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Christopher Columbus: Truth and Bias

When I am teaching my history standards, I really like to teach the students to look at both sides of a situation.  Rarely is history cut and dry and I want the students to see that, just like the world we live in now, there are a lot of ways to look at a situation.  Last year, I wrote about how I did this with the Boston Massacre, but this year, we started early on this topic when discussing Christopher Columbus and his role in not only US/World history, but in our culture at large. 

I asked the students what they knew about Columbus.  Many knew the old tale, "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."  They knew there was a day dedicated to him and that he was an explorer who discovered America.  One even said he was the first person to ever set foot in America.  So....they didn't know much.  Overall, they did seem to have a pretty positive view of them man (I mean, he has a day named after him so he must be great!) so I wanted to try and challenge them to think a bit more critically at Columbus the man and what he actually did while he was alive.

Discussing Columbus using primary documents in fifth grade.We began by talking about bias and how when discussing historical events and people, sometimes there is quite a bit of bias that takes place when looking at the information presented.  People sometimes have agendas when writing historical pieces, or declaring celebration days, so I wanted to set out right away the difference between what is actual historical fact and what isn't.  We created this anchor chart detailing fact, opinion, and bias and discussed how they all play a role when looking at documents.  

After the discussion, students were given an article from a book called "Great Explorers". (which is a super old book that I have had for 20 years...and is nowhere to be found on Amazon. :/ ) I asked them to think critically about the *word choice* in the article.  What was the article's bias?  Based on the word choices, does this author think Columbus is a hero or a villain?  Why?  The students and I made notes on our papers, finding words that would make us, as a reader, feel a certain way about Columbus, and noting why.

Then, I read the students the book Encounter (Voyager Books) by Jane Yolen. (my affiliate link will take you to Amazon to buy the book.)  This is a book about a Taino boy who is there the say Columbus arrives on his island.  Again, we looked for biased words that would make us, as a reader, feel one way or the other about Columbus.  Again, I asked why the author might be wanting us to think this way.  The kids really got into this discussion.  They very much felt for the main character of the book and could see WHY he felt the way he did.  Putting themselves in his shoes, they were able to empathize with him and did not see Columbus in the same light as they did after the first article.  We discussed how word choice when presenting facts makes all the difference in how the reader reacts to the information.  

Since we had two very different accounts of Columbus, I created a brainstorm chart to start housing our information.  I specifically wanted them to find words that lead us to believe that Columbus was either a hero or a villain.  Using both the article and the book, the students went through and helped me list those words.  

Next, the students watched the BrainPop video on Columbus. This presented both positive and negative information about Columbus' impact on the world at large and the people he encountered along the way.   Students made note of this information as well, adding it to our brainstorm chart.  

Finally, I presented the kids with a proclamation from President Lyndon B. Johnson given to commemorate Columbus day.  Again the students looked for words that slanted towards Columbus being a hero or a villain.  Most words definitely slanted towards him being a good guy who set off into the world and explored.  He was adventurous and brave.  We then discussed WHY Johnson would want to make Columbus out to be a hero.  You see, in this particular address, Johnson likened Columbus to all Americans. He wanted a feel good speech that would pump up the American morale....and saying Columbus pillaged villages, taking their inhabitants as slaves, doesn't really jive with that message.    Again, they added the words to the brainstorm chart.

Then, once all of the information was presented, I asked the students to form their own opinion based on the facts presented in the articles.  Was Columbus a hero or a villain?  They needed to choose their own idea and then back it up with information from the articles we read and videos we watched, keeping in mind the bias imbedded in all of them.  (you can grab a copy of the POTW form I used for my students to write this paragraph here  

All in all, this took about a week to complete.  I think by the end of the week, the students really were able to see that when looking at historical documents taking in bias and word choice is very important to help sort out fact from opinion.  

Have you studied Columbus in your class?  What are some ideas you have to add to this lesson to make it even more fact-based and critically thoughtful?



Snapshot Stories: Capturing a Narrative Writing Moment

4th and 5th grade students use candy to help them narrow down their focus when writing.These past few years, I spent a great deal of time honing in on the students' narrative writing skills.  Of course we have been using Paragraph of the Week since school started, and throughout the year they really did get good at basic writing structure, but teaching them to tell a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, in a way that is exciting and engaging for the reader, is a whole different story.

