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Classroom Q&A

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

Response: Social Studies Is ‘About Creating Skilled Inquirers’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 06, 2018 22 min read
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(This the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

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

In Part One, Diana Laufenberg, Sarah Cooper, Chris Hulleman, Suzie Boss, and Erin Brandvold shared their responses. 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.

Today, Andrew Kozlowsky, Greg Milo, Stephanie Smith, Dr. Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers, Andrew Miller, and Tamara Fyke contribute their ideas. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Andrew Kozlowsky

Andrew Kozlowsky is a teacher at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where he currently teaches AP US History and ESOL US History. Andrew’s education passions are standards-based grading, restorative justice, and educational technology. Andrew can be found on twitter at @mrkoz31:

I’ll start my answer to this question with the ways that would not make social studies more exciting. That would include lots of lecturing (no, your students don’t love your lectures, they’re just humoring you), individual work, reading textbook chapters, and frequent testing on content and facts.

So what does it look like when teachers make social studies exciting? Let’s start with content. Rather than lecturing, effective social studies teachers use the principles of Understanding by Design (UDL) to give students a choice of how they digest content knowledge. This can be accomplished by giving students a choice between reading a text or watching a video about a given topic. Student choice evokes more student buy-in. It’s not about how students learn the content, it’s about what they can do with the content.

Now let’s talk about individual work. Ironically, social studies is often taught in the most unsocial way. Lines of desks listening to the teacher drone on about the Smoot--Hawley Tariff (Bueller?). We need to put the “social” back in social studies. Teachers need to treat their social studies classes more like a biology lab where students work together to analyze evidence, create a hypothesis, and then support their claim. In short, students need to “do” history. Start each class with a provocative question that can be argued in multiple ways (ie. Can the Civil Rights movement be considered a success?) and then set the students free to investigate collaboratively on your carefully curated list of primary source documents (don’t forget to include audio, video, and image evidence too). Once evidence has been collected, students can have rich discussions about the topic. Most of the time I can just sit back as the students take control of their own learning! An early mentor in my career once told me “whoever is doing the talking, is doing the learning.”

Finally, what kind of activities should be observed in an effective social studies classroom? In the words of “Teach Like a Pirate” author Dave Burgess, “do you have any lessons that you could sell tickets to?” This requires creative thinking on the teacher’s part. In my US History class, I have done a Shark Tank style activity in which student groups had to “sell” a group of “investors” on their assigned invention. I had students making prototypes, dressing up, creating videos and songs, and even making food to try to get the most investment capital! I also do a Progressive Era speed dating activity in which each student is assigned a different progressive reformer. They create a dating profile and go on short dates, rating each other based on their similarities. Another activity that I designed was a Harlem Renaissance museum exhibit in which students researched a character from the Harlem Renaissance, pick an artifact that would be significant to that person, and described the person’s contribution to the Harlem Renaissance. The museum was created on Google Slides so when it’s completed, it becomes an interactive digital museum! Social studies teachers should also look into digital breakouts, where the students must find hints on a Google Site to crack various codes within a class period.

At the end of the day, it’s not the student’s job to come to class interested in social studies. It’s the teacher’s job to hook the students and make them actually care about learning. Let the creative juices flow. Give students opportunities for academic choice and they will surprise you with their ingenuity and hard work.

Response From Greg Milo

Greg Milo is the author of Rebooting Social Studies: Strategies for Reimagining History Classes (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), a collection of innovative approaches and constructive community partnerships that focus on making education relevant to students’ interests and future careers. He currently works with the Knight Foundation in Akron, Ohio, where he organizes local events that strive to bring people of the community together to learn about and brainstorm possibilities that activate and energize the city and its citizens:

Yes. Make it relevant for the students’ interests and future.

The goal of social studies is to build students’ problem-solving skills while encouraging active community involvement. Sure, this can be done by studying inspiring moments in U.S. history or by stressing the importance of the right to vote, but these can feel intangible and possibly dull for students.

A more practical approach to exciting students is to allow them to study and engage with their surroundings.

The study of the Industrial Revolution might have its moments in the textbook, but it’s difficult for students to feel a connection to the 1800s. However, the era can be brought to life. Challenge students to identify and engage with local entrepreneurs or experts in technology in the local community.

