Seeing the Treasure in the Trash: Creating a Happy Little Social Studies Unit

High school was a time of discovery and exploration.  Don’t worry, I was a friendly explorer, unlike those wretched conquistadors that caused much suffering and death in the name of freedom and exploration.   I was a happy young man in search of new music, friends, movies, love, fun, and garbage.  Yes, that’s right, I was in search of garbage.  Not the band, oh no, not a fan.  I mean actual garbage that people toss away.  You see, it was in high school that I discovered that one person’s, or in this case one company’s, trash, can truly be someone else’s treasure.

Dumpster diving is the act of rummaging through other people’s garbage in search of that special something.  As there was not much to do in the small town of Lebanon, NH, late at night, my friends and I would scavenge through the dumpsters of various companies and organizations that had offices in our sleepy little town.  Although we usually left our nightly excursions with some small trinkets, we never found anything substantial or exciting, until that one night in late July.  There we were, at about midnight, in the middle of summer, literally jumping into this giant dumpster in search of something worthy of our time and effort.  When my friend pulled out a television remote, our excitement began to grow, as we all new what that meant: There was probably a television near by.  Sure enough, when I pivoted and looked behind me, a very large TV stuck out of the pile of battered electronics.  We shouted for joy, softly, so as to not call attention to ourselves in the middle of the night.  I then had one of my friends help me fish that television out of the dumpster and pack it into our car.  While my parents would freak out if I brought a large screen TV into the house, one of my friends ended up bringing it home.  The most interesting part of this whole vignette is that I never found out if he got the television working.  Perhaps it was a dud and deserved to live out its plastic existence in a landfill somewhere, or maybe, it did work.  I like believing that it was a working treasure, that all of our hard work paid off.  I like to think that good things can happen to good people.  To me, that glass will always be overflowing with clean and cold water.


Like my friends and I discovered in high school, if you look long and hard enough, you will find the treasure and beauty in everything, even something that resembles trash.  Luckily, I had the wonderful experience of doing just that, recently.

As one of my professional development summer goals is to revise and retool the social studies unit that I generally use at the start of each academic year, I decided to dig in and give it a shot.  Although I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted the unit to look like when finished, I did have some foggy notions swirling about my beautiful brain.  I knew that I wanted to inject an engaging and fun project into the unit, but was unsure of what the journey to that point might look like; however, I forged ahead regardless.  My first iteration of the revised unit felt clunky and disconnected, like a broken television.  While I had added in the project I wanted to include, the unit felt more like a series of separate, unrelated lessons on different concepts or topics.  It lacked flow and life.  It felt like demo tape that a band releases before getting with a producer to craft a polished and brilliant debut album like Pearl Jam’s 10 or Coheed and Cambria’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade.  While it wasn’t yet the beautiful jewel that I had hoped for, it wasn’t simply trash.  The nucleus of its treasure was hidden deep within it, and I just needed to find it.  I needed to change my perspective so that I could transform this awkward unit into something more, something great and engaging.

So, I took a break from it.  I let the unit sit for a few moments and simmer.  I gathered my thoughts and started thinking about what comes next.  How could I alter this unit to make it more meaningful and relevant for my students?  While I see the value in teaching students about the community of which the school is a part, do I need to spend so much time discussing the concept of community?  Could I just jump right into teaching about the town?  How will I then connect the town to the rest of the country?  I did much thinking before I sat down with the unit one more time.  Then, I cut lessons, chopped discussions, added activities, and found a way to bring about cohesion to this unit.  I subtracted the clunkiness to get to the heart of the unit.  I want the students to see how the town of Hopkinton is connected to the state of New Hampshire, and how the state is a part of something even larger, greater.  And, I managed to do just that.

As our country is in the midst of epic turmoil, it is important to me that I empower my students to become agents of change.  I want them to be able to look at the problems facing our great nation and find solutions to them.  I want them to want to foster change within the world.  I want my students to be able to see how important the upcoming presidential election is for our country.  I want my students to be self-aware and know what is going on around our country and world.  I believe that this new unit is just the bridge I need to make my desires come to fruition in the coming school year.

I call this super unit Understanding our Country and it will be divided into three parts.  Part one will focus on the fundamentals of social studies.  The students will learn about what I’ve aptly called the Big Ideas when learning about a new place: Geography, History, Government, and Culture.  I will be sure they understand what each Big Idea represents and the importance it holds.  I will have the students practice applying these Big Ideas as they learn about our fine town.  Once I feel as though they have a firm grasp on these Big Ideas, they will complete an interactive research project on the US.  It is my hope that this project will engage the students and empower them to truly see our country for what it is, full of possibility and wonder.


Expedition USA Project

Introduction

The most effective way to learn about a new place, is to travel to that place and explore it.  While, sadly, Mr. Johnson informed me that we cannot go on a cross-country field trip to explore the great United States of America, even if we wear fun masks and ride in separate train cars, we must do so virtually.  So, let the excellent, virtual, expedition begin!

Purpose

The purpose of this project is two-fold: 

  • Learn more about the great country in which we live through some virtual exploration.
  • Practice crucial study skills including note taking, working with a partner, and using Google Maps.

