Why Interdisciplinary Units Are So Powerful

Notes from the Classroom

Examples of students’ character cutouts

I have a love/hate relationship with this time of year.

We’re in full swing with the end-of-year craziness. Yet this also is the time when I teach the American Revolution in social studies. I’m able to combine the content with our historical fiction unit in reading, and our opinion unit in writing. This is a wonderful opportunity to combine content areas and provide a truly immersive experience for my students.

It is so nice to have a seamless day of reading both fiction and nonfiction texts around this topic, and having conversations that span reading, writing, and social studies. I find that I am excited about teaching, and students are excited about learning. It’s no small feat at this time of year!

What The Unit Looks Like

Right now in the hallway are cutouts of characters from our read aloud and our book club books. Within the cutouts are character traits and reflections about critical choices, power, and how these characters were shaped by the times in which they lived. Connecting all of the characters is a red string, and tomorrow students are going to spend time reading the cutouts and making connections. Then we will write them on paper that will hang from the string, making our thinking visible. This is a new project but one whose outcome I am super excited to see.

Another project that I always do during this time of year is a thinking routine from Ron Ritchhart called a “step inside.” This writing project combines the best parts of narrative writing, yet allows students to use their imagination to step inside the life of a slave from the 1500s. As students examine the three phases of slavery as outlined in our text, they attempt to step inside and develop empathy for the experience of these people. This is a lengthy writing assignment and yet one that is incredibly powerful. I have had students tell me it is their favorite writing assignment of the year.

I find that students actually are able to bring more elements of narrative writing in this assignment than they sometimes are able to do in their own pieces. I think this is because of the scaffolding required for the assignment. Also, the assignment requires that they pay attention to a number of details, which enables them expand their normal writing habits.

Integrating Opinion Writing

The opinion writing comes very late in May and in early June. This is when students have to take a side in the American Revolution. They are assigned either the Patriot side or the Loyalist side, and they have to defend their side based on evidence from their historical-fiction text. They also rely on the supplemental reading we do with nonfiction texts.

The opinion pieces have to include a counter argument acknowledging the position of the other side. Yet they also have to defend their own positions and attempt to persuade the reader to agree with them. All of this is used in a real-life debate with a student moderator, and the kids absolutely love it!

As I write this we are at the end of an unusually warm (86 degrees!) day in May. I have a huge to-do list and yet I am still excited about all that is going on in my classroom. All of this gets me wondering how I can channel this same type of integration and excitement into the rest of my year. Perhaps this will become my summer project: examining my curriculum to find better connections and texts that will lend themselves to this cross-curricular type of integration. My wheels are already spinning.

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

Provocative Nonfiction about the Birth of Our Nation

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

I used to think that nonfiction was not my thing. But I’m a librarian, so I have to make it my thing in order to best serve my students and staff. Still, I often felt like I was twisting my own arm while reading nonfiction.

But then, as I often tell reluctant readers, after a few missteps with the wrong books at the wrong times, I started to find exciting, narrative nonfiction that was as captivating and readable as my favorite fiction pieces.

I was reading unbelievable stories about mutinies, revolutions, sports stars, and even corpses, and they were true! Not only did I have a great tale to tempt my students with, but every event actually happened.

People are enchanted by dynamic, true stories even more so than by fiction because they engage our child-like curiosity about the many events and topics that have previously eluded us. Yes, we have been in school (or out of school) for years, but we haven’t yet learned it all. I recently finished reading In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives, by Kenneth C. Davis (a 2017 YALSA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction finalist) and found myself alight with all that I had learned and wanted to share with others.

The Story

In the Shadow of Liberty tells the true stories of five African-Americans who were enslaved by four of the country’s founding fathers. We learn about Billy Lee, Washington’s right-hand man on and off the battlefield; and Ona Judge, Washington’s house maid who escaped and was fervently hunted by both George and Martha Washington.

We hear about Paul Jennings, who grew up playing with Dolly Madison’s oldest son, though Jennings was already enslaved to the family. And we learn of Isaac Granger, who was enslaved to Thomas Jefferson after Jefferson wrote a law ending slave trading to America.

Finally, we read about Alfred Jackson. Jackson lived his entire life at Andrew Jackson’s “Hermitage,” watching as Andrew ordered enslaved workers to be whipped savagely–but then doled out vast sums to provide defense lawyers for enslaved men on trial for involvement in a slave rebellion.

