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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

It’s a Great Lesson When Students ‘Want to Continue Their Own Learning’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 25, 2019 20 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-of-the-week is:

What has been the best social studies lesson you have taught and why do you think it was so good?

In Part One, Carina Whiteside, Denise Fawcett Facey, Deborah Gatrell, and Mark Honeyman shared their experiences. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

This two-part series is “wrapped up” today by commentaries from Rachel Johnson, Dawn Mitchell, Julie Stern, Cynthia W. Resor, Andrew Sharos, Lori Oczkus, and Keisha Rembert.

Response From Rachel Johnson & Dawn Mitchell

Rachel Johnson has taught for 14 years in Spartanburg, S.C. She has taught at the elementary level and currently teaches social studies at the middle level. When not teaching, Rachel enjoys spending time with her family and running.

Dawn Mitchell serves in instructional services in Spartanburg, in District 6 where she leads the induction and mentoring program as well as provides professional development in literacy and in project-based learning. Dawn is also an adjunct instructor at Furman University where she currently serves as a university supervisor and teacher mentor. Connect with Dawn on twitter @dawnjmitchell:

Document-Based Questions in Social Studies

When planning any social studies lesson, you have to take several questions into consideration...

  1. Is the lesson relatable to students? Do they want to learn about it?

  2. Is the lesson engaging? Will students be challenged to make discoveries and think for themselves throughout the lesson?

  3. Does the lesson incorporate primary sources? Will students be exploring and analyzing documents from the era they are studying?

  4. Does the lesson connect and support other content areas? Are there opportunities for students to apply disciplinary literacy skills?

I (Rachel) teach 8th grade social studies,which in South Carolina is American/South Carolina History, and the best lessons that I taught this year that hit all the above categories are DBQs. DBQs are Document-Based Questions from which students analyze documents on a certain topic, answer questions about each document, and then answer in essay form an overriding question that pulls all the documents together. DBQs challenge students to go beyond their classroom instruction for a further, in-depth study on a topic. When analyzing sources, students must go beyond a surface analysis and inquire deeply about the source. Finally, students are able to draw on skills they are learning in an English/language arts classroom and compose an essay drawing all the sources together to formulate a response to an overriding question. With DBQs, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer. Students must analyze, conclude, and support their findings with evidence from the sources.

One DBQ my students completed this year was on African Americans during World War II. The essential question students were asked was, “What was the impact of African Americans on World War II? What was the impact of World War II on African Americans? Which impact was greater?” Essentially, students analyzed eight primary-source documents and determined how African Americans contributed to World War II, how World War II affected African Americans, and then had to determine which was greater—the impact the war had on African Americans or the impact African Americans had on the war.

Students were first asked to analyze a newspaper article about the Tuskegee Airmen in 1941; photographs of a group of Tuskegee Airmen, African American men and women working in factories building airplanes, and African American women selling war bonds; and posters issued by the United States War Department. Students answered four questions on each source and then wrote an essay on the essential question.

This was an in-depth assignment, but my students were immediately interested for two reasons. One, I teach a high population of African American students, and the content was culturally relevant; and two, my students really enjoy learning about World War II, so the content was intellectually engaging. The interest level and in-depth work of my students on this assignment was beyond what I could have anticipated. Students dug deep when analyzing the primary sources, inquired, and made discoveries well beyond what I could have taught them in a typical lesson. Students wanted to discover more, students made connections, and students went outside the box to learn. This is the defining aspect of a great lesson—when students make inquiries on their own and want to continue their learning.

Response From Julie Stern

Julie Stern is an internationally recognized teacher trainer, keynote speaker, curriculum designer, and author. Her work centers on empowering students to transfer their learning to unlock complex problems in order to create a more just, healthy, and sustainable planet. She is the creator of numerous tools to help teachers harness research as we design schools for the future, including the Making Sense of Learning Transfer professional learning series from Corwin Press. Julie is a social studies teacher, a James Madison Constitutional scholar, and author of Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary and Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary, both published by Corwin Press:

What does an expert in social studies do when she encounters a new, complex situation? Can we possibly prepare students to tackle complex problems on their own? The answers to both of these questions became clear several years ago when I taught a lesson about the water crisis on the Nile River. I can honestly divide my social studies teaching as “before this lesson” and “after this lesson.”

