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My Writing Identity

by Jill DeRosa

My writing identity is something I lived a long time without.  Until I was in my thirties, writing for me was a task to complete; a report for school, a reaction paper, a letter to a parent.  My writing was driven by something I needed to accomplish for my job, my school, or for my family.  Writing was not enjoyable for me, it was always done with a purpose that was driven by outside forces.  I did not see myself as a writer. Not for one minute.

It wasn’t until I became friends with, Jenn Hayhurst.  She is a writer who knows how powerful our words can be.  She is not afraid to take risks and put her ideas on paper and into the world. She says we have ideas to share with the world and asks if I would be willing to write alongside her.  I am afraid because I don’t see myself as a writer.  I am confident in my ability to teach but writing about it is a totally different thing.  Jenn is supportive and I decide to give it a try, starting out small.  As we write together, I start to see a change in me.  I am a writer.  I just needed to write about things that mattered to me.  I needed to write for myself first and then for my audience.  My writing had to be sparked by things I cared about and wanted to share.  

I take my writing experiences with me into my classroom each and every day.  Do I provide time for my students to find their writing identities?  How do I make room in our curriculum to provide room for choice in writing and tools?  In classrooms, I often see teachers facing a similar dilemma; when we are writing in a certain mode or in a unit of study, how can we make room for authentic writing that is sparked by what matters to our students.  We need to make the time, this is the place where our students will find their identities; writing alongside partners or in groups, creating comics, writing series about characters they have created, writing informational pieces about gross insects or dangerous animals. Nothing makes me happier than looking around my classroom and seeing kids fully engaged in writing that matters to them knowing that their words are powerful and can make a difference.  Students bringing in writing they have done at home or bring their writing to recess because they just can’t stop writing; it is a part of who they are.  

It is through a friendship and a deep appreciation for writing that my writing identity was formed. It’s never too late to find yours.  


One Little Word 2017

If you live in New York – January means crisp blue skies and frosty windows. It’s Times Square, bright lights, and bursts of carefree abandon. No sooner has the confetti been swept away when most us face this new celestial trek around the sun contemplating our lives, as we make resolutions for the next revolution. We set goals and action plans for one thing or another for example,  the long lines at my weekly Weight Watcher’s meeting can attest to the simple optimistic spirit of fresh starts and hopeful endeavors.

If all that seems too big, we can start the New Year off in a small but powerful way.  Our friend, Julieanne Harmatz, master fifth grade teacher and blogger’s recent post: One Little Word 2017  inspired us to take on this challenge. If you’re not familiar with One Little Word, it began in 2006 when Ali Edwards started a phenomena of selecting a word to focus and reflect on throughout the year.  We do believe in the power of words, because let’s face it,  we are writing the narratives of our lives. Deeming this challenge to be a worthy one, we decided to give it a go.

Imagine if you could hold a word in your hand as a way to keep a promise to yourself to keep a steady thread throughout the broader tapestry of your life. A tiny reminder that transcends where you are now to where you aspire to be:


Sunlight’s gift to earth is vitality, each ray of energy promotes growth for everything within its reach. We are drawn to energy, and energy is drawn to us.  Learning and joy are infused through vitality. When you walk into a school the first thing you ought to feel is vitality – coupling optimism, and growth. It should be contagious, a presence that makes students and teachers yearn to be there.  You know you have hit the sweet spot for vitality when you hear conversations bubbling outside the classroom door – learning is alive and well. Vitality is the spark that motivates children to get lost in their books, writing stories, or even solving difficult problems. Children are naturally drawn to energy – and that is why vitality is also a word for teachers to embrace as well. We provide environments that flow with energy – that’s what we do!


Life thrives on earth because of its proximity to the sun. If we were a little closer or a little further away, if we were not tilted on our axis our world would be a barren and desolate place.  There is untapped potential for power in the word proximity when it comes to learning. Consider  the gradual release of responsibility.  We can move from a scaffold to independence if we look at proximity through a power lens.  We are adjusting access and support. Learners are  drawn to what they need to be successful. When we use proximity to space, time, or relationships we cultivate greater independence for learning. In order to be independent writers students may need close access to tools – this is proximity in space. A teacher may set a personal reading goal for the year to model independent reading over time – this grants proximity in terms of time. Students may be working in a book club, teachers form these groups not only by interest and ability but by the potential for interpersonal growth – proximity for relationships. Although all of these examples are different they share the same root. Proximity is a link to transfer because it is a natural trigger for differentiation. It’s a simple yet sophisticated tool, one that is a readily available power source to boost or sustain greater independence. There is beauty in simplicity.

A Student’s Intention – Creativity Is Contagious:

A student came to us with an idea, what if students could had a little bit of time to work on something that was totally their idea.  She was pitching a fifteen minute creativity break during the day.  We believe in the power of choice, and we are always looking for ways to maximize engagement. Her idea was an easy one to honor.  This was her idea and she was going to be the one to share it with her peers.  Click here to read her post from Voices From the Classroom

Our Observations:

What was most striking was how clear she was when sharing her idea with the class.  She explained how this would work and what they needed to do.  The kids responded beautifully, they went off and got to work.  It was interesting to see how the students used the time to create their projects with total independence.  Not a moment was wasted.  There was a lot of diversity in the kinds of projects kids wanted to create: math games, musical instruments, mapping out summer reading, informational texts, and responses to reading and writing. Their work revealed what aspects of learning were most significant for each child.  During the share it was apparent that students were being influenced by each other’s work.  They were drawing up creativity plans for the next time.

