Use 21st-century learning skills to teach social studies.
By Helen McLean, M.Ed.; Stefanie Wetzel; Karen Tomasetti; and Thomas Mrazik
Many recognize a strong spiritual foundation, challenging academics, a safe learning environment, and excellent, committed teachers as a hallmark of a Catholic education. Parents with children in Catholic schools can cite the quality of education, feeling of safety, and presence of religious instruction as their main reasons for preferring Catholic schools. Despite these many positives of Catholic schools, future challenges exist. One challenge faced by schools is to help students build 21st-century skills to prepare them to live and work in today’s world. A 21st-century learning framework recognizes the importance of teaching core academic skills, but also emphasizes the need to make these core skills relevant for today’s students.
Responding to 21st-Century Challenges
“There is a realization within the Catholic educators in the Philadelphia Archdiocese of a great need to focus on 21st-century skills including creativity, critical thinking, effective communication, collaboration, and compassion. Our faculty readily embraced this call to action so that our students have what they need to go forward with confidence into the future of unimagined possibilities,” says Helen McLean, principal of Saint Andrew School in Drexel Hill, PA. Saint Andrew opened in 1922 and serves approximately 1,800 households in a suburban community. The school is fully accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. It strives to develop well-rounded learners; help students recognize, appreciate, and develop their God-given talents; and inspire students to be responsible citizens and use their individual gifts and use their talents to serve others. In the last year, enrollment has increased 8 percent to a total of about 250 students from pre-K3 through eighth grades. Approximately 15 percent of students come from five school districts outside of Drexel Hill.
Helen says that “the heart of every Catholic teacher is eager to know how to bring about a shift in focus to 21st-century learning skills in our schools. We share with you two success stories from our eight-grade history unit on the Civil War and a sixth-grade geography unit on Europe. Both incorporated 21st-century learning skills and can be easily adapted by interested teachers in your schools.”
Eight-Grade Students Breathe Life into the U.S. Civil War
Eighth-grade teacher Stefanie Wetzel was pleasantly surprised by the e-mail she received from an expert Civil War reenactor who had seen Stefanie’s students reenact key U.S. Civil War themes and bring voice and life to their characters: “As a Civil War reenactor myself, I have attended numerous reenactments, demonstrations, and live exhibitions in various locations, including Gettysburg, PA. I have never witnessed such a well-planned Civil War reenactment, all-out effort put on by these eighth-grade students and teachers at St. Andrews.” Such feedback would certainly make many teachers want to come to work every day. You may wonder, “How did the students and teachers create such a positive and effective learning experience?”
“The students’ goal was to present a tangible history lesson to an audience. In order to accomplish this, I thought that we needed to go beyond textbook learning by challenging students to step into the past and becoming living history guides. Living history activities such as re-enacting Civil War themes are well-suited to bringing students to understand the concepts of voice, power, and way of life,” says Stefanie.
The students conduced their own research on the Civil War using print and internet sources, as well as the films Glory and Gettysburg. Student-selected Civil War themes included
- The Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address
- Naval Developments
- A Soldier’s Life
- Union and Confederate Regiments at Gettysburg
- Women in the War
- Women on the Home Front
- The 54th Massachusetts
- Civil War Medicine
- Surrender at Appomattox
Next, the students selected historical characters (e.g., soldiers, women, doctors, nurses, slaves) into whose lives they would step and prepare dialogue based upon their characters’ experiences during the Civil War. Throughout the process the students activated their imaginations to explore the human, social, cultural, political, military, scientific, and technological factors surrounding each Civil War theme and character. A logical expert Civil War reenactor, Bill Boyle, conducted an informal discussion and display of his experiences and equipment. This lent a real sense of authenticity to the students’ preparation.
A great amount of class time in social studies and integrated language arts was devoted to the project. Student writing spanned expository, descriptive, narrative, and dialogue or play-writing styles. Ultimately, each group completed script dialogue and monologue based upon their assigned theme and characters. Some groups opted to write historically accurate scripts for reenacting specific events, while others chose to script their information more informally, allowing them to talk to and interact with their audience in a more conversational tone.
