Teaching Engagement in Social Studies 

One of the greatest activities of a teacher’s life is to see students engaged in the subject matter. Watching your students focus on the key concepts of social studies and having to use the facts to justify their ideas is just an amazing experience. Recently, one of my former students thanked me for getting him turned on to learning social studies, I told him my job is to light the fire, yours is to make it happen. By the way, he has a state senator, U.S. Ambassador, and more. That is just one example of the impact we can have as teachers on some students (not all…lol). In a nine-part series of articles, I will address the following topics and give examples of suggestions on how to make your social studies class an interactive experience for students and the teacher. I hope you enjoy it!  

A nine-part series

A. Developing a critical thinking mentality – using the controversy of key decisions. 

B. Making the connection to current events

C. Thematic – project-based units

D. Debates and Discussions

E. Using technology as a tool for learning 

F. The role of international connections 

G. Real-world based units- the case for Global Studies

H. Using classroom simulations and activities 

I. How to approach the online teaching of social studies – discussions, content, connections, and project-based learning

Each of these topics is designed to give a new or experienced teacher some ideas that they can possibly incorporate into their classroom. 

Developing a critical thinking mentality – using the controversy of key decisions.

When teaching social studies, getting kids to think, ask questions, find relevant topics from now and the past. Key decisions that impact future...long and short term effects...changes and variety of thinking...creating a what-if. taking action on issues. ie. constitution, world power, expansion westward, industrialization, agricultural or industrial society, moving to computer-generated society, what questions to ask...how to ask them...looking at  sources...the time, place in history...summarize then pick one or two ideas to discuss….present, post, develop...defend.  

Making Current Events a Critical Thinking Activity 

As social studies teachers we have all done a Friday current events article….” bring in a  newspaper article or magazine article about our town, state, national or international events. Be sure to read it over and then we will discuss it with the class or in a small group. It was a dry assignment and the kids did not like it or really learn from it. So how do you change this to make it  a fun experience? Over the last few years of my teaching I decided to have the students do a Friday full-year project …the first quarter was about finding a topic and seeing what are the real-world problems of our community that are also state, national or international problems ( depending on the class) and about finding and discussing the problems, were these real issues. Quarter two was about what is being done about these problems and by whom. Quarter 3 was about what can we do about the problems and who can we work with to make it happen, and quarter four was about executing a plan of action.

In quarter one the students brought in articles or videos that explained the problems. Eventually student’s were divided up into groups to talk about the issues then lead the class in a discussion and decide if they wanted as a class to pursue any of  these issues. For example, one year they discussed landmines, refugees, and child soldiers then decided which of these topics they wished to pursue . Remember this was only done on Friday and we opened the discussion for 1 Friday, researched and prepared their presentations for 4 Fridays, took another three Fridays’ to give their presentations and on the last Friday of the quarter decided which one (s) they wanted to do detailed research.s 

 The students choose refugees for their topic one year.  So quarter two was spent looking at how big a problem it was and what was being done about by whom. In this case they looked at the refugee problem in different regions and reviewed sites like the UN Refugee site and the US State Department site. The next step was to see what countries or organizations were doing about it such as:  Doctors without Borders and the International Red Cross. The goal was to determine what countries who had refugees were up against by looking into refugee sites around the world. We even set up a video conference with one of the refugee sites through the US State Department and we had some unintended consequences. Right before the video conference with the US State Department’s group at  the refugee camp, it was overrun by raiders. The kids were shocked and realized how serious this issue was and it motivated them to take on this issue with some concern. 

Quarter three was about what we can do about this issue. The students took a careful look at who they wanted to work with, how they were going to make it happen and began their preparations. After much discussion, the students felt they would like to let other students in the school know about the issue, work to make money for Doctors without Borders, the International Red Cross, and a local refugee group within our community.  The kids planned an all-school presentation and organized a “Rock for Refugees” concert. 

Quarter four was about initiating the plan and making it happen. There was a great deal of discussion about what to do for the student body,  what types of presentations could be done, and how to set up the concert. The students brainstormed the ideas and in the end got our librarian to open their doors for an all-school walkthrough. The students had a 3 hour time set aside for other classes to visit the displays/presentations they set up for students during lunch hours. When we were done with this part of the activity I was amazed when the students came back to class as they were jumping up and down cheering. The Rock for Refugees conference was just as successful, the school had a number of rock groups and we set up a time with another of the school’s organizations to help us make it happen. Oh my,  it was a big success, in fact, another great thing was that we were able to invite a new student refugee to speak during the concert, and the kids gave their presentations to the students in between band numbers. The student who spoke brought the place to tears and it was an amazing experience. After the concert, the students decided how much money went to each organization and as exhausted as we all were, evaluations of the project were right on the money.  

This was just one example of making current events a real-time experience. Other projects included nuclear waste and energy (Yucca Mountain Nevada), Save Walker Lake, Landmines, Food for the homeless,  and Child Soldiers just to name a few. It is possible to bring a classroom to life in Any subject by using the principles of interactive project-based learning or thematic learning to live.

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