Teaching Opinion

Ed Week Readers’ Ideas On How We Can Teach Social Studies More Effectively

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 01, 2012 8 min read
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(This is the final post in a three part series. You can see the first one here and Part Two here)

I asked:

What’s the best advice you can give to Social Studies teachers who want to be more effective?

Last Tuesday, I shared guest responses from three talented and experienced educators: Stephen Lazar, Bill Bigelow, and Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez.

On Thursday, I shared contributions from Eric Langhorst, Beth Sanders and Russel Tarr.

Today, I’ll briefly share my own advice and a sampling of the many ideas readers contributed.

I’d “boil down” my advice for teaching social studies -- and, in fact, for teaching just about any subject -- into a strategy that most successful community organizers use and which I call “The Organizing Cycle.” It’s basically looking at students through a lens of their assets and not their deficits, and more-or-less follows this sequence:

1. Build Relationships

2. Access Prior Knowledge Through Student Stories

3. Help Students Learn By Doing

4. Foster Student Leadership Potential

5. Promote Reflection

You can read more about what that might look like in a classroom room at an article I’ve written elsewhere, Get Organized Around Assets.

In addition to that broader advice, I thought I’d mention an idea that I’m very intrigued by and that I’m trying in my United States History classes (and in my IB Theory of Knowledge class) at this very moment: exploring “What If?” questions.

You can read more about it here, but here is how teacher Carla Federman (who borrowed the idea from Diana Laufenberg) introduced her lesson to students:

You are to identify one specific point in American history for which you are interested in changing the outcome. Once you have identified your point of divergence, you will need to consider both the immediate changes and the long-term impacts that divergence would have on modern society. You will present your “revised history” through the creation of “new” primary sources and a multimedia project.

The idea of asking “What If?” as well as “Why?” is something I want to integrate more fully in my teaching practice.

In many of our classes, I think, students tend to look at history as just the learning of facts that are set in stone and almost as destined to be...

Through a “What if?” project, my students are beginning to gain a greater grasp of the fragility, interconnections and imponderables that we confronted in our past and will face in our future.

Responses From Readers

Many readers responded, and here are just a few samples:

Mary Ann Zehr, a former writer for Education Week who became a high school social studies teacher for English Language Learners this year:

I’m just a first-year social studies teacher, but I find it’s helpful to guide students with big-picture questions. Here are some of the questions I’ve asked them to ponder this school year in U.S. history: How did the United States get to be so big? What happened to Native Americans after Europeans began to settle in North America? How did the lives of African-Americans change and not change after the Civil War?

Asking a big question and letting the students discover parts of the answer help them to see the relevancy of what they are studying. I also encourage students to come up with big questions of their own. Here’s one that a student asked: Is a country’s acquiring more land always an example of imperialism?

Kara Synhorst, a very talented educator at the school where I also teach:

It seems to me that when I was in elementary school, Social Studies was just that -- a discussion of societies. I remember being entranced by pictures of Shinto shrines and being really engaged with learning about other people’s religions, languages, food, and clothing. Going to the California missions has always been one of my favorite road trips. I can hardly pass the brown sign for one without pulling off the freeway. Yet in about 7th grade, history just dried up. It became all about dates and wars and rulers and lines on maps changing.

Ironically, in high school I read Sophie’s Choice, Mila 18, Dawn, Night, The Diary of Anne Frank... all the while declaring that I hated history and probably failing tests on World War 2.

Too long? As a student, I wished history/social studies had been more about people. And honestly, I think the lessons we want our students to take away into the adult world are more about WHY assassinating the Archduke Ferdinand set off such a poop-storm, rather than the precise date it happened and with what caliber of gun.


As with any grade level, it has to show relevance to the age/grade of the group you are working with. Why teach about South Dakota resources/climate/history if you live in NJ? Let them see how they are all a part of social studies and social studies is a part of all of them. Allow children to research on their own or in small cooperative groups, become a larger part of their learning. The days of opening up the book and reading have no relevance to these digital-age driven students. Open up technology to them by incorporating multiple technology sources, start a class web page to post think-about it questions as part of their homework, etc.

David Burgher:

Decide why it matters. If you don’t know why what you are teaching is important for kids to know, how can you convince them it should matter to them? If what we teach isn’t of value we are wasting our time and ours kids’ time and that will come through in whatever lesson. You’ve got to find the connection between whatever social studies topic you have and the lives and futures of the students you are teaching (and help them see that connection as well).

Colette Marie Bennett offers three recommendations:

1. Collaborate:

Social studies should collaborate with other departments in delivering curriculum using either the familiar chronological approach or by using a thematic approach (“Revolutions”). Let students can see 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.

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

Social studies textbooks are heavy...too heavy. Use these in class as a resource for note-taking only. Teach students about sub-headings, how to read charts and maps, and information sidebars in class, but use Livebinders.com 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. Place materials in Google Docs for student access and collaboration. Ditch the textbook!

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 is recreating the Ellis Island experience in the gym and hallways next week. PE/Health teachers will be “medical inspectors"; 11th grade students who have just completed an immigration unit will be the “police” collecting student suitcases; and other teachers will serve as Ellis Island staff asking questions about employment possibilities and each immigrant’s finances. Each 8th grade student has prepared an immigration profile based on research on the Ellis Island website and will be “processed” individually or in family “groups.” This experience is only one of several simulations our 8th grade has used to immerse students in a historical context.

Jeff Layman

The best advice I can give for Social Studies teachers to be more effective is this: make it more real. In any way you can. This is where the wonderful marriage of old school stuff and new school tech doesn’t end in messy divorce. Learning about the slave trade? Find some shackles. Learning about Ancient Egypt? Visit the pyramids with Google Earth. The more visceral you can make it for them the more invested they’ll be in the content.

Here are some “tweeted” responses:

Eric Watts:

Promote historical thinking skills and have students engage in the discipline ..... regardless of grade level.

Justin Stallings:

Social Studies teachers should be actively engaged outside the classroom. Students notice teacher engagement and when students see teachers USING what they learn in the classroom, I think students care more.

Cheryl Curtis:

Compare past events and the outcomes to current events and let the students predict possible outcomes.

Rob Ackerman:

We need to have students take on the role of historians, instead of being force fed info.

Robert Meaders

Relevancy: we must work to show the relevancy of social studies in order to be more effective.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to so many readers for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. I’m way behind in acknowledging questions that have been sent in, but I promise to get caught up in the summer!

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” tomorrow.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.