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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

The Best Social Studies Lesson Is When History Comes ‘Alive’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 24, 2019 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What has been the best social studies lesson you have taught and why do you think it was so good?

We’ve all taught bad lessons and we’ve all taught good ones. This series will look at what makes a good social studies lesson.

Carina Whiteside, Denise Fawcett Facey, Deborah Gatrell, and Mark Honeyman share their experiences in today’s post. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You can read about my personal favorite lesson (which I teach in English, but is certainly related to social studies) at A Lesson Highlighting Community Assets - Not Deficits.

You might also be interested in previous posts appearing here on Teaching Social Studies.

Response From Carina Whiteside

Carina Whiteside is an educator who is passionate about the impact of social studies education for teaching skills and values needed by America’s future citizenry. She is a member of the Hope Street Group Utah Teacher Fellows, which works to build connections between classroom teachers and policymakers that will benefit all students. Follow her on Twitter at @mrswhiteside_:

The greatest social studies lesson I have taught was part of my 8th gradersstudy of the U.S. Constitution. Going into this unit, I knew I needed to address the decision the Founders made to protect the practice of slavery, which was in direct contrast to the American principle of equality defended by the Declaration of Independence. I wanted to communicate to my students just how profound this contradiction is, and the implications that it carries for the United States in the present day, by allowing them to dive into that contradiction themselves. I feel like I was able to do just this by adapting a lesson from the Zinn Education Project called "An Unconventional Constitutional Convention.

This lesson took three days to complete in class. The first day included dividing students into groups, in which they researched and wrote a final resolution to help them to understand, and accurately portray, the perspectives of their group. Group identities included Southern Plantation Owners, Northern Bankers and Merchants, Enslaved African Americans, Indentured Servants, White Women, Native Americans, and Free African Americans. With a fair understanding of their groups perspective, students were given time to build alliances with other groups that may have had similar positions on voting rights and slavery. After alliance building came final resolutions. Their resolution was one full paragraph answering one or both of these underlying questions: Should slavery be abolished? And who should have the right to vote?

Day one, I saw students engage in collaboration and civil discourse. These complex questions required students to look outside themselves and to fellow group members for ideas, as well as to look to the past to build a historically accurate view of how their group would have felt about the issues. This activity pushed them out of their comfort zones, and it required them to rely on each other to create a shared group identity that would help them to present and support ideas that would have helped their historical group at the actual Constitutional Convention.

Day two, we held the Convention. I took on the role as moderator, and students came prepared to present their resolutions. This is when I saw democracy—"power in the people," or in this case, my students—take hold of the classroom. My classes ran out of time to come to consensus on both questions because so many students were sharing ideas, thinking critically, and offering counterpoints and necessary questions. Rather than compromise, students were loyal to their group identity and spoke up when they felt an idea would not benefit them. In this way, students saw the importance of true representation as a defender of democratic principles.

Day three, we reflected on the outcome of our own Convention and compared it with the outcome of the actual Convention in 1787. The most glaring difference was the consensus reached over slavery. The Founders chose to protect the practice of slavery, while my students had abolished slavery altogether. I didnt even have to ask the question myself—students were already asking it of each other. Why was our outcome so different? They answered the question themselves, too. Look at who was at our convention that was missing from the actual convention. Enslaved people. Native Americans. Women. Free African Americans. None of them had a voice when writing of the U.S. Constitution. Their beliefs, desires, and thoughts were forgotten about when it was just plantation owners and rich merchants that were there.

During this lesson, students felt the gravity of the decision to protect slavery deeply because they had debated it themselves. They had taken on the weighty roles the Founders played, examined their peerspleas for equality and justice, and were disappointed to see historic figures make a different decision from what they had. With the gift of hindsight, they can see the legacies of slavery our country continues to work through. They wondered, How would things have been different if the Founders had decided what we did?

History came alive during that lesson, and that is what makes it the best social studies lesson my students ever taught each other.

Response From Denise Fawcett Facey

Denise Fawcett Facey was a classroom teacher for more than two decades and now writes on education issues. Among her books, The Social Studies Helper offers activities and projects that make social studies more vibrant and engaging for secondary-level students:

To illustrate a lesson on prejudice, as part of a unit on 20th-century immigration, I gift-wrapped two boxes and brought them to class. The boxes varied in size and shape, and each was gift-wrapped in completely different paper and ribbons. Holding both boxes in the air to make them visible to everyone, I asked which box was better. Students’ responses were about equally divided. I then called for volunteers to unwrap the boxes.

What they discovered was that both boxes were empty. I then asked the students how they determined which box was “better.” The size of the box, the color of the paper, the designs on the paper, and the type of bow were all given as determining factors. Of course, all of these are visual features, which I pointed out to the students. I also pointed out the following:

  1. What they just demonstrated was prejudice.
  2. Making a judgment in advance of knowing anything about the item or person being judged is prejudice.
  3. Prejudice is often based on visual cues.
  4. When you make a positive judgment based solely on the outward appearance, you may find there is nothing of value on the inside.
  5. Conversely, when you make a negative assessment based solely on visual features, you may overlook highly valuable elements inside.
  6. In this case, despite outward appearances, both the item they deemed “better” and the one they discarded were the same inside.

The best part about this lesson is that it makes an existential concept quite concrete. Whether students believe they understand prejudice or perceive it as an abstract concept, most believe it doesn’t apply to them. This activity allows them to see that it does.

What’s more, it begins a discussion of prejudice from a human perspective, encouraging students to discuss times when they have been on the receiving end of prejudice as well as times when they may have inadvertently expressed prejudice. This provides a backdrop for the lesson on immigration, including the prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping that many new arrivals experienced in the United States.

Tying the past and present together, this activity also lends itself to a “current events” lesson on immigration issues in the United States today, including the opposition to people emigrating from specific countries as well as the similarities between experiences of contemporary immigrants and those of immigrants from 100 years ago or more.

Response From Deborah Gatrell

Deborah Gatrell is a national-board-certified teacher. She teaches social studies at a comprehensive suburban high school in Utah and is happy to share these activities with anyone who wants them. Email her at dgatrell@graniteschools.org and follow her on Twitter @DeborahGatrell1:

The best social studies lesson I’ve taught is a simulation I created demonstrating international diplomacy. Students role play representing selected countries in economic and military conferences as they work to meet their people’s needs through trade or conquest. My students get particularly animated when they find out which countries chose to start wars and have to literally roll the dice to determine outcomes!

I took inspiration from an activity simply named “The Game” my 8th grade homeroom teacher allowed us to play—we chose countries, researched them, and then bought and sold resources among ourselves in a friendly competition. There was also a “reporter” position to spread eavesdropped plans, gossip, and/or downright lie as the player sought fit. I learned a lot from those interactions, and it was clearly memorable since 8th grade feels like it was a million years ago now.

For my simulation, titled “Zero Sum Game,” I selected major European countries in the run-up to World War I. It could be any war, but the key is students don’t yet know how things played out even if they know a war happened. The goal is not for them to recreate what happened; it’s simply to experience the decisionmaking process. However, there are two data sets I provide students to go along with their designated countries—common knowledge (resources, military strength, wealth) and state secrets (national grievances, goals, etc.). Students aren’t forced to make any particular choices, but they have specific needs and wants as constraints. The goal is to meet their needs lest they be overthrown from within. They’re welcome to meet their needs through trade or to team up with allies and attempt to conquer countries with the resources they need. They’re also allowed to create secret alliances and lie since that’s what happens in the real world.

If countries choose war, they provide me the details of their alliances (offensive and/or defensive) and their targets. Representatives from each country involved in the conflict come to the front of the room in groups (Attackers and Defenders), and I determine how many rolls of the dice each group gets. Defender always has the advantage. Each participant gets at least one roll, but countries with large militaries get extra rolls. With each roll of the dice, the students must choose heads or tails. If they choose correctly, they win the point. If they don’t, their opponent gets the point. Of course defenders also roll the dice as they counterattack. Whichever side has the most points when they’re done rolling dice wins the war. As students watch early conflicts, sometimes they choose not to honor alliances in later conflicts.

Student reflections are always very insightful—they generally describe their recognition of the complexity of international relations and the risks of war. Ironically, their choices often track closely what actually happened—a question they always demand I answer after we finish the “Zero Sum Game” activity.

I use a simplified version focused on conflict for freshmen as I’ve found they struggle with the complexity of conference-style simulations. However, the energy level is just as high, and students are equally impacted by the risks and rewards of trade and conquest.

Both activities segue nicely into conversations about historical and current events as they grasp the decisions available to policymakers on a more personal level.

Simulations are powerful teaching tools because students learn by doing and engage with content with their emotions as well as their intellect. We know learning coupled with emotion can be incredibly powerful: “Emotional experiences/stimuli appear to be remembered vividly and accurately, with great resilience over time.” This sort of engaging activity will stick with students, just as “The Game” did with me, preparing students to accept and navigate the complexities of our multipolar world as they grow into adulthood.

Response From Mark Honeyman

For 35 years, Mark Honeyman has devoted himself to encouraging his students to embrace their voices and their power as change agents in the world around them. He teaches language arts at West Hills Middle School in West Bloomfield, Mich., and his students have won nearly $58,000 in scholarships and awards for their writing. Recently, Honeyman was selected by Scholastic and MLB to participate on a panel to discuss the merits of social-emotional learning through the Breaking Barriers educational program. Honeyman’s teaching has been recognized numerous times, including the Excellence in Education Award from the Michigan State Lottery, the Letters About Literature Michigan Teacher of the Year Award, the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Marygrove College, and Oakland County Teacher of the Year:

Over the years, I have found that my most successful lessons, whether in social studies or in language arts, have asked students to apply their knowledge to the world around them. Instead of a dusty exercise in academia, the lesson is transformed into something that speaks to their lives, their world, and—if everything really falls into place—their responsibility. When students start asking, “What can I do? What role should I play?” it’s exhilarating, because that’s when students start to extend their understanding of the concepts beyond the four walls of our classroom. And if I am somehow able to tap into their sense of moral outrage over some societal ill, that’s the golden trifecta: content, relevance, emotional connection.

I vividly recall a lesson in human trafficking in which the students were so engaged both on an intellectual and emotional level that the lesson spun off into a three-month project. The first part of the lesson was simply to teach kids about human trafficking. I used videos, simulations, case studies, and first-person narratives, along with the basic statistical research I had at my disposal.

The next phase of the lesson involved opening up the class to any questions the students might have. I answered as many as I could and I admitted when I didn’t know something. That usually spurred some real-world research on the part of my students to find the answers. It was inspiring to see them digging through primary sources, scholarly journals, magazine articles, etc., looking for the information they needed. And all the while, they were evaluating the credibility of those sources, adding an extra layer of learning to their efforts.

Once students grasped the depth of the problem, the next step was to determine what role they might play in trying to address the problem. I created 10 or 12 different projects the kids could pick from, and they also had the choice to design their own projects if they had an alternative idea they wanted to pursue.

One student wrote a 45-minute play that we cast and produced and staged. Another student wrote five original songs on the piano along with the melody and lyrics. Other students wrote extensively researched oratory speeches, while others wrote collections of poetry. Other projects included interpretive dances, graphic novels, symbolic paintings, website designs, and short stories. It was truly a celebration of students taking utter ownership over their learning and using their learning to try to change the world.

Eventually, the students held a performance of their one-act play as part of a larger community forum, and nearly 300 community members attended. After the performance, students presented their oratories, read their poems, displayed their paintings, etc. When all was said and done, the students raised almost $6,500. A representative of an anti-trafficking organization in Washington flew to our school in Michigan to accept the check, and she indicated that it was the single largest noncorporate contribution in the 125-year history of their organization. All from a group of 13-year-olds who saw that what we were studying meant more than a grade on a test.

Thanks to Carina, Denise, Deborah, and Mark for their contributions.

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