Through an effort to rewrite district social studies curriculum, the Ann Arbor Public Schools office of Curriculum and Instruction partnered with representatives from the University of Michigan School of Education in the spring of 2017. Using Nell Duke’s Project PLACE curriculum as an exemplar, a committee of teachers set out to author four units of study aligned to state standards, and through the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards for third grade. What would ultimately make these units unique is the emphasis on Gold Standard Project-Based Learning Project Design as articulated by the Buck Institute for Education.
As a PBL teacher with experience authoring and revising units of study in a third grade setting, I served on this committee first as a PBL consultant. We selected some high-leverage practices to incorporate programmatically in our unit design, including challenging questions, the need to know process, and authentic public products. We also thought of ways to interactively incorporate these practices into teacher training as the units were rolled out.
I also had the opportunity to work with Katie Revelle, teacher researcher from the University of Michigan, to design the third grade economics unit. Given that the preceding units were geography and history respectively, we knew that optimal unit design would take an integrated and interdisciplinary approach. We also knew that students should engage with the content interactively. Economics is an abstract concept.
The demands of the third grade standards for economics in Michigan emphasize an understanding of how natural resources, human capital, and capital resources are leveraged in the state for businesses to bring to bear products for consumption. Through this lens students will understand the conditions wherein scarcity occurs, and the efforts of conservation.
Given these demands, and the framework for Gold Standard PBL, the unit abstract was constructed as follows:
In this 20-session interdisciplinary project, students learn the history of Michigan’s economy, investigating how natural resources were traded along Michigan’s waterways. As students learn more about these economies, the lumber trade in particular, they will learn how these trade events built towns and villages and created the wealth for industries to use within the state. Students will compare the lively lumber trade of the 19th century to its modern day industry through the understanding of lumber as a scarce natural resource, and the opportunity cost of timber clearing preserved habitats. Students will gain an understanding of how governments and private landowners work to conserve Michigan’s forests. Through a partnership with Urbanwood, Southeast Michigan’s Reclaimed Wood Marketplace, students will learn how reclaimed wood can be used to produce goods locally and sustainably within the region. Students will use their knowledge of the industry and sustainable solutions to educate the regional community by producing a public service announcement to disseminate to lumber consumers.
Students are able to apply their understanding by playing a game called the Michigan Lumber Bonanza where each major feature of this economic model was embedded. Through this understanding, students are able to write and produce a PSA to persuade consumers to make informed decisions.
Social studies content is robust when it is contextualized and actionable. Through this project, third grade students in Ann Arbor are positioned to see themselves as change-makers in the context of the history of lumber in Michigan.