Across Grades

A colleague of mine came to me several weeks into the term, to say that she was doing a cross-graded project.  Her second graders were going to read the book, Thank You Sarah: the Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving.

The book is the story of Sarah Hale, a New England woman who wrote to five U.S. presidents to try to persuade them to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.  Sarah Hale was a letter-writer.  She wrote to newspapers and congressmen and senators, to state assemblies, to Congress, to pretty much anyone who would listen, and quite a few who wouldn’t.  For thirty-eight years, she kept up the attack on the establishment, trying to get Thanksgiving recognized as a national holiday.

My colleague was then going to teach them about persuasive letters, and ask them to write in the voice of Sarah Hale.  They would write letters to their choice of five presidents (the five Sarah wrote to), and try to persuade the presidents to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

The fifth grade was studying about American presidents.  So my colleague had realized that the second grade was much more likely to respond well to the exercise if they got letters back.  She and the fifth grade teacher arranged matters so that the fifth graders studied the five American presidents to whom Mrs. Hale had written.  They then each chose a president, and wrote back, explaining why it was that they could not (or could) grant her request.

The fifth graders used the White House’s own website to collect the versions of the presidential seals used by each president, and the signatures of the five gentlemen (Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and Lincoln).  They got samples of the formal handwriting of the time, and tried imitating those models before they wrote their own letters.  And they researched each president’s era in order to learn why a president said no (or said yes, in the case of Lincoln).

My colleague wanted to know how I could help.  So I drafted my sixth graders to measure out three acres, so that they could see how much land the average New England farmer had.  Unfortunately, due to poor weather, we didn’t get that arranged in time for the other grades to see it.

My seventh graders looked up Edward Winslow’s paragraph or so on the First Thanksgiving back in 1621.  They edited, expanded it, and revised it until it was about thirty sentences long, all short, so that the second graders could read and understand it.  And then they sent it off.

The second graders liked it, but their teacher — a brilliant teacher, I must say, Brilliant!  — printed it on about 15 pieces of paper, with one or two sentences per page.  And she gave the pages out to her class, to create drawings for the pages.  They made a picture book out of it!

And it’s so cute!

The parents (actually, mostly the teachers, but some parents) put together a display of all the things that John Alden owned.  I made a little video of the display, but next year, I think I’ll ask the students to create little museum cards with the name of the owner of each item, and what this item suggests about life in Pilgrim times.

We ended by holding a little thanksgiving feast on the last day of school.  The three principal grades involved (2nd, 5th, and 7th) got together with some corn bread and monkey bread to talk about what they’d learned, and each group got to share with the others what they had learned from the work of the other grades.  The responses are amazing.

So let’s see.  The second grade learned to write persuasive letters and the origins of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.  The fifth grade learned about presidents, and how to write letters of apology (or action).  The seventh grade learned about primary sources, and how to write children’s storybooks.  They all learned that learning is more powerful with collaboration, communication, and And the teachers learned that working across grades is tiring, but incredibly rewarding.

Sir Ken Robinson suggests that the goal of school is in part to create aesthetic experiences that help kids wake up to what they have inside of them, and I hope that this project helped a lot of these kids recognize that they have quite a lot of different skills, which can be further developed, strengthened and grown.  And that maybe — maybe — one of these skill sets will become a great job, or a great career, for some of them.

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