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Teaching Opinion

Adapting Social Studies for Remote Teaching

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 16, 2020 12 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question is:

What does social studies instruction look like in the age of the coronavirus?

I’ve previously posted on Reading & Writing Instruction in the Age of the Coronavirus, a series on math instruction, and another one on teaching science.

In Part One, Elisabeth Johnson, Evelyn Ramos, Sarah Cooper, Ryan Clapp, and Rachel Johnson started off this series.

Today, Mike Kaechele, Lynette Yorgason, and Jennifer Hitchcock share their experiences.

Project-based learning

Mike Kaechele is a history teacher in Grand Rapids, Mich., and National Faculty for PBLWorks. He believes in student-centered learning by giving kids authentic opportunities to do real work with local community partners:

First of all, let’s assume that you are already checking in on the social and emotional state of your students. Then let’s focus on what actual social studies instruction can look like during crisis distance learning. For many teachers, it is Project-Based Learning (PBL). Silos between content are being destroyed as students explore authentic problems based on current events. Teachers are integrating their social studies content with other classes in robust projects such as a simulation where students take on the role of government, determining how to prepare and respond to a pandemic. Other classes have students creating plans for best practices to reopen schools in the fall.

Another approach is students documenting their pandemic experience. Integrated with ELA, students take on the role of historical observers, recording their lives in journals, diaries, blogs, poems, or social-media posts. Students read novels like The Diary of Anne Frank or Great Depression interviews such as Studs Terkel’s Hard Times. They research similar primary-source documents from the Great Depression, the World Wars, or any other historical period, comparing and contrasting with how people are feeling now. While sheltering in place, students can still interview older family members by phone or Zoom to learn about how other generations have dealt with life-altering historical shifts.

The coronavirus has affected health, jobs, the economy, and the environment. Some social studies classes are focused on projects around driving questions such as, “How do we balance individuals’ rights and social responsibility?” or “What should be the roles and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments in an emergency situation?” Projects could explore the role of government in regulations, bailouts, and the tension between freedom, safety, and individual rights. Students can explore why the United States is being hit worse than other countries in the world, comparing different forms of governments, economies, and responses.

There are natural connections with government, economics, and math. Students could develop a plan to help a local business survive the pandemic. They could problem-solve what specific adaptations should be made, learning content while helping their local community. Or they might compute a cost/benefit analysis of the decision of when and how to reopen the economy nationally or in their state. Students can create infographics or record podcasts to educate their communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light (again!) the vast amounts of inequality in the United States. Students can study the historical reasons why we have such disparities and devise long-term solutions. Inequity brings up the point of assessment. How do we fairly score assignments when students are in so many different situations with distinct advantages and disadvantages? With no standardized tests and accountability measures in place, this is the perfect opportunity to not grade but instead focus on feedback. We know from research and experience that feedback is a more effective driver of learning than grades anyway. One of the best things about PBL is that the feedback comes from multiple sources, including peers, community partners, and self-reflections. Teachers can use community partners (virtually) to motivate and improve the work that students are doing.

The shifts and stress of this crisis distance learning are real. But once students are safe physically and emotionally, it is an opportunity for authentic learning through PBL. Take advantage of the freedom from testing and curriculum to have students focus on the skills of being a historian, economist, or government official.

Remote teaching - social studies for ESL students

Lynette Yorgason teaches social studies and ESL at East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah:

When I got word that I would be teaching remotely indefinitely, I was not terribly worried about my AP history students. I am no stranger to using an LMS for delivering content, quizzing students, and collaborating. However, when it came to teaching my ESL students, I was pretty stumped, especially when it came to my Level 1 and Newcomer students. I was still figuring out how to deliver content to them in person, so moving the process online seemed impossible. After over a month of experimenting and increasing online participation in my classes (even with the access and equity issues that often plague our ESL students), I have found a few tools and techniques that seem to be working.

  • Screencastify/Screen-cast-o-matic - I had used these services previously just to record lectures with both my face and lecture slides. However, since some of my ESL students are preliterate and none of them is even at a 1st grade reading level yet, videos have become crucial. I use video at the beginning of every assignment to walk them through the assignment. I make a video at the beginning of each week walking them through what assignments are expected of them that week. I wanted to use content videos I found online, but there were just too many unknown words for them, so I have ended up creating and recording all of my own simple lectures for their content.

  • Cloze notes - I always wanted to use cloze notes with my students at school, but for some reason it never quite worked out. This proved the perfect time to use them with my students. After each short lecture video, I create a document with blanks for them to fill in on nearly each line of my PowerPoint. I generally have them fill in key new words for the lecture that they are learning. For example, in a recent lecture on the Ottoman Empire, every time I used the word “empire,” I left a blank because that was a new word and concept for my students. The easiest way to make this document foolproof for students to fill in is to make each line its own table with each section of the sentence having its own cell. See example below:

You then make all the lines around each cell invisible except for the bottom line on the blank cell.

