Curriculum Matters Articles

Blended and Online Learning in the Classroom

By Marjorie Light

Throughout this school year, educators in the East Granby Public School District have focused on incorporating blended learning applications into their teaching repertoires. In addition, some teachers have created classes for students to take a course online, allowing students to expand their learning and broaden their resumes. Blended learning takes place in a traditional classroom setting, where some of the learning takes place online, along with instruction provided by the teacher.

Blended learning allows students to move at their own pace, increases opportunities for remediation, and provides extended learning opportunities. For instance, perhaps there is a student who has a clear understanding of the mathematical concept recently introduced in class. Having a blended learning opportunity, allows her to master the topic by moving forward at her own pace by utilizing a math program online independently.

At Carl Allgrove Elementary, the K-2 learners are beginning their explorations into blended learning through secure apps on iPads or Chromebooks. With subscriptions such as PebbleGo, MyOn Reading, Padlet, and online typing, there are numerous opportunities for students to investigate math concepts, advance at their own pace, and have access to a variety of books at just the right reading level.

Teachers in R.D. Seymour Elementary, our 3 - 5 building, utilize blending learning in their lesson plans, too. Here, students can explore a topic, such as the foundations of multiplication, by moving about the room to various stations. One station is with the teacher, tackling problems together, while another group is working with manipulatives and sorting pieces into even-numbered sets. The third group is utilizing their computers on a secure site that raises the challenge level as each student advances through the math program. The program adjusts to the student’s levels as he/she completes a section, supplying review and remediation when needed.

In the middle school, blended learning appears in the Reading/Writing workshop model utilized by 6 - 8 teachers. Students share their original pieces of writing online, then use a peer critique protocol for writing suggestions and editing tips. Work isn’t confined to the classroom, as students can polish their writing wherever a computer and internet access is available. Across the core disciplines (English, Social Studies, Science, Math, and World Language) student group presentations are created using Google Slides, allowing a number of people to work together simultaneously, just as they would in their future work environments.

All of Sarah Dugre’s art classes in the middle and high schools utilize Google Classroom as an online platform. Students learn through an in-class concept and then choose which path to carry through their Google Class. This is where they individualize their learning. For example, the eighth graders just finished learning about one-point, two-point, and three-quarter point perspective and are currently researching their ideas for their projects using one of those perspectives. After the majority of the class completes their rough drafts and research, they have two mini-lessons on watercolor pencils and colored pencils. Then, they return to finalize their project. In the end, they upload their initial work, notes, practice sheets, final project, and artist statement to the Google Classroom for sharing and evaluation.

As students grow and mature, they can become more independent with their learning. At East Granby High School all students have the opportunity to take an online Personal Finance class with Dr. Mark Waller. Previously offered as a blended learning class, where students reported to the business room during the school day, now students can learn online while completing assignments and projects at their own pace. This class is a fantastic way to earn high school credits, as well as develop financial skills important in adulthood.

During professional development days, scores of EGPS educators are developing learning units that utilize blended learning. Not only does this help students with mastery of a topic, it also prepares them for the online classes they may face at university or in their future employment.

Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt

By Susan Cavanagh

It starts down in the dirt. First graders learn about the growth and development of plants and animals through a series of investigations addressing Next Generation Science Standards. The culminating project involves designing and building a small terrarium habitat.

First grade teachers introduce the unit with an engaging read-aloud book, Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner. This book explains, using text and illustrations, the vital connections between living things in an ecosystem.

“Down in the dirt is a whole busy world of earthworms and insects, digging and building and stirring up soil. They’re already working down in the dirt.”

The first investigation begins with students planting rye grass and alfalfa in small soil-filled cups. Using their fin-gertips, they gently press the seeds into the soil. They closely observe how seeds germinate and grow, and they rec-ord observations in their journals using emergent science vocabulary terms such as: root, stem, leaf, sprout, grain, and seed. The students tend to their “lawns” by watering them and placing them in a sunny location. The grass grows quickly and soon it needs to be mowed! But what do they notice? After mowing, the alfalfa stops growing! Why? Because the leaves produced the food! The rye grass keeps growing because the blades of grass are nour-ished from the roots. Students formulate an explanation for the different responses to mowing from the close ex-amination of the evidence. (First Grade Investigations: Habitats link is case sensitive)

In the second investigation children learn how plants make food. Students make new plants from the stems of ma-ture plants and tubers (potatoes).

