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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

Response: Ways Principals Can Assist Social Studies Teachers

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 20, 2016 16 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

This week’s question is:

“I am a principal. There is a social studies teacher who could use some help making lessons more interesting and engaging. I am concerned that the lessons are the same format each day. Look up a topic on the internet then do some research. I challenged the teacher to make the lessons more engaging and the teacher’s response was, well I asked YOU to help show me what you want. The fact is I know what I don’t want, and that’s the same old boring lessons. Please help!”

For brevity’s sake, however, I’ve shortened it to:

How can principals help teachers improve their craft?

This topic has generated many insightful responses from invited contributors and readers alike. Some focus on general suggestions for how principals can help all teachers, while other specifically focus on how they can help Social Studies educators. Several of today’s contributors focus on the latter.

Part One featured commentaries from Mark Estrada, Diana Laufenberg, Bryan Harris, Ben Spielberg, Sarah Cooper and Drs. William & Pérsida Himmele. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Diana and Mark on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two highlighted contributions from Shawn Blankenship, Pete Hall, Jennifer Hindman, Steven Anderson, and Aubrie Rojee.

In today’s post, Troy Hicks, Kristina J. Doubet, David Sherrin, Kirke Olson, and Barbara Blackburn share their thoughts. I’ve also included comments from many readers.

Response From Troy Hicks

Dr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English at Central Michigan University. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K-12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. Hicks directs CMU’s Chippewa River Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project. He is author of the Heinemann titles Crafting Digital Writing (2013) and The Digital Writing Workshop (2009) as well as a co-author of Because Digital Writing Matters (Jossey-Bass, 2010), Create, Compose, Connect!(Routledge/Eye on Education, 2014), and Connected Reading (NCTE, 2015). He blogs at Digital Writing, Digital Teaching and can be followed on Twitter @hickstro:

It sounds as though your colleague is struggling to move from a topic-based approach to education into something more inquiry-based. Given the vast number of people, places, issues, and events that she is trying to share with students, it can certainly be easy to fall back in to a topical approach. However, one way to think about moving into something more productive would be to have your calling help students “enter the conversation” about current events, their historical roots, and what actions they can take to make a difference in the world.

The way that I would suggest doing this, as a writing teacher, is to help your students understand what it means to engage in academic conversations. In other words, they need to learn how to make an argument. I suggest this not just because the Common Core says we should, but because teaching students that social studies is more than just a series of topics, people, and places to be memorized is a crucial goal. Put another way, the National Council for the Social Studies suggests that “The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.” This is the heart of making a powerful argument.

Thus, we need to encourage our students to engage in inquiry, to move beyond topics. There are many resources that we can use to help them enter the broader civic conversations about all kinds of issues. From the New York Times Room for Debate Blog, to ProCon.org, to Gale’s Opposing Viewpoints in Context, there are many sources to find well-reasoned, thoughtful dialogue about current events. Also, we can teach them how to use unbiased data from sources like Pew Research to identify trends in technology, politics, religion, and the media. Finally, we can invite them to engage in the conversation with other students using spaces such as KQED’s #DoNow social media project.

In short, focusing on a topical approach to social studies limits our students’ perspectives on the world, as well as how they might be able to make a difference. Help them become active citizens. Help them become better readers and writers. In short, help them enter the conversation.

Response From Kristina J. Doubet

Kristina J. Doubet, Ph.D. is the co-author (with Jessica A. Hockett, Ph.D.) of Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners (ASCD), which provides multiple methods to enact the principles described above. She works with practicing teachers across the nation and abroad - and with pre-service teachers at James Madison University - to help build classroom practices that work for all learners. Visit her website at www.kristinadoubet.com or follow her on Twitter @DIY_Diff:

We know that for learning to be successful, it must be knowledge-centered - teaching for transfer and automaticity; learner-centered -connecting content to students in meaningful, relevant ways; assessment-centered - assessing FOR learning; and community-centered - occurring in a safe, collaborative space (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Hattie, 2012). Decide which of these four principles your social studies teacher is enacting well and commend him/her; then challenge the teacher to take a “next step.”

If the class would benefit from being more knowledge-centered, the teacher could think about his/her curriculum in terms of what ideas or questions might transfer from unit to unit. For example, “How can conflict be simultaneously productive and destructive?” could lead students to engage in genuine inquiry as they research how events led to both progress and decline. The use of such Essential Questions (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) could also help students connect the dots from unit to unit and view history as a connected story rather than as a collection of events.