This is a slightly laborious process; however, it means students only need to click on the blank line and can type without a situation where they end up typing in the middle of a line like this:

  • Quizzes - One of the first things my ESL students often did was quizzes because they understood how to do them and I made them something that they could do over and over until they got 100 percent. Quizzes are straightforward and something even newcomers to American schooling can understand.

  • Flipgrid - Getting ESL kids speaking in English is always important, and finding Flipgrid was heaven sent for me. First, it integrates really well into Canvas. Because my students are not very digital literate at all, I knew I never wanted them to have to navigate away from our school’s LMS, and Flipgrid is incredibly simple, intuitive, and everything shows up right there in Canvas. Second, it was incredibly wonderful to be able to see my students’ faces and hear their voices after not seeing them for so long.

As hopeful as I was to find ready-made ESL content for preliterate high school students learning social studies, it turns out I really had to make a lot of my own materials. However, in using these tools, I have found a place where my students are still able to get content even with the many limitations facing them.

“Ms. Hitch, can we zoom?”

Jennifer Hitchcock teaches AP Government and Politics for Virginia’s Fairfax County public schools, at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and the district’s Online Campus. After 15 years of experience in social studies education, she wakes up each day ready to learn new things and share that enthusiasm with her students:

If you take a look at my planner, you would never believe the world that has become distance learning. Instead of concrete plans sprinkled with a healthy side of staff meetings and IEPs, my life has flipped into a spattering of individual requests for what I believe is the essence of social studies education; human interaction and innate need to know the story of us then, now, and what we can be.

This affirms what I have always known. Social studies instruction is an art, much like gardening. I sow seeds of thought and inquiry throughout the year, little by little, day by day. It takes time for those seeds to sprout, shoot up, and blossom. But the paths that those seedlings take to unfurl themselves against the light of day are unexpected and delightful.

Certainly, the turn to distance learning is unexpected. It is not delightful. It is scary and surreal. I spend time confused as to how to proceed to improve student learning within the confines of my resources and the directives of my community and state. With this in mind, I made a decision a long time ago (six weeks) that I would make my instruction as asynchronous as possible, drawing on my experience as an online teacher and a former online master’s student. Even though we are sheltering in place, life is still unpredictable when learning leaps from the cocooned classroom to the hustle-bustle homestead. Worse still, I can’t know what is happening unless a student invites me in. The synchronous sessions that remain illustrate these issues, punctuated by a session this week in which a dad yelped as he lost a tooth in a household mishap (he’s fine, tooth isn’t).

What I have learned is that social studies learning, measured in yardsticks by standardized assessments, one-size-fits-all projects, and a montonous march to the end has unteethered itself from these rocky soils. Students still want to know what our story is, where we are. They find new ways to inquire within, they seek out new horizons.

Take Zoom, or in my district, Blackboard Ultra. Recently, a student dropped in for office hours to tell me, “I am interning with the US Digital Services Office because AP Gov taught me that I can find purpose in my love of technology.” I nearly cried—kids finding meaning in serving their community is the very heart of what I want to see.

Another student told me he is catapulting himself head first into a life of diplomatic service, and I can see his zeal as he writes letters to the editor, visits his state legislator on “Hill Day” to lobby for freedom of the student press, and live tweets school board meetings.

Still another is actively involved in Citizens Unplugged and OneVirginia2021, engaging her community and peers into activism to focus on the intersection of democratic principles and the Asian American community. Another started a nonprofit, translating climate data into native tongues, leading in Fridays for Future, writing articles for major publications, and giving speeches on college campuses. Students ask to talk to me about their readings on COVID-19, their thoughts on race relations after we read Invisible Man, engaging their student community in distance learning and shelter-in-place morale building, and the like. Another continues her work with Youth as Civic Experts. Two more told me of their journey through distance learning and reconsidering their majors in medicine and technology—perhaps they want to look at how that intersects in the public sector. And this is just what I know. But I also know that other students are reconnecting with their families’ folkways, learning to cook and their native tounges. They are learning their back stories. They are volunteering in their community or working as essential workers, they are caring for their younger siblings and neighbors, and these activities are so critically important and should be elevated as civic engagement. I meet students where they are and help them figure out what the next step might be. I know that students are doing the same all over the nation. I see their work broadcast on social media, and it fills me with joy in a time of darkness.

I don’t need to blast my kids with required activities. I give them what they need to be successful—in this case, on the AP exam. I build resources for them but give them the flexibility of choice. I am available as needed to re-explain, to examine their skills. I reassure them and provide them a place to reunite as a community. I pose questions to stoke curiosity ... I weed and nourish, but like all good gardners who plant a garden in the face of a rainstorm, I mostly invest in the future and step back to admire the beauty and promise it brings.

Thanks to Mike, Lynette, and Jennifer for their contributions!

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