Truly a Buzz in the Hive

Notes from the Classroom

My kids took the AP US History Exam last month, so now is a good time to reflect on a writing experiment I led this year.

If you read my first post, you’ll recall that I described HistoryHive (then known as HerodotusHive) as a structured space where my APUSH students would go to improve their writing. There, APUSH alumni (now juniors and seniors) would share insights—essentially craft knowledge—with my current students on how to build on all of the class work we’ve done to write for APUSH.

In my second post, I explained that the HistoryHive is premised on the work of physics professor Eric Mazur, who found that at a certain point in the learning process, peer instruction helped his students in ways he could not.

I had an open question going in. Mazur’s world is of one of equations and right answers with decimal points. Would this method transfer to writing?

5 Parts to the Hive

We’ve had a total of 10 HistoryHives since the fall. Structure was important. I couldn’t just have current students and former students show up and say, “Go!” So, each Hive featured 5 distinct parts:

1. I review the targeted writing skill, with my flipped lecture.

2. Mentor Historians riff tips about the targeted skill.

3. In small-group settings, Apprentice Historians discuss a piece of writing with Mentor Historians.

4. All together, we debrief about epiphanies.

5. Apprentice Historians can stay after for Franchi Flash Feedback.

The result? I could tell that Mazur’s method did in fact transfer to writing.

Not to sound cheesy here, but from the beginning of the year until the end, there really was a buzz in the Hive. I saw lots of kids walk through the door; I saw buy-in; I saw focus; I saw a genuine drive to be better writers. I heard great conversations about writing. And I saw growth taking place in real time.

It was so satisfying to see students show up without the dangle of extra credit. OK, I have to confess: I may have offered snacks. But the point is that the kids were invested for all the right reasons. I certainly thought it went well. But what did the kids say?

Ah-Ha! Moments

During a riffing segment on introductions, Apprentice Historian Christine (a pseudonym, as with others) learned that “it’s important for us to ask ourselves what someone would need to know before reading our essay.” This moment of advice from a mentor stuck out. “It improved my writing dramatically and months later I still ask myself this question before I write an introduction,” she told me.

I noticed that any given piece of advice might not be needed by most, but individual students were catching on with “Ah-Ha” moments. For Dakota, that moment was when she realized she needed to focus on the significance of the documents instead of summarizing them. Sara picked up something about sentence structure. For others, the importance of planning and using the language of historians like “turning point” were the lessons that stuck.

In one Hive about mid-year, we had a collective “ah-ha!” moment, the one that seemed to resonate with most. See a pattern?

Realizations about Depth

“CK [Content Knowledge] can be used really well, or really horribly. For CK you can’t just spill a bunch of it out on paper and expect it to be relevant to the topic,” Juliette told me.

The key, Nicole learned, was to “have a few strong pieces and spend most of my time analyzing them.” Ellen agreed, saying it’s all about “quality, not quantity.” And so did Don, recalling that the best tip from the year was to “just answer the question directly and don’t add extra ‘fluff’ just to make your essay seem longer.” Candice, a Mentor Historian, reported that this was a point she made with groups, urging students to only “provide those specific events that would help build your argument.”

Haruto, another Mentor Historian, was the one who started a conversation about this for the whole Hive. I could tell he was on to something when I saw lots of nodding around the room. He said that “the deeper analysis you have of your CK is much better than having a bunch of CK with shallow analysis.”

This lesson underscores the real progress kids can make in understanding their task for advanced writing. Many kids come into the course conditioned to believe that simply stacking content knowledge is the way to prove their points. In a class like APUSH, the effect is a show-and-tell of topics learned, when the reality is that they need to offer analysis. The sooner kids can shed those old ways of thinking about school, the more they’ll grow into more sophisticated writers.

And, it turns out, these are lessons they can learn from each other–perhaps even more so than from me.

unnamedRod Franchi (@thehistorychase) is in his 21st year teaching Social Studies at Novi High School. He did his undergraduate work at Albion College and the University of Michigan, and earned an M.A. in English at Wayne State University and an M.A. in History Education at the University of Michigan. Having served as an education leader at the school, district, county, and state levels, Rod now works as AP US History Consultant and AP US History Mentor for the College Board. He is also Co-Director of the Novi AP Summer Institute and is an Attending Teacher in the University of Michigan’s Rounds Program.

The Science of Good Writing

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_380117134“Hattie. Take a look at this. One of your kids wrote this, and I don’t know what to do with it.”

My friend Brian, a Physics teacher, handed me an essay. It was by one of my AP Language and Comp students from last year.

