The Kind of Learning We Need

This article was written by Nancy Doda, an international expert in powerful learning for students

Nancy Doda headshop copy 3

At Americans Who Tell The Truth, we are eager to stir the hearts and minds of young people towards caring deeply and acting boldly to make our world a better place. Often such initiatives are reserved for experiences outside school learning. We believe, however, that connecting school and life holds the greatest promise for enhancing student engagement and creating enduring learning. As such we have created The Samantha Smith Challenge to build a bridge between the classroom and the community and show students that no matter what age, they can be part of solving the challenges and problems they see in the world.

The Samantha Smith Challenge (SSC) is named for a young peace activist, Samantha Smith, whose single voice made a positive difference in the world affairs of her time. Samantha entered young adolescence during a critical time in world history when the then Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a cold war. In December 1982, when Samantha was ten years old, she appealed to her mother to help explain this tension. She explained “I asked my mother who would start a war and why. She showed me a news magazine with a story about America and Russia, one that had a picture of the new Russian leader, Yuri Andropov, on the cover. We read it together. It seemed that the people in both Russia and America were worried that the other country would start a nuclear war. It all seemed so dumb to me. I had learned about the awful things that had happened during World War II, so I thought that nobody would ever want to have another war. I told Mom that she should write to Mr. Andropov to find out who was causing all the trouble. She said, ‘Why don’t you write to him?’ So I did.”


Samantha wrote that letter and eventually visited the Soviet Union where she launched a peace-making venture that may have in fact helped avert a war. She also brought Russian and American students together to build understanding and appreciation of one another and to focus on building allies and connections instead of armies.

Like Samantha, many young adolescents are ready to ask the hard questions about problems they observe in their lives and the world. Adolescence is a pivotal time in human development. During this period of tremendous growth and change, our students experience significant cognitive, physical, emotional, and moral shifts. Decades ago, developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson declared adolescence an entry into life’s identity crisis. This is the time in life when young people entertain questions like: Who am I? What do I believe in? What matters in my life and in the world? How can I be all I want to be? How can I help others in need? Why do bad things happen to good people?, and so on. In many ways, young adolescents are emerging philosophers, and burgeoning Samaritans as a consequence of their developmental shifts. These important life shifts are so profound that some have argued that who we become between the years of 10-19 shapes the trajectory of who we are in our adult lives. So it is that these “turning point” years offer us a marked chance to stimulate the civic sentiments and caring dispositions we all aspire for young people to acquire as they grow.

Bacteria in Our School

Participation in the SSC can yield many rich educational benefits for students, teachers, and community. The nature of learning that emerges from the SSC is unique because it holds the capacity to engage young adolescents in an empowering entry into real-world issues, as they are asked to identify and investigate an unresolved issue or disturbing problem in their communities. Moreover, it seeks to bring young people into awareness of the persistent issues that challenge others in their communities and in our world.  It aspires to cultivate the natural altruistic dispositions in our young people and help them understand the power of civic participation to make the world a better place.

In particular, students participating in the SSC will develop a broad range of sensibilities, aptitudes, and understandings that reflect traditional academic standards, 21st-century learning outcomes, and social, emotional and civic dispositions. Last year, over 700 middle school students from schools across the state of Maine participated in the Samantha Smith Challenge. In June, at the state capitol, many participating students gathered to share their findings and accomplishments. These students declared this to be the most exciting project of their school year. Many noted they were transformed by what they learned and gratified by what they could do to help resolve the issue they investigated. Students observed that they learned how to conduct real-world research, interface with local officials, and organize evidence in ways that could be shared with others. For many, and most importantly, this was the first time in their schooling they had actually focused on examining a real, local issue or problem in earnest.

Lyman Moore

Educators planning for the SSC rightfully want reassurance that this learning experience will assist them in meeting the CCSS or state standards. As you plan to engage your students in the SSC, it may be helpful to keep in mind that the SSC seeks to meet or exceed many of the CCSS. By its very nature, the challenge addresses what we choose to call “power standards”- standards drawn from a rich bank of standards embedded in the Common Core standards, 21st century Learning, social and emotional literacy, and service learning.

