Challenging assignments

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Alice Brent

Foundations Elementary

Alice Brent proudly shows off the posters her students created for the Cloud Fair, the culminating event of a two-month lesson on weather. Diagrams of storm cycles. Drawings showing how a tornado develops. The mostly hand-drawn charts and illustrations spout technical terminology— precipitation, troposphere, stratus clouds.

Definitely the work of at least a 5th-grade class. But Brent’s students at Foundations Elementary are only in 1st and 2nd grade. “They like big words,” she says.

Now the class has moved on to transportation. Students immediately recognized the scientific “-ation” words from the weather unit, says Brent.

Lessons on both topics foster students’ burgeoning curiosity and teach higher-level thinking skills, encouraging children to draw inferences that cross subject boundaries. Brent expects her students soon to make connections between transportation and weather—recognizing, for example, how a blizzard impacts a highway system, or how an electrical storm may be perilous for air travel. “We want them to examine, re-examine and question,” says Brent.

She started the weather topic generally, asking students to choose broad themes that interested them. Then, they narrowed their topics down by doing research in the school library and at home. Along the way, students shared their own experiences with tornadoes, hurricanes and clouds.

“One [girl] decided to do the water cycle,” Brent says. “She learned that all the water on this planet has been here for millions of years. Then, the kids started thinking, ‘Oh, that’s why we shouldn’t pollute.'”

Other children were equally creative in demonstrating weather phenomena. One child used a popcorn popper to illustrate a shaky earthquake. A girl used a fan to demonstrate how wind velocity affected a tree branch. Another boy studied the hurricanes that plagued his father’s native Haiti. Each project demonstrated the students’ personal interests. “I want a lot of ownership in the classroom,” Brent says. “When they come up with [ideas], they learn better.”

“Our ongoing goal is saving our earth,” Brent explains. “I know it is an old topic, but all these lessons tie in to [themes like] ‘take care of each other, take care of nature.'”

The weather and transportation units meet CPS curriculum requirements and integrate core subjects like science, language arts, mathematics and social studies. In a single transportation lesson, children identify shapes of road signs (geometry), create their own signs (art), and present them (communication skills). Weather lessons require students to interpret data, then produce visual and oral displays of their new-found knowledge.

Parents regularly volunteer in Brent’s classroom. She usually gives them a copy of her lesson plan one week in advance. Sometimes they question the approach. They typically are reassured when they see that one complex word problem can access more higher-level thinking skills than 100 drill questions, Brent says.

“I really follow Gardner’s multiple- intelligence theory,” she says. Howard Gardner, an education professor at Harvard University, postulates that people learn in eight distinct methods: musical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, logical/mathematical, linguistic, spatial and naturalistic. One of Brent’s students, for example, initially wanted to present her weather project only orally. After another student helped her construct a poster, she realized the benefits of written communication, Brent says. Now, “she [has] started writing a little more, and reading a lot better.”

Brent hones her math integration lessons and shares teaching methods with colleagues at continuing education workshops she’s attending at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “You do best when you enjoy something and then spin it off,” she says. Brent gives some credit to her students, too. “I’m learning from the children, too. It’s really reciprocal.”

Suzanne Zweig

Sullivan High

Four upperclassmen in Suzanne Zweig’s strategic reading class at Sullivan High are engaged in a group discussion. First it centers on ethnic strife in Kosovo. Then it moves to the history of slavery in the United States. The catalyst for the discussion: a short essay about the Statue of Liberty, entitled “Golden Door.”

Instead of reading words literally, Zweig encourages students to interpret and apply the text and ponder the significance of the selection’s title. Her aim, she says, is to make good readers better. “If you can make an emotional connection, it sticks,” says Zweig.

Strategic reading teaches students interpretation methods that will help them better understand difficult textbook reading assignments they get in other classes. It also is aimed at improving their study skills.

For example, Zweig teaches students to pre-read or “survey” non-fiction for the main idea before plunging into the text, a skill she hopes they will use to do homework. “How do you ‘survey’ when you are all alone in your room [at home] and you have a history chapter to read?” Zweig asks her group. They have a couple of ideas: Skim the section headings and paragraph topic sentences. Read the comprehension questions listed at the end of the chapter to identify the important information to glean from the text.

With 25 years of experience as a teacher, Zweig says the key to a successful classroom is creating a supportive environment. That opens the lines of communication between teacher and student, and among the students themselves. Often during her “Golden Door” lesson, students help each other think critically to fully digest the reading. In fact, the discussion culled so many examples of the concept of freedom that students did not have time to finish the reading. Zweig values the concepts that her students learn over the concrete work they produce. She is pleased with the outcome.

“I try to take the stories we are reading and connect them [to life] when they leave,” says Zweig. “If they can see the hidden meanings, maybe they can take it into the real world.” She encourages students to communicate ideas in their writing, promoting a skill students need outside of school, such as at after-school jobs.

