The Low-Down on Strategies That Actually Work

Michelle Areaux
Middle School Language Arts Teacher

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I know all teachers can say first hand, going to professional development courses can be a cruel punishment. Not wanting to sound negative, I am going to be brutally honest here and say the required trainings can be both exhausting and soul draining. We are expected to sit for hours, listening to someone who hasn't been in a real classroom, possibly ever, tell us how their strategy, or their program, or how their new technique is going to revolutionize the educational world.

However, that was until I came across a wonderful program that changed the way I taught and created my lesson plans forever. Three years ago, the middle school where I currently teach, was given an opportunity to attend a training for a new development called, Laying The Foundation, a descriptive training program for educators that offers insight and engaging activities to help students generate their own ideas and interact with their peers and teacher in a meaningful way. Like most teachers, I was skeptical to say the least about this new educational development. Especially, when I learned I would have to spend a week of my personal summer vacation sitting through eight hour classes learning how to decode the strategies and conduct the activities associated with the program. Honestly, I walk out of 99% of those trainings and never use one of the strategies that were thrown at me.

When I began my first day of the trainings, I was blown away. Now, I am not someone easily impressed or naive enough to believe that one educational tool will transform my entire teaching profession. But, I decided to push all of my doubts aside and listen with a clear and open mind.

To begin, a real teacher was leading the class. Yes, a real teacher, one who works with students every day! Let me tell you that was the first indicator that this new tool would be something worth trying. Let's be honest. Nothing is worse than having someone who has never taught a day in their life telling YOU how to teach YOUR students in YOUR classroom.

Next, the lessons provided to the class were in several large textbook sets titled modules, each organized by grammar and writing styles, literature, and reading strategies with lexile levels included for the different texts provided. Each lesson from the modules contained step-by-step instructions on how to lead the lesson to a class with connection to the Common Core Standards. The text books, or modules, even included sample lessons, displaying a model of what your students assignments should look like with annotations. From the beginning, I learned that this was not just another tool with an acronym that I wouldn't understand, remember, or care to use. For someone like me, who is a visual learner, Laying The Foundation made sense. I walked away that week with several lessons which included reading passages, questions sets with answer keys provided, and a new found understanding of how to not only utilize those activities, but how to modify and differentiate the same lessons for both my lower level students and my higher level students who require more rigor. You can adjust each lesson to your individual student's needs, without watering or "dumbing" down the content. As an educator, that was a vital tool I needed and restored my faith in new learning strategies and tools.

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Laying The Foundation is not just a English based program. This program is tailored for both middle and high school level Math, Science, English, and even Elementary levels which makes it a wonderful tool to use in cross curriculum activities and something the majority of a school staff can relate to and enjoy. With each lesson reviewed, you will quickly discover that they are not designed to be the end all of your units or curriculum. These texts are isolated, so that you can incorporate them into any unit you are teaching. One thing I have learned in my eight years of teaching is that every school or district is quick to buy into any new program that sounds fun and promises to provide amazing results. I have had to switch units, texts books, and redesign an entire grade level curriculum solely based on a new educational program brought into my school that promised to change the world of education. Instead, I was left with yet again, another set of text books and lessons I will never use again.

Sometimes, we have to recognize that it is not a program that changes how our students learn. It can be noted that I am a firm believer that the success of our students is dependent on our own individual passion to teach to our students. A program will not transform you into the world's greatest teacher or suddenly make your students understand how a conflict in a story can contribute to the development of a stories theme. But being an intentional teacher who focuses on teaching in a way our students learn, and building assessments based on their needs, is the key to success amongst students.

As I sit here praising how wonderful Laying The Foundation is, I want to add that the tools I learned are used daily in my lessons. For example, I use a strategy called a ‘dialectical journal' almost daily in my class. This interactive journal can be modified to be used during reading strategies where you annotate and code a text searching for themes or central ideas with text evidence, organize thoughts for an extended response question, and to identify character traits with textual evidence. Below is one example of how I utilize a dialectical journal within a literary unit.

I want to add that I am not associated with Laying the Foundation, other than that I went to their trainings. I am bragging on their strategies because I believe in them and have personally witnessed my students' comprehension levels and writing abilities increase because of the activities found within this program.

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Want to explore this program? Visit their website at and gain information about training programs and free resources (lessons, texts, and questions) designed specifically for the Common Core Standards.