Employing Problem-Based Learning to Current Events

As we concluded our Immigration Unit, it was an excellent opportunity PBL vs. Traditionalto take our first dive into problem-based learning. Problem-based learning, or PBL, is a student-centered approach to inquiry. The web is full of ways to do PBL, but I feel like they often put the cart in front of the horse. I like to use PBL to make what’s “old” relevant again. Meaning, I want to take the lessons and what we learned in class to inform us and make a decision as it applies to a real, current problem in the world. One marched right into our laps! For me, I had students work in groups and introduced the problem (sometimes students identify one on their own, though not now), identify what they need to know, learn more about the problem, and formulate a solution. It’s a real-world problem to solve which employs knowledge and skills which we learned in class. The current crisis over the Honduran migrant caravan presents a perfect opportunity to employ problem-solving skills.

First, some context. Students spent October studying immigration. Students conducted research around question they created (ex: how do immigrants today compare to those one hundred years ago?) and produced an inquiry-based project. I also lead activities to help students learn why different immigrant groups came to America, the problems they faced both at home and here, and different kinds of immigration. We also learned how immigrants come into America, earn citizenship, and sometimes run afoul of the law. icivics produces an excellent game to practice this, too!

After an assessment to measure some of what we learned, I wanted to apply our knowledge to a real-world, current problem and REALLY assess what we know. The migrant caravan is an excellent test of both putting past into the present context, and evaluating a problem to provide solutions. My students broke into groups, were introduced to the problem, and then brainstormed what they needed to know. This was essential and involved a great deal of questioning. Students then researched, shared sources, and discussed as a class what they discovered about the caravan, border safety, and immigration policy. As students brainstormed solutions, they needed to evaluate how three main groups would react: Americans, the migrants themselves, and our neighbors to the south. Sure, we can be more nuanced than that, but for the purpose of this project that was plenty of perspectives to consider. Just “letting them all in” would upset many Americans, and “saying go home” would do damage to the other two parties. We’re trying to find common ground and a solution that builds toward better conditions for us all. Just saying “no go home” doesn’t help our neighbors or prevent future migrant caravans from coming.

Here are the solutions my students came up with.

  • Work with other North and Central American nations to share the burden of immigrants and relocate them there.
  • Work with states who need workers and relocate the immigrants there.
  • Build a tent city for immigrants to stay in until we can find a home for them.
  • Secure the border with the military and jail those that cross illegally.
  • Grant asylum to anyone who qualifies, send the rest home.
  • Work with companies to provide work visas to qualified immigrants.
  • Conduct background checks and evaluate their stories.
  • Provide education and law enforcement assistance to countries like Honduras so that we can avoid future caravans.
  • Create a Great Depression-like infrastructure plan to put migrants to work and help our nation improve roads, bridges, etc.
  • Help them find jobs.
  • Create and work with advocacy groups to help them find homes.
  • Find American families to “adopt” families until they can find a destination.
  • Gradually allow immigrants into the country while holding and evaluating asylum applicants in a temporary city.
  • Bring them to Puerto Rico to help rebuild and establish their own community with the territory.
  • Many plans included a variety of points above.
  • Many plans included timelines of 90 days, 6 months, or a year.

Better than any solution was their willingness to compromise. Many classes combined ideas and were willing to bend on their positions without compromising their goal in order to bring other groups into the agreement. I’m happy to see them build great plans and it was an excellent exercise in taking what we learned and giving it a real, live purpose. History certainly comes alive in settings like this!

 

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Problem Based Learning: the Battle of Fort Sumter

We’ve spent the last week uncovering the causes of disunion as we build towards Civil War. After the Election of 1860, 7 southern states seceded and created the Confederacy, taking with them military bases and federal resources within their boundaries. Fort Sumter was a flash point where the new Confederacy needed to prove their resolve and a new Union leader needed to make good on an inaugural promise. This was a perfect opportunity to utilize problem-based learning (PBL).

I’m working on a PBL post to explain this more thoroughly, but I like to use PBL in a few PBL1 different ways. I think there’s a litany of PBL blog posts, articles, and research, but I utilize it in a way that fits my students, curriculum, and the flow of a unit. One way I use PBL is at the culmination of a unit when students can apply historical thinking to a modern problem. For example, using what we learned from our immigration unit, how can President Trump resolve the crisis surrounding the migrant caravan? Another way I use PBL is when we study a flash point like Fort Sumter, or perhaps the Election of 1860 itself. I present a conflict or dilemma facing a particular individual or group, provide students with key facts, and have them identify a solution after evaluating the evidence with a group. This is a radically simple version of a case-study method, which is one I’d like to work up to with improved problem-solving skills.

