Lower Elementary Country Project

By: Mrs. Alexandra Cooper
from Netivot The Montessori Yeshiva

Category:
Differentiated Instruction

Subject(s) of entry:
History, Literature/ English, Geography, Social Studies

Pedagogy:
Montessorri

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
First, Second and Third Grade Students

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
1, 2, 3, Elementary school

Our Lower Elementary Country Project was the culminating project at the end of our spring semester of the 2015-16 school year. First, second and third graders completed this project in mixed-age groups, at the research and writing level that was developmentally appropriate for them. The students learned about the Fundamental Needs of Humans and how those needs differ depending in which country a person lives in. Each student completed a written report on one of five countries, prepared a creative visual aid on a Fundamental Need of his or her choice and participated in a group presentation to their classmates and parents on everything they had learned about the country they had studied.

This research project, including the activities that my students completed, is an example of a unit of study that could be applied to any elementary classroom, traditional or Montessori. Being mindful of your students’ strengths and weaknesses and selecting appropriate materials for their use will help them succeed and to take pride in their work. At the end of the day, that is the goal of the teacher; encourage the child to feel proud of the accomplishments that he or she makes during the time they are in your classroom.

The beauty of teaching in a mixed aged Montessori classroom comes with being able to simultaneously teach a group of students across three grade levels, but at a curriculum level that is age and developmentally appropriate for the students. In our classroom, we have first graders who read at a second or third grade level and it is wonderful to be able to offer them the writing assignments that are being offered to their older classmates. Additionally, we also have weaker second and third grade students, who feel very comfortable being paired with a first grade classmate to work on an assignment that might be the appropriate level for them, despite being something that was assigned to someone a full grade lower than they are. In order to best need the needs of all of my students, and to set them up for success, I am always differentiating our general studies curriculum and adapting our assignments appropriately.

Entry Text

Our Lower Elementary Country Research Project, including the activities that my students completed, is an example of a unit of study that could be applied to any elementary classroom, traditional or Montessori. Being mindful of your students’ strengths and weaknesses and selecting appropriate materials for their use will help them succeed and to take pride in their work. At the end of the day, that is the goal of the teacher; encourage the child to feel proud of the accomplishments that he or she makes during the time they are in your classroom.

The beauty of teaching in a mixed aged Montessori classroom comes with being able to simultaneously teach a group of students across three grade levels, but at a curriculum level that is age and developmentally appropriate for the students. In our classroom, we have first graders who read at a second or third grade level and it is wonderful to be able to offer them the writing assignments that are being offered to their older classmates. Additionally, we also have weaker second and third grade students, who feel very comfortable being paired with a first grade classmate to work on an assignment that might be the appropriate level for them, despite being something that was assigned to someone a full grade lower than they are. In order to best need the needs of all of my students, and to set them up for success, I am always differentiating our general studies curriculum and adapting our assignments appropriately.

Over the course of the last school year, as my first year in a Montessori classroom and at Netivot, I had been actively seeking out ways to encourage collaboration during work, especially across the grade levels. I had been hoping to find an opportunity to establish working relationships among the students while setting them up to complete works and assignments that were developmentally appropriate for their respective grade levels. I tried to take a step back, to be as objective as possible and try to figure out the main skills that I wanted the students to come away with in completing the Country Report. We knew we wanted to have a considerable focus on writing, in addition to the research and overall learning of Geography. I also wanted the students to be able to pause and reflect on what they were learning and to see if they could make any connections to themselves and their lives.

In our classroom, we designed the Country Project as a way for the Lower Elementary students to study a few of the most well-known countries in Europe. The full research project began after the students had received the first few Montessori lessons on Geography. These lessons introduced the students to the planet earth and the way that water and land are divided into the oceans and the seven continents. Next, the students had lessons to introduce them to maps and globes and different ways that the geography of the world is represented. Once the students learned that we would be studying Europe, each student had the opportunity to work with the Europe puzzle map, a Montessori work that depicts the continent of Europe as a 52 piece puzzle with each country in a different color. The students learned the names and capital cities of fifteen of the most well-known countries and were able to compare the countries’ sizes as well as take note of which countries bordered each other.

Each student was assigned to a specific country and group and over the course of the project, would be responsible for researching that country and writing up a written report. The students also completed a visual aid highlighting a Fundamental Need (food, shelter or clothing) of their choice which represented the people of their country of study. At the end of the project, each group had the opportunity to present their reports and visual aids to their classmates and parents.