Leonard MSThe nature of the SSC evokes certain standards over others. In particular, most challenge experiences require students:

  • to identify a troublesome social issue or concern,
  • to design and conduct research,
  • to read and comprehend a wide variety of complex, nonfiction text,
  • to interview others,
  • to gather, compile and interpret a wide variety of data,
  • to choose effective ways to organize and represent the data they collect,
  • to write, and speak clearly throughout all phases of the work,
  • to gather data and communicate results through varied media,
  • to use data to persuade others,
  • to rally for action,
  • to interface with diverse people in positive ways,
  • to manage time productively to complete multi-step work,
  • to collaborate with others in all phases of the challenging work,
  • to listen attentively to others,
  • to apply knowledge wisely to generate recommendations for action,
  • to show empathy for others and the difficult circumstances they face,
  • to understand how local citizens can make a difference in their communities,
  • to appreciate the challenges of changing beliefs and practices,
  • to embrace the value of using knowledge to improve lives,
  • to create new and promising solutions to community problems.

These skills and understandings should sound very familiar. As “power standards”, they address career and college readiness, emotional and social health, civic and service preparedness, and the life-long skill set young people need to manage 21st -century living.

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Participation in the SSC, of course, does more than help our young people meet these many standards. In particular, it brings life into the curriculum. Since real world issues are complex and multidisciplinary, they call on students to draw upon a wide array of content knowledge, to utilize diverse academic and social skills, and to develop social and emotional dispositions often associated with civic and social learning.

Just as many adolescents have the developmental capacity to ask philosophical questions about life and the world, likewise many wonder about the meaning and value of what they are learning in school. Many ask: Why would anyone want to learn this? What does this have to do with anything in the real world? When can I use this? As one middle school student declared in a recent focus group, “We need to learn real stuff about life and not just stuff from the textbook.” Powerful learning demands that we find ways to connect our curriculum to the world and the SSC can help us do just that.


Those who have participated in the Samantha Smith Challenge have repeatedly reminded us that young people are concerned about the welfare of others and our world. Their projects rested on provocative questions such as:

  • What energy source will most sustainably take us into the future?

How can an individual’s choice impact the environment?

  • What is it like to be in poverty and what can we do about it?
  • What can we do to reduce our carbon footprint?
  • What does it mean to eat healthily?
  • How can we educate people about the negative impacts of marine pollution on the York beaches, and get rid of single-use plastic bags?
  • How can we work together in conjunction with the Maine State government to reduce homelessness, hunger, and poverty in our state?

Mental Health-Messalonskee

These sophisticated questions are not extraordinary. Though they often remain at the tacit level in school, when we ask students to share what questions they have about themselves and the world, very powerful questions emerge. Examining the common questions generated from literally hundreds of middle school students in other schools and locations, we can see that when solicited, students ask provocative questions like:

  • When will we clean up the environment?
  • Why do we have hunger in the world when we have so much food?
  • Why do people hate people who are different?
  • What causes grown-ups to be so stressed?
  • Why do we get sick?
  • Why do we fight wars when they are so horrible?
  • Can we cure cancer and other major diseases?
  • Is space really going to be our next home?
  • Why does time fly?
  • What leads to poverty?

When, however, do our students have the chance to dig into any of these questions? When we ask these same students to identify school experiences that help them address similar life questions, they are stumped: “We don’t really deal with life stuff in school,” observed one middle schooler.

At Americans Who Tell The Truth, we believe that life ought to be the stuff of education. We further believe that our young people need multiple and steady opportunities to explore life issues using the knowledge of science, social studies, art, health, language arts and so on. Finally, we believe, and many contemporary conversations echo, that adolescents need to see themselves as active agents of their own learning. The once accepted largely teacher-directed model of learning has finally given way to models in which students are empowered to be in the driver’s seat of learning. Student-centered learning rests on the premise that students should be able to take an active role in determining what they study, how they study it and how they share what they come to learn.

The SSC takes that premise seriously. When young people are truly empowered in a meaningful learning experience that allows them to make a contribution to the welfare of the world, the results can be transformative. Young people come to see school learning as valuable, and they come to see themselves as playing a vital role in the welfare of others. It is our hope that the SSC will be among the most memorable and transformative middle school experiences students will recount and treasure long after they leave us in the middle school.

Leonard & Poster

Samantha Smith Challenge

A note from Connie Carter and Americans Who Tell the Truth ….

I hope that you had a great holiday break and are relaxed and taking on the new year with your usual vigor and enthusiasm. I am excited to write to you about this year’s Samantha Smith Challenge (SSC). While the essence of the SSC remains the same, we have added some additional components that will give you and your students an opportunity to build an even stronger bridge between the classroom and the world.


Please take a look at the following additions to our website:

  • introductory activities to help you and your students build a foundation of activism by incorporating Americans Who Tell the Truth into your Samantha Smith Challenge project.
  • EngagEd, lesson plans created by AWTT portrait subjects based on their experience, knowledge and their everyday work as activists for social, economic, and environmental fairness
  • resources that we will continue to add in the next 3 months about topics that will support you and your students as you take on this year’s challenge

I also want to share with you a few of the important dates for this year’s Samantha Smith Challenge.

