Posts Tagged 'social studies'

Dear Teachers

As part of Dr. Melissa Gibson’s class Teaching Middle Secondary Social Science, students are asked to think about social studies in a new light — and throughout the course, their perceptions do shift. Through their blogging during the semester, we can see these changes in the students’ own words. Read on to learn along with our students!

By Elie Ortiz

The first eight years of my life were spent in Puerto Rico. It was a place where everybody spoke Spanish. I was comfortable — comfortable talking to my parents, extended family, friends, and teachers. But all of a sudden, my life took a huge turn. I was no longer in Puerto Rico; I was sitting in a classroom where everybody spoke English. At the time, I knew about three words: door, window, pencil.

Social studies was a drag. I was forced to memorize vocabulary words such as “allegiance” and “sovereign.” I might know what they mean now, but when I was a little girl I didn’t, and I was traumatized by my entire social studies experience. All of the kids around me knew what they were talking about; they constructed arguments, they debated, and seemed like experts in the subject. Me? I was struggling to even form a sentence in my head just to ask the teacher about a homework assignment.

By high school, I was fluent in English, but I was definitely not fluent in social studies. I still hated it. It dragged just as much as it did in elementary school. Why? Because social studies was never taught beyond the books. We did not go out to explore our community, there were no guest speakers, and our readings were bland. While we did more inquiry and took informed action, I still had a negative attitude about social studies until college. I never loved social studies until now, all thanks to my amazing professor. As it turns out, social studies is not just about world wars and looking at historical documents. It’s about learning about ourselves, our community, our world — using our knowledge to question the world and take action. It’s about the impact each individual person can have on the world.

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I am not telling you my story so you can feel sorry for me about my experience with social studies. Rather, it’s to emphasize the importance of teaching our kids to be sociologists, geographers, historians. Students, especially during their younger years, are curious about the world. If we lecture them, have them take notes, then give them tests all of the time, are we really impacting our students? No. We are teaching them what to think, not how to think.

Overall, my thinking about social studies in K-8 classrooms has changed tremendously throughout the semester. At first, I viewed social studies as only boring history facts, but now I see it as a powerful tool to help students not only succeed in school but as human beings as well. The C3 Framework presents the following four Dimensions: Developing questions and planning inquiries; Applying disciplinary concepts and tools; Evaluating sources and using evidence; and Communicating conclusions and taking informed actions. These dimensions can be applied in the classroom and in the real world as well.

For example: Let’s think about poverty. Why are people living in poverty? How is poverty affecting our economic status? What is the data? How many people live in poverty today? What can I do to stop poverty?

As we can see, we can apply what we learn in the classroom into the real world and actually make a difference. As educators, let’s impact our students through social studies. Every single student deserves to learn about how powerful it can be.

 

To My Teachers of the Past

As part of Dr. Melissa Gibson’s class Teaching Middle Secondary Social Science, students are asked to think about social studies in a new light — and throughout the course, their perceptions do shift. Through their blogging during the semester, we can see these changes in the students’ own words. Read on to learn along with our students!
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Retrieved from The Ways, © 2019 Wisconsin Education Communications Board.

By Keanna Ross

Growing up, when my teachers or classmates found out my ethnicity, they treated me either as a foreign creature or as if they knew my entire life story: “You people still exist?” “Do you live in a teepee?” (I live in a sturdy house like the rest of my family and my ancestors actually lived in wigwams.) “You won’t have to work as hard for college because you get to go for free!” (If only they knew that my tribe is so poor, they avoid students’ emails and phone calls in order to avoid giving out an $800–$1,100 grant, which I have yet to receive in my fourth year of college.) Or, my personal favorite, “You’re lucky, you don’t have to ever pay taxes!” (Hahaha, I wish!) As you may be able to assume, I am Native American–well, half anyway. My dad is Ojibwe and Oneida, and our family is from the Bad River reservation in northern Wisconsin.

From childhood to adulthood, I have always been very involved in my culture. Though my mom is German, she was always much more enthusiastic about having my sisters and me know our Native half. She would sit with my grandma, my dad’s mother, and learn about all of the traditions; she took us to powwows religiously, learned how to bead, learned how to make regalia, allowed us to dance. When my mom passed away in the fall of 2015, she requested a traditional Ojibwe service at the Congregation of the Great Spirit, the Native American Catholic Church founded by my family years ago. Because of my mother and grandmother, my sisters and I have always been very involved in our culture and always will be. As you can see from this small backstory, my culture is very important to not only me but also to my entire family. I wear Native pride on my sleeve.