We divided the 20 students in our classroom into 5 groups. Giving a special privilege to the most senior students of our classroom, we decided to let each third grader ‘lead’ his or her Country Study Group. Each third grader was able to select the country that he or she was most interested in studying. It was very exciting when we did not have any overlapping choices and each of the five students were able to choose the country that he or she was most interested in. This resulted in five groups studying five different countries. The second and first graders were then randomly assigned to each of the five groups. To inform each first and second grader of the country group they were in, third graders made special Country Cards and handed them out during an afternoon work cycle. For those of us who went to camp, the excitement was very reminiscent of Color War breakout. Everyone was very excited about the groups and about the country group they had been assigned to. As the teacher, I was thrilled to see how much everyone was looking forward to the assignment.

Each group was intentionally designed to have at least one second grader and one or two first graders and to be led by the third grader. Although the groups worked together, there were separate, developmentally appropriate, expectations of the overall assignment at each grade level. In the attached files, you will see the assignment and writing pages that were presented to the first graders and those which were presented to the second and third graders.

It is important to note that in preparing the outline for the first, second and third grade level Country Research report, I sought out resources on one of my favorite teaching websites, TeachersPayTeachers.com. This resource is a database for elementary classroom teachers to showcase and sell their worksheets, outlines and classroom ideas to help other teachers as they plan their classroom curriculum and activities. In order to make sure that each assignment was differentiated appropriately to each grade level, I purchase some templates that highlighted the subjects we were studying but that perhaps, only asked for little writing from the students. As the project began, I had noticed that many of my students, across all three grade levels, could become anxious over being asked to write. These templates helped them zoom in on the specific concept being studied (i.e. geographical landmarks, writing about a country’s climate, a clear and simple cover page, identifying the fundamental needs, etc.) in a user friendly design.

As you will see from the templates and student work included in this application, I did not use these purchased templates for the entire project. Instead, I was able to insert them as needed, intentionally between sections of the report where students were being asked to write and provide information they had sourced on their own.

Over the two month period of the assignment, the third and second graders were expected to answer eleven guiding questions and write three paragraphs on the three Fundamental Needs of man; food, shelter and clothing. Students were expected to write another 2-4 sentences on their country’s travel, recreation, currency and the most interesting facts they learned. Before working on each separate writing assignment, the students received lessons from the teacher on how to collect facts from a non-fiction text, translate notes into full sentences and compose a strong and complete paragraph from those sentences.

Once again, differentiation came into play with regard to the guiding questions. I had a few first graders who were curious and eager and strong enough writers who were interested in doing the work that they saw their second and third grade classmates doing. I also had second and third grade students who struggled with the amount of writing I was asking for in answering eleven questions, even though the students were not asked to complete all eleven questions in one shot, instead they had a week and a half to budget their time and write the answers to each question. For those students, I was able to modify the guiding questions and only have them answer the ones they found most interesting, and perhaps only six or seven of the full eleven. At each stage of our Country Research Project, it was not important to me whether all the students at each grade level were completing the exact assignment for that grade level. Instead, I much preferred to see the students engaged and excited and taking pride in completing assignments that were well within their skill level and developmentally appropriate for them.

The first graders learned each element of the Country Project a full week after their second and third grade group mates did. Each week, the second and third graders would read their findings or notes to the younger peers to initially teach them about what they would be researching. After hearing the older members of their groups present the information they had collected on the country and its Fundamental Needs, the first graders wrote 1-2 sentences on each topic.

In addition to the written report and writing activities, each student was responsible for creating a visual aid to better help convey an area of the gathered information to the rest of the class. The visual aids focused on the Fundamental Needs of Humans and included one or more of food, shelter or clothing of the people in the country that each group was studying. Suggested example of visual aids included a poster, photo collage, diorama or any other project that serves as a visual aid for the class. Some students were very creative with their visual aids; many used clay to make the different food and clothing of countries they had learned about.

Once the Country Groups had been assigned, I began meeting weekly with each grade level as well as each Country Group to give the lesson on each component of the assignment. The second and third graders began the report a week before the first graders so that they could always be one subject ahead and be able to present their findings to the first grade students as we progressed through each area of the report. Each week, a new lesson was given to the grade levels to explain how to go about an area of the report on their own.

As the second and third graders learned about researching Fundamental Needs, I gave many lessons on how to properly use the features of a nonfiction text to their advantage in seeking the specific information they were after. Students learned how to navigate the index, glossary and table of contents. They then passed these lessons down to their first grade group members. It was wonderful to watch the students working together, across each of the groups as well as across each of the three grade levels.