I read the first line and snickered. She was breaking down a complicated physics concept with an unexpected and slightly silly tone. It was funny. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but she had taken some liberties with her punctuation and phrasing to achieve a relaxed, informal tone; it was definitely intentional, and I was proud.  

I could tell by the look on Brian’s face, though, that he didn’t share my delight.

“Who was her audience supposed to be?” I asked.

“Me?” he replied uncertainly.

I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation, but we quickly realized that we had very different ideas of what a good piece of writing could or should look like in a Physics classroom. Our district, much like many others, has spent the last few years grappling with the increased writing demands placed on content area teachers by the Common Core. Our science and social studies teachers have stepped willingly up to the plate and increased the writing in their classrooms—fantastic!—but we’ve discovered along the way that all of that new writing creates new challenges.

Are all teachers really writing teachers now? Can we hold kids to the same standards in science that we hold them to in ELA?  

Yes and of course! But…that’s easier said than done.

Enter Collaboration  

This is not my first rodeo with collaborative, cross-curricular writing. For the past seven years, all of the English 10 teachers and all of the Civics and Economics teachers at our school have combined forces to help our students write research papers. Though it was challenging to coordinate instruction with 12 different teachers, we made a lot of strides with improving the quality of our students’ research writing. Unfortunately, due to scheduling and class alignments, that project is no longer feasible, but I’m not quite ready to give up on this idea yet.

Luckily, Brian, the Physics teacher, was willing and eager to work with me on tackling these cross-curricular writing challenges. The more we talked, the more we zeroed in on a common goal for our students: We want them to think like writers.

We want students to write with their audience and their purpose in mind, regardless of the class. We want all kids to be able to look at any writing assignment, in any discipline, and know how to tackle it without asking, “How many paragraphs?”

That’s a pretty big goal, but we think combining our writers might help us get closer to it.

Bridging Science and ELA

My AP Language class is largely skills based. All year we’ve been working on crafting arguments, analyzing texts, and synthesizing research. These are all skills that should translate nicely to scientific writing, but it’s the translating part that kids are having trouble with, we think.

We wanted to create a bridge between the classes during our actual class time. This, we thought, might help students in that translating of skills. Though it would be ideal to just combine our classes for a few days and run a large writing workshop together, schedules and numbers of kids made that impossible.

shutterstock_309290015So our first step was a tiny one. Brian’s kids wrote some essays, and he dropped the students off to my classes, where they received some feedback about focus and organization. It was a great experience for my students to practice giving constructive feedback, and Brian was happy with the help his kids received.

Still, we both think we can do more. Having my students edit isn’t really helping students translate their ELA skills to their Physics writing. In fact, it almost seems to reinforce the idea that writers exist in ELA classrooms alone.

So what comes next? In order to keep the assignment meaningful and relevant for both groups of students, we realized, we needed to clearly articulate our goals. For the argumentative essay he is about to begin with his classes, Brian wants his students to have more confident, natural voices in their writing. He wants them to take their scientific writing from good (but perhaps dull) to interesting and engaging. My students have been working on developing a confident, natural voice all semester—specifically through the lens of their grammar and syntax.

This can be our focus. Rather than simply have my students “fix” the essays, I can challenge them to teach their peers some of the syntactical tricks we’ve been learning this semester. To get past the shared-class-period hurdle, we plan to pair students virtually, using shared Google Docs.

I’m not sure that this gets at our ultimate goal of making students think like writers. To truly achieve that, we’d need to have the students co-writing right from the beginning, and we just can’t work out the logistics of that right now. Still, this is a step in the right direction. We’re connecting writers, and we’re helping them to model good writing and revision with their peers.

I’m no science teacher, but this is an experiment, right? Hypothesis: we’re all going to learn a lot.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Approaches to Content Area Literacy

REGISTER – instructions for how to self-enroll

shutterstock_221575594Audience: teachers in all content areas grades 6-12

Format: five 2-hour self-paced online modules; to be used individually or with PLCs, departments or teams.

If you are a grade 6-12 teacher in any content area interested in

  • familiarizing yourself–or maybe re-familiarizing yourself–with some of the basic ideas and elements of metacognition as it relates to literacy and
  • learning about effective ways to help your students read more carefully and process the content in your subject area,

these modules are for you. They introduce key ideas, terms, and habits of mind that are essential to understanding how metacognition works, as well as how to help your students with apprenticeship–the practice of increasing their comprehension and engaging in discourse about important readings in your discipline.

