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ARTIFACTS TEACH: INDEPENDENCE

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The ends of Common Core Standards (CCR) are to produce students that are “college and workplace ready.” The CCR list seven (7) characteristics that define a college and workplace ready student. The first of those characteristics is that, “They demonstrate independence.” When my daughter was two years old, she demonstrated independence about every third minute of every waking day.independentHowever, I am sure that this is not what the CCR had in mind when they wrote that statement. On closer inspection, the CCR define “an independent graduate” as one who, “can comprehend and evaluate complex texts across disciplines, construct effective arguments, independently discern key points, and ask relevant questions” In addition independent graduates are “self-directed learners who seek out and use resources to assist them…” (CCR, Intro. p. 7). Let’s look more closely at these elements.

The first description of student independence is the ability to comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of disciplines. We will get to “traditional texts” in just a minute. Let’s play with the idea of “text” a little bit. We do not often think of an object as text, yet, every object has a story. Objects do not appear out of thin air. Why, for instance, do Russian Olive trees – plants not indigenous to the Great Plains – grow prolifically across Nebraska, Kansas and Eastern Colorado? Who brought them to the Plains? Why? What about their make-up allows them to push out native willows and cottonwoods? The answers to these questions comprise the story of the Russian Olive tree in the United States. Every object has a story. Every artifact, a man-made, or man-altered object, has a story that tells us how it arrived at its present location, why it is of interest, who used it, how, and on and on. Objects are text. The text is complex. Here is an example.

I observed a class in which the instructor placed a flowering branch of a Russian Olive tree on a table in front of students and asked them, “What is this? Why is it important?” Almost immediately, the students became self-directed learners. They “read” their text to Russian Olive_2_USDA.jpgdetermine what it was: a branch… a tree branch… Some students turned their phones, IPads, or computers to look up images of tree branches to see if they could find a match. Others consulted a variety of sources, written texts, teachers, and each other in their attempts to “unpack” the text in front of them. In this open classroom, once some students arrived at “Russian Olive tree branch,” they helped others, either by telling them directly or showing them the process to find the answers. Once the identification was made, then the story began to  unfold.

Students consulted a variety of sources to come up with the story of the this tree branch. Some accessed traditional “texts.” History books provided some of the answers. Geography texts offered others. Horticulture, environmental and science texts provided technical Russian olive treesanswers.On-line search engines provided websites that contained both general and specific information. When the complete answer was assembled, students communicated the full story: -immigrants, specifically Germans-from-Russia, brought Russian Olive cuttings with them when they came to America to grow sugar beets for a burgeoning industry at the turn of the 20th century. The Russian Olive trees flourish on the Great Plains today because the environment is much like that of the great Russian steppes – little rainfall, cold, harsh winters, and strong winds year ’round.

Let’s look at what this little branch of a Russian Olive accomplished:

  1. It forced students to look closely at the text before them in order to discern its identity.
  2. It required close reading of additional, interdisciplinary texts to come to a conclusion about its importance.
  3. Students had to ask relevant questions in order to arrive at conclusions.
  4. They built on each other’s ideas, working together, articulating their case based on their particular research.
  5. They became self-directed learners in order to answer the question and solve the problem before them.
  6. They articulated an evidence-based argument to prove their case (tell the story)

This exercise required interdisciplinary approaches in order to solve the problem. History, geography, horticulture, environmental studies, English and Language Arts and mathematics were all necessary to tell the story of the Russian Olive branch. Students searched on their own and in groups. They shared information. Leaders emerged who helped others. Discussion of important points to include in the story occurred. This little branch had students practicing the CCR. Such is the power of artifacts. …………Artifacts teach – the common core.

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