Step 1 was to lay the ground work. I explained the key facts, places, and leaders in the situation. These were the key slides we used, as well as Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

intro slide 2intro slide 1

Step 2 was to divide the students into four major groups: Lincoln, Davis, Beauregard and Anderson.

Step 3 set the problem to solve: what should each of these men do? Outline the options your leader could take and explain the potential outcomes which could come as a result. “Potential outcomes” sometimes meant “what are the pros and cons” of each option.

Step 4 was group discussion. I moved around to discuss with each group and make sure they genuinely thought through each option. For Anderson, when a group would say “just go home there’s too many Confederates!”, we’d discuss what would happen for Anderson to retreat and give up Sumter. It provided an excellent real-world historical example to practice our historical thinking skills.

work2work1

Once students felt good about their options, we brought the whole class back together for a review and then watched a film by the Civil War Trust to show the conclusion of this conflict, and discussed Lincoln’s decision to draw the Confederacy into attacking first. One student came very close to coming up with Lincoln’s eventual plan!

We wrapped up with a 50-word summary to explain how Lincoln’s problem solving at Fort Sumter would be received by his constituents in the North. Students loved this method to study Fort Sumter and it was an excellent way to blend primary sources, collaboration, problem solving and military strategy. Admittedly, it’s incomplete and I’d love to develop it more. We didn’t use enough of the communications between Beauregard and Anderson. I could use more detail in describing the problem. We could simulate Lincoln’s cabinet and the different agendas and personalities within. But it served our learning objective well today and will continue to improve as I use it in future lessons.

Why Did German Immigrants Risk Their and Their Families’ Lives to Come to America?

The following blog entry is written by 7th grade students at Lakeview as a product of their inquiry-based project on immigration. After conducting and organizing their research, they chose to write a first-person narrative in the form of a blog. Below are their entries.

Why Did German Immigrants Risk Their and Their Families’ Lives to Come to America?

By: Audrey and Maya

Mr. Little’s 7th Period Social Studies Class

 

Thomas Abel, a poor German farmer, tells the story of his life and family through journal entries.

 

September 14, 1796

Dear Journal,

I had a hard day working in the fields. Crops are failing, I barely have any food to harvest, and my wife is going to give birth in a month. I am worried. What if we do not have enough to keep the baby alive? Even if the baby does survive, he or she will have a miserable life. Constant work, not enough food, struggling to survive. Life is getting harder and harder by the day.

 

September 17, 1796

Dear Journal,

I got a break from working in the fields today when I went to the market to sell my crops. However, I made only a little money from the small amount of crops I sold. I made enough money to support my family for maybe a week, if food remains inexpensive. I have the feeling that it won’t.

 

September 24, 1796

Dear Journal,

I went to the market again today. Unfortunately, all of the money I have made from selling crops has been spent on food for my family. During this past week, I have also been storing up food for the winter. I have harvested almost all of my crops, and I still don’t think that I will

have enough food for my wife and I to survive the winter, let alone the newborn baby. Speaking of the baby, he or she is due in roughly 20 days. Anxiety has been building in my home.

 

September 31, 1796

Dear Journal,

Besides food issues, another problem has been steadily growing in my life. The government of the area I live in has been enforcing the official religion. I do not follow this religion, and I am told that I will be punished lest I convert. However, I have no intention of doing so – not even in the face of death. Also, the government allows nearly no one to emigrate, so I couldn’t leave the country even if I wanted to.

 

October 5, 1796

Dear Journal,

A ray of hope has been shined into my life. My neighbor came to my home today. He told my family and I about the foreign land of America. I had heard about America before this, but I didn’t know much about it. My neighbor told me about a colony that was in this new land – a colony that, he promised, would have religious freedom for anyone, no matter what they believed. This sounds like a very nice land, but I would rather not leave my home country of Germany unless I desperately need to, and, of course, we are not allowed to leave..  

 

October 10, 1796

Dear Journal,

My baby will be born any day now. Instead of this situation bringing me joy, as it should, it only brings me more anxiety. I don’t think my baby will live very long.

