Brigitte: To be honest, there was nothing legendary about the Presidency Unit. Students took notes, completed a few worksheets and took a quiz. BORING! There was no engagement with the content or even with me, I was lecturing. This scenario bothered me significantly. I wanted them to be engaged in the process of learning the material. How could they be engaged, when I was requiring the to do was regurgitate rote facts? I was not challenging them to think independently or creatively. Amy: I was not involved in this unit at all, unless a student happened to come by the library and ask for materials about a president.
Brigitte: I often have conversations with my husband about the modern day workforce. He is one of the hauling managers at the Stewart’s plant who has a plethora of responsibility but he primarily trains drivers how to load and drive tractor trailers for Stewarts. This may seem like a purely labor intensive job, but to my surprise, this job requires a tremendous amount of critical thinking and problem solving skills. One day he was frustrated with one of his new hires. I remember him saying, “He just does not know how to solve problems! Unless the solution is right in front of him, he cannot gather the data to make an informed decision about how to proceed to the next step.” I began thinking about my own struggles in the classroom as a teacher, and made a connection with the behavior of my husband’s new hire, a 19 year old with no college background, and my students. Often my highly intelligent students cannot find the solution to a problem unless the facts are laid out in front of them. My husband’s new hire was freshly out of high school, and I realized that he is a product of the learning environment that I was creating for my own students. By lecturing and saying, “You need to know this for the test,” I was not challenging my students to think independently and creatively. I was not preparing my students for college or the work force!
This epiphany inspired me to revamp my whole curriculum!
Our school was implementing a school-wide 6+1 Writing Traits initiative and I wanted to focus on how to write a historical essay. In this essay, students would critically evaluate a president’s legacy. Specifically, they have to argue whether or not they left a positive or negative legacy based on historical evidence. Ultimately, they have to make a correlation with their president’s legacy and with the legacy they want to leave behind.
Brigitte: I came to speak with Amy, with this idea. Amy: I was super impressed with the potential for higher-level thinking that the assignment would require. We were brainstorming this project right after the US Senatorial and Governors elections, infected with election fever and thinking and talking about politics even more than usual!
Brigitte: We asked the question: Would this former president be able to win the 2012 presidential election? Amy: Obviously this is an entirely hypothetical situation (creepy wax models aside), George Washington and James Polk are not going to rise from the dead. Brigitte: That said, the exercise had both an academic and real-life purpose: Evaluation of candidates in their historical record, party platform and historical circumstances and then synthesizing that information to develop their own opinion.
Brigitte: The results were AMAZING! Amy: Unleashing 20 plus students to conduct research on 20 plus different presidents is a huge task for a teacher to monitor! We gave the students guidance on what resources they might use, and set them free. Brigitte: This was the best part of the project! The students do all the work! They do all the work because they are engaged in the task at hand. All but one or two of our learners were engaged in the project. Students who were never engaged before were participating and interested!
Speeches were well articulated…
Amy: Once we had everything down and had been through the project once, with good results, we sat down, took a look at it, and changed some stuff! Brigitte: For the spring semester we changed up the format. Instead of the essay, the students had to research the same information, and present their research on a Facebook page. They loved it!
The Facebook page: The “posts” that were made on Facebook applied even more critical analysis than the essays. Because the students could focus on articulating one idea at a time, the analysis was more in-depth. The “posts” were still connected in theme but were created separately. *CLICK* The students showed comprehensive knowledge of the former president by explaining who their president would be friends with in the present or past, *CLICK* why their president would be part of a particular group, *CLICK*, or support a cause., *CLICK*, They even had to post pictures and explain why each picture was posted.
At the end of the project, a student who normally opts out of social engagements, and engaging socially due to a medical condition said “I really enjoyed doing this group project because I got a chance to contribute [to the group] but I did not have to present the speech.” He wrote the speech, while another girl in his group with a flair for presentation delivered it.
Brigitte: The unit on political participation, specifically focused on lobbying and advocacy was not well incorporated into my curriculum. We had what I like to call a “drive-by unit,” where I taught the basic content, predominately vocabulary related to the topic, with a few examples, but do not go into depth. I felt as a “Participation in Government” teacher that it was important for them to practice actively participating in their government but did not really know how to tie in the content with student action. The information I was giving them seemed irrelevant to their lives.
Amy: I was heading to Albany for NYLA’s Library Advocacy Day and thought it would be great to bring some student voices with me, so I approached Brigitte and asked if we could have some students write letters to our legislators in support of libraries and library funding. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the reality of advocacy and lobbying, so Brigitte & I cooked up a little unit.
Brigitte: I was skeptical at first because they did not have a choice in the advocacy and feared we would not pique their interest. Boy, was I wrong! Amy: I went in to Brigitte’s classes and gave a presentation based on the question: “What if I spent 5 minutes a week advocating for something that is important to me?” Brigitte: She sold the product! Her passion and enthusiasm for libraries sparked major interest in the topic. Our students were appalled that state aid for NYS libraries amounts to $6.25 per student when they knew the average cost of even a paperback is almost $10.00. Their reactions were priceless and genuine. As they completed more research on their own, they were shocked, appalled and upset. I would hear “Miss June, come look at this! Can I use this in my letter? I think it will help drive the point home.” They were genuinely interested in helping Amy make a difference. Amy: In making a difference through their own actions!
The fun part about this project is that they each had to create a video and a letter. Each member of the group had a specific responsibility: writer, editor, video producer and video editor. Even though each member had a distinct role, they were sharing information with their group and with other groups because each letter was different. They were teaching each other!
I went off to Albany with a group of librarians and library supporters and our students’ letters in hand. I gave copies to every legislator I met and told them a little about our project and the authentic learning we’re engaged in. Each one acted very excited to receive letters from our students. Several wrote our students letters as well.
Q & A
Participation in Government – Real World Citizenship Amy Carpenter, School Librarian Brigitte Jackson, Social Studies Teacher myJon, “ Vote Here Vote Aquí ,” November 8, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
Presidential Unit Before Rücker, Richard Phillip, “ Waiting for Time to Pass ,” October 19, 2006 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
Wikins, Jonny, “ dazed & confused ,” February 16, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. Problem solving? Critical Thinking?
Presidential Unit After Paloetic, “ colour swirl ,” April 8, 2010 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
I M A U-M-N-B-N!, “ MS 145: p 27 ,” July 20, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. Integrating 6 + 1 writing traits & higher-level thinking skills
Abell, John C., “ voting machine ,” November 4, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. Election fever!
hillary h, “ IMG_0218 ,” September 24, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. Student reflections
hillary h, “ IMG_0218 ,” September 24, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. “ My favorite part about this project was I was advocating for something that directly affects me.” “ I learned that if you want something you have to speak your mind for it.” “ I learned that it is easier to contact the government than I thought.” “ I liked that we could film our opinions and the open minds of our classmates. That was my favorite part.” “ [I learned that] making the right choice isn’t always economically an option.” “ [I enjoyed that] we got to discuss a real topic and that we found and talked about ways to improve the problems.”
hillary h, “ IMG_0218 ,” September 24, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. “ Writing the letter made me feel important and like I was making a difference.” “ My favorite part of the project was the video because that’s really what I’m into.” “ After completing the project, I felt a sense of satisfaction.” “ I liked this project because it let us as students take a stand and fight for something we care about.” “ Overall, it was an interesting project that I actually didn’t mind doing.” “ I liked the fact that these letters were actually sent to current politicians.”