My One Great Lesson This Year

The first 13 colonies...
Image by anna_bencze via Flickr

This has not been my most successful year as a teacher.

Even so, I had one great lesson.

My 7th grade social studies class was learning about the British and Dutch colonies that eventually became the first thirteen American states.

To begin my lesson I made a grid of nine possible tasks my student could do in the next two weeks.

I assigned each task a separate spot in the classroom and asked students to stand in the spot of the task that most appealed to them.

I immediately noticed that my group of six girls who always wanted to work together did not all choose the same task. Interesting.

I looked around the room and noticed that three of the tasks did not have a single student interested in it.  They all seemed like good tasks to me, but it has been a long time since I’ve been a 12-year-old.

What would have happened had I assigned one of those unpopular choices as the assignment for everyone? Or if, thinking I was offering differentiation, I had given my class a choice of those three unpopulated tasks

I shudder at the thought, especially since I’ve been guilty of both approaches more often than not.

Here are the six tasks students chose:

Create a 3-dimensional map of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam;

Write and enact a conversation between as many colonists as are in the group;

Write and produce a newscast as if television news covered the colonies;

Make broadsides or brochures aimed at convincing people to relocate to the colonies;

Create a map of one or more of the colonies showing some aspect of the colonies not usually seen on maps of them;

Write a letter or deliver an oral report to King George III about life, development and events in one or more of the colonies.

Gezicht op Nieuw Amsterdam by Johannes Vingboo...
Image via Wikipedia

Each group was about evenly divided between boys and girls and each had students from different levels of prior performance. The students had self-selected more heterogeneous groups than I could have created.

I told the students to get to work and they did.

Each group immediately sat down and started to plan the execution of their task. As I wandered the room I heard the students discuss approaches, talk about what kind of map they should make, divide their tasks into parts, discuss which students were better suited for different parts of the task.

I asked each group if they had any questions but none did.

They didn’t need me.

Their excitement was palpable.

When the bell rang to end the period they kept on talking. I had to throw them out of the room.

Every day for the next two weeks, as soon as the students arrived in class they went to work in their groups. I’d walk around observing and being available for questions or instructions.

They didn’t need me.

At the end of the first week I asked each group to give me a brief oral report on their progress. All were making strong progress.

The map group was making a resource map. The persuasive writing group had decided to make a broadside AND a modern-style real estate brochure.
Scripts were being written and revised. Rehearsals were starting.

They didn’t need me.

In the second week I saw the 3-D model group folding brown packing paper as if they were doing origami. I wandered over and in response to my quizzical look one girl explained they were creating the ships for the harbor.  Then a boy asked me if I knew that Wall Street was called Wall Street because the Dutch had built a wall on that location as the boundary between the settlement and the natives. I smiled broadly as I walked to the next equally busy group.

They didn’t need me.

Midway through the second week four of the groups presented me with a joint letter explaining why they needed one more week to prepare their projects and presentations.


Throughout the three weeks there were a variety of visitors to the room. All of them saw me wandering around fairly aimlessly watching and listening as the groups worked. Worked hard. Worked almost constantly.

They didn’t need me.

In the fourth week the students used Flip cameras to make videos of the newscast, the conversation, the oral report to King George III, and of the groups explaining their map, brochures and 3-D map.

They knew I had the Flips so they decided on their own how to do their presentations.

All the projects showed tremendous effort even if some of them showed less than tremendous execution.

The students clearly demonstrated they had learned a lot about the colonies and, in reflections they wrote afterwards they said they had learned about cooperation, about process, about how when they realized one approach was not working they were able to switch their work to a new one because they had discussed various approaches at the beginning.

They deeply appreciated that I had not steered them, that I let them choose their own assignments and decide on their own what they should include and how to accomplish them.

They didn’t need me.

Some of the projects proved to be more difficult than expected, usually because the students over-reached and weren’t totally up to the task.

These kids are very high achievers who are not used to failing. Some of them were a little dejected by their less-than-perfect work until one very sharp boy said that he was thrilled with his project no matter how bad it was because he finally felt challenged by a school assignment.

I was going to say something like that but, again, they didn’t need me.

I needed them, though.

I needed them so I could learn to let go, to get out of the way and to trust my students to work on their own.

I needed them to show me that students know how they learn best even if they can’t put it into words-

I needed them so I could realize that even an old teacher can learn new tricks.

I needed them to help me discover that if you just point kids in the right direction you might be surprised at how far they travel on their own.

Most of all, I needed them to let me have one great lesson this year.

I needed that most of all.

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Re-inventing My Social Studies Teaching: Hail Freedonia!

Mitchell Map - A map of the British and French...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve decided to do something different.

No, not that.

I’m still going to be teaching where and what I am doing presently. I’m just going to do one thing different.

It is a big thing, though.

Last spring I took training in designing project-based learning units. They’re really cool for studying things like marine biology, algebra and techno-stuff (an all-encompassing category of “things despised by Luddites.).

I spent a lot of the summer trying to think of how to apply the project-based approach to social studies. I had a lot of ideas, none of which really captivated or excited me.

If they don’t excite me they’re not going to excite 7th grade boys and girls.

My new plan excites me.

I’m going to ask my students to invent a country.

In New York, 7th grade American history starts in what will eventually become the Americas a couple of hundred years before Europeans arrive bearing trinkets and syphilis.

Eventually colonists arrived and, as time passed, they invented a country.

Inventing a country is a much bigger process than telling a nutty king that he’s been abusive and you’re not going to take it anymore, then proving it even though he has the world’s most powerful navy and a large and well-trained army on his side.

Betsy Ross Flag Painted on a Barn

Image by myoldpostcards via Flickr

Okay, that’s a big process, but they had to beat that same Army again 35 years later and in-between they developed a government and a rule book to run it by, unified – more or less – 13 independent colonies, had elections, and started exploring the rest of the continent.

They had to create maps, flags, and a national story.

time to proselytize

Image by 7-how-7 via Flickr

My students will have to do all that in the year-long process of creating their country. And to make it more interesting, they will not each invent their own country. No, that is too easy.

Instead, they will have to work in groups of five or six to invent a country. That will involve negotiation, compromise, deal making and, without doubt, conflict.

And every time one of those things happens will be a teachable moment about the forming of this country.

They’ll have to write a Constitution, provide for succession of leadership, and all the rest as I keep asking questions and contributing situations that will arise more-or-less on the same schedule as they did in this country.

I think this could be a lot of fun, something most 7th graders think social studies can’t possibly be.

So now I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me tonight and tomorrow.

I’ve got to come up with the groups of students I want to work together.

And I’ve got to figure out how to start a civil war.

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