Exploring Social Studies Through Arts-Based Pedagogy

 The Beyond the Apple video introducing arts based pedagogy is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3N5Yg4Q3xq8

Infusing arts-based pedagogy into classroom practice provides students and teachers with an opportunity to view content through a new perspective.

Here’s how we used arts based pedagogy to link the social studies curriculum with the study of poetry.

The focus of the social studies unit was to introduce the 6 components of social studies (citizenship, diversity, economics, geography, history, and relationships) and to apply those components to daily life.

Students were asked to think about Maxine Tynes’ poem, “Is It Okay To Look At You”? (see below) as a representation of daily life. As they read, they were to decide which component(s) of social studies the poem most represented, and to create a line drawing to explain their choice.

Is It Okay To Look?

By Maxine Tynes

Is it okay for me to look at you

as you go limping down the street?

May I look at your wheelchair?

May I pick up your cane?

May I watch how you get up the stairs

that I can run up and down as easy as the rain?

My mom tells me not to look

at your twisted lips or legs or arms or hands

but I want to see

and to ask you, too-

What’s it like?

Does it hurt?

Could it happen to me?

How’d it happen to you?

I’m not sure that I should look at you,

not sure just what to say or do

’cause my body is whole and normally strong.

Your body is different.

I’m me.

You are you.

I finally do take a chance-

I look at you, you look back

and then you smile.

Tynes, M. Pottersfield Press, Nova Scotia, 1991

To maintain anonymity among peers, but to ensure we were gathering information about individual student responses AND to be sure sure which component each student chose, each student wrote their name and the component chosen on the back of their post-it.

Students passed their post-its to us. When all post-its were collected, we placed each post-it on chart paper. You may wonder why the students didn’t post their own images – we wanted to provide an opportunity for everyone to watch the pattern of responses unfold.  As the pattern became evident, the questions began.

Here are the results:

arts based pedagogy

These simple illustrations provided us with a lot to think about. Many of the illustrations were fairly obvious and we wondered how deeply the students had thought about the links between life, the poem and the components of social studies. We had a lot of questions to pose to the class, and the seeds to plan the follow up lessons, but first, we decided to see that the students had to say.

Here are the questions generated by the students:

  • What is the difference between citizenship and relationships?
  • Are there overlaps between diversity, citizenship, and relationships?
  • Does history have a “place” in this poem?
  • How can we view this poem through the lens of economics?
  • Geography column is empty. Can this poem be viewed through the lens of geography?
  • Are all of the components of social studies inter-related?
  • If the components are inter-related, how, when and why do we separate them?

Needless to say, we were delighted. Turns out, they didn’t need us to challenge them to think more deeply.  The posting of the drawings and the obvious omission of connections to history, geography and social studies spurred the students’ deeper thinking. That thinking led to more socially aware questions. The follow up conversations, which focused on the links between social studies and life experiences were full of thought and insight.

Let’s hear it for arts based pedagogy!

For more of our thoughts on arts-based pedagogy, go to Arts- based Pedagogy: gaining insight through multiple lenses 

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at Beyondtheapplecontact@gmail.com

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What Does Growth Mindset Look Like?

Growth mindset, first mentioned by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, is one of those supposedly simple ideas that has had tremendous impact on how we think about achieving success.  People with a growth mindset have a “not yet” attitude. Rather than thinking “I don’t know it”, a person with growth mindset thinks, “I don’t know it yet.”

When faced with a challenge,  the learner with a growth mindset acknowledges what is known and what is not yet known, then commits to  learning the “not yet” though active problem solving, research and collaboration. It’s an intentional shift from “not yet” to “got it!” Getting to “got it” means not only new understandings of content, but also, perhaps more importantly, exploring new ways to problem solve, research and collaborate.

Watch Cail’s growth mindset process as goes from “not yet” to “got it”. Cail reflects on what he knows, plans the next steps to improvement, puts the planning into action, reflects on accomplishments, and then continues to plan the next steps to improvement.

(Thanks to Accomplice Content Supply Co.)

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at Beyondtheapplecontact@gmail.com

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Rethinking lesson planning

Screen Shot 2018-01-14 at 8.18.49 PM(from lesson plan templates / Google images)

Writing lesson plans is an integral component of a teacher’s daily practice. The lesson plan template is designed to communicate the topic of the lesson (the curriculum focus), the activities of the lesson (the process through which students engage in the topic) and the anticipated results of the lesson (the product through which the students demonstrate their understanding of the lesson). That certainly sounds like a sensible approach to organizing a teacher’s instructional day — through organization comes success in student learning.

