Decades ago I had an idea for a classroom research/writing lesson, probably upper elementary in nature but very adaptable to middle and high school grades. I called it The Pencil Lesson, and its ulterior instructional goal was to make students aware of jobs/careers other than “astronaut” or “marine biologist” or “NFL quarterback.”
Overview: After examining an ordinary No. 2 pencil for its component parts, students are guided through the research into how each part ends up in the pencil. As they do that, students should become aware of the employment opportunities at each step of the way. (N.B., the point is not to interest students in these specific careers but to make them more aware of the multiplicity of jobs represented in our everyday surroundings.)
Engagement: Create a TikTok-like video showing how pencil erasers are planted like seeds to grow the new crop of pencils. (N.B., I’ve done lessons like this where a class absolutely fails to detect the bullcrap. Be prepared.)
After the video, allow students to yuk on it, then ask the Essential Question: Where do pencils come from?
In small groups, have students “analyze” a No. 2 pencil. What are the constituent parts?
glue (to hold the two halves of the wood together!)
After whole-group discussion, assign each group one of the components. Have them brainstorm/imagine the path that component must take before it ends up in the pencil. (It’s probably most effective for them to work backwards from pencil to source.) Emphasize that not knowing specific steps is to be expected; just put a big ??? in the chart and keep going.
From there, each group researches their putative process, filling in the ??? segments and fine-tuning the segments they thought they knew.
At this point, you might ask each team to present their findings to the class so that everyone is up to speed on how we get pencils.
For upper elementary, this much of the lesson might be enough. If so, make sure that you promote discussion of the jobs involved in each step. For middle and high school students, you can push that aspect of the lesson by having them list the workers that are required to produce the component at each stage, and if you’re really dedicated, have each student pick one job and head to the federal Occupational Outlook Handbook and prepare a short report on the job’s requirements/training/salaries/prospects.
And there you have it: a massive research/writing lesson that could easily take a couple of weeks in your class.
Followup: Let a few months elapse, then ask if students have been looking at objects around them and imagining what it takes to bring those objects into existence. Classroom discussion/sharing, etc.
(An earlier version of this post, and tweets referring to it, named Arkansas as the state in question. Even though the mistake is understandable, we regret the error. Oklahoma, this is on you, babe.)
As you probably are already aware, the amygdala-based lifeforms among us have decided to be afraid of something called Critical Race Theory, which is not, as the amygdala-based lifeforms would have you believe, teaching kindergartners that WHITE PEOPLE BAD KENNETH, but rather an actual socioeconomic critique of the role of race in U.S. history, particularly the role of slavery in our economy (big) and politics (bad). It is taught at the graduate level, not in kindergarten.
However, because our Republican Party is nothing if not solicitous of their amygdala-based lifeforms, they have sprung into action in state legislatures everywhere to write laws to assist our teachers to avoid the evils of CRT in their classroom.
Just kidding. They’re trying to cover their lily-white heinies so that schools don’t end up teaching the actual history of our country, which unfortunately is hella racist in most regards. (Also, they’re trying to keep the amygdala-based lifeforms riled up for voting purposes.)
Here are a couple of excerpts from a recently proposed bill in Oklahoma (42nd in education, if you believe U.S. News and World Report).
Ah yes, the 1619 Project, or as Wonkette refers to it, Satan’s Own Bible. Moving on…
Mercy. “One race”? Who on earth could they mean by that? And who might this “another race” be?
Note: What they’re doing is trying to cast a wide net over the whole world and for all of history, so that white Americans don’t look that bad if you squint hard and believe that Egyptians and Mongols had anything to do with the political writings of Jefferson and Madison. Yeah, right.
But you know me: I am nothing if not helpful, and so I have prepared a handout for Oklahoma teachers who need to teach how slavery just kind of happened in this land and white people are definitely not to blame no not never racism is over WE’VE HAD A BLACK PRESIDENT KENNETH.
CAVEAT: The numbers are kind of wonky, since the only readily confirmable numbers I could find on short notice were the number of white slaveholders from the 1860 Census and the number of free black slaveholders from the 1830 Census. However, it definitely shows that NOT ALL WHITE SLAVEHOLDERS KENNETH, amirite?
