Education research repeatedly shows that students are most engaged when they have opportunities to take the lead in and make decisions about what they are learning, and as Hewitt teachers, we are always looking for new ways to develop curriculum that focuses on our students and their unique backgrounds and experiences. This fall, as our team prepared to introduce a social studies project about local landmarks, we saw an excellent opportunity to redesign the unit so that it focused on content that our students found even more interesting and valuable. We decided to teach the project's important reading, writing, and social studies skills by shifting its focus away from New York City landmarks and toward the second grade’s ongoing study of identity, culture, and family. In developing a project that centered on our students' own lived experiences, we found that they were able to successfully meet their learning objectives in a way that felt more personally meaningful to each individual girl.
In Hewitt’s second grade social studies and writers’ workshop curriculums, which are by design interdisciplinary and complementary, students learn how to develop strong questions, conduct interviews, and do research, as well as analyze, synthesize, and share the knowledge they’ve gained through various writing activities. While the landmark project’s focus on New York City history had incorporated these important skills, when we redesigned the unit into an All About My Family project, each student’s own family became the subject of her research and writing, resulting in significant and exciting changes in how students engaged in their own learning.
Every step of the All About My Family project, which asked each girl to interview a family member and then author a detailed book using the information she gathered, was centered around the students and their voices. First, to ensure that they gathered information that felt important to them, the girls reflected on what they wanted to know about their own families and collaborated as a grade to generate interview questions. Because the students had already been engaged in meaningful conversations about their own cultures and identities, they were able to develop thoughtful questions about family structures, traditions, beliefs, and values. Questions including Is there a name story about our last name? What are some foods that are important to our family’s culture? How does our family spend time together? When did our ancestors come to this country? and Who are some of our families’ personal heroes? were compiled into a Family Interview Report, which students used to guide their interviews. The girls conducted their research at home over the course of several weeks, ensuring that the interview did not put an unnecessary burden on family members.
Once their interviews were complete, students entered the writing phase of the project. As they drafted informative books that told the story of their own families, second graders took inspiration from a variety of mentor texts — books that demonstrated how authors organize their writing, craft introductory and supporting sentences, and incorporate other nonfiction features like descriptive facts into their work. The second graders referred to these mentor texts as they experimented with using headings, tables of contents, and glossaries to help organize their information. As they wrote, students expressed excitement about sharing their family stories with others and took advantage of writing conferences with their teachers to work on drafting captivating introductions and supporting facts with descriptive detail. Because they felt prepared to tell their stories and confident in their resources, the girls were able to move through the writing process with a sense of independence and self-assuredness. The second graders knew how important their unique voices were to their writing and felt capable of making choices about what information they wanted their readers to have and how that information would be presented.
The All About My Family project culminated in a process party designed to celebrate each student’s progress. Families and members of the Hewitt community were invited to the second grade classrooms to read the students’ books and learn more about how the grade had explored identity and family. Though we had hosted publishing parties in the past, we purposely chose to frame this gathering in a way that made it clear to students and their families that we were coming together to celebrate everyone’s research and writing process. We already knew that the students had put in tremendous effort and attention as they brainstormed thoughtful questions, conducted careful interviews, and worked diligently to edit and revise their writing, and we really wanted to emphasize that process rather than a product that was considered “finished” simply because a teacher had said so. By framing the project and our celebration in this way, we found that our students felt less pressure to be perfect throughout their writing process and were, overall, more genuinely invested in producing work that felt authentic. At the process party, each second grader saw her book as a source of personal pride.
From the moment they began collaborating on their interview questions, our second graders understood the purpose of the All About My Family project, and they continued to develop ownership over their work as they conducted interviews, drafted writing, and compiled their books. As teachers, we saw clearly how powerful this was — how working with a research topic that was both personally meaningful and developmentally appropriate encouraged our students to feel confident in what they knew and what they needed to know. And, without the stress that comes from feeling confused or the pressure to achieve perfection, the second graders had the freedom to be flexible learners, demonstrating an enthusiasm for experimenting with different skills and strategies as they took creative chances and made independent decisions about their work.
Interested in Learning More?
To learn more about some of the research that influenced the teaching and learning described in this article, the authors recommend the following resources:
- Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara Ahmed
- Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently in the Primary Grades by Mary Cowhey
- What is a Family? via Teaching Tolerance
- Oral Interviews via Teaching Tolerance
- My Family Journey! via Teaching Tolerance