Off the Wall Westward Expansion Lesson
Every once in a while I love to shake things up in my classroom a bit to keep my students on their toes and engaged. The first time I teach “off the wall” is always an amazing experience for my students, and it turns out to be one for me too!
As many of you may be experiencing, time allowed for Social Studies instruction is often a disappearing act. Since that area is my passion, I purposely find ways to integrate it with my ELA standards on a daily basis. In my fifth grade class this past week, we were learning about the effects of the second Westward movement and the effects that all the new settlers were having on the land and the way of life of the Native Americans. I decided this was a perfect lesson to take “off the wall”.
Off the Wall Lesson Preparation
My students had background knowledge from fourth grade about the Plains Indians and their dependence on the buffalo, so I made this my focus today. I went online and found pictures to print of the new buffalo hunters, the mountain of buffalo skulls that were sold, the buffalo carcasses lying in snow after they were shot, and a painting of the newly built train line running buffalo over with shooters in the train cars. I looked at parts of our textbook that fit the lesson and transcribed them into my own document. I found some other information in a book I had called “Saving the Buffalo” and wrote up some paragraphs that matched the pictures I selected. Everything I wrote included something about cause and effect or making inferences - my two ELA focus areas for the lesson. Last preparatory step was to print everything and create nine pieces to hang on walls in the hall outside my classroom. Each piece had a picture with a paragraph or two underneath and a number 1-8. Total prep time was one planning period of 45 minutes.
Learning in the Art Gallery
After reviewing orally with my students the reasons why settlers moved West, as well as who already lived there, I explained the directions for our Art Gallery (and this is where the magic begins!!) Each student got a clipboard and paper. They needed to have room for 8 answers - some students folded their paper into 8 boxes, others just listed as they went. We reviewed rules for an Art Gallery - quiet, thinking, observant, focusing on the paintings, no touching. I explained that I wanted them to circulate among the paintings, do the reading and answer any questions on their notes. We got into “Art Gallery Mode’ with our clipboards in hand and you could have heard a pin drop! Students were moving around, reading, taking notes, silently nodding at one another, pointing at paintings while looking back at me - good stuff! As I moved around among the students, the inferences and observations I noticed them making were astounding!
Discussing Facts and Inferences about Westward Expansion
As a bonus, I brought a Beanie Baby buffalo and let him sit on the shoulder of students who were being especially observant! Students went through the gallery, self-paced, for about 20 minutes. At that time, we all came together to sit in the hall and talk about what we learned. I went through each painting and had students share out their inferences if facts were not stated, and since I had their undivided attention, I went ahead and told them if their inferences were correct. By the end of the 8 paintings, without me ever “teaching them” the direct effects the buffalo hunting had, or why settlers were hunting buffalo, every single one of my 42 students were able to articulate it through their gallery experience.
Teaching Off the Wall
Sometimes, just moving your classroom outside its 4 walls can create an automatic “hook” for your students. As with any strategy, I only use it sparingly or else it gets as old as just listening to me. I have used the art gallery approach when looking at characters in novels we read, comparing stories or genres, and of course with Social Studies lessons as appropriate. Try teaching off the wall and let me know how it goes!
Joann Claspill is a 5th grade teacher in South Carolina. She has won 2 state Social Studies teaching awards and has been published with a local publisher featuring her integrated ELA and SS work. Her blog is www.fifthisfabulous.blogspot.com.