Early on in the project, each country group was asked to draw their country’s flag. First graders were asked to write one to two (or more if they wanted to) sentences describing the flag. Second and third graders were asked to describe the flag but also to include a detail on why the flags used specific colors or designs and how that related to the country’s beliefs or history. As an extension assignment, I asked the students to consider if they themselves were a country, what a flag that represented them might look like. Initially I had wanted each student to write up the reasons that he or she had designed their personal flags the way that they did, but as they presented and shared them during class circles, I realized they had way too much to say for me to expect them to want to write their explanations on their own. I brought my laptop to class, called each student over individually, and had them dictate their words as I typed them up. I have included a file called Personal Flags which highlights some of the incredible student work that was done with this activity across all three grade levels in our class.

I always emphasized my availability to the students as they navigated their reports and encouraged them to approach me or their classmates if they were confused on how to write a certain section. At the beginning of the project, many of the students were hesitant to proceed independently and wanted to run every single question by me. As the weeks went on and they became more confident in their skills as well as the process of the project itself as the paragraph writing is very repetitive for the three fundamental needs, although the subject matter changes, the process of collecting facts, drafting a paragraph in a ‘hamburger’ geographic organizer, editing and writing up the final draft remains the same. My students, across all three grade levels, began to work independently and only check in with me if they were seriously confused about something.

As they watched their older classmates, the first graders too suddenly became much more independent. They were eager to study the country at the same pace as the second and third graders but were also very happy to approach them with questions they had about material that the second and third graders had studied in previous weeks. I was pleased to see every student having enough support and guidance as they navigated through the project, whether this guidance was provided by a teacher or another classmate.

The Country Reports were completed in June. Our class presentations ran a full week, with one group presenting each day. Parents, grandparents and siblings were invited to attend the presentations. At the end of our presentation week, the two Lower Elementary classrooms come together to celebrate the completion of the project with a Food Festival! Each group selected a recipe from their country that was easy enough to prepare at school. Each group prepared and presented their food to their classmates and enjoyed tasting new foods!

From the moment we introduced this report, throughout the full six week duration of the project, I was both very surprised and pleased by how quickly every student in the class took to it. Whether it was the physical design and format of the report (each student has his or her own file folder, complete with rings that hold sleeves as each page of the report is complete). The students felt so proud of each and every page they completed and (especially the younger ones!) loved seeing the folder grow thicker as more pages were added.

An especially significant experience that I had in watching the Country Project begin and progress through its completion was with one of my first graders. Eliya had only moved to New Jersey from Israel a couple of weeks before the school year started and knew very little English upon arriving at school. As you can imagine, his not knowing English was quite a significant handicap for him as he did his best to progress through our Lower Elementary general studies works and curriculum. Eliya was assigned to the country group that was studying Sweden with a third grader, a second grader and another first grader. Eliya happened to have felt very close to the third grader in his group and as I had seen this third grader often help Eliya with his work I had intentionally paired them for the country project. Because of the continuous and detailed writing that this project required of the students, even the first graders, the whole experience could have been extremely challenging and frustrating for Eliya. Instead, I watched him work on what was developmentally appropriate for him, but with the support of his classmates in addition to his teachers. His classmates were able to use photographs, the globe and other classroom materials to help explain different concepts to Eliya even when they too felt challenged by the language barrier. At the final group presentation, Eliya participated, in English, with speaking parts and presenting his visual aids of Swedish Foods, which he had made out of clay.

As an educator, working my first year in a multi-aged Montessori classroom, I took tremendous pride in our Country Project from start to finish. My students never ceased to impress and amaze me with the interest they took in learning more about different places in the world as well as pushing themselves to write much more than they knew they were capable of. I was surprised to see how easily this project lent itself to differentiation and making sure that every assignment assigned to students across and within each of the three grade levels was developmentally appropriate for that specific student. This project and the activities my students completed is an example of a unit of study that could be applied to any elementary classroom, traditional or Montessori. Being mindful of your students’ strengths and weaknesses and selecting appropriate materials for their use will help them succeed and to take pride in their work. At the end of the day, that is the goal of the teacher; encourage the child to feel proud of the accomplishments that he or she makes during the time they are in your classroom. Whenever I look through old pictures as well as the copies of their reports, I am reminded of what an amazing experience I had watching them learn as much and as beautifully as they did, at their appropriate level even though they were working as a cohesive, mixed age, research groups.