For instance, a student in love with fashion could interview an expert in the field who just opened up a hip clothing shop in the town square. Of course, the student could read Emile Zola’s The Ladies Paradise as a supplementary resource, but a teacher could also bring the experience to life by allowing the student to pick the brain of the local (living) business owner, learning not only what it took to open the shop, but also the strategies in bringing in customers. Every inventor in the 1800s had to do the same or risk not making the history books.

There’s a tech-obsessed student in the class? They could reach out to the entrepreneur who grew up tinkering with guitar effects pedals and now runs a successful business. Maybe the student isn’t a lover of music. If that’s the case, then the student could connect with the nearby university’s strong biomimicry program, 3D-printing a style of airplane wing inspired by the bone structure of birds.

Got a sports enthusiast in the class? Teachers could use sport teams’ nicknames as a connector between textbook and student interest. Studying the spread of Spanish or French influence across the Americas? Pull in the San Diego Padres or New Orleans Saints into the conversation. Challenge students to explain the origins of several teams that relate to the class discussion. Studying the growth of the United States and 20th century transportation? Ask students to examine teams that moved and why, such as the Brooklyn Dodgers or Minneapolis Lakers. Task them with spending some time with the local minor league baseball or softball coach or with an outstanding university soccer player.

Not only can a relevant and experiential approach be exciting for students, but it also plays into the interest of the local economy.

Cities are interested in keeping talent in town. To do so, we have to give students a reason to stay. How many of us hear students complain, “There’s nothing to do in (insert city)”?

If we take the opportunity as social studies teachers to introduce students to their city and future opportunities in the students’ community, we’ll help build awareness that will develop into a relationship between students and the city.

And this can all be done by removing the four walls of the classroom and innovating ways that link the mandated content with the community. It’s not that hard, really. We’re talking about social science, which means it deals with society, be it the past, today, or into the future.

Ultimately, invite leaders from the community into the school to hear the students’ presentation on the findings they uncovered from interacting with local experts. The invited leaders could provide feedback to the students, while enriching a class dialogue that provides students insight into possible careers.

Response From Stephanie Smith

Stephanie Smith is the editorial director of Scholastic News® for grades 3-6, a collection of classroom magazines focused on current events and nonfiction literacy skill-building:

Social studies has long had a bad reputation for being boring. And there’s a reason for that. Learning about history and civics by studying encyclopedic materials is often quite a yawn. And all too often, students don’t understand why they should care--why history and civics relate to their lives.

We know that we need to make our social studies magazines at Scholastic (Scholastic News®, Junior Scholastic, and The New York Times Upfront) exciting and relevant to kids, to get them hooked on being critical thinkers and engaged citizens. To do that, we connect the past to the present, personalize topics, and present information in engaging ways. Basically, we make social studies all about our readers. Here are some examples of how we do that:

For upper-elementary students:

  • Use interactive online resources to turn what could be boring, text-based civics lessons into fun.

    For last year’s election, we created a website that focused on interactive timelines, maps, and games that explained the electoral process. It also included a mock election poll where kids could cast their votes for president.

  • Make history personal

    . For a recent article about Ellis Island and immigration in America, one of our editors interviewed her grandmother, who came to the U.S. on a ship from Italy more than 80 years ago. In the interview, she talks about what it was like to take a long boat ride to America and what her family’s experience at Ellis Island was like.

  • Give kids a voice.

    We publish debates that get kids thinking critically about civic issues, including topics like whether voting should be required by law. Kids love to debate these issues in the classroom and vote online in our polls.

For middle school and high school students:

  • Put current events in context so students understand how the past influences the present

    . A recent feature on the death of Fidel Castro, for example, explains how current tensions between the U.S. and Cuba are rooted in the complex history the two countries share. Similarly, our article on the history of immigration in the U.S. shows that the nation has long had a love-hate relationship with newcomers.

  • Feature the stories of young people to draw teens in and make them feel that current events are connected to them.

    A recent profile of North Korea included an interview with a North Korean who escaped to China at age 16 and is now a college student in the United States. An article on President Trump’s travel ban included opinions from college students on opposing sides of the issue.

  • Include lots of articles about media literacy. We know teenagers are just starting to become real consumers of news and information

    and they need help understanding how the media works. Our recent cover stories on fake news included a how-to guide on spotting fake news and vetting sources.