Several ideas spring from this:
I could create a version of the handout with all blank circles, and you could have the students color in 37 of them to represent the free black slaveholders. NOTE: They will need magnifying glasses and 0.5mm pens. If you would like such a handout, just email me and let me know.
For math skills, have your students calculate the percentage of free black slaveholders to the total number. [KEY: <1%]
For advanced classes, like AP U.S. History, you could have the students find the actual number of slaves owned by white slaveholders v. the number owned by free black slaveholders. There we might use the 1830 Census numbers for, you know, greater fairness in depicting the multiracial responsibility for slavery in this country.
Speaking of APUSH…
Does anyone think that the Educational Testing Service or the College Board are going to alter their standardized tests to accommodate the amygdala-based lifeforms? Or is it not more probable that students in Oklahoma (and Texas and Virginia and Florida…) simply are going to flub those questions on the test? I don’t see this raising Oklahoma’s ranking in the U.S. News & World Report ranking, do you?
Years and years ago, when I was media specialist at East Coweta High School, the assistant principal in charge of curriculum bustled in, needing my assistance. A mother had come in to complain that her son was being taught Satanic literature in his college-bound senior English lit class, and they wanted my recommendations for an alternative assignment.
I raised my eyebrows and pursed my lips and inquired as to exactly what Satanic literature this woman could possibly be objecting to in the British Lit textbook. The asst. principal turned to the page and showed me.
It was Paradise Lost, by John Milton. Right there, opposite the first page of text, was a full-page woodcut illustration of a leather-winged Satan being cast down from Heaven. There was more: the text contained such damnéd names as Lucifer and Beelzebub. LUCIFER AND BEELZEBUB, KENNETH!
Really? Really?? I asked the asst. principal. We’re going to confirm this woman’s crazy, superstitious, ignorant error?
Well, Day-uhl, we have to accommodate parents’ requests, came the reply.
We’re not going to explain to this woman that she’s wrong, that in fact John Milton was a Puritan and wrote Paradise Lost to prove that Christian themes could support epic poetry? (Leaving aside the fact that Satan is by far the most interesting and dynamic character in the whole piece…) That her son is in a college prep English class and that he kind of will be expected to know at least something about the poem when he gets to college?
Oh, Day-uhl—as if I were the one who needed to be humored…
Stop it. Whatever it is you’re doing, however you’re reacting, stop it. There is no solution. The whole thing is impossible.
We can’t keep the schools closed, because parents need to go back to work, and the kids need to be in school for all the reasons you can go read about if you like.
We can’t open the schools, because it will create yet more epicenters of disease for all the reasons that should be obvious to anyone.
We can’t reopen; we can’t keep kids home — we must reopen; we must keep kids home. It’s impossible.
Here’s the deal, though. Overlooked in all the ranting and finger-pointing and sincere concern is the very simple, very awful, very unavoidable fact: we have to give up on the idea that students are going to make any kind of real educational progress this school year. (We even have an acronym for it: AYP, Adequate Yearly Progress. We test for it, and we punish for it.)
We have to abandon the concept of “yearly progress,” where we (still) think of education as an assembly line. In kindergarten we install the ABCs and counting to 100; in 1st grade, we install the reading bits; etc.
That is not happening this year, no matter whether we open the schools or not. Not in person (which is unlikely to continue for more than a couple of weeks in any case) and not online, which is problematic for all the socioeconomic and behavioral reasons you can go read about if you like.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t teach our children. On the contrary, we must continue to try all the impossible ways that have been forced on us. It’s just that no one should be allowed to think or say that by the end of the school year we’re going to be in the same place as we normally would be. It. Is. Not. Going. To. Happen.
We need to say this out loud and up front, because if we don’t, if we just pretend that whichever impossible choice we make we can still administer those fupping standardized tests in May and emerge like some triumphal Soviet flag-waving poster, then I know what’s going to happen. This nation will rev itself up into the most disgusting, most outrageous display of Blame The Teachers you have ever seen.
And if that happens, I hope every educator in this country quits.
No, we need to be grateful for however much progress our students are able to make, no matter how much progress they might have made had this nation been led to contain the virus from the very beginning. We as a society need to support every effort to provide learning opportunities to every student; we must create ways that — impossible or not — let every child out there learn something.