Kenneth C. Davis writes about the full scope of the labor that these five people were expected to perform. He describes the way that they were treated, and most especially, the roles that they played in the major accomplishments of their owners.

Why It’s Worth Reading

We spend a great deal of time learning about the Founding Fathers and the way that they helped develop the country and institute democracy. But like all famous figures, these men did not work alone.

There were many people, including hundreds of enslaved people, who fought in the wars, managed the meetings, and built famous structures, like the White House. Billy Lee went everywhere with George Washington, fought alongside him, and carried his most precious items and documents. He is one of the most famous enslaved people in U.S. history, yet no one knows when he died or where he is buried. He never even knew his own birthday.

The thing that stands out to me most about this book is a great historical paradox. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson were all deeply involved in battles related to rights and liberties, but each of them failed to consider, at least initially, that enslaving others was a direct contradiction to their fights for freedom.

This book will make you think about American history in a completely new way. It’s a fabulous text to work into a history or sociology class, and I can see it as an engaging title for students who are interested in current civil rights issues. In the Shadow of Liberty could turn anyone into a nonfiction convert.

Book Details:
Title: In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives
Author: Kenneth C. Davis
Reading Level: AR = 8.2
ISBN: 9781627793117
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Publication Date: September 20, 2016
Format: Hardcover
Awards/Accolades: 2017 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist and at least 3 starred reviews

Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Peers: The Best Writing Coaches?

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_507176578In my first post, I described some writing problems that surfaced in my AP US History classroom, as well as my new plan to implement a peer-to-peer space where they could be addressed. The space is called HerodotusHive and it fits into my wider writing program. So far this year, I’ve worked with former students to set up HerodotusHive, and we’ve even had a few sessions. Below I describe the process I went through to create this new learning space.

Mentor Historians Onboard

As explained in my first post, the idea for HerodotusHive started last year when Corey, a former student, offered to help my current students. Now I needed to reach out to more Coreys.

In September I made a list of APUSH alumni (now juniors and seniors) who were strong writers and had potential to be good mentors. I had invitations delivered to 47 students. I was thrilled to see that 38 came to hear my pitch and signed on.

Not every moment of a teacher’s year is one for the storybooks—trust me, I know—but it was incredibly heartening to see the number of former students who came to listen and then said, “Yeah, sounds good. Let’s get started.” I had a deep roster of Mentor Historians in place, ready to help.

Now I needed to share these plans with my current students and get some buy-in. From Day 1 I stressed the importance of adopting a growth mindset. Since APUSH became a 10th Grade course, I noticed many students were increasingly grade focused in the wrong ways. I stepped up on my soapbox and urged them to ditch the question, “What can I do to bring up my grade?” and encouraged them to think in terms of “How can I write better thesis statements?” So when I pitched HerodotusHive to my classes, I explained that we can all get better at writing, implying this was not a program solely for struggling students. And to their great credit, they listened. For our first HerodotusHive, almost half of my 65 APUSH students attended.

What Happens at HerodotusHive?

During my pitches to former and current students, I explained that a HerodotusHive would focus on a featured skill, like the writing of introductions. I then shared the agenda so they had an idea of what they were signing onto:

1. We review the featured skill in a flipped lecture I have recorded (and posted to Google Classroom as a resource). It’s essential for a HerodotusHive to start here. As skilled as my Mentor Historians are, they still need to review what it is I’m asking my current students to do. My current students had seen this once in class and now they’re reviewing what’s needed to write at a high level.

2. Mentor Historians share little insights on how they had success performing this skill.

3. I then post a practice question on the screen and break my current students into groups where Mentor Historians will be there to help.

4. Current students work through the writing task as Mentor Historians help, and I circulate to support and answer some content questions.

Peer Instruction At the Core

At the core of HerodotusHive is a belief that mentor-writers can help developing writers. I’ve studied the work of Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor, who explains why this is important:

For more Mazur, you can watch the entire interview and read a feature article. One thing worth noting is that he undersells his value as a teacher in the learning process. Note that he created the space to learn and that he is still lecturing, but the mini-lectures are just more purposeful.

My takeaway is that there are indeed strategic moments in the development of a writer when I, the teacher, am not the best person to help them. And I’m OK with that. Students learn plenty from me about writing, but we know that as teachers we aren’t the only source of learning. Nor should we want to be.

