Our first Social Studies unit of the year (well, the first “official” one after we set up our classroom community) was a doozey (is that how you spell that??). Let me back up. The theme for 5th grade SS is Three Worlds Meet, and so we study the Native Americans, Ancient West Africa and Medieval Europe, then look at how all of those cultures merged and became the Colonies. The first unit, while being about Native Americans–specifically the Mississippians at Cahokia and the Iroquois–was also about bigger things related to mental models.
What are mental models, you ask? Check out this example that we use to help explain them to kiddos (taken from the text we use during this unit):
We begin by looking at the mental models that many kids have about Native Americans. Many of these are things like that they live in tepees, they wear buffalo skin or feather headdresses, they are savage hunters and that they danced and chanted. None of these mental models are wrong, so to speak, but as we go through the unit, we hope that by learning new things about specific groups of Native Americans, their mental models will be challenged. And maybe changed because of their new knowledge.
We specifically study the Mississippians at Cahokia, or just Cahokians, because they are from an area very close to where we live in Missouri. Cahokia, Illinois is just a hop, skip and a jump across the Mississippi River from the area that these kiddos know so well. For that reason, they are more easily able to make connections and inferences about how the Cahokians may have lived–and they realize that in many ways these people are more similar to them than they are different.
I mentioned before that there is a text we use, which is broken down into the five disciplines of Social Studies (history, economics, geography, culture and civics) and these disciplines provide the framework for all of the conversations and activities that we do during this unit. First we learn what each of those are generally, then are able to zoom in on them more specifically to Cahokia (and later to the Iroquois, but I’ll tell about that in a later post).
Before we jump into our text, however, we have a lesson about figuring out the difference between important and interesting when you’re reading, so you know which parts to pay most attention to as a reader and learner. We discovered that it all looks important, until we look more closely at the purpose of why we’re reading. For example, if we are reading to find the answer to a certain question, then the only important things are the ones related to answering that question–all the rest is just interesting for now. If we are reading just to find out about economics, then only the ideas related to economics (not history, culture or any of the other groups) are important for now. As we also discovered, what’s important changes based on your goal.
Ok, now that we know how to pick out the parts we need to remember, we got busy into the real work of this unit. In short, for every discipline, we read a section of the text and underlined what was important, then made a class list of those key ideas. After that, we created big window-sized posters with representations we made to show each of the big ideas.
Nice, right? An art project to help us remember what we read about. Fun, too. Yes, but it’s not that simple. There are very specific rules about how you are to go about creating your representation:
1. You may use paper and anything that holds paper together (i.e. paper clips, tape, glue, glue sticks, etc.).
2. You may not use scissors.
3. You may not use any writing utensils.
What was once just a simple show-me-what-you-remember-from-what-you-just-read type activity is now a challenge to think outside the box, to be creative, to solve problems. So I was all the more impressed with what they came up with, the quality of their images, and the creative ways that they figured out to get their job done–like using the edge of a ruler or a paper clip to score paper so you can tear it neatly in the shape you want it, rather than cutting. Or using the punched-out pieces from a hole punch together to create a picture. Amazing, really.
Here’s what our posters look like once we were finished–which really took us about 6-7 school days to accomplish:
Besides the fact that these hold a lot of information and show what we’ve learned about what’s important about the Cahokians, I love how they look hanging on the windows:
As we were working on these projects, it was so great to see the group/partner work that was taking place, the problems that were being solved as they created their pieces, and the smiles on their faces as they worked. I was so glad at how many kiddos voiced to me how much they loved doing this because it was “so different from anything I’ve ever done before.” They told me how the rule of not using scissors and pencils “made their brains think in a new way and challenged me in a new way.” Gotta love it when kiddos say those things out loud! It’s exactly what I had hoped was happening.
On a side note, these posters hung in our room throughout the whole Cahokia unit, and we came back to them time after time, as we made connections between different aspects of Cahokia, our own lives, and then as we moved into learning about the Iroquois. I’m actually going to be sad later this week when they have to come down to make room for other things. 😦