About Lightning Strikes

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Being a historian is like being a dectective

When we begin our Social Studies unit on Colonial America and the American Revolution, we start with an activity we call "Pockets of the Past." In this hands-on introduction to the 18th century, students act as historians or archeologists, examining artifacts and drawing conclusions.

My partner and I set up eight stations, each with artifacts and at least one document about a real person who lived in colonial Virginia. The "pocket" refers to the lady's pocket, which was a sort of bag that tied around her waist under her gown. There was an opening in the gown so that she could reach into the pocket. Men didn't have pockets, but they often carried haversacks.

Working in small groups, the 4th graders have to examine the items and read the document to try to determine the profession of the person, whether he/she was gentry, middling, or enslaved, and whether he/she was a Patriot or a Loyalist. They also need to list all of the items in the "pocket" and what they think they were used for. None of this is completely straightforward. The wig curler is always confusing - is it a piece of chalk? How can we tell if a person is a Patriot or Loyalist? Sometimes the clue is in the document, like the dressmaker who sailed to England in around 1775, never to return. Other times the only clue is whether the pocket includes tea or coffee beans.
A lady's pocket containing a hornbook for t
eaching her children, a needle case, and a wig curler

The big ideas in this activity are to engage students so they are eager to learn more about colonial America, and to encourage them to investigate, think, and draw logical conclusions using what they know and what they are given. It doesn't matter to us whether they get all the answers right, it matters that they became curious and started to imagine what these items could have been used for in a time before modern conveniences. We also hope they are eager to jump into our historical reenactment in which they will be portraying tradespeople in colonial Williamsburg.

We began preparing for this activity with several "Hands-On History" kits from Colonial Williamsburg. You can view and buy these online at Williamsburg Marketplace. The kits that are available are Soldier's Haversack, Lady's Pocket, Slave's Bag and American Indian Bandolier Bag. They are expensive at $99 each, but the education wing of Colonial Williamsburg has given several of these to us when we attended professional development events. My teaching partner does French fur trader reenactments and so was able to purchase other items to create more bags. You can find items online, too. We used the Colonial Williamsburg History information online to research real people to go with the pockets. Among our eight mystery people we have an Iroquois Indian, a gentry woman, a dressmaker, a slave woman, a soldier, a printer, and more.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Assessment: Applying What You Know

In my last post, A Lively Debate and the founding of Jamestown, I wrote about how debate engaged my students and deepened their understanding of the historical events in the early years of Jamestown. We used a historical novel, Blood on the River, as one of the means of learning this history. We also use the novel to learn new vocabulary and to discuss literary elements, in particular, character development and the choices the characters made throughout the book.

Of course, there comes a time when we need to assess our students' learning and understanding. For Blood on the River we give two tests. For assessing knowledge of vocabulary we give a straightforward vocabulary test on the words students had studied. For the "book test" we developed an essay test that requires students to understand the historical events, the cultures of both the English and the Algonquians, and how the choices made by the various leaders of Jamestown affected events. Here it is:

Final Jamestown Essay
Think about the events in Blood on the River and also what you learned from the other Jamestown activities (Choosing a location, survival, debate, using John Smith’s map, etc.). You will write a 1½ to 2 page (handwritten) or 1 to 1½ pages typed response to the following scenario. You may use the Blood on the River book but nothing else. Be sure to include examples (events) from the history of Jamestown that support your ideas.
Scenario: You are the new leader of James Town. Before leaving England you talked with John Smith about the settlement and all of the problems he encountered. You arrive after the terrible winter that killed all but 60 of the settlers. You have more settlers and supplies from England. How will you lead the settlement? How will you get others to cooperate and work toward a common goal? What will the goals be? How will you deal with the Indians? Compare your plans with the plans of past leaders.
We have been using this test for several years. Because I found that children were often confused by this format, we now have a test prep session where I explain to them what they will need to do, how they should prepare, and also give them a rubric. The rubric indicates that they will be graded on how they plan to lead the colony, what kinds of goals they have, how they will get colonists to cooperate, and how they will deal with the Indians. They are also graded on the comparisons they draw with the real leaders of Jamestown (which included both strong, fair leaders, and selfish, short-sighted leaders), and writing mechanics.

