Category Archives: Informational World Communities UoS

Sending Messages for Agency: A World of Potential

The work we do in schools should prepare students to be positive members of society.  It is in every sense the work of a lifetime.  Students should be provided opportunities to practice the skills they will need to be successful in our world.  Teachers work to inspire students to create, to grow their knowledge, and to be confident problems solvers. The question, what in our curriculums can really push students to aspire to that kind of work?   Recently we saw a great opportunity to do this as we continued in our World Communities UoS.

We began by looking at the structure of problem and solution.  How could we immerse children in an experience where this would become meaningful to them?  From this question grew the idea of putting a modern twist on the “United Nations” theme that is used in so many classrooms.  We are taking a gaming approach to this concept because it’s easily understood by children today. This would help foster critical thinking skills, collaboration between classmates, and problem solving that matters; all skills so important in the 21st century classroom.

Noticing Problems Close Reading Using the Five Social Studies Strands:

  1. Partnerships gathered on the carpet with their resources in hand.
  2. A grand conversation about what the United Nations is and its purpose begins. There are many possible ways to do this; kid friendly passages, videos, picture galleries.
  3. Brainstorming problems that may exist within the five strands. We used the history strand in a different way. We used it as a  vehicle for cause and effect, our message to students was that we can make summative predictions based on historical events. We look back at history because the power of history is that we can learn from it to gauge how things come to be or what they may become.
  4. Children get together using texts to research problems, record these problems on index cards, then evaluate and rank problems according to their importance to their country. These problem cards are used later during the mid workshop interruption.
  5. Partnerships present their problems to the “United Nations” during the mid workshop interruption and we guide the discussion about which problems should take precedent: endangered kiwi bird versus famine. In the end, it is up to the children, it is their work.  We are exploring these topics together but they are the ones who have to do the heavy lifting.  This is a vehicle for this type of thought process.  
  6. The problems are then recorded for all to see and to think about.  


Creative Solutions Synthesis At Work

Understanding world problems and hypothesizing solutions is an exercise in abstract thinking for children. How do we make this relevant for students on a level they can embrace? Gamification. Educators all over are experimenting with the concept of, “gamification”  or using  game design and mechanics to enhance non-game contexts. Students quickly learn that each nation has different “powers” or resources at their disposal.  Just as with games like Minecraft, kids can draw from a bank of resources to come up with creative solutions to real problems nations face.  This makes problem solving more concrete, a way to figure out how to use your resources for the greater good. Children are asked to consider all their country has to offer in terms of problem solving. How can their country be helpful to  another country?  What does their country have that they can share with other countries? They have to take stock and think about how one country’s  natural resources, products, knowledge, technology or values may solve another’s problems.  They also need to  think strategically, if one country helps another, what does that country have to gain?  

Our role is to oversee and critique their work asking questions, pushing them to think on multiple levels as they work through problem solving.  This makes reading and writing so much more purposeful, children see it as a way to extend their own thinking rather than a task to be completed for us.

Our Thinking
Our main purpose is to get students to read, write, and to engage in discussion that propels problem solving and critical thinking.  If we take on this work, we also have to embrace their approximations for their learning.  So not everything they come up with will be perfection, and that’s because our intention is not to memorize facts about the United Nations or natural resources that France has to offer.  We want children to be able to synthesize their thinking and create solutions as a rehearsal for work they will be doing later on in their schooling experiences.  The work they do now as third graders is working on a continuum for when they are in fifth grade, middle school, and high school.  We want to awaken their curiosity and personal power so that they see themselves as capable learners who have something to say about the world in which we live.  

From Make Believe to Rigor: Play Meets Personification

The Power of Objects: Making Deep Connection to Symbols

We want reading to be an experience to be had not a task to be completed.  It is powerful to teach students to step into the character’s shoes, to become totally  immersed into the story. When this works children are transported into the narrative in a palpable way.  We can take this same kind of experience and apply it to informational units of study.  How? We can teach through this idea of becoming a national symbol. Personification offers us a golden opportunity to take very abstract ideas, like the eagle, an emblem  (strength, long life, freedom, soaring, the United States of America)  to a more concrete level, we can connect the eagle to national ideals.  This is a perfect match for children even though it seems lofty but really it’s completely doable and extremely powerful.  

