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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 to Use Tech in Social Studies Classes

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 05, 2019 10 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What are effective ways to use tech in social studies classes?

Educational technology can have a role in social studies classes but, with all the possible tech options that are out there, which tools should be used?

This column will explore that question.This is part of a series considering tech tools for different content classes (you can see posts on tech in math classes here, tech in science classes here, and tech in English classes here).

Today’s contributors are Sarah Cooper and Ken Halla. I’ve also included comments from readers. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sarah and Ken on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

As a social studies educator (as well as a teacher of English and International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge classes), I often use technology with my students. In geography, I often connect to “sister” classes throughout the world (see Links to The Joint Projects My ELL Geography Class Did With Classes Around The World - Want to Join Us This Year?) You can find classes to connect with around the world here.

You might also be interested in this collection: The “All-Time” Best Social Studies Sites.

Finally, I need to put a plug in for my favorite free social studies site, SAS Curriculum Pathways. It offers multiple high-quality lessons for all subjects.

Response From Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history, advises 7th and 9th graders, and is dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens (Routledge, 2018) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009). Sarah speaks at conferences and writes for Education Week, MiddleWeb, CommonLit, and other publications. In 2017, she received a Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant from Facing History and Ourselves, for a project on inspiring empathy through spoken-word poetry:

So many social studies topics, from history to civics, pop even more when we add electronic pizzazz. Of course, video clips and photos are easy ways to start, especially for events from the 20th century and beyond. But the best technology asks students to create and engage, as these three possibilities suggest:

1. Snazzy Presentations

Over the past year, I’ve encouraged my middle school history students to play with giving end-of-unit presentations in different formats—and I literally mean play. If we have a few minutes at the end of class, I’ll tell them about new programs I’ve heard about and ask them to explore.

One recent favorite is Piktochart, whose sophisticated backgrounds and slide decks have made their way into everything from a reformers project to a community-impact presentation.

Another is Microsoft’s Sway, which seems like a simple presentation software until you realize how much more graphically flexible it is than PowerPoint or even Prezi. Check out the feature that lets you slide back and forth between two photos. One group used it to contrast old and new photos of immigrants to the U.S., 100 years ago and today.

2. Interactive DBQs

You may know iCivics for its fun government games—two of my favorites are “Do I Have a Right?” and “Power Play,” which introduce concepts about constitutional law and federalism. But the site now also features modules that encourage deeper critical thinking and writing, such as its DBQuests. I really like these activities—on topics such as the founding principles of the Constitution and civil rights sit-ins—because they lead students through a variety of documents in an understandable and self-paced way. (Disclaimer: I am a member of the iCivics Educator Network, a group of teachers who regularly test ideas and give feedback to the organization.)

3. Participatory Peer Response

One go-to activity for revising essays, op-eds, letters to Congress, or anything else that students write is online peer response through Google Docs. If I ask students to edit in pairs, many naturally share their files with partners and ask for comments.

Even more fun can be making one full-class document into which everyone drops the essay before class. The day before the rough draft is due, I create the class document, list one name per page, alphabetically, and share the document with everyone in the section.

Once we’re in class, we conduct a silent peer response for 20 or 30 minutes. Everyone has to read the three essays following their own name in the alphabet, giving specific and constructive feedback, and then they can read anyone’s essay they like. Another option is to do this activity on the day essays are due—then the comments take on a celebratory air, and I ask students to make them positive and specific.

Just writing this piece makes me want to play with even more new tools, since they wow me as much as they do my students!

Response From Ken Halla

Ken Halla, Ph.D., is the eLearning coordinator and is in charge of the online school for the nation’s 10th largest public school district. He can be reached at kenhalla@gmail.com:

You should not start your lesson planning by asking, “How can I use technology in the social studies classroom.” Rather you have to consider your plan is for the day/week/unit. Technology should enhance your lesson plan, not drive it.

So let’s look at a typical class. You probably will start with an entrance ticket. Your white board might have the main points you are covering including the state and national standards. You might move to a short lecture and then assign students into groups. At some point, you might review individually or in groups and later give another short lecture to students. At the end of the class, you would probably use an exit slip to see what students have learned or what questions they might have. You might also assign a bit of homework.

Google provides a large number of answers for the items above. Entrance and exit tickets can be written using a Google form. Here are the instructions. The great advantage is that you can have your students answer their questions using their smartphones. You can also shorten the hyperlink using tinyurl.com and tailor with a name for each one such as “tinyurl.com/sept42018entrance.” While the students are working in groups, you can look at the spreadsheet created by the Google form and quickly see which ones came in knowing what you wanted and which ones didn’t.

Then you can give your lecture and do it live or make or find a 5-10 minute video. Some teachers like to assign this for homework, and others have students watch it during class. Either way, using them allows you to let your students go at a more individualized pace as they can watch it when they are ready. There are any number of sites you can go to for social studies videos such as Crash Course, or you can just search on YouTube for the class you are looking for such as AP US history videos. There are also a number of groups on Facebook such as this one for world history teachers that you can join. These groups are great places to share so you might say, “I need a short video to introduce the Renaissance.” There is no point in your making a video if someone has already made it for you and if a student misses the class.

But if you want to make your own screencast, you can use Screencast O’Matic, which, like everything else in this article, is free and can be done without even joining (here is how). Once you’ve made your video, you can upload it directly to YouTube where you can create your own playlist. If you want to collaborate with someone, you could use WeVideo, which allows multiple people to work on a video in different locations (tutorials are here). So you could create it in Screencastomatic and then alter it in WeVideo. If you only want to make minor edits, you can also do it on the YouTube.

Then you might consider Google Classroom as you can assign work to your student and see when it is being turned into you. If your district does not have Google Classroom, then you ask that everyone sign up for a free Gmail account (and corresponding Google Drive), which gives everyone the same Google privileges except you wouldn’t be in a “protected” environment. Beyond being able to turn in work and grade it on any device, students can also do likewise and collaborate with their peers as they can work in shared documents. This means you aren’t limited to groups in one period of the day or even from the same teacher. These methods also let the social studies teacher be “social” and walk around the classroom and check up with each student.

In addition to the exit ticket, you could spice up the class a bit by playing a game. You could use Quizlet Live (written tutorial) or Kahoot (tutorial), both of which can be done using a smartphone and allow you to review in a game format.

But at the end of the class, if you want to assign say a short video for homework (flipped classroom) or something else, the best way to reach students is by texting them. The most-used site to do this is Remind, which allows you to text your students without their knowing what your cellphone number is. You can also attach documents, links, and even do it in multiple languages. If you choose, you can also text back and forth with students. To protect you, everything is recorded.

So there are a variety of ways you can enhance your social studies’ classroom using technology. Good luck with the school year.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Sarah and Ken, 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.

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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