Our Reflection:

When we give students freedom we gain control and rigor  It seems counterintuitive to many but it’s the truth.  This is not arts and crafts, this is connected work that allows students to take some ownership over their own focused learning.  This idea came from a student,, her idea matters, we value her thinking and this empowers her and challenges a student who is already performing above grade level.  This synthesis and evaluative work is just what she needs to continue to grow.  This is really just another way to differentiate in the 21st Century Classroom.  


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.   

The Power Is In Their Hands

Sometimes the most elegant solution is a simple one.  Goal cards are a meaningful tool that can help students take a stepwise approach to independence.  Begin with a large index card, markers, and a vision. Teachers can make a goal card  on the spot during a research conference or have it prepared ahead of time for a coaching conference.  Whatever the student need, a goal card can break down the learning into manageable bits.  They are meant to be concise and easily put to use by the student. Pairing pictures and kid friendly prompts is a way to make learning both relevant and engaging.  For example:

Goal Card

Teachers and students can use these cards flexibly  to attain quick “mini-goals” that lead towards greater independence.  They can be used in a variety of ways: nonverbal just point to the card, they can be a source for formative data during a conference, or a way to facilitate conversation during partnership work.  The possibilities are endless. Think of them as a device to help the gradual release happen for students. Once the card is inserted into the work the teacher can take a step back and observe the student put it to use.  Was it effective? Did the student get what was needed?  Either way, they reveal what “next steps” need to be taken.

A simple tool  that is easily understood and readily put  to use by students is the solution we’ve all been looking for! Anchor charts and tools are becoming much more kid friendly than their wordy cousins. The card is powerful because it can be moved around, it’s small, it fits in students’ hands as they go to work at their own learning.  Its strength is in its simplicity and proximity.  This is a tool that is made for kids and is a device for agency.  The kids are manipulating it as needed.
We believe in creating openings for students to see themselves in their own learning. We can model and show examples, and then we can explore student thinking and allow them to reveal their thinking to us. Here is a better one, as we are going through this process with children, we are giving students the power, they are creating their own tools as they construct meaning for themselves.

We were thinking about how empowering this tool can be when used strategically.  An important question came to mind, how can we do more with this tool?  A student who creates  a goal card is working at the synthesis / evaluative level. Students are vested in their learning because it has relevancy.  Agency is realized by the student as the goal card represents their best thinking at the time of the learning.  

Meet Luka. He has created a goal card that gave him the language and the actions he needs to be successful. Consider his work, it tells a story about how he is approaching word solving through both word attack and meaning making:

Luka created this card back in February, he used the strategy independently yesterday.  He no longer needs the card but he can explain the strategy and teach it to other students. This is real learning and true ownership.  

Twitter Books: An Evolution Of Our Thinking

Why Use Twitter Books?

Welcome to the 21st century classroom. Well, sort of. Twitter Books are a low tech version of Twitter.  We are bringing “social media” to the classroom by using marble notebooks. Children can “tweet” their thinking around text, both written and digital. Just like Twitter, children are limited to 140 characters, so they need to discriminate what they really want to say. They can make an illustration or use quotes that demonstrate what their thoughts are in the moment. This offers a context for children to become more efficient with “stop and jot” and yields some formative data for us to work with. We are seeing what children truly think is important and this helps us teach into what they need.  It also reveals what children really like helping us build relationships with them.

21st Century Literacy Skills

Twitter Books are a device that brings 21st century literacy skills into the classroom, a way to bring emergent connectedness. These early experiences build community through collaboration. They started as a way to respond and connect ideas within the classroom and have evolved into a meaningful way to respond to reading at home. Homework in the 21st century ought to be something worthwhile, something children want to do that will foster a sense of student ownership over reading and writing. Then homework is not a chore; instead, it enhances the student’s own thinking that is driven by their own volition. It is important that we connect this idea between school and home. The Twitter Books are a natural fit for beginning our school day allowing for authentic engagement with written text. Children come into the classroom eager to exchange their books so they can “tweet” and leave their responses to their friends’ thinking.  It sparks authentic interests in books and is the best motivator to reinforce thinking about reading.  An added benefit is it encourages wide reading, children want to read each other’s books.