Purposeful Writing: Engaging Craft and Creativity

What did students have to do? If you read our blog on a regular basis you know we are steeped in our World Communities Unit of Study.  Students are immersing themselves in the countries of their choice. As a way to teach others about their countries they had to decide which object best represents their country as way to teach others.  This lesson follows this line of thinking: If I can understand what a bald eagle is I can understand something deeper about America.  It is just like Isabel Beck’s vocabulary research putting a new label on a known concept.  This paired association is powerful because it helps to extend student thinking from more basic to more sophisticated.  It’s not about the  bald eagle it’s really about the analytical work, the connections, the inferences, the evaluations that students have to generate to participate in this lesson.   Here is the break down:

  1. Pair students in partnerships who are working with the same country
  2. Each student selects an emblem or object that is representative of their country
  3. Gather information and personify it; to decide what kind of tone their object would take
  4. Engage in craft writing merging information and tone to write an entertaining piece that would teach other students
  5. Rehearse and practice it to perform
  6. Perform it for each other

Creativity in the Classroom: Playful Performances

It looks like fun but it’s really rigor. This requires a lot of work and critical thinking.  Students are engaged with the work because it’s important to them.  Structuring the work in this way means that students won’t meet the demands of this kind of teaching unless they are really doing the work with a sense of agency:


Process Reflection: Structural Synthesis Through Collaboration

A 21st Century Education has to always hold real relevance for students.  If  our goal is to achieve critical thinking, then we need to create learning opportunities, through choice and meaningful work.  Of course it has to be manageable, the task was the same for the students, pick an object and teach others. The expectation is clear but each students’ process will be unique and honored.  If the work doesn’t make sense to the learner then what’s the point? Let’s get real. With meaningful work comes substantial reflection. This is what we observed, students are learning from each other’s process. This is collaborative, generative learning in action.  Two students (Coffee and Empanada)  wrote their pieces with a humorous tone.  Their object had a playful banter that other students tried out in their writing. This is learning on multiple levels: informational learning, craft moves, the power of writing, lifting their presuppositions of what the finished product could be through reflection.  Students were reading, practicing  foundational skills, writing (mixing modes), speaking, listening all at the same time.  Most importantly what they really were doing was thinking for themselves and experiencing the joys of learning for learning’s sake.   

Finding Harmony From Theory to Practice: Questions Teachers Ask In The Real World

We are both big fans of Pitch Perfect movies.  We love hearing how they can take different types of music and blend them together to this dynamic harmony that just draws you in.  At first it seems chaotic but then the music is transformed into thought out harmonies that are a musical celebration of sound.  These are mash-ups, a fusion of disparate elements that when fused together become something amazing. This is sort of what planning a Unit of Study is like for us as we merge content, process and student needs. It’s not chaos, it’s a process. It’s easy to think it’s all just a big mess when books and magazines are sprawled across the backseat of your car. It’s all going right when every librarian looks at you with suspicion and  knows your name, because every month you’re borrowing the most books your card can carry (50 books).  This post aims to  construct a window into our planning process. We know questions are more important than answers as surely as we know that process is more important than product.  Questions are the underpinnings of the teaching process and it goes like this:

Setting Up for our Informational / World Communities Unit of Study

Interpreting Curriculum Goals: What is your intention for teaching this unit of study?

  • How do we integrate social studies content with the reading process?
  • What are the content standards we are accountable for?
  • What are the components of the process for informational text?

Making A Plan: How can you create engagement around the work in this unit of study?

  • What do our students need right now?
  • What are our students’ strengths?
  • How do our students learn best?
  • How do we meet the needs of all learners in our class?
  • How do we make the content relevant to our learners?

