August 19, 2014

Historic breakup: Declaration of Independence lesson gets a Common Core twist

Enochs High juniors got a history lesson they won’t forget, a blunt Dear John letter from A.C. to K.G. As the bell rings, the students realize the message sums up the American colonists’ missive to King George, otherwise known as the Declaration of Independence.

Relationships are hard, especially with colonies and royalty involved. But with each breakup comes a new beginning, an independence even.

The tale of the 13 Colonies that defied taxation and battled their way to nationhood got a Common Core twist Monday, giving about 500 Enochs High juniors a history lesson they won’t forget.

Three social studies teachers worked together on the lesson, delivered in U.S. history classes schoolwide. The lesson started with background information but not through a lecture, reading the chapter aloud or doing the unit quiz.

Clicking through a series of slides, teacher Janeen Zambo strode around the class asking students to figure out why something happened, what might happen next, and where they could get the information for their homework.

A slide of the engraving called “ The Bloody Massacre” by Paul Revere, showing a row of soldiers shooting into an unarmed Boston crowd, served as a starting point. As kids pointed out differences between the two groups, Zambo brought in the tensions of that time and how activists of the day rallied colonists.

“People were throwing snowballs with rocks in them,” she said. “Less than a dozen people were killed, but what did they call this?”

Activists’ accounts of what they named the Boston Massacre angered colonists, Zambo said. “Can rumor become ‘common knowledge,’ even if it’s not true?” she asked the class, popping in a vocabulary term from the homework.

“If you read it on the Internet, it must be true,” she added with a note of sarcasm. “Good – you laughed. That gives me hope,” she continued with a grin.

Why did England send troops? What did they need to pay for the troops? What do you think happened when taxes were raised? If the English drink tea, why are we a nation of coffee drinkers?

Even a standard list of vocabulary and terms asked teens not just to define the phrase, but to explain each term’s significance. “You’ve got the definition, why is it important?” Zambo asked them.

As students move away for work or college, she pointed out, “you start seeing yourself as separate. It’s part of growing up. Maybe the Colonies were growing up.”

With the background covered, she switched gears. A letter was left in her room, she said, unfolding a paper. Students need to remember their papers, not pass notes, because she reads aloud what gets left behind, she said to stunned silence.

The letter described a failing relationship. The writer needed space. It just wasn’t going to work out. Sympathetic murmurs greeted the harshest lines. As the bell rang, Zambo admitted it was not a classmate’s life they were hearing about, but the birth of a nation.

“We’re going to study the best breakup letter in the history of the world,” Zambo said as she ended her first-period U.S. history class.

“What’s it called?” one student asked as students gathered up pens and note papers.

“I like your curiosity,” she answered cryptically, not identifying the Declaration of Independence.

That’s the Common Core twist.

“The difference is, we used to tell them the answers. Now they’re having to struggle, come up with their own answers. That’s the critical thinking,” said Principal Deb Rowe.

The class will study the document in-depth this week, but with targeted questions rather than lectures.

“It’s a return to a lot of things we were doing when I started teaching 22 years ago. It’s refreshing,” Zambo said between classes. The shift is a 180-degree turn for students, she said.

“They were indoctrinated into: There is one right answer. This is history! There are many perspectives,” she said.

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