It’s three days after the conclusion of state testing and three weeks until the end of the school year. While the teachers have done their best to get back to learning following the yearly buzzkill that is standardized testing, the students are reluctant to challenge themselves with new material. They know the last week of school brings awards assemblies, field trips, field days, locker cleanout and other activities that signal the end of learning and the start of summer vacation. Teachers are similarly disinterested in new material that will need to be planned, taught, assessed, re-taught and re-assessed.
This sounds like the perfect opportunity for a very non-traditional, less structured and surprisingly simple unit of instruction – one that year after year provides some of our most exciting and most engaging learning of the school year.
It’s first hour and just as students are settling into their core classes the principal begins knocking on classroom doors. She’s accompanied by local law enforcement along with the Superintendent. Students and teachers are asked to report to the Math teacher’s classroom, the biggest and most suitable to house a “class meeting” with all 8th grade students present. Students look surprised and confused as teachers explain they have no idea what’s going on, but we should do as the principal asks.
Once all students and teachers are present, the Superintendent asks for their attention, which he quickly gets – partially because of his positional authority but largely because of the novelty and unique circumstances surrounding this morning. He is joined at the front by local law enforcement and the principal, along with our Science teacher, Mrs. River, who appears to be crying. The students appear distraught.
The Superintendent explains that last night a crime was committed in our school building and that the Sherriff’s Department will be on hand today conducting an investigation into the disappearance of Mrs. River’s class pet, her beloved guinea pig Vinnie, and that we will be aiding them in any way we can. Some students laugh at the notion that she is this upset over a guinea pig, others appear genuinely concerned that Mrs. River is this upset. Imagine their surprise however, when during the Sherriff’s plea for help in this investigation another teacher begins arguing with them belligerently. “All of this fuss over a stupid guinea pig? We’re seriously interrupting class time for THIS!?” The police officer responds unkindly and asks the teacher to show more respect. The two trade barbs as Mrs. River sobs. A student begins crying, unsure what to make of this situation and struggling to determine what is real and what isn’t.
Grouping and Investigation
As the police and administration file out of the room, another teacher then explains to students that for the next two weeks, they will not be going to their regular core classes. Instead, students will be divided into groups with each being sponsored by one of the core teachers. These groups will be responsible for investigating, prosecuting, defending and reporting on the alleged incident in what has become known as our annual “C.S.I.” Unit. Students are briefed on the importance of collaboration and confidentiality, since failure to work together or sharing information at inappropriate times during the investigation can both derail the unit in a hurry. They are then given instructions about each of the groups and allowed to choose where they will be working for the next several days. Students are also pre-taught about the responsibilities associated with potentially interrupting other teachers classrooms to question them about what they may have witnessed and the behavioral expectations associated with this unit.
The investigative team, which tends to be our largest group, is eventually divided into sub groups of detectives, forensic scientists, medical examiners and occasionally “video technicians” if we have surveillance footage that needs attention. Our science teacher leads students through various activities, beginning with the photography of the crime scene and moving on to finger printing, handwriting analysis, comparing hair and clothing samples found at the scene, evidence collection and whatever other sorts of labs and experiments we can conjure up. This is by far the most difficult aspect of this unit from a teacher’s perspective, trying to find ways to plant evidence that students can reasonably discover, test and process. Typically after the first day or two, student’s findings are sent “off to the lab” where our science teacher (Mrs. River, who is doubling as a victim at this point) develops a “lab report” on the cause of death of Vinnie.
Groups of detectives begin working diligently to interview any potential witnesses and suspects. Prior to the unit, all adults in our building who wish to participate in the unit are given “scripts” of what they may have seen relative to our case. Adults who choose not to participate are given the magic phrase “I’m not playing” which they tell to any investigators who may attempt to question them. Students know this phrase means the adult is not a part of the unit and we should thank them and apologize for disturbing them. (As a side note, the first year we had only three or four teachers who wished to participate in the unit, by the third year we had no one who was unwilling to participate).
Fortunately our students and teachers do not undertake this initially on their own. Local police officers donate their time to work with our students and help them collect and process evidence as well as develop their theories. Some years we’ve had forensic scientists, crime scene investigators, medical examiners and coroners come and speak with students as well, either right before or right after “the reveal” of the crime.
