Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

All Hail Poor Richard

A penny saved is a penny earned, or so says Ben Franklin. As part of our classroom study on aphorisms and early American literature, we take a bit of a side trip into learning about almanacs. For most high schoolers, the mention of an almanac brings about a blank expression. Yet the 200+ year old Farmer's Almanac is still alive and kicking, although the hole (for hanging on the outhouse door) has disappeared.

Almanacs are a fun way to make the works of Benjamin Franklin and other Revolutionary War writers relevant. After we've read the Declaration of Independence, Patrick Henry's Speech to a Virginia Convention and parts of Franklin's autobiography, we have a little fun.

Franklin's aphorisms become the jumping off point for creating an almanac. Rather than having students create a newspaper pag, which many seem to have done a half dozen times (a worthy project, though, I agree), I instead put them in groups and have them create an almanac. The skills this project encompasses include cooperative learning, research and use of technology. In addition, students learn how to shift through that an overload of information and sort it for relevance. They also have to work together using online file sharing (such as Google Docs or my school's "Sky Drive"). 

To create the almanac, each group is responsible for turning in one of the following items. Thus, if a group has six members, there will be six each of the following: a recipe, a household tip, a poem, an aphorism, and a joke. Now, it is up to the teacher to decide if you want the students to create their own jokes, aphorisms, and tips, etc. or if you want them to find these through research, copy them and cite them properly (sort of like creating a Reader's Digest). If you have them write their own, this can bring in a creative writing aspect. You can also allow them to do both. Feel free also to incorporate other ideas into the almanac.

In addition, each group divides up the following jobs, any way they see fit: 

  1. Cover design. I require the cover to have an original title and a creative and attractive design. Students may bind their almanac in a three-ring binder, a spiral or other presentation type. It should not simply be stapled.
  2. Calendar of events. Here a student creates a calendar, which lists or shows the upcoming school and/or community events for the school year, such as the various sports, music, dance, theatre, competitions, holidays, and days off, etc.
  3. Weather forecast. This is a fun one where students get to write their own weather forecasts by predicting the weather for each month from the current month to the end of the school year. Students should of the next calendar year.  Include such things as rainfall, snowfall, frost, sunshine, cloud cover, temperature highs and lows, etc.
  4. Two feature articles. Here students write an article about something of interest to them.  This can be fiction or non-fiction, but it must be of his or her own creation.
  5. Editor. The editor creates a table of contents page. This page lists all almanac authors.  The editor also coordinates and organizes the material into its final form.

To begin the research aspect (I suggest you work with your librarian on this project like I do) you must tell students what you expect. Do you want them to use books? There are plenty of books out there that contain tips and recipes, and your librarian can help you find them. Do you want them to go online for the information? Doing this can also teach students how to search strategically and not just randomly Google. You can also require they do both. However, don't just send students forth into the vast expanse of information without any direction or expectation or they'll get lost or overwhelmed.

Before you begin you also need to tell them how you want them to cite any information and if you are requiring a works cited page at the end of the almanac. (I require a MLA-formatted bibliography page at the end of their book.) What you don't want is for the students to simply go copy/paste the information that should be paraphrased; any information that is copy/paste (like the articles or recipes) should be clearly cited. Showing them a copy of an actual almanac and/or Reader's Digest magazine will help them see what you want them to do. This activity should not be encouraging plagiarism.

The hardest part of this collaborative process is the assembly of the book, and here is where technology really comes into play. The editor of the group must tell group members what font and what size font to use. Working on one collaborative file works well, such as creating one Google document with multiple pages. Many of my students did this, but others simply emailed files back and forth. Here I try to stay out of the fray, and once I've showed them online file sharing, I let the group members decide. After all, students need to learn how to work independently and in groups, and they must be given a safe environment in which to learn these skills.

It sounds harsh, but the "real world" environment has people who can be typecast — for example, there's the do-nothing who freeloads the entire project and the control freak who can't trust anyone to do his share and so does more than anyone else. The classroom provides a safe structure where students can learn how to handle various types of people with whom they will end up working in college and in future jobs. I'm constantly checking in with the groups and consider it my job to assist and help solve problems. I also make sure that the playing field stays level, providing soft landings as kids learn to navigate the waters of new group dynamics.

The end result impressed. The groups exceeded my expectations and even reluctant learners. My students wanted to make the recipes and share their almanacs with other groups, so we threw a party. Not only did each group present its project, but also we had a lot of food. To make things simple, each group brought in paper products and drinks only for group members; the group also brought in two prepared recipes to share with the entire class. This worked out really well as group members divided up who would bring what. By doing things this way we had more than enough food for the class and, as each group took care of its own beverages and such, no one was stuck bringing in 30 cups.

One of the things about learning is that it should be fun, and this project allowed students to use multiple skills and learn in a creative way. (Plus the food was good, too.)

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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