Though this test does not test reading comprehension in the "normal" way, or examine literary elements, I like it because it requires students to apply what they have learned from our study of history and Blood on the River. For example, by the time we have finished our Jamestown study, they should know that they must find a way to live at peace with the Algonquian people, both because it is the ethical choice and because there are way more Indians than English in Virginia in 1610 and considering the numbers, the English cannot eliminate all the Indians. (I have had students in some years suggest that as a solution, believe it or not.)

This kind of test is not easy for young students, but even if they don't succeed completely, it shows what they know in a deeper way than answering factual-type questions.

Statue of John Smith, Jamestown

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A lively debate and the founding of Jamestown

Our 4th grade social studies curriculum is American history from Jamestown and Plymouth through the end of the American Revolution. My partner and I seek to infuse social studies with the big ideas of history, and immerse our students through simulations, videos, writing journals, and problem-solving activities. I previously wrote about one of these activities, a history/geography investigation.

Social studies topics also overflow into other subjects, including reading. Our reading curriculum is based around self-selected reading, with some parameters, but our read-aloud books are mostly historical fiction related to American history.

The first novel we do as a read-aloud is Blood on the River by Elisa Carbone. We meet Samuel Collier, who came to Jamestown on the first ships. In this fictionalized version of Samuel, he is a orphan who is indentured to Captain John Smith. We follow the progress and problems of Jamestown through Samuel's eyes up to the winter that became known as "The Starving Time." It is an engaging story as we watch Samuel grow from an angry young boy into a thoughtful, capable young man.

As always when we have a read-aloud, I can tell that some children are not paying attention, are not engaged in the story. We have vocabulary assignments throughout the book and each student has a copy of the book. We discuss as we go along and recap each day. I remind them that there will be a test at the end. Sometimes I have had the class hold a debate on the pros and cons of the founding of Jamestown.

This year I decided to tweak the debate process, basing my new structure on an activity I participated in at the Teacher Institute at Colonial Williamsburg. Rather than having everyone consider all the viewpoints on interested parties, I assigned roles. The class was divided up into Original Colonists - Gentry, Original Colonists - commoners, New Colonists, the Virginia Company investors, and the Algonquian people. The time was right after the Starving Time, when a ship arrived with supplies and more colonists. Each group had to decide how they felt about Jamestown and whether it was a good or bad idea. We had a brief whole group discussion to help everyone remember key points from the book.

After planning an opening statement, each group had a chance to present it to the whole class. The Original Colonists went first. This group had decided to combine gentry and commoners into one statement, though in reality they had different goals and experiences. They were also the first finished with their statement, which was very short. Jamestown was a good idea because they were able to get land and maybe get rich. The other three groups made more lengthy statements, backed up with evidence from the book and history. The new colonists accurately expressed their lack of concern over relations with the Algonquians. The Virginia Company spoke at length over their expectation of seeing their investment pay off. The Algonquians were the most passionate though. They argued against Jamestown, saying that not only were they treated unfairly many times, but that the English did not understand their point of view.

After this first round of statements, every group was eager to make more points, including the original colonists, who, without any prodding on my part, saw how lacking their first statement was and worked to make up for that. After the second statements, the whole class was practically leaping in the air wanting to continue, so we kept going around until we ran out of time!

I loved this lesson because the kids were so involved, so busy thinking about what they had learned. It made history come alive for them and had them thinking from various perspectives. In addition, after the final test on the book, most of them said that the debate was the biggest help in approaching the test. I will explain the test in the next post.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Nine Dots

It's a new school year and a second year of Creative Problem Solving/Design Thinking. We started out with some of the same activities last year's class did, from the CPS book Big Tools for Young Thinkers. The class enjoyed the activities, made a strong start on collaborative brainstorming, and dipped their toes into out of the box ideas.

Then I read a reference to the classic Nine Dots puzzle, which I was already familiar with,  and decided it would be a valuable learning experience for my students. If you haven't come across this wonderful little nudge to thinking literally outside the box, here it is:

The challenge is to connect all nine dots with four straight lines or fewer, without lifting the pencil from the paper.

I first asked if anyone had ever done this puzzle, since 4th graders have a habit of bursting out with what they know, even if you don't want them to tell everyone else at that particular moment. One boy had done it before, so I had prepared in advance with some hands-on puzzles. He very happily took on a brick arrangement challenge, using variously shaped bricks and following a design challenge on cards.

