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Teaching Opinion

Social Studies Instruction in the Age of the Coronavirus

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 15, 2020 17 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question is:

What does social studies instruction look like in the age of the coronavirus?

I’ve previously posted on Reading & Writing Instruction in the Age of the Coronavirus; a series on math instruction, and another one on teaching science.

Today, Elisabeth Johnson, Evelyn Ramos, Sarah Cooper, Ryan Clapp, and Rachel Johnson start off this new series.

SEL & relevancy

Elisabeth Johnson, a national-board-certified teacher with a master’s in education, has taught a variety of social studies classes for the past 13 years at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif.

Evelyn Ramos, an Area 3 Writing Project teacher consultant with a master’s in education, has taught a mix of social studies classes at Luther Burbank High School for the past 12 years.

They are the authors of The Social Studies Teacher’s Toolbox: Hundreds of Practical Ideas To Support Your Students:

“Building the airplane as we are flying it” - This is how our current principal has reflected on the current situation of trying to teach during the current pandemic. The last several weeks of distance learning have been a series of successes and challenges for us and many other social studies teachers.

Here, we have compiled a few suggestions based on our short experience in distance learning. This list is not final, and we are by no means “experts.” Yet, by sharing how we have adapted our teaching practice to this unprecedented situation, we hope to provide ideas to fellow social studies teachers while promoting a sense of collegiality—you are not alone.

Start From a Place of Social and Emotional Learning: We don’t always know the circumstances of our students’ lives at home. Especially now, they may be dealing with very difficult home lives and situations. Creating opportunities in our online social studies classrooms to “check-in” can help isolated students feel supported. These opportunities can also provide an outlet where students can reach out for more support. Aligning with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Learning, it is unreasonable to expect students to actively engage with learning if their emotional needs are not being met first.

Try to find weekly opportunities to check in with students. We have learned this doesn’t need to be elaborate. Students can write a response in a classroom-comment thread to a weekly question like “On a scale of 1-5, how are you feeling this week and why?” or “How do you know when you’re starting to really struggle and what might help you?” which are not only accessible to most students but create a sense of connection. In addition, humor can provide much-needed levity. We had a great response from our students when we asked them to find an image online that best represents how they are feeling.

It is important to consider whether or not you want to make these check-ins public. Threads where all students can see each other’s responses and interact with each other can create a sense of community between students. On the other hand, there may be students who feel uncomfortable sharing their struggles with their peers. We find it best to provide both public and private opportunities to check in with our students’ well-being.

Looking for Opportunities to Promote Relevancy: Helping students see connections between social studies content and themselves is always important—but engaging students in learning tasks is especially challenging right now. Prioritizing relevancy can help provide a sense of purpose and intrinsic motivation.

For example, in our economics classes, we focused on using current events to illustrate basic economic concepts like supply and demand. Providing articles and video clips about product shortages or issues with the supply chain can increase relevance for students who may have experienced this in their own homes. Talking about why these shortages occur can help students understand how markets function on a greater scale.

To increase relevance in ethnic studies while studying activism, we encouraged students to make connections between themselves and activists that focused on the common good. We began by asking students how they, or people they know, were currently contributing to the common good (making sure siblings wash their hands, checking in on elderly family members, etc.) Then, we provided a list of four different activists and asked students to research one. These activists not only worked toward the common good, but they also represented a variety of ethnic backgrounds—part of our course content. After providing a list of websites for research, students use a digital graphic organizer to select information about the figure they chose. In addition, students are asked to find commonalities with the figures—some of our students found a connection with Cesar Chavez and his upbringing.

Practice trauma-informed teaching when making connections with current events and social studies. For example, it may be harmful to connect Anne Frank’s experience of isolation during the Holocaust and current “stay home” policies. If we as adults are having difficulty dealing with our new reality, children who have even less control of their lives can be extra fragile.

Other Ideas to Keep in Mind With Distance Learning:

  • Rely on Familiar Structures: In this time of dramatic change, presenting students with structures or tasks that they are familiar with can have several benefits: a sense of comfort and familiarity, a chance to build on previous skills, and a focus on content rather than a foreign task. When we assign writing online, we utilize a simple evidence-based writing structure we have used throughout the year, ABC: “A” (answer), “B” (back-it-up), “C” (commentary).

  • Provide Choice: Students may feel a sense of agency—and teachers can differentiate—by providing multiple and varied options for distance learning. Choice can be incorporated when students have the opportunity to select how they want to share their knowledge. For example, a student can respond to a question by creating a slideshow, in writing, or brief video clip. In addition, a teacher can provide multiple resources that students can choose from when learning about a topic: a video clip, an article, or a podcast.

  • Stay Connected: Maintain contact and collaboration with colleagues. Although it is helpful to have a colleague review a new online activity you created, sometimes the most helpful aspect is the human connection to somebody who is going through the same situation.