Due to this pride, I openly share my background with everyone. This is not a bad thing when people want to become educated. It is a bad thing when you’re a shy second grader, and your teacher puts you on the spot during November because we are talking about the pilgrims and the ‘Indians,’ and makes you the example ‘Indian’ to represent a whole nation. It is a bad thing when you are a senior in high school and you are told by a classmate, “You should be happy the Europeans came! They made this place better,” without having any knowledge of the cultural genocide that occurred.

Along with a HUGE majority of K-12 students, I have only ever been taught small fragments of the truth. We have been taught only one perspective. Imagine the knowledge being passed down as an animal exhibit at the zoo. As students, we have only been taught what we can see when we grab onto the binoculars. We have been focused on only one tiny part of a truth. If that is all we are taught, that is all we grow to know, because we are never taught to take the binoculars away from our eyes and see the rest of reality around us.

This cycle is still happening. Children are being taught a single perspective. This is not only a problem with Native American history being accurately represented but also African American history, Japanese American history (which I have yet to formally learn about), Mexican/American history… world history! As a sophomore in college I took an African history course, taught by an extremely knowledgeable and sweet man from Nigeria. You wouldn’t believe how many times he had to correct students when they referred to Africa as a COUNTRY, or implied that it was tiny, not modernized, or that they felt sorry for Africans. People do not know how huge the CONTINENT of Africa is; they do not know how many diverse countries are in Africa. This professor would always tell us stories about how people would ask– because he was from a country in Africa– if he knew their friend who was located on the opposite side of the continent! This is sad because this is all a result of inaccurate education.

In American schools, we are only taught about the slave trade and of Africans being “primitive;” we only learn about the dehumanizing of these people. When I learned about Egypt in sixth grade, I was never taught that it was a country in Africa; it was never even mentioned. When learning about Native American history, we were taught that the pilgrims and ‘Indians’ had Thanksgiving and that the stealing of homes was consensual. We were told that the Europeans helped the natives. We were taught about the Trail of Tears in high school, but this only consisted of a section of a chapter which was not its focal point. We were not taught that it was wrong of the Europeans; we did not mourn the deaths of millions of indigenous people (not only in what we call America, but also Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, what is now known as Mexico, and also Canada, along with South America, Hawaii, and many many more).

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If I could suggest anything to my teachers of the past, it would be to take into account all of your students. Stop teaching the dominant narrative of colored people being less intelligent and less capable. It does not matter what your background is, you can teach history with a broader perspective. You can represent ALL of your students, truthfully. Be open to, not only, learning from your students, but also changing how you teach. Understand that history textbooks were made by white Americans who create them to appeal to a certain audience. Learn with your students, because what you were taught is not coming from a point of multiple perspectives. Becoming the difference in your students’ lives is educating them on different people. It is allowing yourself to stray from tradition. Be the one who helps develop humans who are knowledgeable about the world, instead of the one who contributes to stereotypes.

As an educator you should care about how you are shaping the future. Let’s take the binoculars off and see the entire reality and truth.

 

  We Better Listen to the Kids

Dreamer of Dreams, by Joe Brusky/Overpass Light Brigade. Retrieved from Flickr for Creative Commons use.

As part of Dr. Melissa Gibson’s class Teaching Middle Secondary Social Science, students are asked to think about social studies in a new light — and throughout the course, their perceptions do shift. Through their blogging during the semester, we can see these changes in the students’ own words. Read on to learn along with our students!By Cynthia Zuñiga

The goal for any teacher is to not only educate their students, but to make sure students are able to use the knowledge we share and apply it to their daily lives. Personally, I strive towards this goal, but I also hope what I teach my students will help them become great citizens and create a stronger society than the one I grew up in. I have only recently learned that the version of history I was taught when I was in elementary and high school was based on half-truths. A lot of the important information in social studies classrooms is sugar coated or swept completely under the rug. This is something that I do not want for my classroom. I want my students to know the real society that they live in, so that they may not be as shocked as I was once they get older.

