30-Day Challenge

Teachers should always strive to improve what they do inside and outside of the classroom.  It’s just growth.  It’s a personal way to push yourself.  Watch this:

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What are some ideas:

  1. Pick a new topic, and study it every day for 30 days
  2. Learn a new technology tool, and play with it every day for 30 days (then use it in class)
  3. Call one parent a day for 30 days to tell them how good their student did in class (pick different kids)
  4. Write better test questions, write 5 each day for 30 days
  5. Use each day to build better relationships with your students for 30 days (longer really)
  6. Write 500 words a day in reflection of what you taught for 3o days
  7. Share articles on social studies and/or teaching via Twitter every day for 30 days
  8. Learn how to use a wiki by experimenting with a new tool and your content every day for 30 days
  9. Read about 6 new teaching strategies (5 days of study on each strategy) and decide how you can use them in your classroom
  10. Do #9, but with classroom management ideas

Keep a blog about what you are doing.  Share the idea with other teachers.  See if you can make it a competition.  Have fun.  Learn.

Rolling Stone’s Accidental Lesson Plan

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Fast-food workers protest outside of a Burger King in Los Angeles.

I’m sure Rolling Stone didn’t intend this, but an article in its recent addition entitled, Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For, gives a great case study for Economics teachers.  In it, author Jesse Myerson list 5 things that will help this demographic group in the future, such as:

  1. Guaranteed Work
  2. Social Security for All
  3. Take Back the Land
  4. Make Everything Owned by Everybody
  5. A Public Bank in Every State

Teachers can have their students research if economic theory would actually support these ideas, if they’ve been developed before (e.g. Marxism), and if Millennials are really interested in these ideas.

To balance this approach, teachers can offer another article, Sorry Rolling Stone, Millennials Won’t Fall for Those Reforms, by Maura Pennington.

Students should read both and find historical context to decide if these ideas would work.

Using Mandela to Teach Historical Thinking



We have two norms when a famous or important person (not always the same) dies. Mostly they are positive recognitions of what they did in this world and how they changed the world, either micro or macro.  The second way is to focus on the negative, mostly through memes that can go viral.

Nelson Mandela hasn’t escaped this reality.  Most folks are being positive about this man’s death, others not so much.  Which makes for a good case study for teachers to discuss with their students about how history is made, not by the historical figure, but by those who interpret the history.

Mandela falls in the rare air of historical figures as:  Washington, Jefferson, Queen Elizabeth, Peter the Great, and others who generally created a positive good for the world.  Yet, each of these people have negatives.  For example, the most common is to dismiss Washington’s importance because he had slaves.  To do so is to remove the “context” of history, which is just about the biggest sin of historical interpretation.

And, just so we’re on the same page, we’re talking about things that are historical facts, not myths and such.

Each historical person needs to be measured by the good AND bad they have done.  Not just one.  Then, we weigh the good versus the bad, like a see-saw.  Despite Washington having slaves, once you know context and see the other accomplishments of Washington, you must conclude that in the end, he is a positive historical figure.  One where statues and schools named after him is okay.

Same with Mandela.  It’s fair to take a list of critiques one might have of Mandela (e.g., his relationships with Gaddafi and Castro for example), but you have to then compare the good.  Which in Mandela’s case, is clear:

The nation of Zimbabwe was similar to South Africa suffering from apartheid and repression.  Both nations also became independent from British rule, but in Zimbabwe (which was years earlier), Robert Mugabe took power, a man who then has brutalized his own people and taken a once prosperous nation to one of mass starvation.  And he is still in power.  Mandela took the opposite course and South Africa and the world is much better for it.  That alone, that one act (made of many smaller ones) places forever, Mandela in the apotheosis of historical figures.

This is just one of the many lessons that can be taught about Mandela.  Similar to Washington how also gave up power.  A lesson where you don’t just discuss facts, but you weigh the entire historical record of an individual.

