Monday, November 19, 2007

Teaching American Dreams

I knew November was coming and I have been trying to prepare myself for not teaching my pilgrim unit. I've been worried about this since the day I decided I needed a break from the classroom. I've wondered how I was going to handle it. I was doing ok until I was planning with one of the interns I work with. She was talking through her lesson plans for Thanksgiving and I got a little too excited. Now I've had interns in the past and I know (or should know) how to walk the line between suggesting ideas and letting them do their own thing. (I even let someone else teach about George Washington Carver last year!) but I wasn't doing well sitting back this time. This isn't even my classroom and I'm not even in there for social studies. Still, I found myself vomiting up Thanksgiving lesson plans at a record pace. The poor girl looked like a deer in the headlights so I excused myself from planning.

I kind of like teaching history. I kind of love teaching history that opens the door to cooking, play acting, holding town meetings, debates, and connects to our world.

Normally I would start right after Halloween by showing the kids a picture on the smartboard of the Pilgrims before they left England. "What do you notice?" I'd ask and they'd talk about how the clothes are different than we'd wear, how they don't see lights, just candles, etc.

THEN I set the scene: we're in England and the MEAN king wont let us live like we want to live. We want to believe one thing, he says we can't. So we're coming together to hold a meeting. We've heard about this strange 'New World' place and think if we go there we could believe whatever we wanted. But we have to leave everything behind. I ask one person to be head of the town meeting and we open it up to debate. Should we go? Should we stay? Why or why not? I make them state their answers in full sentences and say things like, "I agree with Kelly because______" to prove they are listening to one anothers' ideas. Then we take a vote. Every year but last year the kids showed their adventurous spirit and voted to leave. Last year was different and I ended up having to say, "too bad, we're going anyway. Get on the boat."

The debate is the highlight of the unit and in May they are still talking about the Mean King and how we had to leave everything we knew. I love watching their little minds explode with possibility.

So we act out packing all our belongings, saying goodbye to our friends, getting on the boat, living on the boat, arriving in the new world, and starting over. I introduce everything with pictures or drawings on the smart board so we can get good pictures in our heads and discuss "what do you notice?" to initiate discussion I try to allow time for them to play that they are actually a pilgrim. Without leading them through a lesson I sit back and watch them get into character and transport themselves back to 1620.

We build construction paper houses in our new world using specific measurements to go along with our measurement unit in Math. We "milk cows" and make butter to discuss change of states in science, and generally live like the pilgrims for the month.

The best part though comes when we meet Squanto. We talk about how out of the woods comes someone that looks very different than us. Are we scared? How do we feel? They look at me like I'm crazy and point out that everyone has different skin so why are we worried about Squanto. We discuss how the pilgrims all had white skin and had never seen someone like Squanto before. But Squanto ends up saving their lives and teaching them how to live off the land. (When I teach Martin Luther King I review the lessons we learned from Squanto.)

Squanto teaches us to live off the land so we study plants to meet our science SOLs.

We end it with a big feast and I hand out their Thanksgiving Projects. Over Thanksgiving Break I make my classes interview their relatives about their ancestors who also made a trip to America. They come back with a decorated paper doll of their ancestor and share the trip with the class. For some kids they are the 'pilgrims' and it is always a meaningful experience to hear them talk about their trip to America. One boy once wrote, "In Bolivia it was hard. We came for American Dreams". I cried.

After Thanksgiving the Ancestor unit moves us into map skills which keeps us excited and active through the holiday season.

I love the units that become curriculum encompassing, in-depth, meaningful life lessons.


Anonymous said...

This humbled me... I thought I had a passion for history but you take it to a higher level that just sounds incredible. Those kids have no idea what they had (or maybe they did?!)

Jeffrey McClurken said...

This sounds like a great lesson and one that inspires kids to like history (which matters a great deal to me as someone who has to (re)inspire them to like it many years later).

However, I couldn't help but thinking two things as I read the post (and please understand that they are both intended tongue-in-cheek).
1) Do you tell them that once they arrive they can impose their beliefs on others the way the Pilgrims and Puritans did?
2) Where is the love for the Berkeley plantation Thanksgiving here in Virginia which predates the Pilgrim one by at least a year?

Finally, I love the idea of telling the class, "Too bad.... Get on the boat." :-)

organized chaos said...

Sorry Jeff, The Berkeley plantation isn't an SOL and therefore doesn't actually exist. :)
And I've thought about making them wear scarlet letters as a follow-up later in the year but worried it may get me fired. So we'll keep the pilgrims and Columbus innocent for now and let their college professors teach some of our historical truths.