Helping Students Find Joy, Connection, and Humor Through Learning
A closer look at Actively Learn
As classrooms evolve, teachers adapt practices and priorities, and the body of research on what students need to learn grows, we adapt our curriculum and learning tools in response. In this ongoing series, we'll take you behind the scenes with the experts that create our programs to review updates to existing programs, new technology integrations, or brand-new programs.
Today, we spoke with Mary Graham and Victoria Mendoza about how Actively Learn, a curriculum platform new to McGraw Hill’s offerings in ELA, science, and social studies, engages students with content that is relevant to their lives and representative of their worlds, all within an interactive, intuitive platform.
A Look at the Program & Our Experts:
Actively Learn, an award-winning curriculum platform for grades 3-12, is designed to facilitate deeper learning in ELA, science, and social studies. Ideal for any type of learning environment, it features robust, standards-aligned content, embedded assessments, and a host of dynamic interactive tools for educators. You can create your free teacher account today.
Mary Graham is Actively Learn's High Interest and Breaking News Manager. Mary pays attention to what’s going on in the world and produces or sources content for students to connect current events to what they’re learning in school. Mary taught middle school and high school for over a decade before working on Actively Learn. Victoria Mendoza is the Senior ELA Content Manager. Also a former educator, Victoria leads the development of instruction to accompany ELA content. She also sources classic and contemporary literature and nonfiction from diverse authors while working to build out Actively Learn’s eBook catalog.
What’s the purpose of Actively Learn's High Interest and Breaking News content? How do you curate news and high-interest stories that make learning fun for students?
Mary: Students come into the classroom with the world on their backs – the things they hear on TV or see on social media, what they’re talking about with their friends, and what movies they saw over the weekend. With the High Interest and Breaking News stories, our goal is to take what’s going on in students’ worlds and make it relevant to teachers to support learning objectives.
Our team and platform are extremely agile. We can make news stories available to teachers within twenty-four hours, so classroom discussions about the real world can happen in real time. I listen to three news podcasts every day to get a handle on what’s going on in the world, including one made for kids. I’m constantly consuming news and celebrity culture so that I can anticipate what students care about and have relevant content ready for their teachers to assign. We know that students are going to talk about what’s happening in the world around them. We just give them the opportunity to do so in a safe space that contributes to their learning.
When curating content, my goal is to add stories to our platform that teachers can’t skip because they know their kids will love it. Students also love to learn about their rights: Can I wear what I want to school? Does the first amendment apply to me when I’m talking about my teacher on social media? Can my teacher take my phone? Of course, they love to read about anything gross and anything funny, like why whales fart or what would happen if you drank toilet water. We’ve also found that both teachers and students always love articles about food, social media, or animals!
How do you ensure that the content in Actively Learn is representative of diverse voices and perspectives? Why is that so important for student engagement?
Victoria: Just as Mary uses humor and relevance to connect students to learning, elevating diverse voices and highlighting representation are powerful tools for engaging students and helping them find joy in learning across ELA, science, and social studies. We work hard to source content that centers on diverse and underrepresented voices, experiences, and narratives. But we allow those voices to speak to their experiences for themselves - we source content written by people with a wide variety of backgrounds rather than just about them. Both the discovery of an entirely new perspective through reading and the recognition of sameness and relatedness to another person through reading can be transformative learning experiences for students.
Mary: We’re very deliberate in our efforts to include texts highlighting marginalized voices that don’t center on suffering – for example, content about the Jewish American experience apart from the Holocaust. Images are also important. We have goals and benchmarks for content curation featuring diverse voices, but we also try to source images for the texts that feature people who are usually not highlighted in media doing regular, positive things, such as a person with a disability playing sports. We want students to recognize elements of their own identities being normalized and integrated into the content they consume.
It’s clear that the student experience is central to everything you do. What about Actively Learn’s platform is designed to empower student voices?
Victoria: Students can personalize their view of the reader, from the font style and size to the spacing between lines. Students who want a cleaner experience can hide all of the notes, and students who want all of the engagement can keep all of the notes and colors. Students enjoy small touches that help them learn in their own way.
Mary: Students love to feel heard. Any time we can ask them what they think and follow that up with a “why”, they’re on board! Actively Learn's discussion features lend themselves well to empowering student voices.
Victoria: Students also like to feel like they can have opinions on important topics and that those opinions are valuable. The way the platform is set up and the content we choose allows them to share their opinions on topics they really care about.
How does Actively Learn make instruction more efficient and flexible for teachers?
Victoria: Actively Learn helps teachers with their grading workload. Multiple-choice questions are auto-graded and teachers can grade all short-answer responses quickly using AI-suggested grades. Any feedback they give frequently is saved and auto-populates to speed things up. Students receive their grades and specific feedback immediately.
Reading is inherently an individual, internal activity, but Actively Learn gives teachers deep insights into what otherwise would only ever be known to the student. These insights are particularly helpful when teaching from our collection of over 6,000 complete novels. Teaching a novel in a classroom is hard. Who is reading? Who understands? How far have they gotten? Unless you’re reading aloud to your class it’s hard to keep track. With Actively Learn, teachers can assign novels in sections (even differentiate sections and give extra time to students that need it), assign questions in the text, and build in checks for understanding or comprehension, which the platform flags for teachers if students are struggling. It’s always easier to remediate comprehension in the middle of the book than at the end!
Mary: It’s a special calling to be a middle school teacher. When I write content, I draw from my time teaching and imagine myself standing in front of a class. I use language that meets students where they are but weaves in academic language and write in a rhythm that matches the way teachers teach – bouncing back and forth between plot and discussion. That style feels different than a textbook and mirrors a dialogue between teachers and students. It feels like home for teachers.
Victoria: That style is also really helpful for the many ELA teachers who are in the classroom right now that didn’t train in ELA. The articles that use that rhythm can help teachers find their groove, almost like mentor texts.
How does Actively Learn foster deeper relationships between students and teachers?
Victoria: Actively Learn allows teachers to give immediate, personal feedback at the point of use and deliver individualized instruction in response to student needs. That agile response, plus the insights teachers get into students’ reading progress, helps teachers know their students better and helps students feel seen and supported.
Mary: The wide range of topics across science, social studies, and ELA helps bring teachers and students closer together through meaningful conversations. Teachers can respond to what’s happening in students’ lives and support their students going through tough experiences with an article from Actively Learn because our catalog is just so comprehensive. We give teachers a safe, reliable way to say I see you, I hear you, and I’m going to help you. We try to bring safety and authenticity into an environment where teachers are expected to be social workers, parents, and referees, but in a way that doesn’t feel like a burden and is still standards-aligned.
We know that teachers are using content to have meaningful connections with students, and that students are looking to our content to navigate the messiness of growing up. Some of our most popular articles and assignments are our Student Guides on topics like cultivating hope, how to be a good friend, how to deal with failure, and how to have a good relationship with social media.
Victoria: As a team full of former teachers, we believe strongly in the power of engaging, diverse content to help students understand themselves, others, and the world around them. As we build lessons for the platform, our goal is to help teachers help their students be the best versions of themselves and be better citizens of the world.
To use Actively Learn in your classroom today, visit:https://www.activelylearn.com/