As soon as I put the nine dots up on the Smart Board and explained the parameters and the goal, one boy said, "I see how to do it already." I answered, "Great! Show me on paper." I handed out a sheet with three copies of the nine dots, so students could easily try more than once. There was a lot of excited discussion, and quite a few questions for me as I walked around, mostly clarifications of the rules. No, a curved line is not allowed; no, you may not pick up your pencil; yes, ALL the dots have to be included on one of the lines, when you turn the corner that is the start of a new line.

After 10 minutes or so, none of them had succeeded. (And my young man working with the bricks had been paying interested attention but not saying a word!) It was time for a clue, so I referred to our CPS "rules," which include "think outside the box." This created a buzz, but no actually  going outside the box around the dots that each of them had created in their minds. The student who said he knew how to solve it at the beginning still had not succeeded.

Running out of time, I told them I would give them the solution. The young man already in the know asked if he could put it up on the board, and so we all watched as he drew lines, continuing outside the box, to connect all nine dots in four continuous lines. There were many gasps and "oh!"s.

On to the next challenge, reminding my class to Think Outside the Box!

If you would like the solution to this puzzle, Wikipedia has an article about it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Design Thinking Opportunity!

I started my design thinking journey by reading the book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley and David Kelley. At the time I was looking for ideas on creativity and how to foster it. I was excited to learn about the design thinking process, which I had not heard of. You can read my post about it here. The Kelleys are partners at IDEO, a design and innovation firm. IDEO, along with the Riverdale Country School, now has formed The Teacher Guild, an online community with the purpose of exploring education issues through the design thinking process. It is modeled on OpenIDEO, an online platform that tackles large, difficult problems by inviting all interested parties to participate in the process.

The Teachers Guild's first 10-week collaboration is going on now. The question is "How might we create rituals and routines that establish a culture of innovation in our classrooms and schools?" This collaboration is in the Discovery phase in which members contribute ideas, thoughts, and resources related to the question. Everyone can contribute, comment, and "applaud" others' ideas. The next phase, which starts soon, is Ideate. Participants will share and try ideas that address the question. The Evolve step continues the design process with feedback, then in Select participants vote for their favorites. The most popular solutions are announced followed by a reflection piece. The staff at The Teacher's Guild works offline in between some of the steps. Then a new problem is posted. The process is thoroughly explained on the website.

In the current Discovery stage, many people have posted. It is exciting to read so many ideas all aimed at helping solve a problem. There are ideas about question asking, mindset, failure as a positive force, physical classroom set-ups, and many more. My posted idea was creating a positive, supportive classroom atmosphere where students feel comfortable taking risks. There are also many comments posted on the ideas. It is a positive, energetic community!

I'm excited about interacting with other teachers interested in design thinking. I'm also happy to have an opportunity to experience the process, going through the steps with other teachers. My goal is not only to be able to use the design process myself, but to teach it, in a simpler, shorter form, to my students.

Sound intriguing? Check it out at teachersguild.org!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Searching for excellent biographies for kids

I am searching for excellent biographies written for upper-elementary age children. I seem to have many examples of less than excellent biographies. I'm hoping readers of this post will offer some suggestions.

I would like to find this type of biography to use both as mentor texts and for research purposes. One of the writing projects our 4th graders do is a research project on a subject related to the American Revolution. Many of the students choose to research a person and write a biography. Over the years as I have read more biographies written for adult readers, I realize the limitations of many of the children's biographies about those same people. Some are not accurate, or not complete. Some are just not terribly interesting to read.

I am a fan of the blog Two Writing Teachers, and when I read this post on "Teaching Authentic Information Writing," I realized the ideas applied to writing for children, as well as teaching children to write. The post is about a presentation by author Ralph Fletcher, on how to help young writers find the story in their nonfiction topics to create lively written work with a personal voice and without getting trapped into reciting a list of facts. This is exactly the type of writing that many authors of new biographies and books about history, such as David McCullough's and David Hackett Fischer, to name just two, are writing now. They are fun to read, as opposed to what I remember from when I was in school.

In our research project, we require each student to read at least two sources on his/her topic. One source is usually a below grade level book that can be read quickly to get an overview of the person's life. I like the books of David Adler (A Picture Book of...) for this part of the research. The second source is usually a chapter book. The purposes of the second book are to find more details and to learn about the importance of using more than one source. It's always interesting when students find discrepancies between sources and need to decide how to handle them.