What we must not do is hold those students and their teachers accountable for “Adequate Yearly Progress.” That is a criminal mindset.
And if you already know who the criminals with that mindset are, raise your hand.
 It occurs to me that after this is all over and we open the doors of our schools again for a normal school year, the standardized tests are going to be — how shall I put this? — fupping useless. Dare we hope that it wrecks that whole education-industrial complex for good?
I was looking for a file on the laptop that does not seem to exist although I know I wrote it, when I came across a letter I wrote back in 2009. The context is that because of the crappy economy the school system was having to make even more budget cuts, and one of the strategems they were forced to employ was to eliminate the media center clerk position in every school.
Let me note that those employees were not fired; they were mostly shifted to other positions in the school. My beyond-excellent clerk, Robin, became a kindergarten classroom aide and is still there. But my letter explained how—in my media center at least—the reduction in staff would have serious consequences. I post it here because it is well-written and I liked it.
It was not against the law to be a lesbian in Victorian England.
Here’s why: when the Queen was presented with the legislation criminalizing homosexuality, she came to the part about lesbianism. She quite frankly did not believe such creatures existed, and so she struck that part of the law out.
Back when Newnan Crossing hit 1,000 students, I went to the SACS standards to see if I would be joined soon by a second professional media specialist. I was surprised to see that while the standards called for a second professional for high schools at that number, there was no such standard for elementary schools.
It finally dawned on me why: when the standards were written, no one could imagine anyone in their right mind building an elementary school with 1,000 students in it.
But people in their right minds have built elementary schools capable of holding 1,000 students. Your rationale has been that it’s more “cost efficient” to do so. The usual argument is “economy of scale,” which is generally taken as being cheaper to buy toilet paper.
The real economy, of course, is the salaries of those of us who serve the entire student population. Instead of two schools of 450, with two media specialists and two music teachers and two cafeteria staffs, you only have to pay one of each.
And that’s fine until you start actually serving the kids.
My circulation figures are running more than 30,000 checkouts a year. Yesterday, our circulation was nearly 300, and that’s a normal day. That’s 300 books to check out and 300 books to shelve every day, and that is my media clerk’s job. This means that 35% of our school walked in and out of the media center yesterday.
(I will also add that if this were at Elm Street, 35% would be fewer than 150 students, half the number I must serve. Even in good times, I am asked to do two jobs. Now, I’m being asked to do four? Without a lunch break? Once again, “economy of scale.”)
You perhaps imagine the media center as a place where classes arrive on some kind of schedule, do their checkout in a 20-minute slot, then leave, thus giving me time between classes to teach or to shelve. It is not. The media center is a constant flow of individual students arriving to check out books, to take AR tests, to do class research and projects, plus the classes scheduled for checkout and for instruction.
Next year, without a fully staffed media center, this will not be the case. In order to preserve the instructional program, I will shut down the foot traffic. Students will not be able to come to the media center on a needs basis, but only when their teacher has scheduled their class. The reading program will take a huge hit, but it’s all about limited resources—isn’t it?—and in this case the limited resource is my time.
How big a hit will this be? Out of the 300 checkouts yesterday, only 40 of them were from classes who actually signed up to be in there. That means around 200 students (estimating for multiple checkouts) were able to get a book when they needed one simply by getting a pass from their teacher and walking in. Next year, that’s a 1000 students a week who won’t get a book when they need one. How do you think that will impact reading at Newnan Crossing?
The really bad news is that study after study has shown that the single most important factor impacting student achievement that a school system has under its control is an appropriately staffed and funded media center. We lost funding this year, and next year we lose our staffing. I wonder, how much money will you spend on “programs” trying to boost achievement when you’ve gutted the one program that could save you?
As it happens, I was only there for another year and a half before I retired from Coweta County and went to the Dept. of Ed. to be the director of GHP, but believe you me I would have started compiling data in that third year to show exactly how the reading programs had been impacted.
The other day there was a tweet that led to an article about THE MAP THAT CONVINCED LINCOLN TO FREE THE SLAVES, and even without clicking on the link I knew what map they were talking about:
I had stumbled across this map in the Library of Congress’s online files several years ago, and I used it to develop a lesson for 5th graders on how to read primary source documents.