Module activities include:

  • watching presentations about metacognitive strategies,
  • reading texts about metacognition and literacy,
  • taking short quizzes,
  • analyzing and discussing sample texts and lessons,
  • adapting activities and materials for your own students, and
  • designing lessons for improved literacy, more thoughtful reading, and more in-depth discourse in your classroom.

Our goal is for you to complete the course feeling inspired and energized to make greater use of metacognition and discourse as you assign and discuss readings with your students in your classroom. Our hope is that you will move from these modules to enhanced daily practice where you see you and your students directly benefit from powerful ways to make better meaning of the texts you assign.

Topics addressed:

  • what metacognition is and why it matters so much while students read inside and outside your classroom;
  • habits of mind that turn students from passive into active readers;
  • the benefits of nurturing a culture of inquiry through discourse in your classroom;
  • and several strategies you can use tomorrow for your students to read more carefully.

SCECHs: available – 10 hours

Consultant Contact:

Foundations of Teaching Argument

shutterstock_90951101REGISTER – click here for instructions
Audience: teachers in all content areas grades 6-12

Format: five hours of self-paced online modules; to be used individually or with PLCs, departments or teams.

If you are interested in

  • familiarizing yourself–or maybe re-familiarizing yourself–with some of the basic ideas and elements of argumentation and argument writing and
  • learning about effective ways to introduce your students to argument-focused thinking and writing,

this virtual learning experience is for you! This “Foundations” course is designed to introduce key ideas, terms, and habits of mind that are essential to understanding how arguments work, as well as how constructing and analyzing arguments can benefit your students’ learning.

In the course’s four modules you will

  • watch presentations,
  • read texts,
  • take short quizzes,
  • analyze and discuss example arguments,
  • adapt activities and materials for your own students, and
  • give feedback.

Our goal is for you to complete the course feeling inspired and energized to make greater use of argumentation and argument writing in your classroom–and for you to feel equipped and prepared to do that.

You will learn about:

  • diverse types of arguments;
  • the key elements of well-formed arguments;
  • habits of mind that generate high-quality arguments and argument writing;
  • the benefits of nurturing a “culture of argumentation” in your classroom;
  • activity ideas to introduce your students to basic concepts and moves of argumentation;
  • education research that supports the view that, across the school day, practice making and analyzing arguments can help students deepen their understanding of content we want them to learn.

SCECHs: available – 5 hours

Consultant Contact:

Instructional Strategies & Protocols…a means to an end, not an end to themselves!

Consultants' Corner

I have a son in high school who is, by all measures, a skilled reader and a dedicated student.   When he reads for school, much to his chagrin, I tend to bug him by asking him lots of annoying questions. I do this in part because I am a concerned parent who wants to stay in touch with my son’s education. However, I also do it because I’m a literacy researcher at heart and I want to see what and how he is thinking when engaged in school-related reading.

student testingIn the course of my meddlesome investigations, I noticed an interesting pattern across his assigned reading of three different novels. For all of his novel reading, he was expected to use the FIDDS protocol, in which he was directed to analyze Figurative language, Imagery, Diction, Details, and Syntax. This protocol (often used in AP English and IB ELA classes) is intended to help students focus on elements an author uses to develop tone or express style. Students are then supposed to consider how style or tone contributes to the larger themes, purposes, or meanings of the text. In my son’s case however (and likely for many other students), the use of the protocol became the end for him, and not the means through which he understood the text.

As I understand the task he was assigned, he was expected to identify a minimum number of FIDDS examples and connect them to identified themes of the books in the process of a writing a literary analysis. For example, for one book he looked for examples of imagery and figurative language used by the author to develop the idea that love can both heal and hurt.   With this task laid out before him, his reading then focused on finding and explaining the examples… he wasn’t really engaged with the larger narrative of the novel or the human problem it was exploring, nor was he focused on developing a cohesive analysis of the book’s theme. When I asked about the larger conflict of the novel and why this novel was worth reading, he replied that his assignment didn’t require him to think about that; he just had “to find these examples and write a short paragraph about each one.” The benefit to this was that he learned about literary devices and had the opportunity to consider them in use. The drawback was that he lost an opportunity to consider the larger value of the book as he read; he wasn’t reading with important questions in mind, just the task.  In fact, once he identified a sufficient number of examples and satisfied the requirements of the protocol as assigned, he felt that this part of his work was done, and he no longer seemed to actively consider how the theme continued to be developed by the author.  Reviewing his work and the book, I found quotes and sections that would have better served his analysis, but he felt that he didn’t need to use them because he already had examples for those particular FIDDS elements.  He explained to me again, patiently but on the verge of annoyance, that he was completing the FIDDS task as directed, and that what I was asking for (a thematic analysis of the book supported by multiple examples) was not what he was supposed to do.  I’m quite certain, however, that the goal of using FIDDS is to develop effective literary analyses, but in this case, finding examples of FIDDS had become the goal itself.

