It’s a new day, a new semester, and there is not a minute to waste in Kathy Hermes sixth grade language-arts class at Lake Stevens Middle School.
“You all have straight A’s today—it’s a fresh start and a new semester, so let’s get to it!” You could hear students commenting at the realization of new beginnings as Mrs. Hermes went on to review the morning’s activities.
It’s 8 a.m. and students in this language arts class spend two hours a day studying English and history, usually at the same time.
After going through the entry task of identifying parts of a sentence, a-kin to verbal diagramming, students turned to page 100 of “History Alive,” the study of the ancient world. The curriculum began in September with the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics in 3000 B.C.E., and students have progressed to 1950 B.C.E., where they are covering “The Ancient Hebrews and the Origins of Judaism.”
Mrs. Hermes starts with a Word-Sort activity that strives to identify what students know, what background information they have and what they don’t know. It’s an important activity that prepares students for understanding material even before they get started.
Plastic bags filled with 22 cut out words arrive at student’s desks which are arranged in groups of three or four.
Students are asked to sort the words into groups that make sense to them. Out of the bag fall words that many have never encountered before. Gentile, Talmud, Diaspora, Rabbi, Ten Commandments, monotheism, execute, synagogue, Covenant, descendant, sacrifice, prophet, plague, Exodus, Sabbath, Hebrews, Judaism, Torah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon.
Conversations ensue among students, sharing information about what they know, don’t know, and are guessing about. They complete their groupings and are ready to share.
One student states that all the words with capital letters must be names of people, therefore, a group. Another has a group of “scary” words, another a group of words they don’t know. Lots of dialog ensues among students and Mrs. Hermes discussing what decisions students made, why, and where they gained their information.
One student who grouped words that related to the Holocaust gained her knowledge from reading books about the Second World War – The Diary of Ann Frank and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The dialog is rich and respectful as students and teacher learns from each other.
Now it’s time for the next steps. Mrs. Hermes asks students to pick out one word that they had no idea what it meant. Students are instructed to open up their history books to page 100 or to the glossary and to become an expert on their word. Small containers of Play-Doh arrive at each desk and students are instructed to create a symbol for their word.
For the next ten minutes students became five-years-old again playing and creating in the soft, fragrant clay. Creativity was everywhere as soon as students knew they weren’t going to be graded on their creations.
Every student had an opportunity to share what their word meant and to walk around the class and view their classmates rendering of the previously unknown words.
Now there were no “I don’t know piles,” and students were well prepared to dig into chapter 11.