*A Big Change
When my husband and I relocated to a new area for his job, I had to change grade levels in order to work at my dream school. Jumping from 2nd grade to 5th grade was an overwhelming thought that had me in a state of panic for the majority of the summer leading up to the school year. One of the areas I knew I would need the most help in was content – specifically, social studies. I would be moving from teaching topics such as “What is a good citizen?” and “What is a community?” to teaching “Explain Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction.” and “What does globalization look like today.” Cue a dropped jaw and sleepless nights with social studies textbooks dancing in my head.
*Learning to Love History
I’ll be honest…I never loved social studies class growing up. History did not really interest me. Remembering dates was not my thing, so I never felt like I had a really good grasp on things. However, one of the things that I most passionately believe to be true about teaching is that your students grow to love what you love. An enthusiastic teacher can engage students with the most boring lesson about pencil shavings if they have the right attitude and passion. I knew I needed to find a way to at least like social studies so that I could teach my students more passionately.
And so, it began. My husband, a history buff, was thrilled that his reluctant wife was finally interested in learning a thing or two about the Past. He and I rented movies on Netflix to start off with. (If you’ve never seen the “Men Who Built America” and “American Genius” series’, they are a great place to start!) I also checked out historical fiction books that were related to the topics I’d be teaching and that my 5th graders might be reading, such as Elijah of Buxton, 40 Acres and Maybe a Mule, Prisoner B-3807, Number the Stars, Lions of Little Rock, and so on. I finally started to see a glimpse of light… Maybe history isn’t so bad after all, I began to think.
Finally, I got to the point where I was actually a little bit excited about the content I was going to get to teach: U.S. History from Reconstruction after the Civil War to Present Day. I mean, how fascinating are some of the events that took place during that time span?! Hitler and his Nazi Army of World War II. The attacks of September 11, 2001. Lincoln and Kennedy’s assassinations. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strained relationship with Malcolm X. The list goes on and on! Once my own heart had changed towards the subject, I was finally able to start wrapping my mind around developing lesson plans for my kids.
*An Empowering Challenge
Around the same time that I was soul searching to find a love of history, I was partaking in a research class though my local National Writing Project organization. (Side note… If you aren’t connected with the local project in your area, get involved now! I cannot say enough good things about the many ways the project improved my teaching.) If you’re not familiar with the program, the basic idea is that a group of teachers get together, choose teaching methods and strategies to research, and then share the strategies and best practices with the group. So, in addition to having an opportunity to conduct research on a best practice strategy of my choice, I was also able to learn from the hard work of all of the other teachers in my class about what they found to be best practice. Win-win!
At this point, my recollection of my own project is a bit hazy. I believe I presented on something related to the power of consistently exposing students to poetry, but the actual content of my project is not important. What really stuck with me from the class was a presentation that a lead teacher from a huge school in my district shared. Her focus was on the best practice of differentiating reading instruction in content areas. Her argument for differentiated passages in the content area was this:
*Easy integration of reading and content area (science or social studies)
*Easy way to save time (kill two birds with one stone by practicing reading skills while learning necessary content)
*Easy differentiation to meet students where they are
*Covers content within textbooks that may not be accessible to lower readers who can’t comprehend it
As the lead teacher, she knew that her school had purchased several sets of differentiated passages from major publishing companies. However, the differentiated passage sets were THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS. We all know money does not grow on trees in the public school system! So, her idea was to empower teachers to create their own differentiated passages for use in their classrooms. She taught our class several strategies for taking a text and altering the levels to fit multiple levels of readers. And thus, the idea for differentiated passages was born in my mind.
By the time the lead teacher I mentioned above shared her idea of creating differentiated passages, I had reached a point where history was really interesting to me. I also was at the point where I fully recognized how little I knew about the content I was going to have to teach my kids in the upcoming year. So, I decided that, while I was working on researching to create a foundational knowledge of the content for myself, I could simultaneously create something to use with my students in the classroom.
To give you a little bit of background about myself, writing has always been in my wheelhouse of passions. I grew up scribbling poems and stories in a many journals and diaries as my mom would let me get my hands on. I lived for English class when I was assigned writing projects and papers while the rest of the class would sigh, moan, and grumble. When I was in high school, I worked for the school newspaper and interned at my local town newspaper. I participated in creative writing contests and submitted my work. I have ALWAYS loved to write. So, it felt very natural to me to want to write about what I was learning as I conducted research.
I started at the beginning of my state’s standards - Reconstruction. I first researched and then started writing. I’d gather as much as I could learn about the topic, check my standards to see which key people/events/ideas needed to be focused on, and then I’d begin writing passages. After the passages were written, I’d then focus on leveling them. I created three levels for each passage - below grade level, on grade level, and above grade level. (Side note… I’ve now extended this to five levels. All new passage sets I create include five levels to give teachers maximum options. I am in the process of adding additional levels to older passage sets with the goal of including five levels for ALL passage sets included in my shop.)
*Back to School
For the remainder of the summer, I buried myself in the local library with my laptop, researching and writing as much as I possibly could. But, by the time the school year came around, I had only created passage sets for the first three units of my social studies curriculum. However, I had created enough momentum that I was able to continue creating resources for the remainder of my units throughout the school year.
As I created passage sets, I added them to my Teachers pay Teachers store to provide other teachers with access to differentiated passages at a much cheaper cost than the major publishing companies were charging. The more passage sets I added to my shop, the more requests I got for additional passage sets. By the end of the year, I had completely covered all of my state-mandated curriculum with passage sets, and I had also developed a whole new list of ideas based on what other teachers needed. I knew how beneficial the passage sets had been in my own classroom, and I wanted to share that same resource with as many other teachers as possible. I continued my research and writing to extend beyond the content that was covered in my own classroom, and the rest is history!