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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.

Social Studies Opinion

Social Studies Teachers May Have Some Difficult Choices to Make. These Ideas Could Help

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 17, 2023 10 min read
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We social studies teachers are going to have our hands full this year with the many state laws restricting what can and cannot be taught. This series is sharing some ideas that might help us all.

Current Events

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and civics and is the associate head of school at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom (Routledge) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse):

Until recently, I asked students in my 8th grade U.S. history and civics classes to print out and annotate a current events article each week. They would bring in their article and discuss briefly with a partner “enough to retell the story to someone else” on the same days that three or four classmates would do weekly current events presentations.

These annotated articles boosted reading comprehension and curiosity about the news. At the same time, I always encouraged students to monitor how much they were drinking from the “fire hose” of the news: to read only as much difficult news as they were able or wanted to.

During Zoom teaching, though, asking students to show evidence of annotations became cumbersome. And so I tried something different that has stuck in person: a simple summary of the article.

Here are the directions:

· Find a current event article that is interesting to you and that you think would be worthy of discussion. If the piece is longer than approximately two printed pages, you may stop reading after two pages (or keep going if you’re interested!).

· To find an article, try an online or print newspaper such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Pasadena Star-News, Glendale News-Press, Valley Sun, other local newspapers, or another source (such as LA Magazine, Time Magazine, a science magazine, etc.) that looks reputable.

Then, this summary is what you’ll bring to class:

· Print out the article. If the piece is longer than approximately two printed pages, you may stop reading after two pages (or keep going if you’re interested!).

· Underline at least a few sentences per page that you find interesting.

· On the back or on a separate piece of paper, write:

o A few sentences, or 3-4-plus bullet points, summarizing the article in your own words. You are welcome to include a quotation from the article if it’s in quotation marks.

o A couple of sentences on why you found the article interesting.

Why is this simple summary so effective? It asks students to note key facts, paraphrase or use quotations, and distill main points—all skills that play into our major research assignment later in the year. This assignment also helps showcase our school’s online schoolwide subscriptions to The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Finding an article every week also encourages students to notice patterns. One student found herself drawn toward true crime stories because she was fascinated by human behavior. I like to think that such pattern seeking in middle school can help students discover what lights them up intellectually, now and possibly far into the future.


‘Explicit Direct Instruction’

After teaching English for over 20 years, Donna L. Shrum is now teaching ancient history to freshmen in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She remains active in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and freelance writing for education and history magazines:

After almost 20 years of teaching language arts, I returned to social studies four years ago. Not only does my background in ELA inform my current teaching, but a few years ago, I was privileged to work under John Almarode at James Madison University. He introduced us to the book he co-wrote with Kara Vandas, Clarity for Learning: Five Essential Practices That Empower Students and Teachers. I then read another book in the series, Visible Learning for Social Studies, Grades K-12: Designing Student Learning for Conceptual Understanding by John Hattie, Julie Stern, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey.

The framework in both books reminded me of the Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI) I had used as I’d searched for ways to help struggling ELA learners. Hattie identified teacher clarity as having an effect size of .75; an effect size of .40 equals one year of student learning.

Clarity begins with a learning intention: What am I learning? One essential understanding for the freshman history class I teach is: Church scholars preserved ancient literature in monasteries in the East and West. When teachers consider what they will be teaching a class, they have to break it down into all the components necessary for students to understand it.

In this example, one of my learning intentions was “I can define what a monastery is.” Another would be “I can explain why church scholars preserved ancient literature in monasteries in the East and West.” When I write a learning intention, I’m not only clearly stating for the students what they will be learning during that class, but it helps me break down what I need to teach.

The next step in clarity is why am I learning it? Every student enters a class thinking they are learning what we put before them only because the state requires it. It’s up to us to provide the “How will this ever matter later in my life?” Students find it interesting that there were—and are—people who choose to dedicate their lives to God and retreat from the world.

After emerging from a COVID lockdown into a world of warfare and almost daily shootings, they have a basis for understanding that desire. They complain mightily about school and learning and then discover they wouldn’t have had that “burden” in the Middle Ages unless they were in the church, which also meant the church could control ideas. We also discuss how learning and history prior to the Middle Ages would have been lost without those translations. You wouldn’t have had all that fun in 3rd grade studying Ancient Greece, I tell them, without the history preserved in those translations.

The final step in clarity is how will I know I learned it? Giving a test or preparing for a standardized test is only the smallest step. Will students have a small-group discussion? If so, what proof will come out of it that they learned and participated? Will they make something with their hands? Research and write? We lost over a week to snow days the second semester this year, so for the first time I skipped making sand dough so they could write their names in cuneiform and take home the dried product. For the first time, my students missed questions about cuneiform on the standardized test.

An inherent component of clarity is two-way communication. Teachers build in ways for students to communicate if they are learning and making connections. We often rely on entrance and exit tickets, but we can save time if we build into our activities ways of checking for understanding and feedback along the way. If we are thinking of an exit ticket that asks, “Explain why church scholars preserved ancient literature in monasteries in the East and West,” instead weave it into the lesson.

Students who experience this partnership in learning with the teacher enjoy the success that comes with it and are more deeply engaged.


‘Game-Based Learning’

David Seelow has been teaching in higher education and grades 7-12 for 30 years in a diverse range of settings. He has recently edited two collections of practical essays on innovative classroom practices: Teaching in the Game-Based Classroom: Practical Strategies for Grades 6-12) and Lessons Drawn: Essays on the Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels:

Game-based learning with an emphasis on role playing is the most effective strategy for social studies classes.

Role playing can happen in a variety of ways. You can hold a live-action role play where students simulate a historical situation or a government action. Have students replay a section of the Watergate hearing for a senior government class or the Yalta meeting among Churchill, Stalin, and FDR for a class on WWII or a mock U.N. for responding to any number of international issues. You can also author your own role-playing simulations on the computer where students make key decisions as historical people.

This gives students an embodied experience of a historical event and a much deeper understanding of history than a textbook can deliver. The Mission US series of historical role-playing games is excellent and offers a full-scale supporting curriculum. For younger students (K-5), Kid Citizen is ideal. It is highly interactive; students work with primary documents from the Library of Congress; and the episodes, such as one on Rosa Parks: A Proud Daughter, are relevant and connected to students’ everyday life. Teachers can also create episodes with the easy-to-use authoring tool Kid Citizen Editor.


Thanks to Sarah, Donna, and David for contributing their thoughts!

The new question of the week is:

What is the single most effective instructional strategy you have used in social studies classes?

In Part One, Kara Pranikoff, Candy Holloway, Pat Brown and Elizabeth Stein contributed their responses.

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.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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