The investigators work “against a clock” so to speak, knowing that in a matter of days the local law enforcement will return to aid them in arresting the individual they feel committed the crime.
As our investigative team begins to discover evidence and develop theories of the crime, they are required to document everything. All evidence is handled with gloves and appropriately labeled. Reports are filed on every piece of evidence. In the event that their investigation should lead them to needing a subpoena or search-warrant, our students must work with legal team to prove probable cause for this warrant.
Legal Team – Students interested in the “law” part of our Law & Order may choose to participate in the Legal team. Things tend to be a little slow at the beginning of the unit for this group as they really don’t get too many details of the crime initially. After all, how many prosecuting attorney’s show up at the crime scene the day it’s discovered? And what is the need for defense attorney’s when we don’t yet have a suspect? Instead, our young lawyers have a lot of learning to do to prepare for their upcoming trial.
Last year this work began with a fantastic presentation from our local prosecuting attorney, who came in on his day off to talk with our kids about his role in the legal system and what the day to day responsibilities are associated with his profession. Having discussed ahead of time with our Social Studies teacher (me) what would be expected of our lawyers, he was able to give our students a very good handle on probable cause, reasonable doubt, the trial process, determining what charges to file, obtaining search warrants and subpoenas and how he works with law enforcement to apprehend the bad guys and administer justice. We also spent a significant amount of time discussing the constitutional rights of the victim as well as those of the accused – what they could and couldn’t do as prosecutors.
Students also spend a great deal of time learning about courtroom procedure in preparation for the mock trial they will be participating in later. This includes explanations of opening and closing arguments, how to properly question witnesses and some of the rules of the courtroom. It turns out that teaching students about some common courtroom objections is a FANTASTIC way to reinforce the ideas of how to appropriately write a research paper. For more on that, click HERE.
For the first several days of our unit, all lawyers are essentially “trained” as prosecutors. They work together with law enforcement to discuss what evidence has been discovered and what they still need to piece together. Before law enforcement can obtain search warrants, they must first convince our prosecutors they have probable cause in order to protect the rights of the accused. This is a sensational learning opportunity for these students! Our lawyers take this very seriously and at times frustrate our detectives! When both lawyers and detectives are convinced they have probable cause, they work together to fill out a search warrant and petition. Once this task is completed, the students take the appropriate paperwork to our principal who serves as our “judge” and determines whether the students do in fact have probable cause (she also always calls and asks one of the teachers whether we’re ready for the students to actually discover this piece of evidence yet!).
As the investigators solve elements of the crime and keep the legal team informed, the lawyers begin working researching state statutes and try and determine what charges are appropriate to bring against the alleged perpetrator. For the purposes of making the trial a little more dramatic, we treat Vinnie as if he were a human, not a guinea pig.
Media – Students who are not interested in investigating our crime or participating in the trial have the option of becoming a member of the media. The media is in a unique position – unless a member of the investigation team or the legal team leaks information to the press they have no real way of knowing anything about the crime, crime scene or suspects. To give them a unique feeling of what it might be like to work in the media, we hold “press conferences” sometimes two or three times a day in which members of the investigative team brief the entire 8th grade on some of the things they’ve recently discovered. Members of the media ask questions (even when they’re told “no questions!”) and write newspaper articles and produce television snippets for the whole school to watch. Often times our 6th and 7th grade classes will follow along through these news pieces.
Like traditional media, some of our news outlets are a bit more reputable than others. The media students are divided into different groups with some focusing on television, some focusing on print media and some producing crazy, off the wall stories that could not possibly be true (we call them our tabloid groups, great for getting reluctant learners interested in writing as they weave in fiction and non-fiction elements together).
Members of our media have been known to go digging for information. We’ve had to put rules in place as students have gone so far as to plant recording devices in the classrooms where the lawyers or detectives were working! The investigator groups usually post “officers” who take turns guarding the entrances to the “crime lab” or the “crime scene” in an effort to prevent the press from gaining access. Typically we always have at least one boy with a crush on a girl in the press corps, and as a result the whole story gets leaked prior to the arrest. In that case, we’ve also been known to have detectives intentionally “leak” false information to the press, just to keep them working. J
Usually we will spend about 2-3 days investigating the crime. At the end of day three, local law enforcement returns to help our detectives “arrest” the person they feel committed the crime, assuming they’re able to produce enough probable cause that this person did something illegal.
Over the three plus years we’ve been doing this unit, we’ve arrested a variety of teachers who’ve served as the criminal. The first year it was the 6th grade social studies teacher whose finger prints and DNA turned up at the scene after students recovered some of his “blood”. It doesn’t hurt that the 8th grade Social Studies teacher turned on him during the investigation and cut a deal to avoid prosecution. J
The second year the school librarian was arrested for attempted murder after her elaborate plot to kill Vinnie was foiled by the school custodian. Vinnie subsequently died while in the custodian’s care, but students elected to go for the evil doer instead of the innocent janitor in the wrong-place at the wrong-time.
Most recently, our 8th Grade Math teacher was charged with Murder in the First Degree, Kidnapping and Armed Criminal Action. This was the first time the lawyers elected to bring multiple charges at trial.
The first year we “arrested” a teacher there was some real concern. We had to take steps to ensure that his sixth grade students understood this was part of a school project when the local sheriff walked into his classroom with some 8th graders and placed handcuffs on their beloved teacher. Our media filmed it as our teacher did his best to keep a straight face as the “lead detective” (who was about two feet shorter than the teacher) read him his Miranda rights. Since then, we’ve turned this into something more of a school event, with the suspect making a “perp walk” down the hallway lined with 8th graders on both sides taunting and jeering them as they’re escorted out in cuffs and led to a police car outside (which goes around the block and drops the teacher off again, “out on bail”).
We’ve had to take steps to communicate this with our community. The first year of the unit, a concerned community member called the media when she saw a cop car outside of the school. Imagine the surprise of the local news crew when they arrived to find the Sherriff giving a presentation to a group of 8th graders. Coincidentally, the real media has never bothered to cover our unit despite multiple invites, with the exception of an article every year in the local paper.
We’ve even gone so far as to ask student to turn in their cell phones to the teachers before allowing them to watch “the arrest”. We don’t want any out of context footage of teachers in handcuffs with cheering kids ending up immortalized on YouTube. Still, despite these concerns, the CSI unit brings so much excitement to the school annually, it’s worth the work it takes to publicize it and prevent any misunderstandings.
Our CSI unit culminates in a mock trial, which takes place at our local court house and is presided over by our local circuit judge, who does a SENSATIONAL job of encouraging and teaching the students while still acting as “in character” as possible. Once an arrest is made, our lawyer team divides into two groups, those interested in serving as defense attorney’s and those working for the prosecution. They’ll spend about two days prepping for trial, practicing interviewing material witnesses including other teachers who may be playing a role and student investigators who represent the various groups they were working with. During this time, students who are not participating in the trial begin working on presentations that they will give to the homeroom classes of the 6th and 7th grade regarding what they have learned from this project and what it was about.
The trial day is a fun day as the whole 8th grade makes the field trip the court house and members of the community and school administration as well as parents and school board members join us. Members of the various civic organizations that have helped out in the process like to show up and watch as well, including the local police officers and prosecuting attorney.
In the three years we’ve done this unit, the students have never once “arrested” the wrong person. The first two years they essentially could have arrested one of two people, in both cases they elected to go after the one who committed the “worse” crime in their mind. The first year the actual script called for two teachers working “in concert” with each other and the teacher was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after his compatriot (me) flipped on him and testified against him at trial. The second year the librarian was acquitted of attempted murder when the judge ruled prosecutors had not met their burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Most recently, at the judge’s urging, we included a jury for our trial. The jury consisted of four 7th graders who will get to participate in the unit next year, six high school students who formerly served as lawyers in the unit and two adults (one chosen at random from the gallery, the other being our school counselor). While the jury was “deliberating” after the trial, the teachers, students and judge discussed the case in the courtroom. It was decided since the kids really wanted to hear the judges ruling, there would be two verdicts in the case. In her ruling, our judge found the 8th grade Math teacher guilty on all counts (to the cheers of many in the room) and explained to students why she felt that way and why the teacher may have elected to testify in her own defense in a real case (she didn’t in our mock trial, at her lawyers advice). Interestingly enough, when the “jury” returned with a verdict, after ten minutes of deliberation they were unanimous that the teacher was NOT guilty on all counts. They explained their logic – it seemed as if the phrase “reasonable doubt” means different things to a group of teenagers compared to a sitting judge. I will admit, I was more surprised by the judges ruling than the students even though in our actual plot the math teacher had in fact murdered Vinnie.
Reflection & Celebration
Like pretty much everything else that we do, we include a significant opportunity for students to reflect on the learning they’ve done. We give them questionnaires, ask for input on how to improve the unit, even take ideas for next year’s plot. We encourage students to reflect on what they would do differently if they could do it again and in some cases have them write letters to next year’s participants. Typically students will suggest that next year we do “something different” rather than kill Vinnie, but for us it’s a way to keep the unit relatively simple to plan even though the plot changes every year. Plus for me it’s starting develop a South Park sort of feel. Every year, Vinnie dies and I keep waiting on somebody to shout out “Holy crap! You killed Vinnie! You bastard!”
We also include an opportunity for students to celebrate their success. We take lots of pictures on the court house steps with them holding goofy signs about “who did it” and “justice being served”. We have a huge “de-briefing” session in which we talk with them about parts of the case they figured out, parts they didn’t, and the mistakes we made as teachers along the way that we had to try and cover up (such as Vinnie the Guinea Pig showing up on one of the surveillance cameras after he was supposed to be dead).
This unit is without a doubt the best interdisciplinary learning I’ve ever been a part of and is annually the coolest thing I do every year as a teacher. The students learn about real world applications for research, reading and writing, problem solving, critical thinking and the application of knowledge. They get the opportunity to learn from local agencies who are always eager to help out – ensuring great public relations for us and them. Our students learn about the positives and negatives of our judicial system as well as the media. They have a lot of fun with the real work of this unit, but they also enjoy some of the ancillary activities like developing bussiness cards or ID badges and introducing themselves as “Detective” or “Prosecutor”. They answer the classroom phones by saying “Legal” or “Crime Lab” and laugh every time. Above all else, they learn to work together and get to have a really great time at school while doing it.
Over the past year I’ve had the great privilege of presenting my ideas regarding the implementation of the new Common Core State Standards in Secondary Social Studies classrooms for the Bureau of Education and Research (Click here if you'd like to read the workshop description on the BER website). I took on the challenge of sharing this work with others because, frankly, I new it would incentivize me as a classroom teacher to dive in head over heels myself. I didn’t want somebody else telling me what the Common Core meant to me as a Middle School History teacher, I wanted to get elbow-deep in that stuff, get dirty and figure out what exactly it meant for my students, my classroom and my teaching.
Responses to the Common Core have ranged from ulcer-inducing panic attacks to the ever flippant “This too shall pass” response many of use are familiar with. It seems to me that the majority of panic has been centralized in the English Language Arts and Mathematics crowds – and for as much as I love my colleagues in these areas they’re starting to sound a little like Chicken Little running about screaming “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
While I’m poking fun here, and I do believe rumors of Common Core Catastrophe have been greatly exaggerated, I am sympathetic to their plight. While I understand as a Social Studies teacher the CCSS aren’t going to radically alter my classroom to the same extent to which they might if I were teaching Math or ELA, to assume they mean nothing is more than a mistake…it’s a missed opportunity.
The first thing I noticed when looking at the standards for Reading in History and Writing in History is that they were largely repetitive and very, very wordy. One of my favorite strategies to use with students is to take key term and summarize its definition in what I call “5 Word Max” definitions. This requires students to put the definitions in their own words and make decisions about what words they will use to convey the meaning, which greatly helps with retention. Knowing that I would have a difficult time integrating each of the standards as written into my already existent Social Studies curriculum, I sat out to condense each of the ten reading standards and nine writing standards into “5 Word Max” definitions.
While I’m sure many will argue with my summarizations, the particular words are really not overly important. The important thing is to look at the standards themselves and decide for yourself what it means for your students. Click HERE to take a look at the 11th and 12th Grade original standards for Reading in History/Social Studies, and compare them to my summaries below.
Next, if you care to, take a look at the standards for 11th-12th Grade Writing in History/Social Studies and compare them to my list below. Again, I’m sure there’s PLENTY of room to nitpick the individual summaries but my goal wasn’t to make them bulletproof, just useable.
After shortening down these standards into something I felt was a bit easier to look at, I noticed a few things. Although the folks behind the Common Core curtain saw fit to organize the reading standards into four sections (Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas and Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity) I was seeing different patterns emerge. Namely that there was an immediate demand for Social Studies teachers to begin using Primary and Secondary Sources, as well as to require students to evaluate and question historical sources. Upon looking at the writing standards, it really felt like a very common sense approach to writing, a real “No Duh!” kind of moment if you can excuse my 90’s vernacular. Most of these standards could be summarized as “Write Scholarly, Publish Modernly.” Think about it – when you think of scholarly writing, what do you think about? Multiple, creditable sources? Knowing your audience and purpose? Coherent arguments or explanations? The same things your college professors required are what we should be requiring of students writing in our class! With the exception of one, which to me stuck out like a sore thumb as something that was going to need to be taught more like a reading strategy and not a writing strategy, most of the writing standards could be summarized as “Write Scholarly” with an emphasis on modern publishing methods.
All that said, I believe that the Common Core State Standards for Social Studies and History teachers can be better summarized into four themes.
Each of these four themes illustrates a specific need for our students – not merely additional work for teachers. If we hope to prepare students to be the educated voters of tomorrow, lawyers to serve in our legal system or politicians with a hope of solving the problems in Washington, we’ll need students who are able to write scholarly about history, utilize primary and secondary sources, evaluate and question the historical record and read at a high level.
I’m sure some will brush this aside as unnecessary or claim it “doesn’t apply to them” which is unfortunate given the opportunity they represent to reboot our Social Studies instruction and provide greater relevance for our students. Likewise, I’m sure others will accuse me of oversimplifying the Core Standards, and that’s ok by me. I’m confident that being mindful of these four themes and incorporating them with our current Social Studies instruction will not only ensure our students are prepared to meet whatever the Common Core Test can present, but they’ll be better citizens for it as well.
For useful strategies for implementing the Four Themes of the Common Core State Standards in History, sign up for an upcoming BER seminar with Mark Clements or shoot me an email about bringing this workshop to your school district.
When my friends or family who aren’t teachers speak of my job, few are willing to take the position of the stereotypical teacher basher and ridicule me for my “summers off” or my “8-3” schedule. I’m sympathetic to those forced to listen to such ignorant blowhards lobbing accusations of teachers being “lazy” and talking about how tenure makes it “impossible” to be fired as a teacher. I simply don’t surround myself with people who are so foolish as to believe that, and if they are, they’re certainly not courageous enough to say it to my face. J
Instead, loved ones attempting to be sympathetic often speak of my profession in an odd tone bordering somewhere between respect and pity. Strange, because I’m not one to play the martyr and whine and complain about difficult the job, but I suppose it does come up. I’m often met with a variety of well-intentioned statements like “Dude, I wouldn’t want to do what you do” or “It must be crazy, I remember how rude and disrespectful kids were when we were in school!”
Sometime’s the talk is more political, with things like “It’s bad enough you’re budget’s keep getting cut, then they shove more testing down your throat, right?” or “Isn’t this Common Core thing just going to screw things up worse?”
Yes friends, teaching is an extraordinarily difficult profession. But not for the reasons you think.
Yeah, some of the kids can be a bit challenging, but you know what? They’re the ones that need me the most. The “disrespectful” and impoverished kids who could care less about school? They won’t just benefit from great teachers, they NEED great teachers. Without it, they’re doomed. They need teachers to inspire them, to motivate them, to teach them to persevere and show them how to act with respect because CLEARLY these are elements missing in their lives. Oh, and those gifted, hardworking kids from loving, supportive families? They may not NEED a “great” teacher but they’ll benefit more too from a teacher with the passion and drive educate ALL students.
You’re right, I don’t get paid much relative to the education and expertise required. I understand market economics though – my profession doesn’t increase revenue for anybody and thus I’m stuck making what I do. Don’t feel bad for me, my family isn’t starving. I am a reasonably intelligent human being and I’m confident in my ability to make ends meet just fine. Getting “ahead” may be tough and I’ll never be wealthy, but I knew the circumstances when I signed up for this trip.
And yeah, the state does keep shoving more testing at me. Can I tell you a secret though? I don’t give a damn. Really, I don’t. I respect the tests sure. I REALLY want my students to do well, not because I’m afraid of repercussions but because I think the tests are at least AN indicator of student achievement. They’re far too flawed however for me to put too much stock in them. I respect the authority of state tests because they’re unfortunately how other, less-informed citizens judge me, my colleagues and our students. For that reason, I strive to be successful at them – but not at the expense of doing what I know is right for my students. Some teachers in some states are far more afraid of them – perhaps rightfully so – but me? Not so much. I know if I do right by my students and prepare them for lives ahead, they’ll do well enough on the tests and be better off for it in the long run.
Is Common Core the cure for what ails us? I really doubt it. Is it ruining my life and proving to be the cruel instrument of destruction that some are claiming. No. I spent a few weeks this summer sorting it out. You know, when I was allegedly on “vacation”.
Yes, teaching is an EXTRAORDINARILY difficult profession. But it’s not for any of these reasons.
The truth is, good teachers will automatically place more pressure on themselves than any state test ever could. We put our hearts and souls into the success of our students and when we can’t get through them, it breaks our hearts. We know how much they depend on us to challenge them, to provide structure for them, to show we care for them and to inspire them. Our students NEED us because we exist in a world between their parents whom they hide things from and their friends who know all too much. They’re stuck in a spiral of trying to fit in while trying to be themselves, even if they don’t who that is yet. They see us watching, and they reach out for our help.
Some are so gifted, they’re bored. They need us to provide direction and affirmation. Some are so broken, they just need us to can the curriculum and love them – tell them that it really does get better and show them the tools to make it happen.
It takes an extraordinary amount of emotional energy to try and make Math relevant for a kid who constantly shows up with mysterious bruises. It’s damn near impossible to motivate a student whose family celebrates their graduation from rehab by lighting a joint. Its heart wrenching when a teenager sobs and pours their heart out with stories of awful bullying by peers (and other teachers!) because they had the courage to admit to being gay….and couldn’t bare telling their parents.
It’s painfully time consuming to develop engaging, meaningful lesson plans designed to meet the needs of everybody from future Ivy Leaguers to future inmates. Teachers have their own families, their own children and they’re forced every day to make impossible decisions regarding the use of their time – occasionally having to put the needs of those future inmates ahead of the wants of their own children because while they’ll always be there for their own kids, their students are here but for a fleeting few moments. It’s an unfair circumstance, a moral and ethical tight rope few other professions are forced to walk.
Other professions are filled with completed projects, court cases won, illnesses cured or profits made. Our profession’s victories are so small they’re almost unnoticeable if you’re not watching carefully. Gratitude and praise for us often comes years later…if at all. There’s no raise or promotion for a job well done – and we couldn’t try any harder even if there was.
Professional Development is a never ending task…a daunting mountain of ideas and demands, hoops to jump through and requirements to fulfill. But it pales in comparison to the hours spent racking our brain trying to do what’s best for kids, doing EVERYTHING we know to reach that impossible student.
Then realizing we’d tried in vain.
The demands of an administrator may bring stress to our eyes….but those eyes are clouded by tears as we lie awake at night trying to shake the feeling that we’re failing as educators.
In the end, we only have each other. A brotherhood of colleagues who look at each other and just seem to “know” what you’ve been through without your ever saying a word. We’re left to eternally second guess and question ourselves, as everyday brings a new challenge that will drain our emotions, task our time and shake our confidence. Some of us having loving families who respect, support and appreciate our work. Some have families who resent us for it.
I wouldn’t trade the field of education for any other. I love what I do. I love who I work with, who I work for and what I’m able to do for kids. I love the rewards it brings me, even if only I see them and only for a moment.
But yeah….some days my job really sucks.
It’s just not for the reasons you might think.
More Edunating Stuff….
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