Most of my students were writing "bed to bed" stories, where they would tell me every.single.detail about their entire life when they really are trying to tell me about what happened last Christmas Eve.  This just isn't a great way to tell a narrative.  Sure it encompasses the actual event they are trying to tell, but I would fall asleep in the midst of trying to find out about that event ;)  So I had to do something to get the kids on track.  What better way to do that then to use candy!

Now, I will say right off the bat, this wasn't the cheapest route to go (as I had to buy all the candy stuff myself) but it was fun, memorable, AND helped my students to really focus on the small moment I wanted them to!  Win-win for everyone involved!

Helping the students to narrow down their focus when telling a story.We began the "unit" (and I use that term loosely) by discussing narrative writing and how the author really is just trying to get a snapshot of what is happening to put on paper for the reader.  It isn't everything that author ever thought of, just those important, interesting, and focused details.  Together, we created this anchor chart.

Then, I handed each student a piece of gum.  Before I even let them put it in their mouth, we brainstormed everything that we were thinking.  These kids were so excited that I was going to let them chew gum in class, there were a great deal of thoughts, emotions, and ideas coming from them.  I wrote everything down in a class chart.  Then, I told them to unwrap it and put the gum in their mouths.   Again, while they were chewing I asked them to tell me what they were thinking.  What was happening during that time that they could describe vividly?  All of their thoughts went on our chart.  Finally, to audible groans, I asked them to throw the gum away and describe their thoughts after the experience was over.  When our chart was filled in, I then recounted the gum chewing experience aloud, using the chart we made.

The next day, I wanted to do the same thing but hand off more responsibility for the narrative to the kids.  So I gave them a recording sheet similar to the chart we had used previously, and a pack of Pop Rocks.  Now, here, I must say...my students were stunned.  Some had never had popping candy before and were terrified.  Others were flabbergasted I even thought to give them candy in the first place.  With stunned looks on their faces, I asked them to write all of their ideas down on paper.  Then I followed the same steps as with the gum, this time without creating a class chart.

When the popping candy experience was over, I asked the kids to recount their story to their neighbor.  This oral rehearsing was perfect for them to really get the narrowed down account, using only the adjectives and feelings from their brainstorm chart.  Then, I asked them to write the experience down using a sentence frame.  Again, only giving them enough space to recount just the before, during, and after of the candy eating helped them to focus in on what was important and not on what they were wearing that day.

The next lesson (which was a few days later because writing the last account took a bit of time), I broke the kids into groups and told them they were going to play Bean Boozled.  If you thought the Pop Rocks uproar was big, well, this was just too much for some of them.  They were all sorts of excited!  Using the same format as before, I asked the kids to think a bit harder while playing the game.  Not only did they have to describe what was going through their head before, during, and after the game as a whole, but they had to ALSO do it for their turn to spin on one bean.  They were going to narrow their focus even more, essentially telling a story within a story.

The kids played, and had the best time!  While they were playing, I could hear each of them reminding their partners to write down the experiences AND they were helping them to get the vocabulary necessary to adequately describe how gross some of the beans were!  It really was a lot of fun.  When it was all over, the students then wrote two paragraphs, describing the game as a whole and their experience with one bean.

Using this method really helped my students to see that a narrative that is focused on one specific event and is narrowed down is much more engaging and exciting to read.  They also had an amazing time (which helps when writing a narrative too ;) )  If you would like all of my lesson plans and the printables I used in my class, click here.

What have you done to help your students learn to narrow down their focus a bit more?  I would love to hear your ideas!


Reading Check-In on Google Forms

I have made a concerted effort to get away from reading logs in my classroom.  I know, I know.  So many people use them and love them, but honestly, I just didn't.  Years ago, I did get away from the "mom sign this" reading log by creating a more content based log (that I still use as in class assignments) but that just wasn't working for my students anymore.  Tracking them down on a daily basis to see if they did their reading wasn't creating readers and it wasn't making me very happy as a teacher.  I created my Reading Bookshelf (that I LOVE LOVE LOVE, and highly recommend to all of you...not that I am biased or anything.) but I found that I just wanted a little bit more formal information from the kids.  So this year, I played around with Google Forms, and came up with something that I am really happy with.  Since it was working so well, I thought I would share with you. 

