IF Rubric

When fourth graders are asked to redesign the Mayflower, they work with content in several subject areas at the same time.

By Amy Schwartzbach-Kang, Edward Kang

November 5, 2019

As teachers, we’re always struggling to create meaningful learning that engages students at deeper levels. How can we find the time to fit it all in? Creating interdisciplinary lessons and units helps us explore problems and show how subjects are connected in real ways. After we struggled to connect historical ideas in a context that students found meaningful, for example, we discovered that students would engage deeply when these ideas were interwoven with science.

We worked on lessons that incorporated design thinking and problem-based learning—in which students work in groups to solve an open-ended problem. They developed a more empathetic lens of history, and explored science in a personally meaningful way.


We did this not by reinventing every lesson but by taking lessons we already had and identifying the science within them. Science is part of everything, and when you start looking for it, you’ll begin seeing it everywhere. We start with a reading about a particular topic, and as we go through we ask:

  • What is a problem that I see?
  • What do I wonder?
  • What would I need to know about science to solve this problem?

For example, we were working with a history teacher who was teaching the Journey to America. Her school wanted her to create more interdisciplinary, problem-based learning, but she couldn’t find the connections.

We started with a reading that described the Pilgrims’ journey to America on the Mayflower. As we reading, we considered the questions above.

What is a problem that I see? After reading the article, we shared with the teacher the following challenges that we picked out of it: The Pilgrims wanted to travel to America, but it was very dangerous—aside from storms, pirates were also a threat. The Pilgrims needed ships that were sturdy enough to withstand storms and survive the long journey. The journey was also uncomfortable because the ships were crowded with passengers, their belongings, and even livestock.

What do I wonder? Reading about these problems, we started wondering how we could build a better boat to make it overcome these challenges. What features does a boat need to be able to safely make a long journey? How does a boat need to be designed to serve that purpose and be comfortable for the passengers, with enough capacity to carry what they need? What elements does a ship need to be able to defend itself against pirates?

What would I need to know about science to solve this problem? How do boats work? What makes a boat float? How can a boat be designed to travel more quickly? What type of weapon from the era could you use to defend yourself against pirates?

We added an element of design thinking by thinking about the user, the Pilgrims, and how we could design an interior that would be comfortable for them, thus guiding the students to empathize with the Pilgrims’ experiences.


With all that in mind, we developed a problem-based lesson that led students to use math and science to reinvent the Mayflower. We gave students this task: Design a better boat. Based on the questions we had identified, students needed to design a ship that could:

  • be sturdy enough make a long journey and survive storms,
  • comfortably carry passengers with space for their belongings and livestock,
  • have a defense system against potential pirate attacks and protection against passengers falling overboard, and
  • move more quickly to make the journey faster.

We began by engaging students through the article. We guided them to think about what the Pilgrims must have felt: “Imagine that you were going to move to a new country and you could only take one bag, and you had to travel with strangers in a cargo hold the size of this room, with livestock in it. And when a companion ship sprang a leak, you had to add even more people—like having all of the fourth graders from your school in the hold.”

It made them invested in the challenge: How could they re-create the Mayflower to solve these problems?

Students explored types of ships and learned the science behind how specific parts of ships function. We gave a quick lesson on buoyancy, explaining how ships float. We discussed how wind creates resistance against boats, and how different types of sails can harness the wind to make ships move more quickly. We explored examples and shapes of boats that move more and less quickly through the water.

Students then chose one of the four design tasks above to focus on and moved into “expert groups” with other students exploring the same topic. They had a chance to discuss and explore ideas together before moving into “shipbuilding groups,” which included one student from each expert group.

Students worked together as makers designing prototypes. We showed them an example of a cross section of a ship, and they drew their own cross section showing where the passengers, personal possessions, and livestock would be kept. They listed the materials they would need to defend themselves from pirate attacks and where they would be stored on the ship.

We then gave the students a variety of materials—cardboard, foam, duct tape, construction paper, tinfoil, tissue paper, and straws—to build prototypes of their boats. They considered the size, shape, and placement of sails, the overall shape of the boat, and how to carry heavy cargo. Once they had prototypes, we set up rain gutters filled with water and placed fans at the end to test out how quickly the boats could move and harness the wind.

Finally, the groups gathered together for some challenges, racing the ships to see which designs moved most quickly. We added marbles to each boat to represent the weight of passengers and cargo, and raced again to see which boats could handle heavy cargo. We finished with a writing assignment: “Imagine that you are able to talk to the Pilgrims before they start their journey. What would you advise them?”


How to Plan When You Don’t Know What to Plan For

What school will look like in the fall is still uncertain for most of the U.S., but teachers can develop flexible plans that work for distance and in-class teaching.

By Katie Hicks, Sarah Schroeder

July 8, 2020

As teachers, we’re planners—it’s just who we are. But how do we plan when we don’t know what to plan for? During a recent professional development session with a local district, the number one question teachers asked me was what next year would look like. The truth is: We don’t know what’s coming our way. Even with glimpses of plans, no one really knows what’s coming.

With so much outside our control, there are a few things teachers can do now. Set up your classroom to operate in all ways: face-to-face, remote, and blended (a combination of both). Know that you’re likely to use all these methods at some point next year.

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How to Improve Distance Learning for Students With IEPs

Strategies for parental involvement and synchronous and asynchronous activities can help students with individualized education programs.

By Kathryn Welby

June 29, 2020

Distance learning isn’t easy for most students, but it is particularly difficult for those with learning differences that require individualized education programs (IEPs).