I am therefore looking for strong examples of biographies for younger readers. I collect books about the American Revolution for this project, but I would love to have excellent biographies for my class library a to use as mentor texts and to inspire my students to read more nonfiction. If you know of biographies that fit my description, please leave a comment giving the title and author. Thank you in advance!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mission Geography with NASA

I am a big fan of  NASA's educational materials. I wrote previously about using a lesson from Mission Mathematics as part of problem solving in math. NASA also has an excellent geography curriculum, Mission Geography, which is available free on the NASA website.  They have created different curricula for grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. Teaching a gifted 4th grade class, I have used units from both the K-4 and 5-8 bands.

My class has just completed Investigation 1 in the unit "Mars and Earth - the Quest for Life." This is part of the 5-8 units. Investigation 1 is "Where do we choose to live and why?" This is a question our 4th graders have been exploring for the entire school year in Social Studies, beginning with the early English colonies. In an earlier blog post I shared the lesson plan from Colonial Williamsburg in which students are charged with examining the characteristics of several potential settlement sites, ranking them according to different criteria, and defending their choices of site. Later in the year, we saw the importance of waterways as transportation in the French and Indian War. We noted in colonial times leading up to the Revolutionary War that the colonies were all on the Atlantic coast and the major cities were all ports.

"Where do we choose to live and why?" reinforces these aspects of geography in history and brings the ideas into the present. In the first activity, Students are introduced to the concepts of patterns, dispersion and density in populations. Then students are given a satellite photo of New England at night, so what you see are the lights of human activity. The photo is not identified, so the first task students have is to identify from it was taken, what time of day it was, and what it is. There are a number of questions to answer about what can be seen in the photo, including, what are the completely dark areas (water), what patterns do you observe, and finally, what cities, water bodies, and other features can you identify. In my experience using this for a few year now, students usually need some scaffolding in understanding the concepts of pattern and dispersion when talking about human population, so I give additional examples beyond what Mission Geography offers. I also have students work in partners to have someone to discuss the questions with.

In the second activity, students receive a photo of the continental United States (and parts of Canada and Mexico), but it has been turned into a puzzle, being cut into eight rectangles. Their job is to reassemble it using their mental map of the country, with the night lights of cities as the guide. Most students can easily identify the east coast, and often California and Texas with the Gulf of Mexico The center of the country is the challenge. At this point I encourage students to use an atlas, look for the major cities, and assemble the country from those clues. There is a more extensive set of questions to answer after putting the country together. Some questions ask students to think about why there are no cities in parts of the continent. Using an atlas, they discover that the more empty portions of the country are mountains and deserts. They also use a plastic overlay and markers to outline the U.S. and highlight certain features. This is always a popular part of the activity! I collect the clear plastic from the ends of laminating to use as the overlays.

So far these activities have been a cooperative effort, working with partners, and then discussing answers as a whole class. The final activity in this section is applying everything they have learned to determine where people would settle on an unidentified satellite photo of Australia. This photo is a color image designating elevation. I have been disappointed in past years when I taught this lesson because my students had difficulty in successfully picking logical places to settle. They would often pick a place in the middle of Australia, rather than the coastlines, even though we has been discussing this for most of the school year. I decided that part of the problem was with a lack of scale. Though many of my students recognized that it was Australia, they didn't have a clear idea of how big the country/continent is. So this year I gave them the area and the distance north to south and east to west. Another possible issue is the color code for elevation uses a deep green for the lowest elevation, which may give a mistaken impression of lush forests. Students had frequently chosen the center of Australia as a good place to settle, while in reality is is about a thousand miles from the coastline and a desert. This year I went over the color code carefully.

I had students begin work alone and after about 15 or 20 minutes offered them a chance to partner up and share their ideas. This gave me time to walk around checking on understanding and misconceptions before they worked together. I was very pleased with the results of these tweaks. Almost all of my students demonstrated understanding of what people look for in a settlement, as well as the types of places people tend to live.

NASA's Mission Geography gives context to geographical concepts and allows students to apply them. Students are required to think and use what they know. There are many more units than the ones I use - I wish I had more time to teach geography!