In the third investigation, small groups of children design and build terrarium habitats, a small community of plants and animals. This activity connects the study of plants and animals. The students plant grass seed in soil and add local compost materials from the school grounds. They learn the importance of how the nutrients in soil support plant growth. Then, they add small animals to the habitat: earthworms, pill bugs, and sow bugs. With the introduc-tion of animals, the children observe and notice changes in the habitat. They learn about the interdependence of plants and animals in an ecosystem. I interviewed first grade students and this is what they shared about their expe-rience:

Cole explained how the earthworms in the soil make a “….natural habitat. The worms make the soil more ferti-lized.”

Veronica noticed how the worms wiggled and buried themselves in the dirt, “bugs like to stay in the dark and in the dirt.”

Kelsea described how she planted the seeds in the middle of the terrarium dirt and then added water. She described the new grass in the terrarium as feeling a little like rubber and a little like real grass growing at home.

Alex shared that the “worms make the soil richer,” and help the plants to stay healthy. He said that plants need sun-light, air, water, and “soil made rich by worms.”

As the first graders monitor their terrariums, they chart and map the changes. The students make labeled drawings in their science journals that demonstrate their conceptual knowledge. It is an exciting hands-on unit of discovery!

Messner, Kate. Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt. San Francisco CA: Chronicle Books, 2017. 12.4.2018

Portrait of a Graduate

Article for "Talk Turkey" ~ an East Granby Town Publication

By Marjorie Light

When East Granby Public Schools began working toward revising and improving its Mission and Vision Statements in the 2015-16 school year, they sought input from its various stakeholders: administrators, faculty, students, parents/guardians, community members, business partners, and the Board of Education. Throughout the process, the district examined and identified their vision of the graduate, including what they wanted the students to know upon graduation, as well as the various pathways for students to achieve success.

Since 2016, the district has focused efforts on the following six categories for a Portrait of an EGPS Graduate: Intellectual Agility, Mindfulness and Mindset, Global Acumen, Creativity and Innovation, Leadership and Collaboration, and Technological Ability. How do these characteristics become imbedded in our curriculum and what do they look like in the classroom? Below are instances of implementation.

An example of how intellectual agility is reflected in the classroom is evident in the Illustrative Math program in Shannon Provencher’s middle school class. Students share geometric mathematical problem solving strategies by projecting them onto the SMARTboard and justify their mathematical reasoning with their peers. Those who tackled the calculation differently share their findings. Next, the class transitions into working on reflections and rotations on an x-axis using tracing paper. Throughout the district, students use manipulatives in learning stations to help conceptualize a problem, along with other tools to model mathematical thinking such as diagrams, tables, graphs, and formulas.

As the school year progresses, both Carl Allgrove and R.D. Seymour Elementary Schools will continue their work with positive and healthy mindsets. Embedded into their curriculum is social-emotional security, working collaboratively with one another. One way of teaching healthy mindsets is turning failure into lessons that foster risk-taking in the classroom. Modeling positive self-talk by students replaces “I am terrible at reading aloud” with “Look how much better I am now than when school started.” Similarly, “I can’t ever get this right,” becomes “I’m getting closer to solving this by figuring out what doesn’t work.” Marsie Luckenbach at Seymour Elementary encourages her students to take risks and have a positive mindset in math by telling them their goal isn’t to solve the problem right now, but attack it and explore different angles. Later, they return to the problem and find the solution.

Increasing students’ understanding of the world is vital in a global market economy, so EGPS is excited to offer students various pathways to earning the new Global Engagement graduation certification offered by Connecticut. Last spring, when the Department of Education introduced this opportunity, our district was ready, as Dr. Christine Mahoney arranged for us to be a part of the pilot. Students Ivanna Pratts and Sosie French earned the accolades. (See details here: ) This year, in addition to World Languages, Literature, and History, the high school is offering Regional and International Cuisine taught by our new Family and Consumer Science educator, Susan Corey.