Thankfully, some teachers are already striving for this social change. They are igniting a flame in their students to take action and create change. A great example of this is the Milwaukee organization called Y.E.S. (Youth Empowered in the Struggle) that was founded through Voces De La Frontera (Voices of the Border). This is an organization that has been connecting with various high schools around the Milwaukee area to create “chapters.” Students learn about the social issues that are occurring within their area and nationwide. They create plans to get the community together in order to help them face these issues that are effecting their families, neighbors, teachers, etc.

As many students realize over time, the society that they live in is not perfect. Through a variety of social studies lessons, they learn the message that nothing in society will change if effort isn’t given. One helpful lesson would be studying the Civil Rights Movement and how the marches on the streets ensured people that their voices were heard. Another example is when Cesar Chavez began a boycott to help the United Farmworkers to make sure that others would realize the difficulties society would have without farmers. History can never changed by just watching on the sidelines; this is what is being taught to the students that are involved in the Y.E.S. program. You can watch this video of the annual May Day march held in Milwaukee. On this day, May 1st, all Latinx, immigrants, and refugees are encouraged to not attend their school, job, or any other responsibility. It is a day to demonstrate what life would be like without these people. It is a day to bring awareness while also gathering the community together.

When students organize and actually “do” social studies, they are able to use their freedom of speech to stand up for their beliefs and make a change. It allows them to apply historical knowledge of how others before them were able to stand their ground and make an impact. In addition, by organizing and attending these marches, the students become aware of social issue events that are happening within their immediate community and nationwide. Their perspectives on different cultures also change because they become more aware that oppression is not only placed on the Latinx and Black communities, but on other groups as well.

* * *

Another example of students engaging in social studies on a national level is the National Walkout, when individual expressed their perspectives on gun laws and human rights. These students, like the Y.E.S. members, studied history and realized it had been repeated over and over, but that there had been little positive change. By participating in the National Walkout, these students took matters into their own hands to make sure that the government knew they were ready to fight for change. One quote that I heard repeatedly during the time of the walkout was “I think we better listen to the kids”; this quote is one hundred percent correct. Our students can change the world, and they are the ones who often have a clearer perspective than most adults.

The students, like those who participated in the walkout, are hungry for change, and they will not be satisfied until justice and reform have been accomplished. By participating activities such as the National Walkout, students are able to “do” social studies; by using their freedom of speech and applying their knowledge of human rights, they are able to learn and connect more about how the government works — specifically on the topic of guns. When students become politically active, they gain a variety of perspectives and then have the ability to branch out and stand up for many human rights issues.

* * *

It is clear that more students are standing up for their rights and using their voice to be heard by those in power. Examples such as these are needed in the classroom when teachers discuss civic and informed action. Students will come to realize that when they see something with which they do not agree, they have the opportunity to educate themselves and fight back. Once students are equipped with that knowledge, teachers can then focus on the Amendments and other laws that protect them when they decide to speak their mind.

Proactive teachers can also use these examples to teach students the reasons why, historically, these groups of people have fought back and demanded change. Engaging in modern day movements can help students reflect back to the civil rights movement, and it can help them understand how minorities are still being neglected and treated poorly. Ultimately, as educators, we must focus our students’ attention on the differences in the lives of those who are privileged and those who are not. We must help them realize that not everyone has the same social, economic and educational opportunities. When they have such understandings, they will be better equipped to enter the real word and make big things occur. The children are our future, and I am ready to listen to what they have to say.

Becoming a Social Studies Teacher

This post originally appeared on Dr. Gibson’s Medium page.

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“painting of man” by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

By Melissa Gibson

The other night, I had an anxiety dream. In it, I was conducting research at an international school on its approach to civic education (you know, part of what I do in real life). My host was a teacher I know well, with whom I’ve worked in Peru. But before I could get started, he said I needed to meet with the principal. I entered her office, where another social studies teacher was waiting; across from us, the principal sat at her large desk, her head slung down while she napped. Worst nightmare of a job interview EVER.

Eventually, the principal jolted awake and leered at both of us. Our college transcripts were in front of her. She inspected each, and then looked at us with disgust: “Why would I hire YOU, either of you, to teach social studies when you do not even have good survey history courses on your university transcript? How can you even pretend to be social studies teachers?!” The other woman, who was clearly interviewing for a teaching job at the school, began to explain how her high school offered a plethora of college-level survey courses, and so when she got to college, she was able to move into advanced history seminars. She showed off her flashy knowledge of dates and names, and then went down a wormhole about some 1800s Navy admiral she was obsessed with. She ended with a summary of her students’ AP scores for the past twenty years. The principal nodded, clearly assuaged.

