If I was teaching Social Studies today…

Chichen Itza

Some folks know that I started my education career as a middle school Social Studies teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina. If I was still doing that now, I would be incredibly excited because so many wonderful resources would be available to my classroom. For instance, if I was teaching Social Studies today…

My students and I definitely would be tapping into an incredible diversity of online resources. The American Historical Association offers over one thousand Civil War newspaper editorials, for example. It also offers a YouTube channel on which historians discuss their work, making history come alive for contemporary youth. The UC Davis California History Social Science Project frames current events within their historical context, connecting students’ present to the past. Like many teachers, I would tap into the the Library of Congress, which would give me tips for teaching with primary sources, including quarterly journal articles on topics such as integrating historical and geographic thinking. We’d also have access to historical documents from the British Museum – such as notes from an English merchant in Syria in 1739 – and to the prisoner of war archives from the Red Cross. Washington University in St. Louis has an amazing collection of interviews from the Great Depression. And, if I was stuck for an idea for class, I could access the Social Studies lesson plans at Educade or the 400+ lesson plans at the EDSITEment! web site from the National Endowment for the Humanities, including a very popular set for AP U.S. History.

Instead of being limited to my teaching and our textbook, we’d have access to an entire planet of experts. We could participate in a number of free Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), including over a dozen on Chinese History from Harvard University. We could listen to podcasts on the geography of world cultures from Stanford University. We could learn about maps and the geospatial revolution from a professor at Penn State University. And so on… 

Without a doubt we would be living on Pinterest since it has dozens of pinboards – and tens of thousands of pins – related to history, including awesome resource sets from the Stanford History Education Group. We could search for pins on Native American history, Middle East cultures, Japanese history, government, geography, sociology, psychology, economics, and numerous other topics. Additionally, we could make our own sets related to local class topics and presentations using a friendly curation tool like Educlipper

My class would be in YouTube heaven. Whether we were watching National Park videos from the 1930s, digging through World War I and World War II videos from the National Archives, or perusing the channels of the Presidential Libraries, we’d tap into the incredible diversity of historical sources that can be accessed with a few clicks of the mouse.

Over on Flickr, my students and I would be looking at Industrial Revolution photos from the University of British Columbia, Matthew Brady’s Civil War photos from the National Archives, news photos from the 1910s from the Library of Congress, and Great Depression photos from the New York Public Library. We’d also check out the historical photos of Texas, Mexico, and Teddy Roosevelt from Southern Methodist University and the World War II advertisements and posters from the Library Company of Philadelphia. We’d examine historical images of Native American life from the Museum of Photographic Arts, other historical photos from the U.K. National Archives, and maybe dig through the 5.3 million book images from the Internet Archive. 

We’d have a variety of Social Studies simulations and games available to us. For instance, we could use the Civilization video games to learn and blog about political power and civics. We could find history games at Playing History or Flight to Freedom. We could engage in government simulations at GovGames or iCivics or Cyber Nations. We also could learn through ‘serious games’ about world issues, including poverty in Haiti, farming in the developing world, the impacts of the oil industry on our environment, or the 1979 revolution in Iran.

Even more exciting than what is available for us to peruse and consume, however, would be the technologies that allow us to interact, create, make, and do things together. Let’s take maps, for example. As fun as it is to explore the maps collection of the British Library, it’s even better when we roll up our sleeves and get to work. So I’d acquaint my students with mapping tools like OverlapMaps to improve their geographical sense of scale. Or I would send them to interact with the historical geography atlas of the United States from the University of Richmond, where they could trace the geography of the women’s suffrage movement over time. We could explore the Farm Security Administration photos from Yale University, perhaps drilling all the way down to a particular county. We’d learn how to make our own maps using Google’s mapping tools, then check out the maps that others have made. We’d add photos to our maps and investigate other mapping tools as well, including possibly making floor plans of locally-significant buildings. We might even take a cue from Michael Hathorn’s high school history students in Hartford, Vermont and use tools like Google SketchUp to make a historical model of our city or town.

On the podcasting front, we would listen to Social Studies podcasts such as Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Mr. Hunt’s Geography podcast. We’d subscribe to feeds and listen to podcasts from the U.S. government as well. As part of our class, I’d model to my students how to set up RSS readers and subscribe to podcasts, which they then could extend to other classes and their extracurricular interests and hobbies. We also would watch TED and TEDx talks like those from David Christian, Niall Ferguson, and Kirk Citron. We’d learn about historical 3D mapping from Eric Sanderson, the digital re-imagining of Gettysburg from Anne Knowles, escaping the Khmer Rouge from Sophal Ear, and the decline of violence from Steven Pinker. We’d also look at some teacher- and student-created video channels like HipHughesHistory and the Lens on Climate Change project. Then we could either host our own TEDxYouth event or perhaps create our own podcasting and/or video channel.

