Slice of Life March Challenge: March 24th. 2014 – Bringing History to Life – a slice of a TC session

orange soltwt

The March Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by Two Writing Teachers .  

As soon as I saw that TWT‘s own Anna Gratz Cockerille was presenting at the Saturday Reunion, I knew I had to add her session “Content Area Research and Writing: A Writing Workshop Unit Using Revolutionary America as a Case in Point” into my schedule.   Weaving writing into my Social Studies curriculum has always been a high priority for me, and finding authentic ways to weave together research and writing remains an ongoing challenge.  Anna’s work with her students is an excellent integration of writing in the content areas, which she and Lucy guide teachers through beautifully in this volume of the Units of Study:

AGC book cover gr 4 history

I always struggle with balancing research time (it is Social Studies, after all, and I want my kids to deepen their understanding of history even as they write) with writing time (I’d love to see my kids continue to develop their abilities to structure, craft, and lend their voice to their “history books”), and Anna’s session  allowed me to see how I could effectively balance the two.

The idea behind this unit is to allow students to explore topics/events/people they are already studying about. and create “books” – a perfect writing unit for our second half of the year, by which time we have completed our non fiction genre study both in reading workshop and in writing workshop.  Anna advised us to allow  our kids choice in the “slice” of the topic (the Boston Massacre, or the Boston Tea party, for instance, in a Social Studies unit on  the American Revolution)  – this way, they would have had guided class work and discussion of the overall topic/event.

I was especially interested in ideas about how to launch this unit – I don’t know that I am as deliberate in planning my Social Studies writing tasks as I am in reading and writing workshop.  But, I think this is an across the board content area challenge – there is always the push/ pull of “should I be teaching writing or should I be teaching the content?”  In this case,  the read alouds and the mentor text work that is done to launch the unit is anchored in the content already, my kids would be learning all about the events leading to the American Revolution through text work and readalouds – they would already be thinking in terms of “these are the events I will need to choose from in order to write my book – so, what interests me? which of these do I have burning questions about?”  That becomes the topic of their individual books.

I also loved the ways in which Anna  encouraged us to allow our kids experimentation and variety  with note taking in the following formats:

  • sketching – the act of drawing  allows  our kids to show what they really know about a topic through the little details they add (what’s the expression on the faces of the British soldiers vs. the American?  what does the thought or speech bubble reveal?).  I had learned the value of sketching at an earlier TC Content Area Institute, and we now create learning tools at the end of every Social Studies unit to prepare for our tests.  So, it made sense to have my kids add sketching to their note taking tool kits.
  • the tried and true box and bullets – sorting main ideas from supporting details
  • flow charts – to show how one event leads to another (history, in a nutshell)
  • webs – how events are related and interconnected
  • writing long – generating “big ideas” and elaborating on them. One brilliant strategy Anna shared was to have kids leave every fourth or fifth page in their note taking blank just for this purpose.  This would be a built in opportunity to pause, reflect on what they had learned, go back and confer with their prior notes, and “write long” to explore their thinking further.

As with all Units of Study, there are  “bends ” in the 4 – 6 week process, each bend leading to a more complex task, a more intensive craft study.  For my sixth graders, I think I will use each bend for a different unit and begin this in the second half of the year when our curriculum lends itself to rich topics and events that my kids would love to write about: westward expansion, slavery, the Civil War.  These writing experiences would take the place of unit tests, with gallery walks and author book talks used as a means to share what we’ve learned and talk about it all.

Bend One: Planning/drafting/revising an information book about history.  This first bend allows kids to understand how to structure and organize their books from a menu: events/chronological/places/famous examples/the 5 W’s about a topic.  As a “first go” this would be, I think, a way to think about and explore “micro stories embedded in history”, to sort through perspectives and decide which one to assume, and to analyze read alouds and mentor texts for possible structures.

Bend Two:Bringing out important information and ideas in a second book.  This would be a deeper investigation into another topic, I think, as it includes being more strategic in choosing information, using text features to show the importance of this or that aspect of the topic, and being able to cite experts and include a list of sources. 

