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Notable Americans: How an integrated, thematic curriculum teaches students to envision themselves as change makers

March 25, 2021 | Abby Liu

Begin with the end! Watch third grade students in character as their Notable Americans. It will charm you and make your day! More than that, you will see young students embody change makers. It’s a picture of hope. (You’ll be glad you watched the video. We promise!)

Introduction

If you watched the video above (and I really hope that you did!) then you saw a culmination of weeks of study. The second and third grade Notable American social studies unit is part of our hands-on, thematic integrated curriculum. Because there are complex interlocking pieces to the study, it can be hard for the outside eye to see the many levels of rich, educational value. Let me walk you through it.

What is an Integrated Curriculum?

In an integrated curriculum, students learn in a way that connects each academic subject to the next. This leads to deeper understanding of the subject matter and how the details relate to one another. At Mustard Seed School, social studies and science remain at the center of integrated, project based learning. With each thematic unit of study, students explore essential questions. This leads to research. Students use the skills of reading, writing, math, and artistic expression as they investigate and discover answers to the questions. Learning in this way is hands-on. Engaging. And accessible to all types of learners.

Notable American Study: Essential Questions

Below are the essential questions that provoked the students as they studied Notable Americans this year. 

  1. How have specific Americans acted to influence our country today?
  2. How have women, Black, Indigenous, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Latinx, and people of color worked for change?
  3. What characteristics make people responsible citizens and good leaders and examples?
  4. In what ways have the time periods of American history affected the actions of groups of people?
  5. How can I be an agent for change?

How the Study Progresses

Students began by browsing biographies of Notable Americans during social studies.  They wrote interesting facts they learned about the people they were reading about on Post-its. After looking through several books, students selected two Americans that they wanted to learn more about.

Next, teachers assigned a notable American to each student. Students read the biography of their Americanand started to organize important events in their life using a graphic organizer. They also contributed to a timeline in their class.  Each student created a 5×7” card with a portrait, name, a statement of what the person was known for as well as birth and death dates. They added the card and a band from the birth to death date at the bottom of the timeline. This gave a visual representation of all of the notable Americans and the time period in which they lived.

Students then began writing their own biography based on their research. Here social studies intersected with literacy.  Students considered ways to engage their readers. They organized details about what happened during their American’s life using a graphic organizer and a sentence starter worksheet. 

Throughout the writing process, students took breaks to walk around the classroom and talk in character. They began to embody their notable American. Not only did this help with the writing process, but it also prepared them for the culminating presentation.

Iterative drafting is an important part of thematic, integrated learning. Refining. Going back and looking at the research. Reworking. Adding details.  Students undertook several drafts of their biography, incorporating changes from self edits, and peer and teacher reviews.  Eventually, they published their biography, complete with drawings, dedications, “about the author,” and spiral binding.

Artistic Expression: Making Portraits and Puppets

Meanwhile, during art class, students drew and painted portraits, again making multiple drafts. Making art deepened the classroom learning. Students considered how their notable American looked. What their skin tone was. What kind of clothing they wore. 

Next, students began to make puppets, starting with a sketch. Then they formed their puppet’s head out of clay, and added divots to form the eyes. They attached those heads to sticks and painted them, practicing matching skin tone and adding details. Finally, the puppets were accessorized with clothing and props.

Making portraits and puppets required not merely artistic skill, but also the ability to plan, time manage, persevere, and take advice. Students needed to think flexibly. And while they worked mostly independently, they also took time to help each other and collaborate.  

The puppets provided an opportunity for notable Americans to engage with each other in puppet shows. Students envisioned conversations between different historical figures and discussed important moments in their lives, challenges, and the ways that they made a difference in the world.  Playing with the puppets added dimension to the study: offering another mode in which to explore.  And it was a fun way to learn about other historical figures.

Final presentations

The crown jewel of the study was the Notable American Living Wax Museum. Students dressed in costume and attended as their character. They brought their puppet and biography as artifacts to share with the audience–teachers, and peers. (And parents on Zoom!) Each student said a few lines in character and answered a few questions like

  • What was a beautiful time in your life?
  • What are you known for?
  • What is something that you’re proud of?
  • What was a difficult time in your life?
  • How are you a change maker?

And you may have noticed that these are the questions that they answered on the video above.

Teaching Goals: Knowledge and Skills

The notable American study was engaging and fun.  There were multiple ways for students to learn and engage with the academic material. Learning in social studies, literacy, and artistic expression were integrated.  Meanwhile, throughout the study, teachers had specific knowledge and skills that they wanted students to learn. 

Students…

  • Learned how a particular American demonstrated responsible leadership and citizenship.

 

  • Learned how to use terms related to time, including years, decades, centuries, and generations. They were able to explain the concepts of long ago and far away, as they relate to their notable American, applying terms related to time, including past, present, and future.

 

  • Recognized and identified: 
    • the names of at least 10 major figures in American history, 
    • the contributions of at least 10 important women, Black, Indigenous, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Latinx, and people of color
  • Retold and wrote about at least five events and stories about their American with accuracy and appropriate sequencing. 

 

  • Developed and organized a simple timeline that has the American’s date of birth, date of death, and dates of at least five other significant events in American history.

 

  • Used at least two different sources for their research, and cross checked work  

 

  • Identified at least three characteristics that have made  a particular American a good example.

 

  • Identified ways that they themselves could have an impact on their community now or in the future

Conclusion

When you watched the video at the top of this blog, I hope that you were charmed. That you saw young children embodying historical change makers and envisioning who they can become.  Students grew in confidence and skills as they became experts on their notable American. They acquired a depth of knowledge about their person as they read, researched, and drafted their biography. As they refined and reworked the information over and over again, students rehearsed what they were learning. What’s more, they learned about other notable Americans as they interacted with their peers through writing, editing, playing with puppets, creating a timeline, and engaging with presentations.  

This was a joy-filled study, full of playfulness and learning. It’s the best of what a thematic, integrated unit of study offers. Hands-on, experiential learning that literally brings learning to life!

 

 

 

Abby Liu

Director of Marketing and Communications

Ms. Liu loves to tell the Mustard Seed story. She’s the parent of two Mustard Seed School alumni. She's seen the impact of a Mustard Seed education from the early preschool days all the way up to eighth grade and beyond.

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