Other initiatives might include participating with other youth across the country in KQED Learning’s Do Now Roundups, discussing important political and societal issues. Like the 4e Gymnasium school in Amsterdam, we could use Facebook’s Timeline tool to make historical timelines on topics such as the Soviet Union, inventions, fashion, or Magellan’s voyage. We could use Minecraft to design our own self-sustainable towns. We could play Fantasy Geography. We could create our own social justice project like Bill Ferriter’s middle schoolers. And we could go on virtual field trips to expand our global awareness, visiting famous government sites as well as places like Pompeii, Stonehenge, and Colonial Williamsburg. We also could immerse ourselves in virtual reality stories from the New York Times.

Indeed, the more I could put my students to work, the better. As John Dewey noted, we learn what we do. So my students would do Social Studies, not just read about it. One inspiration would be the entirely-student-run Online Model United Nations. Another would be Wayland (MA) High School’s yearly student history projects, in which students engage in digital storytelling projects, scanning historical images and creating audio podcasts, interviewing local Vietnam-era veterans, and analyzing the papers of the commander of the Dachau concentration camp after its liberation. Maybe my students would write their own textbooks like those at Beachwood (OH) Middle School. They could make a local history wiki or, even better, make contributions to our global information commons by directly creating and editing Wikipedia pages. They could participate as ‘citizen-historians’ in crowdsourced projects such as those from HistoryPin, the University of Iowa Libraries DIYHistory project, or the Washington State Historical Society’s Civil War Pathways Project

As a teacher I’d have numerous resources available to help me use all of these technologies and digital environments effectively. From Jeremiah McCall’s book and website, Gaming the Past, to Historical Thinking Matters to TeachingHistory, I would have access to incredible thinking and teaching from educators, historians, geographers, and other social scientists. I could utilize the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media software tools for historical research. I could incorporate Stanford University’s amazing library of historical critical thinking assessments at Beyond the Bubble. I could garner ideas from the City University of New York’s American Social History Project. And I could tap into the American Historical Association’s suggestions for teaching difficult legal or political topics or teaching with new media

If we want our students to understand and appreciate history, they need to DO history. If we want them to learn and care about government, they need to DO government. If we want them to be good citizens, they need to BE active citizens. As Dan Carlin noted, we have a tremendous ability (and obligation) to energize and engage our students in Social Studies. It’s never been a better time to be a teacher in this area and I could easily share numerous other resources on these topics. Many Social Studies teachers aren’t aware of the vast diversity of online resources to them. What are your favorite online Social Studies resources that we could share with them?

Image credit: Chichén Itza, Daniel Mennerich

12 Responses to “If I was teaching Social Studies today…”

  1. Wow! What a treasure trove. Good thing it is almost summer – I’m gonna need it to delve into these resources. Thank you!

  2. Your students could help to decode Civil War telegrams https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/zooniverse/decoding-the-civil-war

  3. Bridgettte Moore Reply June 1, 2017 at 9:22 am

    My problem is going through the treasure trove of options to find the right one for my elementary kids

  4. Thank you for the links to and descriptions of so much fantastic material.

    This is a big shotgun blast of resources, most of which are very, very useful. But I found myself wondering what the context was for the use of the resources? What larger framework of knowledge are those resources a part? Are they located within a curriculum that helps students understand the interpretive nature of history? It’s not enough for historical facts and source material to be “interesting,” they have to add up to some larger understanding of significance, coupled with an understanding of the relevant historiography (i.e., why don’t we study Columbus’ voyages the in same way we did fifty years ago?).

    Also crucial for this menu of material is a relentless attention to authorial perspective, especially in things like TED Talks, Pintrest boards, and YouTube videos.

    Don’t get me wrong, that’s a genuinely exciting list of resources and I’m not trying to denigrate the enthusiasm for student engagement. It’s just that the deep and critical analysis that’s fundamental to a history class doesn’t come through in this piece, and there’s a danger that people (e.g., school administrators) may see only the surface of posts like this and promote or accept in their schools learning that is superficially engaging, but substantively shallow.

