1st Grade Crew // Authentic Learning

EL education determines high-quality work through the lens of authenticity, craftsmanship, and complexity. When planning the first-grade bird module, we kept these three attributes in mind. As a school we really wanted to focus on bringing the authenticity piece to the forefront, specifically, incorporating fieldwork, local experts, and service learning with students. These three facets truly bring to life work from the classroom because student’s work has a purpose. Our students meet with local experts who study or work in the specific field students are learning. They visit local spots connected to their academic content and produce an artifact that has a purpose in the outside world.

Once our first graders finished their first unit on birds’ physical characteristics and behaviors, they were excited and energized about what they would be learning next. We invited a local bird expert, Mr. Anderson, who is the father of our beloved social worker—Mr. Anderson, to teach us about what he knows about the ins and outs of birds. He visited our first-grade classroom and shared photographs of birds he has seen on his travels throughout the world. Students viewed real-life images of birds that they have studied for months. They asked Mr. Anderson interesting questions that only a bird aficionado could answer and were so excited to share their knowledge about what they had learned with him. Watching our students get so enthusiastic about recognizing a bird in a photograph and seeing 100% of the Crew raising their hand to answer a question about a bird that Mr. Anderson posed, was truly magical!

The fieldwork first grade went on is directly connected with what we are learning in the classroom. The purpose of our visit was to observe local birds in their natural habitat and understand different ways we can take care of birds. The experience of going on fieldwork to gather information with so much background knowledge is empowering and thought-provoking. Students put their knowledge to the test by “showing off” what they learned about birds. We invited Mr. Anderson to join us on our fieldwork to Kensington Nature Center, a park he knows well, to help us notice, observe, and learn even more birds! This fieldwork allowed students to take off their “student hat” and put on their “research hat”.  They took observational notes and wrote specific interview questions. This research stimulated our thinking for our final product and helped us answer our guiding question—how can we take care of birds to help them live and grow?

Using the information and experience gained through our expert, fieldwork, and classroom learning we created a final product to benefit birds in our community. Students used the research of local birds and work in expert groups to design and create a bird feeder with specific characteristics to appeal for their local Michigan bird. Each bird feeder included a high-quality scientific drawing of their local bird and include a convincing paragraph for a local business explaining why they should put the bird feeder outside of their place of work. Students also justified why the design of their bird feeder is best for the features of their specific bird. First graders planned, created, and revised their design using Legos! We also asked Mr. Anderson to use his expertise and give feedback and critique on our final products. Our final product mirrored a real-world format and served a real community need! It’s a win-win for the kids, the community, and the birds!

2nd Grade Crew // Supporting Lessons with Field Study

In the final module in our second grade curriculum, we explored the guiding questions, “Why should people help pollinators to survive?” as well as, “How can I take action to help pollinators?”. Through research with fiction and nonfiction texts, students were swiftly becoming experts in pollination. Certainly, if you know second grade then you’ll know how inquisitive and naturally curious they are! Throughout this module of study, students have been exploring texts that encourage them to take action and gives them examples of brave, integrous characters whom, no matter how small, make a difference. As the facilitator of their learning, I am always on the lookout for authentic, local learning experiences I can organize for my crew, to support the lessons I teach and also supports the social emotional aspect of working to contribute to a better world.

Recently, I learned about a local nonprofit that works to transform vacant lots in Detroit into sustainable habitats for bees and other pollinators. They are also connected with many city organizations that support the education and conservation of bees. Since we’re studying the importance of pollinators in our class, I didn’t hesitate to setup a field study at Detroit Hives. In order to make the trip more authentic, we incorporated a Field Guide Journal for students to draw pictures and capture their thoughts. They spent the trip asking endless questions, and persevering through initial fear to eventually wishing for their own beehive!

While on the trip we met Timothy, Nicole, and Skylar (Junior Beekeeper). She held the frames herself, answered many of the student’s questions, and was excited to share facts and information with all of the guests about the bees. This bubbly, eager expert shocked us all; at a mere 5 years of old, she was doing it. Students were motivated and encouraged to be involved in the conservation of these precious insect pollinators! Seeing Skylar lead with confidence and excitement was a teaching moment I wouldn’t have been able to facilitate for them in our  classroom. These invaluable lessons field studies provide can remain with students for generations and prepares students to be citizens of a larger world; they give them the confidence to go out and take action to improve the world in which they live.

5th Grade Crew // Socratic Seminars

In ELA our 5th grade crew studies athletes as leaders of social change. As a crew, we completed a case study on Jackie Robinson and what led to his success in creating social change. Students also conducted independent research on other athletes who have chosen to take a stand to change society. Because students had studied so many different eras and athletes, we needed a way to come together and learn from one another. So we hosted a Socratic Seminar. A Socratic Seminar is a formal conversation based on research.