Every Friday, English classes participate in “Socratic seminars,” a program designed to apply texts to life experiences through creative questioning and class discussion. As a reading teacher, Zweig works closely with other teachers to ensure that students will learn to apply the ideas they learn in the seminars, which draw readings from classic literature, philosophy, history, science, math, and other subjects.

Zweig developed her philosophy of applying reading to real life while she studied for a master’s degree in reading at National-Louis University. She continued to cultivate her style at the Chicago Area Writing Project, which taught her to appreciate a student’s effort using higher thinking skills, even when an essay has grammatical mistakes, she says.

Collaboration among teachers is encouraged at Sullivan. As a group leader in Sullivan’s “Critical Friends” program—a network of teachers who share ideas and insights—Zweig works with other teachers on strategies to access higher-level thinking skills in the classroom.

Jill Sontag

Inter-American Magnet

Student work is a bare bones task for teacher Jill Sontag of Inter-American Magnet School.

Sontag’s students are studying body systems, as are all 3rd-graders at this Lake View school. While teachers are encouraged to collaborate, each is free to develop his or her own lesson plans.

For example, every class has a group project on owl skeletons. Children in Sontag’s class worked in small groups doing hands-on activities, like acting out an owl hunting a mouse, examining owl pellets and recreating an owl skeleton by glueing real bones to a worksheet.

“I like to have the children get a sense of the inner workings of the body,” says Sontag, who has been teaching for six years.

The owl lesson is based on FOSS, or Full Option Science System, a hands-on curriculum for grades K-8 developed at the University of California at Berkeley. The FOSS “human body module” is aimed at teaching a number higher-order skills, including advanced organizing, comparing, communicating and observing.

Sontag uses a FOSS checklist and records her own observations on index cards to track individual student achievement. “I combine the two—checklist and anecdotal [methods]—to see how the children are progressing,” she says.

“What they master is not necessarily the main point. It’s the thinking involved. If a child is learning how to think, question, analyze and synthesize, then they will be prepared for any higher classes that come along.”

Some students already are making use of such skills. Many are so engaged in the project, they bring show-and-tell items from home, which Sontag displays around the room. One child, she notes with a chuckle, brought in a moldy pork chop as an example of muscle tissue. Another student built a plastic scale model of the human body that shows all the organs and bones. Sontag has it on display.

Inter-American encourages students to visit other classes to present their work, and cooperate with other grades to increase opportunities to learn. The school also has an alternative report card system that bypasses “rote regurgitation,” says Sontag.

The traditional A-B-C grading system was dropped in favor of a new letter-based checklist, with sections added for parent comments and student self-evaluations. Sontag adds that her classroom assessments consist of written feedback, not grades. Since students regularly measure their own progress, Sontag has noticed that their self-perceptions are honest and constructive.

Griselle Diaz-Gemmati

Norwood Park Elementary

Language arts is a literary adventure for Griselle Diaz-Gemmati’s 8th-graders at Norwood Park Elementary School.

“What kind of conflict do you want to see?” she asks the class on an October afternoon. Voting on their project for the next month, the boys opt to read about war while the girls prefer a love story. A compromise is reached when the students decide to read “Romeo and Juliet.”

“We negotiate what we are going to do in literature,” says Diaz-Gemmati. Students then choose the study devices they will use-from live performance to analytical papers-and the criteria Diaz-Gemmati will use to grade them.

Diaz-Gemmati sees herself as a professional facilitator, setting parameters for the students’ projects without limiting their creativity. “I will explain how much work [a suggested project idea] will take and how much time is involved,” she says. She kindly dissuaded one student who wanted to produce a musical version of the star-crossed lovers.

“When I was in school, it was a matter of regurgitation,” says Diaz-Gemmati. “Now, I try to give my kids points of information. These points entice them to find out more about these topics they’ve been exposed to.”

For “Romeo and Juliet,” students generated activities to assess their understanding of each of the play’s five acts. For example, the class is translating the verse in Act I to reflect regional dialects across the country, says Diaz-Gemmati. Each activity stresses a different skill-from comprehension and synthesis to evaluation and analysis. Sometimes group work is involved, as in preparing an acted scene. Other activities focus on individual work. For instance, each student must critique Act II, including a written summary of the plot and suggestions to improve the Bard’s story.

Next spring, Diaz-Gemmati’s class will work on poetry. Last year, she assigned her students to find poems of various styles-haiku, sonnet, acrostic- and then write a poem of their own in the same style.

Students chose the grading criteria for the project by setting priorities. For example, more difficult poems, such as sonnets, will be worth more points. Other factors, like project cover design, were also counted into grades. Students’ original poems were graded on how well they followed the meter and rhyme rules for a particular style.

“It is really important for kids to know that they are the keepers of their education,” she says. “They are the ones at the helm, not me.”

Diaz-Gemmati credits the Chicago Area Writing Project, Norwood Park administrators and fellow teachers for supporting her innovative lessons. The Golden Apple Foundation named her a fellow in 1993. She is now working on a doctorate in education at National-Louis University.