 

October 13, 1796

Dear Journal,

I briefly visited the market today, in between caring for my wife. I sold all of my crops today. I have made little money from the sale. There is no way that we will survive the winter. We have enough money to eat for a few weeks, at most. Also, a man down the street was arrested for not following the official religion. I am terrified, and I don’t know what I should do.

 

October 15, 1796

Dear Journal,

My baby boy was born yesterday. We named him Christian. He is thin and unhealthy. Today, I talked to my wife about the food problem. She is dead-set on traveling to America. She says that there, we will have enough food, enough money, and not be arrested for our religion. However, I do not wish to leave for America, because the chances of Christian surviving are nearly impossible. But, as my wife argues, he will die here anyways, and so will we, so we might as well take the chance to go to America. If we are going to leave, though, we need to do it soon. We cannot wait till the baby gets older, because winter is coming, and few ships will be sailing then. We cannot wait until after winter because there is no way Christian will survive the cold, hard weather. Oh, what am I to do?

 

October 20, 1796

Dear Journal,

Germany has eased restrictions on emigration! Our neighbors just left for America. My family and I want to come to America, but we do not have enough money. I do not want to give up, but I also do not have much hope or strength left. I think it may soon be the end for me.

 

October 21, 1796

Dear Journal,

Today my hope is renewed! In the market, I heard talk of the redemption system. It is a form of indentured labor. My wife and I decide to work for a man in Pennsylvania, a colony in America, for 7 years in exchange for the trip to America along with shelter, food, and warmth once we arrive there. I am overjoyed! I meet with this man tomorrow. I hope he agrees to help my family and I!

 

October 22, 1796

Dear Journal,

The man agreed to help my wife, baby Christian, and myself! I am so relieved. We leave for America nine days from today. I am a bit nervous about the journey. I have heard stories of shark attacks, storms, sickness, and death. I must trust that we will be alright. After all, the man helping us is a good omen. The man told me that Americans believe in “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” My family and I believe the same thing. There is hope for us after all!

 

In these nine days, Tomas Abel did not write. He was busy making the trip with his family from Germany to Holland, where he boarded the ship to America.

 

An picture of what the port looked like where most Germans left Holland from:

 

October 31, 1796

Dear Journal,

We are on the ship. It lurches left and right in a most unpleasant way. My wife can not stop being sick. The sea spray goes up my nose and mouth. Christian constantly wails. The other passengers are not doing much better. Already the journey to America is hard.

 

November 1, 1796

Dear Journal,

I wake up to see a red sky. The captain says this is not good. But red has always been my favorite color. Even though yesterday was not the best start to our journey, I cannot help but feel optimistic about today.

 

November 2, 1796

Dear Journal,

Red skies are bad, especially in the morning. The waves crash against the boat, thunder booms, lightning flashes, and rain pours down. Christian is not doing well. He gets smaller each day, it seems. My wife is not much better. She spends most of her time inside our tiny cabin, on our little wooden bed. I try to stay strong, because it is only our third day. I must survive. I must make it to the land of the free.

 

November 10, 1796

Dear Journal,

Yesterday a passenger fell overboard. He was not seen again. It was frightening. On the bright side, my wife is getting better. She has not been sick for hours. Christian is still sickly and small. He does not wail as much, though, but I would rather hear him cry then hear nothing at all.

 

November 15, 1796

Dear Journal,

The captain says we should be at America in 1 day. I hope he is correct. My stomach growls. My clothes are dirty. My beard has grown rough and scraggly. Christian is close to death, I can feel it. We keep him warm, and in our arms, but we are in such close proximity to all the other passengers, including the sick ones. I don’t want to lose my son. I want this journey to be over. I want to get to America.

 

November 17, 1796

Dear Journal,

I will be glad to work for 7 years after this journey, because anything will be better than it. The captain was wrong. We are not at America, and it has been over a day. I am worried. What if we are stuck on this sea until we die?

 

November 18, 1796

Dear Journal,

Today, a golden sliver of land peeked over the horizon. As soon as the crew cried, “Land ho!” there were shouts and dancing throughout the ship. We will dock at sunset. My whole family is healthy, alive, and grateful.

 

November 20, 1796

Dear Journal,

We are staying in a small town near the city where we dock. My wife and I start work tomorrow, and Christian is getting better each hour! We plan to move inland and start a farm after seven years of labor. America has been amazing so far, I and hope it continues to be that way.