The students’ research and script-writing assignments were formatively assessed by the teacher. These assessments helped direct the students whose background research or writing had not yet fully reached a significant portrayal or understanding of the character or event. Thus, the students’ knowledge of the Civil War continued to expand.
Student collaboration was extensive. Once the scripts were completed, students met to rehearse script lines and to block out and rehearse reenactment movements. Class time was used to prepare props, backdrops, costumes, and staging (e.g. cots, tents, artillery, campfires). Some students gathered outside of class to build more involved props; however, this was not a project requirement. Mr. Boyle very generously allowed the students to use his authentic reproduction equipment, including a tent, uniforms, rifles, and camp equipment.
Lessons Learned from Civil War Reenactment Day
Finally, after several weeks of planning and preparation, the day arrived for the students to conduct a live reenactment of their Civil War themes in character. We did experience a minor glitch. The original plan was for the audience of school students and parish community members to stroll around the parish hall and visit each Civil War theme station. It quickly became evident that the din in the hall prevented the audience from being able to hear the student reenactors. We quickly seated he audience in the middle of the hall with their attention directed to one station at a time.
Throughout the entire program, the students expanded and extended their knowledge of the Civil War. The in-depth, personal research about themes moved them toward expert mastery about their subject. The students then became teachers – the true measure of mastery. By performing for an audience, they reinforced their own learning. Because they were so well informed, the students were able answer questions from the audience, again reinforcing and expanding knowledge while developing “thinking on their feet” skills in addition to gaining the personal satisfaction that comes from the success of the rigorous nature of the program.
“The students were able to see the past as a prologue; history and its people came alive and the students gave the characters breath again. By doing this, the students understood more clearly the characters’ motivations. The students gained insight about not being judgmental of history (e.g. Confederacy is only ‘bad’; Union is only ‘good’), but to see that we are all, and always have been, motivated by a need to preserve our way of life,” says Stephanie.
As summative assessment, the students were asked to journal about their experience. They were also asked to discuss their feelings and thoughts about the Civil War and to explain how the project added to their understanding of the forces and conditions that existed during the war. In addition, they were asked to explore the legacy of the Civil War and to investigate the effects that remain today.
Sixth-Grade Students Prepare You for European Travel
“We were impressed with ‘European Travel Agency Day,’ how the students presented the information with such confidence. They really owned the information instead of just memorizing some facts and repeating them. I asked several questions about the information that they presented and the students were able to delve further into the topic to give a thorough response. They became the experts on their country and then shared that info with the rest of the class and the parents. The students were able to explore cultures and ancestors,” say Mr. and Mrs. Kirchner, parents of Veronica, one of our sixth-grade students. Wonderful feedback and perspective, especially since both Mary and Jim are teachers and have experience at other schools in the region. You may ask, “How did the students gain such experience and confidence?”
“The typical social studies classroom looks like textbooks, outlines, maps, and videos. Students may or may not work together. One suggestion in our curriculum guidelines is a ‘travel brochure.’ Originally, I thought to expand upon this concept with input from my students and some ideas of my own to go beyond a static brochure,” says Karen Tomasetti, sixth-grade teacher at Saint Andrew. “This eventually evolved into a unit project designed to develop full integration of social studies, language arts, and mathematics. It takes the student beyond the static textbook; encourages applying facts and knowledge to solving real life situations; integrates diverse skills in research, writing, budgeting, and effective communication. Students gain experience in collaboration and shared purpose.”
For this project, the students’ goal was to act as professional travel agents who had been hired by a European country to promote travel as a means of boosting the country’s economy. The project concluded with a “European Travel Agency Day” at which the parents and the school community were invited to interact with each student “travel agent.”
