How many of these activities would you enjoy as a way to access learning?

* Building a structure  *  Performing a play  *  Creating a clay pot  *
* Reading a book  *  Studying a map  *  Throwing a spear  *

In 1st-2nd grade, we just completed a two-month social studies unit on Native Americans. The class learned about native cultures in different regions of our country: Eastern Woodlands, Great Plains, Desert Southwest, and Pacific Northwest. Our goal was to help students understand that people lived differently based on their different environments and that Native Americans, in general, had a great appreciation for the Earth and living things. We provided students with a variety of experiences to help them develop these concepts:

  • Listening to and discussing folktales from each region

  • Reading fiction and non-fiction books about how people lived

  • Coding maps to learn which present-day states make up the different regions

  • Watching videos to see how Native Americans of different regions hunted, built homes, provided food and clothing, and entertained themselves

  • Examining photos of different regions to recognize different landforms and vegetation

  • Building shelters: longhouse, tepee, pueblo, and igloo

  • Performing traditional folktales in a Readers’ Theater format

  • Playing cooperative group games to demonstrate learning

In addition to teacher-led activities, we were very fortunate to have special lessons with parent volunteers who shared their expertise with us. In these lessons, students:

  • Made pottery

  • Examined spearheads and used a spear, atlatl, and bow

  • Watched a slide show about modern-day pow wows and saw videos of Native Americans drumming and dancing

  • Learned about and examined Navajo rugs, baskets, jewelry, pottery, and crafts

Throughout these lessons, students were provided with a variety of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (hands-on) experiences to help them explore concepts and learn new information. We know that different people learn differently and are drawn to different kinds of activities; for example, we probably would not all pick the same activities in response to the question at the beginning of this article. Likewise, students benefit from opportunities to interact with the material in different ways, and activities that appeal to some might not interest others.

At the end of the unit when students reflected on their experiences, it was fascinating to examine their preferences for different activities. When asked to write about their overall impressions of the unit, students wrote descriptions that warm a teacher’s heart. One student said, “I liked learning about other people and how they lived.” Another reported, “It was fun, hands-on learning.” A third student expressed, “I liked it a lot because we played games and parents came in to show us things that we did not know before.” Finally, one student announced his thoughts in a very age-appropriate way, “I liked it a lot because it was very very very very very very very very very very fun.”

Several students were very positive about every single activity during the unit, but most students rated some experiences more highly than others. One student especially loved seeing photos of the different regions but disliked the Readers’ Theater performance; another student loved the performance but didn’t find the photos to be that interesting. One student loved making pottery but did not enjoy coding the map; another had the opposite response. And so on! The one consistent response was tremendous enthusiasm for building the Native American shelters. When asked to rate the activity on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being high, one student wrote in 3,000,000,000. While we know that enjoying an activity does not necessarily equate to developing understanding of the material, we also know that when young children are excited about their learning, it’s more likely to stick. Furthermore, it is also more likely to inspire them to want to learn more. Providing a variety of activities enabled students multiple ways to access the information and demonstrate their knowledge, and we are proud of all of their hard work and dedication to learning.

The structure of this unit exemplifies so much about what I love about educating children at Hebrew Day School. Teachers have the freedom to offer responsive, creative access points for all students, students preferences are encouraged while new experiences are always available, and the expertise of parents (and others) adds to a rich experiential learning environment.