Friday, August 23, 2013

Kids Fixing Bicycles - Understanding Through an Economic Lens

CBS Sunday Morning has always captured my interest. One particular story fascinated me, because it involved kids making their own choices about how to use their time. The story is titled In N.J., some kids learn there is no free ride

Many people might look at this story through a civics lens. The civics concept of citizenship can be elevated to understand how citizens work together to bring important change to communities.

I want to take a different spin on this story, because people sometimes struggle to see that economic thinking is not just about money.  Economic thinking can be applied to any situation where a decision is made.  In this story, the kids choose to spend at least eight hours fixing a bike.  As an incentive, students are given a refurbished bike at the end of their volunteer work.

When we apply the concepts of scarcity  - cost and choice - and opportunity cost, economic thinking might look like this.

  1. I don't have enough time in my day to do everything that I want to do.  In this situation, my time is scarce
  2. I can choose to use my eight hours in different ways.  I could watch tv, read a book, play with friends, sleep, play with the dog, sit around and be a bum, ..... every other option is a choice
  3. If I choose to use my eight hours volunteering to fix bicycles, there are costs.  My choice would mean that "during these eight hours" I cannot watch tv, I cannot read a book, I cannot play with friends, I cannot play with the dog, and I cannot sit around and be a bum....all of these things are costs given up because of my decision to use my time this way.
  4. When I look at all of the other things that I could have done with my eight hours, the one that is most difficult for me to give up is playing with my friends.  More than anything, I LOVE to play with my friends.  For this reason, playing with my friends is my opportunity cost
Economic thinking is automatically incorporated into any situation where people make decisions.  As teachers, our goal is to help kids understand how to utilize economic reasoning and critical thinking in making a decision.  This is a skill that will allow students to be more thoughtful now AND in the future. Helping students to slow down and consider alternatives within a decision helps them to apply economic thinking to a situation.  Consider some of the other decisions that students make on a daily basis, and ask yourself, "How would I ask students to show me their economic thinking within this decision? What might this look like in student work?"

Examples of student decisions:
1. Every day students decide whether to do their homework or not.
2. Every day, students decide who they will sit with at lunch (often the same students). Check out my blog posting on this economic decision.
3. Every day, students decide whether to put maximum effort into their work.
4. Every day, students decide if they are going to interact with their peers respectfully...or not.
5. Every day, students decide how to use their free time at home. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Exploring Historical Process and Primary Sources: A Strategy to Start the Year

To begin, I want to thank a Kansas curriculum specialist for this idea from his blog posting Tip of the Week: 5 Great Ways to Start School for Social Studies Teachers.

From his blog, here's the strategy:
History in a Bag
"Purchase or find enough brown paper bags for all of your students. Write a number on each bag and give one to every kid. Ask them to place five personal items into the bag, close it and to remember the number (for identification later). These items can be anything in their pockets, backpack, etc. Place all of the bags in a pile and have the students select one at random.

Provide a series of questions that they will answer as they attempt to decipher these “artifacts.” Is this person male or female? What do they think is important? How old is this person? Where do they live? The questions aren’t so important as the rationale used to answer the question. You want kids to start thinking about how we know what we know, to start to understand the historical process.

Have students get into groups of two or three to explain their answers. As a large group, ask kids to identify the owners of their bag’s artifacts. Lead a discussion about historical process and how we know what we know."

How is this connected to the  history concept of Historical Process?

When students construct their own understanding of history, they collect lots of ideas related to the people, events, ideas, and interactions of a time or place.  Those ideas might come from secondary sources or from primary sources.  As we teach students to engage in the practices of a historian, we expose them to a number of primary sources. When using this strategy, we have the opportunity to help students understand that the artifacts in the bag are like primary sources. Historical process involves pulling together information that learners glean from primary and secondary sources.

If we asked students to analyze the artifacts, we would encourage students to 1) identify what they notice about the artifacts, 2) ask questions about the artifacts, 3) predict what each artifact tells us about the student. This process of analysis is also part of the historical process.

Last, we might ask students, "How might we use all of the artifacts to describe this person?"  Students determine how each of these artifacts (or pieces) are connected. This synthesis of their ideas is when students construct history using multiple pieces of evidence (or artifacts).  This type of synthesis, or pulling the pieces together to create a story based on evidence, is also part of the historical process.  

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Physical Geography and the Great Plains Region

My recent discovery is a tool called ThingLink; it was used to add the resources to the image you see in this posting.  ThingLink is definitely my new favorite tool...endless possibilities for instruction, especially schools moving to 1:1 instruction.

