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Hands-on history with students at the helm

Technology and inquiry-based learning inspire deeper dives into social studies
Inquiry-based instruction allows teachers to translate the C3 framework for social studies standards into hands-on classroom lessons (Gettyimages.com: Henrik Jonsson)
Inquiry-based instruction allows teachers to translate the C3 framework for social studies standards into hands-on classroom lessons (Gettyimages.com: Henrik Jonsson)

New teaching techniques and learning technology top the agenda at this fall’s conference of the National Council for the Social Studies.

Technology is quickly becoming a popular tool in social studies classrooms as teachers find ways to make history come alive for their students, who simultaneously learn about content and improve their technology skills, says David Bailor, the council’s director of meetings and exhibits.

And inquiry-based instruction allows teachers to translate the C3 framework for social studies standards into hands-on classroom lessons that are student-focused, rather than teacher-driven.

Current events, role-playing

At the upcoming conference in December, a New York state teacher will co-present "Stress Free Ways To Integrate Technology in the Social Studies Classroom," targeting teachers who are technology novices but want to expand their tech prowess.

Ed Finney, a social studies teacher at Maple Hill Middle School in Schodack Central School District and a member of the council’s technology leadership team, is also hosting a tech lounge at the conference where educators can share ideas and resources to bring back to their districts.

“When I incorporate technology, the kids always surprise me and go above and beyond what I was expecting from the lesson,” says Finney. For example, his students use PowToon animated videos to integrate voice and text to create three-minute animated clips about the Erie Canal in New York. Students become experts not just on the topic, but also on the process, he adds.

Finney also has an open-phone policy in his class. Though students can’t text, they are encouraged to use their smartphones for email, Google Education Apps, online platform Nearpod, the school's LMS Schoology, and Castle Learning assessment, for example. This is how he uses the tools:

In collaboration with a classroom in Kansas, students watch CNN Student News, a daily 10-minute broadcast geared toward middle and high school students and produced by CNN staff. Using Schoology, they post and discuss the latest news reports with their peers.

Sometimes, the two classes share and compare regional differences and histories. Students in Finney’s class, for instance, might teach the students in Kansas about the Battle of Saratoga in the Revolutionary War, while their Midwestern peers in turn will teach them about Bleeding Kansas, a border war over slavery in the 1800s.

Nearpod, an online platform (similar to PowerPoint) with ready-to-teach interactive lessons that range from ancient civilizations to American wars, allows students to answer questions, label maps, watch videos and follow presentations.

And students can use Mission: US, a free, interactive game on the PBS Learning Media website. Other PBS role-playing games focus on the Revolutionary War, immigration, slavery and Native Americans. Students assume character’s identities, such as a Cheyenne boy during westward expansion or a Jewish immigrant in New York City at the turn of the 20th century.

Student-centric learning

Student-centered learning is another big theme this year. Many second-graders in teacher Jennifer Burgin’s class in Arlington Public Schools are ELLs from foreign countries who move frequently because of their parents’ government jobs.

So Burgin has to be creative in how she connects and engages them. Through a partnership with the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., Burgin developed Be The Curator, an inquiry-based program that combines lessons about museum curation with biographies of famous Americans.

Burgin and her partner at the gallery, Briana Zavadil White, will present at the social studies conference, showing how the program works for students of different ages and abilities. Burgin’s students spend three weeks researching their subject and learning about art exhibitions. They also draw original portraits of their subject, create frames, and essentially become curators of the art and the subjects, says Burgin, the district’s 2016 teacher of the year.

The project requires students to take anactive role and decide for themselves what facts matter about their chosen American. This shifts the focus from what the teacher thinks is important to what the students prioritize, says Burgin.

“It’s more than just teaching social studies in an involved way,” says Burgin. “We are teaching them that what they think—and what they think about—matters.”

Emily Rogan is a freelance writer on Long Island, New York.