Eagan, Minnesota . . . where all the children are above average!

By Carrie Kotcho

Teaching 4th grade has its challenges for a 38 year-old kid. I think I never really left the mind-set of being 10 and that has its upside, although my wife may not always agree! The upsides include – pizza, chicken giggles and hamburgers for lunch, being “all-time” quarterback at recess and annually getting to rediscover the year in school that I believe is one of the most important in the life of a young person growing up in today’s world. It is very much the case at Glacier Hills Elementary School of Arts & Science in Eagan, MN where I teach 4th grade. By title alone, one might infer that history is a secondary concern in daily instruction at a “science and arts” school. Not so here. In fact, technically speaking, history falls under the heading “Social Science” along with other “ologies” taught in elementary school like geography, political science and economics (to name a few).

Caelyn, inspired by the Greensboro lunch counter begins her artistic impression of this important piece of Americana using precise measurements that would later be completed using water color.

My class, as with the school as a whole, is a heterogeneous mixture of personalities, ethnicities, cultures and learning styles. The diversity in appearance is underscored by a socio-economic difference amongst its student population that sometimes provides a challenge in teaching while at other times offers teaching moments that could only be spoken of in a classroom rather than experienced. I strive to create experiences in the classroom in an attempt to illustrate to my students the value and applicability their learning can lead to in the world they live in – now and later.

Our district-selected curriculum is written in the context of a tour of the United States beginning in the Northeast Region and continuing through the remaining four regions (Southeast, Midwest, Southwest and West) of the United States. The curriculum that leads this tour is excellently written. I chose to up the ante and incorporate literacy frameworks relating to research, summary writing, oral presentation as well as the arts and technology to round out my teaching and create what I believe to be an experience as opposed to a lesson.

Under the premise of “if you never ask you’ll never know” I wrote an email to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History seeking a correspondent to be a pen pal with my class. I was pleasantly surprised when museum educators Carrie Kotcho and Jenny Wei enthusiastically agreed to share letters with the class. Following the class’ study of each region they were required to write a summary letter. The requirements of the letter were to give chronological, factual summary of the information learned from the text and a recording of the same text read by a “tour guide” (provided by the makers of the curriculum). In addition, letters were to be written by each student (addressed to our new Smithsonian contacts) utilizing literacy skills they have been learning and putting into practice throughout the school year.

Inspired by the Indiana's propeller, the Philadelphia Wheel, Lindsay utilizes her mastery of craypas (oil pastel) and chalk dusting to recreate the Smithsonian artifact.

When a region was completed students had an opportunity to read their letters aloud to the class in the hope of being chosen as the representative letter sent to our Smithsonian contacts. The letters chosen by the class were promptly answered by Carrie and Jenny with compliments on a job well done but equally important, with follow up questions and suggestions to extend their learning using online resources from the museum’s History Explorer Web site. In other words, students were treated with professionalism that deepened the experience and pushed the learning beyond the classroom and into the real world. These letters proved to be building blocks to the next phase of our exploration of the regions of the United States.

All five groups of regional experts pose with their completed project after reconnecting the United States. Every student has at least one piece of art represented within the collage and all worked diligently researching and writing about each piece of art.

Reluctant writers began to find a voice and write voluminously. Creativity and imagination became linked with nonfictional learning. A transparent cross-curricular bridge was built. But even more importantly, this project brought my class together collaboratively as a community of learners and young people that I know they will never forget. The tears on the last day of school are proof enough for me.

Guest blogger Daniel Gasteazoro is a fourth grade teacher at Glacier Hills Elementary School of Arts & Science in Eagan, Minnesota. Read Daniel's full description of the project (.pdf) for more information.