Then she turned to me. “What about you, little miss interdisciplinary?”
I gulped. I began my usual explanation of what it means to have studied Women’s Studies as an undergraduate, the various social science lenses on the same questions. I showed her on my transcript the “surveys” of sociology, history, literature, political science, but how they were all focused on questions of gender. And as I explained what I had studied, I grew more animated in my explanations of how I study these topics. The principal seemed unimpressed.

Gathering steam, I tried to give a narrative of how I came to this place in my intellectual career: I talked about not seeing myself in the curriculum (or in my classmates) and seeking academic spaces that honored the questions I was asking as legitimate intellectual inquiry. I talked about questioning dominant narratives, and moving back and forth between the various disciplinary cannons and critical theorists and scholars. I talked about my discovery late in life of how thrilling history can be when it is more than a collection of dates and names. I may have shown her the syllabus to my methods courses. I definitely showed her the documentaries and podcasts and blogs that my students have written in my social studies classes.

Eventually, she relented, agreeing that while my training was non-traditional, I clearly knew how to ask questions and get students to do some work (there may have been a tirade about lazy millenials and the ills of technology). She looked about to nod off for a nap again (and I really wanted to ask a snide question about what work she did if she spent so much time napping), so I mustered the courage to ask permission to conduct my research, which she granted. The next thing I knew, the dream had morphed into a murder mystery complete with chupacabras, and instead of conducting research on civic education, I was helping high school students escape some murderous blob-ghost thing, which liked to strike during football games. Also, there were rickshaw rides and a lack of child care for my own children so…definitely an anxiety dream.

School is finally back in full swing here in Milwaukee, and we are hunkering down at Marquette to dig into the meat of our courses. And on the eve of these intellectual journeys, I guess my sub-conscious needed to pause to reflect on what it means to be a scholar of social studies education, especially when one isn’t a traditional social scientist or historian. I talked my own imposter syndrome down in the dream, as evidenced by the principal’s relent, but I woke up aware of that always present feeling of self-doubt. Which, believe it or not, is important for me to hold onto. Not because it’s a valid self-critique but because it reminds me of how my pre-service teachers may feel in my methods courses and in their placements—not quite the real deal. And that self-doubt can be paralyzing. Part of my job as their methods instructor is to help them see the multiple ways that we can become scholars of teaching, and that our most powerful intellectual tools are the questions we ask.

This publication, which we will add to throughout the school year, is a record of their journeys learning to ask good questions. Along the way, they will uncover resources, stories, places, and instruction that just may help you become a better social studies teacher, too—whether this is your first year teaching, or your fortieth.

This is social studies. Not a collection of dates and names, but a way of inquiring about the world. We hope you’ll join us on our journey.

Social Studies Classes are SOOOOOOO Boring

history-998337_960_720.jpgBy Bill Waychunas – Here we go again. Without fail, each and every year, more than one parent will turn a parent-teacher conference into a confessional. Usually, it happens when a parent asks me to explain what my course (Civics) is all about. Sometimes, it comes after they tell me a story about how their child had really enjoyed one of the topics we had learned about and talked their parent’s ear off at home. On occasion, I’m completely blindsided by it, but usually it starts off something like this:

“I used to hate my history classes when I was in high school.”

Then comes my favorite part.

“It was just so boring.”

Great. This is going well. Then comes the curveball.

“But now I just love history stuff.”

Huh?

Astounding. As a younger teacher, I thought the the adults who had this mindset or the students that weren’t particularly engaged by history just needed time to “come around” to history, as if it was an acquired taste.

Now, I believe that it has more to do with the way that the vast majority of social studies classes are taught. Just this week, I was riding in an Uber chatting with the driver and upon finding out that I was a social studies teacher, he said:”I always liked history classes. I’m good at memorizing things.” There lies the problem. Instead of teaching students to read, think, discuss, and write, we social studies teachers are focused on parading through as much content as possible. We can’t “cover” everything in our classes, yet when we try to, we are creating the “boring” class that’s just all about memorizing facts.