For the lesson, I came up with the following chart:
Levels of Understanding Primary Source Documents
What is this document? What does it say? What do the words mean?
What is the historical context of this document? What other documents/events/ideas are connected to it?
Why did this document exist? Who created it and why? What is its meaning? What was its meaning to those who created it?
Can I create a product of my own that comes from the same literal/connections/meanings as the document?
I printed up enough copies of the map for every two students to have one; I had a large format printer, so they got something close to the original size. Then we started.
I. Literal level
We read the words on the map and talked about what the map was. We looked at the date of publication (1861). We looked at the text at the top:
We looked at the scale:
We found Coweta County on the map:
We talked about the number in Coweta County: 49.4% of the county’s population was slaves.
We discussed what the Census was.
I remember asking them whether it looked as if the slave population were evenly distributed across the south, and they were quick to say no. When I asked if they could explain the patterns of light and dark, they immediately told me that it was pretty clear that the heaviest slave populations were where cotton and rice were grown, i.e., plantations. I was impressed.
II. Connections level
Next I asked them to tell me what they knew about the U.S. in 1861: the nation was at war, the Confederacy vs. the Union. The Union was not doing well in battle; the war was not popular. Abraham Lincoln was President. The South was largely rural/agricultural, and much of that was supported by slavery.
I showed them Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
We talked about the 3/5s Compromise and what that meant. I directed them to the computers — I ran a 21st century media center — where I had prepared a HyperCard stack for them to use the census data to calculate how many congressional representatives each southern state got based on their free populations as well as “all other Persons.” (We discovered that the southern states gained an extra25 representatives based on a population who could not vote and who were not actually citizens.)
III. Meanings level
The crux of the matter: why did this map exist?
Part of the answer is the piece at the top about the map being sold to support the sick and wounded soldiers of the U.S. — it was an appeal to patriotism, underscored by the title of the map: this was a map of the southern states of the United States. (Confederate States of America? Pfft.)
And by linking the reminder of sick and wounded soldiers to the southern states, the map was driving home the point of the war: the southern states had seceded to protect their Peculiar Institution, an institution that had given them an unfair advantage in Congress since the drafting of the Constitution 75 years before.
Indeed, and I didn’t know this at the time of this lesson, Lincoln had used this map in his deliberations about the war and the Emancipation Proclamation, so much so that it was included in this painting of the “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation”:
IV. Interpretations level
Students then given the following assignment:
Buy This Map!
Your task is to persuade a friend to buy one of these maps. You are a young person living in Philadelphia in 1861, and one morning in October you happen to be walking by H. Long & Brother Booksellers when you notice this map in the window. You immediately realize what the maps have to say about the reasons for the war, and you go in and buy one to support the war effort.
Now you want all your friends to buy one, too.
Write a letter to your friends to convince them of all the reasons they need to buy one of these maps. Instead of writing a letter, you may give a speech.
A good letter/speech will
• explain what the map tells you [Level I]
• explain the reasons for the war shown in the map [Level II]
• explain the connection between the Constitution’s “3⁄5 rule” and the map [Level II]
• explain what good the money will do [Level I]
• explain how the map made you feel and why you bought it [Level III]
Use the front and back of the next page to write your letter or to organize the notes for your speech.
Results were varied, as you might imagine; this is not an easy assignment, to translate all the things we learned into a personal narrative. But it’s the kind of assignment that schools should have been doing and should be doing: it’s not just a creative writing exercise, it’s an assessment. The student demonstrates what he/she understands about the map in a rather complete way. Yes, I had an objective test that I gave students as well, but that was just a formative assessment to double-check their knowledge/understanding before they wrote the letter. Yes, the lesson took longer and was more involved than simply standing in front of a class and telling them what the map meant. But it allowed the learners to construct knowledge, and in my charter school that will be the name of the game.
By the way, this is what my 21st century media center looked like:
UPDATE: Since there’s been some interest in this post, I thought I should circle back and include the “checbric” we gave the students. (“Checbric” is one of those ugly coined terms from back in the day, a combination of “checklist” and “rubric.”)
Your letter/speech describes
____ when and where you bought the map
____ why you bought the map
____ why your friend (the reader) should buy the map
5 You’ve made the reader believe that this a real letter from a real person in 1861. You are utterly convincing with your reasons and personal details.