If only it were that easy.

Every teacher knows that even the “best” lesson plans — the ones that we have spent hours perfecting, that our peers have recommended, that were created by our favourite teacher gurus, even those lesson plans that we’ve used successfully in past years, can fail miserably.  About 5 minutes into the lesson, we realize that we’ve lost our focus, the students are not engaged, the anticipated connections are not being made and we know, in the pit of our stomach, that the results will be much less than what we anticipated. Often, we struggle through to complete the lesson and wonder, “What went wrong?”

The easiest way to this question is to assign blame:

  • the students are uncooperative
  • the students weren’t prepared
  • there are too many students in the class
  • the students don’t care
  • I’m a terrible teacher

But blaming others or ourselves takes us backwards. Even if one or more of the answers listed above are true, what we need is a way forward. So let’s rethink the lesson planning process.

We begin with a shift in mindset about lesson panning.

Often, the mindset of lesson planning is focussed on determining what students don’t know and providing the information to fill that gap. Not so. The mindset of lesson planning should focus on how to scaffold student learning from what Dr. Marie Clay referred to as the student’s “known” to the student’s “new”.

What does that look like?

A “known to new” lesson plan is responsive to student learning, integrates prior learning strategies from all subject areas, focuses on student progress AND, perhaps most important, allows the teacher the flexibility to adapt and alter the process and the product while maintaining the original focus of the lesson. Sounds complicated . . . but it doesn’t have to be. With a shift in mindset, all the pieces fall into place.

Here are the entry points to a “known to new” lesson planning mindset:

1. Gather information about the student and reflect on the student’s “known”.

Ask yourself:

  • What information do I have about each student?
  • Do my observations, conferences, conversations and work samples tell me about the each student’s known? This includes the progress to date, interests, and levels of engagement with different formats of learning.
  • As I reflect on the information gathered, what patterns in the class’s or group’s “known” emerge?

If you don’t have this information yet, start gathering it now.  The observations and information gathered throughout the day about individual student learning provide the foundation on which to plan the next lesson.  Lesson plans without a foundation of the known are built on quicksand and the probability of sinking is high.

2a) Find or develop a lesson plan template that includes a space to acknowledge the foundational “known”.

b)  Find or develop a method to record observations about individual student learning.

This process takes additional time, but the time taken ends up being time saved.

3. Use the students’ known to determine the lesson’s focus and implementation.

Ask yourself:

  • Does the focus of this lesson build on the students’ known? If the answer is no, then rethink your entry point or the students will be stuck before they begin. (Think of your car being stuck in the mud — you can continue to spin your tires and go deeper into the mud, or you back up to reconnect with the roadway. Once again, going back takes additional time, but the time taken ends up being time saved.)
  • Are my expectations for success clearly stated in the lesson plan?
  • How will I convey my expectations to the students?
  • How will the lesson unfold? Is there some time to teach, lots of time for students to practice, some time to respond/share?
  • How will I ensure each student has a voice in this lesson?
  • How will I gather information about student learning?
  • How will the strategies learned in this lesson be integrated with other subject areas?
  • How will the lesson be differentiated and still maintain the lesson’s focus.

  4. Use what you know about the students’ known to choose engaging teaching resources.

Ask yourself:

  • What introductory images, quotes, activities, stories, videos, etc. will capture the attention of the students?
  • Are the teaching resources culturally relevant and/or diverse?
  • Can the resources be integrated with other subject areas?
  • Do the texts, images etc. match the developmental and /or instructional level of the students?
  • Can the resources be differentiated?

NOTE: Remember that an image, news item, story or account of a sporting event from the student’s community is a much more powerful teaching resource (and MUCH less expensive) than those created in a location and culture far away.

  5. Ensure the assessment – feedback – next steps loop is woven throughout the lesson plan.

Ask yourself:

  • How will the students demonstrate understanding? Are there alternate ways to demonstrate understanding?
  • What assessment tool best matches this task? Examples include: informed observation, anecdotal notes, checklist, rubric, reading record, etc.
  • How will I provide feedback to the student(s)?
  • How will I use the information gathered to plan next steps instruction?

To sum up

To avoid that pit of your stomach feeling of  “What went wrong with this lesson?”  change the mindset of your lesson planning process. Begin with “What has been accomplished?” or “What is the students’ known?”  Set expectations and make a plan that provides the student with opportunities to scaffold to the new. Throughout the lesson, observe and listen to your students, using their words, demonstrations and questions as cues to what they’ve accomplished and what they need to know next. And finally, acknowledging that if and when necessary, a willingness to alter the path to the known is a sign of professional knowledge, not professional failure.