As more schools are shifting the emphasis of reading instruction into social studies classes, we have a great opportunity to teach less, teach it better, and teach social studies skills that will truly serve our students in their futures.

To renew my license this past year, I needed to take an additional course in reading instruction. So, I frantically enrolled in a course at a local public college and could only get into a Friday night course called Foundations of Reading Instruction. So, there I sat, the only secondary teacher in a class of future kindergarten and 1st grade teachers, learning about how to teach kids their alphabet and phonics. While I dreaded the class at first, I ended up learning more than just reading instruction.

To start each class, the professor would ask the class the seemingly simple question, “What is reading?” to which someone in the class would respond, “It is the interaction between the text, the reader, and their prior knowledge.” This is a powerful and important concept that has shaped my teaching of reading in my classroom but also has a related parallel to the work of social studies teachers.

If education and the study of social studies is about creating capable and engaged citizens and setting the foundation for a thriving democracy, then I would ask the question, “What is democracy?” Well, to borrow from my past professor, democracy is “the interaction between the real world, the citizen, and their social studies knowledge.” History and social studies are our “prior knowledge” which enables us to interact with and understand the world around us. Without background knowledge, students cannot use higher-level critical thinking skills that make history useful or relevant to their everyday lives. The problem that happens in most social studies classrooms is that we focus on cramming as much prior knowledge into our students brains as possible without ever showing them how to use it or why it matters.

I believe that this is exactly the reason why so many people are drawn to history as they become older; the success of the History Channel can’t be completely attributed to Duck Dynasty, after all. When asked to describe their high school history experience in one word, most people chose the words “boring” or “irrelevant.” How is it possible that history-centered entertainment continuously tops the charts of best sellers and blockbuster movies, like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States or Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln? Clearly, there is an untapped wellspring of interest and value in history that has been unfortunately overlooked or simply underutilized by social studies teachers for generations.

Students today are growing up in a much different world than the vast majority of their teachers, which is why we must adjust the way that we teach social studies. In the past, factual recall and content knowledge was perhaps generally more useful due to the effort and time needed to look something up. For students today, anything that they could possibly want to know is available at their fingertips through smartphones and the internet. The old-fashioned way of memorizing dates, names, events, and other facts needs to be “history.” Instead, what we should be doing is teaching students how to take on the truly massive amounts of information available in the world today by comprehending it, evaluating it, discussing it, and coming to rational conclusions about it.

This is why I’m imploring my fellow social studies teachers to ditch their textbooks (maybe not completely) and venture into the dangerous, exciting, and relevant world of controversy in the curriculum. As adults, we must navigate the treacherous waters of uncertainty, face down conflicting information, and grapple with varying points of view. Why aren’t we asking our students to do the same? By bringing controversy into our curriculum we allow student to practice their skills of interpreting information, considering the views of others, and evaluating arguments and evidence to come to reasoned judgements about a wide range of issues ranging from raising the minimum wage to whether or not 16 year olds should be allowed to vote.

In a history class, why not present students with some of the many mysteries of history where there is conflicting opinion about what actually happened? These are real world issues that are both relevant and interesting to students. Best of all, they give students the opportunity to engage and practice the skills they will need to support and thrive in a democracy before they are released into the world of adulthood. Each year that I teach, I find myself teaching less and less content while more deeply diving into a select number of topics.

But what about the mandated curriculum? What if student opinions get out of control and go beyond disagreements into full-out arguing or bullying of other students? These are valid fears. Teaching “by the (text)book” is certainly the easier and safer route to take. A big part of this is practicality, as going chapter-by-chapter through a book is efficient in terms of the teacher’s expenditures of time and energy. There is little thinking or preparing that needs to be done by the teacher, or by the students. Stepping outside of a textbook can also expose a teacher to possible conflict with students, parents, or administration if they don’t agree with the teacher’s particular presentation of a controversial topic. Staying within the lines of appropriateness isn’t always easy for a teacher to do, but should always be a large consideration when moving away from a standard, textbook curriculum.

The alternative is to stick too closely with the read the textbook, take notes, memorize, and assess cycle that has plagued many social studies classrooms. If we choose not to bring our social studies curricula and teaching closer to what is valuable and interesting to students through controversy and emphasizing the skills truly needed for positive participation in society, we’re not only cheating our students but we will forever be the teachers of just another “boring” course.