4 Your descriptions are often and sharp and complete, giving the reader details that make the letter come alive.
3 Your descriptions have enough details that the reader has no problem understanding who wrote this letter and why. Your arguments are convincing.
2 Your descriptions allow the reader to see that a person has written this letter, but there are not enough details for the reader to get an idea of who you are, and you don’t really convince the reader to buy a map.
1 Your descriptions are missing. The reader can’t tell who you are or what your reasons are for writing the letter.
Your letter/speech contains an explanation of
____ what the map tells you
____ the reasons for the war shown on the map
____ the connection between the 3/5 rule and the map
5 Your explanations are unusually thorough and inventive. They are fully supported and justified by evidence. They go beyond the information given in class.
4 You explanations are revealing and thorough. They are well-supported by evidence. You make subtle connections that we didn’t talk about in class.
3 Your explanations give some in-depth or personal ideas. You make the lesson your own, but you don’t use enough evidence to back up your explanations completely.
2 Your explanations were incomplete, even though you used some of what we learned. Your explanations only had limited evidence.
1 Your explanations are more descriptive than analytical. You give only a fragmentary or sketchy account of the facts.
The book is aimed at the middle reader, but as far as I’m concerned every sentient being in this country should read it and discuss it everywhere. The authors are thorough, honest, and more than a little skeptical about the solidity of our governing document. They have reason to be.
A little background: back in 1987, at the bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention, the Newnan-Coweta Historical Society asked the Newnan Community Theatre Company to come up with some kind of presentation/performance for them that addressed this epochal moment in our history. It fell to me as artistic director at the time to devise the entertainment.
That summer, at GHP, I read the complete The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, compiled and edited by Max Farrand. Even though the delegates worked in absolute secrecy and the recording secretary burned all deliberations, James Madison kept copious notes (which he edited selectively later in life). To this document, Farrand added all other diaries/letters/correspondence that he could find, and the result is a fascinating read. Those men argued over everything: every word, every comma, every idea.
The point is that the Constitution we ended up with was by no means foreordained. In fact, the eventual performance piece NCTC came up with asked the audience members (seated in groups relative to the size of the thirteen colonies) to decide the nature of the Executive, and both nights they dumped our current arrangement in favor of a single executive elected for a single term of six years. Expecting a worshipful experience of a perfect document, they were surprised and delighted to be shown there was more to it.
Fault Lines covers this concept of argument and compromise brilliantly. Each chapter follows the same outline:
Introductory story of some recent foofaraw which illustrates a problem springing from the Constitution as written
“Meanwhile, back in 1787…”, in which the debate over the problem is discussed and the reasons given for the final decision
“So what’s the big problem?”, which details why the compromise has unraveled or caused problems, often because of vagueness in wording or the founders’ astonishing lack of prescience for 200 years in the future
“There are other ways”, outlining how the states and other countries deal with the issue (spoiler alert: there are other ways)
“The story continues” with the authors looping back around to the introductory story and giving us the upshot
The final section is the most agitating, in every sense of the word. The authors grade the Constitution and how well it has delivered on the promises in the Preamble. (It gets an overall C+.) Then the authors, responding to James Madison’s comment that “it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate it,” list some very uncomfortable ways we might go about doing that:
Change Senate rules (i.e., get rid of the filibuster)
Pass new laws (mostly about the structure of representation)
Develop work-arounds to the Electoral College
Amend the Constitution, with a long laundry list of items derived from the discussions in the rest of the book
Finally, the authors have a one-on-one debate as to the wisdom of going full Leeroy Jenkins with a Constitutional Convention to upset the entire apple cart. It’s enough to keep you up at night, which at this point in our history is saying something. (I should say that the book is very current, referencing the current administration and some of its actions. The section on the 25th Amendment is particularly pointed and reflects some of my own writing, here and here.)
So, teachers, want a resource to celebrate our annual MANDATED CONSTITUTION DAY LESSONS COMRADE on Sep 17? Requisition a classroom set of this bombshell and watch the children’s minds crack open. And probably their parents’ heads explode.
 I am aware this does not include everyone in this country.
 I’m actually in favor of requiring the study of the Constitution, just probably not in the way that the über-patriots who have mandated it intended.