February 1: Deadline for signing up for this year’s SSC (You do not need to have identified your issue by then; you only need to let us know that you plan to participate.)

April 1: Deadline for submitting the issue your students will address for the SSC

May 1: Deadline for submitting videos and progress report to AWTT

JUNE 6: Samantha Smith Challenge Celebration for ALL participants – time and

location to be announced

I hope that xxx Middle School will participate in the Samantha Smith Challenge (SSC) this year. You can register right now at


Please let me know if I can answer any questions or concerns you may have. As we did last year, we are hoping to visit all of the SSC schools to learn more about your projects and to offer any assistance.

Thanks so much for all you are doing for education! We look forward to working with you as part of this year’s Samantha Smith Challenge!

Contact information: Connie Carter  

Learning Through Engaged Citizenship

American Who Tell the Truth (AWWT) and the Maine Association for Middle Level Education (MAMLE) partner to sponsor the Samantha Smith Challenge each year.

Mt. Ararat & Poster


  • Work independently, in small groups, or as a class
  • Choose a problem in their community, state, country or the world that they would like to address and help solve
  • Turn the problem into a question they can research
  • Register the project with Americans Who Tell the Truth
  • Research the issues within their question
  • Develop a way to address the problem using what they have learned in their research
  • Identify stakeholder(s) interested or connected with the problem
  • Create a presentation to share with stakeholders that outlines the issues and offers a course of action
  • Encourage the stakeholder(s) to work with them to build support for the course of action
  • Take action!
  • Create a 3-minute video that summarizes their work
2015 Samantha Smith Challenge Celebration—Students Share Their Work
2015 Samantha Smith Challenge Celebration—Students Share Their Work


KingImportant information for teachers:

Guidelines 2015/16 KEY DATES

● OCTOBER 22­23, 2015: Launch 2nd Annual SSC at MAMLE Conference.

● JANUARY 15, 2016: School and class registration deadline for SSC.

● FEBRUARY/MARCH 2016: SSC workshops/school visits.

● APRIL 1, 2016: Teachers confirm student participation in Samantha Smith Day and submit issue and progress reports.

● MAY 1, 2016: SSC projects & videos are submitted to AWTT.

● JUNE 6, 2016: Samantha Smith Day celebration for SSC participants from around the state of Maine. Once you have read through this document, feel free to contact us for advice, guidance, contacts to help you explore your issues, or anything else that will make your experience richer, more rewarding, and educational.

Contact people:



Wondering how to get started?

The Americans Who Tell the Truth website has an entire section devoted to the SSC that includes ideas for helping students understand the impact a single person or a small group can have on society, as well as to motivate them to accept the Challenge. Additional inspiration can be found in the blog post from last spring that highlighted the Samantha Smith Challenge Celebration in the Hall of Flags at the State House.

Messalonskee & Poster

Important links and information can also be found on MAMLE’s webpage in the Samantha Smith Challenge section. Last year over 700 students across the state of Maine participated. We would love to double or triple that number this year!  Building a bridge from your classroom to the world by encouraging your students to become citizen problem-solvers is a fine way to address Maine’s Guiding Principles:

  • A clear and effective communicator
  • A self-directed and lifelong learner
  • A creative and practical problem solver
  • A responsible and involved citizen
  • An integrative and informed thinker

Click on this link to go the AWWT webpage to learn more and to register for the Samantha Smith Challenge.


$500 Grant Opportunity for Maine Middle Grades!!!

Wow! The Natural Resources Council of Maine is offering a wonderful opportunity to middle grades schools and clubs in Maine

Kennebec River

Six $500 grants


 Protecting the Nature of Maine—Projects that educate and engage students in Maine’s environment and the value of protecting it

 Application deadline:

December 1, 2015

Contact person: Gabrielle Grunkemeyer, Grants Director at


Here are the specifics:

Project requirements:

  • Must take place in winter/spring 2016 and be completed by June 10, 2016.
  • Must write and submit 3 blog posts for NRCM website – describing project, progress, and outcome
  • Must be available to the press and/or provide press statements and photos for media to highlight the project**
  • Must give 1 final presentation to NRCM staff and board about project and what students learned

Application Process:

  • Complete and submit grant application by December 1, 2015.
  • Return to Gabrielle Grunkemeyer, Grants Director at
  • Applications will be evaluated by NRCM
  • Grant awards announced January 4, 2016
  • Grant checks dispersed by January 15, 2016

NRCM will evaluate your application on the following criteria:

Baxter21. Align with NRCM’s mission—Relevance to one of our four program areas:

  • Clean Air, Clean Energy
  • Healthy Waters
  • Woods,Wildlife, and Wilderness
  • Sustainability and Toxics

2. Defined activities, goal(s), and implementation plan, if relevant




Click on NRCM School Grant Guidelines and Application to download more information and the application.