Fostering creativity and innovation is a lynchpin of the Advanced Manufacturing I and II courses in the MET (Manufacturing, Engineering, and Technology) department. Last spring, students created a fully-functioning mini-putt course by combining physics and materials. This year, they are exploring drone manufacturing and flying, as well as utilizing welding simulators and 3-D printers. Teacher Wendi Meunier collaborates with Asnuntuck Community College, creating exciting curriculum for East Granby students interested in careers in engineering, design, and manufacturing.

In the 2016-2017 school year, our district worked diligently on embedding leadership and collaboration throughout the curriculum. For example, seventh grade Social Studies teacher Vicki Hebeler partnered with the English Language Arts teacher, Kate Stewart, to create interdisciplinary literature circles. The book clubs utilized themed fiction and nonfiction global literature. Students had different leadership roles during the unit, some acting as facilitator, recorder, or reporter. The groups had lively conversation around questions posed to the group by the other members.

This year, students in third grade will have additional opportunities for collaboration through participation in Research Clubs. Working with Teachers College Reading Writing Project consultant, teachers will lead students on an exploration through a unit entitled: Elephants, Penguins, and Frogs, Oh My! In Kindergarten, the Push, Pull, Go physical science unit uses physics problem solving in groups through the creation of action models with Kid K’NEX®. Students build swings, spin tops, and ramps, collaboratively engineering their own motion invention.

With a focus on blended learning and online learning as a 2017-2018 Area of Focus, the Business Department at East Granby High School has further embraced the concept, adding more classes to its already-stellar lineup. Dr. Mark Waller taught an online summer in Business Management to East Granby students, allowing them to earn college credits over the summer. In addition, all high school students have an opportunity to take Personal Finance this year, as the class is being offered online for the first time. Other educators across the district and grades are incorporating blended learning using Google Classroom, giving students more access to materials and helping them have ownership in their own learning.

Looking forward, this small, but mighty, district has plans for further improving teaching and learning practices through expanded professional development offerings, empowering students to take control of their own learning, and improving student performance by providing multiple learning opportunities through a variety of pathways. The goal, while ambitious, is possible due to the dedicated employees, students, and community members of East Granby.

The Goldilocks Effect:

or What's Going on in Your Child's Brain When You Read Them a Story?

By Susan Cavanagh

I think we can all agree that reading is fundamental. Early experiences with reading and literacy are critical because they support the formal instruction in school.

Today, we have so many choices when we share a story with a child. We can read on an iPad or Kindle, we can listen to an audio version, we can watch a cartoon or an animation on YouTube, or read a picture book.

You might be surprised to learn that recent research tells us that the format of a book makes a difference in terms of children’s comprehension and strengthening of literacy ‘muscles’.

An article by Anya Kamenetz in NPRed, recently published findings from research conducted at the Cincin-nati Children’s Hospital on the process of learning to read. The research, headed by Dr. John Hutton, exam-ined MRI scans to determine which networks of the brain (language, visual, and visual imagery) were acti-vated by different modes of storytelling: (1) audio only, (2) animated cartoon version, and (3) storybook with pictures and narration.

They summarized the results with an analogy they named, The Goldilocks Effect. Some formats of storytell-ing were “too cold” for children, for example the audio-only version, because it stimulates the language net-work but provides little communication to the visual network. Children “strained to understand” the story and its context. Think about the challenge of listening to an audio book and trying to picture the setting and the characters while a narrator keeps reading.

On the other hand, the animated cartoon was “too hot” because the visual and audio networks were stimulat-ed and the child struggled to “figure out what it all meant.” The child focused on the images in the cartoon which were constantly changing and the animation dominated the activity in the brain. “Children’s compre-hension was the worst in this condition.” The researchers voiced a concern that animations, cartoons, and videos do all the work for a child; a child misses the opportunity to build reading muscles.

And, what about the illustrated picture book with a narration? The good news is that reading an illustrated picture book is “just right”. Why is the picture book just-right? Because the illustrations help the child to make sense of the story; the pictures provide clues to the meaning. The child can study the images thought-fully to make meaning from the story. They can point out features, revisit a page, and create a context for the story. Even better, reading a story with a caregiver and talking about it (dialogic reading) adds a whole new dimension to literacy. The child makes an emotional connection to reading and learns that reading is important and enjoyable and “that‘s a whole other layer of building reading.”

