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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Helping Students ‘Get Into History’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 03, 2018 18 min read
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(This the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

Are there curricula or strategies I can use to make social studies exciting to my students?

Who among us has never been told by a student that one of our lessons was boring? Many teachers are always looking for ideas on how to make their learning activities more exciting, and those of us who teach social studies are no different.

This series will share many different suggestions from educators to do just that!

Today’s contributors are Diana Laufenberg, Sarah Cooper, Chris Hulleman, Suzie Boss, and Erin Brandvold. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Diana, Sarah and Chris on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Before we go to the guest contributors today, I’d like to put in my “two cents.”

Key tools and strategies I use to make my lessons both effective and exciting include using inductive learning, games, online resources for World History, U.S. History and Geography, current events, and culturally responsive teaching.

Probably the most helpful resource I can share, though, is a chapter from one of my books that the publisher has made freely accessible online to all.

It’s from Helping Students Motivate Themselves, and the chapter is title What Are the Best Things You Can Do to Maximize the Chances of a Lesson Being Successful?

It’s filled with specific ideas on how to plan engaging lessons.

You might also be interested in past posts that have appeared here on Teaching Social Studies.

Response From Diana Laufenberg

For 16 years, Diana Laufenberg taught social studies to 7th-12th grade students in Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Most recently, Diana Laufenberg partnered with Chris Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools, a new non-profit working to create and support student centered learning environments that are inquiry driven, project based and utilize modern technology. She currently serves as the Executive Director and Lead Teacher for Inquiry Schools:

Inquiry is one of the best tools in the toolbox for making social studies exciting. From the student perspective, social studies can seem static and settled. While teachers know this is not the case, making that truth apparent and meaningful for students takes effort. Visuals, current events and primary sources are the keys to an increased level of excitement, relevance and meaningfulness.

Using data visualizations is one of my favorite strategies to bridge the gap between interest and the student. Discovery and curiosity can be incredibly useful tools to make social studies exciting. For instance, Dollar Street could be used to get students aware of the diversity of life experiences throughout the world. The activity would be to send students into the resources to come up with questions and wonderings about what they see. When you talk about Japanese Internment—start with the questions that arise from this graphic. I’ve never seen a class more interested in the Gettysburg Address than when it was presented in a new way. The key is the idea that there is discovery and curiosity to be had within so many engaging resources—start with that instead of a lecture telling students the background. Let them explore, discover, and wonder as a gateway to the learning.

Another angle is to ground your class in current events. The relevance of historical and social studies concepts is immense and social studies teachers teach because of it. Remember to intentionally build a classroom experience that honors that goal. If you believe in relevance, make current events part of the classroom routine. Let the conversation of the present constantly be informed by the conversation about the past and vice versa. Do more than CNN news. Really think about how to empower your students to make sense of their world by understanding the connections between past and present.

Teach them how to make sense of information—teach them how to be critical consumers of information from the past and present. Provide them with a bevy of sense making tools to go out into the world of information. The social studies classroom has the potential to change the way that people make their way through life, consuming and producing information along the way. As critical as people find math and reading, there is a case to be made that engaging students in a robust social studies education is equally as important if we expect a robust democracy to thrive. Teachers need to remember that the social studies content is a gateway to a skill set, not just a destination for content acquisition. In my opinion, this is when social studies gets exciting.

Response From Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is Dean of Studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9 (Stenhouse, 2009) and Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom, Grades 6-9 (Routledge, 2017):

When my school has gathered data from our students through the High School Survey of Student Engagement and Middle Grades Survey of Student Engagement, a few favorite kinds of activities appear over and over again: discussions and debates, group projects, role plays.

Our middle and high school students, probably like yours, love to interact, be on their feet, get into history. They also enjoy connecting past to present so that they can understand the context of current issues.

Here are five curricular programs, among many excellent ones out there, that ask students to dive into the excitement of history from the outset. I’ve used all of them to one degree or another, if not the actual plans than the inspiration or sources behind them.

Many materials from the following three programs are free with registration:

Big History Project

Big History, an ambitious project funded in part by Bill Gates, focuses on understandings over time and across subject areas: on “thinking across scale, integrating multiple disciplines, and making and testing claims,” according to its FAQ. The resources available are astonishing in scope and depth, and you’ll likely learn a lot from reading them!

Facing History and Ourselves

Facing History and Ourselves starts with students’ own identities to help them connect with “upstanders” who have stood up again injustice throughout history, including during the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. The materials and workshops focus heavily on empathy and ethics, making for important discussions.

Reading Like a Historian

Reading Like a Historian by the Stanford History Education Group offers rich lesson plans grounded in interesting primary source documents. Topics include Hamilton v. Jefferson and Anti-Suffragists for U.S. history and Ibn Battuta and Castro and the United States for world history.