Finding Resources: Building banks of materials, for a controlled choice, to match the interests/needs of the learners in your classroom

  • The big grab: putting it all together to build the materials for the Unit of Study
    • Content (Does it have the information we need?)
    • Engagement ( Will it spark interest in the students?) (Is it visually appealing?)
    • Mashups (Does the text match up to the interests and strengths of our students?) (Can the text help extend their individual strengths and move students further through the process?)
    • Variety (Do you have text that shows different perspectives and text structure?)
    • Leaning Into Critical Thinking Goals: (How do these materials lay the foundation for flexible thinking?) BLOOM / QAR
    • Making Connections: (How can students use these materials to create contextual knowledge, to build a knowledge base?)

Experience The Process:  You Do It First. This is a time for us to immerse ourselves in the resources, evaluate all they have to offer learners and then reflect on their utility.

  • Is this a realistic plan?
  • Do the resources offer exemplars? How can we use them?
  • How do the materials inform the sequence of the teaching?
  • How can we use these resources to get the most varied results?
  • What supplements do we need to these resources to make learning more accessible?

This is as far as we are right now in the process.  Our next step is to put the learning in the hands of our students and to see where they take us.  As we do this we will be asking questions around:

  • Creating Context Through Student Ownership: Kidwatching to assess relevancy (observation) Are students engaged in the work?  Is the work helping them work towards their individual goals?  Are they being resilient learners- what makes you say that? Are students challenged?  Are there signs for spontaneity for their learning? Is learning joyful?
  • Tweaking  (reflection) What is working?  What needs to be changed?  How are our observations informing future practice?

Planning for this unit is a mash-up of grand scale. We are fusing content, literacy processes, student ability, social dynamics, creativity, student choice, and our own learning process for our teaching to create a context for ownership and growth for us all. We are trying to use the end of the year as our Pitch Perfect finale. So get your groove on This is about thinking through the process. We may end up with a product but it’s the work in between that counts and makes the biggest impact.  This is the time to celebrate learning with vibrant energy and joy! This is our send off, our final act and we want our students to shine.

Jill’s favorite Pitch Perfect Mash-up

Jenn’s favorite Pitch Perfect Mash-up

Ideas And Identity: What Social Studies Teaches Us

Her face was quiet and still but her big brown eyes blazed with intensity, “Can you believe he went to jail to help the Indian people. He wouldn’t fight, but he didn’t give up on what he believed.” A glossy picture of Gandhi lay spread across her desk and she looked back down at it, and it was apparent  that her mind was trying to work out this new information. She took a deep breath and said, “I’m just so surprised. He got their freedom.” As a young girl of Indian immigrants finding a real life superhero that mirrors herself is profoundly important.  

He was trying to explain why Helen Keller used sign language, “She was blind, so she couldn’t see, and she was deaf.” He was trying to think about how sign language would work if you couldn’t see, “She had to talk to people using her hands and she also used braille.” He looked closely at his partner and started to scratch his head and move from side to side.  Clearly his partner was still confused, he went on to say, “Braille are these bumps that you feel with your fingers. It’s a kind of writing like a code.” His clear blue eyes searching his partner’s face to check for understanding.

Our Biography Unit of Study gave our students a glimpse of what a life well lived, one that is fueled by passion could be.  Now we are getting ready to show them the world. Social studies expands students’ understanding for what it means to live in communities around the world. We are often surprised by how much children already know, but also dismayed by their misunderstandings.  They are naturally curious about the world and now we are going to feed that curiosity with source documents and the freedom to expand their learning. We are getting  ready to launch into our Informational / World Communities Unit of Study which will take us to the end of the school year.  It’s an opportunity to engage our students in a long term project that flexes their facility for the reading/writing process.  We are asking them to to use all they have learned to produce a culminating project. Two guiding questions are at the forefront of our thinking:

  1. How do we teach content and the reading and writing process in the service of greater comprehension?
  2. How do we offer choice with an expectation that certain grade level content understandings will be learned?

