Thursday, March 03, 2005

And they're off and reading, folks!

Yesterday I promised to discuss my reading unit and I'm sure all of you have been sitting on the edge of your chairs wanting to know more, so here it is:

My tenth grade world history is labeled "gifted and talented." All of these students are headed for college, where they will be expected to read "trade books" in addition to textbooks. Additionally, most of these kids are taking AP social studies classes over the next two years. Unfortunately, even though AP is supposed to be college level, it is too focused on test preparation to waste time reading a book. So, I see it as my duty to teach them how to read a history book. This is not found anywhere in the curriculum, so I've designed the entire thing on my own, with assistance from our English department chair.

I don't want to name the book we read in this post because I fear that my students will google the name and happen upon my blog. The book is about a scientist/mathematician during the Scientific Revolution. It is written by Dava Sobel. It can be found listed as one of my favorite books in my blogger profile. I chose this book because it has many things going on at once. I tell the students that they may not find every single part interesting, but they will find a lot of it interesting. This is only my second year to do this, but last year it worked fairly well. I gave students a survey at the end of the unit and most of them at least felt that it wasn't any worse than what we normally do. Many students admitted that it changed they way they viewed history or what they thought historians "did." Below, I'm listing a few things I did that have seemed to work:

I get their attention their very first day with a photograph of the scientist's old, shriveled up finger which is on display in a museum in Florence. After the students are done being grossed out, they invariably ask "Why would anyone do that?" "Ahhh," I say. "Why would they? We'll talk about that at the end of the book."

I break the book up into "strands." Strands are like themes found throughout the book. Obviously there is a historical strand. The book gives us a good idea on how the Black Plague and the Council of Trent affected citizens, among many other things, and it uses primary documents to do so. There is also a science/mathematical strand focusing on the the various theories of the time, proof for the theories, etc. There is a gender or sociological strand that focuses on what life was like for people during the time period, what a "family" was, what options were available to women during the time period, etc. And finally, there is a philosophical/religious strand that deals with truth (what is it?), reason, faith, the struggles of the Catholic Church, etc.

I give students choice and ownership by allowing them to choose one strand they are most interested in. Of course, everyone is expected to read for a historical perspective, but beyond that they can choose one from among the three others to focus on. (Interesting/sad sidenote here: Last year I called the gender/sociological strand the feminist/sociological strand, and very few kids signed up. This year the name change meant that an equal number of kids signed up for each group.)

I provide thought questions ahead of time. Some questions are dealt with for the entire book while others only focus on one of the six parts that Sobel has divided the book into. I also have about 10 vocabulary words for each part that I feel are essential for understanding within the context of the writing. For instance, in the first chapter, legitimate is used to refer to the fact that the scientists' children are born out of wedlock. That has major ramifications for their future.

I give kids time to read in class. When they see the book they are scared to death, because it is fairly long, at least in high school years. They are reading Crime and Punishment in their English class at the same time. The second day of the unit I give them the entire period to just read. (When have they ever done that in a social studies class?) I encourage them to time themselves so they can pace it out later. I give them a full reading day for all six parts of the book. Some might say an entire six days spent just reading is a waste of time, but one of my goals here is to help them adopt a positive attitude towards reading a trade book. If students are doing a nice job on the unit towards the end, I allow them to bring in cd players and snacks on reading days.

Each part culminates in a short quiz and a discussion. The quiz is not designed to be nitpicky. It's designed to make sure the kids are actually reading. You either know the answers or you don't, and it's obvious to the teacher you aren't doing the reading. For the discussions, we focus on the thought questions provided beforehand. I lead the first discussion, but after that we break up into our three strand groups and the kids take turns, in pairs, leading the discussion. Students are graded on their contributions.

Students keep all materials in a spiral notebook, separate from all other subjects. They can decorate the cover however they choose (once again supporting ownership). On the first day of the unit, we number the pages and keep a table of contents. All notes, activities, and my grades and comments on all activities are kept in this notebook.

I offer them information on different forms of taking notes. I give them advance notice to buy the book if they like to highlight. I encourage them to jot down notes in their notebook as they go along. I point out how post-its can be helpful in noting important points without breaking the flow of reading. I even buy cool Hawaiian t-shirt and girly heart post-its from Target and give them out as prizes for good comments during discussion. By the end of the book, kids have found a "groove" for taking notes and that I hope carries them into college.

It all culminates with the 5-paragraph essay, of course. And, in the end, they discover the essay I've been warning them about is a question I gave them on the first day of class that they have been taking notes on the entire time. They can use their spiral notebook while writing the essay.

There are two GT World History teachers at our school, and the other teacher does not do this. I know that I open myself up to arguments from the students since it appears to be extra work. But after spending the first day explaining why it is important and helping them get set up, I don't hear many complaints. The students see that they are spending the same amount of time reading this book as they would their regular textbook, but they find this book more interesting. I have my administration's support as well. This is partly because we do not have a standardized test for World History yet. If we did, there is no way I could do this. In essence, we are spending 4 1/2 weeks on one man (although I do give some lecture on what is going on throughout Europe during the same time period: absolutism and enlightenment). But to me, they are learning about a lot more than this once scientist because they see how history interacts. The Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Reformation all come together so well in this book. Usually, when we teach history it is compartmentalized chunks. It is worth 4 1/2 weeks to me if they understand that events don't happen in a vacuum, if they understand that history is not a textbook, if they learn the lifelong skill of reading history books.

Thanks for reading this long and rambling post. I am interested in writing up my experiences for an educational or world history journal some day. Obviously, this post is written in a much more informal manner, but any comments you have would help me in shaping a future manucript. I'll keep you updated with how this years' kids do with the unit.