In a recent post I shared a guest post by a visitor writing about  the excellent use of the block schedule format by teachers at St. Gregory.   In that same vein I want to share my observations of a terrific 75 minute period I enjoyed last week in the classroom of Corinne Bancroft as she taught 6th grade English.

Sadly, this is all too rare an event, my spending an entire period in a single classroom, but I give credit to Ms. Bancroft for her persistence and warm enthusiasm in encouraging me to visit her classroom.

The 75 minute period was divided into three parts:

  • students worked in groups on a project for 35 minutes;
  • Ms. Bancroft facilitated a group book discussion for about 20 minutes;
  • and students worked individually on their laptops on an essay they were writing for the class while Ms. Bancroft individually conferenced with them for 20 minutes.

Class began with the direction to work in groups on their major end-of-year project, the Gathering Blue project based on the book of the same name.  Ms. Bancroft developed this herself, derived from her classroom discussion of reading this YA novel (for more information you can follow the link or see at bottom, where I have pasted it into the post.)

Because of her realization that all her students would benefit from an enhanced understanding of the sweep of world history, and because the novel under study entailed a historic storyteller who used staffs and robes as props for his historical recounting, the project entailed students designing their own staff or robe to tell the story of world history.  Students used both library and online resources, with their laptops, to conduct the research.

and then worked together to craft the staff or robe.

As students worked, the teacher circulated checking in with each group and advising them on their project work thus far.

I spent my time during the project interviewing students about what and how they were learning.   Students talked to me about collaboration, communication, and creativity:

one of our group members is missing, but the show must go on.

We made a few dates to get together.  We divided things up so everyone did an equal amount of work.  It worked best when we did an equal amount of individual work than when we tried to work all at the same time, but then with some stages of the project we had to do it that way, so we learned that too.

We used technology to communicate: emailing each other, and working together a lot on a shared google document.

This project was definitely creative– maybe too creative because there is so much to choose among from historical information.

We liked having a choice of projects because there is more diversity among the groups.

It was clear to me the students had an awareness that by way of these projects they had to stretch themselves and develop new skills in collaboration and communication, and of course I was delighted by the many ways in which their use of technology, particularly online tools for research and collaboration, were assisting them in this project based learning.


After project time, we moved onto the second segment of the block, the book discussion.  Our students are reading Spinelli’s Stargirl, set in a high school student environment with social pressures and difficult choices for the somewhat eccentric and isolated protagonist.

Students began discussing a scene where school-mates are trying to hurt Stargirl’s feelings, and she is trying not to show that she is hurt.   Students discussed with just a little prompting why she she was protecting herself this way, and our teacher kept asking guiding questions:

Do you think they’d like her better if she showed pain?

Probably…. Probably not.

Why did you say probably?  Why probably not?

Do you think she is always happy?

How would you feel in her shoes?

How would you act toward her if you were one of her classmates?

The discussion then moved on to a pivotal moment, when Stargirl chose to cheer for the rival team in a major school game.

Is it Ok for her to cheer for the other school?

Ms. Bancroft asked students then to take a side– yes, no, or maybe, and then move to different parts of the room depending on which position taken.   Groups then discussed, animatedly, why their position was the right one, and each group then had a spokesperson to articulate their position.  After doing so, students then moved around the room as they were swayed from one position to another, but as they did, were called to justify their reason for a changed position.

This section of the class was the most fun to watch: first as the teacher skillfully guided the conversation so that students were talking the most, not the teacher, and effectively developing their analytical skills (why were the characters doing what they were doing?  can you see beyond the surface and infer from the text what was really happening?), their communication skills as they articulated their answers to each other, and their listening skills as they responded to each other.   In my previous post I wrote about Tony Wagner’s praise for Finland and the way educators there take care not to occupy too much of the classtime with their own thoughts and words, and in this class Ms. Bancroft was exemplifying the better practice here.

In the debate section, students had to use their heads, all of them, not just the active participants, to take a position on a difficult question, and then defend and articulate that position and also to be able to consider whether to change their mind, all in an active, up and moving, vibrant conversational mode.


The next and last section of the class was devoted to an essay assignment students are working upon.   Ms. Bancroft briefly, for no more than five minutes, presented on the task at hand: converting their essay outline to an actual paper.  

This is a big and daunting task for many sixth graders, and she carefully walked them through some key steps.

What do we begin each paragraph with?

A topic sentence?

Yes and no: we are calling them “point sentences,” as in “what is your point?”

What comes after your point sentence?

Stuff to back it up?

Yes, and expanding upon your arguments.

Why are you collecting quotes from the book?

To support our points.

Yes, but remember we need to introduce quotes to put them in context and explain how they support your point.

At this point she asked students to open their computers and get to work, while she circulated the room and worked with each student individually on their essay.


A fine lesson, to be sure: Ms. Bancroft ably moved among many modes, demonstrated a strong relationship to each student individually, incorporated technology in ways which empowered student learning, skillfully broke up the long period into three discrete units and didn’t let any one of them run too long for student attention-spans, and provided for students opportunities to learn and develop collaboration and communication skills even beyond their English class writing assignments.


Gathering Blue Student Group Project

 This project is especially challenging for two reasons:

1.  You must work in your Gathering Blue Reading Detective Groups.  This means you must collaborate, be kind, and make sure everyone contributes relatively equally to the group.  While you work, I can see you and will evaluate you based on the equity of your collaboration.
2.  This project requires knowledge that I have not taught you.  In order to succeed, you must draw on previous knowledge/ skills and utilize the resources available to you.  

The challenge:

The community in Gathering Blue organizes important ceremonies around remembering their history.  There are two objects central to these ceremonies and the themes in the novel.  Kira survived because of her ability to work on the Singer’s Robe and Thomas works on carving the staff.  Both objects have an intricate and beautiful history of the world.

It is your task to create one of these objects.  


Your staff or robe must contain an accurate history of the world up until 2011.  After 2011, you can imagine The Ruin and the history until Gathering Blue Time.  The resources you should use for this are: the library, the internet, and Gathering Blue.  

You also must use your creative and cognitive skills to decide how specific, generic, or inclusive you want to be.  How detailed should you get if you are depicting all of history?  How can you be inclusive of all areas of the world?  How will you depict using pictures each era?  


You do not need to sew, stitch, or carve anything!  Instead, you should bring in a staff (big stick or post) or robe (maybe just a big piece of cloth we can put a head hole through) and we can paint on them or color them with fabric markers.  This is a collective challenge.  In class or in your reading detective groups we will talk about who has what resources and what we can share.  


You will have 20-40 minutes in class each time we meet to accomplish the following activities.  If you utilize that time well, you might not need to work outside of school.  

April 18th- April 27th  Make Rough drafts or project plans.  Sketch out what you will do on the robe/ staff.  This involves internet research and using the library.

Rough Drafts and bibliography are due April 27th for Thing 1s and April 28th for Thing 2s.

April 29th-May 6th Paint and create the robes/ staffs.  

Final Product due May 9th for Thing 1s and May 10th for Thing 2s.  


 Creativity      Content      Collaboration  Effort  Bibliography
 You made creative and innovative choices about how to depict eras and events.    You accurately depict the history of the world.  This involves making smart choices about what to include/ exclude based on the time and space you have.    You actively collaborated with your reading detective team members.  You made an effort to include everyone and have the work be equal.  You worked hard during the time given in class and did a little extra thinking/ working at home.    You have a printed bibliography of all the sources you used to create your timeline.  This should be in the Chicago Style you learned in skills class.  There is a linkon my website.