Thinking Things Through

I’m in the process of revamping my Social Studies units using Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design 2.0 Template.  If you’ve read and used their work before you know the value in “backmapping” your instruction.  If you haven’t read any of their books you might want to add one of their titles to your professional books list.  Right now I’m using their newest book The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High Quality Units.  What I like about this book is that it’s broken into modules so you can pick and choose which areas you would like to work on.  The 2.0 template is an update to their previous template and they’ve tweaked some of the sections.

At any rate I’m currently working on my American Revolution unit, carefully thinking through the learning activities that I’m asking kids to do.  Are they meaningful?  Do they leave room for differentiation?  What do I expect students to know and be able to do as a result? How will I assess each of these items?  Am I addressing the big ideas, goals, and essential understandings? and of course….Have I left room for student interest and inquiry in my plan?

As I was going through my unit plan I came across this task that I had previously written down.  “Students will create a map that shows the vast British colonial holdings.”  That seems sort of vague I though so I  had the following conversation with myself.

So they’re just going to make a map?

Well,  yeah.

What good is that?  What will they learn.

Well, kids need map skills don’t they?  And this related back to the Essential Understanding that the British Empire held many colonies around the world.

Well, why is that important?  What map skills do they need exactly?  I mean I made maps as a kid, but what was the purpose?

Well maps skills are important so that students are educated about the Earth and world we live in.  Plus, we’re supposed to have a geography strand in each unit we teach.

Is there some standard about geography skills you’re trying to teach?

…probably…let me go look

Ok, what about the British Empire?  What does that matter?  Don’t the kids just need to know about the colonies?

Well if they understand how vast the British Empire is then they might be able to draw some inferences about why the British made some of the decisions that they did…

So how are you going to help them do that?  Is taking two days to copy a map by hand going to help them make those connections?

Probably not…

You get the idea.  It’s these types of conversations that we need to be having about instruction.  Of course, it usually works better to have a couple of brains working together but sometimes we have to talk to ourselves about these things.  If we want students to get the most out of their time with us then we really have to make sure we understand what it is that we are teaching and how the work they do in the classroom supports that learning.

I know that if I ask students to make a map of British Colonial holdings they will spend two days coloring away and probably not learn that much.  But what if I asked them to use the capabilities of their iPads and view a variety of different maps that depict colonial holdings during the 1700’s.  Make observations and inferences about what they see and discuss them with a partner.  Generate questions that they have and make connections with what they already know about the British policies towards the colonists.  Create a short picture slideshow with narration that shares this information with the class.  View and discuss each others presentations.  Gather as a group to come to a consensus about the overall impact of these vast holdings on the Revolutionary War and then do some quick research to see if we can confirm these ideas. Identify lingering questions for possible inquiry projects.  Now, that seems like two days well spent.  What do you think?

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2 Responses to Thinking Things Through

  1. Tara says:

    First – thanks for the book suggestion. There is so little out there (or so it seems to me) about the teaching of Social Studies in a current sort of way. I’ve had to re-write our district’s 6th. grade SS curriculum over the last few weeks, so the type of thinking you’re doing is exactly what I’ve been doing as well! Looking at those units through critical eyes and asking the sort of questions your asking makes the while learning process so much more meaningful for both your kids and you. Another thought: I went to a workshop at Teacher’s College led by Mary Ehrenworth last year, she asked us to pose a question when teaching history – whose story is being told, and whose story is NOT being represented? That was a great lens through which to “look” at the historical units I was teaching – it informs both what I research into to teach, the information I present, and the questions I pose for my kids to research/think about.
    …always great to read your posts, Katie!

  2. Katie says:

    Tara, this is a great book for all subjects. It’s interesting that you mention that particular question because that is given as an example of an “essential question” in Social Studies, among others.

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