About Lightning Strikes

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.