Teacher Helping Male Pupil Studying At Desk In ClassroomWe educators love our strategies, routines, and protocols though, especially with respect to reading. Indeed, much of the professional learning that I do with teachers involves, to varying degrees, strategies and routines. So my purpose here is not to say that protocols or strategies are inherently problematic, but rather I want to argue that we run the risk of minimizing the value of strategies if we use them in isolation, overuse them, use them when they don’t really fit, or use them without processing or connecting them to larger themes/concepts.

The challenge of effectively using learning strategies for reading isn’t just a problem in ELA classrooms either. I’ve seen similar issues in many social studies classes. Reading protocols like APPARTS and SOAPSTone present the same problems. APPARTS stands for: Author, Place and time, Prior Knowledge, Audience, Reason, The main idea, and Significance; it is meant to be used when students analyze primary documents. SOAPSTone is similar and asks students to identify, for any document they read, the Speaker, the Occasion, the Audience, the Purpose, the Subject, and the Tone. These approaches stem from the idea that historians question the contexts and sources of documents as a part of their disciplinary practices. What sometimes gets left out for students, however, is WHY historians approach reading this way.  Historians consider these textual elements as they gather and analyze evidence from documents in the process of trying to resolve an historical problem. For historians, the source and context of a document shape its larger meaning and value as evidence. Absent a good driving, historical question to focus these approaches, such protocols become decontextualized lists of steps for students to complete. This is particularly true when students are asked to use such a routine for every single document they read. When the use of the protocol or strategy becomes the outcome, students miss out on the important process of considering why to use such a tool in the first place. In other words, if students are asked to use these routines but are never engaged in thinking about how this information (source, context, etc.) actually matters in an historical investigation, the work becomes just another  routine task.

I want to clearly state that I’m not criticizing my son’s teacher, or any teacher, for using these kinds of tools.  I use them myself when I teach.  Rather, I want us to honestly reflect on how we currently use such strategies and then  talk about how we can use them more effectively! The following questions are constantly on my mind now as I think about this problem:

  • How helpful are some of the strategies or protocols that we use, and when do they get in the way?
  • How can we best teach students multiple strategies and then help them learn to use the tools that work best for them to engage in deep learning, not just task completion?
  • How do we set meaningful, authentic purposes for reading that drive the use of strategies and lead to students’ construction of new knowledge, not repetition of known facts?
  • Who is driving the conversation around strategies, and what can we do to make sure that stakeholders understand that strategies are a means to an end, and not an end unto themselves?

There are no simple answers to these questions, by the way, and that’s okay. We just need to ask ourselves these questions as we teach and constantly seek to get better at what we do. Even so, I think that the last question above is particularly important and merits a bit of unpacking. I carried out professional development in one district where everyone had been trained in Thinking Maps, and the teachers were required to use Thinking Maps at regular intervals. In this context, instructional planning began to revolve around the strategy and was no longer driven by students’ needs and content learning goals. Administrators would visit classrooms looking for Thinking Maps instead of looking and listening for evidence of student learning. Teachers collected data on their use of Thinking Maps, not on students’ learning of new concepts and skills.  The completion of the Thinking Maps became the goal of teaching, and the learning of content was backgrounded. Now, I’m sure that students learned content at some point in this process, but no one ever stopped to ask if Thinking Maps were the most appropriate strategy for each given lesson in which they were used (especially after the district invested lots of money in materials and training!). In this situation, most teachers did what many students do: they completed the task without ever really thinking about the tools or considering alternatives.

Now, I get why this happens. Administrators are under pressure to show “best practices” in their buildings, and there is certainly value in developing common language across classrooms with shared approaches. Requiring everyone to use the same strategy might make some sense as a first step, but never going beyond that and introducing a range of malleable, alternative practices seems very problematic to me. Even more problematic is the use of strategies for reading that is NOT driven by interesting, content-rich questions.

imsis591-033So what is the solution?  How, for example, would I adapt my son’s assignment?  I think I would have backgrounded FIDDS for starters, asking students instead to read with a larger question in mind.  I would have asked students to read the novel as a means of engaging with a range of big, important questions connected to possible themes in the book.  I would then have students track the development of this theme and develop claims about the author’s perspective on our driving questions, perhaps focusing in on key chapters (depending upon the book).  I would ask students to identify multiple examples of how the theme surfaced in the novel and then discuss how these examples might suggest the perspective of the author.  I would then have students make claims about how the author integrated her perspective on the theme into the book, and then review their reading notes to select the best evidence to support their claims (after having worked with them around standards of evidence for literary analysis).  At this point, students could use FIDDS to help them analyze their evidence and consider the types of evidence they had found, and perhaps go back into the book to look for other types of evidence.  In this scenario, students would use FIDDS to serve the larger purpose of reading, FIDDS would not be the purpose itself.

