Friday, March 13, 2009

GFS: BIG THINK - 2nd Grade Social Studies Unit

During the ITL Summer Institute of 2007, David Loertscher formally introduced the concept of the Big Think. A "Big Think" activity involves the creation of a "final" unit experience which motivates students to apply their learning from the unit. Big Thinks can be created at any level, K-12. Since this activity demands the application and synthesis of information learned, students are compelled to think at their highest levels. The Big Think is NOT a traditional sharing of PowerPoints, PhotoStories, posters, museum artifacts, research papers, or any other products created during the unit (although they might be included) --- it is the creation of a NEW experience (different from any of the prior activities in the unit) which demands flexibility and independent thinking WITH the application and synthesis of the unit content by students.

Kelley Auringer, LMS at GFS and I recently planned a Big Think for a culmination activity of the Social Studies research 2nd grade students did in their study of rural, suburban and urban communities. [All 2nd grade teachers and the LMS worked with students in 6 groups researching transportation, family life, economics/jobs, shelter, education and recreation, and ultimately will complete a Photostory synthesizing their research. For an account of the research and technology component created by Kelley, which also included the work of Sally Wanamaker and Sherry Black, technology teachers, click HERE. It does not include this Big Think which was created later.]

The purpose of this Big Think was to get students to have an opportunity to USE the facts and ideas they had been working with for the previous 8 weeks. Their learning was focused on this essential question: What are the differences and similarities between urban, suburban and rural communities?

This is the plan we came up with, which was modified the day before implementation by the inclusion of another co-teacher and "collaborator," Bobbi Essagof, GFS Library Assistant! Here is the scenario we designed:

The three of us (Kelley, Bobbi and I) would play the Portwest Family. Due to Mrs. Portwest's job reassignment from London to New York City in the book publishing business, the family needed to determine the best place to make their new home. Their problem--they all have very different needs and they can't decide where to live, but they know they would like to live in Connecticut. The family had been to a real estate agency and the Realtor was very confused since the family didn't know if they wanted to live in the city, a suburb or a rural town. The Realtor told the family about a group of EXPERTS on urban, suburban and rural communities, and recommended that the Portwests pay them a visit before returning. So, the Portwests visit the experts at Greens Farms Elementary to see if they can help them solve their problem, and get the experts to recommend a place for the family to live.

Each of the three family members has different needs:
  • Mrs. Portwest: Mom. Works in NYC and loves living in a high rise building. Likes the convenience of many different kinds of public transportation (taxis, subways, busses, etc.) and does not like to drive. Enjoys regular visits to museums, theater and libraries. Does not like to cook, and wants to get to a variety of restaurants quickly.
  • Mr. Portwest: Dad. Works at home as a writer. Enjoys writing and looking out the window at nature. Wants to walk and bicycle through a natural environment with limited views of buildings. Plans to have a large garden. Wants at least two dogs and two cats and is interested in raising goats. Has a car to get to shops when needed and likes knowing the shop keepers and the people in the stores.
  • Ms. Portwest: Daughter, Patty. Teenager-15. Wants a good school. Wants to get to stores easily and to the public library. She wants to live near plenty of friends so she can see them often. There needs to be good cell phone reception as she loves to text and talk to her friends often. She likes the beach. In one year she will be getting her license, and wants to get a job. She looks forward to driving, but doesn't want to have to drive very far or too often -- she would like to be close to her job.
Each class of students came into the Big Think organized by the classroom teacher (Nicole Fieschel, Meghann Keaveney, Lisa Lewis and Sarah Stefans) into 3 groups. Each group had representatives from all of the six research groups. [This is the Jigsaw Model described in Ban Those Bird Units : 15 Models For Teaching and Learning in Information-rich and Technology-rich Environments by David Loertscher, Carol Koechlin and Sandi Swaan.]

When the students sat down, they were asked to explain to Mr. Derry what they had done in the research process. They were then asked "Why do you think you are experts in this area? Should the Portwests be coming to YOU as experts? Can you help them? " Each group said yes and explained why they were experts and why they were the right group for the Portwests.

Then each group was assigned to focus on either urban, rural or suburban issues. A student spokesperson was selected for each group, and told that at the end of the consultation the spokesperson had to report to the family why they should live in a specific rural, suburban or urban Connecticut town or city. (They used the 2004 Rural Connecticut Map created by the CT. Health Dept. -- with cities colored in blue -- shown below!) If any group did not think the best place for them to live was in the area of their focus, they could change to a different type of community, but either way they had to DEFEND their selection.

As of 3-13-09, 3 of the 4 classes completed the Big Think, and although each class recommended different towns (though there were many similarities) they all had this in common:
  • It was FUN and exciting.
  • Most of the student conversations were intense and relied on their combined "knowledge bank" of facts about urban, suburban and rural communities created during the research.
  • When the student spokesperson delivered the report from the committee, there was focused and connected attention from everyone.
  • The experience of the family visiting seemed "real" even though students knew it was not a real family.
  • The content of the students' responses demonstrated a deep understanding of the differences and similarities between urban, rural and suburban communities.
If you are interested in planning a Big Think to culminate your learning unit and would like to collaborate, please contact me.

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