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Posts tagged ‘strategy’

Tip of the Week – Open and Closed Word Sorts

A language arts friend of mine shared this strategy with me several years ago and I’ve been using it ever since. It is incredibly simple to use in the classroom but it can have a huge impact on your kids.

The English teacher was using it to help kids learn vocabulary words from novels and mentioned it while we were discussing the problem of both vocabulary words and geographic locations in Social Studies. And as I begin to use it, I realized how versatile the strategy can be.

One teacher compared open and closed word sorts to doing laundry:

It all starts with the piles. If you haven’t had time to do the laundry for a week or more, it can feel as if those mile-high baskets of dirty socks and T-shirts are planning to topple your house. Sort that small mountain of laundry into a few piles, and you’ll restore the order of your laundry baskets.

Betty’s Book of Laundry Secrets

Basically this strategy asks students to organize words or phrases into piles that make sense to them.

The strategy is useful in both elementary and secondary classrooms as both a pre-and-post reading strategy. During pre-reading, kids use their prior knowledge to organize words and establish a purpose for reading. As an after-reading strategy, students reflect on what they read and process the ideas presented in the text.

I’ve also discovered that it works great for geographic terms, people, events, places – just about any type of list that seems unconnected to other stuff.

There are two types of sorts:

  • Closed word sorts are when the teacher defines the process for categorizing the words. This requires students to think critically as they look for specific concepts, word structures and definitions.
  • In an open word sort, students determine for themselves how to categorize the words. This forces them to become more involved in manipulating the list. While closed sorts reinforce and extend students’ ability to classify words and concepts, open sorts can prompt divergent and inductive reasoning.

A basic outline of the strategy:

  1. Select 15-20 words that are important to the understanding of the lesson. At this time, the teacher should determine if it will be an open or closed sort.
  2. Copy words onto index cards or print them on slips of paper. Provide enough words for each group of 3-5 students. (An alternative would be to first model for a whole group using a whiteboard or overhead transparency.)
  3. Pass out words to groups. Based on if this is a pre-reading strategy or after-reading strategy, the teacher should decide how much support to provide.
  4. If the activity is a closed sort, remind students they will need to use the categories provided to them. If it is an open sort, suggest to students that they categorize the words into groups that make sense to them. Remind them that they will need to be able to explain their rationale for the groups they created.
  5. Give students approximately 10 minutes to create their sorts. Next, give students a short amount of time to rotate to other groups to examine other sorts from their classmates’ groups.
  6. As students read the text or discuss it in more detail, allow them to reclassify their words.
  7. Have students to reflect on their sorts and how it increased their understanding before and/or after the reading of the text. Did they make changes? Why or why not?
  8. Upon completion of a word sort, students can also write a summary or reflection on why they chose words for a particular category.
    (Johns & Berglund, 1998 and Florida Online Reading)

A simple example for a 7th grade geography class would be to ask kids to do an open sort of 20 geographic terms.

  • canal, cape, plain, delta, fjord, lagoon, marsh, oasis, peninsula, plateau, strait, bay, mesa, savanna, steppe, isthmus, bog, tributary, swamp, tundra

Have small groups organize their slips of paper anyway they want. Have each group share their categories. Do another open sort but tell students they cannot use any category that has already been used. Share out again.

Now do a closed sort and ask them to arrange their words by things that can be found in Kansas and things that cannot be found in Kansas. Both the open and closed sort provide a great way for you to assess prior knowledge and lead into good discussions.

You can also use this strategy online using a free tool called Word Magnets. Same idea but drag and drop capability. This site works great with SMART boards!

Whatever you use, adapt it to fit you own situation. And be sure to have fun!


Johns, J. & Berglund, R. (2002). Strategies for content area learning. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
Vacca, R.T. & Vacca, J.L. (1999). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Maps that freak you out

But . . . wait. Where else could you put the Northern Hemisphere but on the top?

On the bottom.

Yeah, but you can’t do that.

Why not?

‘Cause it’s freaking me out.

I was watching some old West Wings episodes last week and ran across a clip that a map nut like me just has to love!

The press secretary is sitting through a briefing by the fictional “Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality” that argues that the President needs to support

legislation that would make it mandatory for every public school in America to teach geography using the Peters Projection map instead of the traditional Mercator.

The OCSE also pushes for the South-Up Map. And while the clip is a bit tongue in cheek, I think it does a great job of introducing the idea that maps can and do distort reality. I’ve talked about this before a bit and still believe that a really great map can have a huge impact on students.

You might also be interested in a short chapter from “Seeing Through Maps: The Power of Images to Shape Our World View” by Ward L. Kaiser and Denis Wood that describes how maps can manipulate perceptions.

If nothing else, the reaction of the press secretary’s face during the video clip is definitely worth a look!

Tip of the Week – The Third Way of Using Primary Docs

History teachers have always used primary sources in their classrooms, usually in one of two ways.

The first might be called the single source approach. A teacher intersperses a single document (such as the Declaration of Independence) throughout a unit to support their instruction and content.

The second can be described as the multiple source approach. A teacher who uses this method will provide a variety of documents to help students discover for themselves what the teacher already knows. This method allows students to construct their own learning and gives kids an opportunity to practice some high-level historical thinking skills.

I’m going to suggest a third way.

And, yes, it is more complex in terms of your time and effort but the reward is increased student learning. Developed by Frederick Drake of Illinois State, this third way is a “systematic way to engage your students in historical thinking and to increase their knowledge of the past.”

In a nutshell, a teacher provides a First Order document to her students and leads an in-depth analysis of the document. Drake calls this document the “epicenter” of your instruction.