Juvenile Bald EageIt seems to us at MAMLE that this grant opportunity opens the way for a spectacular learning  experience for your students when you combine it with the Samantha Smith Challenge.

Challenge your students to make a difference in their world!

Build a bridge between your classroom and the world to help your students understand that no matter what age, they can be part of solving the challenges and problems they see around them in the world.

Time to Register! Making Middle School Memorable


Making Middle School Memorable

Engage, Excite, Empower

For more information about registration:

Mt. Ararat CrewWhat motivates us to work harder, be more innovative, and thus more effective in our schools?  According to Daniel Pink in his book Drive, there are three motivators that cut across cultures and professions—autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  The MAMLE Conference, Making Middle School Memorable: Engage, Excite, Empower, relates to all three of Pink’s motivators:

  • The concurrent sessions reflect the outstanding work educators do when they are given autonomy to develop approaches that engage, excite, and empower their students.
  • Attending the MAMLE conference provides an opportunity for middle grades educators to learn from one another and thus improve their mastery of working effectively with 10-14-year-olds.
  • Joining with middle grades educators from across our great state develops a sense of purpose that extends beyond preparing students for the next test or the next grade.  Rather, we join together to build a greater common purpose of  ensuring that all of our students thrive as they move through life.

John & JeffMaking Middle School Memorable: Engage, Excite, Empower will rejuvenate attendees’ commitment to teaching and learning with young adolescents.  Invariably, many will be inspired to adapt new ideas to their own situation back at school. Others will be driven to reflect on their own practice and work to make it more effective. The end result? More students will experience a learning environment that is engaging, exciting, and empowering.  Their middle school years will be memorable.

Each day of the conference will begin with a keynote related to our theme:

  • Thursday: Tom Burton—Magic and Motivation in the Middle
  • Friday: Maine author Phillip Hoose—If Adults Wouldn’t Do It, We Would: Stories of Youth Empowerment

Over the two days, we offer 30+ concurrent sessions.  That means there are over 900 possible combinations of sessions an attendee might put together! Every attendee will be able to customize the conference to fit their interests.

Here are just a few examples of how an attendee might personalize the conference offerings:

Sessions of high interest to….

School Leaders

  • Thursday’s keynote: Magic and Motivation in the Middle
  • Everyone’s a Leader
  • What Does Your Dash Stand For? Creating a Positive School Climate and Culture
  • Teaching the Verb: Meeting Standards Through project-Based learning
  • Leadership Roundtables
  • Family and Community Relationships
image of Mt. Ararat students
Mt. Ararat Middle School

Those seeking approaches that empower students and personalize learning

  • Friday’s keynote: If Adults Wouldn’t Do It, We Would: Stories of Youth Empowerment
  • Creating Curious, Curious, and Engaged Citizens
  • The Power of Stories
  • Spotlight on Integrated Curriculum
  • Group Challenges and Problem Solving
  • Teaching MCL: Putting Plans Into Practice
  • Voice and Choice
  • Port Clyde Fisheries Trail Map
  • Bringing the Samantha Smith Challenge to Your Classroom

Attendees wishing to deepen their understanding of effective literacy instruction in the middle grades

  • Let’s Unpack the Complex Text in Talking Walls: Discover Your World
  • Should You Paint Before You Write or Write Before You Paint?
  • Talking is Writing in the Air
  • Text Sets: Using 21st Century Schools to Teach MLR Standards
  • Using Meaningful Feedback to Foster a Growth Mindset

FullSizeRender 4Those who are new to the middle grades classroom

  • Teaming 101
  • So You Think You Know Middle School?
  • What’s New In the Wild World of Adolescent Brain Development Research?
  • Practical Strategies for Collecting Evidence
  • Everyone’s Invited: Interactive Strategies to Engage Students

Attendees looking to push their use of technology to the next level

  • Getting Started with Google Classroom’
  • Beyond the Basics of Google Classroom
  • Social Media in the Classroom
  • OMG! When Did They Do That? (MLTI)
  • iPads for Giving and Receiving Feedback
  • Getting Back to “It’s All About the Learning”

Join Us for Making Middle School Memorable: Engage, Excite, Empower

Point Lookout Resort and Conference Center, Northport, Maine

October 22-23, 2015

Conference Sponsor
Conference Sponsor

Back-to-School Shopping in Your Library’s Professional Resources Section!



