The Perfect PD

It was like being in a dream…

A nerdy, teacher dream.

It was the perfect professional development.

It was like being in a dream…

A nerdy, teacher dream.

It was the perfect professional development.

Let me just say how much I love my new job. In addition to teaching history, I’ve been given the role of AVID elective teacher for our seniors.  

For a moment, I was lost and a little scared.  I’ve worked in schools with AVID programs.  I’ve even spent some time with AVID teachers and learned some of the cool learning strategies that they taught their kids.

However, like most core subject teachers, I thought AVID was all about organization and support.

This past month, I spent two days in AVID training and it was heaven.  Our facilitator had a nice balance between talking at us, letting us practice as if we were AVID students, and giving us time to process as teachers.  Best of all, I drove away with half a dozen strategies I could implement the next day.

In this post, I’ll share one of those strategies: Critical Reading.

In AVID, Critical Reading comes in four steps:

  • Planning for Reading

  • Pre-Reading

  • Engaging the Text

  • Going Beyond the Text

Back at Northwood High School, my students were starting a new project.  Their job was to explain why John Swanwick won the Philadelphia Election of 1794.  They had just finished gathering background information about the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, the Excise Tax and the Whiskey Rebellion, and Jay’s Treaty while I was away.  They were ready to tackle our primary source documents.

The day after training, back in the classroom, I made each kid a copy of one of our documents.  The document was about a paragraph long–about Swanwick and the Democratic-Republican stance on the Excise Tax and the Whiskey Rebellion.

As violent means appear the desire of high-toned government men, it is to be hoped that those who derive the most benefit from our revenue laws will be the foremost to march against the Western insurgents.  Let stockholders, bank directors, speculators, and revenue officers arrange themselves immediately under the banner of the treasury, and try their prowess in arms as they have done in calculation.  The prompt recourse to hostilities which two certain great characters are so anxious for, will, no doubt, operate upon the knights of our country to appear in military array, and then the poor but industrious citizens will not be obliged to spill the blood of his fellow citizen before conciliatory means are tried.

Planning for Reading

Before I gave students the document, I set up a quick-write on the board.

  • How do you feel about taxes?  Too High?  Too Low?  Just right?

  • Make sure you use at least 5 of the following words in your answer:

    • Government      Benefit     Revenue    Insurgents

    • Treasury    Industrious    Obliged     Citizen

The vocabulary words that they had to include in their quick write all came from the document that they were going to read that day.  These were words that I thought they might know, but could still be difficult.

They had about five minutes to do their quick-write and then another three to share with a table-buddy.

The quick write got their minds focused on the topic of the day and one aspect of the document they were going to read.


After sharing their quick write, I handed out the document and asked them to just read.  I emphasized that they didn’t need to try to understand the document at this point–all they needed to do was read.  Then we had five minutes of quiet reading time.

Engaging the Text

After reading, I directed the class to scan through the document a second time, looking for vocabulary they didn’t understand.  They were to use context clues, a dictionary, or their laptops (I work in a 1-1 school) to find meanings for their new vocabulary.  I emphasized that by “meanings” I did not mean a definition. Rather, I wanted them to find one or two synonyms they recognized for each word they did not understand.

Some of my students identified “derived,” “revenue,” “speculator,” and “prowess” as new vocabulary.  They found “result,” “money,” “opportunist,” and “military might” as synonyms.

A quick aside: I love the two-part vocabulary building steps embedded in AVID’s Critical Reading Strategies.  Over the years, as my high school students have engaged with primary-source documents, perhaps the most difficult aspect of the documents is rigorous and sometimes archaic language.

After building vocabulary, I asked then to scan the document a third time, looking for key words and phrases.  These would be words relating to the title of the document, “A Pro-Democratic-Republican View of the Excise Tax and the Whiskey Rebellion.”

For their fourth time reading the text, I asked my kids to underline the main idea(s) of the document.  Then they shared those with their tables.  I called on a few students to share out what they thought the main idea was.  The class agreed that “it is to be hoped that those who derive the most benefit from our revenue laws will be the foremost to march against the Western insurgents” and “..the poor but industrious citizens will not be obliged to spill the blood of his fellow citizen before conciliatory means are tried” were the main ideas.

When I asked students to explain those ideas in plain, modern English, one student told me, “What they’re saying is that the rich folk are going to be the ones benefitting from the new tax, so they should be the ones who go fight against the rebels.”  

Another student added, “It’s just like today.  They’re saying that it’s going to be poor working people who are in the army fighting other poor people.”  

A third tacked on, “It’s like they would be saying today, ‘Let the stock holders and president of Exxon and Chevron be the ones fighting over in Iraq.  None of the actual soldiers are going to see any benefit from the war.”

They got it.

Going Beyond the Text

Now it was time for my kids to connect this document to our larger essential question: “Why did John Swanwick win the Philadelphia Congressional Election of 1794?”

Students wrote short summaries of Swanwick and the Democratic-Republican position on the Excise Tax and how this position would resonate with working-class voters in the city.

Teacher Heaven

It was a great day.  As kids debriefed our new strategy, they mentioned that they understood this document better than any of the documents from our last two projects on Roanoke and Anne Hutchinson.  While acknowledging that reading through their document four times was “a lot,” they felt that the deeper understanding was well worth the work.

This was just one day after I learned the strategy in AVID training.  I’m grateful to AVID for a perfect professional development experience.  I drove away Tuesday with some wonderful new techniques that I put to successful use on Wednesday.

How about you? Any heavenly PD stories to share?


  • Tara Nuth Kajtaniak

    Teachers for Global Classrooms

    The State Department sponsors a professional development program called Teachers for Global Classrooms of which I am currently a fellow.  It has been incredibly transformative so far, and it is just the beginning.  For the last 8 weeks, teachers who are passionate about global education–from all over the country and from all discilplines and grade levels–have been collaborating online and sharing experiences, resources, struggles, philosophies, and successes.  The program will bring us together in a symposium in D.C., and then next spring and summer, we will go abroad for 3 weeks to work with and learn from teachers all over the world.  I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity, and as someone who thought she knew a whole lot about global ed prior to the program, I have truly had my mind blown by my colleagues over and over and over again.  It has turned a passionate teacher into a catalyst for change.

  • KathyDmitry