Finally, we want to leave you with something we learned quickly in this experience: There is no bell to say “time is up!” in distance learning. We need to make it ourselves. Spending endless hours a day responding to emails and digital learning platforms is draining and usually not efficient in the long run. Create healthy boundaries for yourself. We have found that providing office hours (times where students know they can get an immediate response) is consistent enough for their needs and ours.

Remember: In an airplane, you have to put your mask on first.

Following the news

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). All of her recent writing can be found at sarahjcooper.com:

This has been one of the most difficult moments I can remember to encourage students to follow the news. As two 8th graders said recently in a Zoom chat:

  • I don’t really bother to look because it is all about the coronavirus.
  • There’s not much about anything else.

In my U.S. history classes, we usually discuss one news article together at the beginning of each period, and then three or four students each present an article more formally each week.

When we began online teaching in March—for my school, synchronous classes on an alternating block schedule—the news about the virus felt like a fire hose, and I had doubts about continuing to discuss current events at all.

Looking for feedback, I asked the 8th graders in early and late April, “Are current events discussions too overwhelming right now?” They were split both times.

About half said that yes, it’s overwhelming. They commented that “everything’s corona,” “it’s just depressing,” 'there’s a lot,” and “it makes me sad that this is the world that we are dealing with today.” One girl even wrote: “Whenever my parents put on the news or anything like that, I go upstairs and play video games. I completely avoid it and try to only do current events that don’t mention corona.”

Yet the other half insisted that knowing the news makes them feel better, saying things like:

  • It’s OK. I like being updated on the facts.
  • It’s interesting to just see what’s happening and how it affects us.
  • It makes me feel normal.

For me and for my students, I still believe that knowledge and awareness lead to agency and action. So we’re still discussing current events regularly but with some strategies to manage news consumption.

I told them early on in an email: “With the news being so relentless about the virus, I want to urge you to read only as much as you feel comfortable with. Some of you might want to be up to date on every latest development, others not so much.”

Students can seek out positive stories or stories that cast a different angle on the news. They can browse, say, LA Magazine instead of the LA Times, or search with phrases such as “people helping coronavirus” or “vaccine research COVID.”

The 8th graders have also developed their own strategies for finding articles. In addition to asking their parents for suggestions, students have also said:

  • I try to avoid really sad articles but I will read different views on the virus articles.
  • I go to the science or technology section first.
  • I start on Washington Post; they have a section called in other news.

And every week, these middle schoolers continue to inspire me with stories of common heroism and scientific breakthroughs. Everyone posts their headline in the chat, and I call on a number of students to talk through their articles.

So, are stories about the impact of COVID-19 too depressing? I asked one student that by email, after she posted a New York Times article about running out of space to bury the dead.

She replied: “I felt like at first that they were depressing, but now I feel like it continues to remind me to be aware of the virus. It also reminds me that I’m lucky to be still alive and well, unlike a lot of other people.”

With words like hers, each week we’re bearing witness to crisis together, supporting each other, and I can’t imagine a better place to do this right now than in history class.

“Social studies teaching and learning looks basically the same as every other subject during COVID-19"

Ryan Clapp teaches social studies, science, & Spanish at William Smith High School in Aurora, Colo.:

At the end of March, as spring break came to a close and our district announced that we would be learning virtually for the indefinite future, I looked at my roster of 14 students. Yes, 14. My high school has similar demographics to the other public high schools in our district, with a significant percentage of free-and-reduced-price-lunch-eligible students, with families on the front lines of service industries hardest hit by COVID-19. However, in other significant ways, my school is different. Across my district in Aurora, Colo., my colleagues teaching five classes of 30-40 students are now expected to check in, monitor academic progress on educational platforms, and “provide support.” Many tell me that only a few motivated students out of dozens check in dutifully each class. Some of the best educators I’ve ever worked with—the ones students will remember 20 years later—are as close to burnt out as I’ve ever seen them. It makes sense. They have been filling the impossible roles of cheerleader, drill sergeant, psychologist, social worker, and content specialist all at the same time, year after year. Now their marching orders are to do all of these roles virtually.

In contrast, as an EL Education network school committed to interdisciplinary courses and project-based learning, we’ve made the choice to forgo programs that larger schools offer in order to fund smaller class sizes. We also emphasize social-emotional supports and community building through academics. When our school went virtual, these priorities echoed.

So far, all of my students are on track for passing my course. For the past two weeks, I’ve had perfect attendance. That’s neither a fluke nor a glowing endorsement of my teaching. It’s the result of my being able to connect with them and to connect them to each other. When school went virtual, I bought credit on Skype and called the parents or guardians of every student in my classes to chat about work, life, home. Then I asked to speak to my students. One of them had just turned 18, had COVID-19 symptoms, and wasn’t sure how to get tested. Several had started working as grocery store stockers and package deliverers during school hours to help with family bills. We talked about good workout videos, about making your own space in the home, and which supermarkets had pasta. We talked about the upcoming class for a few minutes at the end, about the topics we’d cover and what students were nervous or excited about on the academic side.

