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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Students Need to DO History, Not Just Listen to It’

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 21, 2019 20 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the biggest mistakes made in social science instruction and what should teachers do instead?

We all make mistakes in the classroom, and this post is the last in a series highlighting ones that might or might not be unique to our content areas.

Today’s post focuses on social studies instruction.

Annie Brown, Amy Okimoto, Amy Fast, Lynette Yorgason, Mike Kaechele, and Dr. Rebecca Testa-Ryan share their thoughts, and I also include several comments from readers.

In addition, you might be interested in past posts here on Social Studies Instruction.

Though I’m not hosting radio shows this summer to accompany blog posts, you can still listen to past BAM! Radio Shows. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Annie Brown

Annie Brown (@anniebrown617) works as a high school humanities teacher, coach for new teachers, and curriculum developer. Annie has been a member of the Los Angeles Facing History Teacher Leadership Team and an ASCD Emerging Leader. She writes frequently on topics in social studies, social justice, and education:

Delivering lectures, making timelines, and memorizing vocabulary terms may have a place in your class but, hopefully, it’s a supporting role. If you want to transform your classroom, putting students in the role of historians should take center stage. Students need to DO history, not just listen to it. The biggest mistake that social studies teachers make is focusing on delivering content. Instead we need to guide students to develop historical thinking skills by teaching through inquiry.

If we shift our own mindset about what history is, we can change students’ mindsets as well. Instead of viewing history as facts to memorize, we should think of history as the complex and competing interpretations of those facts resulting from a careful examination of historical evidence. This means less focus on information and more focus on process. Approaching history through inquiry can alleviate other challenges social studies teachers face: Instead of the mad dash to cover an endless number of topics (which can be overwhelming to students and teachers), teachers can select topics that they see as generative, engaging, and relevant to big questions facing society today. If you teach with essential questions, you have the seeds of inquiry in your curriculum.

*The Inquiry Process - Like a detective solving a crime, inquiry begins with a question and focuses on examining evidence including witness testimony to draw conclusions. In the history classroom, you should:

1) Center each inquiry on a historical question that is significant and sufficiently complex to promote discussion. It should require factual evidence, not just personal opinions such as: “Why did the United States use atomic weapons on Japan?

2) Guide students by providing them with primary sources from a range of perspectives. Students should read these closely, compare documents, and discuss.

3) Invite students to draw their own conclusions about the focus question based on the sources.

Inquiry allows students to practice key historical thinking skills that include: developing questions, close reading and corroboration of sources, and supporting claims with evidence. These key skills relate to the Common Core State Standards and, importantly, are transferable to research and media literacy.

*Build Historical Thinking Skills - We have all had that experience where students declare—almost proudly—that they have forgotten everything they learned as soon as the test is over. One advantage of teaching history as a process is that it can be repeated with each new topic so students gain proficiency in the skills. When I started teaching, I was a little envious of my English colleagues who seemed only to work on one set of skills—analyzing literature to write essays—all year while in history, we had so much to cover. In recent years, I’ve had an epiphany—teaching through inquiry provides those anchor skills so it isn’t an add-on, it actually simplifies what we have to do.

Inquiry can be a class-period activity or an entire unit. True, creating powerful inquiry questions and finding great primary sources can be time-consuming. Also true, inquiry is not as easily tested by multiple-choice questions so assessment becomes more complex. In my experience, these investments in time are worth the trouble. Well-planned inquiry activities or units will authentically engage your students and even increase retention of factual information. No matter the topic, you will help build students’ skills in thinking historically. Inquiry transforms the discussion from summarizing events (what, when, and where) to analyzing events (asking why events took place and how they had an impact). Facts are still important, but they become the means to a claim, not an end in themselves.

Response From Amy Okimoto

Amy Okimoto is a 3rd grade teacher at the Cherry Creek school district in Aurora, Colo. She is a “reader, writer, educator, Twitter nerd, chef, athlete, friend, sister, daughter, traveler, lover of puppy snuggles, small moments of delight and discovery, and joyful learning.”