So this summer, visit the public library and find a favorite story to share with your child and stretch those reading muscles.

Kamenetz, Anya. “What’s Going On in Your Child’s Brain When You Read Them a Story?” How Learning Happens. May 24, 2018.

Preventing the “Summer Slide”

with Secondary Students

By Marjorie Light

A Johns Hopkins study “indicates that the summer learning gap is not equal for students at various levels. Instead, learning loss accumulates over time, contributing to a greater achievement gap for high school students than for elementary school students. For many students, this achievement gap continues beyond high school and impacts students for the rest of their lives. It may affect high school completion, college enrollment, occupational skills, and even workforce preparedness.” They suggest students read six books over the summer in order to keep up with their peers.

Across the United States, students take the 40 Book Challenge, reading forty books or more during the course of the year. Students heading to university who want a competitive edge should have an ongoing independent reading novel (or nonfiction book). In addition to physical books in the public library, patrons can also “check out” ebooks and read them on a device such as a Kindle. The East Granby Public Library has hours Monday through Saturday and is a quiet, air conditioned place to read and relax.

Currently, the library is “looking for teens to help improve and energize our teen area by joining Ms. Paul for a monthly meeting to share ideas (treats will be available). This WILL count as community service for the graduation requirement.” For further information, stop by the library or contact Kathy Paul at 860-653-3002 or email

Summer journaling using fun prompts or responses to nature can help keep students flexing their writing brain. Bookstores, such as Barnes and Noble, have journals with topics to spark entries, but a spiral bound notebook works just as well. Perhaps the family could make their own prompts, put them in a jar, and spend two days a week writing together with whatever random prompt is drawn. One my students loved was, “If you had one million dollars to donate to five charities, how would you divide it?” Another is, “You are stranded in the woods for five days with only a backpack, what would you wish you had in it?”

Teens can also access learning, both physical and mental, through Granby Recreation Department. They have musical concerts in July, Movies in the Park, bus field trips to the Bronx Zoo and other attractions, summer camps, and Jr. Counselor-in-Training Opportunities. The Junior Counselor Certification Program (JCCP) is a pre-counselor training program for youth ages 14-15, which focus upon gaining the skills necessary to become a camp counselor (call 860-653-8947 or go to Area youth can participate in the Granby/East Granby Baseball and Softball leagues (, Travel Soccer with the Granby Rovers (, or the Travel Basketball Team (Contact Bill Noyes at 860-653-0743 or go to Nearby Salmon Brook Park has a sand beach and dock that is open to the public daily for swimming – admission can be paid per day or by membership. East Granby Rec also brings camp kids there twice a week to swim during sessions.

If the left brain needs a workout, the Math Insider website suggests playing chess, planning trips for distance and costs, utilizing online learning sites such as Khan Academy and Calculation Nation, as well as tracking sports statistics. When my children were young, we had dinner challenges. I would give them a budget and they would have to plan a healthy dinner for four once a week. After they shopped at the grocery store, the chef would prepare the meal. Another way to stretch your left brain is through science experiments such as building a solar s’more maker, a lemon battery, or creating a human sundial. The library has books available with many more exciting investigations.

If you’d like more ideas, go to or on the US Dept of Ed Official Blog:

The Future of Science Instruction

By Marjorie Light

This is the second of a two-part series on NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards), which are currently being rolled out across grade levels in Connecticut. We are one of nineteen states to adopt it. John Langan, Curriculum Leader for science in the East Granby Middle and High Schools says, “In the NGSS classroom students are constantly BEING scientists and engineers, not just learning about science and engineering. There is always a 3 dimensionality to everyday learning and assessment (Content, Science and Engineering Practices, and Cross Cutting Concepts). All units are driven by a thought-provoking, mind-stimulating anchor phenomenon. Hearing students untrained explanations of the phenomena helps teachers tailor the instruction that will follow.”

Mr. Langan reports the entire sixth grade Activate Learning NGSS designed curriculum and materials has been purchased. In addition, the seventh grade units will be ordered for next year. The Activate Learning Chemistry Unit Mr Dorr is using is entitled How Can I Smell Things from a Distance? “The anchoring phenomenon involves opening up a bottle of vinegar behind his desk,” Mr. Langan explains, “and waiting for students to notice the odor and start commenting on it. Then he has them create their first model of the phenomenon where they draw, label and explain how the smell got from the bottle into their brains. A study of the particle nature of matter then ensues and they begin to learn the Chemistry curriculum for Grade 6.”

