A close read of Charles Nahl’s Sunday Morning in the Mines!

From “http://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nahl_1872,_Sunday_Morning_in_the_Mines.jpg

One of my favorite 4th grade Social Studies topics is The Gold Rush.  To get my GATE teaching certification, I created a differentiated unit of study on the topic, and one of my favorite lessons from that unit is a close read of the painting Sunday Morning in the Mines by Charles Nahl.  For those who aren’t familiar, close reading is a thoughtful, critical analysis of a text (or piece of art) in order to develop a deeper understanding of the text’s form, craft, or meaning.  It’s taking a critical eye and looking into a piece of writing, a poem, a painting, etc. and searching for deeper meanings and themes.  Click here for a link to more information about close reading.

I begin by asking the kids to take a look at the painting and ask them what they see, and what parts of it jump out at them.  I have them discuss what they see with their partner, and then jot down some ideas in their double-sided notebooks.  Next, I ask them to look for something they think is important, or something in the painting that they haven’t noticed yet.  Then, we reconvene as a class and on butcher paper, I write down things the students noticed.  If the kids are missing something important, I might ask guiding questions, such as, “What do you think the men in the background are doing?”

Next, I model an “I see…I wonder…I would argue” prompt. Mine might look something like this:

I see men in the background under a tent or some sort of covering.”

I wonder what they are doing?”

I would argue that they are fighting.  I say that because one man is either throwing a punch, or has the other man’s neck in his hand.  They seem to be moving around in an excited manner.”

It’s essential that the kids give examples and show evidence from the painting to support their argument.  I give them a chance to write one on their own in their DSNB and then we share out.

Next, I take a piece of butcher paper and divide it in half vertically, and label the left side “Left side” and the right side “Right side”, referring to the two sides of the painting.  I ask students to use descriptive adjectives to explain what they see on the left side and then on the right side.  At this point, the differences between the two sides start to become apparent.

Finally, I might say something like, “So as you know, like writers, artists often try to convey messages in their paintings.  Sometimes the paintings have a theme or represent an idea.  So what do you think the painter is trying to tell us?  Discuss with your partner.”  Then I would ask for volunteers to share out loud.

After a lengthy discussion, I would have them respond to the following prompt in their DSNB, “Charles Nahl’s purpose for painting ‘Sunday Morning in the Mines’ was ____________________.”  Make sure you support your claim with evidence!!”  Click here for a copy of my lesson notes.

I love opening the kids’ eyes to this painting!  The main theme of the painting is that there were two sides of The Gold Rush, both the good and the bad, and they are represented on the left and right side of the painting, respectively.  The redwood tree trunk in the middle of the painting provides a line of division between the two scenes.  On the left, you have the “wild” side and general lawlessness of the Gold Rush: wild riders tearing through the campground, fighting, drinking, smoking, gambling, and the drunk miner precariously clutching his gold dust, while nefarious individuals eye it covetously.  On the right side, you have Sunday as a day of rest: writing home to families, laundry, and reading from the bible.  Nahl had first-hand knowledge of the gold rush, as he was actually a miner in the early 1850’s, so his representations of the mining tools, camp luxuries, and insight into camp life lend authenticity to his painting.  The man inside the cabin writing a letter is said to be a self-portrait of Mr. Nahl.  I love the lizard posted up on the rock in the bottom right hand corner of the painting, just surveying the whole scene!

If you teach about the Gold Rush, consider using “Sunday Morning in the Mines” as a creative, engaging, multi-faceted approach to integrating several educational topics and ideas, including common core state standards for 4th grade (key ideas and details and integration of knowledge and ideas), close reading, theme, accountable talk, and art!

The Growth Mindset and The Iceberg Illusion


I had an awesome teachable moment today!  For the past several weeks, I’ve been teaching the kids about the Growth Mindset, and have shared and discussed the meaning of this amazing illustration created by Sylvia Duckworth.  Today, I gave the kids a list of prefixes that I asked them to learn.  There were about 30 of them, and I wanted them to know the definition and be able to identify a word that uses that prefix.  I told the kids we would have a “prefix battle” before the test…a battle that pitted their collective 31 minds against mine.  I play this game to get them hyped and excited about the learning process.  I had planned to practice with them for the next several weeks, but one girl claimed she learned them after just 3 days!

I quietly asked her how she knew them all so quickly, and she says, “You know how I know all of them?  My Dad made me study for, like, 4 hours!”  I said, “No way!  Prove it!”  So while she’s busting them off one by one in front of the class, I hear another young lady blurt out, “She’s smart!”  I saw my chance for a teachable moment and said, “You know, she is smart, but you think this came easy for her?”  I asked her, “Did you get them all correct at first?”  “No”, she replied to class.  “Did you keep working at it, even though you missed a few in the beginning?”  “Yes”, she responded.  Finally, I asked her if it was easy, and she said, “No.”

So I told the young lady who called her smart, I said, “That’s a fixed mindset.  You assume that she just gets it right away, but what you don’t see is how hard she worked to master all those prefixes!  You don’t see her persistence, hard work, and discipline in trying to learn all of them, even when it was tough!”

Since then, I’ve had this picture blown up into a poster and have displayed it prominently in my classroom.  Every now and then, the kids remind ME when I’m using fixed mindset statements.  I love it!!



Book Review: The Smartest Kids in the World – And How They Got That Way – Amanda Ripley

smartest kids

Why in this day and age in America, are our most privileged teenagers performing below affluent teenagers in 27 different countries in math?  Amanda Ripley examines this question and more in her 2013 New York Times best seller The Smartest Kids in the World – And How They Got That Way.

