop movie “Primaries and Caucuses”. This opened up a great discussion; many students had already read about the Iowa caucus as well as other articles on Newsela about the presidential election. After the discussion, I shared the Brainpop game, “Win the White House”, which immediately got the students engaged. They were primed and wanted more information. This led perfectly to introducing the Election Text Set on Newsela.

Currently, we are entrenched in reading about the election and the conversations are fantastic. I am most impressed with how well the students are doing at disagreeing respectfully. Students are naturally using discussion stems for disagreeing, affirming, and holding the floor – advanced conversational turns that some adults still struggle with.

Discussion Stems

Through these discussions they have seen their quiz scores soar and truly understand how we select our presidential candidates. My fifth graders completely agree that understanding civic literacy should not wait until they turn 18 and they can’t wait to Rock the Vote as New Jersey holds its primary.

Victoria Ruane is a fifth grade educator in Edison Township schools. Stay tuned later this week as one of her students gives her take on Students Vote 2016 in the classroom!



Morgan Dowell’s “Great Thanksgiving Challenge”

The role of the educator has changed dramatically in the digital age. While it is still important to teach the core subjects, we must also show students how to collaborate through effective communication skills and question through evaluation. An educator must shine a light on passions and dreams to help students discover their own voice. Capitalizing on authentic learning opportunities relevant to our students’ lives will create leaders for the future.

Newsela helps me achieve this goal in my classroom. The articles we read together excite my students as they learn about the world outside of Illinois. They expose my students to new and interesting ideas, while also teaching them how question, problem solve and create new solutions. The discussions that stem from the articles are meaningful and reflective as they provide connections from school to the real world. It is during those discussions and “teachable moments” where some of the best class projects have been developed.

Currently we are working on our own “Great Thanksgiving Challenge.” This project was created by this year’s class after being inspired by the article “StoryCorps enlists teens to be part of Thanksgiving oral history project.” The article explains that StoryCorps wanted tens of thousands of teenagers across America to record an interview with a grandparent or another elder this past Thanksgiving. The program was called “The Great Thanksgiving Listen.”

After reading the article, we shared our thoughts about the importance of face-to-face conversations. We talked about the benefits of listening to different points of view, especially those of different generations. Some students admitted that technology has replaced dinnertime conversations. One student even said he sometimes eats dinner in his room while playing video games and watching YouTube. Another student explained how she feels when her mom and dad are always on the computer or phone when she is trying to talk to them.

After more discussions and exploration on the StoryCorps website, my students were motivated to listen to someone over the Thanksgiving break. We then did some quick research on interviewing tips and brainstormed fun questions.

  • What was the music like back then?
  • Tell me about the time you got in the most trouble.
  • What was your greatest accomplishment?

[Check out the accompanying article on Newsela Learning & Support for a full list of questions]

The first day back from break, I was shocked to see that every student completed this extra credit project. It was fun listening to all the interesting stories that were shared over break and the students’ reactions to the project. “I can’t imagine being a news reporter, interviewing and taking notes is hard,” a student exclaimed. “I really couldn’t picture my grandpa as a kid until now,” another student explained. “I had to compromise with the ‘football loving’ adults in the household when I suggested turning off electronics during dinner,” a student announced.

A history-loving student was fascinated to hear about his grandma’s experience when JFK was assassinated. One student recorded her interview with her uncle who had gone to the same school as she. She said she enjoyed the project because she hardly sees him now. She also claimed that she knew he had fun because he was smiling from ear to ear. Another student came back with four interviews! “Everyone wanted to answer the questions I was asking my grandfather, it turned into quite a dinner conversation.” It was interesting to hear about how the interview sparked new conversations. “My grandparents didn’t have a Smartboard in their classroom, I taught them all about it on the Internet,” a student explained. “This opened up a whole debate on who has it harder,  students nowadays or students back then!”

Currently, we are putting together iMovies to tell their elders’ stories. They are so excited to share what they learned, and motivated to make this special. Some have even emailed their interviewees with follow-up questions. This is the power of Newsela. It allows students to read current events at their reading level while igniting a passion to make a change. It expands the audience outside of the classroom and gives my students a unique voice.


Morgan Dowell teaches fifth grade at Madison Elementary School in Lombard, IL. You can find her on Twitter at @mrsdowellsclass

Do you have a Newsela story you’d like to share? We’d love to hear it. Email us at, find us on Twitter, or share to our Facebook Page

Principal Goals

Would you be willing to sleep on the roof of your school?

What about lip-sync to Uptown Funk in front of a captive audience of teachers and students?

It’s not a hypothetical scenario. Inspired by the call for Newsela Goals, Principal Kurt Schweitzer of the Union School in Rutherford, N.J. will be taking on one of the these tasks when students reach their goal of reading 10,000 Newsela articles this school year. Given that Union School students have already read 4,263 articles, Principal Schweitzer might be in need of some heat lamps – just in case he ends up on the school roof on a frigid February evening.

Principal Schweitzer on the roof
Principal Schweitzer on the roof of Union School

From Principal Schweitzer:

I have had the opportunity and privilege to work with the children of Union for the past eight years as the assistant principal, director of special services and now going into my second year as the principal. Newsela has been a great tool for us to assess our children’s abilities to infer, analyze, interpret and critique different levels of texts in all subject areas. These skills are essential and valuable to the development and future of our children.  Furthermore, in order to nurture and foster these skills appropriately, we need develop proactive relationships and communicate effectively.

