Context and Background
As a Social Studies teacher, one of my primary challenges is finding ways to engage students who are often so focused on the here and now, and ask them to think about the past. Because history teachers tend to love nothing more than diving deep into a historical place or time, we can forget that our students often struggle to connect with and find the relevance of people long dead and events long past. We take for granted our worldview, which already understands how events are layered upon one another and the past shapes our present. We know that history evolves; or at least our understanding of it does. These are all new concepts to 8
graders, and as they prepare to make the leap to high school classrooms, I feel an urgency to impress upon them the importance of history and historical thinking.
What makes this task even more challenging is the marginalization of Social Studies in the primary curriculum. In my district, for grades K-6, Social Studies can often be an after-thought rather than a focus of study in the classroom. Even fifth graders are allotted thirty minutes a week of Social Studies in the district curriculum plan. I've heard teachers complain that, with three-hour daily literacy blocks and an understandable emphasis on math skills, even this thirty minutes can be hard to accommodate. I imagine this is true in many places, especially urban districts who have moved almost entirely to a reading/math curriculum. Social Studies is also not an explicitly tested subject on state mandated standardized assessments, although we of course work on reading and writing skills through our engagement with primary and secondary documents, as well as research, essay writing, and journaling throughout the year.
This all serves as context for any unit of study I write. Content, while important, is no more vital than methodology. Midway through my first year of teaching Social Studies (though I've taught Language Arts for three years at the middle level), I've had reasonable success with first-person historical journal entries. Students assume the voice of historical figures, real, or more often, imagined, and demonstrate their understanding of a particular time period through the language, details, and subject matter in their writing. This bit of creative writing, done regularly, both reinforces content and engages students as they have the opportunity to be imaginative. I've had so much success with this type of assignment that I plan on making journal writing the cornerstone around which I organize my 8
grade course next year. This project will be a natural extension of that work.
I chose to expand this unit beyond immigration and migration to a broader family history that includes a study of class and conflict because the 8
grade class is a survey course and we move through content very quickly. As this will be a cumulative project, it will require students to demonstrate their knowledge of these themes, as well as their understanding of historical events.
Students will have to write a brief introduction to each document they choose to include in their collection, stating why it is important in this family's history and how it connects to American history. I believe that by placing the family in New York I will open up more options as to what the family's history may be. The students can choose to create a character of any ethnicity, race, class etc. New York is also close to my home district of New Haven, so students can relate to the types of histories that might relate to a family in the Northeast.
Ultimately, I hope this creative project will engage students, reinforce prior learning regarding historical themes and types of sources, and finally solidify the message that each of us is a culmination of a series of choices, historical events, movements and conflicts.
Rationale for Methodology Employed in this Unit
Common Core State Standards
The new Common Core State Standards are written for English Language Arts and Math. While some Social Studies educators may bemoan the fact that our discipline is left out and this could again be seen as marginalization, I agree with those that feel as though the Common Core offers an opportunity for the rejuvenation of the discipline. A close examination of the literacy standards reveals that the Social Studies classroom is the natural home of many of the skills emphasized and we are once again relevant to the national debate and discussion on education.
I've included relevant standards in Appendix A to this document, but it is worth discussing these at somewhat greater length. The difference between primary and secondary documentation is a critical component in these standards. When one looks at Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning Domains
, it becomes clear that the highest order of thinking is creating. We can ask children to remember the difference between primary and secondary documents. We can even ask them to apply, evaluate, and analyze both primary and secondary documents in hopes of embedding the differences between both and how historians look at them. But I would argue that students will best learn what a primary document is and "analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic"
if they are creating artifacts and writing secondary interpretations of them.
In addition, this unit will directly address standards asking students to interpret visual as well as textual information, summarizing main idea, analyzing perspective and point of view, as well as distinguishing between fact and opinion. In preparation for new state assessments aligned to Common Core, it is important that any unit directly address the skill set necessary for student achievement on these assessments, and this unit does so through its activities and objectives.
Person Journal Writing/Artifact Creation
"Writing, reading, storytelling. Some truth. Some fiction. And always our lives."
Tom Romano uses these words to describe the impact of his daughter's English class assignment in which she used her knowledge of family history and early 20
century America in order to write the fictionalized story of her grandfather's immigration through Ellis Island. I believe Romano captures exactly the promise of an interdisciplinary unit such as this one. Even the most scholarly historian knows there has to be an aspect of
imagination in order to engage with history. This is especially important for middle schoolers just beginning their engagement with historical thinking.
Student engagement is the elusive key to all student success. It can't always be predicted and sometimes what teachers believe will be the most high-interest lesson falls flat. However, I have seen fluent, creative, and accurate writing when I ask students to assume the role of a historical character, and this, to me, reflects high levels of engagement. According to EdD Gayle Thieman,
An effective method of teaching US and world history courses is to have students write fictional journals about a fictional character whose lifestyle is affected by the events occurring during the specific historical period being studied. The students are required to add new information to the journals as they gain more knowledge about the topic. This teaching method impels students to use their creativity and resourcefulness to learn more about a topic so that they can fill their journals with more interesting and relevant facts.
As Thieman notes, this sort of first person journaling demands that students apply, rather than regurgitate, their understanding of the past.
This kind of assignment also speaks to understanding the impact of perspective. I have had students write fascinating journal entries from the perspective of slaves and slave owners, British soldiers and American founding fathers, Dust Bowl farmers and depression-era bankers. It is important to me that students understand there is not a single story in American history, but a collection of perspectives and experiences that, taken together, can begin to explain our history. First person historical journaling accomplishes this better than any other activity or lesson I've tried.
While journaling may be an aspect to this unit, students will take this a step further in creating all types of artifacts. This, I hope, will further engage struggling students who may shy away from writing. Creating photographs, maps, drawings, or other items will help differentiate for all learners. I would also be open to students developing a theme across time (drawings, wedding photos, letters, etc.) as this may help struggling students develop their materials if they are focused on one type of artifact and how it may change over generations in a single family.