Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Sometimes things are just too seminal to read

Nearly all my friends and relations have sent me Sundays NYT Magazine article about schools, and I still haven't read it. Eduwonk sums it up here. The Chalkboard goes into a little more detail here. Someday I'll get around to reading it but for now I'm frantically trying to read The Cold War and the Color Line for my curriculum class, and every edition of Cobblestone relating to the Civil War that I can get my hands on.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Calling all fairy blogparents

So, now that the slavery unit is over I'm working on planning the next unit, which is going to be on the Civil War. We're going to spend three 45-minute lessons on it next week, and I was having a hard time deciding what I thought the most important things are that students should take away from such a short unit. So my solution was not to decide -- I'll let them choose from among a list of questions relating to the Civil War, and then divide them into mixed-ability groups, and each group will have to come up with an answer to their question by the end of the week with evidence to back up their answer.

The unit coincides with the ELA unit on nonfiction reading, so their responses to their questions will come from nonfiction texts on various topics and reading levels. At the end of the week each group will present its answer and evidence to the class.

With a setup like this, the questions are going to be what really drives the unit, and I thought I came up with some great questions that kids could approach at different levels. Some of the questions I thought would work:
  • Was the Civil War inevitable?
  • Was Lincoln "the great emancipator"?
  • Did the South have a chance?
  • Could the war have happened without women?
  • Would the Union have won without African Americans?
My cooperating teachers thought these questions would be above some kids' heads, and suggested I give some kids these tough questions and other kids more straightforward questions, such as:
  • What was it like to be a soldier?
  • What was it like to be a soldier's family?
  • What were some of the important battles of the Civil War?
To me, those kinds of questions are less compelling; it's hard for me to imagine a kid really trying to answer those questions because they really care about finding the answer. But I trust their judgement and realize I'm just going to have to try this out and see how the kids respond.

Anyway, if anyone out there has some good ideas for questions, or some good sources of short nonfiction texts on the Civil War, please let me know!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


So, the slavery unit is over.

I got my first taste today of what kids are like right before a break ... it was truly bizarre. At some point I looked around and one kid was rocking back and forth in his chair, another was doing something weird with his lips, a third was putting stickers on her tablemate's face, and a fourth was tugging on the braid of the nearest female. (Of course, the latter is a kid whom I've often caught fondling girls' hair ... Ah eighth graders.)

Looking back on the slavery unit, I have mixed feelings. There are some things I'm proud of and some things I know I'll do differently next time. Most of the kids seemed to get a lot out of it. Most, but not all, of them liked having one question that we kept coming back to each lesson (why did slavery exist). In their end-of-unit evaluations, one student wrote this:
I liked the fact that we weren't just explaining that there was slavery and it was so horrible it should have never happened. We actually spoke and thought about how and why did it happen who started it ect.
And I think most of them really came to a deeper understanding of that question over the course of the unit. When we first asked them to respond to the question "why did slavery exist" at the beginning of the unit, a majority of students responded "because white people were lazy" or "because white people were racist." While there is a level of truth to these answers, they reflect the kind of thinking that novice students of history use. Over time their responses became more complex (although I still had one student at the end of the unit say "because white people hated them").

It was a challenge for them and it was definitely a challenge for me! Glad it's over. Now on to the next challenge ...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Fun with documents

Thanks, Peter Pappas, for responding to my last post! I'm exhausted but you have inspired me to post about the lesson I did today with documents. (I found Pappas' blog while trying to figure out how to do this lesson.)

So, the main skill we've been trying to teach in this slavery unit is how to approach primary source documents. I was sort of making it up as I went along, but I started out having them practice asking simple questions of the documents (who created it? when? why?).

So the aim of today's lesson, which was the last lesson in the unit, was "why did slavery end?" First I modeled how to approach the document with this document:

Then they looked at several documents (each kid got a different document according to reading level) including a speech by Frederick Douglass and this one:

Then came the hard part. They got into their social studies groups -- four kids in each mixed-level group, and each kid had a different document -- and had to come up with a topic sentence for a paragraph answering the question "why did slavery end?" I had no idea how they would do with this task. Some groups did really well, and other groups were totally lost. I'm not sure how I would have done it differently to scaffold better for the groups that were having a harder time.

This whole lesson was to prepare them for the final project for the unit. The unit question was "why did slavery exist?" So for the final project, they each have to pick a document (but I ended up giving documents to most kids) and writing an analytic paragraph about what that document teaches them about why slavery existed. On Monday, when the final project is due, they'll all bring in their documents and their paragraphs, and we'll hang them around the room like a gallery that is our class's answer to the unit question. I found some really great documents and I'm excited to see what they do with them, but I'm not sure I have really prepared them to succeed. Some of them will do fine because they are smart, and others might just be lost.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Peter Pappas

So much to write about! I'd like to write about some of the cool things my kids had to say today about slavery, or about the midterm elections, or about midterms in general. But it's 8:30 p.m., I'm at work, and I'd rather go home and poop out.

So instead I thought I'd point you in the direction of a really cool blog I found recently about social studies, literacy, and learning from documents: the blog of a Mr. Peter Pappas. Mr. Pappas, you are my new social studies fairy blogfather.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Unaccountable comments

While planning a discussion-based lesson, I just googled "accountable talk," and a post by Ms. Frizzle came up. It was such a thoughtful discussion/explanation of accountable talk, and so helpful. It also made me so happy to read that Ms. Frizzle, one of my teacher blog-idols, felt intimidated and overwhelmed when she first tried it. I felt inspired and also calmed.

Then I scrolled down to the comments.


Teachers to Share 'Trade Secrets' for Better Schools
WNYC Newsroom

NEW YORK, NY October 30, 2006 —Schools in New York City and across the country will be able to access tips from successful schools over the Internet. The program will encourage promising charter schools and regular public schools to share their so-called trade secrets says Jon Schnur, chief executive officer of New Leaders for New Schools - which is working with the schools.

SCHNUR: If you're a 4th grade teacher in math in the Bronx, there's no place for you to go to see what are the best 4th grade math teachers in NY and across the country doing? And this initiative will provide a way for you to watch videotape, see lesson plans, best practices from some of the best fourth grade teachers anywhere.

REPORTER: The program will cost $27 million over 5 years, with money from the US Department of Education and private grants. The first round of funds announced today in Brooklyn is directed at charter schools - but other schools will also be included, and they'll be selected next year based on test scores and classroom practices.

UPDATE: What I wanted to say about this earlier, but didn't have time, was that I love this idea. It combines so many great ideas. One, the idea of charter schools (or any schools) sharing what works with other schools. Two, I'm really drawn to the whole video idea. It reminds me of Japanese lesson-study, which I can't wait to try when I become a real teacher. (I've been trying to get my classmates to try it with me now, but they don't share my enthusiasm.)