 

“A New Surge of Growth.” Library of Congress. Accessed October 1st, 2018. http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/german4.html

 

“The Call of Tolerance.” Library of Congress. Accessed October 3rd, 2018.

http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/german2.html

 

“Irish and German Immigration.” Ushistory.org. Accessed October 4, 2018.

http://www.ushistory.org/us/25f.asp

 

Alchin, Linda. “German Immigration to America.” Emmigration.info. January 1, 2018. Accessed October 4th, 2018.

http://www.emmigration.info/german-immigration-to-america.htm

 

“German Immigration.” Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Accessed October 11, 2018.

https://hsp.org/education/unit-plans/german-immigration-0

Studying Immigration with Primary Sources and Inquiry

One of the benefits of mentoring a student teacher is that I get to learn a lot, too! Last year Ms. B employed “Gallery Walks” and we found them highly engaging. Students get out of their seats, get to interact with primary documents, and are immersed in content very quickly. I’m glad to continue doing them and give her credit for teaching her mentor an excellent strategy.

This week conducted a Gallery Walk to introduce “thinking like a historian” and investigating primary sources. We used a variety of images to build a gallery and explore on Tuesday and Wednesday. Students experienced galleries of images around 4 experiences of immigration:

  • Mexican-American farm workers
  • Japanese-Americans during World War 2
  • European & Chinese immigrants during the late 1800’s
  • A Hungarian immigrant’s Declaration of Intention (and other Ellis Island documents)

We needed lots of time to discuss and analyze these primary documents, then finished with some creative, first-person writing to reflect on the process. immigrant story bellringerSimultaneously in ELA classes, students were interviewing a family member for their Personal Immigrant Stories. These experiences provided an opportunity for students to collaboratively explore immigration through different experiences. We’re making progress toward developing an understanding of the complex social, economic, cultural and political reasons why people emigrate to America.

 

Inquiry has been a driving force throughout this unit. Last week we brainstormed

IMG_2147
Students generate questions after an introduction to Immigration. These would later become our Essential Questions for independent research.

some open questions in response to what we learned about Immigration. This week who took those questions and created essential questions to guide our research. Ultimately, we’ll develop claims, which serve as an answer of sorts to the essential question. Students have unique questions to research, and their context (time period, nationality, push/pull factors) varies by interest, too.

New Unit: Immigration

This year I’m taking a different approach to a portion of our unit on American History. Our ELA teachers have developed a unit to a point where it now includes a Global Read Aloud (more on that later) and a book study with “Refugee” by Alan Gratz. This is a full-blown Social Studies unit and begs for collaboration. So we are! Time is sparse so it’s been difficult to sit down, but I’m glad that my peers and I have such an effective working relationship that we can make this work.

Immigration as a topic is an excellent vehicle for teaching a broad swath of American history. Technically, even the Bering Strait land bridge was a story of migration! Teaching history through immigration allows me to personalize history (nearly half our students are immigrants or are children/grandchildren of immigrants) and cover historical topics that we don’t usually cover at Lakeview. From colonization to current immigration debates, we can cover some ground in an effective and engaging way.

We began our study with a quick look back on our American roots. Students studied the “push factors” of European Revolutions during the Renaissance Era, then studied the “pull factors” of an American republic with religious and economic freedom. We did some collaborative research courtesy of Britannica and worked on our claim-evidence-reasoning.

While I don’t lecture too often, introducing some concrete information on immigration was important to establishing background information as we go forward. We read Emma Lazarus and ended the week by generating open questions. Students are in a nice place to understand how immigration has evolved and how we can tell the story of our history through different perspectives. You can see their questions below, and while they range in quality, we have some great examples of an inquiry mindset taking shape.

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And here are our notes from class:

Multiple Intelligences & SEL Skills

Multiple Intelligences, despite its detractors in education, provides SEL Wheelstudents with important information. Especially as we build SEL components into our classrooms, understanding our own strengths and weaknesses is a valuable skill for middle school students to learn. Today in class, students identified their Multiple Intelligences, then began to alter their approach to studying something like States and Capitals. Multiple intelligences is not the answer to every learning problem but is an interesting piece of information for students to consider when deciding how to study, what kinds of choices to make with projects and activities, and how to find something to build confidence around.