Bend Three: This writing experience would ask our students to bring out central ideas in the unit we were studying, to ask deeper questions, and consider alternate perspectives.  I see this as a culminating “book” for our study of the Civil War.  The two prior bends would have allowed my kids to develop ideas about how to research and structure their writing, they would be ready to delve deeper into analyzing perspective and even, having considered and evaluated many  sources,  making hypotheses of their own.  This would be such a rich and exciting way to end the school year!

Anna shared some examples, and then (lucky for me!) the woman sitting at our table (whose school works with Anna, I believe) shared “books” her students had created using an app called Book Creator (examples of books can be found on this Pinterest page – they are amazing!).

Miraculously, Anna was able to squeeze all of this learning into the 50 minutes she was allotted.  I had been on the fence about exploring this type of writing work in my Social Studies  classes, mostly because we have a huge curriculum (American Revolution through the Civil War) and I always fear that the end of June will arrive in our classroom at the same time as the Civil War – disaster…I have failed as a Social Studies teacher!).  But…my kids would gain so much from exposure to this type of writing, and this type of thinking about what to write.

The number one complaint my kids have about Social Studies when they first step into sixth grade is that they find it boring; as one of my students put it some years ago: “it’s a bunch of boring facts about dead people and  places that don’t even exist any more.”  Bringing history to life through student created books, on topics they are curious about and are interested in, is one way to make the subject “unboring” – and I am all for it. Thank you, Anna, for an amazing session!

photo (8) 


20 thoughts on “Slice of Life March Challenge: March 24th. 2014 – Bringing History to Life – a slice of a TC session

  1. This would certainly end the boring listing of facts. It’s amazing that so much information could be shared in such a short session, but I can tell it really got your brain spinning and creating. What a fun way to learn history!

  2. Wow. You have given some serious thought to what you heard and learned. I have no doubt that you will be able to bring together history and writing in a meaningful way.

  3. I enjoyed reading your reflections on what you learned. I don’t get to teach Social Studies at my middle school, but I’m lucky to teach with history teachers who do use writing for students to learn and share about history.

  4. Anna’s book is amazing, as is Emily Smith’s fifth grade one that addresses Westward Expansion–you might find really helpful resources in that one. We just piloted information writing in fourth grade, using Anna’s but adapting it to our Connecticut curriculum. The kids LOVED it. I am working on a post about it, but it is taking me a long time. You wrote up this session so well, Tara. Thank you for sharing the learning!

  5. Thank you Tara for really putting this together. We did the research report unit earlier in the year and ran into some glitches with Book Creator. This gives me reason to go back at it. We blogged our reports which wasn’t a great match. Love the skipping pages after research — simple and smart. Great post!

  6. This slice is so informative and I have to share it with a colleage after break. She will love seeing how you broke this down. I love social studies myself and feel that given the right tools (like the ones mentioned) and the right attitude, there’s no way it can be boring! Totally unboring subject!

  7. Learning from each other and applying it to what you already do, that is what teaching should be about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in such an organized way.

  8. I am sooooo glad you shared some gems from Saturday. This is really well put together. I am printing it off for my staff meeting this afternoon. Thank you for sharing. Got any other gems? I am all ears. 🙂

  9. This is so comprehensive, Tara. I hope your students will enjoy this better than in the past & that you will, too. I’ve used many different tactics for mentoring communication of research through the years, and putting together a book is good. I can’t seem to get the Pinterest link to work, but obviously others have. Can you send me the link if you think about it? I wonder if you know Joy Hakim’s history books for kids? The look on the pages is always so inviting for students. Maybe they would be something to use as visuals for your student books, too. Thanks for such a detailed summary!

    • Hi Linda,
      I love Joy Hakim! In fact, we were working with her to try to get her to create a short mentor text for this unit. But in the end we ran out of time and so went with an already published book. But yes, her texts would make for great mentors for a unit like this. Her writing about history is certainly full of voice!

  10. And thank you, Tara, for sharing such a detailed explanation of the idea and your reflections. I work with elementary a lot, but have not had to teach multiple subjects since my second year of teaching. This is just what I need to read to help support my teachers.

  11. I would’ve loved these activities as a sixth grader. It’ll be fun to read along when you implement some of these ideas next year.

  12. You really captured what I loved about Anna’s presentation. I am going to do some revamping of my Social Studies next year. Thanks for capturing the entire presentation in this post!

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