I knew somewhat theoretically that teaching facts and dates through the lens of organizing concepts helped students retain information and transfer it to new situations. And I had been experimenting with this notion for a while. But this was the first lesson where the way to do this effectively became crystal clear.

We started the lesson by looking at images that shared key attributes. Students had to work together to determine the common attribute for each set of photos. It was a basic concept-attainment activity, but the images help students make meaning of the words by looking at these examples. The concepts were: country, resources, scarcity, and power.

Next, students shared their initial thinking to our conceptual relationship question: What happens among countries of different levels of power when shared resources become scarce? Then we examined the situation along the Nile River, where 11 countries share and compete over this fresh-water resource.

There is a major water shortage in South Sudan and a number of other countries that border the river. And while the river reaches South Sudan and other countries before flowing northerly toward Egypt, students realized that Egypt holds more power than the other countries. Egypt threatened military attacks if the southern countries interfered with the water reaching Egypt and often refused to attend international meetings to discuss the situation.

In small groups, students evaluated several potential solutions to the water-crisis conflict. They revised their initial thinking about the conceptual relationship question using evidence from the water crisis along the Nile: What happens among countries of different levels of power when shared resources become scarce?

Now they were ready to transfer their understanding to a completely new situation. I noticed that China and Japan were in conflict over several islands in the South China Sea. I presented the situation to students and was amazed at the level of engagement from nearly every single student. We had reached deeper learning when students organized their understanding of the Nile water crisis and they were ready to transfer their learning to a new situation.

They were eager to find out more about the conflict in the South China Sea, pulling up websites and asking me questions about the balance of power between the two countries. They immediately pointed out the similarities and differences between the two situations, the Nile crisis and the islands in the South China Sea. And we reflected on how their understanding of our conceptual relationship question could be further refined after studying another situation.

This lesson helped me to solidify my own understanding of how to move students through phases of learning that intentionally reaches the learning transfer level of learning. Isn’t that what we all want from a good social studies lesson?

Experts organize information using conceptual ideas and relationships. Now, I consciously design my lessons to help students build this organizing schema in their own minds. The best part? Students started bringing in their own new situations that they saw in the news and are excited to work together to transfer their understanding to unlock these new situations. It was my own watershed moment in my journey as an educator.

Response From Cynthia W. Resor

Cynthia W. Resor was a middle and high school social studies teacher before earning her Ph.D. in history. She is currently a professor of social studies education at Eastern Kentucky University and the author of three books about teaching social history themes such as etiquette, family, food, cemeteries, and utopias. Her website is https://teachingwiththemes.com/:

“Taxes: What you pay and what you get” is my best social studies lesson. I incorporate it in every social studies class I teach—U.S. history, world history, government, economics, financial literacy, or current events.

First, I give students, individually or in pairs, about five minutes, to list every tax paid by Americans. When time is up, we share and discuss lists. Students usually list income taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes, or sales taxes but overlook many others. I project a list to remind them of many of the taxes and government fees, many which rarely make student lists such as tariffs, estate or inheritance taxes, and user fees on roads (tolls), licenses, utilities, or airline tickets. We also discuss the levels of taxation—local, state, and federal.

Second, students have five minutes to list everything they get that is paid for with local, state, or federal tax dollars. Students’ lists often include military, police, or fire protection, public schools, or roads. As a group, we compile our lists, discuss whether this service is offered at the local, state, or federal level, and if the service is offered to everyone or available only to certain groups of people. For example, students might list medical care as a service paid for with tax dollars, so I clarify that some groups qualify for health insurance or medical services paid for with tax dollars (senior citizens, veterans, people living in poverty), but others do not. Again, I project a comprehensive list of services or goods provided through tax dollars. Government regulatory systems that monitor the quality of food, drugs, water, air, restaurants, workplace safety, and professional licensing are most often overlooked.