In a recent unit in Mr. Langan’s class, students acted as partner scientists working at their own pace with microscopes. Each pair had a packet, leading them to discoveries, building upon previous lessons. One of the outstanding skills displayed by Mr. Langan was his questioning techniques. Each student is included his assessing of individual understanding, as well as having students volunteer for a quizzing session where they take on the challenge of reviewing the lesson with questions from their peers.

At R.D. Seymour Elementary, Amanda Striefler, had her classroom scientists working in small groups experimenting with the difference between melting and dissolving. The rigor was impressive as students made hypotheses before donning goggles and getting down to business. As I watched the students record results in their charts when the experiment got underway, one of them explained the importance of why it's important to note they are measuring in Celsius and not Fahrenheit. The vocabulary students used was of a higher order, with one girl detailing to me that “melting often leaves residue.” The student scientists were engaged and serious about learning throughout the lesson.

Summing up the impact of NGSS at East Granby Middle and High Schools, John Langan says, our “staff is committed and looking forward to the NGSS curriculum. Our science teachers believe that most of what they have been teaching has already been done in an NGSS style but that there are some new shifts. For example, Engineering is added to the science curriculum and students will be learning in all science classes how to optimize design solutions. Also, new types of assessments will have to be designed that reflect the 3 dimensional style of learning and will take some getting used to on the part of students and teachers.”

The Next Generation of Scientists and Engineers

By Susan Cavanagh

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is shaping the next generation of scientists and engineers! In preparation for NGSS implementation, the East Granby Public Schools invested in new resources and provided in-service opportunities for teachers. Selected teachers participated in the CSDE science writing consortium including R.D. Seymour School teachers, Marsie Luckenhach, grade 4, and Shannon Karlowicz, grade 5. Last month, the Insider article focused on implementation of NGSS in the primary elementary classrooms. This month, we will visit intermediate elementary classrooms at R. D. Seymour School.

Let us step into a fourth grade classroom where students are immersed in a physical science unit, Energy. The unit includes sessions on energy and circuits, magnetism, electromagnets, energy transfer, and waves. The classroom teachers, Marsie Luckenbach, Laura Martin, Abba Martin, and Sue Olechna launch the unit using an inquiry approach. “At its core, inquiry-based instruction turns students into investigators, rather than passive recipients of information.” (Curiosity in the Classroom: Using Inquiry-based Learning to Harness Student Curiosity and Impact Outcomes by Kirsten Miller Changing Schools Vol. 78, Fall 2017 p.2)

Mrs. Luckenbach poses a focus question, “What is needed to light a bulb?” Collaborative teams of students conduct investigations using D-cells, wires, and a lightbulb to determine how to build a complete circuit and light a bulb. Teachers guide the inquiry by asking questions and listening to explanations. The process of constructing an explanation requires the young scientists and engineers to use their newly acquired technical vocabulary. All possible solutions are shared. Eureka! The lightbulb is shining! Online tutorials on simple circuits, conductors, and insulators are additional resources for students as well as an article, Edison Sees the Light. From this beginning, more questions arise: How does a filament carry electricity? What happens if we add a switch into the circuit? How do conductors and insulators impact the transfer of energy? Students are excited and engaged. It is almost like stepping into Thomas Edison’s studio in Menlo Park, NJ!

Now, let’s visit a fifth grade classroom where students are immersed in a physical science unit, Mixtures and Solutions. The classroom teachers (Shannon Karlowicz, Amanda Striefler, Cathy O’Keefe, and Kim Richevicius) begin an investigation on separating mixtures and then challenge students to identify a mystery solution (NGSS 5-PS1.B: Chemical Reactions). Students don safety goggles and prepare three mixtures. In preparation for this investigation students learned how to measure liquids with a syringe, how to accurately measure solid materials, and how to record the observations of properties of materials. Precise technical vocabulary is acquired as students describe observations and learn new science and engineering concepts. Students work in teams and are challenged to devise an engineering solution: develop a process to separate particulates from liquid. Using screens, filters, and magnets, students isolate crystals for examination. Based upon the crystal formation they can identify the substance. “Mystery mixture solved! The extra ingredient is magnetite, a magnetic material…..There were (the) chunks of black rock clinging to the magnet….So separation by magnet was a good idea,” wrote one student in her journal.