These two programs are commercial:

The Choices Program

The Choices Program, developed through Brown University, pulls together past and present to help students make sense of current issues. A typical unit is Empire, Republic, Democracy: Turkey’s Past and Future, which begins with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and traces Turkey’s history through the twentieth century to the present.

Teachers’ Curriculum Institute

In my experience, TCI makes elementary, middle or high school social studies fun and engaging. The interactive and visual materials appeal to students and also ask them to be active learners at every step. When I’ve used the program in middle school world and U.S. history teaching, I’ve been grateful for detailed, fun lesson plans that would have taken me hours to brainstorm and create on my own.

Response From Chris Hulleman

Chris Hulleman is principal investigator of the Motivate Lab and associate research professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. His research explores how motivation and mindsets impact human development and growth, particularly in education. Prior to his career in psychology, he spent six years as a teacher and coach in Iowa:

The first time I was asked how to motivate a teenager, I was in a hospital gown about to have my annual physical. My doctor had just discovered I studied motivation and wanted to know how to get his 13-year-old son to do his homework. I’ve since discovered that mentioning I’m a motivation researcher is sure to elicit a story about an unmotivated child and a subsequent request for help. I often have little time—and even less background information—to craft a detailed response, so I’ve honed in on three questions that seem to help people (in this case, teachers) develop solutions to their motivation challenges.

These questions are grounded in a theory of motivation that much of my research is based on (i.e., Expectancy-Value-Cost Model):

  1. What are you doing to help students feel competent?

  2. What are you doing to help students find purpose and relevance in what they are learning?

  3. What are you doing to reduce obstacles for student learning?


When students believe they are capable of learning, they are more likely to engage in learning activities—even if they are difficult. Their expectations for what they can do rise, whether it be learning a difficult concept or doing well on an exam. It could be tempting to reduce learning standards (i.e., “dumb-down” the curriculum) in an effort to help students be more confident. However, this approach will be short-lived, and potentially backfire, when students encounter more difficult material. In fact, students are more persistent when facing challenges when they know their teachers hold high expectations for them and believe in their ability to meet them. Instead, the key is to provide realistic learning challenges and match the challenge with appropriate instructional support.

Three important methods of sustaining students’ belief in their capacity to learn while maintaining challenge are:

  1. Providing timely, specific, task-focused feedback


  2. Encouraging students to see that they can improve their abilities over time through attempting challenging tasks and learning from their mistakes (i.e., growth mindset


  3. Differentiating instruction to meet individual student needs and interests (see here for 18 tips on differentiating instruction).

Purpose and Relevance

Teachers often report struggling to help students find personal meaning and relevance in the learning material. As I’ve written elsewhere, the most powerful way to get students excited about learning is by helping them discover the personal meaning and relevance of what they’re learning in school.

Here are a few ways teachers can help students make personal connections between their lives and the learning material:

  1. Provide students with reflective writing activities that help them think about the learning material and their lives. Based on our experimental research and design-testing work with the Character Lab, we have designed the Making Connections

    activity, which is a brief writing exercise that teachers can do with their entire class or smaller groups of students to build connections between students’ lives and the learning content.

  2. Directly connect topics from history to high-profile social topics in the news—such as bigotry and racism—by engaging students in respectful and productive discussion (see here

    for some ideas how).

  3. Build on students’ lived experiences to inform the topics you teach and how you connect them to contemporary topics (see here for an article on the impact of culturally relevant pedagogy).

Reducing Obstacles

One common and significant obstacle to learning is when students question whether they belong in their classroom or school. Students can become vigilant to cues of non-belonging, and have increased concerns about being judged negatively due to negative stereotypes about their group (i.e., stereotype threat). For example, on the first day of class, a female student notices several male students exchanging hand-shakes after her computer science class and wonders if she will be accepted. These feelings of uncertainty can interfere with learning and produce increasingly negative cycles of disengagement and underperformance.

Teachers can help counteract these feelings by:

  1. Creating an environment that is welcoming to all students by doing such things as cooperatively establishing classroom norms and examining your own biases (see here and here

    for great resources from the University of Virginia and UC-Berkeley).

  2. Structuring the learning context so that students can form meaningful bonds, through small-group interactions and group problem solving (see here

    for more strategies for belonging).

  3. Helping transitioning students recognize that feelings of belonging uncertainty are common to most students and often temporary.


Oftentimes we think about kids being excited in the moment. However, engagement doesn’t need to consist of teachers doing tricks to entertain students. Research indicates that what really maintains students’ interest and motivation over time is whether or not students believe they are capable of learning (Do they feel competent?), whether they find value and meaning in learning (Do they see purpose and relevance in what they are learning?), and are they are free from worries and concerns about being in the learning context (Are they free of learning obstacles?).

