I had a chance to cover Westward Expansion with some of my 8th graders this year - something I haven't been able to do in several years. This meant that I was able to do one of my favorite activities - Angry Tiki-God Water Polo.

Okay, not actually. I just haven't come up with a really good name for it yet.

Basically, here is what the activity involves though:

1) I download and print several pioneer memoirs and diaries.

2) I break the students up into teams of three and let each team pick which memoir they want to study.

3) The students use highlighters to mark towns and landmarks mentioned in their memoir.

4) The students look up the places on a map. Internet mapping sources are somewhat useful for this, but many of the 19th Century place names can't be found on modern maps, so GoogleMaps isn't foolproof. A better resource has turned out to be the atlas from the 1957 Encyclopedia Britannica. I had already owned one copy of this awesome atlas (for my money, the best one ever printed) and found another at the swap shop at my Town Dump, but I had to order five or six additional copies from eBay

5) Students then map the pioneers' routes on laminated U.S. maps and describe the voyage.

I've got a particularly engaged group of students this year, but I've gotten a lot of buy-in from them and this project seems like a keeper.

New Hampshire State Social Studies Frameworks and Standards met by this project:
SS:CV:8:3.2: Analyze environmental, economic, and technological developments and their impact on society. (Themes: C: People, Places and Environment, D: Material Wants and Needs, G: Science, Technology, and Society)

SS:GE:8:1.1: Compare relative advantages and disadvantages of using maps, globes, aerial and other photographs, satellite-produced images, and models to solve geographic problems, e.g., the Mercator projections versus Robinson projections. (Themes: C: People, Places and Environment) 

SS:GE:8:2.3: Describe how culture, technology, and experience affect perception of places and regions, e.g.,    images created by mass media or travel. (Themes: E: Cultural Development, Interaction, and Change, F: Global Transformation, G: Science, Technology, and Society) 

SS:GE:8:3.1: Recognize how physical processes influence the formation and distribution of resources, e.g.,     the potential for hydroelectric power or coal deposits. (Themes: C: People, Places and Environment, G: Science, Technology, and Society) 

SS:GE:8:4.1: Describe  ways in which physical and human regional systems are interconnected, e.g.,    canal systems or  "hub-and-spoke" airline operations. (Themes: C: People, Places and Environment, G: Science, Technology, and Society)

Students will be able to find social studies-related information:
  1. Use economic and geographic data, historical sources, as well as other appropriate sources
  2. Discriminate to select the most worthwhile and trustworthy sources
  3. Draw on the diversity of social studies-related sources, such as auditory and visual sources, such as documents, charts, pictures, architectural works, and music.

Students will be able to comprehend the wide range of social studies-related materials by using skills:
  1. Distinguish between primary and secondary sources.
  2. Detect cause and effect relationships
  3. Distinguish between facts, interpretations, and opinions
  4. Recognize author bias; recognize propaganda
  5. Test the validity of information by using such criteria as source, objectivity, technical correctness, currency
  6. Draw from the source information at a level appropriate to the task at hand, i.e., skimming for facts or probing for deeper meaning
  7. Utilize various types of sources such as documents, charts, images, artifacts, and maps

Students will be able to find information:
  1. Use appropriate sources to gain meaning of essential terms and vocabulary, glossary, dictionary, texts, word lists
  2. Recognize and understand relevant social studies terms.

Students will be able to present information in a variety of ways:
  1. Present visually (chart, graph, diagram, model, Power Point, etc.)
  2. Present orally (presentation, debate, group discussion, simulation, etc.)


So, here's a question you really didn't want to think about:

What is technology?

Okay, if that one's too hard, how about this one:

What is good technology?

That's probably a bit easier to answer. 

A good working definition of good technology is probably something like "finding the right tool for a job". Sometimes that involves cables and patches and upgrades, but sometimes it is startlingly simple.

We have a boy in the 8th grade who has been very frustrated in my Social Studies class. Let's call him Peter Brady.

Peter is not a high achiever in most academic areas. He doesn't process information very well and has trouble memorizing things. Each time I give a mapping quiz, he studies really hard and he always THINKS he's done really well, but he often ends up with single digit scores. We've tried modifying his tests, cutting back on the number of places he has to map, giving him a wordbank, etc.., but nothing has helped very much.

About a week ago, one of our classroom aides followed a hunch and cut a bunch of terms out of Peter's wordbank with a pair of scissors and asked him to physically place them on a blank map.

He did it with 90% accuracy within ten seconds.

The Special Ed team and I had a collective AHA! moment so intense it nearly blinded us.

Think about it like this:

Peter needs to look at a landmark on the map, think, "Hmmm, do I know this?", look over at his wordbank, decode the words on the wordbank, pick one, encode it, look at his test sheet, find the number that corresponds with the landmark, decode the term again, and write it down, more or less correctly and legibly.

Of course he was having problems.

By cutting out the wordbank and having him do everything visually/spacially, we tapped a whole different set of skills.

We've taken this concept a step further.

 I went to a craft store and bought a few flexible magnetic strips - the kind that they make into the instant poems you find on people's refrigerators. They were in the sale bins at the front of the store for about $1.95 each.

Our Special Ed team used a label-maker to print various terms that I will be using on upcoming mapping quizzes, glued them to a magnetic strip and cut them to length.

We put a blank map on a mini magnetic whiteboard (though even a cookie sheet would work) and BLAMMO! - we've got an instant, reusable testing setup for visual learners.

We've tested this out on Peter and it works great. Our next step is to try it out on a few other learners with special needs who have consistantly had the same kind of problems.

I feel good. The Special Ed team feels good. Peter feels good. For all I know, the magnets feel good.

Maybe, on the giant teacher spreadsheet in the sky, this balances out those tests I handed back to my students last week without writing the grades in my gradebook. Sigh...