First, each student (alone or with a partner) conducted research about a European country. To develop critical thinking skills, students were encouraged to look beyond the textbook to explore the interfaces among facts, communications, and real-life situations. Research time was allotted during the social studies period. Some research was conducted in the computer lab so that all students had access to online hotel information and airline schedules and fees. Students were encouraged to save their research findings on a flash drive, which enabled them to work at home or with fellow students.
Secondly, the student travel agents each completed a tabletop display board with items that could be either computer generated or hand made. This activity stimulated student creativity and developed effective communication. Rubrics listing the expectations for each specific area were distributed to the students. The minimal requirements were:
- A map showing the country’s location on the continent. Landforms, capital city, and bodies of water were labeled.
- Climate and weather information telling the travelers what to pack for each season of the year.
- Airfare and hotel accommodations with at least three different scenarios for travel packages with pricing. Points for the students to consider were whether or not meals were included, the length of the stay, and hotel ratings. Students were responsible for converting American currency to the euro.
- Facts about the economy and what stimulates growth.
- A visual display of the country’s attractions and things to do while visiting there.
- The country’s flag.
A few weeks prior to European Travel Agency Day the students began to advertise their countries. Most students opted to post flyers and advertisements in the hallways of the school; others employed video, live, or audio commercials in their classrooms.
Lessons Learned From European Travel Agency Day
On European Travel Agency Day, the sixth-grade student travel agents arrived professionally dressed and ready for business. Many added extras such as baked goods or specialty foods unique to their countries. The students promoted travel options and packages to those students and parents in attendance. One parent, Joe McDermott, parent of Meghan, offered the following highlights of the day: “The project also allowed he girls (and boys) to go beyond location and to look into culture, entertainment, food, history, sites, where to stay, what to do, what to see and eat… Projects like this help immeasurably.”
There were many other important outcomes of this project: Students came to recognize who among them were the country experts, listening to their peers and providing critique. Critical thinking skills were honed during these practices as listeners asked questions and presenters formulated responses that would not only inform the listeners but also persuade them to purchase travel packages. This practice made the students realize how critical it was that they have expert knowledge.
Another positive outcome was he higher-level-application of mathematical that the students used when putting together the travel packages. The original idea to integrate mathematics was to focus on euro pricing of travel packages. However, the students had other ideas and raised the level of mathematical and logical thinking. The students quickly learned how attractive their travel packages could become by offering several different discount levels and juggling air travel schedules and connecting flights.
A Principal’s Perspective: Responding to 21st-Century Challenges
The mission of Catholic school education remains unchanged: providing a strong spiritual foundation; challenging academics; a safe learning environment; and excellent, committed teachers. Social and cultural influences have converged, challenging us to re-examine traditional pedagogical methods. It is, therefore, our obligation to provide a creative learning environment in which the challenges of the 21st century are not shunned, but rather are received as moments of grace in which our students can position themselves to be true stewards of the Kingdom of God on Earth.
“What a privilege it has been for me to observe the professional growth of teachers as they let go of some of the routine teaching practices of the past to embrace 21st-century learning strategies. Classrooms have become hubs of activity. Students are engaged in learning that delves deeper into complex issues and naturally occurring circumstances. Together, teachers and students have experienced uncertainty, frustration, excitement, and joy. A new energy flows into this positive learning environment; and for those who have accepted the challenge to integrate 21st-century skills, there is no turning back,” says Helen McLean.
“There is nothing better for a school principal than to see everyone enthusiastic and happy with what the students are doing. In these two school projects, our teachers are quietly pleased that the plans that they brought to fruition were worthwhile and effective. Our students delighted the parents. The student presentations provided a venue for the students to realize that hard work pays off in the end. It is all good! And I do believe it truly is God’s work.”
Helen McLean, M.Ed. is principal; Stefanie Wetzel, eight-grade teacher; Karen Tomasetti, sixth-grade teacher; and Thomas Mrazik, a parishioner at St. Andrew School, Drexel Hill, PA.
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