Climbing Aboard the Titanic in Ms. Herzner’s Third Grade Class

By Barbara Herzner and Kristen Hawley Turner

“Megan’s Titanic Presentation.”  My calendar notification reminded me to shift my work schedule the next day so that I could “climb aboard the Titanic” in my daughter’s third grade classroom.  I had witnessed her enthusiasm for writing grow in Ms. Herzner’s class over the year, and I did not want to miss her reading the journal entries she had written from the perspective of a Titanic passenger.  Even so, I was surprised by her announcement as I walked in the door of our home that evening.

“I need to dress like a boy tomorrow.”

Megan made the statement so matter-of-factly that it took me a minute to follow with the natural question.

“Why?”

“Well, I’m Harold Victor Goodwin, and I need to look like him for my presentation tomorrow.”

Her eyes sparkled with excitement, and it was impossible not to catch the spirit. We dug through closets and our costume box to find the perfect outfit that would transform my little girl into Harold V. Goodwin.

The next day, I entered Ms. Herzner’s classroom with all the other parents. As we made our way to the seats set out for us, we passed a line full of students ready to share their writing.  My heart filled with joy as my quiet, relatively shy child read confidently in front of an audience.  Her pride in her writing was clearly evident.  

Video of Megan reading her Titanic journals.

From my perspective as a parent, Ms. Herzner’s Titanic unit is everything I want my child to experience in school.  The assignment blended history with language arts and allowed the children to step outside of their own worlds, empathize with others, and share their work with a real audience.  Megan learned a lot about writing during her work on this project.  I know that Ms. Herzner thought carefully about how to prepare the young writers in her classroom for a successful day on the Titanic with their parents.

Constructing the Titanic (Ms. Herzner’s Perspective)

Before my third graders embarked on the Titanic, I needed to prepare them for the culminating presentation to their parents.  Effective instruction takes into account principles that include activating children’s prior knowledge, building on what they know, igniting their curiosities, providing time and reasons for them to pursue their questions, and offering real audiences and purposes for them to share what they have learned with others.  The Titanic unit, designed collaboratively with colleagues at my school, took into account these aspects of instructional design.

Activating Knowledge

In order to research the lives of individuals aboard the Titanic, students needed to read non-fiction texts.  Activating prior knowledge is a strategy that helps readers to comprehend texts by building on an existing foundation. To activate prior knowledge, I asked students to walk around the room and look at various pictures of the Titanic.  They wrote graffiti style with a black marker on large posters what they knew about the different events that were displayed. Their silent contemplation slowly turned to third-grade chatter.

“The Titanic hit an iceberg,” said Jack, confidently writing on the graffiti poster.

Across the room, Austin told his small group, “I heard the Titanic broke into two parts when it went down.”

They thoughtfully and enthusiastically added their ideas to the wall and then joined together for a large group conversation about the pictures and their writing.  Jack was especially excited and shared many facts he had learned in the past. He remembered seeing a show on TV about a submarine finding the Titanic. His comment sparked even more discussion about the items that were found at the bottom of the ocean.

Igniting Curiosities and Conducting Inquiry

Harvey ‘Smokey’ Daniels and Sara Ahmed suggest that inquiry begins by igniting students’ curiosities, so after we activated background knowledge, the children looked through my collection of books about the Titanic that were scattered throughout the room.  This reading helped them to form questions about the Titanic, and lively conversations broke out as they read.

Elease was curious about how many people survived. Grace wanted to know more about the different classes of passengers. Many children called out that the Titanic was found in two parts on the bottom of the ocean, holding pictures from the book in the air as evidence. Would we be learning more? They wanted to know.  Their curiosity was piqued.

Our inquiry continued with additional reading, and as I introduced texts to the students, we focused on other comprehension strategies, which included

  • Comparing and contrasting information;
  • Tracing cause and effect;
  • Using timelines to understand chronological order;
  • Noticing titles, headings and subheadings;
  • Identifying key words; and
  • Using glossaries and indexes to find information.

We researched using a variety of texts, such as RMS Titanic Introduction Slideshow and Titanic, Disaster at Sea.  With strong historical knowledge developed, students were ready to dig into writing.

Taking on Another Person’s Perspective

The writing task began as students randomly selected the name of a Titanic passenger.  With excitement, each child reached into a hat to draw a ticket before heading to www.encyclopedia-titantica.org to locate and record facts about the person. A buzz of excitement spread through the room as the children learned about whether or not they survived.  I knew they had already started to embody their characters as they called out, “Oh no, I died!” or “Yessss…. I survived!”

As they collected information about their individuals, the students began to shift their thinking toward their compositions.  I asked students to write three journal entries from the perspective of the passenger they had selected: one before the ship set sail, one during the time at sea, and one on the night of the sinking.  My decision to incorporate perspective-taking into the task was purposeful: I wanted the students to embody the view of another person, not an easy task for third graders!   This process took about a week as I scaffolded their writing using sentence starters.

Journal 1: We created a writing web with the sentence starter, “I just walked up the gangplank and I am on the greatest ship in the world! I am a _________ class passenger.”  Students were encouraged to share:

  • What is your name and age?
  • Where are you from?
  • Who are you traveling with?
  • What did you see as you boarded the ship?

Journal 2: We used the sentence starter, “I am having the time of my life…” Again using a web, we added information about life on the ship in the class we were in (e.g., foods we ate, amenities of the class, places we visited on the ship).

Journal 3The last sentence starter was “ I can’t believe my eyes….” We wrote about where we were at the moment of impact. What did we do? Where did we go? What did we see?

Image of Megan's Titanic Journal

Megan’s Titanic journals on display.

The air was electric with excitement as they moved from brainstorming to drafting and shared their characters with each other.

Olivia discovered that Anthony’s passenger was her passenger’s man servant.

Megan was thrilled that her passenger’s picture was a popular one she had seen in books.

“I am going to add that my passenger saw the exercise room,” exclaimed Grace.  

“Mine had tea in the library!” Mackenzie shared.

Finally, the students typed their journals, editing and and revising as they went. Mia suggested the idea of adding pictures, and many of her classmates followed suit, dressing up their journals by changing the font and including pictures they had found in their research.

Sharing Their Learning

Asking students to share their learning with an authentic audience is powerful.  It is helpful to start small – with familiar faces – when thinking about audiences, and for this reason I invited parents to celebrate their children’s learning.  

This opportunity for parents to connect with their young writers in school opens the door for conversations about writing, and it also shows children the value of a real audience.  For my third graders, hard work was rewarded, and this work engaged the children deeply in reading and writing activities throughout the unit.  The students were so very proud to share with a loved one and receive the well deserved praise and admiration.  

And just like Mrs. Turner – and all the parents who attended that day – I was inspired by the children, their enthusiasm and their expertise.  Together the class constructed the Titanic, and everyone climbed on board through the children’s writing.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Melissa Bene and Sue Riposta for helping to create this unit on the Titanic.

Editor’s Note:  The RMS Titanic sank on April 15, 1912.  This post acknowledges the 105th anniversary this month.

Barbara Herzner is a third grade teacher in New Jersey. She graduated from William Paterson College and received her masters in Educational Leadership from Centenary College. She has been a teacher for over 30 years.

Kristen Hawley Turner is an associate professor in the Fordham Graduate School of Education and director of the Fordham Digital Literacies Collaborative.  She is also a mom of school-aged children and blogs at TwinLife: Having it All.
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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

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