If you want lesson ideas on Nelson Mandela, go to:

Getting the Most Out of Reading

Teachers are fond of saying, “no question is a dumb question.”  I’ve always disagreed with that.  For example:

“Why won’t you just tell us the answer?” (Also a great book for social studies teachers by Bruce Lesh.)

Dumb question.

The truth is, most history teachers probably hear this question the most, or its variation, “I can’t find the answer.”  As if answers are supposed to flash, blink, jump up and down, and yell at the reader, “I’m the answer to number 2!!!”

But if your classroom is lecture and power point heavy, students have learned that you will give them the answer.  There isn’t much seeking they need to do.

A great activity I have recently discovered is the Question-Answer-Relationship.  It’s a critical thinking activity that teaches students how to find answers when they aren’t apparent.  It’s a pretty old teaching tool, but not one I’ve seen used in the Social Studies classroom.

Basically, it works like this:

  • A student is given a reading, up to 2 – 3 pages I’d imagine.  They can be in groups if you’d like.
  • You provide a handout with a series of questions that fit into 4 categories:
    • (Easiest) Right There:  The answer is in the text, it’s the type students most like finding and usually do easily.  For example, the author could clearly state, “Team A completely dominated the game.”
    • (Harder) Think and Search:  The answer is in the text, but you may have to look in different places and pull information together.  For example, a sports story may not clearly state, “Team A dominated Team B,” but after reading a few paragraphs on how Team A kept scoring points while keeping Team B from scoring, that is the obvious conclusion.
    • (Hardest) Author and You: The answer IS NOT in the text.  But, the information the author has given is important.  It also requires prior knowledge on behalf of the student.  For example, you can ask, “How likely is it that Team A will win the championship?”  Again, the author hasn’t said so, but by reading the entire story and looking at other information (other teams’ records), the student can come up with a conclusion.  Maybe the team got lucky this one game, but has a losing record.
    • (Easy) On My Own:  The answer IS NOT in the text, and, you don’t even have to read the text to answer this.  For example, the final question could be: Which team are you likely to be cheering for to win the championship?  This personalizes the reading.

The example at Reading Quest is a good Social Studies example.  You can do this activity with just 4 questions, but I’d recommend 6 – 10 with a 1-3 of each type, except On My Own, one (1) question is probably enough.

You may want to start with just doing Right There and Think and Search, and then move on to the last two.  But it’s an activity that students need to master.  You can’t just quit if it didn’t go well the first time.

We’re Teachers, First . . .


Most public schools teachers have romantic images of what they want to do in the classroom.  That’s him, above.  Not Ben Stein.  But in reality, one thing matters: test scores.  That’s true in most states.

If Mr. Keating was teaching in a public school today, he’d probably be inspiring students to “slash and trash” or “jail the detail.”  Not contemplating how a deeper understanding of history can make you a better global citizen.  The answer is A, by the way.

For five years, and specifically, the last 2 weeks, I’ve been working with 6th – 11th grade teachers whose students struggle with our state End-of-Course tests. These rounds of tests also come with meetings to talk about the data from the test.  In these meetings, we discuss why we think students are doing so poorly.  The most common comment is that, “the kids can’t read.”  Specifically, the students can read the words, but reading for comprehension and meaning is lost on them.

This is where things get tricky.  I’ll often ask, “when do they read in your room?” and I’ll get a variety of answers, some good and some bad.  But, when I observe classrooms, rarely do I see students critically reading.  Mostly, the reading I see is students scanning a textbook or web page to find an answer for a worksheet.

This isn’t reading.

Today, for Social Studies teachers in the struggling school, they have to realize that they are a teacher first.  They are teaching students to succeed in their class and they’re teaching Social Studies as a means to that.  But if students cannot critically read, it’s time for Social Studies teachers to teach this, and not rely on the English teacher or past teachers.  They must teach THEIR students, in THEIR classroom, how to critically read THEIR content.

Teachers can’t merely ask their students to read a passage . . . they need to teach their students how to get meaning out of it.  Reading strategies need to be an integral part of the teaching day.

Currently, my favorite reading strategy to share with teachers is called the VIP (Very Important Point).  I like it because it’s quick for teachers to do and is a great first step to get students critically reading.

