Mission Blueprints with a Side of Academic Language

22 Nov

I recently finished up a unit on the California Missions, and I was wracking my brain trying to think of a way to incorporate more writing strategies into Social Studies.  Then I looked over some of the writing assignment my husband, who teaches high school biology, had assigned to his students.  (On a side note, I’ve found that there’s a remarkable similarity between things that work for high school students and those that work for elementary).  He had asked his students to write a reflection on a science project, and had given them specific vocabulary and sentence frames to include in their writing.  The result was conclusions that were lengthy, academic, and high quality.

I thought, “why not try it with fourth graders?”  I took the last assignment of our Mission Unit, where students took “blueprints” of buildings that existed on missions and arranging them on a large piece of construction paper, and asked students to write about how and why they arranged their mission in that particular fashion.  Their directions included a word bank of academic vocabulary, and sentence frames divided into three categories: giving examples, cause and effect, and conclusions.

Image ImageOver the course of two days, students wrote an average of 1-½ pages, with writing that made sense syntactically and grammatically.  The majority of them even using commas—the dreaded punctuation mark of elementary school–appropriately.  True, some were still writing sentences like “The Church is the most important building of a mission so, I put the soldiers’ barracks close by to protect it,” but at least they gave the comma try.

What Worked:

The word bank and frames made students more independent and increased the quality of their work, without limiting their creativity.   Since students already had a strong understanding of the historical concepts through previous lessons and the actual creation of the missions they were free to focus on the writing.

Next Steps:

The more I use sentence frames, the more convinced I am about their power to improve the sophistication of students’ writing.  In particular, when you teach students how to use them orally and then repeatedly come back to them in writing students begin to internalize them and use them independently.   I’d like to come back to this writing method in science, but I’ll need to do a little more instruction with students about where the comma goes (Jeff Anderson has a great chapter on FANBOYS, which he calls “comma causers” in his book Mechanically Inclined, which I highly recommend).

4 Responses to “Mission Blueprints with a Side of Academic Language”

  1. elizabethstavis February 3, 2014 at 5:52 am #

    Absolutely! Students felt fairly creative with this project and definitely got to practice some essay and persuasive writing skills, though it wasn’t as research oriented. I’m out of town but can email it when I return at the end of the week. This year we did more practice with the sentence frames orally before they wrote–having them explain to their partners where thinks were located and why. For example, “My soldier’s barracks are placed near my church, in the front of the mission, so they can protect us quickly from any intruders.” They were really able to write quickly after having a lot of oral language practice. Especially the struggling students who previously were not as sure what the task was.

  2. Samantha May 14, 2014 at 5:54 pm #

    Hi! I am a first year teacher and I am teaching 4th grade. I came across your blog and this blog post about what you did for your CA Missions Unit…I love it! I have a large EL population and a relatively low class, so I have been a big fan of sentence frames and starters. This whole assignment is amazing and I was wondering if you would mind sharing your documents with me? I’m really interested in the original blueprint document that you used. I would really, really appreciate it!!

    • elizabethstavis May 16, 2014 at 7:35 am #

      Hi Samantha,
      I’d love to share it, but unfortunately it was part of a printed curriculum set we received from our district, so I don’t have it in digital form. Most of the buildings you can see in the blog post though, and they were almost all just rectangles or squares, so you could recreate it fairly easily.

      I do think the page with sentence frames I gave was a bit complicated, so I would simplify it if I did it again. The kids really enjoyed it though!
      My one other suggestion is that they were unfamiliar with many of the buildings (like what a blacksmith was, or a forge) so it would be really helpful to have some pictures of the more unusual buildings and go through the definitions before starting. Good luck!

      • Samantha May 16, 2014 at 11:35 am #

        Ok, thank you!! I was going to try to recreate it on my own, but I thought it was worth a shot to see if you had a copy I could use. Thanks for all your tips, too!

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