Wait, Am I a Social Studies Teacher or Reading Teacher?: Part One

32936701By Bill Waychunas – Sorry to burst your bubble, but the truth is that you are both. Say what you will about the added emphasis on reading in the Common Core or standardized testing and the narrowing of curriculum, but the fact of the matter is that more and more social studies teachers are finding themselves in positions where they are being asked to tread into the mostly unfamiliar territory of reading instruction. Personally, I have no problem with this transition, as I find it hard to believe that any student could be a successful history student without also being a successful reader.

Several years ago, I began teaching at a school that asked me to be more thoughtful and accountable for reading results than I ever had been before. I wasn’t completely unprepared for this mission, as it mirrored some of my personal views of teaching social studies, but I would be lying if I told you that I was ready to successfully “marry” social studies content with reading instruction. This is especially challenging when students come in with a wide range of reading abilities, as many students do when working in a low-income area.

After much struggle, frustration and eventually triumph, I’m happy to share with you my bits of advice for differentiating reading instruction in a social studies classroom.

  1. Independent Reading isn’t just for Elementary students!

You can force kids to read as much as you want in class, but since reading is all about practice, students won’t become good readers until they want to read. Creating this thirst for reading isn’t always easy to do but will serve students in the long run if they become life-long readers. This is why in my class the first 10 minutes is dedicated to independent reading where students get to choose a book, magazine, or newspaper on their own to get them hooked on reading. (Side note: This is also a great time to check students’ homework and take attendance!)

  1. Reading aloud to students also isn’t just for Elementary School either

Skip the carpet squares and gathering around the teacher…It turns out that high school students don’t like sitting on the floor. When I first started teaching, I thought that reading aloud to students was somehow “above me” as a secondary teacher. Truth be told, reading aloud to students is an excellent way for them to be exposed to new vocabulary words which they have never heard before (look into the 30 million word gap) and also can help with fluency, especially if you have student read it back to you or their partner. This is why I will oftentimes record myself or a guest celebrity teacher from my school’s staff, to read a passage that I play for students. In this way they can hear and see text while they annotate, and I can monitor and assess their understanding through informal observations. This brings me to my next revelation…

  1. Don’t assume that students know how to interact with texts!

As adult readers, we interact with the text naturally through practice. In our heads, we use two voices when we read: one voice recites the text, the other has a conversation with the text. That second voice may ask questions, make connections, self-monitor for comprehension, react with emotions, or alert us when we come across an unfamiliar word.

Students need explicit instruction and modeling of these strategies in order to “activate” that voice in their head that interacts with the text. Close readings are great for this, but in order to get kids to naturally do this as they read, the literature teacher at my school and I developed a sticky-note system where kids stop as they interact with a text and record it in a format that we taught them at the beginning of the year. Currently, we have our students interact with the text by asking questions, making connections, visualizing, describing their mood, determining meaning of difficult Vocabulary, identifying Important Information, and paraphrasing difficult portions of text with a strategy we call the “Help Button.”

  1. Give students lots of practice with texts “at their level!”

While textbooks form the backbone of most social studies classrooms, we need to be wary of their reading levels as they tend to be especially difficult to students due to their highly challenging, content-specific vocabulary. Putting a high-school level textbook in front of a high schooler who struggles with reading and has probably had a bad relationship with social studies classes in the past is a recipe for disaster. Not being able to read the content leads to frustration, which can lead to a number of usually negative reactions that will drive a teacher bananas.

Some teachers will criticize this as “dumbing down” the curriculum, but I would argue against that notion in two ways. One, your job as a teacher is to teach the students in front of you, not the lofty idea of where you think they should be. Two, does it really matter how your student learns your content? For example, if I give two students different passages about the causes of the Civil War, one at a 4th grade reading level and the other at a 9th grade level, is it more important that they understand the causes of the Civil War or that both of them get the same assignment? I think you know where I would stand on that issue.

Anyways, to ensure that you are reaching kids on their level, assess your students reading levels early in the year and adjust the materials that you give them based on their performance. Some good assessments to use include the Scholastic SRI which will give you Lexile scores, the STAR reading tests available through Renaissance Learning, or, if school budgets are a problem, some practice ACT reading exams. I like to group my students based on several of these data points and assign readings that are around each group’s reading level. I’ve found this to be especially helpful when assigning homework, as students need to be able to access materials on their own which then allows me to up the rigor (and support) for readings we do in class.

