Handbook of Engaged Learning Projects

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Student Pages

A United States Regional Study

The 4th and 5th grade gifted and talented students in the Project Idea Plus classes at Highlands School and Mill Street School apparently have just received e-mail from Moscow, Russia! Actually, these two classes are involved in a humanities simulation. Check out these hints for facilitating the unit.

Most school district curricula include the traditional United States regional study. This project is an innovative way to cover the same material emphasizing engaged learning with the Internet. It is a unit that integrates social studies and language arts as well as thinking skills. The teachers have planned this project so that their classes will be able to interact using telecommunications. This offers an opportunity for students to direct each other's learning and provides a real audience for their work. This inquiry unit will last approximately four weeks with students engaged in its activities for about 60 minutes each day.

The teachers of these two classes have collaborated to plan how they will implement the unit. They will provide opportunities for the students in their classes to discuss their plans, compare information, and act as audiences to preview each other's presentations. They begin the unit by sending the letter from Muscovy Mineral Spring Water via e-mail to each other's class, inviting the students to participate in the company's search for a U.S. distribution center. The students also have online access to guidelines for preparing the proposal, product information, and the facts about the chief executive.

First, the students in each class brainstorm to compile a list of things they feel are important for a place to have to provide a good quality of life for young people. To see how their criteria work, they apply them to their own hometown. When they see what the results are, they discuss whether or not they agree with them. The students at Mill Street think that their list does a good job of evaluating a place, but the students at Highlands are making some revisions to theirs. They realize that they have left out some very important features. The teacher at Highlands tells her class about Money Magazine's annual list of the best places to live. They go to the magazine's Web site to see how the places are rated. Using their own list and the information they find at the Money site, they rework their criteria. Meanwhile, the students at Mill have done some research online to find out about the lifestyles in Moscow. The two classes confer, comparing their lists and findings, and each class comes up with a final list of its own criteria to evaluate the cities the students research.

The teachers set deadlines, first for research to be completed and then for the final projects to be ready. They then hold lotteries to determine which students will be on each city committee. There are two cities from each of the five U.S. regions. There are fewer students at Mill Street, so the teacher has eliminated some of the cities and there will be fewer groups. As you look around the rooms, you see the students break into six to ten city committees. These are the committees that will research, develop, and design the presentations for Muscovy Mineral Spring Water.

The committees are meeting to establish roles and tasks. The teachers notice that some groups are dividing the tasks among the members; others are working on each task together; some groups are beginning by researching the cities; others want to know more about life in Moscow and/or Russia. Each teacher is circulating around the room, monitoring progress, asking questions as necessary to provide focus or redirection. The students have been taught previously how to use the Internet. There are two computers with Internet access in each of the classrooms, and students are taking turns using them. Other students are working in the Learning Resource Center, going online or using the CD-ROMS on the lab computers or searching other reference materials available there. At the end of this first session, the teachers call the students back and ask them to complete the City Committee Great Data Update to record their progress and reactions. (Students will fill out an update sheet each day.) It is at this point, too, that they contact the students at the other school via online chat to see what their progress and observations are.

As the project progresses, the students are realizing that encyclopedias are not the ideal resource; they do not provide the most up-to-date information. At the start of class, each teacher holds a whole group meeting to touch base with the students. "Where are you finding your best information? Are you meeting any stumbling blocks? Do you have any questions for me? Do you have any suggestions for solving the problems that other groups are facing? What is the most exciting thing that you have discovered?" Inevitably, the students rave about their findings on the Internet; the information is current. There are sites put together by realtors, sites dealing with local businesses and corporations, sites that tell about the latest cultural events. In fact, one group has received e-mail from the Chamber of Commerce from Ithaca, New York! Several of the groups have contacted students in their respective cities via e-mail. They are anxiously awaiting responses. They all continue to record their progress on their update sheets regularly.

The deadline arrives for research to be completed; students have enough information and are ready to begin evaluating their data. At the beginning of the class, each teacher will ask the questions, "Are you going to include everything you have discovered? How are you going to determine what information you need to support your evaluation of the city?" The teachers' goal is to have the students realize the importance of looking back at the guidelines for the presentation to keep their audience and purpose in mind. Students return to their city committees and begin the data evaluation process.

