The last unit before the big OAA (our state’s end of the year assessment) is always a tricky one. So much to review, such little time. This year I wanted to create a multi-genre reading and writing unit that would review essential fiction and non-fiction skills that was engaging and driven by student interest.
My students are obsessed with the “I Survived” series. Each book in this historical fiction chapter book series is written from the viewpoint of a boy who survived a major event in world history. I’ve found that these addicting little books are an excellent way to get boys (and girls!) interested in history while burning through an entire series!
Building on their frenzy, I decided to create a four week unit around the title, I Survived: The Sinking of the Titanic [Tarshis, L. (2011). I survived: The sinking of the Titanic. New York, NY: Scholastic Paperbacks]. In this unit, students will research the actual Titanic using a website I created in order to gain an understanding of the ship, its passengers, and why it remains a popular topic to this day. Second, the students will read the I Survived text as a part of book clubs while reviewing fiction skills learned throughout the year. Last, students will produce opinion writing pieces about the Titanic using information gained from their non-fiction research and fiction book study.
Day three’s focus is on four cities that were important to the Titanic’s history. I had several intentions with this portion of our unit. First, I wanted students to pick up a bit of geography. Our students don’t receive social studies instruction. So their knowledge of different countries and where they are located is limited. I felt that in order to understand the Titanic as a whole, they needed to become familiar with where it and the majority of its passengers originated.
When we completed our KWL chart, there were a couple of students who were interested to learn where the ship was built. I was thrilled to see this as I had already planned to include a portion about Belfast in our unit. Two summers ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Northern Ireland. While there, we spent a rainy afternoon touring the Titanic museum, which had just recently opened. I was amazed by the place and wanted to share a bit of what I learned with my students.
I also wanted students to understand that this isn’t an American story. Students need to know that history is full of stories from around the world and hopefully this unit sparks interest in learning more about nations other than our own.
I ask students to pull out their research packets and pencils as I explain today’s task. Once on the website, students will click on “The Places.” I explain that students will use the information on this page to learn about four cities that are important to Titanic’s history. On this page are four cities and a photo by each. The photos have embedded links that take them to other websites that provide information, additional photos, and videos for each city. After they’ve “visited” each city, they will complete three questions stems about each in their research packets.
The first asks students to identify why each city is important. While some choices might be obvious, a couple might take a little more thought. The second stem is explaining their choice above. I don’t want students to write down the first fact that they read. I want them to sift through the material to determine what really matters. If they then can explain their choice, I’ll know they really get it. Last, students write down what they find most interesting about each city. While the skill we’re practicing today is determining importance, I want students to keep track of facts that interests them as well.
Before we leave for the lab, I ask students if they have questions about today’s assignment. Then we gather our materials and head to work!
Students are given approximately forty-five minutes each day to conduct their research. They have the choice of working independently or with the student next to them. Should they finish today’s assigned research, they first must go back to previous day’s assignments and complete any unfinished work. If all work has been completed, they are free to catch up on viewing photos of artifacts or videos posted on previous day’s lessons or they can choose to play either of the Titanic games on the homepage. I ask that students not work ahead, though, and try to complete work that I haven’t explained yet. This keeps them from completing a day’s assignment incorrectly and having to redo it.
While students work, I walk the room checking in with groups of students or conducting conferences. It’s an excellent time to see if students are managing the complex texts included in the website and provide support if needed. This time also allows opportunities for students to ask questions about their assignments, texts, or general questions they have about the topic itself.
At the end of our work time, we review what we’ve learned today. I have students share parts that were interesting to them, ask questions, or make connections to other students' answers. It’s a time to not only share what we enjoyed most about today’s focus but also to clear up any confusion students had while working alone or with a partner. Because I cannot get to every student each day, this is a perfect opportunity for students to share questions with me that may also be on the minds of others in the class. Typically this happens in the computer lab so that I can quickly refer to the website when addressing students’ concerns. However, due to time, we sometimes complete our share in the classroom.
On days when there aren’t many issues or questions, I use this time to share excellent work I noticed while walking the room. Sometimes this comes in the form of a written response and other times it might be a connection I overheard that was made between partners.
Before ending the period, students are given a final few minutes to finish a section they were working on or to make corrections or additions to their work based on what they learned in our group share. When finished, they return all materials to their binders so that they are prepared to start again tomorrow.