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at Beyondtheapplecontact@gmail.com




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Let’s Do Our Homework About Homework

A change in thinking about homework is upon us . . . and it can’t come fast enough.

Here are some articles to start this conversation:

Homework Alert: How Much is Enough? Council of Ministers of Education, Canada

Rethinking Homework by Alfie Kohn

Homework is Wrecking Our Kids Salon.com

Here are our thoughts about reframing the practice of homework:

In some areas, homework is tightly controlled and monitored, in other areas, teachers have a choice about whether or not to assign homework.  Whether you have a choice to assign homework or are expected to assign homework, here are some things to consider:

  1. Equity

There’s an assumption that once homework is assigned, it’s up to the student (or the student and parent/guardian) to complete it. That’s an assumption that challenges equitable practice.  Dr. Justin Tarte provides questions to consider equitable homework practice:

  • Does the student have a parent/guardian who can provide assistance?
  • Does the student have time to complete homework?
  • Does the student have a vested interest in completing the homework?
  • Does the student have the language and the background knowledge to complete the homework?
  • Does the student have a place to complete the homework?
  • In addition to your homework assignment, how many more homework assignments is the student responsible for?

2.   Effectiveness

For homework to be effective, it must add value to student learning, so consider these questions:

  1. How is this homework assignment tied to prior learning?
  2. Is there variation in the format (written, illustrated, recorded, observed, etc.) of homework?
  3. How does this homework connect lesson content to the real world?
  4. Is this homework designed to be completed independently?
  5. Are differentiated versions available for students who excel or students who struggle?
  6. How will you mark the homework and provide feedback?
  7. How will your feedback enhance student learning?
  8. How will you use student results to inform your instruction?

3. The Tricky Bits

Next, here are some questions to consider when dealing with some of the troublesome aspects of homework.

  1. Is there a consequence for incomplete homework? If so, is the consequence equitable?
  2. How will you handle the “bookkeeping” of late homework?
  3. For how long does a student have to submit a late homework assignment?
  4. If the homework is completed incorrectly, should it be reassigned?
  5. How will you handle a parent who questions the value of homework and asks to opt out?
  6. Is there an option for the parent or student to comment on a homework assignment’s level of engagement and/or difficulty? How will you respond to comments about homework that is “boring”, “too easy” or “too difficult”?

Clearly, homework is a complex issue. Perhaps we should move away from the homework as “school work part deux” format and toward an “explorations and applications of learning”.  Vatterott’s Five Hallmarks of Good Homework provide a good start.

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at Beyondtheapplecontact@gmail.com

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Gosling Glen and Duckling Dell: Street signs that make us think

Driving through Amherst, Nova Scotia I saw this street intriguing sign.


The elementary school teacher in me was intrigued. For the rest of my drive, I thought about how to use this image as an anchor for a project that engages students in thinking, research, reading, and writing. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Display the image of the street sign. Beside the image, post questions that invite the students to think. Questions such as:
    •      What’s a gosling?
    •      What’s a glen?
    •      What’s a duckling?
    •      What’s a dell?
  • Students work in small groups to share what they know and gather additional information about goslings, glens, ducklings, and dells.
  • The next question to pose is, “If you follow the arrows, where will you go?” The obvious answer is, “To streets named Gosling Glen and Duckling Dell” –  but, hold on, what if that’s not where the arrows lead?
  • Using a “thinking outside the box” mindset, invite your students to brainstorm other possible answers to, “If you follow the arrows, where will you go?”.  The chart below might get you started. It offers a few outside the box answers and some extending questions chosen to engage students in research, reading, and writing in a variety of fiction and nonfiction genres.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 2.55.19 PM

  • Have each small group of students complete one of the “possible answer/research questions.” When complete, share the results.
  • Go back to the beginning by reminding the students that all of their work originated from looking at, talking about, and thinking about 4 words on a simple (albeit intriguing) street sign. Kinda cool!
  • Search for other intriguing signs, images, or questions that provide anchors for students to share knowledge, research, read, write and, most of all, think.

What’s the purpose of this sort of project? To answer that question, think about the group discussions in terms of the grade level’s expectations for speaking, listening, vocabulary building, and cooperative learning. Then think about grade level expectations for strategic thinking, using research skills, questioning, and writing for a specific purpose. Needless to say, there are cross curricular links as well. As you observe the process unfold, decide on the focus points of your observations and make notes about student progress.