Maybe this will be the last part of this blog series. The next 30 minutes are crucial.
If you downloaded and looked at my old Enriched Thinking Curriculum [ETC] lesson plan template, you will have noticed that THE LESSON itself starts with an Engagement bit and ends with Assessment/Reflection. In between is the actual meat of the lesson, which for my purposes was always an information skills task. Remember that we were at the time (late 90s) transitioning from the Georgia Quality Core Curriculum [QCC], which demanded we teach all the stuff, into the Georgia Performance Standards [GPS], in which the leaders of our state claimed they wanted us to teach actual performance skills, i.e., the kids should be able to do something with knowledge. Critical thinking skills. You may have heard of them.
Anyway, the framework I used is called The Big 6. Check it out here. It is a very simple, very powerful way to structure your students’ approach to information problems, aka “research.”
Here’s the bare bones version:
Define the problem.
Identify the information needed.
Information Seeking Strategy
Brainstorm all possible sources.
Select the best source(s).
Location and Access
Find information within sources.
Use of Information
Engage (read, hear, view).
Extract relevant information.
Organize information from multiple resources.
Present the result.
Judge the result (effectiveness).
Judge the process (efficiency).
Before I go any further, it’s important to recognize that the very first step, Task Definition, reaches all the way up to 5.2 Present the result: as I would teach the kids, the “information” you need is going to be very different depending on whether you’re writing a paragraph or making a poster.
Since I was implementing this at the elementary level, I found the verbiage to be a little problematic. “Information Seeking Strategy”? What’s that?
Here’s my elementary rewording:
What’s the job?
What are we trying to do?
What do we need to know?
Where will we find the information?
Where could we look?
What’s the best place to start looking?
Find the sources of information: books, encyclopedias, Internet, cd-roms, etc.
Look up the information in the sources: use the index, etc.
Deal with it.
Read through all the information.
Get just the information we need: take notes!
Put all the information we found together.
Present the result.
How did we do?
Did we do a good job?
Were we good at finding information?
And here I am embarrassed to say that I can’t find the file on my computer with the actual lesson. Has it vanished? Was it on another computer? (Not likely.) All I have is the paper in front of me. It might not have mattered: many of the files from that period are unreadable by any software now. Sic transit…
I will paraphrase:
The Engagement portion presented the two essential questions, “Which American war was the most ‘preventable’?” and “How would we be different if we had prevented that war?”
Define the problem.
Ask what is the very first thing we will need to know in order to answer the EQs.
Identify the information needed.
A list of wars the U.S. has fought in 1852-1990
Information Seeking Strategy
Brainstorm all possible sources.
Write them all on the board. Categorize if necessary.
If anyone says “computer” as a source, show them the filmstrip projector [!—it was 1998, after all] and ask if they can “look up” information from the filmstrip projector. tl;dr: it’s just a machine; so is the computer.
Select the best source(s).
Up to them: if it’s the textbook, it’s the textbook. Guide the less efficient.
Location and Access
Divide into teams to work out lists.
Find information within sources.
teachable moment: table of contents, appendices, etc?
Use of Information
Engage (read, hear, view).
Be seeking relevancy
Extract relevant information.
Have teams write down their lists on scratch paper.
Mid-time, ask everyone to check their performance rubrics (Is aware of and uses necessary resources). How are they doing?
When time is up, do a round-robin call-out of wars. List them on the board. If any are missing, challenge the teams to find the missing ones. “There’s one missing between 1890 and 1900…”
Organize information from multiple resources.
Have the whole class participate in putting them in chronological order while you write them on the board.
Present the result.
Pass out the timeline handout. Have students copy the list correctly onto the handout for reference during the entire unit.
Judge the result (effectiveness).
xxx [for some reason]
Judge the process (efficiency).
Which resources were best? Why? Will they always be “the best”? What was the hardest part?
Finally, for Assessment/Reflection: Ask students to look over their list. PREDICT. Begin thinking about the kinds of things they’ll be exploring in order to answer the EQ. Have them write down in list format on a separate sheet of paper for their notebook.
Am I done here? I think maybe I am. Unless you ask questions in comments.
This has been a review of one set of folders I found while clearing out our storage unit.