Such an adjustment would naturally lead to a more learner-centered classroom, where students could discuss Essential Questions in terms of how they do or do not ring true in their own lives. Whether these responses are gathered in a full-group, small-group, or individual setting, the teacher would better understand where each student comes from and what makes each of them tick. Allowing students a voice in arguing, “Taking multiple perspectives into account, was this event more productive or destructive?” has the potential to infuse enthusiasm with and connection to required content.

Perhaps the class could be more assessment-centered. Does the teacher know where each student is in his/her learning each week? If not, employing a few full-group and individual checks for understanding is a good start. Simply asking students to think about an important question, pairing with a neighbor to construct a more thorough response, and having pairs share answers with the full class provides an interactive way to drive discussion and discover misconceptions. Asking students to post insights and questions to a Padlet or TodaysMeet board as they work provides even larger windows into what students need. And asking students to respond to a targeted exit prompt leaves the teacher armed with what to tackle in the next lesson. Such formative assessments lead teachers to be more responsive because they actually have something respond to.

The full-group assessment techniques discussed above can also go a long way toward fostering a community-centered classroom. Once students see that they are “in it” with their peers, the classroom feels less like an island. Of course, that requires the establishment of norms and routines to ensure respect and efficiency, but the more students become accustomed to working together, the more proficient they become.

Bottom line - you can’t change a teacher’s style overnight. But the principles above provide entry points that have multiplicative effects. As noted above, success in one principle can breed success in the others. So encourage your teacher to start small, but to start.

Response From David Sherrin

David Sherrin, a social studies teacher and department chair at Harvest Collegiate High School, is the author of The Classes They Remember: Using Role-Plays to Bring Social Studies and English to Life David is a New York City Master Teacher and he won the 2014 Robert H. Jackson Center National Award for Teaching Justice at the NCSS conference:

Turning history into play

The need to make social studies lessons engaging is an important one and the good news is that there are solutions that make the learning more interesting while also building greater content comprehension, a grasp of complexities, and an understanding of significance. The key is to not only think about how to teach about the past in more dynamic ways, but instead how to make the students participants in our historical stories so they have the chance to make choices, shape the narrative, and grapple with moral dilemmas.

From my experience, the most effective way to accomplish such goals is through role-plays and mock trials. In both these strategies, students transform into people who lived through crucial events and they take on their identities, dreams, and problems. Most importantly, those individuals need not be great historical figures like Churchill or Gandhi; they can be regular people like bakers, artists, and butchers. Creating strong historical role-plays and mock trials is not easy, but the outcome in terms of engagement and learning is unbeatable.

To take the first stabs at role-play, ask your teacher to think of an event that includes great conflict and difficult choices for ordinary people, such as the French Revolution, Indian Independence, the Spanish conquest of Mexico, or labor movements in early 20th century America. The teacher can create a basic cast of real or archetypal characters who lived through those times and then select a few crucial moments of conflict and choice. Let the students take on those roles and freely act out the choices that result from the conflicts before learning what really happened. Afterwards, use historical readings and compare their choices to those that were actually made.

With mock trials the role-playing action takes place in a “courtroom” and is based off of primary sources. Consider some trials that play important roles in larger historical events, like those of Galileo, Plessy v. Ferguson, or the Nuremberg Trials. The teacher could figure out who the actual witnesses were and then locate texts (either primary sources or the actual transcripts) to use as evidence. Assign students as witnesses, prosecutors or defense lawyers, teach the basics of legal questioning, and then put them in an actual trial.

Don’t worry about perfection in these strategies since mastery comes through time and practice. However, even in the first attempts students will be more engaged, they will learn more, and they will have experiences that will be fondly etched into their memories.

Response From Kirke Olson

Kirke H. Olson, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist, has devoted a career of nearly 40 years to helping teachers at pre-K through graduate levels apply research on human relationships, neuroscience, and mindfulness to educate even the most complex students. He writes a regular column for the GAINS (Global Association for Interpersonal Neurobiology Studies) journal and lives with his wife in rural New Hampshire. He is the author of The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience & Mindfulness in School. Watch Dr. Olson talk about using mindfulness in the classroom at Parker Academy here:

What a wonderful opportunity and challenge this teacher has given you. To increase your chances of success, step back from the problem of making the lessons more engaging and ask yourself and the teacher: What are the strengths of the current approach? (After all, learning how to use the internet for research is important.) Then ask: How can we collaborate to improve the lessons and the students’ learning?