Social studies topics can be easier than other subjects to connect to students’ need for relevance. What better time than this to study the strengths and weaknesses of our societal fabric? But don’t be fooled. Social studies teaching and learning looks basically the same as every other subject during COVID-19. As it happens, I am completing this semester by teaching Spanish, but I find even in Spanish class, the greatest academic growth ties into questions of community and belonging—social studies topics. Racing ahead of lesson plans, my students are teaching themselves new words in order to ask conversation partners around the globe about their experiences during COVID-19. They are grappling with how we get through this crisis as a society and as a global community. They are talking in Spanish and in English about the role of government and the responsibilities of individuals.

While my students are conjugating verbs and learning a new language both metaphorically and actually, the lesson for me has been this: If virtual learning is to have any hope of success for the vast majority of American public school students, educators need the freedom and smaller class sizes to build bonds and address basic needs alongside setting academic expectations. Among the basic needs under siege right now is community, a sense of belonging.

This morning, I ended my virtual high school class the same as I have for the past month, with each student sharing a positive “rose” of the week and a “seed” to grow in next week. Students call on each other once they’re finished speaking, and I mute myself on screen. We do the same at the start of class, sharing a check-in question or Tik-Tok video. It takes a decent chunk of time, and I consider it essential. Our students will stay the course of their academics when and only when they feel heard and seen, only when they are supported by and contributing to the school community we mutually create.

“Don’t start something new”

Rachel Johnson teaches social studies in Spartanburg, S.C. She currently teaches 8th grade. When she is not teaching, Rachel enjoys spending time with her family and running:

March 16, 2020, started a new era in my teaching career. This is my 15th year in the classroom, and March 16th brought new challenges and new opportunities to my 8th grade social studies students and me. This was the day that my state, South Carolina, went to distance learning. Now, five weeks in, my students and I have both learned a lot and grown through this process. I am fortunate that I work in a district where each student was given a Chromebook. Therefore, my students all have access to the following platforms I mention. While I am no means an expert on distance learning, I have learned several do’s and don’t’s during this learning curve time.


  • Don’t start something new during this time. I was fortunate that I already had in place a web-based platform with my students. From day one in my classroom, we have used Google Classroom, so the transition to e-learning was smooth because we already had a platform that we were using and the students were familiar with. Bringing in a new platform during e-learning and not being able to set it up with students and explain it to them in person brings a whole new set of challenges. When possible, keep it consistent.

  • Don’t expect students to do the same amount of work during e-learning that you would have done in your classroom. Distant learning is hard. It’s hard on teachers, parents, and students. I don’t have my students’ undivided attention for 65 minutes a day, five days a week. My 8th grade students are watching younger siblings while their parents work, helping with housework, doing odd chores around their neighborhood, all while balancing their school work. With distance learning, I have learned that less is more and that quality far outweighs quantity.


  • Do maintain high expectations of your students. My students know that distant learning is not a vacation. They know I will email/call them and their parents if I am not getting work turned in. In fact, they expect it. I have had numerous emails from students throughout this time period stating a variation of, “Mrs. Johnson, I know you are about to call me. I know I am behind on my work but I’m working on it now. You’ll have it by the end of the day.” Students want to know what they are doing matters. They want, and they need, the constancy of high expectations.

  • Do offer work in similar platforms that students have done in the classroom. My students are used to doing Document Based Questions (DBQs) and have continued doing those during distance learning. In the classroom, my students are used to using Flocabulary (www.flocabulary.com) in the printed version. During distant learning, they have been using Flocabulary and doing DBQs through their Google Classroom. It is work they are familiar with, just in the electronic format.

  • Do take advantage of internet-based platforms when possible if your students have devices. Several wonderful education sites are offering free trials right now. Take advantage of them but do so in moderation. Pick a few that are most useful to your classroom, while being mindful to not throw a lot of new platforms at students during this time. Two of my favorites for my social studies classroom, both of which are offering free access right now, are Flocabulary and BrainPop. You can also research historical sites that fit your curriculum. Many sites offer virtual tours that can benefit students.

In conclusion, we are all on a learning curve with distance learning. Would I rather be in my classroom with my 96 students? Absolutely! But until that is the case, I have to monitor and adjust. I have to adapt my curriculum and teaching to teach, but not overwhelm, challenge, but allow for success, and maintain my students’ learning until we are all back together again.

Thanks to Elisabeth, Evelyn, Sarah, Ryan, and Rachel for their contributions!

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