10 Sample Lesson Plans to Try This September (or Anytime)

At the start of a new school year, where do you look for lesson plans and engaging conversation-starters that will interest your students? Many teachers tell us that they go online for inspiration. Our website offers lesson plans, nonfiction book recommendations, videos, and more. If you'd like to get advice from our team of educators, you can do so here.

To help you in your mission to cultivate critical thinking and close-reading skills, while keeping the joy in learning, here are 10 lesson plans for students in grades K-12 that might be useful at the beginning of the school year—or anytime. You'll find topics that range from see-through frogs to the joys of candy.

Have a great year!

KINDERGARTEN: ELA & SCIENCE

The ABC's of Apples

Introduce your students to the wonders of apples and apple trees through song and rhyme.

GRADE 1: ELA & SCIENCE

Mmm, Mmm, Apples!

This colorful lesson on apples features a popular song, flowchart, and pictograph. Students can practice looking for the main idea and details, while acquiring science and academic vocabulary.

GRADES 1-2: WRITING

Who Am I?

In this lesson, students learn about each other as they conduct interviews and create portraits and biographical posters. Includes a list of popular biographies.

GRADE 3: ELA & SOCIAL STUDIES

No More Bullying!

An article about a girl who stood up to bullies is accompanied by a video and an interactive online game. Available in print and audio in both English and Spanish.

GRADE 3: ELA & SCIENCE

A See-Through Frog

How do scientists find new types of animals? In this sample lesson plan, students can learn about an exciting rainforest discovery and hone their close-reading skills.

GRADES 3-6: ELA & SCIENCE

How Candy Conquered America

Paired texts available in two Lexile versions examine when, how, and why candy became popular in the U.S. A bonus text features an interview with historian Samira Kawash, the author of Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure.

GRADES 3-8: WRITING

Poems That Pop

This lesson shows how pop music can help add snap and crackle to student writing.

GRADES 3-12: ELA & SOCIAL STUDIES

Understanding September 11

A collection of more than 30 lesson plans, activities, news stories, videos, and book lists for students of all ages offer context for the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

GRADES 6-8: ELA & SOCIAL STUDIES

Desperation at Sea

An article available in two Lexile versions explains the plight of thousands of people fleeing Europe to escape violence, poverty, or persecution in the Middle East and Africa. Photos, maps, and a video help tell the story.

GRADES 9-12: ELA & SOCIAL STUDIES

10 Things You Need to Know About China, Part 1 of 2

A New York Times Upfront article about the rise of China, available in two Lexile versions, gives an overview of a country that is playing an increasingly pivotal role on the global stage. Includes a video, debate, and text-based questions.

My Back to School Promise: Books, Glorious Books!

If I had a plane, I would skywrite “Books, Glorious Books—and Time to Read Them!” for all to see. Knowing that voluminous reading is key to literacy development, this year I promise to intensify my district’s efforts to provide every student with daily access to vast amounts and varieties of appealing reading material and time to read. Specifically…

I promise to empower teachers and librarians to build stellar collections of irresistible books.

To boost “shelf-esteem,” administrators must provide time for teachers and librarians to explore books together—to pore over reviews, browse stacks, read, book-talk, compare notes, and develop orders for more books. In Mamaroneck, N.Y., where I serve as Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, some of our favorite, reliable online resources include:

