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Teacher Feature: Ms. Kelly’s Second-Grade Social Studies Unit on Communities

Teacher Feature: Ms. Kelly’s Second-Grade Social Studies Unit on Communities

Teacher Feature is a new series on promising practices in using digital museum resources in the classroom. Interested in contributing your approach? Send us a note!

By: Ashley Naranjo, Manager of Educator Engagement, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access 

Projected at the front of Meghan Kelly’s second-grade classroom in Avonworth, Pennsylvania, select artworks from the Smithsonian serve as an introduction to a deep discussion about rural, urban and suburban communities. Students closely examine each artwork in detail, excitedly making observations and noting visual clues that might provide further information. The children listen carefully to each other’s contributions and build on the responses they hear. As the discussion moves forward, they start to determine the characteristics of each type of community.

A few weeks earlier, Ms. Kelly had learned about the Smithsonian Learning Lab’s digital offerings through a teaching colleague at a nearby school. She decided to pair a group of museum resources (called a “collection” in the Learning Lab) with Harvard University’s Project Zero visible thinking routines to support her first social studies unit.

This educator has found that having a set of strategies such as the thinking routines to guide students in “slow looking” is helpful. She had recently been trained to use the routines and wanted close observation to introduce her lesson. Students used the routine, See, Think, Wonder with each artwork, which guided them in looking objectively, noticing details, and thinking about how those elements came together to form that community.  Then students thought about what life would be like in that place, before they jumped into their “wonders,” or questions, about that community as compared with their own.

In addition to making those connections and comparisons, students practiced empathy as they considered what it might be like to live in each of the communities. The selected pieces of art exposed students to viewpoints outside of their own.

After speaking with Ms. Kelly, I learned some important takeaways and tips that might be helpful to other teachers who are just getting started in the Smithsonian Learning Lab.

  • First, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when you begin with a published collection. In this case, the artworks had already been curated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
  • Second, using research-based strategies helps guide student observations and conversations about the art.
  • Third, documenting students’ thinking benefits their learning and engages parents in that learning. Whether through graphic organizers, photographs in the classroom and even short descriptions of what was going on in the classroom via Twitter, how the lesson progressed and the types of learning that were happening in her classroom were visible.

Third Avenue

Image: Third Avenue, by Charles L. Goeller.
Charles Goeller would often have passed the dramatic Manhattan vista looking north from East 19th Street along 3rd Avenue to the soaring Chrysler Building. The artist lived just a few doors east of this corner, yet his rendition of the familiar scene is strangely dreamlike. Like his fellow painters in the precisionist movement, Goeller stressed the clean geometry of the modern city.
Smithsonian American Art Museum.