And on to Alexander the Great…
As a class we watch a lot of documentaries because, as texts, they exemplify some wonderful concepts:
1) Every documentary is an essay in which we can find a hook, a thesis, introduction, details, and conclusion.
2) Documentaries give you a picture (or should) of the landscape which is very important especially in ancient societies.
3) Documentaries, like essays, have to be “read”. Students need to learn to ask questions not just of the material, but of the writer and director.
4) Documentaries give you a great way to learn to take notes. (I use Cornell Notes.)
It is not unusual, given time, for me to show my students two documentaries with widely different biases. I want them to say, “Wait, didn’t the other guy say the opposite?”
Currently we are watching Michael Wood’s In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great. It has no flashy music, no actors, just one guy walking around with copies of the ancient historians. The students love it. They get to see Michael Wood struggle with reconciling the different texts, modern life getting in the way of historical research, and him being respectful of those people who have a different view point than the ancient Greek texts. He is a great role model. I can’t wait to get them to Terry Jones!
We study History in my classroom. This is because I don’t know what “Social Studies” means. This year we are starting with Alexander the Great and moving towards the Renaissance. I’m very fortunate that I don’t have a boss or a curriculum which dictates to me how fast we go. This is important because to “do” history, you really need time. What is most fascinating to me is how history is recorded. It takes a deal of understanding about propaganda, bias, ego, and world languages. History is not only written by the victor, but by the conquered (if you are lucky), in the dirt, in the religions, and sometimes in the genetics. You have to separate out the theology, the science, and the mythology. I find it exhilarating.
We always start the year with world maps. Students are given a blank piece of 11 by 17 paper, a pencil, and a rubric. They go to a window where a blank map of the world is taped up and they trace it. Then they use various atlases and maps to fill in what is needed.
Students have to reconcile the different shapes, sizes, and features of different maps. They learn to use latitude and longitude to find a precise point. They learn that some maps spell the names of things differently. They learn that if they are sloppy, they make mistakes. Some of them learn what a proper noun is. All this takes about a week to accomplish. The map then lives in their History Binder, because we will use it as a resource during the year.
This week was important in our writing work, and it was all about reading. As a class, we spent writing class reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. Students created in class dictionaries in which they could log new vocabulary and definitions. They were required to answer questions to help with comprehension. This they did in their Bellwork Journals. Students created a list of common notations which they listed in the front of the book. As we read, students followed along with a finger or a writing implement as either I read to them or a student read aloud. We stopped to put a notation in the margins whenever I heard a student make a sound in reaction to what we were reading. Students also had predictions as we read along. These were also written next to the text. Finally, students wrote connections they made to the reading in their books. At the end of the process, all the students stated either through “think/feel” cards or writing in their journals that they had made a real connection and that they were able to think deeply about the story.
On Wednesday, the returning students (with me guiding and helping) led the new students through the plot of the story using a chart which allows them to label the problem, climax, and steps up to the climax. For which the returning students did a brilliant job!
On Thursday, we checked them against each other. All the groups used different language, but came up with similar summaries of the plot. Then returning students began to lead the new students through an outline on our way to writing the summary.
In order to support students’ understanding of paragraphing, we looked at fiction and non-fiction paragraphs, looking for similarities. We talked about a paragraph being the building blocks of writing. We read through a six paragraph essay about Paulo Coehlo and underlined topic sentences. Students quickly learned to look for the sentence which held the overall general idea.
I was impressed with the 5th and 6th graders’ commitment to understanding, the depth at which they found meaning, and their desire to get as much out of a reading session as was possible. It’s been a good few weeks.
This year for me I am in charge of a 5th-6th combined classroom at a small (tiny) private school. I am officially teaching Humanities or English and and History, but we all know that this is only a part of what I do.
What I am hoping this blog will do for me is help me to see what I am doing from an outsider’s perspective. I am hoping that it will help me to both be a better teacher, but also help me to be a better communicator about what we do as teachers.
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