  • The Cooperative Children’s Book Center: CCBC librarians post and archive Books of the Week which inevitably include gems not reviewed elsewhere. The center’s compilation of awards and Best-of-the-Year lists is all-inclusive. CCBC’s Bibliographies and Booklists on myriad themes and topics not only help teachers choose specific titles, they also remind us of the breadth necessary to reach all readers.
  • The American Library Association: Our “mother ship” bestows a slew of book, print, and media awards each year. Ordering the top ten in as many categories as one’s budget permits is an efficient way to jumpstart a collection. In Mamaroneck, for example, we seek the Alex Award winners because ALA has vetted them as adult books widely read and enjoyed by teens.
  • The National Council for Social Studies: This organization releases Notable Trade Books for Young People each year in thematic strands. 2014 selections in Biography include Miss Moore Thought Otherwise, Jan Pinborough and Debby Atwell’s account of how Anne Carroll Moore first ensured that children were welcomed in libraries!
  • The National Science Teachers Association: The NSTA also selects Outstanding Trade Books each year. 2015 picks include Katherine Applegate’s Ivan: The True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla, the author’s nonfiction follow-up to The One and Only Ivan which includes a tribute from the gorilla’s zookeeper and one of Ivan’s paintings signed with a thumbprint.
  • Indefatigable bloggers at the Nerdy Book Club: These writers, led by Donalyn Miller, Colby Sharp, Katherine Sokolowski, and Cindy Minnich, post a steady stream of lively and timely reviews--and they welcome contributions!
  • Houston, we have a solution: Texas librarian Teri Lesesne, aka the Goddess of YA, prolifically posts “pearls” and book recommendations on her blog and on Twitter @professornana.

This year, I will suggest that we energize the hunt for great books by timing faculty, department, and grade level meetings around the release dates for prestigious awards such as the National Book Award (November), the New York Times Notable Children’s Books (December), and the Caldecott and Newbery Medals (February).

I promise to keep the stream of great books flowing across the year.

It’s vital to understand local budgeting procedures and timelines so that adequate money is allocated for books and every dollar is spent! Rather than giving teachers a lump sum, I will suggest that administrators divide book allocations across the year so that teachers may place orders as outstanding new titles are released. This will require good communication with the district business office to confirm that the earmarked money will be available across the year, and to guide independent booksellers onto our state’s approved vendor list so that we can do business with these local treasures who know our children.

This year I pledge to develop a more nimble means of acquiring hot new books. When social energy bubbles around a series and the latest one is released, how do we quickly borrow and/or purchase multiple copies to feed the viral interest? Finally, I will continue to encourage teachers and librarians to keep extensive “wish lists” so that if and when monies become available, they are poised to pounce.

I promise to support teachers and librarians in curating their collections.

It’s not enough to flood our classrooms and libraries with books; administrators need to provide time for teachers and librarians to weed and update. Just as produce managers remove bruised peaches and limp lettuce from the aisles, we need to review our collections regularly, replacing worn-out favorites and removing books that don’t circulate to make way for newly-published gems. Administrators need to bless the weeding process because most teachers hate to discard books! 

I promise to provide children with uninterrupted time to read during the school day.

Given the indisputable link between volume and reading development, a large, daily block of independent reading should be the centerpiece of our reading curriculum. In Mamaroneck, elementary students read extensively during reading workshop, and middle and high school students have sacred time at the outset of each English period. Time to read in school provides kids with a leg up, making them more likely to continue reading at home. In-class reading time also provides us with invaluable opportunities to confer with kids and to make sure that they are well-matched with their books.

Finally, I promise to trumpet the importance of independent reading to families, community members, and the Board of Education.

At parent coffees, community forums, and Board of Education meetings, I will assert the importance of voluminous reading. I will encourage teachers to showcase their classroom libraries at Back-to-School night, book talk, and share the research that supports high volume of independent reading. I will provide opportunities for teachers to share the upbeat letters they send home at the beginning of the year which explain that students will read in school every day and enlist parents’ support in prioritizing reading at home.

Once we’ve moved mountains to put captivating books into children’s hands—and we’ve made sure that they are engaged and really reading—then we need to step aside and let kids read! Great books have powerful work to do in the hearts and minds of readers.

Have a great school year!

Learning From—and After—Katrina

A version of this post first appeared on Scholastic's On Our Minds blog.

Scholastic News Kid Reporter Samuel Davis, 12, of Shreveport, La., is too young to remember Hurricane Katrina. Wanting to learn more about the storm and its aftermath, he recently sat down with Darlene Alexander and others who fled New Orleans a decade ago.

“I grabbed a bag of pictures and a couple of outfits,” Alexander told Samuel in an article for our student news site. The rest, of course, is history.

Weeks before the storm, Alexander had started teaching at a KIPP charter school in New Orleans. “We were flying the plane as we were building it,” she told me about her experiences there.