The journal, a record of planning and carrying out investigations, is an important component of NGSS’ Science and Engineering Practices. It requires students to reflect on the process and the results; to analyze the efficacy of their investigation and consider crosscutting concepts like patterns or cause and effect. It helps students to construct an explanation of phenomenon.

Science classes ignite an excitement to learn, to explain, to closely observe, and to ask questions! To see photos of R.D. Seymour students conducting investigations go to:

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

By Marjorie Light

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are designed to have students make sense of the world, doing authentic research and applying discoveries, centered on inquiry and phenomena. Imagine you’re in middle school, walking into science and getting a deletable whiff of freshly-baked cookies. You spy a plate of treats across the room. A friend asks, “What’s that awesome smell?” The stage is set for learning about molecule dispersal. Your time is spent in discovery, scientific tests, and application based on the cookie phenomenon.

In grades 6-12, students delve into higher order concepts of three universal themes: Life Science, Earth & Space Science, and Physical Science, including topics such as chemical reactions, properties of matter, and electromagnetic radiation. CT is one of 19 states adopting NGSS (read more at Science teachers Laura Zinnen, high school Biology, and John Langan, 7th grade, are in the midst of writing curriculum for the state through CREC. They attend sessions throughout the year and are on the forefront of lesson development. Laura Zinnen explains, “At the NGSS Consortium through CREC, we are working in teams on 5 Modules that will encompass all of the content of High School Biology. We have ‘unpacked’ the standards, and realigned them with the content in a way that we have determined is most effective. We are working to write daily lesson plans for the entire year, collectively, and as individual groups, for a module. Each module is set to take around 5-7 weeks.” When they are done, there will be two full-year curriculums: one “geared toward a more traditional model of teaching Biology and one with Earth Science embedded in each one.”

Kevin Dorr, 6th grade science, says, “Scientific argument and explanation is a main component when teaching NGSS. Students will begin to understand what evidence is through data collection and analysis and then use the evidence to support a scientific belief. Bygone are the days of simply teaching scientific facts to students. Now, learners will begin to understand science in greater depth by constructing meaning from observation, experimentation, and reflective analysis.” His students are growing three types of plants, observing and conducting data analysis on cycles of nitrogen, water, and carbon dioxide/oxygen. His “hope is that more middle school students will become STEM-qualified as they prepare for high school and college.”

In these controlled experiments with biomes, students grow plants from seeds and carefully monitor water and plant growth in their journals. Each class, pupils excitedly track the changes. One recent day, they worked in small groups, efficiently measuring water into cylinders and recording findings into an online database. As the teacher facilitated, students moved easily about the room, confident in the assigned task displayed on the Smartboard. During the lively discussion of earth’s biomes and why student scientists need to be precise, hands shot up, with 100% participation.

A challenging component of NGSS is creating new lessons aligned with the inquiry method utilizing phenomena. Kevin Dorr expands on this, explaining, “Creating NGSS curriculum is a painstaking process of ingraining three dimensions into all of my lessons.” To that end, we recently acquired the new IQWST Activate Learning Program for 6th grade, which includes real-world applications of erosion, invasive species, optical illusions, and energy from food. Dorr says having these high quality experiments and instruments gives him the ability “ to use the framework that has been developed by NGSS Leaders to ensure that my time can be better spent in authentic engagement with my students.”

Next month, we’ll take a look at what’s happening in Katie Scull’s Earth Science class and John Langan’s 7th grade, as well as get his take on the changes from his perspective as Curriculum Leader for Science (6-12).

NGSS: What's New in the Classroom

By Susan Cavanagh

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are an ambitious and rigorous shift in science curriculum and in-struction. One of the hallmarks of the new standards is three dimensional scientific inquiry – engaging children with thought provoking phenomenon leading to authentic questioning by students. In preparation for NGSS imple-mentation, the East Granby Public Schools provided in-service opportunities for teachers and invested in new re-sources. Selected teachers participated in the CSDE science writing consortium. As 2018 begins, what does NGSS science instruction look like in the primary elementary grades?

