By Orla Dunstan, Director of Communications
Students in sixth grade current events classes are immersed in a very dynamic curriculum that brings together history, geography, service learning, activism, and written and oral presentation skills. They are studying current issues through the lens of local, state, and national government: who makes up the government, how individual citizens are involved in government, and how government shapes lives. Teachers Jenny Armstrong and Srob Oberman-Breindel are asking students to consider these questions: “How am I connected?” and “How can I be involved?” The goal of the curriculum is for students to realize that current events are taking place in their world (rather than in the abstract) and to empower them to be active participants.
Jenny and Srob created a brand new structure for the curriculum this year, using case studies to help make events more relatable for students. Jenny said that she and Srob felt that “…we have discovered the perfect combination of elements to make the curriculum accessible and engaging for our students: relevancy by focusing locally, concreteness through case studies, and a successful structure for written expression with The Hochman Method.”
The curriculum’s structure is designed so that when events occur they are taught directly, if appropriate. For example, Jenny and Srob made the decision to address the shooting at the Parkland, FL high school and the subsequent school walkout on March 14th.
The importance of every person’s voice is a shared Quaker and Democratic value that drives the curriculum. Students are learning how to engage in civic discourse, how to express an opinion respectfully, and how to back it up with facts. Throughout the year, they are developing critical thinking and writing skills so that they can communicate their viewpoints. A strong focus on building writing skills is embedded in the curriculum. Students are required to write a paragraph at the conclusion of every case study, using The Hochman Method. The repeated process of note-taking, outlining, and writing a paragraph is building their expository writing skills.
The year consists of three units. Unit One in the fall gave students the base knowledge from which to express and debate their viewpoints. They got an introduction to government levels – the services provided and the person in charge at each level. The roles that voters, elected officials, and government workers play were explored in the context of the hurricanes that took place in the fall. Classes talked about who needs help when natural disasters occur, whose responsibility is it to help, and how they themselves could be involved. Students were moved by the devastation of the storms, and, with their teachers, organized a donut sale to raise funds for children affected by the hurricanes.
Students were introduced to the core Democratic values as written in the Declaration of Independence. These core Democratic values overlap with Quaker values and with this year’s mini-unit theme of Justice. Classes read Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney (MMFS trustee and parent of alumni). They then learned about taking peaceful action in a current situation with a case study of the NFL “take a knee” protests. Students debated the pros and cons of protesting injustice during a sporting event. They shared their viewpoints in a “snowball share,” whereby each student wrote her/his/their statement anonymously on a piece of paper and threw it like a snowball into a container to be read aloud by a fellow classmate.
Once the foundation was set in the fall, sixth grade classes dove into Unit Two, Local Activism. They used case studies to explore the guiding question: How do New Yorkers influence local government to improve life in our city? Every case study followed a similar sequence of events: an issue arose, citizens persuaded the government to make a change, and the government took action. The case studies included: accessible playgrounds in NYC, LGBTQ rights through the history of Stonewall and LGBTQ activism, pedestrian safety and the Vision Zero program, and Stop and Frisk.
Sixth grade classes took a trip to a Red Hook playground in December to check out if it had accessible swings, as stated on the government website. They found no accessible swings. Jenny was impressed by the great conversations the trip sparked amongst students about how government makes its decisions. They talked about different perspectives, such as why the government might decide against taking action. Back in the classroom, students learned about taxes, government budgets, and how decisions are made about spending money.
In February, students chose from the following topics: Women’s Suffrage, Fresh Kills Landfill, Bike Lanes, Food Waste and Composting, and Skate Parks, to do an independent project culminating in a written and oral presentation to the class.
Based on the success of the case studies in Unit Two, Jenny and Srob were very encouraged to reframe the remainder of the year, continuing the model of exploring a guiding question by examining case studies. Unit Three, Washington D.C. and Me, began in March and continues for the remainder of the year. The guiding question is: How have Americans influenced the federal government to improve life in the United States? The concrete aspect of case studies helps students to better understand the federal government, Jenny explained. “Rather than memorizing information about the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, students are learning about the three branches of government through specific examples of the government in action. They are studying several landmark supreme court cases and the actions of presidents.” For each case, they are examining: Does the event exhibit justice? Does it ensure equality? Does it benefit the general welfare? They will also learn about political parties, and about taking and expressing a political viewpoint.
Jenny commented that, as to be expected, individual students respond more passionately to different case studies; nonetheless, they always look forward to the next case study. They stop Jenny in the hall to ask “What’s our next case study?” and they talk about their favorites.
Activism and social justice are very much alive in the sixth grade current events classes. The case studies are presenting students with concrete examples of how change is possible at a grassroots level, and students are finding their voices through examples of others who have made changes.