For the final part of the lesson, I customize the questions to the specific content. For example, if I’m teaching about the Middle Ages, I ask students if education, private security protection (fire, police), streets and highways were not provided with government tax dollars, could individual citizens afford to pay for it? This discussion helps students better visualize the medieval system of local government called manorialism in which the poor serfs and peasants provided labor to maintain the roads and estates of local lords. It also helps to explain why only a tiny percent of the population could read and write. Medieval feudalism in which security was affordable only to powerful lords who paid knights for the police and military services is better understood by modern students who take these services for granted.

To better understand the decline of the Roman Empire, we discuss what happens when tax revenue falls but the nation still needs the military, justice system, and administrative services provided by tax dollars. This discussion is relevant in the 21st century and 4th century.

In American history, the “what you pay and what you get” discussion is the perfect introduction for the causes of the Revolutionary War unit. Students examine how demands of American colonists to pay fewer taxes conflicted with the British government’s expenses for providing military security for a growing empire. If I’m teaching about the Industrial Revolution, I ask students to visualize the United States in the 21st century without health, safety, or child-labor regulations. This provides the transition to the dangers of factory work in the 19th century.

This simple lesson results in many “ah-ha” moments for my students and creates a new awareness of taxation at the local, state, and federal levels, the services provided or not provided through taxation, and who receives or doesn’t receive government services. With students of all ages, in every class, this lesson elicits multiple questions and robust discussion about whether government services provided are worth the tax dollars paid.

Response From Andrew Sharos

Andrew Sharos is a former social studies teacher and current high school administrator in Chicago. He is the author of All 4s and 5s, a book about teaching and leading Advanced Placement classes. He speaks nationwide about closing achievement gaps, best practices in classroom policies, and the intersection of literacy and technology:

The best social studies lesson I ever taught just happened to be one that I was observed for. Oftentimes, we aren’t lucky enough for observed lessons to always hit home runs, but I was fortunate enough to have an administrator in the room at the time. I was teaching AP U.S. History to a group of juniors. We were taking a break from the narrative and content for a day to begin talking about dissecting and argument and building arguments of our own. I chose a pop/R&B song that just hit #1 on the charts a few weeks ago called “Same Love” by Macklemore. I find that when teaching skills, it is always best to engage students by using content outside of my discipline. So we listened to the song and read over the lyrics.

I told the students that the song was actually making a structured argument with a thesis and supporting details. We tried to relate the song’s message and defense to the same style of writing we were practicing in our class. Students began picking out thesis statements and supporting details from the lyrics. They collaborated with each other to form an opening paragraph written from the author’s perspective on a social issue.

Some students even started researching the artist and learning more about his positions on other social issues. They were excited to find out that a song that they listen to without really internalizing a message actually brought a systematic approach to a social problem. It was very connected to what I was asking them to do in class. In a way, we were able to take a mundane task of building arguments from text and transform what that meant to students. The easier transfer to make, then, is looking at historical texts the same way. My students were really excited to take a break from the grind of the AP class and its content. But in reality, the joke was on them since they were building all the tools of the argumentative process along the way. The best part was students took tremendous ownership of the work and even tried to explore the topic further. Not bad for an entryway into a DBQ on Andrew Jackson...!

Response From Lori Oczkus

Lori Oczkus is a literacy coach, author, and popular speaker. Tens of thousands of teachers have attended her workshops and read her practical, research-based professional books including her latest book, Reciprocal Teaching at Work: Powerful Strategies and Lessons for Improving Reading Comprehension 3rd edition with foreword by Dr. John Hattie published by ASCD (2018). See ASCD for book, video, free webinar, and podcast http://www.ascd.org/Publications/ascd-authors/lori-oczkus.aspx:

Boosting Comprehension and Engaging Students in Any Social Studies Text

Using “The Fab Four” Reading Strategies

Many of our students experience a myriad of challenges while reading informational texts and end up becoming frustrated or disengaged. They are overwhelmed with unfamiliar vocabulary, complex concepts, and text features unique to the genre. Fortunately, teachers can easily employ reciprocal teaching, an interactive comprehension technique that dramatically improves comprehension and engagement in grades K-12. (Palinscar& Brown, 1984; Hattie, 2008; Oczkus, 2018). This high-yield, low-prep strategy is backed by research and doesn’t require any special materials!

