The Pros & Cons of My History Lesson Redesign
A MiddleWeb Blog
Last November, I wrote here about the value of the self-reflection process in helping teachers realize that a lesson or unit needs to be scrapped because it has outlived its effectiveness.
A quick recap: After I realized that my own U.S. Constitution “bridge” lesson just wasn’t working anymore, I immediately wrote a draft of what I thought would work better. The plus side of taking this tack: my thoughts and impressions of what needed to be changed were very fresh then and very welcome when I began the actual revision this year. On the other hand, I had to wait a whole year to see if it would work. Read on to learn whether scrapping a time-worn lesson paid off.
The new lesson challenged students to engage
Prior to this year, I taught about different types of governments through an activity where students decided how to place governance-related images and photos on a spectrum, without teacher guidance or definitions.
It was a challenge, but generally do-able. However, as I discussed before, this lesson just wasn’t quite connecting any longer. So I changed it to be more open-ended, hands-on, and student-directed. What had been a whole group activity would now be jigsawed. Groups of students became “experts” about one type of government and then conveyed this knowledge to their peers.
As the time to teach the lesson came around this fall, I was looking forward to seeing what the students would do with this new design. But I was concerned about a few things. Namely, a lesson that used to take one 50-minute period would now stretch into at least two (and probably three) periods in order to work. I was also concerned about how accurately important information would be conveyed via the jigsaw method.
Here are some reflections on how the lesson rolled out.
Initial Explanation of the Assignment
As we began, I gave each group of students a very small blurb/definition of the type of government they would be examining in their expert groups. I probably should find a way to have them pick their own government type, as there could be more student buy-in that way. But what if they don’t know enough to know they’d be interested?
Facing an Open-Ended Assignment
We did this assignment early in the school year, so the students did not know me well yet. Some students were very excited about the prospect of an open-ended assignment and some were FREAKED out that they would not meet my expectations. They ask many questions about hypotheticals: What if we want to do ______? (my answer: yes). But what if we do_______? (yes), and so on. Is there a way to make it more clear to them that they can do anything they like as long as it addresses the assignment?
Clarifying the Assignment
Though I explained key concepts a number of times, the students still weren’t always clear about what I meant by some of them; e.g., the “distribution of power.” How can I make the assignment open-ended without a lot of restrictions, but still clear enough that they feel empowered to complete it?
Working on the Project
This was by far the most successful part. Students were engaged and really interested; they had access to Legos, a green screen, Tinkercad and a 3-D printer, and more.
They were very excited to use whatever they could to build their countries. I did have to monitor carefully and make sure that the building stayed connected to the assignment.
Otherwise, some groups would forget that they were building a country representing a government type and they would just focus on the details.
Presenting the Project
This was perhaps the most perplexing part about this lesson; how was I going to have the students present all these projects? As I mentioned above, time was a concern–I wanted to give each group due time to present without extending this already extended lesson much further. What I decided on was a rotating fair type model.
Students walked around and listened to/watched the demonstrations, presentations or movies of other groups/government types and took some basic notes. Presenters then switched with a teammate and went around themselves. It wasn’t perfect, but it seemed to give everyone a chance to see all the presentations in a timely fashion.
Synthesizing the Information
The previous iteration of this lesson had the students placing government types on a spectrum of power (government has power vs. people have power) and debating their placements. I did something similar this year, but had the expert team place the government they studied on the spectrum. Then, as a group, the students all discussed placement and rationale.
This went very well and was much less teacher directed than when I had done it in the past. Still though, I was nagged by the thought that while students were experts in their one particular government, I hadn’t done a great job assessing whether they could speak clearly about another type. Next year, I will need to add this –perhaps have them speak about other governments in comparison to the one they worked on in depth.
Assessing for Understanding
Like in previous years, the students wrote a paragraph about which government they think is the best and why. This went well this year, and the students seemed to have a better grasp of what details they could use to back up their assertions than some papers I had seen in the past. People didn’t just choose the government that they studied, especially if it was seen to be a negative one, like a dictatorship.
I also noticed that more students than usual had taken the option to write about a hybrid government, so perhaps the complexities and overlap between the government types came through.
After all this reflection, I realized that I needed also to justify this lesson’s existence. Do the students have to know what types of government exist to see the significance of the United States being a Democratic (mostly) Republic?
Is it imperative that they learn about other government types before diving into our Constitution unit? Currently I am holding at a “yes,” but I would love to hear your thoughts!
What lessons are you constantly shaping for your students?