Alexander now teaches at Samuel’s middle school in Shreveport. She is “extremely thankful for the support” that she and her two sons, Austin and Justin, have gotten in their adopted city. But in a recent phone conversation, Alexander acknowledged that she knows what it means, as Billie Holiday sang, “to miss New Orleans.”

Still, Alexander feels lucky to have gotten out of New Orleans. Failing schools and a rise in violent crime before the storm, she said, troubled her deeply. She wanted a safe environment for her sons to grow up in.

Ten years after Katrina, a Louisiana State University report finds that the city’s African American residents “are far more skeptical” than whites about improvements to the economy, schools, and overall quality of life; 65 percent of black respondents believe that “people like them have had no say in the rebuilding process.”

Efforts to remake the failing schools of New Orleans, which began before Katrina struck, eventually resulted in the creation of independent public charter schools across the city and state. Are the unprecedented changes a cause for hope or despair?

In this post, NPR’s lead education blogger Anya Kamenetz looks at the varied views. As Kamenetz observes, “the divisions between those who champion the new New Orleans and those who deplore it are as wide and murky as the Mississippi itself.”

If you’d like to learn more about how public education has been reshaped in New Orleans, here are some recommendations:

The Uncounted

In post-Katrina New Orleans, writes Owen Davis in the International Business Times, many special needs students have been left out of the equation, while the number of African American teachers has dropped from more than 70 percent to roughly half.

The Re-Education of New Orleans

A decade ago, the state of Louisiana took control of most of the city’s schools, many of which had been declining for years. A series of articles in Education Week looks at the “profound changes to public schooling that have never before been seen in a single American city."

How everyone is getting it wrong on New Orleans school reform

Douglas N. Harris, a professor at Tulane University, studied the developments in New Orleans schools for more than a year. “The lessons of school reform,” he writes in The Washington Post, “can’t be summed up in a headline.”

Makeover of New Orleans schools sows progress and recriminations

Reporter Andrew Vanacore of The New Orleans Advocate talks with principals, teachers, and students in the city’s charter schools, concluding that “not even the charter school movement’s biggest fans argue that better schools came without pitfalls or pain.”

Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children

In her 2014 book, Hope Against Hope, education reporter Sarah Carr writes about “the “radically altered public education system” that many families displaced by Hurricane Katrina found upon their return to New Orleans. The story is set against the complications that students faced outside the classroom, as families struggled to rebuild their homes and their lives.

How to Get Students Back into the Writing Zone

During the first week of school, I will often ask students if they did any writing over the summer. Almost universally, they will tell me “no.”

But I know this just isn’t the case. Most students write all the time; they just don’t know it!

Here’s a nice way to get students back into the writing zone, and help them shift into an academic mindset.

Step 1: Ask the question: Did you do any writing over the summer?

They’ll say they haven’t done any. But I’ll bet they’ve written thank you notes, or posted something on Twitter, or emailed a friend, or sent a text message! Students might not thinking of this as proper “writing,” but when a student writes a tweet, he or she is using many of the important writing skills we teach in the classroom. The student is organizing an idea in her head and explaining it. She’s thinking about her audience. She’s considering the proper format. This is what writers do, regardless of the task.

Step 2: Talk about the writing you (the teacher) did over the summer, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem: a list, a form, a lesson plan, a message online.

It’s important that students see YOU as a writer, just as they see themselves as writers!

Step 3: Here’s where you can introduce the shift to academic writing. “The writing you did over the summer is great practice for what we’ll be doing at school this year. Here at school we’ll be doing academic writing…”

Let them ease back into it. Remind them that they ARE writers already, and this year, they are going to get better and better at it.

Why We Need More Poetry in Schools

Below is an excerpt from an article I co-wrote with Chris Colderley, "Making Words Dance," in this month's Language Magazine, August 2015.