Breaking Apart The Unit of Study:

The reading process: how readers learn to access texts:

  • Main idea and supporting details
  • Text Structure: compare and contrast, problem and solution, sequence
  • Using text features
  • Synthesizing information
  • Inferring and predicting
  • Summarizing
  • Analyzing information
  • Critiquing information
  • Making real life connections
  • Adjusting reading for multiple genres eg. traditional literature/expository text

NYS Grade 3 Content Understandings: what third graders need to learn:   

  • Politics (government, laws, leaders, propaganda)
  • Geography (maps, landmarks)
  • Economics(needs and wants, SuperPowers vs. Third World, money, natural resources)
  • Social / Cultural Dynamics (art, music, religion, food, holidays, traditions)
  • History (timelines, artifacts, source documents)

Nuts and Bolts:

  • We will pick 2 countries from each continent except Antarctica (We will choose countries that show the diversity of each continent).  
  • Children will vote on the countries they would like to study (Top 3 choices)
  • We will set up partnerships for each country (Looking at academics and social components)
  • Partway through the unit we will merge the partnerships into their continent group (Let them dive deeply into their own country to gain a strong understanding before joining together)
  • Each partnership and group will be provided text sets with multiple genres, artifacts, timelines, maps etc. (multi-sources for deeper learning)

Grade level content::

  • Compare and contrast- Pick a category (history, geography, economics, politics or social)  to look deeply at.  Compare and contrast the two countries in your continent.
  • Personify their country-  Make your countries come to life.  Teach others about your country by becoming it and showing it through the country’s eyes.
  • Problem and Solution-Form a “United Nations” problem solving group who can analyze and critique problems and provide solutions to real life issues. Pick a real life problem and explain how your two countries can work together to solve it.
  • Predict and Infer-Look into the future- What will your countries be like in 10 years? Use their history and present day conditions as a reference.

Providing Choice:

Create a choice board for activities where each group will make one selection for each social studies standard. Each activity is assigned a point value (1,2,3) depending on its level of critical thinking. See our anchor chart: Skyscraper QAR/Bloom Groups must complete a total of 10 points.


  • Create a timeline of important events (1 pt)
  • Personal Top 10- news headlines from history (2 pts)
  • Write a simple play to act out an event in history (3 pts)


  • Create a topographical map (1 pt)
  • Create a travel brochure with landmarks and important information about your country (2 pts)
  • Write a newspaper clip explaining how your country uses its geography to be successful (3 pts)


  • Create a model to demonstrate the setup of the country’s government (1 pt)
  • Create a political cartoon about an event in history (2pts)
  • Write a speech that an important leader from your country might have said  (3 pts)


  • Make an economics map to show where your natural resources are located and how much money they are worth (1 pt)
  • Pick an item & represent the cost by making money from each of your countries (compare and contrast) (2 pts)
  • Make a diagram to show the average cost of living in your countries (average income, house, car, food) (3 pts)


  • Create a menu of food that is a part of your country’s culture (1 pt)
  • Plan a celebration for a special holiday or tradition your country celebrates (2 pts)
  • Set up a gallery that represents a theme for your country (freedom, perseverance, oppression).  Showcase famous art, literature and music to represent this theme and explain how they all relate. (3 pts)

The fun has just begun. We are so excited about this work and we can’t wait to get started: gathering videos, source documents, and building text sets.  We are driven as we imagine our students’ excitement and curiosity. Just as the Biography Unit of Study flipped a switch and children could begin to conceptualize how remarkable humanity can be, so too will their understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the world. This is their work and it has to be important because this is how they will learn what it means to work hard and create something that is driven by an internal desire to learn and grow.  There is so much to anticipate, we cannot know how this planning will be received or what the children will bring to this process.  We do know that we are showing them what it means to live a life where real work matters and that what we do everyday makes a difference.  TedTalk: Barry Schwartz: The Way We Think About Work Is Broken