Reading with no clear purpose just becomes an exercise in task completion, and if many of our students operate in this mode, it is because they have learned to do so in our schools. If we want students to think deeply as they read, then we need to anchor our instruction in big, conceptual problems that connect to the texts they are reading. This requires us to foreground disciplinary thinking and problem solving in which questions come first and tools are adapted or shaped depending upon the context. Of course, teaching in this way is not easy work. It requires lots of time and constant reflection, and students are not likely to appreciate more complex tasks in the beginning! Nevertheless, if we want our students to go deeper in their learning and reading, then we have to design and scaffold instructional activities that move them in this direction. Reading protocols and strategies can be of great help in this work, but only when they are processed and used carefully as the means to an end, and not as the end in and of themselves.


Darin-StockdillDarin Stockdill is the Content Area Literacy Consultant at Oakland Schools.  He joined the Learning Services team here in 2011 after completing his doctorate in the area of Literacy, Language, and Culture at the University of Michigan’s School of Education.  At Michigan, he taught content area literacy methods courses to pre-service teachers (and was named a School of Education Outstanding Instructor in 2010) and researched adolescent literacy, with a focus on the connections (or lack thereof at times) between youths’ academic and non-academic literacy practices.  Before this stint in academia, Darin was a classroom Social Studies and English teacher in Detroit for 10 years, working with both middle and high school students, and he also took on curriculum leadership roles in his school.  Before teaching at the secondary level, he worked as a substance abuse and violence prevention specialist with youth in Detroit, and also taught literacy and ESL to adults in Chicago.


Supporting Struggling Readers, Grades 6-12

Fall 2017 (October 17 & 24, November 1)

Register HERE

Grade Level(s):  6-1278753306

Description: This three-day workshop will help general and special educators at the grade 6-12 level understand struggling readers in content area texts in new, dynamic ways and give them better tools to support these students. Participants will explore reader identities, critical methods of questioning, text map analysis, and more with content area text. Teachers will learn strategies to use immediately in their classrooms and they will have the opportunity to practice those strategies with their colleagues and in their content during the workshop. Educator teams from schools and districts are welcome.

SCECHs: Pending (15 SCECHs)

Intended Audience: Grade 6-12 Teachers of Social Studies, Science, and ELA

Event Date:  This 3-day series will be offered October 17 & 24, November 1.

Presenters: Jill Jessen-Maneice and Wendy Wilcox

Location:  Oakland Schools,  2111 Pontiac Lake Road, Waterford, MI  48328

Event Contact:  Kim Adragna

Content Area Literacy

Mathematicians, scientists, historians, economists, poets, and novelists all use and produce texts in different ways.  Their purposes for writing vary, as do the language and grammar conventions they use to convey meaning.  Content area literacy instruction in school introduces students to these practices as a part of the process of teaching and exploring content.  In this framework, content area literacy instruction does not compete with or impede content instruction–it is an integral part of content instruction.  Students learn content as they read, write, and produce texts and other representations of important concepts in every academic domain.


Content Area Literacy work is directly informed by the Common Core State Standards, which include literacy practices across the curriculum.  These standards focus heavily on inferential and analytical reading across a range of texts, argumentation and the use of evidence, and research processes.  Oakland Schools actively supports Oakland County schools as they transition to meet these standards and develop curriculum in this area.

Content Area Literacy services at Oakland Schools support educators as they work to integrate these important practices into their instruction.  Professional learning opportunities target understanding reading and writing processes, pedagogical approaches that help students use texts to learn and become critical readers and writers across the grade-levels, and exploring opportunities and challenges for students as they use and produce texts in the content areas.

Content Area Literacy Resources


Instructional Strategies and Teaching Resources
National Organizations focused on Literacy with Content Area Literacy Resources

Literacy Research Association
International Reading Association

English Language Arts

Instructional Strategies and Teaching Resources


Instructional Strategies and Teaching Resources



Instructional Strategies and Teaching Resources