Reflecting on a New Unit
I’m just finishing up my first “real” unit in my International Problems class, and it’s been a doozy, because the topic was NORTH KOREA. I had an endless supply of relevant materials to use, from the curriculum materials provided by my department, to YouTube videos, to footage of the president’s recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
Now is my best opportunity to reflect on how the unit has gone - what were the successes, the failures, the things that sounded cool but ended up being duds. So here’s a breakdown, from driving question to final assessment.
I’ll be honest - I straight-up borrowed this from the curriculum materials that go with this course. Fortunately, we use the great materials from the Choices Program, and I was able to utilize much of their curriculum. The driving question I ended up with was, “How should the United States respond to North Korea?” This question was posted on the whiteboard at the front of the room, and we referred to it frequently.
Next semester, when I teach this unit again, I want to do an even better job setting the question up and connecting it to everything we do.
DENSE READING MATERIALS
The Choices curriculum comes with high-quality student readings, which we utilized. Within the readings are section headers that are framed as questions, so I pulled these questions out and asked students to answer them as they went through the reading. Some of the reading was done whole-class, and some was done in partners or individually.
Here’s an area I’d like to improve substantially. I do like using the readings, partially because they’re close to the level of what you’d read in an introductory college course - and I think it’s important for kids to grapple with them. However, the readings are long and very dense, so I want to explore further strategies. My social studies brain is a little slow to come up with ideas. I have my standard bag of tricks that I use for language arts, when we read novels, but this isn’t quite the same. However, I think that for the next unit, I’m going to record myself reading the materials, so that students who want to can listen as they read along. It really seems to help some kids.
FREQUENT, SHORT VIDEOS
While we were in the first part of the unit, in which we were acquiring background knowledge on the situation in North Korea, I used several short videos. I would often start class with one, or give them a break in the middle of reading time and show one. I built a playlist on YouTube with a variety of videos. Some were basic explainers, while others went into more depth on specific issues, such as North Korea’s nuclear capability.
This was one area of the unit that I will likely replicate throughout the course. Because we are studying contemporary international issues, there are a plethora of videos to use, from very reputable organizations. Video is an engaging medium for students (when done well), and it’s a great way to break up a day’s lesson.
INFORMAL GROUP PROJECT
The culmination of this particular unit was a “4 Options” activity, which is a hallmark of the Choices curriculum. In the North Korea unit, the four options were four different approaches the United States could possibly take towards North Korea. Students were broken up into small groups, and each group was assigned one of the options to explore. Their task was to create a poster or political cartoon advocating for their option, and then present it to the class in 3-5 minutes.
What went well with this? Well, students did get some basic information about possible foreign policy options. And they discovered that there are no great solutions when it comes to North Korea, which is when they start to realize that foreign policy is thorny. Additionally, some groups created pretty clever political cartoons, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting.
What didn’t go so well? A few things:
In one of my two classes in particular, many groups just didn’t put a whole lot of effort into these presentations. Consequently, I had to give the students some supplementary materials to fully understand the four options.
I just… resist assigning students to do posters. I did it in this case because I’ve never taught this class before, and I didn’t have a lot of time to come up with alternatives. But now that I’m writing this, I wonder if I’ve gone too far in my disdain for posters. It was an effective vehicle for quickly summarizing and displaying information, so maybe that’s okay.
To put all their learning together, students will be coming up with their own option for how the U.S. should respond to North Korea. This activity is straight out of the Choices curriculum, and my students will be working on it today. I’ve presented them with a series of five questions to respond to, with the idea that they’ll respond with about a paragraph for each.
I can’t reflect on this yet, as I haven’t seen the final results, but my sense is that this will really reveal who’s been engaging with the material and who hasn’t. I’m a little nervous to see how many students are able to come up with coherent ideas about U.S. policy, but all I can do is wait and see! In any case, I think it will be an accurate assessment - whether I like the results or not.
What’s next? Well, we’re about to launch (no pun intended) into our next unit, on the subject of nuclear weapons. My hope is to apply as much as possible of what I’ve learned from the North Korea unit and spring off from there.
I’m trying to give myself grace with this course this semester, as I’ve never taught it before. If I’m being honest, I’m not 100% applying all the practices we preach here at Project Based Awesome, but I know I’m a work in progress. Here’s to continuous improvement!