Sara Ballute, in her seventh year of teaching social studies at the High School for Service & Learning in Brooklyn, New York, was looking to get out from under the “shadow” of the tenth-grade New York State Regents exam. She wanted a way to address the curriculum covered on the exam but also put life into it and “grab my kids’ attention.”
As a researcher and observer of the first LDC module development by teachers at her school, she had a sort of “ho-hum” attitude about the process. But in tackling module development herself last summer on a unit for the coming year (especially creating mini-tasks), she realized what an exciting experience this was going to be for her students and her teaching. “The best way to learn this link to Common Core State Standards is to dive into it and do it,” Ballute says. Another social studies teacher and now part-time curriculum writer and coach, Timothy Lent, worked with her on the curriculum.
The result was a “massive” (his word) unit on the Industrial Revolution that Ballute taught over several weeks. How she guided her 100 very diverse students through answering “Were the achievements and growth of the Industrial Revolution worth the cost to society?” is documented in Literacy Matters, a video resource prepared by Media Lockers for LDC.
The students used 23 sources for their discussions, annotating, outlining, and writing. Lent searched for potential readings; Ballute selected and adapted them for her four classes (two regular classes, one for ELL students, and another for special education students). Lent also focused on the writing process, providing students with a step-by-step writing packet that helped them slowly build their thinking into argumentation essays. Peer-editing sections in the packet were especially helpful, he says.
Ballute planned very specific structures for each day, and her students used the Cornell Notes strategy to line up themes with text references. By the end of the unit she believed her students were much better prepared to deal with generic questions about the Industrial Revolution, such as the impact of technology on living conditions—themes they would need to know for the Regents test.
She saw their analytic skills improve, as did their ability to make a claim and maintain it through their writing. Because Ballute has the same students for three years, she could quickly adjust the assignments to student needs. For some students reading at pre-primary levels, for example, she narrowed the reading selections and helped them use pictures and other visuals to supplement their final essays. At the end, 94 students submitted final essays.
In addition to Lent, other New Visions for Public Schools expert staff observed Ballute’s teaching and gave advice. “I was frustrated that I didn’t see the details in their opening paragraphs that I expected,” she says, “but I realized from talking with observers that they didn’t get the idea. I had to teach that skill directly.” She first was “terrified” about teaching writing; now both she and her students enjoy it. “My own expectations changed,” she notes. “It is almost as though I saw them transform into more rigorous students.”