These two questions are loosely based on Appreciative Inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry (AI), was born in the 1980’s when David Cooperrider, a graduate student at the time, was sent to study and help solve personnel problems at the Cleveland Clinic, but was so impressed by the cooperation, innovation, and egalitarianism he found that he changed the study to focus on the positive aspects of the clinic rather than the problems. His results were impressive and were successfully adopted by the Clinic. AI is best defined as"the cooperative search for the best in people, their organizations, and the world around them” (D.L. and D. Whitney Cooperrider). It involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen the positive potential of a person or a system. In other words, Appreciative Inquiry begins by exploring in depth what is right with the current situation, before trying to solve the problem.

Developing a collaborative relationship with the teacher by keeping a student-centered focus will help prevent the tension of demanding what YOU want--rather than what the students need--from the teacher. Decide how to proceed together, remembering that change takes time, a commodity sorely lacking for teachers.

It also seems likely that the teacher could learn a great deal by meeting with and observing an excellent social studies teacher. The investment in hiring a substitute for this teacher as he or she observes another classroom will be well worth the cost. (Be sure that there is time for the two teachers to meet and discuss before and after the observation.) If you are confident in your own teaching, you might even want to ask the teacher if you could collaborate to plan a lesson and teach it together.

Personally, when I think of opportunities for changing up the ‘same old boring’ social studies lessons, a dynamic eight grade social studies teacher I had many years ago comes to mind. When we studied the middle ages he divided the class into serfs and landowners and made himself king. We studied the economics and living conditions of our assigned groups. I still remember my horror at the details of life back then and the rousing discussions we had about the unfairness of it all. The teacher clearly loved the discussion as he played the role of a medieval despot. Like my teacher I have seen others use class role-playing and create mock democratic governments to author, debate, and vote on bills. Some even using this to create the rules that govern behavior in the class. Another method uses the power of music to engage students by including music from the period being studied at first to listen to and study and later in the unit to play in the background as they use a portion of the class time to work independently.

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn is an educational consultant and author of 13 books, including the best-selling Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word and her latest, Rigor for Students with Special Needs. She writes a blog and can be reached through her website:

I think this is an excellent opportunity for coaching. It’s important to start where the teacher is, and build on that success. For example, if the teacher is comfortable with students doing research, start there, but have the students demonstrate their knowledge in a different way. I find RAFT (role, audience, format, and topic) to be effective. Students take on a role, and use a different format to present the topic to an audience. One teacher I observed asked students to become Ole Winfrey, interviewing Aztec Indians for her studio audience. Students had to create the questions and answers he or she would use.

Other examples include using the internet for creating virtual field trips, or for researching a particular person. Then, students can read a myth about Osiris and Isis (for example). After reading the myth, students write a biopoem about one of the Egyptian deities. The biopoem requires that students explain the feelings, fears, and desires of the god the student chose. After writing the poem, the students translate it into hieroglyphics.

Responses From Readers


Principals should inspire greatness by being great themselves. Just as teachers ask themselves, “would I want to be a student in my class”, so too should principals ask “would I want to work for me in my school?”


Greatest coaching line I have been presented with, Ok you want this to happen, what will it look like in your classroom when you have mastered this? This one question has gotten every good teachers to do what they do best, backward map their response coming to their own conclusion on what they can do and or what they need to do it. Often it is easier to provide support to new or struggling teachers but master teachers and good teachers who have plateaued are much more challenging. I have found Robyn Jackson Skill Will concept very helpful in framing the conversation with the who I am working with and then coach them up.


I think I would ask to be allowed to teach a lesson. I would develop a lesson plan with activities that I though were more engaging. By demonstrating and then reviewing how the lesson went with the teacher, possibly we could find a bridge to active dialog and engagement.


Part of me wonders how do you get to be a principal if your best response to this one-trick-pony teacher’s question is “I don’t know let’s ask online.” The principals lack of skills may be more disturbing. They both could use some significant professional development--perhaps they should go together. The abundance of teaching resources online is one response. Another is the abundance of other local teachers teaching in much more engaging ways. Even textbooks offer engaging ideas Finally, permission to try out new ideas without the fear of judgement must be clearly communicated.

Thanks to Troy, Kristina, David, Kirke, and Barbara, and to readers, 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.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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