Stay tuned, because we’re visiting another Nova Scotia town named Pugwash, where the street signs are written in Gaelic . . . maybe that will lead to a project linking home language to school language.

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For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at Beyondtheapplecontact@gmail.com



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Close Looking: An “After the Storm” Beach Alphabet

At Beyond the Apple, we’re always looking for an interesting image or piece of text to create an engaging anchor for a lesson. Who knew we’d find our next image on a Nova Scotia beach after a mid-summer Nor’easter?

After the storm raged, the outgoing tide revealed a beach littered with individual strands of beach grass. As we walked along the beach, we noticed that each strand had been shaped into a unique curve or angle; many strands of grass were in the shape of  a letter. At that point, a lesson beginning with a close looking experience began to take shape.

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While this close looking lesson begins with a search for naturally occurring letters, it quickly moves into learning opportunities focused on science, categorization, the arts, and language use. Here are some of our ideas:

  • After viewing the samples above, begin your lesson on close looking with a search for naturally occurring letter shapes (not shapes created by manually placing twigs, leaves, rocks, etc. into letter shapes). If you live by the sea, finish our beach alphabet with shapes found on a beach; if you live inland, create a nature alphabet with shapes found in plants, rocks, or in the clouds.
  • Discuss the force(s) of nature that created the shape. Was it wind, water, angle to the sun, erosion or a combination of several forces?
  • Brainstorm a word bank for each letter that links the letter to the location. For example, “b” is beach, ball, baleen; “s” is sand, sea, storm; “c” is for castle, conch, crest.
  • Do some research about the words in each letter’s word bank and create labelled diagrams, definition trees, or “Did you know?”  fact sheets.
  • Use the words chosen to create poems.
  • Illustrate each word with a scenario that brings the word to life.
  • Link the beach / nature alphabet to the stories and language of home; for example, if “c” is for “conch”, invite a community member to share their knowledge about how conchs are used as a food and as a wind instrument.
  • Honour the home language(s) of the school’s community by using the same letters to create a multi-lingual alphabet or personal thesaurus.

Close looking encourages learners of all ages to take time to observe, to think, to discuss, question, to debate, to read and to write. Close looking is a great example of  learning in action. To get started, all you have to do is open your eyes.

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at Beyondtheapplecontact@gmail.com

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Close Looking: Using logos to develop critical thinking

You may know about close reading as a “thoughtful, critical analysis of a text that focuses on significant details or patterns in order to develop a deep, precise understanding of the text’s form, craft, meanings, etc.” (nieonline.com)

But have you heard of close looking? If not, simply reread the definition above, and replace the word “text” with “visual image”.

Hackberry General Store’s front window is covered with logos for everything from highway markers to blacksmith shops to political statements. This window provides a great introduction to the process of close looking.


When an intriguing image such as this is first displayed in the classroom, students will search for the familiar and the unfamiliar. But once they learn how to close look, they  will appreciate how each seemingly simple design is strategically crafted to share a message. The closer they look, the more they:

  • wonder (about the message of the image)
  • search (for information that clarifies the message)
  • think critically (about the obvious and subtle, intended and unintended impact of that message)

That sounds like something worth exploring, so here’s a suggestion about how to use this image as an anchor to develop critical thought through close looking:

  1. Display the image for a day or two and simply observe how students respond. Make note of the questions they ask and observations they make.
  2. After a few days, divide the image into 6 sections and assign each section to a group.
  3. Each group chooses 2-4 images for a close look. The process of choosing the images is actually an exercise in close looking, so make notes about the questions and comments generated during this decision making process.
  4. Once the groups have decided on their images, bring the class back together and  co-construct a set of “close look” research questions. Set the stage for this co-construction with the questions you collected during Step 1 and Step 3. As students generate additional questions, listen for and highlight questions that provide opportunities critical thought. These questions are often linked with the verbs such as connect, analyze, interpret, question.
  5. Now provide time for the groups to do some product or message based research. This research will lead to many languages, many communities, many varying political messages and a “a deep, precise understanding of the (image’s) form, craft, meanings, etc.” (adapted from nieonline.com/tbtimes/downloads/CCSS_reading.pdf).
  6. Be prepared for some very interesting and highly charged discussions, so encourage students to choose presentation style or medium that will encourage their audience to take a close look at their research.
  7. Now shift from this teacher supplied image to a student generated collection of common logos found in their social community. Throughout the year, share one of these images and engage the class in a close looking exercise to encourage a critical analysis of the obvious and subtle, intended and unintended impact of a visual image.

For more conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at Beyondtheapplecontact@gmail.com

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