Tag Archives: Content Area Literacy

Perspective Taking: Internment Final Project

12 May

To wrap up our unit on the Internment Camps, I wanted students to write a diary from the perspective of a Japanese American child living during the WWII period.  The diary had four main events: the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when notices of relocation went up, life in the camps, and coming home.  We spent almost a month delving into what life was like during that period, and I wanted students to be able to take all they knew and put it into the final project.  At the same time, I recognize that any writing assignment adds an additional layer of challenge to students, and an assignment like this one requires students to use narrative skills, historical thinking and writing skills, and editing skills.  It’s a tall order.  How to support them?

We ended up brainstorming as a class for each section.  Students first talked in small groups about how a Japanese American might feel after an event like the Pearl Harbor bombing.  Then they shared out, and we created a group list of words such as, “Devastated, afraid, sad, uncertain.”  Working together, they then came up with thoughts someone might have, and finally they brainstormed facts they knew about Pearl Harbor, such as the fact that it was a military base and that it was in Hawaii.

The final notes looked something like this.

photo 1 copy

Armed with these brainstorming notes, students then wrote their entries independently.  Students shared their favorite parts each day, so they could hear each other’s work and get inspired.  It was fun to see ideas zoom through a classroom.  One student had the idea to quote from the radio announcer for the Pearl Harbor entry, “This just in, we have reports that Pearl Harbor has been bombed,” and I saw the impact reverberate through the room.  Quotes from radio announcers began to appear in other entries, followed by quotes from Roosevelt, quotes from parents, and so on.  Each piece was unique, but I could see how the group brainstorming and sharing sessions had supported them in including as much detail as possible.  Here are a few final products!

photo-30           photo 2   photo 4photo 5

photo 3

Primary Source Analysis: Letters

21 Apr

I found some letters from the Internment Camp period, written between a librarian named Ms. Breed and children she knew in the camps, that have been saved and archived.  They gave some insight into how the children of the camps thought about their predicament, as well as their general outlook.  It’s a little like a mini internment version of Ann Frank’s Diary.

I was thinking about how to share these with the students, and specifically how to have them make meaning from the letters (without me lecturing about each line).  We could have done a similar activity to what we did with previous primary source documents–a write around, a discussion of the letter with a partner, etc.  But I wanted to try something different.  I wanted each child to try to engage with the letters on their own before they began to work with others.

Enter Notice and Note, the new book by Kylene and Beers that I referenced a few weeks ago.  One of their strategies for close reading involves students reading and annotating the text on their own, and then discussing remaining questions or thoughts as a group.  I modified it slightly as follows:

1) Students read the text independently, annotating with a “!” or “?” things that surprise or confuse them.

2) Students re-read the text, writing down their questions if they still have them, or, if they interpret the meaning on the second reading, writing their new thought.

photo 1

3) Students share their remaining questions with the class.  We put questions on the SMARTboard, and then the kids discussed them in small groups.

photo 2

photo 4

4) The class discusses the most salient questions or thoughts as a whole. 

We repeated this structure for four letters.  It was an interesting experiment.  Kids came up with questions from the literal (what does “morale” mean?) to the inferential (if there was no fence up for a period, why didn’t people try to escape?)

I liked the fact that students had to grapple with the text on their own, but also got to discuss their ideas with a group and share out with the class.  On the flip side, I probably need to do some more work modeling what kinds of things you could question.  I had a fair share of students tell me they had no questions, and then when I read a line from the letter and asked them what it meant they said, “Oh, I didn’t understand that part.”  It seems like recognizing when you’re confused is still a concept we need to work on.

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.

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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