Around the World in Thirty Minutes
I came up with this activity to support a second-grade unit on the countries and continents of the world. It could be easily adapted to the study of the provinces or states of a country. I've also included a variation--appropriate for older kids--that addresses history over time. The lesson uses pantomime skills, research skills, and information sharing, as well as knowledge of the subject matter. As a point of interest, I happened to be teaching this lesson when the head of the Lower School made an unscheduled classroom visit, and the resulting written teacher evaluation was about the best I've ever received.
This is a basic teacher-in-role exercise. I have written this plan in the form of a narrative--a description of the class the first time I used the activity--rather than giving you step-by-step instructions, because it just makes better sense. Every teacher has her or his own style--you can use whatever of mine works for you. (Note: I taught this activity for the first time at an all-boys school, which is reflected in the nouns and pronouns below, but obviously it works just as well* with girls or mixed gender students.)
I told my students the name of the lesson--"Around the World in Thirty Minutes." I explained that we would shortly be enacting a whirlwind tour of the world. I asked each student to choose his favorite country or continent in the world. I told them that they would be pretending to be someone or something in that country. I, and a friend, would be making the tour of the world, and in each country we visited, the students in that country would pretend to be animals, people, or things that a visitor in that country would be likely to see.
Many of the boys chose countries about which they knew little. Some chose countries from which their ancestors emigrated. Some chose places that just sounded exciting. But the long and short of it was that most of them didn't know what a tourist would be likely to find in the country of their choice. Because the lesson was consciously designed to for cross-curricular impact, that was exactly what I had hoped would happen, because it motivated research. We had a class discussion about the problem. Each boy in turn told the group what country or continent he had chosen, and I asked if anyone knew what kinds of things might be found there. In many cases, the boy's classmates had great suggestions. But some of the boys had chosen countries nobody knew much about. So I brought out some reference books. (I have an excellent children's atlas, which includes maps with pictures of animals, landmarks, industries, etc., that the boys loved looking at.) The group researched the countries enthusiastically, and after about ten or fifteen minutes, every boy had decided what or who he was going to pretend to be.
I arranged the boys around the classroom. Some countries were represented by more than one boy, but that was fine. Each country or continent had its own place in the room. I explained that it would be impossible to travel to all the countries in thirty minutes, if it were not for my Supersonic Transport. (I used a wheeled swivel chair.) I brought out a Muppet-style puppet that I use in many of my lessons, and that the boys love. I explained that "Oliver" and I would be making the trip together. (Obviously one could do this lesson without the puppet.)
I sat in my chair and wheeled myself and Oliver to the first country. The puppet and I Ooohed and Aaahed at the sights we saw there. Usually I was able to correctly guess what the boys were pretending to be, but when I wasn't, they were not offended, and were quick to give me hints until I did. After I had finished in the first country, I asked the boys which other country was the closest. They had to think about this one, but we always came to a decision. In this way they learned and used their knowledge of geography. Sometimes I had to help--as when I pointed out that it was quicker to go over the Arctic to get from Canada to Siberia--but that was more learning. Once we decided which country was closest, I moved on to that country and continued in this way until I had visited every boy. Then I "came home."
After the trip was over, we sat in a circle, and I asked each boy to mention one thing he learned that he hadn't known before. Every one was able to come up with something.
This lesson worked extremely well. The boys frequently ask me if we can do it again. I think that it could work with students much older-with a corresponding increase in the sophistication of the information we learned about the countries, and possibly also the level of interaction between the traveler and the inhabitants of each country.
Instead of traveling from country to country, you can travel from time period to time period. The people in each period interact with the travelers--who might be students, rather than the instructor--as much or as little as time and the sophistication of the students allows.
* I say this lesson can work just as well with girls or mixed gender children and it does (I've used it with both) but it actually is especially well-suited to an all-boy environment, and it's a great example of how acknowledging and taking into account gender differences instead of ignoring them can serve students needs. While obviously every child is an individual, boys in general, at the elementary level, are much better equipped to process information spatially than they are to process it verbally. (This is why, on any playground anywhere in the world, you're apt to see boys playing physical games involving moving their bodies and/or a ball through three-dimensional space, while girls are more likely to be playing some kind of social or role-playing game.) Most drama teachers will tell you that, when they are asked to improvise skits or plays, boys tend to come up with skits that are full of action--wrestling, running around, etc. but that have very little in the way of plot, while girls come up with clear plots and clear character relationships but little in the way of movement or visual interest. (If you have mixed genders and force them to work together--they won't if you let them pick their own groups, usually--you get the best of both worlds--plays that are interesting to watch and make sense.) When I was teaching in the boys' school, I was always conscious of devising lessons that played to the particular learning strengths of the boys--though, in fairness, that's easier for a drama teacher than it would be for, say, an English teacher.