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Primary Source Analysis: Headlines and Quotes

12 Apr

The second time we analyzed primary resources, we looked at newspaper headlines and quotes.  The Internet is truly amazing when you get into more recent history.  There are a variety of website from reputable sources such as Stanford University, Digital History, and PBS that have gathered primary source materials from recent history, such as WWII.

I made two copies of all of my materials, and I glued the quotes on one large piece of butcher paper, and the newspaper headlines on another.  Since I had made copies of both, I ended up with four stations. I randomly separated the class into four groups, so there were seven students at each station.

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I also provided them with a prompt sheet for what they could think and write about when at the chart paper.

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I asked them to take five minutes to silently read the headlines or quotes and respond to them, in writing, directly on the paper.  As students read the resources, they wrote reactions and questions such as “That’s terrible!”  “that’s not truthful,” “why did they say Lincoln would intern the Japanese if he wasn’t even alive?” and “it sounds like the camps were very crowded.”  I circulated amongst them and answered some questions on vocabulary words and confusing sentence structures.

I wanted students to look at it silently at first so that they had a chance to grapple with the material on their own.  It gave  children who needed more time (and more quiet to think) an opportunity to work through the analysis independently.

Then I gave the groups two minutes to talk to their group about what they were thinking.  The groups had a lively discussion, and I noticed them sorting out confusions during the conversation.  They clarified vocabulary for each other and re-interpreted headlines or quotes that had been confusing, as well as pointing to details that not all had noticed.

The next step was for groups to switch to the table that had the SAME resources.  They looked at what the other group had written and talked about similarities or differences.

After that, students switched to the butcher paper with the alternate resource (headlines or quotes) and followed the same routine.

We finished up our work by coming inside and doing a quick write about their response to what they learned.

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I provided students with some beginning frames to help them get started.

“The newspaper headlines and quotes from the internment camp period are mostly about _____.

They show ______.

For example, _____.

They also show _______.”

The frames helped them to begin and then to elaborate their thinking, and I was impressed at how many students went back to the resources so that they could quote accurately.  As usual, grammar, punctuation and spelling were emphasized.

The whole process took about an hour, but it felt like we got a lot done!  There were a few things I would do differently next time.  I would preload some of the more challenging vocabulary–I ended up just writing synonyms directly on some of the headlines and quotes.  I would also include more information about who said the quotes (name, age, place).  Many students asked where the quotes came from, which was an important question for historical thinking, and I didn’t have the answer.  It would have helped them to work on considering the author’s point of view, which is hinted at in common core standard 4.6, and is required more explicitly in fifth grade.

It was fun work, and challenging too.  Next up, letters from children in the camps!

Primary Source Analysis: Photographs

9 Apr

The first primary resource we dug into was photographs.  They’re the most accessible of the resources, and students can learn a lot through close observation.

In 2012 I went to the Teacher’s College Nonfiction Institute in February, and I learned that one way they approach content area literacy is through historical thinking centers.  Students move around to different stations that have a variety of resources to analyze.  One station might be photos, one might be statistics, one is video, etc.  Each station comes with a task card that has questions for students to discuss and write about.

I wanted to adopt this kind of approach with the class, but I knew that having stations (something new) and primary resources on a brand new topic would be too much.  Instead of having everyone working at a different center each day, I chose to make each day about a type of resource.  The first day would be photos.

I went with the traditional: I do, we do, you do approach.  I put a picture up on the SMARTboard, and then modeled how I would analyze it.  First, I just described what I saw.

“Hmmm…I see a woman standing in front of a house.  She’s pointing at a sign that says, “No Japs allowed here.  Go back home.”  There’s another sign on the other side of the house.  The house has a wrap-around porch.  She’s wearing a dress, it would be considered old-fasioned today.  There are trees all around.”


Then I modeled thinking about, “What does this make me think about this time period?  Does it remind me of anything else in history I’ve learned about?  How is it similar or different from my life today?”

I talked about how it reminded me of America before the civil rights movement, when “No Coloreds Allowed” would be posted up all over the South.  It made me think that the woman thought it was totally ok for that sign to be on her house–she didn’t look ashamed or embarrassed.  Even though her house and neighborhood are similar to how I live today, I can’t imagine anyone being willing to put up a sign like that in my neighborhood.  It would be considered racist and highly offensive.



Then I put another photo on the board.  This time I asked students to describe what they say (pure observation, no analysis yet) to their partners.  After sharing as a class, I asked them to respond to the three questions:

  1. What does this make me think about this time period?  
  2. Does it remind me of anything else in history I’ve learned about?  
  3. How is it similar or different from my life today?

Finally, each partnership received a different photo.  At their desks, they first observed everything in the photo, and then analyzed it.  Initially, some children said they didn’t know what to do.  But when I reminded them that the first thing to do was simply to state what they saw, they were able to jump right in.  After observing out loud for a while, they naturally transitioned into the other questions.

Some of their analyses were quite strong!  Some students compared the housing in the internment camps to the shanty towns we studied during the dust bowl.  Others noted that the baseball team looked similar to our teams today, but they were only made up of one race, and placed in the middle of nowhere (as the camps often were.)  One group saw a family of Japanese waving a flag on a train, and holding up the peace sign, and decided that it was their way of showing the world they were American in a peaceful and positive way.

