I have finished the first truly thematic unit of this year in our freshly revised US history curriculum. The theme was American Immigration. We began with the essential question which would drive the research and ultimately be what students would answer for their summative assessment – “What does the history of migration to the US tell us about immigration today?” The original wording was a little more complex but it confused students. I recalled Martinez & Stager’s advice in Invent to Learn that all good prompts should fit on a post-it note and simplified it.
The general plan was for students to work to research immigration in order to answer the question. The first step was for each class to generate a set of sub-questions that they believed they needed to be able to answer in order to answer the big question. They put those on a shared Google Doc so that anyone would be able to add notes and links to the document. Then each section decided how to organize themselves – one class tackled the sub-questions, the other grouped the questions into themes and divided accordingly. To aid them, they had the book American Immigration from the Very Short Introduction series published by Oxford University Press. Classes alternated between research sessions and more discussion based work, with the aim of learning and sharing.
The last class before the in-class essay was structured as an EdCafe. Students generated the topics they wanted to discuss, filled in the schedule and divided up as they wanted. One section did only small groups. The other section decided that they all wanted to discuss the question, “What is the American identity?” so the last session was the whole class. I encouraged them to test their ideas and their arguments on one another, working through their thoughts before the essay. Some definitely took my advice. For the final class of the unit, students could bring a note card with anything they wanted written on it to write the essay. Often, I allow students to access their notes or the internet for a writing assignment. In this case, we decided to limit the students to a note card. They had limited time and would be more successful if they had really planned ahead, knowing they could not simply rely on looking everything up.
I was a little nervous when it came to reading the essays. Students had been in control of the conversation in this unit, and much of it took place in small groups where I was not always part of the discussion. In truth, the essays had some holes. Many students made assertions they did not back up with evidence. Others tried to cover so much territory that they left out crucial elements, thus skewing their argument. These are both important learning opportunities. The students who were most successful were the ones who stuck to the assertions they could support with evidence, the ones who included discussion of laws and policies, rather than relying on what they assume to be public opinion. In short, it was a mixed bag – not at all unusual for a first set of essays. The difference here is that the students arrived at their destination by their own routes, not mine. There are always kids who take a wrong turn, but this time it was their choice, not a result of ignoring me.
Then came the reflections. I fully expected students to be grumpy that I had not provided more structure, more guidelines, more information. What I found was that most students really looked at their own process (which is what I asked them to do), reflected honestly on what they might do differently in a research unit next time. They were positive about finding their own paths, and many commented on how much they liked the small group discussions for learning from each other and testing out their own ideas. There were a few people who wanted something to have been different, but overall it was affirming for inquiry-driven learning.
Still, while I think I can say this unit worked, I will not be able to call it a success until I see the students digging deeper, being more careful with their assertions and providing evidence to support their ideas. For me, the biggest takeaway from this unit is knowing exactly what I need to help students with as the year moves forward. To be continued….