With only six weeks remaining in the current school year, we're moving into one of my favorite teaching units- the Civil War Era of U.S. History. While I know my students are already looking forward to summer vacation, I know that I still have their attention. Before kicking off the unit I wanted to assess common knowledge among my classes in order to avoid wasting time teaching information which was already commonplace. I assured my students that this was neither a quiz or a test and no one would be reprimanded if they couldn't remember anything from earlier instruction in middle and grade school. Each person was given a blank KWL chart with instructions to provide Knowledge which they already knew about the Civil War, insight into what they Wanted to learn or know more about, and the information which was Learned at the end of the unit (to be completed after their unit test).
I explained how if I knew in advance that they wanted to explore information about specific people and events (including battles, inventions, advancements in medicine, and anything else), I could work it into our daily syllabus. In looking at their facial reactions, I doubt many teachers had ever said addressed them this way before. Imagine...a teacher who was truly willing to adapt and modify their lesson plans to what the kids wanted to learn! Whoa!! It definitely caught their attention and they provided plenty of feedback for me. Unfortunately, to my dismay, I discovered that aside from knowing that the North defeated the South, there was little information sticking in their memory banks from past classrooms. I SMELL OPPORTUNITY!
While I know full-well that past teachers surely did their best to pack lots of information into the heads of their students, they missed an opportunity to instill 2-3 key components which would serve as everlasting memories. Had those key points made their way into the memory banks of students, they would have content from which future inquiries could be activated. My job is to make sure they come away with that foundation firmly in place, a springboard from which they can investigate further. No teacher should ever hope to cram EVERYTHING they know about the Civil War into a 2-3 week unit, much less a semester-long project. Teachers should instead aim for planting seeds and opening doors for future learning.