After discussing the photos, we taped the pictures to a piece of paper and students wrote a two paragraph quick write with their observations and analyses.  I pressed them to use appropriate spelling, periods, and capitals.  I also provided a frame for them to write quickly.  One of my goals in content area literacy is to have students work on their grammar and punctuation (as opposed to only in writing workshop, where my partner is also working on generating ideas, writing craft, themes, and overall organization of a piece.)

2013-04-03 10.10.46Their work came out very well.  And they have a solid picture in their minds now of what the Internment camp period looked like–from the moment people were asked to climb on a bus, to life in the camps, to the communities they left behind.

Do You Speak Math?

4 Feb

You can always count on Calvin and Hobbes to illustrate  how mystifying some schoolwork can be to children.  Take this one on math:


Math truly is another language for children.  If your kids are English learners, it can feel like a double whammy–new math words, explained in a difficult language.

My first few years of teaching, I dealt with math vocabulary by ignoring it.  Denominators became “the bottom number” of fractions, the word “quotient” was nonexistent.  I thought I was making math accessible, but I was really denying my students any chance of becoming mathematically literate.

Now, I make sure I use the official terms in every lesson.  My class is comfortable using official terms when they talk about math.  I feel pretty confident in how I’m incorporating vocabulary into the subject.

Sort of.

But math talks need some more work in my room, as illustrated by a recent test on fractions, when multiple students weren’t sure what “equivalent fraction” meant.  We’d been using the word in lessons, it had been an official “word of the week,” and I thought it was one of the clearer terms (it has the word equal in it!).

What I was reminded of, is that me saying the word, or even having students repeat the word and use it in a sentence, isn’t enough for full comprehension.  Children need to say, read, and write words in context to help them solidify their understanding.  Even better, they need to make connections between words.

There are some graphic organizers and activities that can help children to make these connections.  Some of these I was already familiar with, and some I found after some research.

The Frayer model is one organizer I’ve mentioned before:

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You can also use a Venn Diagram for making connections in math:

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Or a web:

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Or concept circles:
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These organizer examples are available at this PDF site, along with blackline masters that you can print.

These organizers all help children to understand how vocabulary words are related and organized.  You can also get a lot of bang for your buck just by asking children to write how they solved a problem, using vocabulary words and some friendly sentence frames.  For example, I asked students to write how they knew that one fraction was larger than another during a compare and contrast lesson.  They could pick from a word bank of words, “greater than, less than, numerator, denominator, half.”  It was a challenge for many, but when they wrote, “I know 3/5 is greater than 2/8, because 3/5 is more than half, and 2/8 is less than half” I could tell they had a firm understanding of fraction size.

Shel Silverstein and Math

23 Jan


Shel Silverstein poems are always fun, and many of his works can be used during math instruction.  A few years ago I asked the class how much money the boy lost in the poem “Smart.”  One student painstakingly worked out the exchanges of dollars to quarters to dimes to nickels to pennies, adding the cents together and then subtracting the decimals with agonized groans.  At least that’s how I remember it.

At the end of class, as everyone shared their work, he heard a fellow student say, “all I really had to do was stop and think that he started with a dollar and ended with 5 pennies, which is a difference of 95 cents.”  When he realized the difference in their strategies, I thought his head would explode.  But he did learn a good lesson: stopping to think before you jump in to calculating can save you a lot of pain in the end. As a teacher I can’t help but think, “that was a lot of good math practice he had, too!”

Here are some questions you can use with poems to spark some great math thinking.

Shel Silverstein Math and Poetry

These problems vary a lot in difficulty.  Some would be fine for upper-elementary students, some are probably more at the middle school level.  You can modify them as you see fit, but they give you an idea of the kinds of questions you can ask.

I would have students work on these problems in pairs or small groups (and I would probably have done some lessons with one of the poems whole class, to model some strategies for attacking the problems.)  I can also imagine this being an activity that would look great as  a presentation, with the poem on a poster and the students showing with pictures, numbers, and words, how they solved the problems.

The Illuminations website also has a lesson relating Silverstein’s “Shape” poem to a math lesson.

Content Words–Academic Vocabulary

17 Dec

Academic vocabulary is a big buzzword in my district right now.  We have a large population of EL students who remain language learners throughout their academic career.  They come to us in Kindergarten as English learners, and they leave us in twelfth grade as English learners.  It’s a vexing problem.  Vocabulary can feel overwhelming to teach, especially given the research.  Marzano, for example, has found that:

“there is a roughly 6,000-word gap between students at the 25th and 50th percentiles on standardized tests in grades 4–12. Since the 1980s, researchers have estimated the difference to be anywhere between 4,500 and 5,400 words for low versus high-achieving students (for a discussion, see Marzano, 2009). This means we can take the commonsense connection between vocabulary and content one step further and conclude that the size of a student’s vocabulary is directly related to his or her academic achievement.” Carleton, L., & Marzano, R. J. (2010). Vocabulary Games for the Classroom (p. 1). Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.