In my home state of Colorado, teaching social studies at the elementary level has all but fallen by the wayside in many districts, mine included. Increased emphasis on literacy at the primary grades, resulting from state legislation (READ Act, to be specific) has forced social studies instruction out the door. When most social studies instruction does take place, it is lacking in high levels of engagement, thus missing the opportunity to empower and excite students. In my opinion, the largest mistakes made in social science instruction are 1) over-reliance on packaged curriculum, 2) lack of integration of disciplinary literacy into lesson experiences, and finally, 3) lack of inquiry-based instruction incorporated into social studies.

Teachers instead should fully embrace the concept that social studies is not simply maps and history but instead the rich connections between humans, resources, and land, and how those interactions have shaped history. “Social studies at the elementary level should provide students with purposeful and meaningful learning experiences that are challenging, of high quality, developmentally appropriate, and reflective of contemporary social and diverse global realities.” (National Council for Social Studies Position Statement, 2017) Evolving the teacher’s own perspective of the subject can be remarkably eye-opening and offer a gateway to a greater appreciation for how to guide learning experiences for students that will be of greater benefit.

As a lover of museums, especially those about history, I think about the interesting and engaging artifacts on display. I often find myself transfixed by a certain artifact, examining it from different angles and taking in the appearance of the object solely. After I have connected with the object, I then, as many museum goers do, read the information panel to find out the story of the artifact and how it connects to the bigger story of history. When we hand students, particularly young students, social studies textbooks, it is as if we are giving them a series of museum text panels without the benefit of the artifact themselves. The text is organized, and yes, there are often glossy photographs accompanying the text, but the opportunity for engagement and inquiry is glaringly absent. We need to provide students opportunities to connect to primary sources and build schema about the story through authentic inquiry.

Suggestions I would make include the incorporation of the Historical Literacy Skills into the framework of instruction. This allows students to integrate reading and writing. These skills allow student historians to READ sources (primary or secondary) with the intent to interpret the past and create a narrative account that involves: 1. Sourcing, 2.Contextualizing, 3. Corroborating, and 4. Close Reading.

Additionally, I would recommend the increased use of primary sources. Through digital media, there is wide access to a significant number of documents, photographs, videos, etc., that can drastically increase engagement and inquiry. One phenomenal resource is the Library of Congress. In addition to offering wide resources, the Library of Congress also offers great instructional strategies for teachers to utilize primary resources effectively.

Finally, I find that the translation of social studies content into community activism is a method to engage, empower, and connect with students. I think of today’s current political climate and how many students of color are feeling disillusioned by our government. By connecting directly to community action in relevant, meaningful ways, such as letter writing campaigns to Congress, fundraising efforts to help those affected by natural disasters, etc., students become enlightened, aware, and involved.

Response From Amy Fast

Amy Fast is an assistant principal in McMinnville Ore., education commentator, and author of Its the Mission, Not the Mandates: Defining the Purpose of Public Education:

I was recently in an interview where we asked the applicants, “How do you bring social studies content to life in your classroom in order to make it relevant to students?” One candidate replied, “Social studies is the study of us. It doesn’t get much more relevant than that!” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of “social” is “of or relating to human society, the interaction of the individual and the group, or the welfare of human beings as members of society.”

“The welfare of human beings” ... That candidate was right. I can’t think of anything more relevant to learners than that. When we step back and look at the large goals of studying how to improve the welfare of human beings, what we need to do with our social studies curriculum and instruction becomes much clearer. Improving the human condition will never happen if we focus on surface knowledge such as the memorization of names, dates, and events. Studying what makes humans tick—what motivates us, what mistakes we’ve made over and over, what kind of society we want to live in, and what kind of role we could and should play in that society—is at the heart of social studies instruction.

Too often we study the outside world without examining our role in it. Because children by nature are more egocentric (which isn’t a bad thing—just a developmental thing), we should start with what’s happening in their inner world and their social world and then connect the learning about the outside world to that. For example, middle school is all about experimenting with that rub between personal freedom and personal responsibility. The end goal of our social studies instruction should be about giving students more insight into how to navigate those seemingly paradoxical existences, and we can do this through the lens of places in the world and in history and current events where we see this struggle play out.