This year, at the request of Merrimack College Institute for New Teacher Support (MINTS), I provided professional development for K–12 schools on teaching children with IEPs remotely. Quickly, I reached out to a handful of highly qualified teachers, administrators, and therapists working remotely with students who had been diagnosed with learning challenges. Through a quick survey, educators provided best practices and passed on the survey to their colleagues. Within five days, more than 90 educators had responded from more than 30 school districts across the Northeast.

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2 Simple Ways to Improve Online Instruction

Distance learning started as an emergency in the spring, but teachers are finding ways to make it better, even for students working on smartphones.

By Jorge Valenzuela

July 17, 2020

As the new school year looms in the U.S., many teachers are unsure of the exact amount of time they will need to dedicate to remote teaching. With departments of education and districts looking to maintain both teacher and student attendance while minimizing the risk of coronavirus outbreaks in their schools, we know that remote learning isn’t going away at this time.

Through staggered calendars and schedules, many schools hope to keep their students and staff safe by reducing class sizes in efforts to maintain social distancing for the time being. Although research on staggered scheduling shows that the practice can have positive effects on academic results, educators will need to continue making pedagogical shifts and pivots to adjust to yet another new instructional day in their efforts to engage all learners.

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Designing Your LMS to Make Distance Learning Better

Intentionally setting up a learning management system where everything students need is easy to access can help them all be successful.

By Sarah Schroeder

July 14, 2020

When remote learning hit, I was ready. My daughter had been in online school for three years. I teach technology integration. But during this time, our family struggled. I found that my son, a straight-A student in a traditional school setting, got distracted, lost track of assignments, and struggled academically.

So what happened? And what would help students like him? It seems to me that we teachers can use our learning management system (LMS)—Canvas, Schoology, Google Classroom, etc.—to build a digital home base for our learners. Grounding design in a delicate combination of empathy and simplicity, we can use our LMS to build community, increase usability, and keep everyone on track and on task.

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Using Project-Based Learning to Prepare Students for Cutting-Edge Careers

Hoping to prepare high school graduates to solve complex, real-world problems, an Ohio STEM school found answers in project-based learning.

By Sarah Gonser

July 24, 2020

When the community of Dayton, Ohio—charged in 2008 with founding a STEM high school—pondered how to bring life to its mission of connecting students to real-world outcomes, they didn’t need to look far. Within Dayton city limits, employers like GE Aviation, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and Kettering Health Network were seeking employees who could be, in the words of the Ohio Department of Education, “innovators and inventors, self-reliant and logical thinkers, and technologically proficient problem solvers.” The area was rich with opportunities in applied science and mathematics.

In other words, local industry was looking for just the type of inquisitive STEM student that the Dayton Regional STEM School was trying to develop. To connect the dots, educators at the school adopted a project-based learning (PBL) approach to instruction that focuses on addressing real-world issues, with an emphasis on solving authentic, interdisciplinary problems. For example, for a 10th-grade assignment exploring the question “How can we reduce the impact of cancer in the Dayton region?” students worked in groups across language arts, health and fitness, and biology classes to research, write, and produce PSA videos that were shared with the Dayton community via social media. Local industry experts—in this case, doctors, nurses, and marketing specialists—served as “critical friends,” providing students with feedback throughout the project.

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Reflections—and Lessons Learned—From Remote Learning

Experiences during remote learning inspire a teacher to reconsider—and refresh—her curriculum for the fall.

By Carly Berwick

July 24, 2020

Our last day of the school year, three months and a week after we went virtual, brought a strange sadness. After the whirlwind and stress of the last few months, the end felt like a slow exhale instead of a bang—or, as a student said, one of those balloons that float to the ceiling outside your grasp and then slowly deflate on their own. At the end of class, we waved goodbye and said, “Thanks,” and then one by one, my high school students clicked off, leaving me staring at my own face on the screen.

Things moved so quickly since mid-March that it’s been hard to stop and let everything sink in. When I got the results of my first Covid test back negative, it was a poignant reminder that other people in my community—people I know—have not been as lucky. Some have died. As I write this, for the first quiet moment in a while, I have time to feel deeply sad for them.

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Teaching African History and Cultures Across the Curriculum

Africa is much more than pyramids, slavery, and colonialism, and incorporating deeper study of the continent has many benefits for students.

By Elsa Wiehe

July 23, 2020

“We do teach about Africa—our school covers units on ancient Egypt, slavery, and colonialism” is a notion often heard in curriculum discussions in American schools. While significant, these topics are a minuscule drop of water in a vast sea of knowledge about Africa.

As Dr. Jonathan Weaver eloquently states, “The only dark part of Africa is our lack of knowledge about it.” To prioritize global education and antiracist practices, here are four strategies to expand the curricular range across grade levels.

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Using Sound Texts in Antiracist Teaching

Speeches, music, podcasts, and interviews can be highly engaging, accessible elements of antiracist lessons.

By Anne Mooney, Danah Hashem

July 23, 2020

Educators are facing the intimidating reality of remote classrooms this fall; many are also looking for new ways to promote antiracism because familiar methods may have seemed more authentic, manageable, or accessible in an in-person classroom. We would like to offer some ideas for how humanities teachers in particular can use texts that use sound—podcasts, speeches, interviews, music, and the like—to integrate antiracist content into online classrooms.

Texts written with sound offer a number of high-value benefits to a remote classroom, including being organically accessible to English language learners and students with learning challenges like dyslexia, as well as being simple and affordable. Working with sound also allows educators to teach necessary skills in new and exciting ways that invite both intellectual play and literacy with digital tools. However, while all of these features are important, one of the most essential things about sound texts is their capacity to promote antiracism in the classroom.


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