As we move forward, it is vital that we continue to build and develop a collaborative relationship between home and school. The key to developing a strong partnership is effective communication. This is a skill that can be forgotten at times due to the vast amount of information we are bombarded with on a daily basis. However, it is an essential skill that needs to be nurtured and fostered by all of us. We can accomplish this through teamwork, valuing each other’s opinions, and understanding that we all share the same goal of doing what’s in the best interest of our children.

Union School will be unwavering in our commitment to provide our children with a sound education that focuses not only on critical thinking skills, but social and emotional growth. The most important investment we can make is in our children’s education.  This is a complex process and a journey that requires the support, guidance and involvement of everyone.

Find an excerpt of Principal Schweitzer’s letter below, and be sure to check back here to track the students’ progress!

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Do you have a great Newsela story to share? We’d love to hear it. Email us at

Kathy DeBona’s Students Take Action and Give Back

A Newsela article sparked an experience that showed my students the power of words, changed another teacher’s life, and was a highlight of my career.

One day, my fifth graders read a Newsela article called “High-fives for 3-D hands”, which is about a boy who has a prosthetic hand made by Dr. Albert Chi at Johns Hopkins Hospital using a 3-D printer.

As we discussed the article, I reminded my students that their fourth-grade teacher, Patti Anderson, lost her hand in an accident when she was a teenager. My students immediately began talking about writing to Dr. Chi. Every single kid wanted to help Ms. Anderson get a new hand.

With Ms. Anderson’s permission, we wrote letters to Dr. Chi asking if he would make a hand for her. A few weeks later, the doctor’s office called the school and confirmed that he would. I went upstairs to her classroom, crying.

“He’s going to do it!”

“Who’s going to do what?” she asked.

“Dr. Chi is going to make you a hand.”

Ms. Anderson and Dr. Chi traded photos and measurements, and soon, the hand was ready. We all loaded into a bus and drove from Allentown, PA, to Baltimore, MD. Dr. Chi greeted us at the hospital and led us on an incredible tour. Kids tried out all kinds of prosthetic hands and interacted with a lifelike body used to train doctors.

Dr. Chi also told us the inspiring story of how he became a doctor. When he was in college majoring in biomedical engineering, he crashed his motorcycle and almost lost part of his right leg. Dedicated doctors were able to rebuild his leg using muscles from other parts of his body, and Dr. Chi went on to run a marathon and climb Machu Picchu. He realized the power of medicine and decided to pursue a career as a doctor. It took him a few attempts to get into medical school, and now, he is a nationally renowned pioneer in prosthetics. In my opinion, there is no better role model for the power of perseverance and passion.

Finally, the moment arrived when Dr. Chi presented Ms. Anderson with her new prosthetic hand. Dr. Chi’s wife had painted it in zebra stripes as Ms. Anderson requested. It was a very emotional experience for Ms. Anderson. She was used to relying on all kinds of adaptations just to live her daily life, and all of a sudden, she had a usable hand again.

After the long bus ride home, the class made Dr. Chi a thank-you card that was zebra-patterned on the outside and featured two clasped hands inside. They were so touched by the entire experience.

Newsela engages my students in thinking about all kinds of topics. They are particularly interested in issues that relate directly to their lives, most recently in an article about the fact that some kids don’t join school sports teams because of the extra costs (“Can’t pay? Can’t play. Poor families can’t afford to have kids play sports”).

Since our trip to meet Dr. Chi, my students have written to the new governor of Pennsylvania and a state legislator, inviting them to visit our classroom and learn what day-to-day life is like in schools today. My students have a sense of possibility now. They have seen that their letters can make great things happen. And they know that words matter.

Kathy DeBona is a fifth-grade teacher at Western Salisbury Elementary School in a small suburb of Allentown, PA. She has taught for 17 years at the school. Two filmmakers accompanied the class to Johns Hopkins, and you can experience the trip by watching the short film “The Robot and the Hand” . You can also learn more about the trip by reading this article in the local paper.

Newsela: In the Classroom and Beyond from NewSchools Venture Fund


Inspiring Students to Take Action

IMG_4035Several people including teachers — and our own staff — were inspired by Janet Jeffries’ student activists. We decided to visit her fifth grade class in part to figure out just how she encourages her students to take a stand.

On the day of our visit, students were reading an article about new school lunch standards. As they read, Ms. Jeffries placed signs in each corner of the room labeled “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” or “Strongly Disagree.” After reading the article, the students were asked to physically get up and stand in the corner which most closely represented how they felt. Did they think the new standards were good or bad?

Motivating Students to Take a Stand

Most of the students gathered under “Strongly Agree” and “Agree.” They said they wanted to see some changes to the school lunches. For five minutes, the students found evidence from the article to help back up why they felt this way. When time was up, the students returned to their seats and shared their findings with their teacher.

Ms. Jeffries then placed a T-chart up on the board with PRO on one side of the chart and CON on the other. Though it was clear how her students felt about school lunches, she wanted her students to consider the other side as well. The students were given time to find evidence that supported each side of the article and place it on the chart.

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Students then shared their papers, and Ms. Jeffries assessed each paper’s evidence with the entire class. If they agreed that their peers had strong evidence to support their arguments, she gave it a check. If the student’s evidence needed more work, she asked the class what could be added to make a stronger case. Our staff was inspired to see how students collaboratively developed their arguments with Ms. Jeffries’ guidance.

Teachers: how do you motivate students to consider all sides of an argument? Tweet us at @Newsela with your favorite tips.