Innovating Twitter Books

As with all ideas, it’s time for us to reflect on our thinking and plan next steps for Twitter Books.  It’s a new version, time to go digital.   We were thinking about Cornelius Minor and his work around digital literacy.  Why not experiment with tables on our share drive.  Our school does not have WIFI but we could do this work in the computer lab.  We can show a digital text or do a read aloud and have children tweet.  Of course, there will be wait time so that children can negotiate the text and complete their responses on the computer.  This will also help them with keyboarding, an authentic example of how to bring in 21st century skills.  We will let you know how it goes. Here is a resource we are thinking of using for this project: The Kids Should See This

We are trying to imagine what work in the future will be like by embracing the world of today.  Years ago, collaborative work was limited by access and location.  We are no longer limited by location, we have access to our greatest resource, each other. We are happy our colleague  in Kentucky (formerly New Jersey) Justin Dolci @jdolci  will be launching Twitter Books in the fall with his third graders!  

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Appreciation and Celebration

Today was our first day back from Spring recess. Teachers were smiling and sharing stories about their adventures over break as they were getting ready for this last part of the year. Down the long hallways students’ writing adorns the walls and we see a noticeable shift  in the quality of writing – there are signs of growth. The buses empty out and students begin to fill the cafeteria and spill out into the hall. They’re taller than they used to be, they walk down the hallways more confident than in the timid days of October’s falling leaves. Our students’ bright faces are full of happiness and expectation. It’s springtime and our school is bursting with energy, this is a time when students are coming into their own. We have tilled the soil for learning and we want to celebrate growth:

Transferring Mindset:  He came through the door carrying Italian chocolates that he knows are my favorite and a big white orchid.  Quickly, he ran over to me, his big brown eyes sparkled, “I have something for you!” Being a teacher is more than just teaching a subject especially when you are in a primary grade.  It’s about teaching children how to be kind, and how to learn to work together.  We want the best for all our students, to feel accepted and valued.  This gift celebrated the teamwork between home and school and his success was a shared victory. All of our efforts are coming together and now his growth has begun to take root and is becoming known to him.  For this boy, optimism and resilience were the underpinnings for his emerging growth. He is learning how to get past the issues that would hold him back, he is learning how to see the world from a brighter perspective.

Thank you Christine Hertz & Kristi Mraz for writing A Mindset for Learning.(video) Your work has inspired ours and together we are making a real difference in the life of this boy.

Ownership and Mindset: Students were working in partnerships and groups, clustered around posters, gluing index cards, and all sorts of books lay open on floors and tables to guide their work. This is ownership.  Children who are empowered learners, who embrace the work because it is meaningful.  For one student ownership has not come easy.  He tries to be compliant but more often than not, he avoids doing the sustained work that he needs in order to grow as a reader. Today, was different.  Today he was able to deeply comprehend a text with a sense of excitement and joy  His understanding fostered a deep personal connection to the book because none of its meaning was lost on him. The Bear Son An Inuit Tale is a touching story of love and he couldn’t wait to share his feelings, thoughts, and insights with us: “I wish this was nonfiction because the bear is so gentle with the children. I want it to be real.” As he gazed down at that page, it wasn’t abstract to him, it was palpable. It’s not the book, it’s the boy. How did his personal growth as a reader get us here? There were many threads that pulled together to elevate him to a new level of understanding: the consistent message that he can work to learn, the expectation that he will read deeply, and the narrative of success that was just waiting for him to believe. Everyday he is surrounded by students who do this work with the same spirit and zeal and today he did too.  

Thank you Gravity Goldberg for writing Mindsets and Moves (Webinar) and giving a voice to student ownership. This boy is learning how to grow into himself as a reader, one who is beginning to care deeply about his work and reflect on his process. We share this success with you.

A Flexible Mindset: “Do you know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk?” You might  expect the answer to be a quick and easy yes. One boy looked back shaking his head no, and the other squinted his eyes and cocked his head to the side, “Is that the one where the witch takes him out in the forest and feeds him candy. Then she tries to eat him.” The plan was to use a familiar story  to develop saliency. There really is nothing predictable about the classroom. Truly, flexibility is an essential quality that teachers are endowed with or learn to develop over time.  Flipping through the book, giving a brief explanation of the story was all that was needed to model the strategy: Retelling What’s Most Important by Making Connections to the Problem.This strategy was carefully selected especially for them. It wasn’t about the book, it was about the strategy.  The boys went to work transferring the strategy to their independent books. One boy quickly discovered there was more than one problem in his traditional literature book. Time to flex again, out came a goal card that would enhance the mini-chart. Its job was to give a useful prompt for the boy to do the work at hand.  Meanwhile, the other boy had placed his post-it’s at all the right spots in his book. Fabulous! He looked earnest with the “all done” look that young children master so early. “So let’s talk about your book…” A few words and  our flexibility flag began to fly. His next step was to give him the language to talk about how the  resolution connected back to the problem. Leaning into the mini-chart he practiced, and success followed. What a difference 20 minutes can make. Today, for these boys, they got exactly what they needed. They were confident, happy kids.

Thank you to Jennifer Serravallo for writing The Reading Strategies Book (video). You created a resource that empowers skilled teachers everywhere. Your work, combined with our knowledge allowed us to be flexible and match the needs of our students, and set them up for achievement.  

We appreciate our colleagues, and thank you for showing up and doing this important work. You amaze us whether you are our friends down the hall, our loving and supportive connected colleagues, or the authors that fill our minds with every idea you pose.

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