Great way to get the kids to record their reading in a non-pressure filled way.The first thing I did was create a very simple Google Form to capture the basic reading information.  I didn't want to overwhelm the kids and really, all I want to know is that they *are* reading and the types of books they like.  So my form included the book title, author, genre, and a one sentence summary.  You can access my form here to copy and use in your classroom. 
As you probably know, if you assign this form to your students at one time by just giving them the same link, all of their responses will go to one spreadsheet.  Now, that is fine if you are going to do this once.  I, however, wanted this link to be something the kids would be using 2 to 3 times a week so I had an ongoing record of their reading. If the responses were on one spreadsheet, I would never be able to sort them.  Instead I wanted the forms to generate responses to different sheets that, if I clicked on, would be an ongoing record of the books, as shown below.
Student A's Book Record

Student B's Book Record


Above are two different reading records for two different students.  Every time they log onto their Google Form, a new line generates on their reading record with a new set of information.

The steps to do this require a bit of organization and patience ;) 

I had to make a copy of that original form for EACH student in my class.  I created a new folder on my drive to house all of the forms in so they weren't cluttering up the entire drive, and named each form with the student's name. I blotted out the names on the picture, but you get the idea.


Then, on Google Classroom, I assigned the forms ONE BY ONE to each student.  Since GC has that great feature where you can assign something to individual students, this wasn't super hard.  It was time consuming though, and it got a bit repetitive.  Just make sure you are organized.  I had a list of all my students next to me and was checking them off as I assigned the form.

Now, as you probably know, all of these forms will get their own spreadsheet to record the information being input.  I didn't want that either.  I wanted the forms to be linked.  Here's how I did that.

1.  When I went to create the spreadsheet for student #1, I named the spreadsheet "Reading Record for Room 6".


2.  For student #2, instead of generating a new spreadsheet, I LINKED it to an existing spreadsheet.  When I clicked on "Select response destination" , it took me to "Select existing spreadsheet."  Once I click on that, my drive comes up.  The Sheet "Reading Record for Room 6" will be near the top and you can click that one.  


Then, once you have select this section, your drive will come up.  Choose the "Reading Record for Room 6" spreadsheet every time.  That will create a new tab on the spreadsheet.

3.  The tabs will be generated and named "Form Response".  Right click and you can choose to rename it.  I renamed the tabs to match the student #, but you can add the student names there if you wish.


4.  I repeated this over and over for all 33 of my students.

I did make myself a reading log to link as well, so that I could try it all out (as you really should try out the sheets to make sure they link properly before you disseminate them to your students.)  But now, every time I want my kids to submit a reading check in, they just go to their GC feed and click on that same form.

One word of warning.  The GC feed will mark it as submitted the first time the kids do this.  That is ok.  The next time they want to do a check-in, they just have to open the link.  There is no problem with doing that.  The kids will freak out a bit and tell you that it is already turned in.  Just assure them that it is ok ;)  

So there you have it.  A way to keep the kids reading records in one place, organized, and easily accessible.  I have my students do this 2-3 times per week (or when I remember, if I am to be really honest.)   It takes them about 3 minutes to fill in the form and gives me a glimpse into what they are reading.  

Have you used Google Forms in this way?  What questions do you have for me about the reading record?


Remembering September 11

As September 11, 2001 moves from a tragic event of our lifetime to a piece of history relegated to a show they watched on the History channel for our students, I find it more and more important to stop and recognize the day with my fifth graders each year.   This year was no exception.
Talking about heroes in a  fifth grade class on 9/11We began the day discussing what it means to be a hero.  You see, while I wanted to talk about the happenings on the day, I didn't want just a recount of exactly what happened.  I wanted to focus on a more human side of it all and thinking about what it means to be a hero was a good way to start that off.  

We then started reading The Man in the Red Bandanna. (this is my affiliate link and will take you to Amazon to buy the book)  This is a story of a 24 year old man (my age at the time of the attack) who, when faced with unknown consequences, ran back up and down flights of stairs in one of the Towers to save people who were stuck.  We then looked at how this young man exemplified aspects of what it means to be a hero.  The students had a very good discussion about what it means to be a hero and how ordinary people can be heroes.  
Two books that are good to read to fifth graders on September 11

There is this video that goes along with this story that was produced by ESPN (since the man at the center of the story was a college athlete.)  I have to say, for ME this 13 minute piece was too much to bear.  I was a bawling, hysterical mess while watching it in my home to preview.  So I put it on the students Chromebooks and they all watched it with their headphones.  I did give them an out and say they didn't have to watch it if they were sensitive, but every child watched it and, while moved, were not wrecked like I was.  