Northrop Frye (2002) claimed, “Poetry is the most direct and simple means of expressing oneself in words” (p. 58). Yet poetry is not given as much attention as it deserves. It is a genre that is neglected throughout elementary and high school, as well as in teacher-education courses (Certo, Apol, Wibbens, & Yoon, 2010). There are many reasons (and excuses) why more poetry is not in classrooms. Many teachers lack the confidence to teach poetry, because they lack the experience in and knowledge of the field. Reid (2006) says teachers “believe they have not been prepared to teach poetry. Lack of experience, lack of preparation, and lack of confidence quickly add up to lack of interest if not complete apathy” (p. 9). The disappearance of poetry from classrooms has generated a cycle of indifference among students (Parr & Campbell, 2006). Morag Styles, professor of children’s poetry at the University of Cambridge, suggests “the lack of confidence of generations of teachers in tackling poetry has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as pupils are not inspired to read it for pleasure” (2011).

During one of my very first author visits, I remember a high school English teacher warning me that her students may not be engaged in, or responsive to, my presentation, as many of them abhorred poetry. I asked her if she taught poetry, and she shared that she had taught it begrudgingly, as it was not her favorite either. I could relate.

When I was in high school, I was disinterested in the poetry we learned in AP English. It was inaccessible, unrelatable, and, quite frankly, boring. That is not to say that it was not valuable, because it was; these were the literary stalwarts of the canon, after all. True, we were learning, but our human souls weren’t being moved in some significant way. And if you want a student to be moved by poetry, if you want to be moved by poetry, then you must share poetry with which you connect on an emotional level.

So many of us have been immersed, since grade school, in so much staid and incomprehensible poetry that we feel disconnected from it, often scared by it. We’ve been taught that in order to understand a poem, we must first dissect it (we dissect frogs, not poetry), and so we’ve never felt what poetry feels like. We’ve never developed a sense of joy from reading between the lines. We’ve never smiled like the sun. We’ve never cried a river. I say poetry is a ladder, and we should carefully and intentionally take each step, and work our way up. This way, we are more apt to find our way to a higher appreciation of language and literature.

There are a plethora of good reasons for teaching poetry in schools. Faced with the demands of data-driven decision making and a cacophony of instructional practices, teachers have to discern the approaches that will have the greatest impact on student engagement and learning, as well as on growth (Holbrook, 2005). Poetry instruction offers a range of possibilities for improving reading and writing and increasing student motivation (Cecil, 1994; Routman, 2001). For the purposes of this article, we will focus on improved writing.

You can read the full Language Magazine article here.

Stopping the Summer Slide in Rhode Island

The author is the First Gentleman of Rhode Island.

With August now upon us, my family, like many others, is squeezing in the summer’s last trips to the beach, barbecues, and bike rides before gearing up for the start of the new school year. But amidst the flurry of summer activity and a change of pace that replaces math class with summer camp and backpacks with beach bags, I’m always encouraged by the consistent place that reading holds in this routine.

My wife Gina and I start each day by reading with our kids – who are 8 and 11 years old – and we see the impact that reading together has on growing their confidence and critical thinking skills. For our kids, reading is not only a way to explore new places and have adventures, but also helps them develop into strong communicators.

At the beginning of June, I had the pleasure of kicking off the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge at five elementary schools in Rhode Island. As a Summer Reading Ambassador, I visited these schools to read with students and deliver book donations from Scholastic to encourage a love of reading outside of the classroom setting. I was impressed to see the thoughtful ways students communicated their interests, and the sophistication with which they evaluated which materials were the best match for themselves and their peers.

Scholastic’s program is designed to combat the “summer slide,” a phenomenon which indicates that students who are not engaged in summer learning can lose up to two months of reading skills each summer. Educators recognize that the summer slide is a real problem, and are working to identify targeted means of addressing this issue for individual kids – just as teachers have been working hard to differentiate in-school learning opportunities for students for decades.

The theme for Rhode Island’s 2015 Summer Reading Program, “Every Hero Has a Story” is particularly attuned to this idea. In highlighting the experiences that make us all different, this message celebrates diversity and reminds us that there are multiple paths toward any individual goal. Similarly, technology has helped to accelerate and deepen the process of personalized learning, driving new opportunities for self-directed and collaborative learning that allow for real gains in student achievement.