There is a lot of prep work that goes into hosting a successful Socratic Seminar. One of the most important preparations in explicitly teaching conversation skills. For several weeks before our Socratic Seminar we spent crew time participating in initiatives that promote positive conversation skills. We started by brainstorming what it really looks like and how it feels when someone is truly listening to you. Students narrowed this list down to 3 key norms for conversation: eye contact, responsive body language, and waiting your turn to speak. We then debriefed daily on how we did with these norms. Students also gave me feedback on norms that I identified I needed to work on.


After establishing basic conversation norms for our crew, we had to distinguish between informal and formal conversation. Students then worked together to create norms for professional conversation. These norms included speaking loud and clear, responding respectfully, using academic language and citing evidence to prove your claim.  We then went into clearly defining what respectful responses would sound like. Students created a list of sentence stems that they could use to guide their response, and we practiced using the sentence stems in our daily discussions so that students felt comfortable using them.

In the days leading up the Socratic Seminar students had to prepare their claims and supporting evidence. Students were asked to form an opinion about which factor is the most important in making successful social change. Students were able to look back at their annotated text, speeches by athletes and notes documentary clips. They selected the strongest evidence, cited their sources and explained how they supported their opinions. They used this to create notes to help them in discussion.


When the day of our first full Socratic Seminar came, students facilitated the discussion. They listened to their crewmates and responded. Afterwards students were given time to reflect on key points that came up in discussion and draw final conclusions. Finally, we debriefed our norms, rating how we did using conversation skills that we had established together.

Restorative Practices: Responding to Off-Culture Behaviors

Creating a strong culture in which every member of our crew embodies the habits of character is an ultimate goal for our school. What do we do when a member of our crew isn’t using the habits of character? What do we do when a member of our crew is causing harm?

Our responses to these off-culture behaviors are grounded in restorative practices. Our aim is to respond to the off-culture behaviors in a way that builds community, fixes the harm that was done, helps students learn from their mistakes and empower students with the skills to resolve conflicts.

Daily Crew and Community Building

Every morning and afternoon we circle up. This is part of our intentional community building.

Our morning crew starts with a greeting, followed by a share, and lastly an initiative.

The greeting is a way to say good morning to the crew. This could be a one minute greeting-- where each member of the crew greets each other with a handshake, a high five or a hug for one.

Next up would be a share. Often times shares are grounded in our habits of character [link to blog post outlining the habits of character]. We will turn and talk or share out to the whole group about certain topics.

Lastly is the initiative. Initiatives are team games designed to create teachable moments surrounding our habits of character.

In the afternoon, we circle back up for announcements and appreciations.

The idea behind these circles are intentionally building community and teaching social-emotional skills. This is preventative work and is truly a foundation of our school.

Harm Was Done: Now What?

Inevitably students will have some actions that are not aligned with our culture. Members of our crew will hurt other members. Harm will be done. So, how do we respond when harm is done?

Restorative Conference
When students have conflict we bring them together to fix the harm that has been done.
A series of questions are asked, for example:

For offenders:
What happened?
What were you thinking at the time?
What have you thought about since?
Who was affected by your actions?
How have they been affected?
What can you do to make things right?
How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?

For Victims:
What did you think when you realized what happened?
How has this affected you and others?
What has been the hardest thing for you?
What should happen to make things right?
How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Guiding the students through this restorative practice allows them to be a part of the solution, feel heard and take ownership over the school culture.

Peace Path
Another avenue to empower students is a peace path. This is a process that can be taught to students. After a few rounds of the peace path students should be able to walk the path by themselves!

The path goes as follows:

Student A: I feel _________ when you _________ .

Student B: I know you feel _________  when I _________ .

Student B: I feel _________  when you _________ .

Student A: I know you feel _________  when I _________ .

Student A: Next time, I need _________ .

Student B: Next time, I agree to _________ .

Student B: Next time, I need _________ .

Student A: Next time I agree to _________ .

Student A and Student B agree on a handshake, high-five or hug.

Giving students this framework empowers them to solve issues other members of the crew.

Restorative circles allow students to speak freely and openly while working towards resolving a problem.

A circle views of-culture behavior as a teachable moment, separates person from the deed, focuses on fixing the harm done, encourages authentic participation and allows for successful reintegration.

A few elements I find are common in highly successful circles are:

  • Use of a talking piece to allow for equal voice

  • Speak from the heart

  • Listen from the heart

  • No need to practice or rehearse

  • Without being rushed, just say enough

  • Work is ongoing, things won’t be fixed after one circle

Restorative practices take more time and effort than more traditional discipline models. The reason they are worth the extra time and effort are because they create students who are empowered by being a part of the process, enable crew members to restore and build community.