Response From Suzie Boss

Suzie Boss is a writer and educational consultant from Portland, Ore., who focuses on real-world, project-based learning. Her most recent books are All Together Now: How to Engage Your Stakeholders in Reimagining School and The Power of a Plant: A Teacher’s Odyssey to Grow Healthy Minds and Schools (by Stephen Ritz with Suzie Boss):

You don’t have to look far within the discipline of social studies to find provocative, real-world questions: What are my responsibilities as a citizen in a democracy? How can I figure out which information I can trust? How can my understanding of history help me make better decisions today? How can I make a difference on local or global issues?

The daily applications of this discipline—voting, serving on juries, volunteering, speaking out about social issues, being critical media consumers—are easy for students to appreciate. Yet social studies have been “marginalized,” according to the National Council of the Social Studies, with less instructional time devoted to this discipline starting in the elementary grades.

Here are some strategies for making more time for social studies—and making sure that it’s time well-spent on high-interest learning.

Focus locally: Engaged citizens are able to identify and tackle challenges in their own communities. Instead of giving students ready-made problems to solve, help them develop their problem-finding skills. Teach them how to conduct surveys, facilitate focus groups, host community forums, analyze data, map problems, listen to diverse perspectives, and leverage other tools from the social sciences. Once students are better informed about local issues they care about, they’ll be better prepared to take action.

Connect across disciplines: Look for opportunities to team up with teachers from other disciplines to design real-world projects that require the thinking skills of social scientists. For example, a science project on water or air pollution might also explore issues of environmental racism and social justice. A math project that involves statistics could be an opportunity for social studies students to design statistically valid surveys about relevant issues. A unit or project on social and political movements in history could easily incorporate literature study of biographies of social action heroes.

Encourage reflection: Do students have the confidence to speak up about issues or controversies that concern them? Are they able to consider perspectives different from their own? How can they tell whether their actions will make a difference in their community or the wider world? Encourage them to reflect on their learning experiences and become more aware of their own engagement as citizens.

Response From Erin Brandvold

Erin Brandvold is a National Board Certified Teacher in History and Social Studies at the Impact Academy of Arts and Technology, and she facilitates candidates through the certification process at the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

I cannot believe my ears when, year after year, students come to my class saying that they think history classes are boring. History is the study and stories of people, battles, triumphs, sorrows, blood, sweat, and tears. It is anything but boring. However, my students often say that they’ve had years of Social Studies classes that consisted solely of reading from text books and memorizing names and dates of old white people. To make social studies exciting to students, I believe there are three key actions teachers must take: make the content relevant, ensure that students are doing deep thinking, and empower students to become activists in our world today.

To make social studies exciting to students, the most important thing that teachers can do is to make sure what they’re teaching is relevant. I have struggled year after year to make World War One feel relevant to my students. I think it is important for them to know because it shaped so much of our world today, but I also recognize that it can feel like something that happened a million years ago to people who look nothing like my students. This year, I focused on the technological changes that occurred during WWI and asked students to analyze the use of chemical weapons during WWI and today in Syria. Because there was a connection that felt real and important in our world today, students were engaged and excited to learn about a war that happened 100 years ago.

In a recent unit on global revolutions, history came alive for my students because they were required to think deeply about their learning. They took part in a simulation of how revolutions begin, they chose between five different revolutions from different time periods and parts of the world, and they participated in a mock trial to determine if the revolution was successful, with the help of local lawyers in their trial preparation. Throughout the unit, students were required to know a lot of content, but their learning didn’t stop there. They also had to do something with that content. If we move past knowledge toward application and ask our students to analyze and evaluate historic events, they become active participants in their learning. Teachers Curriculum Institute and the Buck Institute for Education are excellent resources for developing meaningful and engaging curricula for students.

Finally, I love Social Studies because it helps inform my world view and take action as a global citizen. If we highlight the ways that people have impacted the world and empower our students to use their knowledge of society to create meaningful change, they not only become more excited in our classes, but they become active and engaged citizens of the world; to me, that is the ultimate goal. While learning about history, students will notice patterns of injustice, inequities, and oppression. They will also notice people who stand up, create change, and make things better. Facing History and Teaching Tolerance are both great places to start if teaching activism is new to you. I believe it is our responsibility to give students opportunities to practice their leadership skills, become active in their schools and communities, and act against the inequities they see around them. That is what makes learning about history and society exciting.

Thanks to Diana, Sarah, Chris, Suzie, and Erin for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

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Implementing The Common Core

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

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Look for Part Two in a few days.

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