Let’s visit a Kindergarten classroom at Carl Allgrove School launching a life science unit, Living Things and Their Needs. Classroom teachers (Linda Kingman, Marcia Chambers, Mackenzie Haeflick, and Lena Rosensweig) pre-pare to immerse students in a 3-week study of Bess beetles. Upon entering the room, you see kindergartners highly engaged in an observation of 3” long insects. In a natural setting, the beetles live in and feed upon rotting wood, but in our classrooms they live in terrariums with wood shavings. Bess beetles make more than 14 distinct sounds by rubbing their legs together, which fascinate the children. Students handle the gentle beetles and use a magnify-ing glass to closely examine the large, shiny exoskeleton and inspect the body parts: head, abdomen, thorax, three-pairs of legs, front wings, compound eyes, antennae, and mandible. They observe how quickly the beetles move from place to place. The students are curious and pose questions, such as wondering why do beetles hide in wood shavings? They conduct investigations to determine habitat preferences of the Bess beetles: light vs. dark, moist vs. dry, and sand vs. wood chips. Following the investigation and guided by their teacher, they talk with their classmates and make sense of what they observed; they construct knowledge. The kindergartners draw and label pictures of the beetle in their science journal where they demonstrate their emergent science vocabulary and their understanding of what living things need to survive.

Next, we’ll visit a first grade classroom where students are immersed in a life science unit, Plants and Animals. The classroom teachers (Ariel Levesque, Claire Hart, Emma Spirko, and Erin Dugan) begin an investigation with a field study to engage students, capture their interest and trigger inquiries. The focus question is, How many differ-ent kinds of plants live in an area of our school yard? First, the teacher demonstrates how to collect the plant sam-ples: leaves only, no roots, stems, or flowers. Students begin gathering a variety of plant leaves from the school grounds. The children begin to notice and wonder: Why do plants’ leaves have different shapes and colors? Why do some trees produce needles and others produce leaves? What leaf variations do I notice on the same kind of plant? And, what variations do I see across different types of plants?

Addressing NGSS standards focused on variation of traits, the students collect a wide variety of plant leaves. Back in the classroom, they use magnifying glasses to closely examine their specimens, excitedly sharing observations with classmates. The first grade scientists work together to sort the samples of plant leaves and categorize by at-tributes: size, color, texture, and shape. They count 18 different kinds of plants! Guided by their teacher’s probing questions, “Did all of the leaves come from the same plant? How do you know?” The students notice patterns and graph their findings. The class displays the Variations in Plants graph in the hallway (visit In their science notebooks, first graders record their observations using labeled drawings and plant leaf samples. As the year progresses, the science journal demonstrates growth in conceptual knowledge as well as fluency with science vocabulary.

It’s an exciting time to be teaching and learning science in elementary school. Leveraging children’s natural curi-osity and inquisitiveness, science is now your child’s favorite class – it invites questions and collaboration with classmates. It’s messy. It’s all about the natural world. And, there is a vast array of facts and terminology to share!

How Mastery-Based Learning Impacts Curriculum

By Marjorie Light

Last year, East Granby Public Schools included Mastery-based Learning (MBL) as a new goal initiative. While MBL is not new to East Granby (see list here in Feb/Mar 2017 edition), goal-setting around this method helps ensure students will build on core knowledge, take more ownership of their learning, and be better prepared for college and/or careers.

Two of the benefits for the children of East Granby with MBL are the numerous, diverse avenues available for student success and how learning takes place through real world applications. This year, educators are diving deeper into MBL, by focusing on curriculum develop as part of their professional development plan. Mastery-based learning, also known as competency based learning, is embraced across the state of Connecticut and is featured on the CT Dept of Ed website. At the State Ed website on MBL, you can watch videos, a slideshow, and read articles on how Mastery-Based Learning shapes education across the state.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of studying the educational system in Germany with the Global Educators program run through UNC Chapel Hill. Germany has one of the strongest economies in the world, and the strongest in Europe. The country, working alongside with major corporations, dedicates resources toward education and job training. By including project-based learning as a component of MBL, the Germans lead the way with specialized training for students ages 16+ for mid-size manufacturing careers, management positions, and supporting staff. In their primary and secondary schools, learning is hands-on, mastery-based, and focused on future careers. Their students are trained to work together collaboratively, build upon prior knowledge, and to take charge of their education - all hallmarks of competency or mastery-based learning.