Scholastic’s Summer Reading Challenge provides students with interactive content, gamifies the summer reading experience, and challenges kids to be partners in their own learning. I’m hopeful that with the continued work of dedicated teachers and mentors, we will expand access to summer reading resources for all kids. Then, the only slide that we’ll be focused on is the one at the playground.

The Two-Gen Approach to Early Education

Several years ago, Scholastic teamed up with the Yale Child Study Center to answer the question, “How can we help build resilience in struggling communities?” In particular, Scholastic was interested in exploring how literacy might be used to increase a community’s ability to adapt to stressful circumstances in positive ways. The partnership expanded into an innovative collaboration in rural Appalachia, with results beyond what the researchers predicted. Families participating in the program report personal and social growth along with an increased interest and pride in community and nature. Children and families have demonstrated increased social connectedness with each other and with community partners, and a correlated boost to self-confidence and curiosity.

The evolving program, Discover Together, is now a collaborative involving Sewanee: The University of the South, local community partners in Grundy County, Tenn., the Yale Child Study Center, and Scholastic. Discover Together encompasses a family co-op, a summer camp, and a school-year learning lab. The curriculum for all components is centered around a place-based pedagogy focused on literacy. The Discover Together approach targets the whole child, family and community simultaneously in a multi-generational approach.

This summer, 65 1st– 8th grade students attended Discover Together’s camp, and just this week 20 families arrived when the Family Coop opened its doors for the new season. Discover Together recently received a $260,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to deepen and expand its reach in Grundy County.

In March of 2016, we hope to be able to share our methodology and showcase what we learned through this unique iniatiative at SXSWedu in Austin, TX. To get on the agenda, we need votes! I hope you'll check out our proposal and give us a "thumbs up."

Tapping into the Mammalian Brain, or How One Man Helped Make School More Interesting

“I’ve been waiting my whole life for a robot that can walk on two legs,” says James R. Stellar, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Albany. “It’s complicated.”

Stellar, who is a psychologist by training, has spent his career delving into the complexities of the human brain and its hidden powers. After teaching at Harvard and conducting research in neuroscience at the McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School, Stellar served as Dean of Northeastern University's College of Arts and Sciences. There he helped extend the school's famous cooperative education program, which provides opportunities for students to learn outside of the classroom—through community service, research, and on-the-job training.

Ironically, perhaps, Stellar and others have found that tapping into the animal part of the brain—the one that cares more about eating chocolate than studying it—offers the surest way to engage students. I recently asked Stellar about experiential education and how it might benefit students before they reach college. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

How would you define experiential education?

There are two definitions. The first is programmatic—that is, it is some sort of experience outside of the formal classroom, where students use the knowledge they’re getting in the classroom. It could mean a student who takes an accounting class and then works in an accounting firm. To cite another example, a student who volunteers in a homeless shelter as part of his community service could also be thinking about how aspects of a society’s economic system lead to homelessness. Someone who studies psychology might work in a clinic helping patients, or she might work in that same homeless shelter and observe the psychological needs of the individuals. It could also mean undergraduate research, study abroad, or a paid internship. Northeastern is known for its cooperative education program, which allows students to alternate semesters of academic study with semesters of full-time employment.

There is a second definition, which has to do with how experiences affect our thinking. There is the type of thinking that we express through words, which is conscious. Then we have a more instinctive, gut-level thinking, where we try on the knowledge that we have gained. So, a student might think, “The legal profession is the one for me. I enjoy working in a law firm, so I’m going to push to get into law school.” An internship might reinforce that career choice on a gut level.

This is where I use words like “substantial” and “authentic.” These are characterizations of experiences that are powerful because of their impact. For students, this means that you really want to immerse yourself in the law firm if you’re going to have the full experience at the gut level. If you just took a tour, if a professor just took you down to an office for the afternoon and showed you around, it wouldn’t have the same impact.

What is the difference between the primate and the mammalian brain?