Then, to show them that not all heroes died during that day, I showed them Boatlift, a 12 minute video narrated by Tom Hanks about the boating community who dropped everything to evacuate people out of Manhattan.  It was uplifting and inspiring and showed how ordinary people can be heroes.  We then revisited our circle map and added any new information to it.

Next, the students took to the Chromebooks and researched the various heroes of 9/11.  On a google slide (click here for the link to the slide you can share with your students), inside the shape of two rectangles meant to replicate the shape of the Twin Towers, the students wrote short bios of the people who emerged as heroes on that day.  They were so inspired reading these stories and really found it fascinating the sacrifices people made for those they didn't know.  We printed the towers and cut them out.  One of my students couldn't use the Chromebook that day so I just printed out a few stories for her and she used those to create her towers with paper and pencil.

Using the same painting style we used last year in our Wonder rainbow displays, the students created a background for the towers.

Next, we read 14 Cows for America, (again, my affiliate link) a story about how a Maasai tribe gave 14 cows, a precious life-giving resource, to America.  We talked about how people react to tragedy and heal from it.  I then asked the students to write a list of 10 ways they could be a hero in their own lives and 10 ways they could help others overcome when faced with great odds.
On the background (which had dried by now), the students wrote the list of ideas they brainstormed to accompany the towers of heroes.  It came out perfect.  



This entire project took a total of two days.  The first day, we read the books, watched the videos, painted the backgrounds, and began the slides.  The second day, everything was put together.  All in all, I am SO happy with how our remembrance and lessons of the day came out.  The students walked away with an appreciation of the bravery and heroism that took place in the face of tragedy.  

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First Day Jitters in Upper Elementary

Using First Day Jitters in upper gradesToday was our first day of school (my 20th first day!) and I wanted to share a short, yet fun activity to get your kids engaged in academics right off the bat, yet still throw in a little fun along the way.  So I saw an idea to use First Day Jitters and Emojis online and ran with it (I can not, for the life of me, find the original post...I think it was in a FB group...when I find it I will link it.)
I read my students First Day Jitters (Mrs. Hartwells classroom adventures). (affiliate link) In the story, the main character doesn't want to go to a new school on the first day because she is nervous.  At the end of the book, we realize that the girl is actually the teacher.  Even teachers get nervous!

Using the picture book First Day Jitters in fifth gradeWhen the book was over, I shared how I was a little nervous about starting the day as well.  I mean, what if the kids were out of control?  What if they didn't listen?  What if they hated me?  But I also said that I was excited to meet them all.  A new year means new possibilities and there was SO much possibility with my new class.  Then, I shared that when I finally did meet them, and now that we were about 45 minutes into school, I was happy to know that the kids were amazing and inquisitive and funny.  

This lead into a discussion amongst the students about how they felt on this first day of school.  I asked them to turn to their neighbors and share two feelings that they were having and why.  After a few minutes of talk, I asked kids to share out.  There were a great deal of emotions going around the rooms, and lots of great reasons for those emotions!

First Day of fifth gradeThe kids then headed back to their seats as I projected a full list of emojis onto the screen.  I asked them to think about which emojis would represent their personal feelings about the first day of school.  Now, the emojis I projected were yellow face emojis.  I didn't let them choose anything in the emoji world, just the ones projected.  I wasn't really looking to see the poop emoji on their pages!  
Once they picked the emoji, they drew it on a piece of paper, and wrote a paragraph (or a few sentences if that is all they could write) detailing what that emoji stood for and why it was a good representation of their feelings on the first day.  Doing this enabled me to get a first day writing sample in a relatively stress-free setting.  The kids were enjoying the emoji aspect so they weren't so worried about the fact that they were writing.  Click here to get the simple form I used.  


In fifth grade, use First Day Jitters and emojis to get the kids writing on day one of schoolThen they cut out the emoji faces they drew, attached it to a picture of them that I took (I asked them to pose with their bodies so that they weren't just standing there) and rewrote the paragraphs as a final draft.   They came out SO cute!   I hung them on the wall and now we have a nice bulletin board to start our year off that is not only fun, but content based!

Have you used First Day Jitters  (my affiliate link will take you to purchase the book) with your upper grade class?  What are some ideas you have for how to use it with this age group?

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