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Our regions board before today’s activity

Overwhelming exhalations and sounds of surprise burst from my students when I sent them this morning’s sort, the sort that I posted in last night’s entry.  In it, all of the facts were jumbled, all of the facts that they found in the activity from yesterday.  Many of them were initially anxious about the perceived grand nature of the task, but a few managed to jump in almost immediately.  

I informed the kids that there was, in fact, no right answer, and that there would be several ways to organize the facts.  However, our end goal would be the construction of a timeline in order to give us some context for our future studies.  In addition to grouping, I urged them to color code or remove certain cards, whether they be unimportant, representative of a pattern, or showing cause-effect relationships between events.
A great deal of the kids began by sequencing the events by date.  What better way to start and to give themselves context for American history?  They immediately picked out the pattern of settlers arriving in North America, the settlers fraternizing with the natives, and the eventual push for independence from Great Britain.  For some of them, they might have had this in their background knowledge.  For others, I truly think this was new information.  It seemed the dates provided just the right amount of scaffolding for them to order the events, but just the right amount of challenge because then they had to look for the progression of events.
Our paper cards as we added to our timeline
Then came the hard part.  Many of them were looking at each of the cards in isolation, and I had to find a way to get them looking at the timeline more holistically.  I had some students coming up to our United States bulletin board, writing key events on notecards to post for the whole class, while others were beginning to color code by time period.  Some decided they would look at centuries, while a select few clumped events based on their relationships.  I even had a student go as far as to clump by colony ratification, colonization, and even the Revolutionary War.  However, many of them still failed to go beyond sequencing.
A lightbulb, a moment of empowerment
After some more time checking in with groups and individual students, I noticed one of my students put, “In 1850, California became a state,” on our class timeline.  I immediately questioned him, wondering why he might choose this to be an important enough fact to post for the whole class to constantly refer to.  At first he discussed the fact that California is important to us nowadays–that a lot of famous people lived there.  Naturally, I was a bit disappointed with the response, but I decided to probe further.  I mentioned that, back then, California was not like that, so why might it be important that California became a state back then.  He then said that it was one of the first states out in the West to be part of the United States.
Of course, I probed further.  “Well, why do you think it might have been one of the first states in the West?”
He stopped.  He was stuck.  I knew the cards were in there for him to find, but it was just a matter of finding the dates and “connecting the dots.”  I told myself I wouldn’t do it for him, but I had to find some way to support him so he could get there.  After all, I couldn’t expect the knowledge to simply come out of nowhere.
I noticed some other students were sitting, making their timelines and pondering the same time period, specifically these cards:
– 14 million people moved from Europe to America in the mid 1800s.
– In 1850, California became a state.
– In the 1850s and 1860s, many settlers headed to Oregon and California, as well as other places in the West.
– In 1848, a man named John Sutter struck gold in Coloma, California.  This became known as the Gold Rush.

My “stuck” student was not seeing this connection to the Gold Rush, and the other students had not taken enough notice of the ratification of California.  I decided to have them talk.  I asked them to look for connections and any cause-effect relationships they could find.  I had two students, in particular, record their conversation on one of their iPads.  
They began by talking about the gold rush, positing that families moved out to California because of the Gold Rush.  They moved there in search of gold.  Then, they continued by talking about the 14 million people that moved to America in the mid 1800s.  The other student then said that the Gold Rush and the “14 million people moving to the United States” were the “same.”  I knew what he meant, and he began to use the word because, when suddenly the first student cut him off, his eyes lighting up, and his finger pointing in his face:
“Maybe… maybe… maybe they sent the men there to find some gold! Maybe… yeah… right?!”
They did it.  They taught themselves.
This moment was exactly what I was looking for: A momentary construction of knowledge, a connection of seemingly isolated dots, now transformed into contextualized and relevant knowledge.  How was the United States built?  Well, it was partially built by the Gold Rush.
This was, by no means, the average experience in my classroom today, but many made important connections including, but not limited to, the importance of Native Americans in our country’s history and the location of the United States’ original colonies and “movement that way,” which meant Westward over time.  
The best part, however, was when those two boys left my classroom today–more knowledgeable, more critical, and empowered.  They both, at different times, asked me if they could do more independent research this weekend, one even asking me if he could write an essay about it.
I smiled and slyly said, “No learning on the weekends.”
They smiled back, and they knew they didn’t have to “ask” to learn.
Our board at the end of the day.  If you look closely, you can see that we identified specific states we found in our research as well as many facts in our, now, more contextualized timeline.  We did NOT finish today, but I’m looking forward to more on Tuesday!
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