  • Inspire students to make a difference in their communities by highlighting teens who are working for change. From a 15-year-old who developed an app to combat cyber bullying to a 17-year-old who invented a way to transport and store vaccines in developing countries, we show that young people have the power to change the world.

Teachers routinely tell us that they use magazines in the classroom because of how much the content engages their students. Kids connect with stories, and in doing so, with their world, and they realize they have a voice and role to play in it. What’s more exciting than that?

Response From Dr. Donna Wilson & Marcus Conyers

Dr. Donna Wilson is an author and psychologist who conducts professional development internationally for teachers, administrators, and policymakers. Donna’s blog can be found here and she can be contacted directly at Donna@brainsmart.org.

Marcus Conyers is a doctoral researcher at the University of Westminster and founder of BrainSMART, Inc. Donna and Marcus are the developers of the Drive Your Brain® program and their latest book is Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas, published by ASCD:

Readers of our blog postings may have noticed that one of our passions is to empower teachers with innovative practical strategies that support teaching in ways that help students achieve at higher levels. Additionally, in one of our books, “Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas” (ASCD, 2016), we share a combination of cognitive and metacognitive strategies including a chapter on attention and memory skills.

In response to many classroom teachers’ requests for strategies that can help their students pay attention and retain the lessons they taught them, we developed over one hundred strategies, including one process called memory scaping. This process uses the power of location and movement, as well as episodic and sensory learning systems, to increase student engagement attention and recall of content. Teachers often use this strategy as a brief “hook” to engage students in the topic before facilitating higher-order thinking skills through active student learning with Internet searches, reading, analysis of historical movies, debates, and in other ways. Our memory scape strategy can be used across appropriate content and grade levels.

So that interested readers can see us teach this strategy, we have posted part of a keynote presentation to educators where this tool was taught alongside research and other BrainSMART strategies we teach. In the video clip, you will see Donna “memory scape” a short bit of the Battle of Waterloo. You will notice that she began on my right side of the room, briefly describing the red English uniforms and how the soldiers used their muskets as they moved across the field. She then physically moved to the left side of the room to describe the French, dressed in blue, with their black hats, aiming their cannon at the approaching troops. After this, she moved to the back of the room to describe the Prussian cavalry dressed in black, riding down the hill, and then to the front of the room to describe the rockets bursting up above. When she presented the Battle of Waterloo this way, the participants had a lot more fun during the presentation and could easily recall the elements of what I had taught afterward.

Imagine creating a giant memory scape in the gymnasium, using string to mark out different countries. Envisage then getting a student to be the leader of each country and to learn five key facts about that country. Now imagine each child going for a voyage around the world, learning information from each leader. There are endless numbers of ways our memory scape tool can be used to facilitate student learning through engagement, greater attention, and recall of key information.

One of the most thrilling benefits of applying such tools is to see students who are brimming with so much confidence that they can pay attention in class and have retained the information. Often they cannot wait to show off the knowledge learned from their teachers’ use of the strategy! Then they are motivated to continue learning about the content through other means. Teachers we have taught have found the memory scape strategy to be especially effective as a tool for assisting students who have learning challenges such as poor motivation, attention, and memory.

The following are examples of many resources that could be used to facilitate student learning about the Battle of Waterloo:

    1. Time World Article “7 Reasons Why The Battle of Waterloo is Still Important
    2. PBS “Waterloo Interactive Battle Simulator
    3. Top 10 Battle of Waterloo Games
    4. 2005 Discovery Channel series, “Battleground: The Art of War” “Battle of Waterloo,” one episode

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller started his teaching career at a traditional high school in the areas of English and Social studies. He then transferred to be founding faculty member at a new school focused on Project Based Learning and STEAM education. After successfully implementing numerous projects across grades 6-12 he took the opportunity to become a full-time faculty member of the Buck Institute for Education. He is also a consultant with ASCD and writes regularly for Edutopia. Currently, Andrew is back in the day-to-day work of education at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China where he serves as an instructional coach:

Questions and inquiry should be at the focus of social studies education. We need students of all ages to practice the art of being historians by investigating history through powerful questions.

These questions might be about themes, time periods, events, and more. Questions allow us to focus on “uncovering” history rather than “covering” it from the lens of content. Questions lead to further questions and both leverage and build curious individuals who want to learn. These inquiries might take on the form of authentic projects with products for a public audience, or they might be straight-forward investigations that allows us to wonder. Questions and inquiry might lead us to the “right” answer, but they shouldn’t be focused on that.