Next, a teacher provides three to five Second Order documents for students. These documents should both support and contrast the First Order document. Through discussion and analysis, kids get the chance to gain a more nuanced view of the topic and the original document.

Finally, the teacher provides an opportunity for students to discover their own Third Order documents supporting or contrasting the First Order document.

What might a middle school example look like?

I might start with Paul Revere’s woodcut of the Boston Massacre as my First Order document. For my Second Order documents, I could select three to five from the following list:

  • Alonzo Chappell’s graphical version of the same event
  • transcripts from the trial of Captain Preston
  • the journal of Deacon John Tudor
  • local and London newspaper accounts
  • the legal deposition of William Wyat
  • I might even include a variety of US history textbook selections from past and present

I would then provide time and assistance for students to find their own documents that support or contrast the Revere woodcut. A final product could take the shape of a digital narrative, a re-write of their own textbook’s version of the event or an oral presentation arguing for the inclusion of their document in a Library of Congress exhibit.

The beauty of this third way is that kids see you modeling historical skills at the same time that they are learning them. And while this method does take longer and requires a bit more work on your part, the benefits for your students are tremendous!

(You can get a much more in-depth description of the method by going to A Systematic Approach to Improve Students’ Historical Thinking by Drake.)

First Order

  • The most essential primary source for the teacher on a particular topic in history. This is the document that you cannot live without.

Second Order

  • Primary or secondary sources that challenge or corroborate the central idea in the First Order document. These documents, selected by the teacher, provide a nuanced understanding of the topic by offering multiple perspectives.

Third Order

  • Additional primary or secondary sources that students find to challenge or corroborate the First-Order document. Ultimately, students should select a Third Order document to serve as their First Order document


  • Be sure to include images and other multi-media in either the First or Second Order documents
  • Use analysis worksheets to help students “break down” the documents
  • During discussion, begin with low-level questions before moving onto more complex questions
  • Require a product for students’ Third Order documents

Have fun!

Tip of the Week – KIM strategy

I ran across a nice, basic graphic organizer the other day that looks useful. I’ll be honest, haven’t used it yet with kids. But it looks like one of those graphic organizers that works across grade levels and content areas. It reminds a bit of the Frayer Model graphic organizer but perhaps easier to use.

The KIM model uses a simple three-column organizer. In the first column (K), kids will write the term or key idea, information (I) about that term or idea goes along in the center column and a memory clue, (M) – a graphic or image of the idea – goes in the last column.

The key idea may be a new vocabulary work, or a new concept.  The information may be a definition or it may be a more technical explanation of the concept.  The memory clue is a way for students to fully integrate the meaning of the key idea into their memories.  By making a simple sketch that explains the key idea, students synthesize and interpret the new information, making it their own.  Then, students can reference their drawings to easily remember new key ideas.

Have fun!

Kids talking to kids – My History Network

I was told once that in the typical social studies classroom, 85% of the conversation is teacher to student, 10% student to teacher and 5% student to student. (And . . . no, I can’t remember the source so I suppose you can adjust the numbers as you see fit.)

But even if the numbers aren’t exactly correct, the point remains.

We talk too much. The kids don’t talk enough. And we certainly don’t let the kids talk enough with other kids.

When the brain spends time reviewing, repeating, experimenting and talking with other brains, good things happen. We need to let the brains of our students spend more time with other brains.

The problem, of course, is to find ways to help kids structure their conversation around the history topics that you are attempting to teach.

So I like what I see over at MyHistoryNetwork. The site is designed to give social studies students the opportunity to talk with one another.

Where high school history students from around the world come together and share, co-operate, challenge, assist and inspire each other.

The site is new and so David Hilton, the site’s creator, is working to generate a group of students and teachers large enough for quality conversations. But I like what I see. Moderated forums for kids, ability to upload content, personalized pages, place just for teachers and specific groups.

It really looks like a useful place to encourage high-levels of conversation to take place about specific content. You could assign your students to talk with others as part of a larger project or simply encourage the conversations by awarding extra credit. The possibilities seem pretty endless.

One of the biggest problems the site will probably experience is that it is hosted at the Ning network. And because many school filtering systems view Ning as a social networking site, it may be blocked at your school.

Of course, that’s the whole point . . . having kids talk with other kids in a structured, content-based way. I could argue that blocking MyHistoryNetwork because it’s a social network is just another way of saying that we don’t want kids to learn in effective ways.

That would seem petty and inappropriate. So I won’t.

(But I’m still thinking it.)

Lincoln’s pockets

Donated to the Library of Congress in 1937 and labeled “Do Not Open,” the box sat in the office of the Librarian of Congress for almost 40 years. Finally, in 1975, Librarian Daniel Boorstein untied the string and pulled off the brown wrapping paper.

abes pocketInside?

Twelve items – including several pairs of glasses, newspaper clippings, a pocketknife and a handkerchief.

On April 15, 1865, the day Abraham Lincoln died, someone went through his pockets and placed the contents into a box and tied it with string. The box found its way Robert Lincoln and eventually to Robert’s daughter, Mary Lincoln Isham. She never opened the box and in 1937, dropped it off at the Library of Congress. This was the box Boorstein opened.

Yeah . . . so?

So . . . the contents of Lincoln’s pockets gives us a engaging tool for teaching kids about the historical process. Use a great lesson plan like this one from the Library of Congress to hook kids into asking questions and solving problems. Watch a short video of an archivist describing the contents or simply lead your kids in a discussion of how what we carry help define who we are.

Whichever activity you use, lessons like this give kids a chance to actually mess with the stuff of history, not just the facts.