Reading History: The American Revolution & Bringing History to Life

BY: Alison Dempsey


Key Assessments

In this curriculum, I wanted to increase access to higher order thinking and grade level content in Social Studies while challenging students to develop their note-taking, informational writing skills, and their nonfiction reading comprehension skills.

Click on Curriculum Standards for New York State for a complete list of all New York State Standards addressed in the curriculum below.

Informational Writing-On-Demand Assessment and Writing Continuum from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

Note-taking rubrics

Classwork, class activities, and class discussions

Curriculum Components

Before launching into the academic portion of the curriculum, I felt that students would benefit from developing speaking and listening skills within partnerships. I used a low-stakes speaking and listening activity to begin developing partner talk skills and to invite students to co-create our class’s speaking and listening norms. Following a series of low-stakes speaking and listening activities, we used the same structure and norms as we slowly increased the academic demands in content area work. Michael and Tom were the target focal learners for this series of lessons.

Establishing Speaking and Listening Norms. Students began by finding their partner and introducing themselves. Michael raised his hand to participate and share with the class how he and his partner, Andrew, introduced themselves. See here for my Google Slides presentation on establishing norms.

Next, students were shown two similar images and tasked to find the differences with their partners. The first round had no guidelines and most students enthusiastically shouted out differences without listening to their partner’s ideas or responding to their partner.

In the second round, students were given a few guidelines (one partner talks first while the other partner listens).

Following the second round, students contributed to a list of our classroom speaking and listening norms.

These norms as well as the partner talk structure were posted in the classroom and referred back to frequently throughout the year.

Tom and Michael both responded well to these speaking and listening activities. Michael did particularly well working with Andrew. However, these lessons were not the “end all” for either student or any of our students. Practice with speaking with and listening to diverse partners and in different grouping structures needed to be ongoing throughout our year. Both Michael and Tom continued to struggle with speaking and listening and participation structures as well as collaborative group work. See below for more tools which were implemented to help them engage more successfully in collaborative work.

This part of the curriculum consisted of a series of lessons aimed to develop students’ content knowledge in social studies, provide access to a grade level nonfiction texts, and develop students’ research, note-taking, and informational writing skills.

The target sub-group for this lesson was students who are struggling readers and writers and performing below grade level in both reading and writing. All of the students in the sub-group are also English language learners. Stephen was the target focal learner for this series of lessons. Michael and Tom are reading and writing at or above grade level and did not participate in this targeted sub-group.

Students had been assessed previously in informational writing through classroom assessments and activities.

Recorded lesson part 1

Recorded lesson part 2


Revised Nonfiction Text. Grade level nonfiction texts such as Liberty!: How the Revolutionary War Began by Lucille Recht Penner (780L/Guided Reading Level S) were used for this series of lessons. Liberty!: How the Revolutionary War Began details the various causes of the American Revolution via colorful and informative two-page spreads that cover key events or aspects of the causes of the revolution. The grade level texts were revised for increased accessibility and then photocopied for each student, so they could write on them if desired or as needed. Revisions included bolding specific words or parts, underlining, and/or highlighting. Some terms were defined in the margins. Some parts of the text were chunked and spread out across pages to decrease the amount of language on each page.

See here for sample pages of the text:

Visuals. To begin each lesson, students were tasked with engaging only with illustrations and visuals of some of the key concepts they would be studying that day. Students accessed prior knowledge and reviewed content level vocabulary.

Graphic Organizers/Note-Catchers. Students were then oriented toward graphic organizers and applied the information gleaned from previewing the illustrations to predict how they could use the graphic organizers to organize the information they would be learning and writing about. Students were given choice in which graphic organizer to use (large, small, or no lines, or no graphic organizer at all). Students were able to both draw and write to show understanding of concepts.

Get copies of the graphic organizers here!

Audio. The grade level text was pre-recorded in a slow, steady pace by the teacher. All students in the sub-group were able to follow along as text was read to them. Recording was paused at key points for discussion and note-taking.

Audio Recording (Page 1) and Audio Recording (Page 2)

Small Group Discussion. Students stopped and discussed what they learned before writing.

Student Work. Students compiled their notes, summary writing, timeline, and illustrations to create informational books about the causes of the American Revolution.

Stephen responded incredibly enthusiastically to this reading and writing structure. There was a remarkable change in his engagement in this small group once this new structure was introduced. He also verbally affirmed this increased engagement by expressing his enjoyment of listening to the pre-recorded text.


Prior to using this structure, Stephen had independent access to texts that were far below grade level with content that was developmentally inappropriate/immature. When given grade level texts in the small group, he still experienced barriers to learning or very possibly disliked all the support I had to give (reading aloud to the group, stopping to explain terms, refocusing students). He was also a fast writer and was spending a lot of time waiting for other kids in the group to catch up. His frustration with the prior structure led him to act out in our small group on a daily basis (yelling out phrases, singing songs, lying down, walking away, snatching other students’ materials, etc.)