When we design learning for our social studies classes, we should focus creating authentic questions that will engage students in learning, not simply questions that are focused on the right response. These questions can be posed by teachers or can come from our students themselves. Our younger students are naturally curious, but a strange transformation occurs to many of them as they get older. Some of our older students don’t ask questions or openly resist the process. If we focus social studies on questions an inquiry, we can sustain and build a student and citizen that is constantly wondering about the world around him/her. With the implementation of the new C3 Standards for Social studies, there is a greater emphasis on questions. In fact, the first dimension is focused purely on that. Social Studies isn’t just content, it’s about creating skilled inquirers of the social studies, no matter if that is psychology, world history, economics, or other disciplines.

Response From Tamara Fyke

Tamara Fyke (@entrprenurgirl) is a creative entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families, and urban communities, and is the creator/author and brand manager for Love In A Big World with Abingdon Press. She received her master’s degree in education from Peabody at Vanderbilt. Tamara lives in Nashville with her three amazing children she adopted. She has worked for over twenty years in the field of social & emotional learning with Love In A Big World―to learn about the Love In A Big World curriculum, with character development and social & emotional learning at its core, visit www.loveinabigworld.com:

One way to make Social Studies come alive is by framing it with social & emotional learning. Social & emotional learning engages the body, mind and spirit through content and process while teaching specific competencies, such as self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.


Bettelheim (1977) tells us that we learn best through stories. Social Studies is the unfolding story of humanity. Sharing the drama engages students. Focus on:

  • Characters - Give the backstory on the heroes and villains of the day.
  • Themes - Make the major ideas of the age explicit.
  • Plot Development - Illustrate the changes from one culture to another or one generation to the next.

The goal is to help students see that Social Studies is an ongoing story in which they play a part, thereby, cultivating both social awareness and self-awareness. No matter what the era or region, connections can be made to the present day. The more personal the application the better.

Here is an example of how to frame major developments in racism in the United States with the concept of Courage, which is one of the traits related to responsible decision-making.

Courage is standing up for what is right; facing your fears.

How was Abraham Lincoln courageous - stand for what is right? How did Lincoln’s courage pave the way for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement? Do we need leaders like Lincoln and MLK today? Why or why not?


Providing time and space for students to wrestle with big ideas and how they apply to their lives is paramount. This can be done by integrating other curricula standards, especially literacy, art and technology, with Social Studies. In order to engage students in deep thinking about the questions of courage and racism mentioned above, you can use the following processes that require them to exercise their self-management and relationship skills:

  • Guided Conversation - Present the questions and give students the opportunity to respond. Be sure to explain norms first so everyone feels safe sharing their thoughts and ideas.
  • Journaling - Present the questions and have students reflect and write about them in a notebook dedicated to Big Ideas.
  • News Report - Have students work collaboratively in groups to research their responses to the questions. Have them write and produce a News Report to share with the class. Costumes and scripts are welcome!

Additionally, acknowledging the desire students have to make a difference in the world and providing opportunities for them to do so through service learning and project-based learning empowers them for social justice. They need to know that they are vital players in our ongoing story.

Responses From Readers

Pamela Broussard:

For each chapter in our history book, I use realia, props, and costumes. I also try to include video and music clips. For example, last week we were studying Williamsburg and these were the props. 1. We have an easier version of our textbook, that I read and explain vocab and simple concepts. 2. Then, each student was assigned a section of the chapter in the more challenging textbook and presented their ppt of their section. (In this case, they were Trades, Religion, Government, Slavery, etc..) 3. Then props were numbered and students were asked where these items would be found in Williamsburg and were required to use text evidence to support their answer. This week we did the chapter: Tension between Colonies and Britain. I had a colonial ship, colonist hats, headdresses, tea, snowballs (wads of paper), a red blazer, plastic sword, gold coins, a crown, large copy of original stamp act stamp and the protesting stamp, a globe, etc. Students acted out as I read (Readers theater style). Then, we sang. and watched a “No taxation without representation” video after it. I usually add a Liberty Kids video too but ran out of time. I hated history in school but love it now that we act out, discuss motives, compare it to other events, etc.

Thanks to Stephanie, Greg, Donna, Marcus, Andrew and Tamara, and to readers, for their contributions!

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