Back-to-School shopping posts are all over Facebook. Yesterday, I saw one from a former colleague who was taking her daughter to get everything she needed for her first year of high school.  Today, another colleague gleefully reported she had scored two class sets of highlighters at a ridiculously low price at a local store.  I almost jumped in the car to go  get some when I remember that I don’t need class sets anymore. Despite the fact I won’t be going back to my own classroom this fall, I still look at the ads and think about how I would set up my room and how I would make the first week of school memorable.

Another Facebook post earlier this week reminded that there are gems hidden away in the professional sections of school libraries just waiting to be liberated by an adventurous teacher looking for inspiration.

A Treasure Trove of Resources for the Adventuresome Teacher
A Treasure Trove of Resources for the Adventuresome Teacher
Jim Trelease, an advocate or reading aloud to adolescents, published several resources for teachers.
Jim Trelease, an advocate or reading aloud to adolescents, published several resources for teachers.

The message in the image to the left is important, however, what caught my eye was the name, Jim Trelease. The post sent me scurrying to my bookshelves and there it was—Read All About It! Great Read-Aloud Stories, Poems, & Newspaper Pieces for Preteens and Teens. It’s still available on Amazon!

Some of the benefits of reading aloud to middle schoolers include:

• Building vocabulary

• Improving comprehension

• Building a literacy-rich culture in your classroom or on your team

• Introducing students to genre and authors they wouldn’t pick on their own.

In Read All About It!, Trelease includes themes such as Growing Pains, Fantastic Tales, Classics, Chilling Tales, Historical Fiction. and…anticipating the Common Core by 15 years…Nonfiction as Literature!  He provides a bit of background information and related titles.  Quick, go find your library’s copy and check it out for six weeks.  Keep it on your desk and you have a ready-made advisory activity, a lead-in to silent sustained reading, a hook for an upcoming lesson, or perhaps just a vehicle for sharing some enjoyable minutes with your students as you explore a fine piece of literature together.  Visit Trelease’s webpage:

I began to wonder what other dusty copies might be just waiting to be rediscovered in the school library?  These topics and titles came to mind:

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 5.03.17 PMBuilding Community/Get-to-Know You Activities—Two classics from way back when whose activities have been adapted over the years:

The New Games Book was first published, gasp, in 1976! Raise your hand if you were even alive then! Here’s a portion of a review on Amazon. “This book is loaded with all sort of fun games to do as a group outside such as a family gathering, church picnic, camp activity, etc. The games involve a lot of human interaction and contact, allowing people to get to know each other better and laugh and exercise and communicate all in one activity.

I would recommend this book to anyone who just wants to do something besides the everyday get together. It really has a lot of very creative ideas for allowing more fun among a gathering of people. A lot of the games require a lot of cooperation and good sportsmanship among the players. It’s all in good fun. A great way to get to know each other better. The motto as the book subtitle indicates is, “Play Hard, Play Fair, Nobody Hurt!”

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 5.04.50 PMSilver Bullets: A Guide to Initiative Problems, Adventure Games, & Trust Activities is another resource for activities that help students come together and appreciate one another’s strengths.

The next time you are at school, do an archeological dig in your library’s stacks and see if you can unearth these still-relevant gems from an earlier time. They are packed with ideas to use as is or to adapt for your own situation.


Personalization, individualized learning, and differentiation.  These concepts each have some unique characteristics, but they all focus on creating a classroom where one-size-lesson-plans do not cut it. Organizing classroom routines, grading, and structuring learning environments in these ways can be quite daunting.  Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, herself a former middle school teacher, has led the way in writing about classrooms that meet individual learning needs.  Check out one of her books for ideas that you can adapt to your particular situation.

Carol Ann Tomlinson titles
Carol Ann Tomlinson titles


MaineMaine Studies: In 1989 The Maine Literature Project published Maine Speaks: An Anthology of Maine Literature.  Its intended audience was middle and high school students, and its purpose was to provide Maine students access to the rich and varied literary heritage of our state. Authors and peoples represented include:

• The Wabanaki

• Edna St. Vincent Millay

• Sarah Orne Jewett

• The Passamaquoddy

• French immigrants

• Factory workers

• Fishing, farming, and lumbering families

• Marsden Hartley

Organized by the themes of Identity, Nature, Work, Communities, and Origins, these pieces are rich in history, voice, and texture—authentic pieces of Maine life for the 2015 classroom.

So…take a walk on the wild side and detach yourself from the digital world.  Visit the professional resources section of your school library and shop for free. You just might be surprised by what you find!