The moment this new reading and writing structure was introduced, Stephen was on fire. He latched onto the idea of the text being recorded and focused intently on keeping his place in the text. After a few paragraphs read to him, Stephen was literally able to read the next few paragraphs aloud, by himself! This was huge! He suddenly realized he could read, and that he could read grade-level texts! Stephen was excited to read, discuss, and write during these sessions. Also, the “rule” was that you write first and then you work on your drawing while you wait for others to catch up. This was a perfect structure for Stephen because he writes fast; instead of waiting for others to catch up (which always, 100% of the time, led to behaviors), Stephen spent the extra time drawing detailed comics and pictures of the historic events, which is an extremely preferred activity for him. Stephen was happily occupied during this series of lessons. He was engaged and he was learning grade-level concepts. Most importantly, Stephen’s confidence in himself and his many abilities grew. Possibly for the first time, Stephen saw he had a place in the fourth grade curriculum.

Of note: Although Michael and Tom did not participate in this targeted small group, all students in the class did participate in the creation of nonfiction writing about the causes of the American Revolution. Flexible writing structures for this writing unit included the ability for some students to use computers to type their work instead of writing it. This structure included Tom. All students in the class have access to a personal a Google Drive account through the school.

Below are examples of some of Tom’s work during this unit of study. Tom did a lot of his research and study of these topics independently so he could work at a pace that worked well for him. He was extremely successful. I wanted to show some of his work to highlight the breadth of learners in my classroom this year. Although there were many times in which I felt unable to teach to what each child needed, there were also many moments where I felt that every child was being challenged and growing in their own way. This was an example of one of those times.

This part of the curriculum consisted of a series of lessons with the goals of:

  • developing students’ inferencing skills through art instead of literature,
  • continuing to develop students’ partner talk skills, and
  •  making grade level social studies content accessible to all students.

Students first did the work of building the skills of partner talk, message decoding, and symbol reading by looking at images from protest art from current events, issues and events they are already familiar with. Next, students transferred these skills to uncover the messages and symbols of posters, flyers, and messages from the colonial times period. Finally, students designed and created their own protest posters to be used for our class skit on the causes of the American Revolution.

Lesson videos day 1

Lesson videos day 2

Narrative (description/how to/pics of artifacts/video)

Current Events Protest Art and Messages. On the first day, partnerships looked at and discussed the meaning of protest art and messages from current events. Each partnership chose one or two images to dissect further and write about.



Colonial Times Protest Art and Messages. On day two, the same lesson was repeated with political art and messages from colonial times. Political posters/flyers were used to gain support against Great Britain and King George III in the years leading up to the American Revolution. This was an important way in which colonists not loyal to the king gained support and spread information leading up to the American Revolution.


Note-Catcher with Guiding Questions 1 and 2. For both days 1 and 2, a note-catcher provided scaffolding for partner discussion and writing. Students were tasked with deciphering the message of each image, and identifying the significance of pictures, illustrations, or symbols.

Smart Partnerships/Partner Talk and Flexible Writing Structures. Students were placed in targeted, heterogenous partnerships. Flexible writing structures included having one person talk and share their ideas while their partner recorded what they said, then switch. Flexible writing structures also included allowing students to write or sketch and label to show understanding.


Student Work. Over a series of days, students applied what they had learned to create posters with their own protest messages and symbols for a class skit about the causes of the American Revolution. See a video of students working on their posters.

This series of activities was very successful for all three focal students, Stephen, Michael, and Tom.

For Stephen, these activities played to his strengths (artwork, talking-out concepts) and removed barriers to learning (print-based reading) while still engaging higher order thinking skills (inferencing, message/symbol decoding, interpretation). I also think that being paired with a student who he considered “smart” and also has high status in the classroom was a surprise and may have made him feel like a more valuable member of the class (not just a kid who is frequently pulled into a small group with the same other “not smart” kids, or frequently needs the support of an adult in the classroom). His partner was also able to keep the pair on task throughout the majority of the activity without a teacher stepping in. Lastly, having one recording sheet per partnership and a writing structure where one person focuses on talking while the other person records what their partner said seems to have removed Stephen’s anxiety surrounding his writing abilities and enabled the pair to produce writing that accurately showed both of their thinking skills.

Michael and Tom also responded well to this structure. For Tom, working with two partners who were able to keep him on task and negotiate disputes helped him succeed. One of the two partners could move at the quick speed that Tom needed while also helping to include their other partner and pace the group so that everyone could contribute. Having one worksheet for the group helped pace the activity and removed the feeling of competition for “getting it done.”

Michael was paired with a preferred partner, which helped him engage and communicate during the activity. The question prompts helped him by giving him a guide for discussion. The writing structure of one person talking while one person writes what the person said took the pressure off of writing for Michael and enabled him to work with his partner and complete the activity without the need for teacher support.

Universal Design for Learning Strategies

Use Smart Partnerships/Partner Talk and Flexible Writing Structures within those partnerships to relieve some of the demands of writing, making writing more accessible and more enjoyable for struggling writers.

Smart Partnerships/Partner Talk. Students were placed in targeted, heterogenous partnerships to work together to complete activities. Partnerships were far more engaging than working independently and when kids worked together their thinking was enhanced as they shared ideas and they also created more meaningful final products.

Flexible Writing Structures. Flexible writing structures included having one person talk and share their ideas while their partner recorded what they said, then switch. Flexible writing structures also included allowing students to write or sketch and label to show understanding. Flexible writing structures in other class activities and writing units included the ability for some students to use computers to type up their work. All students in the class have access to a personal a Google Drive account through the school.