Self-Portrait Assessments

In art we don’t take very many tests… however our students are assessed on their growth in many ways. I wanted to take the time to share the importance behind a big assessment we just finished up in art, our spring self portrait assessment! At the beginning of the year I asked each student at DAA to draw a portrait of themselves. The challenge is they are asked to do this without my help and they have just one class period to get it done. I also tell them that I am testing them to see what they know and see where their skills are at. Each beginning of the year self-portrait provides me with a good overview of students drawing abilities, struggles, and provides me with a unique visual of their personality! After the first assessment we spend a few weeks learning about the mathematical proportions of the face and how to accurately draw a portrait. We studied the work of other artists self portraits throughout history, looked at many different styles, and even got to watch the unveiling of Obama’s presidential portrait painted by african american and modern artist Kehinde Wiley whose artwork we were able to study first hand during our field study to the Detroit Institute of Arts!


Nearly 9 months after the first self portrait I ask students to do the exact same thing. However for this new portrait I share that once they are finished they will compare it side by side to their old one to see how they have grown! Students are always amazed and most times humored by their old self portraits. Once they have time to self-reflect students are eager to share their growth and talk proudly about how hard they worked to get there with their peers.


Throughout this assessment we focus on three very important habits of character... curiosity, creativity, and perseverance. Students show curiosity and creativity by representing themselves in a way that feels authentic to them, they can express themselves by drawing what they look like and adding details that make them unique. Students show perseverance by doing this all on their own especially during our spring self portrait they try to think back to all that they have learned this year to draw a new and improved image that represents them and where they are now!


Parents, students, and the community were invited to see each young artists growth and talent at our DAA Art’s Night this past June. It was truly a night to remember!

4th & 5th Grade Crew // Math Lab

Math lab is our designated time to work on skills at our individual levels. Using a combination of NWEA Test scores, Math Benchmarks and Unit assessments groups are designed. Students are paired and grouped with student who are working at the same levels as themselves. While students work in pairs or with their groups, I am able to meet with small groups to review, reteach or introduce new skills. We recently begin to track our progress using trackers.

Students receive weekly trackers that include their objectives for the week, a schedule of their centers, an end of the week exit ticket and a reflection. Students use this tracker daily to record, compare and reflect on their progress throughout the week. This tracking system increases my ability to identify the exact needs of the students. It gives me immediate insight about how objectives should be adjusted for the following week.

Throughout the week, students have the opportunity to grapple with and work on expanding their understanding of their objectives. Recently we have begun to use Khan Academy to address our current unit. Khan Academy compliments our EngageNY curriculum, it allows for students to watch videos of the skill we’ve learned and then they are given the opportunity to practice them. While we aim for our entire day to be intentional, lab time is the most focused and individualized time of the day. Below is a copy of a student tracker:

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Art // Field Study at The Detroit Institute of Arts


The Detroit Institute of Arts is arguably one of the best Art Museums around! We are so lucky to have such an incredible resource right in our city and free admission for our students. For this field study I was able to take third, fourth, and fifth grade crews to study the African, Contemporary, and African American art galleries at the DIA. During the month of February we studied many different African textiles and contemporary black artists. Each grade level had to display cooperation and responsibility to complete a self-guided art scavenger hunt with their crew during their visit to the museum. For this initiative they had to find examples of the artists and artifacts that we’ve been studying in class and respond thoughtfully to each one through written reflection.

By giving our students the opportunity to see the art that we’ve been studying at school in person, students get the opportunity to engage in making deeper connections to the work we’ve done. Our students are inquisitive, opinionated, and excited to learn about how to grow their curiosity and creativity. Ask any of our students and they will likely agree that there is no better place in the city of Detroit to experience such an amazing collection of art, history, and innovation. We were able to see the works of internationally acclaimed artists such as Kehinde Wiley who is the artist responsible for painting Barack Obama’s latest presidential portrait, as well as some of Detroit’s own influential artists such as the late Gilda Snowden. Gilda was one of my own art teachers during my time at the College for Creative Studies and it is always such a pleasure to be able to expose my students to her vivid abstract works. To see students so engaged in having meaningful conversations about art while also having fun is why it is so important to utilize field studies.

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Our trip to the museum would not be complete without the help of our incredible grade level teachers who work collaboratively with me to plan incredible opportunities like this one. Through Expeditionary Learning we work together to get students and families engaged and excited about what we are doing at school and take that learning to the next level by bringing our students on trips to experience all that our community has to offer. The support of our entire DAA teaching staff and families is what makes each field study such a success because not only our students are hard workers but we had many volunteer chaperones who took the time out of their own busy lives to guide our students through this educational journey and model all the habits of character!