Part I: Brainstorming

  1. Meet with your assigned partner
  2. Brainstorm ideas
    • Make a list of all the places in the US that you and your partner want to visit
      • You must choose at least 5 different locations around the US to virtually visit:
        • One must be somewhere near the East Coast, Atlantic Ocean
        • One must be somewhere near another country
        • One must be landlocked
        • One must be somewhere near the West Coast, Pacific Ocean
        • One must be a National Park

Part II: Research

  1. For each location you will be virtually visiting, gather online research and take notes on your findings

Part III: Google Maps

  1. Create a New Map in Google Maps that includes the following information:
    • Unique title for your expedition
    • Separate Marker for each location you will virtually visit
      • Details about what you will do while there, in your own words
      • Details about what you will learn while there, in your own words
      • Details about why you want to visit that location, in your own words
      • Picture from your virtual visit, with attribution
    • Lines showing how you traveled from BHS to each location and then back to BHS
      • Details about method of transportation, cost, and time it took
      • Kilometers traveled
      • Picture from your travels, with attribution

Part IV: Presentation

  1. Present your Google Map and expedition to the class

Graded Objectives

Your handwritten notes will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to extract the main idea from an online source in their own words.
  • Students will be able to craft neatly organized notes with separate headings for different sources or topics.

Your finished Google Map will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to paraphrase information learned, in written form, regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to utilize the Google Maps app to accomplish a task.

You and your partner will also be assessed on the following objective:

  • Students will be able to collaborate and work with a partner to accomplish a task.

I created this project with lots of wiggle room so that the students can and will ask questions.  I didn’t detail or mandate how the various stages of the project will be completed because I wanted to empower the students to choose.  I want the students to determine how some things are done.  I left the instructions a bit vague on purpose, so that they would be confused and want to ask questions and know more.  Students who are thinking and doing, are learning.

This project will conclude the first part of the unit.  The closing activity will have the students make a list of what they learned about the United States of America in completing this project.  I will again get them thinking in terms of the Big Ideas.  I will have them create a chart showing the Big Ideas that they’ve learned regarding our country.  My hope is that they will notice that they have learned very little about the government and history of the US, as parts two and three of the unit pertain to those Big Ideas.

Part two of the unit will focus on the American Government and will feel very much like a civics unit.  The students will explore the hows and whys of our governmental system.  We will then dig into the big election taking place in November of this year.  We will discuss the political parties in our country and learn about the candidates running for president.  My hope is that during this portion of the unit, the students will be inspired to ask many questions about why things are done a certain way in our country.  I want to provide them with just enough information, that they will want to know and learn more.  I want my students to be curious and wonder.  I want them to question things.  I want them to think freely.  I believe that this part of the unit will get them doing just that.

The final part of the unit will allow the students to learn more about the roots of our culture and history.  Who were the first true Americans?  Were there people living in what we now call the US prior to the Europeans setting foot on the new land?  In this third part of the unit, the students will learn about the native people who took care of and respected this land long before the colonists moved in and took over.  This portion of the unit will conclude with an interdisciplinary project in which the students will research a tribe of Native Americans and then craft a historical fiction story regarding that tribe.  My hope is that this final part of the unit will also inspire the students to ask questions and wonder why things happened the way they did in our country.  I hope that it will empower my students to ask why and also conjure up strong feelings and emotions within them.

I will close the entire unit by having the students fill in any gaps they may have in the Big Ideas chart we started at the close of part one.  Throughout the unit, we will also discuss current events happening in our country.  I want the students to pay attention and be aware of what’s going on around them, as they develop the skill of self-awareness.  I want them to wonder and ask why.  I want to empower my students to see problems affecting the citizens of the US.  I want to get them thinking about possible solutions.  I want to empower my students by providing them with knowledge, information, curiosity, and questions.  I want them to ask why and how.

And that’s the unit.  I structured it this way so that I could create different learning opportunities and activities for the students.  I wanted to find unique ways to teach the crucial study skills they will need to be successful students, as well.  As it is an election year, I want to capitalize on the current event aspect to help them make connections between information learned.  I want this unit to be engaging and fun for the students.  I want to challenge their thinking and broaden their perspectives on our amazing country.  I completely overhauled the unit that I’ve used in past years to make something special and wonderful.


While it took me a few rounds to get to what I have now, I am pleased with the result.  I found the treasure in the trash.  I can’t wait for the new academic year to begin so that I can implement this new unit.  I can’t wait to watch my students explore and wrestle with US maps.  How does this thing fold?  Do I fold it this way or that way?  It will be like watching me try to assemble a piece of furniture I purchased from Ikea, quite the comedy routine.

The entire experience of creating this new social studies unit empowered me to feel like an explorer, charting a course for new lands and information.  I loved sifting through the online research I discovered throughout the process.  Educators have created some amazing units and posted them online for the world to see.  There is a wealth of information out there on our fine country and how to go about teaching students all about it.  This experience did at times bring me back to my dumpster diving days.  Trash or treasure?  Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, my friend.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s