Here are the 8 Multiple Intelligences which Gardner proposed:

Verbal-Linguistic (Word Smart): These students excel when reading, writing, and memorizing dates or lists. They learn best by taking notes, debating, discussing, studying primary sources and listening to lectures. They also pick up foreign languages easier. Think lawyers, philosophers/thinkers, teachers, and writers.

Logical-Mathematical (Number Smart): These students excel when recognizing patterns, reasoning, make abstract observations, games like Sudoku, and usually in math and/or science. However, logical-mathematical thinkers are not limited to math success, and may excel on task-oriented work or creating solutions to problems. Think doctors, mathematicians, and scientists.

Visual-Spatial (Picture Smart): These students excel when using visuals. Spatial students usually find more success when visually manipulating material (mind maps, lists, word searches) and visually studying the construction of material. Think architects and artists.

Intrapersonal (Myself Smart): These students sometimes excel when working alone, as many are more introverted. Many of these students also enjoy peace and quiet and being able to work on their own terms. These students are great at reflection and are usually great at identifying their emotions and feelings. Think theologians and writers.

Interpersonal (People Smart): These students excel when interacting with other students and are usually extroverts. Usually, Interpersonal learners understand others’ emotions and are empathetic. Think politicians (in theory, maybe not practice!), social workers, and managers.

Musical (Music Smart): These students excel when using music to learn. While these students are more talented in identifying sounds, thereby playing instruments better, they are also great listening learners (lectures, speeches, books on tape). These students usually use some kind of rhythm or even song when studying and learning. Think musicians, singers, and composers.

Bodily-Kinesthetic (Body Smart): These students excel at physical activities, like sports or dance. These students are also successful at building things and associating learned material with physical movement. Think dancers, comedians, builders, and artists.

Naturalistic (Nature Smart): These students excel outdoors and when working with nature. Think farmers, gardeners, conservationists, park rangers, and some scientists.

While these intelligences help us identify how our students and children learn, it is important to note that several of these overlap, and result in shared characteristics. Students do not have ONE intelligence but instead, have a set of strengths. I instruct students to recognize what they are gifted and good at, and work to those strengths when provided with a choice in school. We’ll document and revisit how well we’re managing or monitoring our strengths and weaknesses throughout the year, helping students develop those self-management skills are crucial for their SEL development.

Kicking off 2018-19 with Presidential Time Travel!

While the beginning of the year can be stuffed with baseline assessments, introductions to procedures, etc, I like to begin with a group project. It’s a fun way to build culture, introduce a few year-long concepts, and learn about my students. I really enjoy seeing what they can do before I set goals for the year and map out how to accomplish those.

The core concept behind the project is this: America in 2018 is divided and frustrated, so we should travel back in time to capture a President from the past, and return them to unite Americans and lead us forward!

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Students first did some background reading on a few great Presidents, and then they IMG-2007identified which characteristics they found to be most important for a great President. After being grouped with classmates, those groups set norms to guide them through collaboration, then began sharing their characteristics to find some common ground. Once students had their characteristics, they could decide which President matched those characteristics. This is where I learned lesson number 1: how resourceful are these students? Resourceful groups/students efficiently used their time to find websites and articles which covered a range of top Presidents. A few even used a – gasp – library to find information!

Once students selected a President, they began to collect research on them. Lesson number 2: can students differentiate between meaningful evidence and “noise?” Sometimes students will simply collect facts, and not connect them to a purpose. Examples of this would be saying things about a President’s family, where he was born, etc. The best groups found information about a President which directly related to their characteristics. For example, if they chose George Washington because he was brave, they found an example of how he lead troops across the Delaware River leading into the Battle of Trenton. It’s also a convenient time to build my expectation for citing your work.

Students initially used this document to organize their research:

Students then used this document to organize responsibilities and revisit their norms:

Armed with Evidence, students began their campaigns! Lesson number 3: can we balance evidence with enthusiasm? So many kids thought outside the box and took a risk, and the best groups did that while keeping the spotlight on evidence. Ultimately, students presented an advertisement, produced posters, and gave a speech to rally the crowd to vote for their candidate. The project culminated with a day of campaign rallies and a vote in each class.

Ultimately, these kids did a nice job on their first project and we’re on our way to a great year. I’ve got some crucial observations from watching them work (way more lessons than I can list here), and most importantly, began nurturing a culture where students are encouraged to take risks, have high expectations to utilize evidence, and where collaboration is crucial to success. Looking forward to a fun, productive year!