Examples of universal ideas that explore how to be in the world play out across geography and across history. Why do we base our social studies instruction on a point in time or a place on a map? Wouldn’t it be more relevant and engaging to students to base it on a universal idea—one that they can see reflected in their own lives? Conflict and cooperation, freedom vs. responsibility, equal vs equitable, culture and personal identity, the role and the potential dangers of who holds the power, the individual vs. the greater good: These are just a few of the concepts that students and entire societies navigate continually. Let’s make that connection more explicit by making the study of us reflect us more.

Response From Lynette Yorgason

Lynette Yorgason is a history teacher and a second-year Utah Teacher Fellow with NNSTOY and Hope Street. She will be starting her seventh year of teaching in the fall of 2019 and so has officially passed the fifth-year hurdle and hopefully will no longer feel like the baby of every faculty:

The oft-quoted “Bueller? Bueller?” for many people recreates a scene that is something to both laugh at and to bond with others about, recalling their terribly boring history teachers. For today’s history teachers, however, it’s an incredibly ridiculous and frustrating piece of popular culture that asserts a sense of monotony and boredom about history classes. Thankfully, the history classes of today look very little like actor Ben Stein’s lecture on the Smoot-Hawley Tariffs (which is an extremely interesting, exciting, and particularly relevant piece of history right now). However, even as the world of pedagogy has moved away from lectures and regurgitating information, history teachers can still have a hard time focusing on skills and letting learning be student-driven.

And who can blame them? Have you ever noticed that many other subjects are inherently based on skills? Mathematics is about the act of figuring out equations and problems and solving them. Science is about observing, conducting experiments, and analyzing your results. Language arts classes are about writing correctly, forming arguments, and reading critically. History, however, has been considered by many to be a place of memorizing dates, names, and important events. Much less attention has been paid to the skills of history until recently. (For some great reading on historical skills, check out Building Students’ Historical Literacies: Learning to Read and Reason with Historical Texts and Evidence by Jeffery Nokes.)

I grew up taking very content-heavy history classes, and as much as I say that the history classes I teach are different from that, I know that’s not always the case. So when I take a look at my history classroom, these are the questions I ask myself.

1 - What are my students really being graded on?

I can talk the talk of a skills-based curriculum, but when it comes down to it, are my students actually earning most of their grades from their skills or from a traditional content-based test?

2 - Do my students know what “historical skills” I am trying to teach them?

Do my students even know that comparing, contextualizing, sourcing, and many other things are deliberate historical skills that they are supposed to learn? Or am I giving them activities where they are interacting with those skills but never truly identifying them?

3 - Are my students getting their information in just one way?

Sure my students don’t just come in and take notes the whole class, but do they only get new information through lectures? Or am I exposing them to a variety of skills for how to learn information like reading sources, watching videos, or even talking to people with authority on the subject?

And finally:

4 - Is my class fun?

Sometimes when we feel a subject is fun to us, it’s hard to tell if the students feel the same. Of course we don’t have to have maximum fun all the time, but active learning is fun learning, and history can just be as active as any other subject.

What I really hope is that we all teach the kind of history classes that never would have shown up in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” In fact, maybe next time you’re watching it with your family, you can pause the movie and show them how you would teach the Smoot-Hawley Tariffs.

Response From Mike Kaechele

Mike Kaechele is a history teacher in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a member of the National Faculty for Buck Institute for Education. He believes in student-centered learning by giving kids authentic opportunities to do real work with local community partners:

Biggest Mistakes in Social Studies:

Trivia Crack. Remember that app from a few years back? History facts are great for nerdy parties, Jeopardy, and certain board games, but beyond that, they are useless without some context and application. Besides, anyone can look up that stuff on their phones so it’s less impressive than it used to be. Instead of lecture, notes, test, repeat; try Project-Based Learning and apply your content by having students address actual issues in your community.

Isolation. If you are doing most of the talking, you’re doing it wrong. We need students talking to each other while debating and analyzing history. Try a Socratic Seminar or a Fishbowl protocol and get your students engaging with each other.

Multiple-Choice Tests. If you are diving into deep inquiry, then assessments need to go deeper, too. Try fun writing assignments such as alternative history or choose your own adventure. Have students perform skits or rap battles demonstrating content. Take it a step further and design collaborative assessments where students help each other while they are demonstrating knowledge.