If we set aside the subject matter, the premise of Mazur’s peer-instruction model is that strong students can help developing students. I know it’s transferable because I’ve used the method in AP US History when we work with difficult political cartoons and in my economics classes for supply/demand graphing. In both cases I witnessed little epiphanies across the room as kids now understood something they hadn’t just seconds before.

However, like in physics, these two examples involve right and wrong answers. Writing is different, so as I designed HerodotusHive over the summer, an open question in my mind was whether or not peer instruction would yield the same magic here. In my next post I’ll share early results. Spoiler alert: It’s no longer an open question.

unnamedRod Franchi (@thehistorychase) is in his 21st year teaching Social Studies at Novi High School. He did his undergraduate work at Albion College and the University of Michigan, and earned an M.A. in English at Wayne State University and an M.A. in History Education at the University of Michigan. Having served as an education leader at the school, district, county, and state levels, Rod now works as AP US History Consultant and AP US History Mentor for the College Board. He is also Co-Director of the Novi AP Summer Institute and is an Attending Teacher in the University of Michigan’s Rounds Program.

A Better Plan: HerodotusHive

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_160526231One of the cool things about teaching is that each year is a new season. After all the reflecting and conversations about what worked and what didn’t, we get to design new plans and start fresh in September.

Of course, sometimes what seemed a brilliant idea in August proves to be a clunker by January. But as long as more new plans stick than not, we’re improving, right?

A Problem

Last year I felt there was something missing from my writing program and began thinking about an overhaul.

I teach a lot of writing—confirmed recently in an overheard student conversation—but I don’t teach English. At least I don’t anymore. I just started my 21st year at Novi High School and my 16th year teaching AP U.S. History. Sixty percent of our exam is writing, plus writing is a good thing, so we write.

AP U.S. History is now almost exclusively a 10th grade course here. This means it’s the students’ first AP course, one that is designed to approximate a college freshman experience. Here, students find that they must learn 500 years of connected content, and make sense of it all through analytical writing.

Most adapt and grow. But last year, more than a couple stalled out somewhere along the way. The transition was too much.

Revisiting Assessments

Around the same time I started thinking about what an overhaul would look like, a former AP student, Corey, came to me offering to help current students. This was the spark I needed. I started to wonder if there was a way I could use seasoned veterans to help my current kids. 

As I thought about the kids who stalled out last year, I started asking myself some questions. I also bugged some of my awesome colleagues.

Is our summative assessment too late for problems to surface—especially if it’s a specific skill students will need later? And if students learn something from the summative results: what do they do then? They have the standing offer to “come in for help,” but what if there were a program in place they could come to?

In the second semester I started piloting a new approach.

A Better Plan: HerodotusHive

herodotos_met_91-8That spark from Corey’s offer helped me come up with a new plan. I’m calling it HerodotusHive.

Herodotus is Greek—or I should say he was Greek. He was Greek a long time ago. We nerdy historians bow to Herodotus because he was the first to write analysis: trying to explain why things happened. Since my course’s writing is all about analysis, it’s a match.

The other half (hive) represents what I hope the program becomes: a busy hive where students come together to create. HerodotusHive is a place where Student Historians (current students) come during our Academic Advisory period to get better at their craft. There we start by reviewing a specific writing skill together, and then Mentor Historians (veteran students) help Student Historians as they work through new history problems.

At an AP U.S. History Summer Institute this year, a teacher referred to the AP’s five-point score scale, when he made the point that the truest measure of our talents as teachers is whether we can move the ones and twos up to threes and fours. I agree.

I think I can do a better job at this, and am hoping that I can help all of my students raise their games. So HerodotusHive is the biggest of my new plans this year. A month into the new school year, I’ve laid the groundwork. Here on this blog, I will chronicle the story of HerodotusHive and see if the writing in May goes from good to something better than good. I’ll even let you know if this idea turns out to be a clunker by January. However it turns out, I expect to learn a lot along the way. In my next post I’ll get into the details of how HerodotusHive works.

unnamedRod Franchi (@thehistorychase) is in his 21st year teaching Social Studies at Novi High School. He did his undergraduate work at Albion College and the University of Michigan, and earned an M.A. in English at Wayne State University and an M.A. in History Education at the University of Michigan. Having served as an education leader at the school, district, county, and state levels, Rod now works as AP US History Consultant and AP US History Mentor for the College Board. He is also Co-Director of the Novi AP Summer Institute and is an Attending Teacher in the University of Michigan’s Rounds Program.