1st Grade Crew // Labs!

We are so fortunate to have an hour every day carved out for Labs! Labs extend and support key content from our module (reading and writing) lessons. Labs allow all students to access content knowledge of our unit through play, exploration, and collaboration. There are 4 distinct Labs in our current unit about birds: create, engineer, explore, and imagine.

Students are introduced to Labs during the launch stage where they practice routines, understand the materials, and establish expectations for the upcoming Labs. The launch stage gets students to wonder and anticipate more about our topic. Next, in the practice stage routines and expectations are reinforced and practiced. During the third stage—the extend stage, students become more independent, work longer at their centers, and their work becomes more complex. During the final stage—the choice and challenge stage, students spend half their time in the Lab of their choice and the other half in the Imagine Lab. Students work on a final product, while getting feedback from their peers.

Our unit has allowed students to experience hands-on learning through various activities. Our 4 labs are create, engineer, explore, and imagine. During the Create lab, students use their knowledge of bird body parts and their function to help design and create their bird sculptures. They identify the various shapes and details that make each body part and then sculpt those features using model magic. For our Engineer lab, students ask: how can I use my knowledge of birds to design a solution to a human problem? They use their knowledge of feathers, beaks, and feet to design solutions. Students use various materials (i.e., paper towel rolls that act as hollow bones) to design a device that solves a specific problem. Our third lab, Explore Lab, allows students learn more about bird bones and beaks as they engage in a series of challenges using materials similar to these parts. Currently, my Crew enjoys figuring out which beak is “best for the job” when collecting different types of food. They use various objects (tweezers, spoons, etc.) to mimic bird beaks to try and catch different types of food. It is really fun! During the Imagine Lab, students use poetry and movement to show what they know about birds, body parts, and how bird body parts function. Students dance and act out different poems related to birds. Students, often together with different groups, create movements to go along with poems—and their creativity really shines.

Labs provide such a great way for students to access key content we are learning in an authentic and fun way—where students are able to show off their curiosity, creativity, cooperation, and responsibility. Our Labs, scheduled for the last hour of the day, are such a wonderful way to end our day!

Enrichment // Music Club

This spring, I have had the privilege of spending my Monday afternoons singing and dancing with music club! Students in music have been working on learning five songs and dances to the mini-musical Stone Soup. Stone Soup is a story about travelers who visit a town of grumpy townspeople who have nothing to eat. The travelers teach the townspeople to make a special soup (called stone soup), but they require the townspeople to contribute food items they have at home. The townspeople soon learn that they can make something for everyone to be happy by sharing what they have themselves.

We’ve spent our music practices listening to recordings of the songs, singing and repeating small parts of the songs, and clapping out the beats to begin to learn basic rhythm. Students have begun to learn about following notes, learning what music notes indicate when to pause and when to repeat, and how to begin to control volume. We’ve been working with two volunteers, Fred and Jennifer Dewey, who have experience in a band, church choir, and musical theatre. Fred has taken us to the gym and stage to play on the piano, and the piano has helped us really slow down the notes to learn all of the words. Jennifer, who has a degree in dance, has been teaching us dance moves to go with each song.

In the last few weeks of school, we are assigning individual roles, singing parts, and speaking parts to students and practicing for our final performance. Look for an invitation to our final performance in June! We can’t wait to share what we’ve learned about singing as well as what we’ve learned about sharing to make our world a better place!

3rd Grade Crew // Reading Buddies!


As we near the end of the year, our 3rd graders are excited about reading and starting to feel more and more like leaders.  They've been working really hard on a couple key skills over the past few months.  They've been working on giving feedback as well as asking probing questions in order to push each other to think more critically.  By focusing on these skills, they've really developed as independent readers with a love for books.

A few weeks ago, 3rd grade had the opportunity to partner with Kindergarten to try out their new skills and share their love of reading.  At first they were nervous as they went through their books and chose something they thought their reading buddy would enjoy.  Once we got into partners, their nerves went away and you could see their excitement grow.  

What was really special about the experience is that readers at all levels were able to grow and support their Kinder buddies.  3rd grade took the opportunity to bond with their buddies and use their skills of giving feedback and probing questions.  Kindergartners were also really excited to have the big kids interested in their books as well.  Some shared all their books, others asked questions about what it was like in 3rd grade.  One kindergartener asked, "So is 3rd grade really hard"? Their buddy responded, "yeah, but you learn a lot so if you work hard you'll do great."  It's moments like these that make our hearts as teachers smile, seeing natural partnerships and compassion being built across grades.  We will definitely be continuing our reading buddies the rest of the year!