I’ve named my reading groups Red, White, and Blue, of course. While they all might be reading about symbolic free speech through case summaries of Tinker v. Des Moines, they all are getting readings at different degrees of difficulty. Achieving this requires either a plethora of widely ranging materials or the ability to modify to meet student reading needs.

Modifying for reading level is easier said than done, but there are some simple short cuts that you can take advantage of. The first step is to get yourself some different textbooks at different levels. U.S. history textbooks are available on Amazon for elementary school classrooms or middle school classrooms. If I’m teaching a certain topic, I may assign the chapter from the elementary textbook to my lowest readers, the high school book to my proficient or advanced students, and the middle school text to my students that are only slightly behind. The result: students that are getting reading practice at their level, content knowledge that can be used for more fun social studies activities such as projects, and a teacher that doesn’t have to deal with students that are frustrated by the text.

For current events, I use an amazing website (newsela.com) which takes newspaper articles and modifies them for you at different Lexile levels. The readings are even searchable and many come with pre-made quizzes. Best of all, the site is FREE!

For texts that you find online or have in a word document, modifying text yourself is easy to do. To check reading levels of texts which I can copy/paste, I like to use the website readability-score.com. There are plenty of other free websites out there and a quick google search for “free text analyzer” should point you in the right direction. When modifying text down to student reading levels, keep a few key points in mind. Shorten the sentences. Simplify the vocabulary words. Add text features like pictures, headings, subheadings, and vocabulary definitions in captions.  When you’ve finished, paste the modified text into the text analyzer and see if you’ve gotten to the level where your students will be able to access and understand.

 

Congrats! You’ve just passed Part One of how to be both a social studies and reading teacher. I hope you will join me next month as I discuss further topics such as vocabulary instruction, in-class reading methods, creating book nerds, blending content and reading in assessments, and finding ways to engage students with text.

Enjoying Teaching the Mock Trial

download (3)By Nick McDaniels — This year I have enjoyed teaching the law in high school.

I have been afforded so many opportunities to engage with students around real-time relevant issues, but there are no more fun topics to teach than the mock trial. My students are preparing now for their spring mock trial competition (we fell just a few points short of a victory in the winter competition), and they are preparing to win. We started our preparation a week earlier than we did in the winter, and our structures for talking about the trial are more familiar, more put together. I’ve created teaching materials, templates for opening statements, structures for practices, and it is helping, but I’m still struggling with a few things.

When only a few students will be actually participating the mock trial, how do you keep thirty others engaged to be working on it in class? Does running a mock-mock trial in class solve this problem? If not, how do I generate buy-in? How do I maintain order in my courtroom as a judge when we practice, while also grading and providing feedback to participants at the same time?

The answers to all of these questions are important and will appear with time, as I teach more and more mock trials, as I become more comfortable with the parts that engage students and the parts that do not. I do know, having taught three different mock trials, that I am starting to notice some structures and processes that are effective for students and their preparation.

These are the steps I follow and I have tried to create templates, organizers, worksheets to accompany each step:

1) Teachers and students should together review the entirety of the stipulated facts, witness statements, evidence, and relevant statutory and case law.

2) Then students should parse information from each of those sources to find which is helpful for the defense, and which is helpful for the plaintiff/prosecution.

3) From this, they can begin building a theory of the case for both sides.

4) Students should then construct opening statements for both sides of the case, being sure to include a theme, a clear call for a verdict, and a walk through of what the jury will hear at trial.

5) Students should then be assigned (or allowed to choose) roles, everyone being either an attorney or a witness (no jurors, bailiffs, or deceased victims as will be requested roles by students).

6) Students assigned as witnesses should begin writing direct and cross-examination questions for themselves as would be asked by attorneys as the attorneys polish their opening statements.

7) Students should then be placed in to teams so that attorneys can practice questioning the witnesses.

8) Practice, Practice, Practice the mock trial in its entirety. And grade students based on a variety of measures including written, oral, and collaboration measures.

While I know that mock trial uniquely fits into my curriculum and program and is not a possibility for all teachers, I highly encourage teachers to try a mock trial unit or sponsor a club that does mock trials (a number of great mock trials are available online). I have seen such dedication from students for trial prep work that I am inspired and encouraged in all other aspects of my teaching.


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