Conceptual ideas Within the Image
This collection of resources about the Great Plains might be used to help students explore the geographic concept of "region." Students might use the attached resources to answer such questions as:
1. If the Great Plains is a geographic region, how would you describe "region"?
2. How would you describe the Great Plains region?
3. What are some examples of the impact this region's physical geography has on wildlife and people?
4. How would you compare the Great Plains region to ____(different region here)___?

Application of Skills and Thinking Processes 
that Might Be Developed Using These Resources
1. Organize information using a variety of graphic organizers.
2. Analysis of maps and other geographic sources.
3. Describing a region and comparing/contrasting regions of Colorado, the United States and the world.

* * * * What other resources might you want to see added to this ThingLink so it's useful for students in 4th grade? * * * *

(Click on the links embedded into this image.)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Using the Question Formation Technique to Explore Conceptual Ideas in Elementary Social Studies

Just yesterday, we were able to bring together 100 teachers for a Preschool-6th grade Social Studies Kickoff, with the goal of exposing teachers to new ideas, elevating strategies and tools for critical thinking, and enhancing collaboration among elementary social studies teachers.

With our district's focus on concept-based learning and quality instruction, we decided to expose teachers to an instructional strategy from the Right Question Institute out of Harvard University. We chose this strategy because asking questions is a strategy that's used by teachers in all content areas at all grade levels. The Right Question Institute developed a well-researched and incredibly powerful critical thinking experience known as the Question Formation Technique.  Their rationale for designing this technique is explained by one of the book's authors, Dan Rothstein,  in this TED Talk (13:41). In this talk, you'll notice how the skill of asking questions declines from age 5 to age 18.  You might predict that a variety of variables impact this pattern, but the bottom line is...IT'S SAD! Asking questions is a skill, and it's a skill that needs developing if we are to have students who participate in society as critical thinkers.  With the Question Formation Technique, teachers "express deep satisfaction as they see their students rapidly develop divergent, convergent, and metacognitive thinking abilities and become more confident learners." (p. 2) (To find out more, check out the link above or look into their book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.)
The Question Formation Technique involves a process where teachers design something known as a Question Focus, an "item" designed to elicit questions and critical thinking from the learner. Learners then engage in a process using the Question Focus, a process where each step has been carefully studied and refined to maximize the questioning and critical thinking experience for learners.  In general, this is the process.  (Teachers can access all necessary resources by creating a log-in at and looking under "resources.")

Below, you'll find a list of each Question Focus that was developed specifically for social studies in each grade level.  Included is a general sense of the conceptual ideas we were hoping would be elevated when learners were engaged in the Question Formation Technique.  Every Question Focus was designed as an introduction to a significant conceptual idea so students would begin to explore questions at the heart of learning instead of the teacher simply presenting the essential questions for the learning. We felt that this process created greater ownership by learners, and in this case, ownership of future learning that is based on conceptual curriculum goals or understandings.   (NOTE: A Question Focus might be applicable to other grades depending on the purpose for its use.  Questions will always be different as individuals, as groups, and as critical thinking abilities develop among learners.)

Question Focus Samples: Preschool to 6th Grade
  • 6th grade Question Focus: This was designed to be used with a Western Hemisphere study when students begin to examine the era of European exploration and to consider multiple perspectives when analyzing the impact of exploration on early cultures of the Western Hemisphere.
  • 5th grade Question Focus: This was designed to be used with a unit titled Changing Face of North America: Emergence of a New World Society (We no longer use the Euro-centric title of "Colonial America"). The goal was to elicit questions related to why people came to the Atlantic coast of North America, where they settled, why, and the patterns that existed within this migration of people.
  • 4th grade Question Focus: This was designed to go with a state study of Colorado.  The goal was to cause learners to ask who came to Colorado over time, why, and where did they settle.
  • 3rd grade Question Focus: This was designed to go with a study of Denver titled The Big City.  The goal was to illuminate the idea that citizens and government work together to create important changes over time. 
  • 2nd grade Question Focus: This was designed to go with a civics study.  The goal was to cause students to think about various forms of conflict and active citizenship of students.  An image of the man scratching his head was placed on a mirror and then the mirror was placed at the top of the page where you see three scenarios of conflicting students.
  • 1st grade Question Focus:  This was designed to go with a history unit and was created to help students consider how and why things have continued to stay the same or change over time. This is the history concept of continuity and change over time
  • Kindergarten Question Focus: This was designed to go with a civics study where students explore the purpose of classroom rules, citizenship, and roles within the classroom.
  • Preschool Question Focus: This was designed to go with civics learning related to respectful interaction and classroom rules.