 In general, in my teaching career, I have found it to be a waste of time teaching specialized terminology if that terminology is not critical to the task at hand. For example, I never bored my students with the Dewey Decimal System. Why does any human being need to know that the 630s are “Agriculture”? All a kid needs to know is that the book on puppies she just looked up can be found in the row with the 600 sign hanging over it, and that 636.7 comes between 636.6 and 636.8. (“Animal husbandry/domesticated animals,” why do you ask?)
Today I want to ramble through one of the threads that went into building the units in the 5th grade U.S. History curriculum.
The whole thing was part of my effort as media specialist at Newnan Crossing Elementary School (1997-2011) to support active learning and direct assessment in the curriculum, something the Powers That Be said they wanted but never actually supported. I called it the Enriched Thinking Curriculum [ETC] because catchy.
The ETC in turn sprang from my work as media specialist at East Coweta High School (1981-1997), where I and a secret squad of teachers began learning on our own about the new theories of learning/instruction that were beginning to filter out of solid research all over the place. (We called ourselves the Curriculum Liberation Front, and we actually operated in semi-secret: the principal knew what was up, but the asst. principal actually in charge of curriculum was not in the loop. Her métier was textbooks.)
One of the main ideas of those days was to work towards actual performance assessment, i.e., what should the kid be able to do with any knowledge you were trying to pour into his head. The state of Georgia at the time was making the transition from the Quality Core Curriculum [QCC], which was all stuff the kids needed to know, to the Georgia Performance Standards [GPS], which purported to shift us over to making sure the kids could perform in the competitive new world economy. The ETC was part of making that shift.
In Assessing Student Outcomes, the authors provided four-point rubrics for a host of standards based on the five Dimensions, but in order not to overwhelm my learners (the faculty), I selected sixteen standards from three areas in the fifth dimension (Habits of Mind) on which to focus our efforts. (The other dimensions were concerned with attitudes towards learning, and the acquisition and deployment of knowledge.) These included:
information processing standards
effective communication standards
productive habits of mind standards
The deal was that in designing your unit/lesson, you would select two or three of the sixteen standards to assess, taking care throughout the year to hit all of them. Content assessment was separate from these, i.e., knowing that the Civil War started in 1860 was one thing, but being able to “recognize where and how projects would benefit from additional information” was a different thing. The idea was that when you constructed a lesson to assess the latter, the kid would learn the former in the process.
A quick example: a first grade objective was to “identify animals and their habitats.” We developed a lesson in which students would attempt to sort animals they researched into the appropriate habitat in their zoo, which was a bulletin board display. We’d give them a flock of pictures of animals; the kids had to look through books to identify the animal’s habitat, then place the picture in the appropriate habitat on the bulletin board and explain why it went there.
The productive habits of mind standard was “pushes limits of own knowledge and ability,” which we defined as “keeps looking for animal and its habitat even if he/she doesn’t find it in the first few books [in which he/she looks].” We explained that standard to them and how they would be grading themselves after the project was over with a handout with all three standards on it, each with a series of what we now call emojis: Need to get started/Need to do better/Doing just right!/Doing GREAT!!!, which corresponded to the 1–4 scale of the actual rubric. (Older students would get the actual rubrics, worded in first person for greater impact.
The important thing about these habits of mind standards was that you introduced them as you introduced the lesson, talked about how the students would meet them, give them the rubric to start with, and then do quick checks during the lesson: how are you doing on rubric x, everybody? Every time we did this, the kids upped their efforts and their abilities.
In the unit on CONFLICT, the third lesson was to construct a classroom timeline of U.S. History 1852-1996 by creating cards with info on them and arranging them along the timeline, embedding the wars the U.S. fought and giving them context. The effective communication standard was “The student creates quality products.” The rubric the kids got was:
I create quality timeline cards.
4 I create timeline cards that are even better looking than they need to be.
3 I create timeline cards that look like the good examples we discussed in class.
2 I create timeline cards that do not meet one or a few important standards.
1 I create timeline cards that do not address the majority of standards we discussed in class.
You can see how in getting this timeline built, we would be providing context for the entire year, for all four units. By the time we got to the unit on POWER and began discussing the 19th Amendment, students would already know that we had just emerged from WWI and that bunches of things had altered the landscape. You can also see that providing the kids with a way to measure themselves, they would begin to assume responsibility for their own learning rather than sitting there and shedding the state’s preferred factoids like so many wood ducks in a summer storm.