Another great resource for understanding the difference in thinking between a traditional, content-driven curriculum is an article Curriculum Model for Mastery-Based Learning by Caroline Messenger on the online resource Competency Works. In the article, Messenger (a Connecticut educator) explains how MBL does not follow the linear, traditional curriculum, but works more like a concentric circle. If one thinks of throwing a rock in a pond, she explains, the center is the core knowledge. Rippling out are the circles of learning students experience. Knowledge is built on previous learning and, like a circle, the previous learning is within the circle, waiting for expansion and rebuilding.

In contrast to the above example, linear learning is like a railroad track. Students are taught content, then the train leaves the station toward a new depot. Extending the metaphor, the end of the school year is the terminus of the station - with the next year setting out on a new set of tracks. Mastery-based learning, like the rippling circles in a pond extends and expands, encompassing the prior knowledge, not leaving it behind.

Embracing Mastery-Based Learning is one of the effective ways we can create students who have learned how to learn - students who understand that knowledge and growth are lifelong, which doesn’t end when they walk out of the classroom.

Independent Reading Levels

By Susan Cavanagh

Next month, report cards are sent home and one of the descriptors on the report card is “Independent Reading Level”. So, what exactly is an independent reading level, how do teachers assess this, and how is this information important for students’ reading lives at school and at home?

An independent reading level is a critical element of the language arts curriculum in East Granby because of our partnership with Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. A key component of our reading instruction is based upon students’ access to a wide variety of independent-level texts and the opportunity for students to practice and apply reading skills and strategies to those texts.

A book at an independent reading level is a “just-right” book and the level is based upon three measures:

 Accuracy which is reading the printed words correctly and, in the intermediate grades includes calculating words-per-minute read. This includes the ability of a student to decode and solve words, to self-monitor reading, and to self-correct. Accuracy is so important. Consider the fact that if a reader misses just 5% of the words in a text, it makes the text nearly incomprehensible! (Frey and Fisher, 2009)

 Fluency which is reading smoothly, reading with expression, phrasing or scooping words together, paying attention to punctuation, and reading at a good rate – not too fast and not too slow.

 Comprehension which is reading for meaning, making sense of text, which after all is the fundamental goal of reading.

How do teachers determine a student’s independent reading level?

Teachers use a formal system of reading assessment. They administer reading assessments many times throughout the year, more often in the primary grades where students advance through many levels in a school year. How does a teacher know when it is time to assess? Based upon observations in small group work; listening to, conferring with, and observing students reading; and examining students’ writing all help teachers to determine when a student is ready for a formal reading assessment. In a formal reading assessment, a teacher listens to a student read aloud a book they have never read before. The teacher checks for accuracy, fluency and comprehension. The teacher notices reading behaviors such as substitution of words, self-corrections, repetitions, and omissions. Based upon an algorithm, a score is derived which indicates whether the student is ready to move on to a new level.

How do teachers use this information about independent reading level in the classroom?

Teachers use the information from assessments in their instructional small groups to teach the reading strategies, the structures and features, and the vocabulary of a text level and then guide students in selecting books from the classroom libraries. Teachers organize most of their classroom books into levels based on information from publishers. This facilitates teachers and students selecting appropriate books quickly. Students “shop” for books that are of both high interest and at their independent level. Students read independently, they read with partners, they read in small groups – each interface with the text improving accuracy, fluency, and comprehension.

How can this information support students’ reading lives at home?

Students carry independent –level books home from school to read each night. Parents can support this important home-school connection by listening to their child read (imperative for early readers) and having book talks – conversations about books. You will notice when a child is reading about a topic of personal interest in their independent reading level, their stamina to read increases. This means they will read for longer periods of time and, children who read more…become better readers.

Frey, N. & Fisher, D. (2009). Learning Words Inside and Out. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann.

Fountas, I. & Pinnell.G. (2011). Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann.