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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

Want to Engage Students? Model Real-World Experiences

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 29, 2023 14 min read
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Today’s post finishes up a three-part series in which teachers share what they consider to be the most effective instructional strategies in social studies classes.

‘Are You Smarter Than a Neolithic Person?’

Dale Ripley, Ph.D., has taught for over 40 years at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, primarily in high-needs schools. His latest book, The Tactical Teacher: Proven Strategies to Positively Influence Student Learning & Classroom Behavior, shows teachers 58 different ways to improve the negative classroom behaviors of even their most challenging students in order to increase student learning:

[Editor’s note: As Dale describes, simulations can be exceptionally engaging. It is also important to note that some topics are not suitable for a classroom simulation because of their possible contribution to student trauma. Read more here.]

Simulation! I have found again and again, no matter the grade level and no matter the topic, if I can devise a way to simulate the material, student engagement skyrockets.

Let me clarify what I mean by “simulation.” When I simulate something in my social studies classes, what I create for the students are activities that come as close to the real-world concepts we are exploring as is possible, within the constraints of the classroom environment. In other words, we replicate, model, role-play, imitate, and re-create—as close as we possibly can—whatever real-world experiences and concepts that are under investigation.

For example, one simulation I have created is entitled “Are you smarter than a Neolithic person?” “Well of course, those people were primitive” is a common student response. I then bring out my “Then let me see you build Stonehenge” simulation. We look at the construction of Stonehenge, examine the terrain and the distance from Stonehenge that the 25-ton sarsen stones were moved (20 miles or 32 km), and I ask the students if they think they could figure out a way to move such a large stone over this distance. I then give them a brick to represent the sarsen stones, string for rope, popsicle sticks and pencils for levers and wood, and a grass mat approximately 3-feet long, Then I present this challenge: Your task is to use the tools provided to move the sarsen stone (the brick) from one end of the mat to the other. The Neolithic peoples moved the sarsens of Stonehenge 32 kilometers. I am challenging you to move a brick less than one meter.

In order to simulate the conditions these Neolithic people faced, you have the following restrictions:

1. Unless you are capable of lifting or tilting 25 tons in real life, you cannot lift or tilt the brick by using your hands.

2. You can only use the tools that you have been provided.

3. You are allowed to push and pull on levers if you decide to make and use these.

4. You must attach the brick to one copy of your social studies textbook and hang the textbook over the end of the table. The weight of the textbook simulates the pulling power of about 80 men—the approximate number of people that the Stonehenge builders used to move the stones.

5. You will need the brainpower and the muscle power of all members of your group in order to complete this task successfully, so you need the cooperation of all members of your group in order to be successful.

Yes, this can be done. If you design your device properly, the weight of the textbook will easily move the stone across the mat. You have 20 minutes to complete this task.

Students generally like a challenge, and most students love to solve a puzzle. This simulation provides them with both. The level of student engagement in this task is outstanding.

While the Stonehenge simulation requires a fair number of materials, you can simulate other events simply by using text. For example, in studying the Rosetta Stone and how Champollion was ultimately able to decode ancient hieroglyphics, I ask the students if they think it would be fairly easy to decode an unknown language if they had an exact copy of what it said in English. Most think this would be fairly easy.

I then give them a one-page document, with three sentences written in English and three identical sentences written either in Mandarin or Cyrillic. Their task is to simply find three words or phrases in the Mandarin or Cyrillic script that match the English text. Partway through the exercise, I ask them to check their “linguistic assumptions.” For example, are they starting at the top left and working horizontally from left to right? Do they know for certain the foreign script follows this pattern? They quickly realize why it took Champollion over 20 years to decipher hieroglyphics.

There are myriad ways that social studies teachers can create simulations so that concepts and events come alive in their classroom. It is a guaranteed way to enhance student engagement.


‘The Goal Is for 100 Percent Student Participation’

Stephen Katzel is the author behind “Win Your First Year of Teaching Middle School: Strategies and Tools for Success.” He is an educator with a passion for middle school education and helping new teachers:

Teaching social studies allows educators to use a toolbelt of varying instructional strategies throughout the school year. My most effective instructional strategy has been Socratic seminars, which, when structured correctly, promote student discourse, teach social skills, and differentiate content.

There are varying perspectives on the best method to set up and implement Socratic seminars, so please research which structures and procedures will best meet the needs of your students. Socratic seminars can involve small or large groups, depending on the structure of your seminar.

Whenever I implement a Socratic seminar, I review 5-7 ground rules that set the expectations for student participation. The ground rules cover how to participate in the discussion, the parameters of the discussion, and rules for engaging in disagreement. This aspect of the seminar promotes social skills and teaches students how to interact with each other in a respectful way, regardless of opinion. Almost any profession in the 21st century requires people to engage interactively with their colleagues, so teaching students how to have discourse in disagreement is an important skill to develop.

Socratic seminars should be directly related to the academic content being covered. Brainstorm three questions that are opinion-based to promote student discussion and debate in the seminar. Try to make the questions exciting for your students and allow for them to “take a side.” For example, “Would you rather have lived in Athens or Sparta? Please cite examples from both historical civilizations in your answer.”

In addition to answering discussion questions on paper before the Socratic seminar, I require students to brainstorm questions about the topic to further promote discourse. Part of this requirement is to help students who do not feel comfortable participating in the seminar’s spirited debate by allowing them to pose questions to their peers instead. However, the goal is for 100 percent student participation in the seminar but not forcing students into debating. I have found that oftentimes, peers encourage the quieter students to speak if they are not participating during the allotted discussion time. Having students develop questions about the topic promotes higher-level discourse and promotes student learning.

I find that Socratic seminars allow my students to grow academically and socially by providing a student-centered lesson that improves learning and achievement and I highly recommend that you implement them in your social studies classroom.


‘Narrative Inquiry’

Ching-Ching Lin, Ed.D., is a teacher educator in TESOL and bilingual education based in New York City. She is a co-editor and contributing author of the following edited volumes, Internationalization in Action: Leveraging Diversity and Inclusion in Globalized Classrooms and Inclusion, Diversity, and Intercultural Dialogue in Young People’s Philosophical Inquiry:

In traditional school settings, social studies is often seen as a body of knowledge that is approached in a reading-based manner; students are taught to decipher the text and to use a critical lens when looking deeper into it. They might be encouraged not to take the text for granted and read between the lines for underlying assumptions. However, there remains a reverence for what “experts” have said, resulting in an established hierarchy of knowledge in which student experiences are treated as anecdotes rather than evidence.

As a multilingual learner turned social studies/ESL teacher and then teacher educator who teaches sociolinguistics, I often aim to focus on knowledge as a form of power. This perspective was further heightened in 2020 when the global pandemic created the perfect storm for social and intellectual upheaval. An “aha moment” arose when I watched this video, which showed a Brooklyn-based artist, Misra Walker, striving to understand how Hurricane Sandy impacted their New York City communities, revealing a history of social inequity. The project demonstrated how multimodality and interdisciplinarity could be used together to create a powerful narrative about our present place in history and build stories from the community to drive meaningful action.

Learning from works like Walker’s inspired me to create a Narrative Inquiry (NI) approach to social studies. NI is a method used to unveil the experiences of an individual or group, usually through storytelling. Through this approach, students would be able to identify the assets in their community and comprehend that each historical event holds multiple interwoven perspectives. Adapting Jean Aguilar-Valdez’s work (2015) on culturally responsive-sustaining teaching, I reworked NI into an asset-based approach, wherein student identities, languages, and cultures are recognized as resources for classroom learning:

Identity/Asset/Voice: NI seeks out not just facts but stories and in-depth details of people’s lives, interests, and voices. Instead of teaching a textbook narrative, it is critical to select topics that enable students to engage their individual and collective strengths to present a different interpretation of reality.

For example, when studying the Dust Bowl in American history, we can strive to reconstruct the dominant discourse. Through this inquiry process, students are urged to draw on their experience with natural disasters and how their communities approach challenges with resilience, flexibility, and triumphs. As part of this inquiry process, students can share their identities, cultures, and perspectives, knowing that their valuable contributions will be welcomed and cherished.

Access: By implementing NI, students are given the opportunity to delve into academic discussions that were previously dominated by Euro- or U.S.-centric ideas, which often silenced marginalized students. NI gives these students a voice and the chance to participate meaningfully in their communities. Teachers can showcase perspectives from marginalized communities through multimodal texts that emphasize the richness and complexity of details, pictures, and languages instead of just presenting a summary. This type of storytelling could also serve as an excellent mentor text for multimodal storytelling as students create their own stories.

Multimodality/Translanguaging: NI encourages multimodal practices in order to uncover the full details of history and community stories. In the example of the Dust Bowl, students can use their total language repertoire to interview community members whose ancestors might have experienced that disaster , or whose families have experienced more ones, creating a more layered, complex understanding of the event from the perspectives of different cultures. The inclusion of multilingual and multicultural perspectives will add depth to the study of the topics.

Connection and Higher-Order Thinking: NI creates an authentic learning experience for students by bridging the gap between school and their communities. When contextualized through personal experience, the Dust Bowl is no longer seen as a time capsule wrapped in U.S. history—it’s part of a connected global world. This approach allows students to view multiple realities, understand who is most affected and why it happened, and reimagine alternative outcomes, particularly in the era of multiverses.

Social Justice and Decolonization: NI is an exploration of the relationship between knowledge and action. I often ponder why minority voices were so absent in the grand narrative of historical events. To make the invisible visible, students can be urged to center the perspectives of minoritized groups and encouraged to write counter-narratives that build on stories from these communities, amplifying the still-silenced voices in history. The truth of who speaks and whose perspectives are considered valid does not just lie in what is said or learned but also in how it’s learned. By granting student voices a legitimate place within the school curriculum along with community knowledge and opinions, we can start to disrupt the hegemonic discourse.


The Narrative Inquiry approach to social studies, which can be adapted for other subjects, encourages us to reevaluate the purpose of the school curriculum and its contribution to upholding the existing power structure. By mapping out community assets and recognizing them as valid sources for classroom knowledge, we can begin to legitimize them through our classroom learning, allowing for a reinterpretation of the past.


Thanks to Dale, Stephen, and Ching-Ching 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.

In Part Two, Sarah Cooper, Donna Shrum, and David Seelow shared their suggestions.

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.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

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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