Now, in my fourth year of teaching as a New Haven Public School elementary teacher at Davis Street Arts and Academics Magnet School, I have come to understand and appreciate the opportunities, which arise throughout our tumultuous school year wherein we, as lovers of learning, can integrate deeper, more meaningful explorations into the curriculum. This being my first year teaching fourth grade, I am exploring for the first time heightened common core state standards proposed for this grade level as well as new and exciting curriculum material designed to meet those standards. While our district has given the subject areas of literacy and mathematics an abundance of mandatory lessons, helpful materials and resources, the subject areas of Science and Social Studies seem to have been robbed not only of the afore mentioned resource materials but so too of the time allotted in each day with which to survey these subjects in a meaningful, engaging way. Similarly, our writing curriculum, although well laid out in terms of which genres of writing we must teach during each marking period, lacks depth. Many of the mini-lessons provided in our curriculum binder are related to the mechanics of writing and the organization of writing journals and fall short in offering meaningful ways to incorporate lesson material into a writing project or performance task. It is my goal therefore to create a curriculum unit, which incorporates a more in depth exploration of science and social studies by way of meaningful performance tasks and written activities.
Today in my fourth grade classroom we are reading a non-fiction core text from our "Plugged Into Reading" program, entitled Rescues by Sandra Markle. This engaging text deals with the various natural disasters that have occurred throughout the world in recent years and how professional rescue teams as well as volunteers have brought survivors to safety. In tandem with this core-text, my students are researching various natural disasters (forest fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, etc.) from the perspective of science. Through my curriculum unit, my goal is to find ways to expand these studies into the more intrinsically interesting subject of how human communities (schools, neighborhoods, towns, nations) are affected by and respond to such challenges in accordance with their own moral value systems and resources. Since the concept of community is neither straight-forward nor concrete in terms of a definition, I have found that approaching this subject requires a great deal of care and sensitivity. Therefore, the conceptual framework I propose is meant to gradually release the responsibility of understanding 'community' to my students by way of guiding them from an analysis of 'outside' communities to a reflection of their own lives and the lives of those in their immediate communities.
In addition to and, possibly, more importantly than the academic objectives of my unit, my goal is to raise my students' awareness of their integral role within their classroom and school community as well as their neighborhood community. In order to impact their notions of responsibility towards their communities, my curriculum unit takes them on an exploration of community through an in depth study of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Through non-fiction texts, articles, case studies, film and other media, we will observe how communities, both far and near, reacted to the devastation and destruction wrought by not only the hurricane itself but, almost more importantly, by the failed rescue attempts of institutions that only served to worsen the blow. Upon identifying those characteristics, which both failed and came to the rescue of this traumatized community, I will guide my students to be self-reflective and determine what kinds of moral value systems they intend to act upon as they live and develop within their various communities.
This unit links together history, geography, writing and literacy through interdisciplinary explorations into how victims whose lives are directly and inadvertently endangered as well as those who voluntarily risk their lives to be a part of rescue efforts, react in groups to meet the imminent danger posed by these natural disasters. In so doing, the essential question I ask my students to reflect on in the culminating section of this unit is: How might I function as an individual within my community? In this way, my students are being invited to take what they have gleaned from their research to a more personal level that can stimulate their self-expression. So too does it cultivate a sense of personal agency in the face of forces beyond one's own control within my students.
Throughout this unit my students work in both small- and large-group settings on the activities included in this unit. The unit lessons are implemented 4-5 times a week, for a period of 40-60 minutes over a 4-month period. I have divided my curriculum-unit into four sections in which I employ the use of fiction and non-fiction texts as well as film and Internet resources, in an effort to engage them in active reading and enhance their writing ability. The sections are:
Section 1: Rescues!
Section 2: Researching Natural Disasters
Section 3: Exploring Community through the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Section 4: What is my Role in my Community?