Fires in the Mind

Best work: Teacher-made curriculum

My guest post today is by John B., a veteran history teacher from Vermont whose comments frequently enliven our dialogue on this blog. John is always thinking of ways to make good curriculum better, and here he describes a semester-long strategy he devised to give students practice in both deep critical thinking and collaborative work. This will be the first of several guest posts in which we invite master teachers to share their most powerful curriculum projects in detail. Please write in to suggest your own contribution to the series!
Preparing to teach the 20th century era in my 10th grade world history course, a few years ago I came upon a good theme for the spring semester: the Theory of Unintended Consequences, also called the Law of Unexpected Consequences.

I decided our class would first conduct an overview of the three world wars (World War I, World War II, and the Cold War). Then, each student would explore any event in each of those conflicts that had unexpected or unintended consequences. To present their findings, students would write at least one formal written report and make one oral presentation to the class. (For the third report they could choose between a written report or a presentation). We would assess these using rubrics that the students already had for writing and oral presentation.

But what could we do as a closing activity in the spring, when kids’ focus is not at its best? I wanted the students to work together in some sort of team project, one of the most important skills students can develop in high school. So I decided to devote our final two weeks to preparing team presentations on the Law of Unexpected Consequences, as illustrated by the three world wars we had studied.

We agreed on a format for their 45-minute presentations, to include an introduction, an explanation of the Law of Unexpected Consequences, an overview of each of the wars, an example of the Law at work from each of the wars, and a conclusion. Each student had to speak for an equal amount of time. They could call on each other’s work from their prior reports and presentations, but everyone’s work had to be used. Each team had to support its presentation with visual materials. We decided to invite their advisors, parents, and an administrator to come to each presentation. I also required each group to attend another group’s talk.

The students’ focus was fine! The quality of the work was so good that it gave me chills. Without any pressure from me, each group worked together to revise their previous work to better contribute to the team’s presentation. They did more research to fact-check their previous assertions. They prepared a common triple-spaced script for easy reference, and they rehearsed (in and out of class) more than I could have imagined. They worked together to prepare the visuals to support the talks. On their own initiative, they even dressed up in nice clothes for the presentations. Parents and other teachers were actively and authentically involved in the question and discussion session that followed each presentation. When it was over, students and parents left the classroom beaming with satisfaction.

I have now used this same model several times in this and other classes. It has never failed to both keep the focus in the spring and help move the students toward mastery of many skills.

What next?! Linking inquiry to amazement

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