The students are eager to begin work on their presentations, but have some questions about how to make them convincing. In response, the teachers present a mini-lesson from their district curriculum on the elements of persuasive discourse. They want to be certain that the students understand that this is a learning goal of the simulation. At the end of the mini-lesson, the teachers pass out the rubric that will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the presentations. They also tell them that they will act as the audience for a "dress rehearsal" during which committees from the other class will make their presentations.

The teachers have provided very little structure as to how these proposals should be presented. Some groups are making large visual aids and practicing skits. Some groups are designing multimedia presentations using Hyperstudio or PowerPoint. Others are practicing with the video camera. There is productive noise, and the students are piggy-backing on the ideas of other groups. One group needs some quiet space to work, so they have gone to the learning center.

During the final days of the activity, some groups are videotaping their presentations during or after school or at a committee member's house. They watch the video to critique their performance in preparation for videoconferencing. Those that are producing multimedia presentations are working out the "kinks."

The presentations are finished, and the students are ready to present them for review to the collaborating classroom. In the meantime, the teachers have taken the items on the scorecard the students generated earlier and preformatted them into a notetaking organizer to be used by the other class as they view the presentations.

At the end of each presentation, the students complete their notetaking, using the think, pair, share strategy. Students fill out the organizer individually (think), then compare responses with a partner (pair), and lastly, meet as a whole class to discuss reactions (share). For this last part, the teacher assumes the role of recorder and compiles the reactions the students are sharing. They will give this feedback to the committees from the other class. While the students are completing notetaking and evaluation activities, the teachers are doing the same tasks for their own final project rubric. On Tuesday, the class roles will be reversed; the Mill Street city committees will present their proposals to the students at Highlands School.

"Now you have viewed all of the proposals and heard all of the information. If you were Mr. Solokov and his executives from Muscovy Mineral Spring Water, is there a city you would choose for the new MMSW U.S. Distribution Center? On what are you basing your opinion - the data presented or the presentation itself?" The teachers pose these questions and a lively discussion follows. There are some obvious cities to eliminate, but Highlands School students seem to have different ideas about those remaining. One student suggests that they vote, just for fun. The Mill Street students want to compare their ideas with those from Highlands, and an e-mail is sent. Once they get their response, they are happy to do a ranking of the top three.

After the presentations, each teacher completes the rubric, and the students complete a reflective journal entry. The teachers prompt this reflection by posing some questions: "What did you enjoy most about the simulation? What did you like least? What would you suggest be changed the next time this simulation is done?" They coach the students to go back and read the updates written during the course of the project to help them remember how it progressed.

The effectiveness of their proposals has been determined. Now, the teachers need to be sure that their students have general knowledge about all of the regions of the United States. Based on the notes they have taken while viewing presentations, individual students will write generalizations about each of the regions. The teachers collect these and compile a class list of generalizations. When the list is completed, she passes it out and asks students to verify these generalizations using the notes they have taken from the resource materials available in the classroom, including their social studies textbooks.

The teachers collect the generalizations the next day. They have one last goal they hope to accomplish. They want their students to recognize the vast amount of knowledge they gleaned from the various sources they used for their investigations. Merely reading one textbook offers limited information; it can't be as current as the data they found on the Internet and received from those they contacted via e-mail. The teachers ask them for one final reflection. "As you supported the generalizations you made, you used your social studies textbook. How did the information it provided compare with the information you acquired from all of the sources you used in your inquiry?" The have no trouble making their point. The children are always eager to use computers. This project not only introduced them to Russia and regions of the U.S., but it showed them the unique benefits of going online. (In fact, they have decided to continue to correspond with a couple of the classes they contacted.)

Besides the evaluation provided by the project assessment rubric, the teachers have a large collection of artifacts at the end of the unit. They have collected the Great Data Updates, the scorecard, the generalizations, and any journal entries the students have written. They meet together again and debrief. How did their students do? Would they make any changes for the next year? By looking at the students' work, they are able to get a picture of how the students progressed through the unit.

Authors: Marie Bartolotta from Mill Street Elementary School and Sharon Gatz from Highlands Elementary School, Naperville, Illinois
Handbook of Engaged Learning Projects sponsored by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Education Office and Friends of Fermilab. Funded by the Midwest Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education based at the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL).
Last Updated: September 3, 1999