Tag Archives: Social Studies

Strategies for Organizing Notes

12 Oct

There are a lot of ways to organize your thinking.

  • notes on file cards
  • facts on sticky note that can be moved around
  • facts on pages with different headings
  • notes you can cut up and reorganize

Earlier this year, we used different colored highlighters to help students visually see how to cluster their information.  We were creating brochures on the regions of California.  Students took notes on each region separately–desert, mountains, valley, coast–but I wanted them to try organizing their information within their brochure.  This was our first project of the year, and it wasn’t a major one, so we went for a system that was engaging and fast.  I have never met a kid who didn’t love a highlighter, and it’s a nice visual way to show them how to organize notes.

First, we looked at an example/non-example of an organized paragraph.  We read each paragraph, and highlighted the similar sections together: geography, living factors, resources and activities, and voice.  (I wasn’t going to harp on author’s craft, but I wanted the students ready to put some life into their brochures to go ahead and do it.)

photo 1 (1)

With my first class, I let them then organize their notes using whatever colors they wanted, but that wasn’t supported enough.  For the second class, we came up with colors and categories together, so everyone was on the same page.

photo 2 copy

Students then began to highlight their notes.  It was messy, and we had a lot of negotiating to do as we figured out where facts that didn’t quite fit any category should go, but students were engaged during the process.photo 1 photo 2

Then they were ready to write!  The final products generally showed facts clustered together (or better yet, combined into one or two more complex sentences) and they gave me a good sense of where students needed to go next.

photo 3    photo 4


Transition words, here we come :).

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.

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).


A world of film, a house of stuff.

Literacy Changes Everything!

Teaching and Parenting as a Dedicated Reader and Writer

To Make a Prairie

A blog about reading, writing, teaching and the joys of a literate life

Shanahan on Literacy

Literacy in Education


A meeting place for a world of reflective writers.

The Quick and the Ed

Literacy in Education

Shanker Blog


Free Technology for Teachers

Literacy in Education


Smarter Charts from Marjorie Martinelli & Kristine Mraz

%d bloggers like this: