Don Davis

"Paradise Gained" A Virtual Classroom Activity
Don Davis

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California History - Social Science Project Snapshot

What was the focus of your work or the nature of your teaching problem? Why is this important to you?

Each year my students take standardized tests, especially the Golden State Exams, which require them to quickly read a prompt, develop a thesis, and write a well-supported essay. Some of these tests allow approximately 22 minutes for the task. In order to score well, my students needed to be able to think through the prompt and content quickly and accurately. I realized that when I assigned timed essays, students either gave me generalizations with no supporting facts, or provided many facts discussed in class, but expected the reader to make the connection to the prompt. Therefore, I wanted to design an activity though which I could direct students to develop generalizations and support them with appropriate evidence.

What did you learn about teaching the subject, and what did you learn about the subject through teaching it?

In the Virtual Classroom, when the teacher poses a question, all students respond simultaneously. In a traditional classroom discussion, usually only the most articulate students share. Those who are unsure of the subject or are unsure of their response do not take a risk in sharing. I was able to “see” the thinking of many students that never participate in a classroom discussion. By using the Virtual Classroom, I could also readily see misconceptions in students’ thinking. In addition, students posted to the Virtual Discussion in teams simply because I did not have enough computers for every student. However, I found that this was beneficial. I could hear the groups planning their responses and discussing salient issues before posting them. In fact, students became somewhat competitive about having quality responses posted. It was rewarding for me that students were genuinely wrestling with the concepts. Even though all of the postings were not “on track” the activity overall was successful in directing the teams to support their claims with evidence. I was able to repeatedly request, “What is your textual evidence?” I learned that Adam Smith’s works are very challenging for seniors in high school but they can understand Smith’s basic concepts if scaffolded appropriately.

What resources, colleagues, and/or collaborations advanced your thinking about your project? What was your

To help me with teaching the development of thesis, I consulted with Mrs. Sue Phillips, the English Department Co-chair and with Mrs. Michael Howard, the British Literature teacher. Mrs. Phillips provided me with two books on debate which caused me to create prompts and lessons using the word “claim.” Therefore, I would ask students about their “claims” and “sub-claims” in order to help them realize that they must not only “know the facts,” but must also draw some generalizations from those facts. Mrs. Howard helped me to develop the prompt itself. Finally, I met with fellow Social Science teacher, Mr. Bill Payne. Mr. Payne and I worked together to develop the fact-gathering questions, the conceptual questions, and the essential question for the scaffolding and Virtual Classroom Discussion Guide Sheet.

What did you do?

I created a class activity in which students explored a topic of the California State Standards for Economics regarding Adam Smith. For the activity, students first examined several resources regarding Smith using a “guide sheet” to explore particular topics. The resources included a brief biography, an electronic encyclopedia article, and lecture notes from a professor at Macquerie University in Sydney, Australia. After the students were familiar with the resources, I conducted a virtual discussion using the Virtual Classroom utility of Blackboard. Finally, students had to address a particular prompt and plan the response with a cluster. I kept this essay prompt relatively simple in structure while the topic was complex. I felt I could more easily ascertain student improvement using this method.

From Revolution to Reconstruction
This site was developed by a professor of Department of Computing in the Humanities at the University of Gronigen in the Netherlands. The site has received numerous awards but has been ranked in 1996 as the top Social Studies site by Electronic Learning. The site has an article on Adam Smith.

Smith, Adam (economist)
Wikipedia article to give students some background information regarding Smith.

Adam Smith: The Wealth of Nations
A lecture for a Political Science class at Macquerie University in Sydney Australia posted by R. J. Kilcullen. The lecture provides a succinct description of the plan of The Wealth of Nations and its basic premises.

What were the tools, scaffolds and supports that you constructed to help students practice historical methods, do historical thinking, and achieve historical understanding?

I created the Paradise Gained—A Journey into the Realm of Ideas Questions to guide the students through the resources that I provided for them. The resources ranged from simple to college level in order to provide access to the information to all students. (I also color coded the resources so that I could easily direct students to particular information) This guide sheet began by stating state standard and the essential question. In order to respond to the essential questions, students had to explore the resources for the answers to the fact-gathering questions, then participate in the Virtual Classroom Discussion to explore the conceptual questions. The Virtual Classroom Discussion not only assisted the students in understanding the information but also motivated them to tackle some very challenging information. In a Virtual Discussion, what a participant “says” is in front of everyone to evaluate, causing the students to be somewhat more thoughtful in their preparations. Also, I kept directing the students to support their “claims” with textual evidence. This kept putting claims and supporting facts in front of the students who were following the discussion. Finally, the students would be answering the essential question by responding to the writing prompt. The prompt itself directed the students in their thinking and required a prewrite.

How does this apply to your future teaching decisions, and how will you bring these ideas back to your colleagues, schools, and others teaching similar students or content?

The Virtual Classroom Utility in Blackboard will be a consideration of similar topics of discussion for future lessons. To encourage other teachers to consider using this feature of Blackboard, I am posting the lesson on our high school’s network and have presented the lesson in a department meeting. I am working with my partner to develop a virtual discussion for our students on a subject in British Literature. I believe that by using the strategy for more than one subject, students will learn how to use the utility more effectively.

What were the major findings of your work? What is the significance of your work to others?

My student’s essay responses did improve from their previous efforts. Their prewrite clusters reveal significant planning. Not only was the activity motivating for the students, they were able to actually retain and apply the content and skills of the lesson.

What implications does your work have for teaching a diverse student body, including English learners?

First of all, every student can participate. English language learners are not excluded from the discussion because they may feel uncomfortable about speaking in class. All students post simultaneously so every student can actually think about the question posed and respond. In a traditional setting, I believe that some students rarely ponder subjects because they know that several students will provide the required answer. I also believe that the activity helps to establish a classroom culture that thinking is a process and the process involves developing and supporting assertions with evidence.

Related Resources

This electronic portfolio was created using the KML Snapshot Tool™, a part of the KEEP Toolkit™,
developed at the Knowledge Media Lab of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
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