    Also, I’ve always genuinely wondered: why is a blog post better than an essay?.

    • A great teacher can create meaningful lessons with almost no resources, and a poor one can wreck the best designed and supported curriculum, but I don’t know any excellent teachers who do not maintain a constantly growing catalog of resources.

      I appreciate that you bring up the issue of authorial and constructed presentations and narratives. It has become very obvious that the skill of assessing the arguments that someone constructs and the sources and selection of their evidence is something becoming increasingly important in all aspects of life. It is also clear that we are doing a very poor job of teaching those skills. Social Studies has always had an issue with this (try to find the Battle of Blair Mountain or the Railroad Strike of 1877 in a primary or secondary level history text, but they always have the Haymarket Affair and the Homestead Strike) but it has expanded into Economics and the Sciences where political and business interests are taking priority over facts and reality.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. This post was indeed intended to show the incredible breadth of resources that is available to us these days as Social Studies educators. To answer your primary question, any one of these technology tools would hopefully be situated within significant and intentional instructional contexts to make best use of the resource. That deep, purposeful usage which we both would like to see happen will depend on the teacher, of course. Otherwise, as you note, the technology usage will be superficial and perhaps even distracting from learning and teaching goals.

    If teachers and/or administrators are promoting and/or accepting “learning that is superficially engaging, but substantively shallow,” that’s not the fault of the technologies but rather the instructional and leadership climate.

    Not sure about your last question. Maybe it depends on what you’re calling an ‘essay?’

  6. By essay, I mean a thesis-driven response to a question, supported by evidence. I’m a staunch advocate that that sort of writing is important for students, both in their development as writers and as critical thinkers.

    However, I also blog and find it useful as a opportunity to delve into issues more informally. But the one informs the other; without a background in the sort of rigor required of thesis-driven writing, my informal writing would be less effective.

    I don’t mean to hijack the thread, it’s just that in discussion s of technology and student engagement, blogging seems to get a lot of attention as a form of writing that is more “authentic” than formal essay-writing. I’m squeamish about that; certainly students can do both, but I suspect that more often than not, blogging supplants formal writing and I think that’s a loss that we ought to at least be intentional about.

    • Two quick thoughts:

      1. Teaching students to write in a variety of different styles for a variety of different purposes for a variety of different audiences can only strengthen the intentionality, clarity, and depth of their writing, I believe.

      2. There’s no reason that a full-on ‘essay’ can’t be posted on a blog. If accompanied by an audience and perhaps a request for feedback, we can get the interactivity that often is a benefit of public writing? (like the conversation that we’re having here)

  7. Wow. What amazing resources. I will have to look into these to incorporate them into my classroom. I appreciate the perspective you give into including technology into the classroom.

  8. Great post! I particularly like that you didn’t stop with a list of available resources but went the next step and talked about classes producing their own materials to post. Teachers (myself included!) have a bad habit of looking for stuff for class rather than creating their own curricular materials. In 2006 the Alberta government introduced a new curriculum that included the study of French Acadia for Grade 2, specifically, the town of Meteghan. But they launched the new program of studies before they got around to putting out any supporting materials. So I wanted to show my student teachers that instead of waiting for someone else to do something, they could just build a site themselves. Thus I had my daughter, then in Grade 2, get her class to draw up interview questions and she interviewed a local historian in Meteghan (one day of my amateur filming, then a week or so to edit and build a website). 80,000 grade 2 students ended up using that site, flawed though it was, and some classes are still using it a decade later, even though there are other, better resources now, and even though it is so old, the video format is obsolete and one has to fiddle around a bit to get the videos to show in some of the newer browsers. I should also mention that once I had the site up and running, others started to contribute to it, notably a teacher-librarian who had been to Meteghan too, and donated her home video.
    If I could do
    http://people.uleth.ca/~runte/Meteghan
    /index.html
    in a week, think what a teacher could do today with more modern software/hardware! Ridiculously easy! Yet we so often look to others to make stuff for our class, rather than have the class make stuff for others….

  9. If I were a social studies teacher, I would connect with my local chamber of commerce, civic groups, clinic and hospital administrators, local pastoral council, agriculture leaders, social workers, etc. and see what issues/problems exist in my community and have my students work on leading and solving real world problems.

  10. Thanks for the shout-out, Scott. For me the use of video games in the history class is completely connected to the development of critical thinking, especially the critique of interactive models, so I completely agree that the tools in no way exclude the importance of historical skills and thinking.

Leave a Reply