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BANNER, Winter 2014: History Detectives

Integrated Unit Spans Disciplines
Brookwood’s fifth grade students have become “history detectives” and are currently on an exciting adventure in which they are organizing, inhabiting, and managing a contingent of 17th century English colonies in North America. In order to survive and flourish, this demanding task compels them to employ a variety of skills –  primary source analysis, reading, writing, mathematics as well as interpersonal abilities like negotiation, compromise, leadership, listening and creative problem solving. They accomplish all this while also considering the impact and interactions with the Native Americans who were there before them.

How are lessons in all these subjects woven into this one project? Under the rubric that is known in education as an Integrated Thematic Unit or in layperson’s terms, a unit includes lessons from more than one discipline.

The projects often begin with one or two subjects at the forefront and over the course of the unit, lessons from other subjects are added. For example, the 17th century English colonization project starts in the literacy subjects and then expands. 

“The reading and writing components are where it all begins, but then various social studies and science themes, and even math may also be woven in, as well as the all-important collaborative/cooperative skills,” says Sven Holch, Social Studies Coordinator and one of Brookwood’s three fifth grade teachers.  “For example, early in the unit, when they are ‘history detectives’ looking at our [social studies] text and some primary resource documents, they are practicing those necessary skills of cooperative work while learning about the tenor of the times in colonial New England. This is reinforced by our historical novel, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and the text to text connections are plentiful.”

When the unit moves into the next stage, the Colonial Simulation, students begin to use and learn additional skills. “When we engage in our Colonial Simulation, the class is separated into four small groups where they use game theory and math skills to account for and budget their colony's daily survival, or not. The geography component is strong as well, and that informs many of their decisions as they decide how and where to expand their colony. These skills are taught discreetly, yet applied directly and immediately into the 'simulated' world they inhabit for three weeks,” explains Lisa Johnson, Middle School Coordinator and fifth grade teacher.

“Some of the benefits of an Integrated Thematic Unit include the connections made which reinforce global thinking in terms of decision-making, cause and effect, as well as adding depth and perspective to their learning. The students are always surprised when they connect the dots and see that these separate strands were actually on a single loom all along! The weaving metaphor is useful here as it accurately shows our intentions with the curriculum,” says Sven.

While the Integrated Thematic Unit model offers benefits for many age groups, there are particular and important lessons learned and skills gained for fifth graders. “The colonies themselves are run collaboratively with students taking on varying leadership roles where negotiation and compromise are frequent and required, not always easy for 10-11 year olds!” says fifth grade teacher Gynna Ames. “This scenario offers an opportunity for the more reserved students to emerge as leaders, and for the more outspoken students to come to an understanding that their words should not necessarily carry more power/credence; we work toward a respectful sharing of all perspectives. This has been one of the many benefits of teaching this way. Another benefit here is that the curriculum supports the students developmentally as they take concrete information and work toward increasingly abstract thought.”

Sven adds there are benefits teachers enjoy as well: “This type of activity requires us to give up a small amount of control to allow for the "chips to fall where they may," always a difficult but necessary practice for teachers.  However, the investment on the students’ behalf seems to soar as they see their decision-making honored.”

During the spring term the team implements another unit using the Integrated Thematic Unit model, this one on immigration. This unit, which has students participating in an Ellis Island Simulation, includes an introduction to writing a research paper. Lessons on writing a thesis statement, research, note-taking, editing, and revising are all taught along with social studies lessons on the pogroms in Russia, poverty in Italy and many more factors that resulted in the American citizenship of millions of immigrants and the sacrifices they made in search of a better life.

Lisa says this longtime component of the fifth grade curriculum has had a significant effect on students through the years. “We've heard students talking about these simulations for years after they participated in them.  Although we continuously update and tweak our content and process, we hope that the indelible learning remains,” she says.