Teaching Opinion

Response: Additional Ways We Can Teach Social Studies More Effectively -- Part Two

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 25, 2012 7 min read
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(This is the second post in a three part series. You can see Part One here)

I asked:

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

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

Today’s column offers responses from three more Social Studies teachers whom I know and respect: Eric Langhorst, Beth Sanders and Russel Tarr.

“Part Three” will appear next Wednesday, and will share many suggestions shared from readers (there’s still time if you would like to share yours!), along with my own advice.

The next “question of the week” will appear in a week.

Response From Eric Langhorst

Eric Langhorst is an 8th grade American history teacher at South Valley Jr. High School in Liberty, Missouri and is currently enjoying his 18th year in the classroom. He was the 2008 Missouri Teacher of the Year and is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on how social studies use Twitter to collaborate. Eric maintains a blog at Speaking Of History:

I think teachers can teach social studies effectively by creating personal connections between the content and their students. This advice not only applies to social studies, but any content area. I think social studies teachers have long been victims of the stereotypical history teacher who only gives multiple choice tests on the dates of battles and offers their students a steady diet of mind dumbing worksheets and lectures. This style of teaching is an injustice for any social studies teacher to deliver considering the intriguing and dynamic content in their curriculum.

Quality social studies teachers dig deeper than trivial facts, they encourage their students to learn by facilitating personal connections. Having a personal connection doesn’t mean the student must have a great grandfather that fought in the Civil War. It means that the student can find an emotional connection or reason for becoming personally invested in learning about the content. Most students will not enter your classroom with a wealth of pre existing knowledge of your history content, but they do enter with an understanding of a wide range of emotions. The 14 year old sitting in the fourth row of your 8th grade American history class needs a reason to care about the Revolutionary War. That student understands doubt, fear and perseverance - all qualities that a teacher can use to teach the plight of a teenage soldier in Washington’s army.

Social studies teachers need to capitalize on the richness of their content area. The best social studies teachers today are doing this using technology, incorporating higher order thinking skills in their lessons and assessing their students using standards based grading. Students need to get their hands dirty while learning social studies content in order to help them fulfill one of the most important reasons for this content area in public education: creating an informed citizenry capable of participating in a democracy.

Response From Beth Sanders

Beth Sanders teaches 9th and 11th grade social studies at inner-city Tarrant High School in Birmingham, Alabama, where her students recently participated in the iCitizenship project. She is also a technology consultant for the Alabama Best Practices Center and a Connected Coach for the Powerful Learning Practice Network.

Before we can become more effective social studies teachers, I think we need to redefine what we teach and then remodel how we teach. I’m often frustrated with being labeled narrowly as a “history” teacher. We need to learn from the past, but we also need to be able to apply that knowledge and understanding to our own present and future. In my classroom, I support my students in creating a basic knowledge of history, but that’s just the beginning. I’m most interested in helping them learn to apply history to current contexts.

To be an effective social studies teacher we don’t need to look much further than the definition of our content. Social: of or relating to society, companionable, public, shared, collective, common, community. Great social studies teachers do not drill and kill, great social studies teachers do not focus on dates and names and chapter reviews, great social studies teachers do not focus on the past but rather how to get students to connect the past to the present.

Great social studies teachers emphasize ideas, causes, effects, and actions across all of society, affecting all people, and not just the “facts” included in a textbook or the “winning” side of a story. Effective social studies teachers engage today’s students when we make discussing, questioning, writing, problem solving and creating on a critical level the daily norm. When we understand that each of our classrooms is itself a unique society and a place where real life not only needs to be read about and discussed, but is also happening every day, then we will become more effective. Most importantly, we will be preparing our students to enter a rapidly changing, extremely diverse, intrinsically connected society that needs more people who are prepared to listen, empathize, write, discuss, and problem solve -- not obsess on the past.

Response From Russel Tarr

Russel Tarr is the creator of activehistory.co.uk and classtools.net, two websites popular around the world among teachers and students. He is Head of History at the International School of Toulouse, France.

Russel offers several specific suggestions, including:

1. Base all your classroom lessons around questions, debates and decision-making simulations.

Start each lesson with a central question that we will be investigated so that there is an immediate sense of purpose and engagement. Investigate historical issues in the forms of debates and courtroom trials to get students using evidence critically and appreciating the importance of interpretation. For example, I study the French Revolution primarily through an extended courtroom trial of Louis XVI (me) complete with prosecution and defence teams who cross-examine the King and judges who produce ‘surprise witnesses’ (sources) which each team has to interpret and then persuade the judges to trust or distrust their evidence as appropriate.

When I look at the abolition of the slave trade, we adopt the format of ‘The Apprentice’ TV show, with each team producing a marketing campaign complete with logo, brand name, fundraising ideas, merchandise and suggested target audience. Each of these is presented to ‘Lord Sugartrader’ (the teacher) who interviews the team members and declares an overall winner before we compare these ideas to what was used by the real abolitionists.

Last but not least, I use interactive decision-making simulations on the computers so that students can reflect on how they would have reacted to various historical situations: for example, in role as the Kaiser before World War One, they decide how they would have reacted to the international situation as it unfolds before 1914 and thereby determine how far Wilhelm II was responsible for World War Two.

2. Infographics

I avoid getting each student to produce and then deliver a PowerPoint presentation to the rest of the class as this is very time-consuming and not particularly engaging (after the first few!). Instead I get students to produce a one-sided ‘infographic’ (e.g. on ‘a revolution in history’) using a tool like Popplet,which forces them to be much more concise and focused. We then place them all on one large display wall and students spend time spotting comparisons and contrasts between the causes and results of different revolutions - a much more efficient and engaging method.

3. Follow some Inspirational Blogs

I follow a number of history-related blogs in Google Reader (which I’ve organised into a bundle you can follow here and use Google Alerts to keep me posted aboutcurrent news items making mention (for example) of “Spanish Civil War” and any other topics I am currently studying with students. It all helps to keep lessons fresh.

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

Thanks to Eric, Beth and Russel 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 Part Three of this series next Tuesday and the next “question of the week” in a week.

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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.