Textbooks. Probably some of the most boring books ever written are high school history textbooks. Skip it and use online sources, biographies, graphic novels, primary-source documents, political cartoons, documentaries, and YouTube. With the internet, the possibilities for engaging content are literally unlimited.

Teaching Chronologically. Teach themes instead. Most teachers are behind and never get to the relevant present leaving students to think that history is just about boring, dead people. When you teach a theme such as Women’s Rights or When is War Justified, you can compare the past to the present to see how we got to where we are but also to ask where we need to go next.

Segregation. Quit teaching in silos and integrate with literature. Most classic books are addressing issues of their day and require an understanding of their historical context to make sense. Work with your ELA teachers to synchronize the books that students are reading with themes in your class.

Sterilization. History is real stories of humans making great and terrible choices. It is not always rated PG for many reasons. It is not our job to teach moral lessons out of everything but rather to teach students to question deeply everything and look for evidence of the truth. So expose students to the controversies and plots of actual events and let students decide for themselves how they feel about them.

Dr. Rebecca Testa-Ryan

Dr. Rebecca Testa-Ryan is a Latina educator who has worked for the the Chicago public school district for 23 years. Rebecca received her doctorate degree from Loyola University in curriculum and instruction, a master’s degree in special education and administration, and a bachelor’s in history. She grew up in Humboldt Park and has taught in that district to model the importance of leading by example:

The teaching of social science in this country has been reduced substantially in the elementary schools. In fact, social science is considered a very low priority for classroom teachers compared with reading and mathematics. The systemic teaching of social science has been overshadowed by testing and accountability solely in two content areas. Therefore, if it’s not tested, it will not be taught. So, what do we see happening with teaching social sciences presently? Unfortunately, social science has been withered to teaching students about state history, holidays, and significant figures in American history. This is a short list of what teachers should not be practicing when teaching social sciences.

  1. The biggest mistake many teachers are making in social science instruction is inserting a few days across the school year in which they focus on “holiday curriculum” because it is easy and does not take away from important instruction. Students learn about significant historical figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, and schools can report they teach social science and cover the required time necessary to fulfill expectations.

  2. In some instances, teachers force the integration of history and literacy instruction by assigning historical fiction as reading material. However, the result of this approach is more time is spent teaching reading strategies rather than discussing history.

  3. Teachers also depend on social studies textbooks as a crutch and discourage quality teaching practices.

  4. Social science textbooks destroy student interest because—to put it bluntly—they are boring. Textbooks are written by publishers with minimal input from educators and depict history as one-sided and do not bring life and humanity to the story.

  5. Instead of teaching students to read, think, discuss, and write, social studies teachers are focused on completing the lesson as quickly as possible and moving on. This, in turn, leads to memorizing dates, names, events, and vocabulary.

Instead, what educators should be doing is teaching students how to take on significant history from various points of view and challenge students to delve into controversial events in our past. Bringing controversy into social science curriculum permits students to apply their skills of interpreting information, discern point of views, and evaluate arguments and evidence to come to reasoned judgments about various topics makes for an interesting lesson. So, ditch the textbooks and allow your students to be actively involved in your social science classrooms.

Responses From Readers

Ashley Turpin:

Through some professional development this year, I struggled with the fact that social studies standards are almost completely information-based. There were only two standards that related to a specific skill, and not a specific topic of information (those two being use of primary vs. secondary sources and the use of maps). Our courses are so content-heavy that it is often difficult to truly evaluate even these two skills, and our students leave our class armed with very little practice actually DOING anything. It is important for an individual to be able to look at the history of their people or another people group around the world and use their SKILLS to understand them, and unfortunately, in our 13 years in the American education system, it is simply not feasible to teach students the history of every people group and do them any sort of justice. But what we can do is teach our students the skills and practices necessary for them to be able to discover any type of history after they leave our classroom. I think this has to start with a change in standards and then can lead to changes in classroom practices.

Teachers assume that students can decode texts without any instruction. They should start the year modeling how to read and analyze a historical text, give contextual definitions of vocabulary, and allow plenty of time for collaboration.

-- Andrea Nguyen (@MrsNguyenESL) July 18, 2019

Thanks to Amy, Annie, Amy, Lynette, Mike, and Rebecca, and to readers, for their contributions.

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