Ripley engages immediately by introducing three American students as they prepare to embark on a life changing year abroad studying in Finland, Poland, and South Korea – three countries whose young people have recently made huge gains in education.  Weaving educational statistics as the story of these students’ lives unfold, Ripley presents a stark contrast between the educational system in America and these three successful countries.

As an educator, I found the book fascinating and informative, and several points stood out to me.  The first involved Asian vs. American parenting, and why there is such a disparity in their learning/test scores.  Ripley found that what parents did at home mattered much more than what parents did at school.  American parents tended to be more involved in matters of their children’s school, such as volunteering, PTA, etc.  In addition, despite a lack of evidence, the self-esteem movement of the 80’s and 90’s did much to hinder learning for American kids.  American parents suspected that a child was fragile and needed to be “protected from competition (and reality)”.  Not wanting to rob their children of the joys of childhood, they bought their kids placemats with numbers and ABC blocks and called it a day.  When polled 85% of America parents believed that praising a child’s intelligence was very important.  However, research showed that praise that is excessive, vague, or insincere tended to have the opposite effect:  discouraging hard work and effort.  Praise must be authentic, specific, and rare.

Asian parents, in contrast, acted like coaches.  They taught their kids systematically how to add or subtract, practiced times tables with them, and read to them.  Rather than coddle their children, they pushed them to try harder.  They viewed educating their children as one of their jobs.  Subsequently, they scored higher on international tests.  Research shows that American/European kids scored higher, as well, when taught this way.

The second point highlights the importance of reading to children when they are young.  Kids who were read to on a daily and/or weekly basis gained a full year on their peers on international test scores by the time they were 15 years old!  In addition, kids whose parents read for pleasure at home were more likely to enjoy reading, too.  “Kids could see what parents valued and it mattered more than what parents said.”

The third interesting point was a piece of advice given by the author regarding fancy schools with the latest and greatest technology:  ignore shiny objects.  Ripley found that Finland, Poland, and South Korea had bland schools and very little technology compared to the United States.  One high school she visited in South Korea had a very simple classroom with antiquated computers labs.  The high school in Finland looked like a school from the 1950’s.  The school in Poland had no interactive white boards, no state of the art theater…not even a cafeteria!  In contrast, all of the American high schools were equipped with the latest technology:  smart boards, the latest MacBooks, wireless clickers for instant polling, etc.  While there’s little data comparing educational technology by country, the anecdotal evidence suggests, “Americans waste an extraordinary amount of tax money on high tech toys for teachers and students, most of which have no proven learning value whatsoever”.  It appears that the educational systems in these successful countries place their emphasis on impactful teaching practices rather than the latest technology.

The Smartest Kids in the World is an eye-opening look at the current state of education in the United States and abroad.  The stories give us a glimpse into what’s working at the best schools in the world, and some insight into what we could do better as a country to educate our youth.  Definitely a must-read for parents and teachers!


Class Mascot

20160129_145809From this day forward, this 13” figurine shall be my class mascot! This Mandalorian clone is a beacon of light, epitomizing enduring American principles such as altruism, loyalty, integrity, and the art of negotiation! He represents all that is honorable and magnanimous in the universe and is a stalwart reminder to my current and future students that perseverance, grit, and determination are paramount to success! Plus, he has a cool looking helmet…

And after Aaaallll…it’s my Wonder Waaaaaal!


So if you haven’t read Wonder by R.J. Palacio yet, you need to get up on it! Appropriate for grades 4 and up, this touching story is about a boy with a facial deformity who struggles at his new school, after being home schooled for most of his life. It deals with themes such as friendship, loyalty, bullying, and kindness. I got this idea for my bulletin board from a blog called “Teaching in Room 6” http://teachinginroom6.blogspot.com/2015/05/wonder-wall-of-precepts.html. Instead of a postcard to the teacher, I had the kids write a letter to the author. Click here to download my instructions:  Wonder – Letter to the Author. Here’s a rubric:  Wonder – Letter to the Author Assessment.

First, I had the kids pick a precept (rules to live by) that really spoke to them. I had them interview 3 adults and ask them what they thought the precept meant. Then they drew a self-portrait in the style of the cover art, along with their precept below it.

After that, they wrote a 5-paragraph letter to the author, where they shared their precept and what it meant. In addition, they told the author what they thought the theme of the book was and justified it with examples from the book.

wonder board

I kept the kids’ rough drafts on a whim, and I’m glad I did! I knew the kids needed some practice on the computer, so I had them type up the letter, insert a picture of themselves, and print it out. In the new era of computerized testing, these skills are absolutely essential! I plan on sending the typed letters to the author later this month.

The kids absolutely loved this book and they enjoyed the project, too!

Here’s one of my favorites! We’d been working on idioms, and I think this young lady got “blow my top” and “knock my socks off” mixed up!  🙂

wonder board example


Mentor Text – The Day the Crayons Quit

crayons quit

Ever wondered what would happen if items we used everyday suddenly quit on us?  Drew Daywalt envisions such an affair, with his imaginative children’s book called The Day the Crayons Quit.  Humorously illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, this book is appropriate for any early elementary grade level.  I used it this year for the first time in my 4th grade class as a mentor text for writing, and I could see it being used in such a way on up through jr. high.

I asked the children to imagine an item they used on a regular basis, and what it would say to them if it could talk?  We first brainstormed some ideas on the overhead, then began writing.  After writing, they were to draw a picture to go along with the writing.  Click here: The Day the Crayons Quit for the instructions for this activity.  Kids are given practice in the art of a personal letter, as well as perspective.  Below are three of the more creative responses I got.  Really cute and fun!  Kids were totally into it!