The question is what to do about it.  I made academic vocabulary a focus this year, with some amusing results.  “The sand deposition on the hill,” is an example of a written response that I received on an Earth Science test.  I was initially bummed, until my co-teacher, Jenny, pointed out that it wasn’t that the students didn’t understand the word.  It was that they didn’t know how to fluidly use it and change its form.

How to change its form…that sounds dangerously close to traditional (i.e. boring) grammar instruction and conjugation work.  Should we be diagramming sentences in fourth grade?

I modified what I was doing instead.  Jenny created a four-square graphic organizer that showed students how a word would look as a noun, and then as a present-tense and past-tense verb.  We paired this organizer with sentence frames that showed the word in use.

4-Square vocabulary graphic organizer, with squares for the noun, present tense, past tense, and present participle form.

Sentence frames and 4-square vocabulary graphic organizer, with squares for the noun, present tense, past tense, and present participle form.

A variation of this approach is the Frayer Model, which focuses more on full comprehension of the word rather than the word in use.

Screen Shot 2012-12-16 at 10.36.37 AM

The Frayer Model uses four boxes–definition, characteristics, examples, and non-examples–as a way to build a more thorough understanding of a vocabulary word.

Some important ideas to consider when working with academic vocabulary:

  • Choose high-leverage words (words that students will encounter frequently OR are key to understanding academic content) and use them frequently.
  • Teach them, practice them, refer back to them, make students use them!  It’s more effective to do a few words well than many words haphazardly.
  • Students must use the words themselves to internalize them.
  • Work with your grade level team and school to decide which words you will teach explicitly.  It’s important to have cohesion at a site and grade level so that students aren’t left with holes in their academic language.
  • Consider the forms of words as well as their definition if you want students to be able to use the words fluidly.

If you’re interested in a slideshow from Marzano that shows some alternate ways to work with students on academic vocabulary, view Vocabulary_Sketching.


Real Life Math Problems

22 Nov

I stumbled upon this post by Matt Ives about Real Life Math Problems and I knew it was something I wanted to try.   Matt’s problems are typical word problems, but with all of the numbers removed.  For example, instead of, “You want to buy a cookie for $2 and some milk for .50 cents.  If you have $5 to spend, how much money will you have left over?” the problem might read, “You want to buy a cookie and some milk.  How much money will you have left?”  Students then need to figure out what information they need to solve the problem, and ask the teacher, “How much money do I have to start with?  How much money is a cookie?  How much does the milk cost?”  If children ask a relevant question, the teacher gives them the information needed.  If students ask an irrelevant question, the teacher asks them to rethink about what’s important and what information would help them.

There are so many advantages to this method of problem solving.  It avoids the classic problem of children grasping on to the numbers in a problem and immediately and randomly trying out different operations.  How many times have we seen students read a word problem and then look at us and say, “I multiply right?  Divide?  Add?  Subtract?” without any clear understanding of why they would be using a particular operation.   They’re desperate to plug and chug.  Without numbers, they have to consider what the problem is actually asking before they dive into finding a solution.

This method is also highly engaging.  Students are talking and brainstorming what possible information would be helpful.  My room was loud, but it was on-task loud, with students trying to figure out what information they needed and then what they could do with it.

Students also remain engaged with these problems for more time.  One group was stuck on the first problem for almost ten minutes.  Ten minutes is an eternity for a nine year old, but they kept trying to find the necessary information and failing, trying and failing, until eventually  they succeeded.  Their exuberance when they nailed it was that much sweeter because they’d been working at it for so long.

What Worked:

Students were placed in groups of three.  I find that 3-4 students per group tends to maximize participation of each person while providing for a lot of different ideas to be heard.   If students struggle to collaborate, I might drop it down to pairs.

The math problems grow in order of difficulty, so students began at problem one and worked down through problem 5.  They wrote what information they needed to gather, and then showed the work they did, with numbers, pictures, or words, to get the answer. Students worked on large whiteboards so they could all see and access their work (and I could see what they were doing at a glance.)  I made these whiteboards by buying showerboard at Home Depot.  They come in 8 x 4 foot sheets, which I had Home Depot cut to 2 x 3 foot boards, and then I wrapped the edges in duct tape.

One norm we’ve established is the idea that all students must “share the pen” meaning everyone gets a chance to record.  For this session, I gave each group one pen, but sometimes I give each member a different color pen, with the expectation that I should see three or four colors on the board at the end of the math period.

I required different members of the group to ask me the questions about additional information, so everyone practiced asking clear questions.  Some students had to go back to their group to clarify what they were asking me, so they got even more practice in listening and speaking to others.

At the end of the session we put the boards on a table and had a “gallery walk” of every team’s work.  Then we debriefed in a circle and talked about what went well about working together on these problems, and what was hard.

Next Steps:

I’d like to incorporate this kind of problem solving about once a week in my math class.  My class does a nice job overall of listening to each other and working together respectfully, but we probably need some more instruction in helping each other with wait time and inviting everyone to take participate, even those shy or more struggling.

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).


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