Saturday, May 14, 2011

Learning About State History with a Class Timeline

“What will you need to bring with you to the media center?” I peer down at the glowing faces of my 4th graders.

“Our pencils, scissors, glue, and the social studies book!” My students reply excitedly as we prepare to begin one of the favorite activities of the day, working on our On This Spot: A Timeline of Connecticut History project.

One of the focuses in our 4th grade Social studies curriculum is learning about the Connecticut people and events that contributed to the freedoms, rights, and quality of life, which benefit us today. Students are part of an online project entitled Connecticut: The Contribution State, where they each research a Connecticut contributor from history and they will publish their findings on the project wiki, sharing their learning through a variety of multimedia such as audio, images, hyperlinked text, digital stories, and video.

Setting the Stage
In order for students to really appreciate what people in history have accomplished, they need to also understand the times during which those people lived. Timelines are great visual tools for understanding the relationships between events and people in history.

I began this project by telling students that we would be learning about Connecticut History and asked them how we might go about doing that. The class brainstormed all kinds of ideas, including field trips, videos, books, the social studies textbook and guest speakers. I captured their ideas on chart paper. The students also brainstormed how they might be able to share their learning with others. Creative ideas such as creating books, videos, teaching other classes, webpages, podcasts, and timelines filled our chart.

On This Spot: An Expedition Back Through Time
Then, I introduced my students to the book On This Spot: An Expedition Through Time. This book shows the changes that have occurred on the spot of New York city, traveling back to the era of New Amsterdam and then the Native Americans to the age of the dinosaurs; then to cataclysmic geological upheavals, including volcanoes, mountains, oceans; and finally, only rock. The book answers the question, "What was here before us?", and helps make complex information immediate for children.  After reading and thoroughly enjoying the book, I asked, “What did you think? What did this book help you understand? Does this give you any ideas for how we might teach others about Connecticut history?”

Bubbling with enthusiasm, the students talked about how the book helped them really think about how one place has changed over time. They said that it made them imagine their own town and about the changes in people and the land. Of course, a many students said “We could make our own On This Spot book about Connecticut!”

"What a great idea. Could it be both a timeline like Jaclyn suggested and a book? What do you think?"  Of course you know their answer, and the rest is history…

The Accordion Foldable® Timeline
Directions for making the Accordion Foldable® 
are available in many of Dinah Zike’s books

The Accordion Foldable ® Timeline uses sheets of 11 X 18 tan tag board which many schools already have in their supply closet.
The solid black line running horizontally through the center of the timeline is black electrical tape.
Dates were printed using Microsoft Word and glued to each section.
The purpose of the line being in the center of the timeline is to split the timeline using the top half to display significant events and the bottom half is reserved for our state’s important people.

Getting the Most Out of our Social Studies Textbook

What memories do you have of your history or social studies textbooks? Do you remember what you read about? Did you ever get through the textbook? We are fortunate to have a wonderful textbook, The Connecticut Adventure. It’s wonderful because it is a great resource; full of information, images, maps, and primary source documents. However, the textbook’s reading level and concepts are too high for most of my students to read and understand on their own. And reading through the entire textbook as it was intended would take up too much time.

Regie Routman in her book, Reading Essentials: The Specifics You Need to Teach Reading Well , suggests that we use our textbooks for shared reading experiences, with the teacher reading, thinking aloud, inviting students to read parts and guiding whole class discussions that help students comprehend the concepts.

After reading a chapter in the textbook through shared reading, I assigned partners an event from the book to reread and summarize in their own words.  Each partner was given a slip of paper with the title and date of the event, and the page number in the textbook where they could find information about the event. Their job was to first reread the pages assigned, type up their summary in Microsoft Word, add a picture or two, and then glue the summary and pictures onto the class timeline in the appropriate location. Here is the Student Directions handout and an example of the assignment slips that were handed out to partners. Some students chose to find more information from books or the Internet before they wrote their summaries.

I supplemented a few of the chapters in the textbook, the one on the Revolutionary War for example, with additional resources. We first watched a couple of videos on Discovery Education about the Revolutionary War to help students gain an understanding of the bigger picture. Then, we read the chapter in the textbook, with a focus on Connecticut’s role during the war.

I chose not to read a couple of the chapters whole class at all. Instead we learned about that time in history through picture books or videos and students then used their textbooks to find specific information about their assigned Connecticut event.

Each time we finished one time period of the timeline, we would begin the next work session by first reading the student work on the timeline.
Not only did all of the students gain knowledge about each others' specific events, it was also a celebration of student work as students read their pieces and the rest of the class clapped and gave each other positive feedback.

Beautiful Oops!
Beautiful Oops!When creating the timeline, it seemed that marking dates at increments of 25 years would be fine, so it read 1700, 1725, 1750, 1775, 1800, etc. After starting the timeline, it became apparent that this was not going to give students enough room to glue all of their work. Students became very territorial over the timeline, and some conflicts emerged as students were all trying to glue their summaries in the same place on the timeline. This is when my mistake became a beautiful oops! Students were encouraged to think outside of the box. How could we fit the event in? Could we make a tab or a Shutterfold that would extend the space, ensuring that everyone’s work could fit it? Conflict quickly turned into collaboration as students worked together figuring out innovative solutions to the lack of space.

The day after this happened I read about the book Beautiful Oops! on the Responsive Classroom blog in the post entitled Fruitful Mistakes. Of course, I purchased the book and read it to my class making the connection to our timeline. We now refer to the book often when mistakes are turned into opportunities.

Students loved this project. They were excited every time they saw Work on Timeline listed on the daily schedule. Today you can find their timeline displayed in our school library. 


  1. I love the accordian style for the timelines. My kids love crafty things, and it helps them stay on task with schoolwork when it's a little "fun". I think those accordian timelines would really help make the history stick in their heads a little!

  2. Your blog is just what I need to transition back into the classroom after a 1 yr absence. Thank you for making your knowledge so accessible to this 4th grade teacher. :)