How Can We Teach Social Studies More Effectively? An Interloper’s Suggestions

May 21, 2012 — 1 Comment

A question was posed on the Education Week column run by Larry Ferrlazzo. On this particular posting, he asked the question, “How Can We Teach Social Studies More Effectively?”

This year, I am the interim Social Studies Department Chair in addition to my role as English Department Chair.  As an academic interloper, I have had the opportunity to study how the scope and sequence of our middle/high school social studies program (7-12)  is delivered. I humbly offered  the following suggestions to Ferrlazzo’s question:

To be an effective Social Studies teacher, a teacher must be inter-disciplined.  The definition of social studies adopted by the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS)  in 1992 addresses the broad reach of the subject:

“Social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences.”

In other words, social studies is the most interdisciplinary subject in our curriculum, therefore:

1. Collaborate:

Although English is  natural fit, social studies teachers should not stop there, but look to collaborate with all disciplines. Some subjects pair well (Renaissance=science+art), but do not discount the math necessary for economics and statistics needed to understand any period of history.Social studies teachers have the opportunity to collaborate with other departments in delivering curriculum using either the familiar chronological approach or by using a thematic approach (“Revolutions”). These teachers can help students make the connections between subject areas rather than see each information limited to four classroom walls.  For example, students in grade 10 were reading All Quiet on the Western Front in English at the same time when WWI was being studied in Modern World History. I was trying to make a point about how the narrator was confronting the shift from the man to man combat to the  battlefield which featured increasing mechanized warfare when a student interrupted me, “Mrs. P says that WWI showed that the increasing the technology and machines in war gets you get farther and farther from your enemy.” There was a pause, and then another student chimed in ,“And now we use drones in Afghanistan and we are farther from the enemy than ever before.”  I didn’t have to make my point at all. Mrs. P, 10th grade social studies teacher, had already covered weapons introduced in WWI and  was making connections from WWI to the war in Afghanistan. She was providing the setting while I was introducing the emotional impact on people/characters, and our collaboration made for greater student understanding.

2. Ditch the Textbook and Increase Non-Fiction Reading:

I have come to view the social studies textbooks as heavy…too heavy and too costly. I suggest social studies teachers use these in a classroom as a resource for note-taking only. These textbooks are ideal for teaching students about sub-headings, how to read charts and maps, and information sidebars in class, but there are other resources for delivering content. Use to create online textbooks for reading home, perhaps in a flipped model, with a variety of reading materials-newspaper articles, magazine links, and websites. Use wikis to post links, upload materials, and receive comments from students. Check out the amazing amount of materials on Larry Ferrlazzo’s blog and Richard Byrne’s blog (updated almost hourly!) or Greg Kulowiec’s blog to see what software can be used for research or content delivery.  Place materials in Google Docs for student access and collaboration. After looking at all the new software available today, I am fully in favoring of ditching the textbook!

Of course, losing the textbook means a teachers can also assign more authentic reading. The Common Core State Standards require 70% informational texts for students by grade 12. The anchor standards and high school standards for reading and writing in social studies (history) in literacy work in tandem to define college and career readiness expectations. Increasing student access to reading materials is key to meeting increased requirements in reading of informational texts. I would suggest organizing classroom libraries with non-fiction materials and providing time in class to read these materials. Coordinate with the school librarian to pull books that deal with a topic currently studied and suggest students  choose a book off the cart. For example, we have added numerous popular trade non-fiction titles in the English classroom libraries that could be easily used in a social studies classroom such as:

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
Patriots by Joseph J. Ellis
Hiroshima by John Hershey
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
Kaffir Boy: The Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa by Mark Mathebane
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsson
Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

3. Increase the Project Based Learning:

There’s a lot to be said for the diorama. Every student has made at least one, and despite the loss of precious classroom real estate to 30 shoebox recreations of a medieval castle, these projects are incredibly powerful learning experiences because they are “hands-on”.  Debate, trials, and simulations are also all ways that project based learning can be used. Our 8th grade recreated the Ellis Island experience in the gym and hallways last month.  Teachers were “medical inspectors” and  Ellis Island staff asking questions about employment possibilities and each immigrant’s finances.  Each 8th grade student had prepared an immigration profile based on research on the Ellis Island website and was “processed” individually or in family “groups.” This experience was only one of several simulations our teachers have used to immerse students in a historical context.

Project based learning can be delivered as games, in role-playing, or in developing living museums. Students need to BE the people of history to better understand how people and events from the past effect and connect to their present circumstances in their “study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.” (NCSS, 1992)

I have enjoyed this year of working with my social studies colleagues. They are responsible for many of the skills that are necessary for literacy, specifically writing and note-taking. They are critical to successfully implementing the newly adopted Common Core State Standards at every grade level. What joins our disciplines in English and social studies are the fundamental elements of story; while English teachers are centered on the individual character and “his-story”, the social studies teachers are responsible for what happens to the individual in “history”. Ours can be the continuing of a “beautiful friendship” in education.

One response to How Can We Teach Social Studies More Effectively? An Interloper’s Suggestions


    As always, you deliver. This is now one of my must read blogs.
    I have had the benefit of being an upper elementary teacher in a school where integrated curriculum was the method of teaching. It is so much easier to think that way rather than compartmentalizing everything.

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