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Rayna Freedman


"The Stranger project has third graders working on skills that challenge and stretch the mind to think and reflect," Rayna Freedman told Education World.

If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected]

"Higher-level critical thinking skills are accessed, and the agents always step up to the plate. The work ethic that comes out of this project is amazing. Ive never seen anything like it."

Freedman's classroom at Jordan/Jackson Elementary School in Mansfield, Massachusetts, is filled with "secret agents" who investigate and solve problems from the first day of class. With the help of art teacher Mary Shea and music instructor Kim Holster, Freedman uses the book The Stranger, by Chris Van Allsburg to integrate language arts, art, music, physical education, and technology into a single project.

"We wanted to provide a learning experience that would connect to real world experiences," explained Freedman. "Throughout this project, students are involved in a lot of activities that adults do in their jobs. I wanted to inspire my students and provide them with a life-long experience. This is something they will never forget."

Freedman's project involves sketching with software, free-verse poetry, and creating a movie based on the book, with music and choreography. The identity of the book's "stranger" is a mystery, but students use a variety of comprehension skills to figure out who they think he is. Each student comes to his or her own conclusion and backs it up with evidence from the text.

Work from the project is displayed in the multi-purpose room

"Each individuals personality and experiences cause him or her to answer the question in a specific way," reports Freedman. "Ive found that to be a powerful lesson to explore with the kids. I always look forward to seeing what everyone thinks."

The activity begins with a discussion of mood with the music teacher. Students come to a conclusion about the identity of the stranger through several readings and then divide into five groups. Each group determines the mood for a few pages of the story. They explore instruments and select those that fit the mood of their sections. Next, students create a "soundtrack" of sound effects and a reading of the pages. The groups work together to act out the story, performing the "soundtrack" in the background.

"While thats going on, I have students create a free verse poem about who they think the stranger is," Freedman explained. "A free verse poem is a collection of words that has meaning. That can be difficult for third graders because theyre so used to structured writing, and here we are removing it all."

Students list the reasons that led to their conclusion about the identity of the stranger, and create a story telling who the stranger is and why they think so. Students then meet with partners and read their stories aloud. Each time a reader takes a breath, his or her partner points it out, and a slash is made in the text. The writer then rewrites the story, with a new line beginning at each breath mark. He or she crosses out all little or unnecessary words, and whats left is a free verse poem!

Another aspect of the project features art. Students create a storyboard for a slideshow, containing a title card, an illustration from the book that convinced them of the strangers identity, an illustration of their idea of the stranger, and the free verse poem. Students also create art with software and by hand.

Students present the project in front of family and friends.

Finally, students present their slideshows and movie to a real audience. Last year, more than 300 people attended the presentation!

"Seeing all the parts together makes students forget about the tough days or long hours of work we put into the project," Freedman reported. "Seeing the slideshow of the process allows them to reflect on the work they did, and how far theyve come. They feel great! These kids love to work hard and enjoy the challenge. I truly believe that if you expect great things out of students, they will achieve."

Article by Cara Bafile
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