The other two standards were I accurately determine how valuable specific events may be to creating the timeline and I listen to and evaluate feedback to decide if I need to change my approach to choosing an event to include on the timeline. Because we really preferred Wilbur and Orville Wright make the first flight at Kitty Hawk, NC to Arthur S. Crankshaft wins Wimbledon.
Again, this post is too long, so one more before we’re done.
 And here I am referring to state and federal lawmakers who never did anything but say one thing and test another.
 Before you cringe at that acronym, consider Virginia’s Standards of Learning. Every committee everywhere needs to have a 12-year-old boy to vet these things.
 Because they continued to test only for stuff, we never made that shift. Georgia is now shifting again, to the Standards of Excellence. Since I’ve hopped off that pendulum, I cannot advise or consent to whatever the hell it is they’re spinning their wheels about this time.
Last week I started talking about a thematic approach to 5th grade U.S. history curriculum that a teacher and I designed (but never were able to implement.)
short version: instead of slogging through events 1852-1996, wherein students would be without context year after year, we would approach the topic through themes, neatly covering all 20 curriculum standards multiple times while doing so.
The four themes were
CONFLICT focused on the wars fought by the U.S. between the Civil War and the Iraq War. POWER focused on political power (including voting rights), economic control, and the change in the U.S.’s global power. CHANGE focused on technological and social changes. Finally, COMMUNITY focused on all of the above as experienced by Newnan/Georgia.
Ambitious, to be sure.
I will now pause and lament the fact that while paper files will sit in that storage unit until you decide you want to throw them away or actually use them, electronic files are not so durable. I went looking for the lesson plan template I developed for use at Newnan Crossing with our Enriched Thinking Curriculum, but that was so long ago that nothing will open those simple word processing files, which as far as I can remember were written in AppleWorks. Oy. If I have the energy, I’ll recreate it in Word or something and upload it, because it was good.
The nine weeks we were to spend on CONFLICT were organized to have students answer the essential questions:
Which American war was the most “preventable”?
How would we as a nation be different if we had prevented that war?
Ridiculously ambitious. But I’d rather fail bigly than play it safe with mere memorization.
There are five units in my folder on CONFLICT. Each would probably have taken three to five days in the media center plus time in the classroom. I note that the date on these pieces of paper is 1998, so our internet access would have been rudimentary. Google didn’t exist. Yahoo did, but it was a hierarchical search engine.
The first unit, The Wars of the U.S., was an introductory lesson. Pretty simple: teams of students worked together to come up with a list of all the wars/armed conflicts the U.S. has been involved in since 1859. The actual agenda of the lesson was to introduce the essential questions and to train the students to think independently using the Big 6 as a framework.
The second unit was Producing Context: What did war look like? Teams of students were assigned specific wars and asked to find images of that war. The idea was to start a visual timeline to reinforce the sequence of conflicts. Plus kids love looking up uniforms and weapons. I note in the materials list a “How to print an image from a website” handout, so we must have had at least that capability.
The third unit was Producing Context: A timeline. Pretty simple: the class creates a timeline of the U.S. and embeds the wars in them. Who were the presidents? What else was going on? (Here we sneaked in all the other things we would encounter in the other thematic units.)
The fourth unit was Producing Context: What did war feel like? This one was fuzzier, but the gist was that they would read/watch a variety of first-person accounts, both historical and fictional, about the wars in question.
The fifth unit was Conflict: Defining the problem, and it was then that students would begin tackling the essential questions. What will they need to know about each war to make their decisions? Can they construct a “model” for assessing U.S. wars which will give them a basis for comparison? Here are some bits of the lesson plan that are pretty cool:
Introduce the concept of “bracketing”: “Yes, this is something [about answering the EQs] we will have to worry about sooner or later, but we don’t have to worry about that right now.” Students should be explicitly taught to tolerate ambiguity.
Ask the students to write a journal entry telling which war they predict they will find most interesting, based on what they’ve learned so far.
That’s long enough a post for today. Next I’d like to circle back and look at all the pieces of educational research that I had pulled together for this entire approach. Stay tuned.