In the 1960s, neuroscientist Paul MacLean proposed a theory that the nervous system is composed of a hierarchy. The primate brain [conscious, abstract thinking] is more advanced than the mammalian [emotional, motivational]. There’s also a third component that we don’t talk much about. MacLean called it the reptilian brain. It has to do with things like being able to get up from your chair and walk around and other, even more basic, functions.

The mammalian brain is one where logic circuits determine how something grabs you, how it feels. In my research, this involved studying the brain basis of cocaine addiction in adults and the genesis of the craving. The decision to use the drug clearly fought with an individual’s better judgment, which would be at the rational level. This is what people mean when they talk about fighting with themselves. A cocaine addict craves cocaine, even though he or she knows it’s not good for them. That’s what sustains the addiction.

This conflict is a reflection of the conflict between the primate and mammalian brains. We’ve all experienced it, with the temptations of chocolate, say, after we’ve unwrapped a candy bar. The time to restrain oneself is before it’s unwrapped. The mammalian brain is firing on all cylinders with the sight and smell, while the conscious, primate brain asks, “What's this all about?”

Freud wrote about the conscious and unconscious parts of the brain, but often, we’re not aware of their interaction. These circuits, according to David Eagleman in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, communicate through feelings, emotions, and desires. For example, an awareness may come to the student who enjoyed working in the law firm through words. He will tell you that the law is about social justice, say, and that lawyers are agents who interpret social justice for the masses, making it come alive. But really, when you talk to the student face to face, what comes across are his facial expressions, his commitment, his enthusiasm, and his tone of voice.

The professor comes away with an impression. This, by the way, is also very helpful for employers, who know that a student may have taken a class in economics but not whether the student can put that knowledge to work in a group environment. That’s why employers conduct interviews. The ultimate interview is an internship, where an employer can observe how an individual works over a span of weeks or months, not just for an hour, to see if that person can take the knowledge and put it to work. That is the power of experiential education, when the mammalian brain and the primate brain work together.

That’s my goal. Historically, higher education has missed the mammalian brain. It built itself on the primate brain. Who takes advantage of experiential learning the most? Teachers in training! You have to leave the campus and teach with an established teacher. Then you come back and sit with your classmates and reflect on how theoretical learning plays out in the classroom. So it’s odd that teaching doesn’t play out that way in American education, generally. We haven’t taught kids how to work in teams, how to apply their knowledge. That stuff has a powerful impact.

I want students to have experiences that they can integrate into their academic program. That's how you keep students engaged—when college is useful to them. It’s also how you produce passion in the K-12 sphere, where charismatic teachers get students to think deeply. They are touching their emotions. They project a caring attitude, and the students respond with an enthusiasm for learning.

How might experiential education benefit students before they reach college?

In our desperate attempt to measure outcomes, we pay too much attention, through testing and other means, to the primate brain. We’re only rowing the boat with one oar. The classic academic curriculum and passion-building experiences, which can happen in the classroom, help us row the boat with two oars.

Teachers already know how to complement classroom lessons, by taking students on field trips, for example. But you have to manage the interaction well. There is often little preparation for that because these types of things get called “extra-curricular” activities. The term is sort of a put-down. It implies: “We’re going to take time off from the curriculum, stop our work, and go outside.” The overall attitude saps an integral part from such experiences.

In the lower grades, we're forced to work more with the mammalian brain because the primate brain is still developing. Students are learning how to read, of course. But beyond that, one of a teacher’s main jobs is to help kids learn how to get along with each other, to show respect, and to cooperate. That’s all social psychology and mammalian brain-type stuff, even though there are words involved. Then students settle down to acquire increasingly complex vocabulary and mathematical skills.

Later on, there are more project-based activities. My favorite teachers in elementary and middle school would say things like, “I need to get the kids doing something.” If teachers just talk, the kids tune out. Good teachers seem to have an intuitive sense for how to blend activities with the learning from the book or the lecture. You have to encourage students to develop themselves.

The higher you go, in high school and in college, the lessons become more complex. But you’re still dealing with students who have a mammalian brain. If you don’t turn that on, they don’t learn.

To learn more about Stellar’s work and experiential education, check out The Other Lobe.

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