Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Notes from the Classroom: Westward Expansion

Denschdeg, 26 Januar.

Between all the blog posts about castles and hiking and going to Christmas markets, you may have forgotten that my real reason for being in Luxembourg -- and the thing that takes up the vast majority of my waking hours -- is teaching. Which, as it turns out, is going pretty well!

Today, I finished up a two-week lesson about Westward Expansion and its role in American history with my 4e class, a group of students in their second year of studying English. The previous week, we had discussed the regions of the United States, both official (southeast, northeast, midwest, west, and southwest) and unofficial (Bible Belt? Tornado Alley?), and I had introduced students to "The Fifty Nifty United States" -- a song which then stayed in my head for 36 hours. (You've been warned.) I wanted to talk a little more about the U.S., but through a lesson focused on reading comprehension, and decided to talk about Westward Expansion after finding some cool resources online.

Last week, during our first lesson, I introduced the concept of Westward Expansion. We began by looking at the same map of United States regions that we had examined before and by thinking about how drastically the country has expanded from the thirteen original colonies. The students were then introduced to the story of the Louisiana Purchase and how dramatically the addition of this new territory changed the landscape of the United States.

With this group of students, who feel the need to take constant notes but are only in their second year of learning English, I have found that fill-in-the-blank exercises (with the "answers" provided on PowerPoint slides) keep them actively listening and participating without overwhelming them. Fill-in-the-blank exercises can feel a little childish, however, and I struggle to keep the lesson at their language level without making it too simplistic for their intelligence level.

Do you have suggestions for teaching this kind of content? Let me know in the comments!

One of the most influential images that I remembered seeing when studying this period of American history was John Gast's "American Progress." This 1872 painting depicts a timeline of Westward Expansion and provides a really interesting jumping-off point for discussions about the period. (How did the settlers view themselves? What were they bringing to the West? At what cost?)

My students aren't talkative on the best days, but the idea of analyzing a painting seemed to have them stumped. So we started simple. "What do you see? Describe the painting to me."



A flying woman.

As they began to feel more comfortable pointing out details within the artwork, I challenged them to compare the left side of the painting to the right.

Immediately, one student pointed out that the left side of the painting was darker. ("True! What do you think that means? What do we usually associate with light and dark?") That the right side of the painting was full of people and all the technological advancements they bring: a harbor with ships, trains, telegraph wires, a farmhouse. ("Good point. Consider the title of the painting: 'American Progress.' What do you think the painter means by 'progress'?")

After getting everything we could from John Gast's painting, we divided into groups to tackle reading assignments.

Each of the groups, which ranged in size from four to five students, was given a text about a particular aspect of Westward Expansion: the Alamo, the Oregon Trail, and the Pony Express. Each of the handouts had a vocabulary section and comprehension questions designed to ensure they understood the assignment.

The texts themselves were relatively simple and I think the students got a kick out of reading about such random topics ... especially the boys assigned to "The Pony Express"!

In today's lesson, the students shared what they had learned from their short texts with the class. Although I reiterated (several times) that there was no reason to stress about the group presentations, I was fascinated to see how seriously the students prepared. They worked together to divide up the text and write summaries of the different sections and then came up to the front of the class to read their summaries of the texts.

I had let slip to one of the groups that the Oregon Trail had lent its name to a frontier-inspired computer game. They came in today, having found -- and played -- an archived online version of the game from 1990. And so we played it and fun was had by all.

Interested in doing a lesson on Westward Expansion with your students? Let me know in the comments and I'll be happy to pass on my resources. The texts I used were adapted from ReadWorks.org, which has a wealth of interesting texts on a variety of topics and at a wide range of levels. (And, yes, they're FREE once you sign up.)