Reciprocal teaching, or “The Fab Four” (Oczkus, 2018), is an ideal technique to strengthen reading comprehension and to help students retain content-area reading material. Reciprocal teaching is a scaffolded discussion technique that incorporates four strategies that good readers use—predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing. The research is longitudinal, consistent, and dramatic as students usually experience up to two years’ growth, or 0.74, in just one year. (Hattie, 2008) When I teach in my project schools across the country, teachers fall in love with the way students progress quickly by collaborating and digging deeper into texts.

Interactive Lessons to Use With Any Social Studies Text! (Oczkus,2018)

Before diving into a lesson, keep in mind these guidelines for success.

•Model and name the strategies throughout lessons to ensure that students are metacognitive while forming logical predictions based on text evidence, asking high-level discussion questions, learning strategies for clarifying words and concepts, and efficiently summarizing main ideas and details.

•Students talk to partners and table teams to negotiate meaning for EACH of the four strategies. Reciprocal teaching is built on the power of talk and discussion! Encourage partners or table-team sharing before whole-class discussions.

•Create a simple four-box chart with space to write and display responses for each strategy. The chart can be used with the entire class, and table teams contribute. Or you may wish to provide a chart for each table team to fill in or use sticky notes.

•The key is to cover all four strategies in every lesson! Students read one section of the social studies material and discuss all four strategies. Tomorrow, when reading the next segment of the chapter, they discuss responses for each of the four strategies for the new portion of text.

Close Reading Articles/ Fab Four Lesson

Reread, underline, circle, write in margins using colored pencils or highlighters.


Readers glance over the text to make predictions about content, organization, and author’s purpose. Use text features and discuss predictions with peers.


Students read the first time through a text on their own. Or for younger students or struggling readers, the teacher reads the aloud text first, and students reread it.


Students reread the text again circling challenging words or ideas to discuss with peers.


Readers pose questions to each other. Write questions in margins and sticky notes.


Reread to summarize the text. Mark the text by underlining, boxing, or starring main ideas.

Favorite Fab Four Lesson

Predict/Skim and Scan

Skim and scan with fingers and “mumble read.” What words pop while scanning? Make predictions and share.

Question/Flip It

Students underline a sentence in the text and “flip it” into a quiz or discussion question. Share and discuss.

Clarify/One Word/One Idea

Students identify one word and one sentence to clarify. Use two colors of sticky notes to mark. Share.

Summarize/Ten-Finger Summary

Students work in teams to create a brief summary of the reading.

Reciprocal Teaching Roles Lesson

Students read a designated portion of text while discussing the strategies and taking on the roles of predictor, clarifier, questioner, summarizer, and optional discussion director. Students may rotate roles and exchange jobs every few pages. The group may fill in a chart with responses.

Reciprocal Teaching References

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge

Oczkus, L.D. (2018) Reciprocal Teaching At Work: Powerful Strategies and Lessons for Improving Reading Comprehension 3rd edition. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. See ASCD for free webinar http://www.ascd.org/Publications/ascd-authors/lori-oczkus.aspx

Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1(2), 117-175.

Response From Keisha Rembert

Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and U.S. history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world’s most renowned universities. She has recently been named Illinois’ History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

The myths and lies of Christopher Columbus is the best lesson (or set of lessons) I have taught. This is one of the first lessons of the school year, and I want students to engage with social studies differently. I want them to interrogate and investigate sources, their past understandings and beliefs, and themselves. This is the perfect lesson for this because they come in thinking they know this already as most 8th graders come in thinking they have learned it all before. In the end, they are writing letters and showing empathy and angry that they did not know some of this information prior. I love to see them fired up and asking, “What’s next?” What else did I think I knew that I really had no idea about. I know I have hooked them when we get there.

Thanks to Rachel, Dawn, Julie, Cynthia, Andrew, Lori, and Keisha for their contributions.

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