In the VIP, you give the students a history passage to read and partner them up.

  • The two students read the passage and highlight 3 important points.  Hopefully, they’ll find more than three and have to make hard choices to narrow down to 3.
  • They share their 3 points, but chose only 3 important points between the two of them.  This means evaluating their choices.
  • The teacher then asks each pairing to share out to the class their three important points and why.  The class is now having a discussion, and hopefully, the students are more interested because they’ll want to see if other people agree with them.
  • The class as a whole then discusses the top 3 as class decision.

The other reason why I like this activity is because students will see that history isn’t just one answer, that there are often many points of view.

My goal is to discuss other reading activities, but many can be googled and work well with writing, another important and lacking skill in the Social Studies classroom.

Here’s a great site for reading activities.


New TPS Level 2 Workshops–Free Online!

Free Online TPS Level II Workshops*· Fully aligned with Common Core State Standards

· Certificate of Completion provided

WebQuesting at the Library of CongressThursdays, July 11 through August 15, 5:30 pm to 7:00 pm

A WebQuest is an inquiry oriented lesson format in which most or all the information that learners work with comes from the web. This teaching tool is an exciting way to incorporate technology-based learning into the curriculum, while ensuring that students utilize high quality, reputable and safe internet sources. Participants will create a Common Core infused WebQuest to enhance their own classroom curriculum using Library of Congress Online Exhibitions. WebQuests created by past participants are available online.

National History Day Resources at the Library of Congress

Thursdays, October 3 through November 7, 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm

Gain skills and experience using inquiry teaching and learning to provide scaffolded support for engaging your students in historical thinking. Participants apply the SCIM-C inquiry model to theme-based digital primary sources from loc.gov and design learning activities that coach students in identifying, finding and interpreting primary sources for use in National History Day projects and other applications. This year’s theme is Rights and Responsibilities in History.

Register Online: http://www.waynesburg.edu/web/tps/tpseasternregion/events

* Individuals who have completed a TPS Level I Institute or TPS:BASICS are eligible. Others may complete six one-hour online modules in preparation for TPS Level II courses.

Sue Wise

Associate Director, Teaching with Primary Sources at Waynesburg University

(724)852-3377 swise

The 21st Century Skills Trifecta

How do you teach 21st Century Skills in the 21st Century Social Studies classroom?

By now, if you’ve been around education in the last 15 years, the phrase “21st Century Skills” has been used, over-used, and abused.  It’s gone through varying definitions, mutations, and in some cases, may still have different definitions in different school districts or educational thinkers.  So, for clarity, my definition is this: how can you teach students the basic critical thinking skills, and have technology enhance it.  That’s it.

The skills we’re talking about are generally: research and information fluency, communication and collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, and creativity and innovation.  You can add some I’m sure which wouldn’t affect what I’m about to write.

So how should a teacher go about using these skills?  Again, there are many ways to be implemented, but I think an efficient model would be to link the skill with the content, and then seek a way in which technology can enhance the lesson.

For example, you’re teaching World War One and want the students to study the Zimmerman Telegram.  This is when you teach Research and Information Fluency . . . BECAUSE . . . that’s what Woodrow Wilson and his advisers would have done once they received the telegram.  Was it real? Was it forged? How can we find out? What do we do with the information once we find that answer?  Next, have the students research the Zimmerman Telegram on Wikipedia.  For example, take them to the original entry, have them look at the debate, and explain how history is always revised, and should be!  History IS Information Fluency.

Then, to finalize your lesson, have students give answers to why Wilson would have thought it was true.  Students can edit Wikipedia, add new research, etc…

You can do this with a lot of content in history:  communication and collaboration with the First Continental Congress, Egyptian pyramids with creativity and innovation, and critical thinking and problem solving with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  There are dozens of other options.

Again, the point is for the students to go through the same skills that the subject of their current content went through.  Then, finding a way for technology to enhance the lesson.

Teaching About Viewpoint

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Most often, History teachers teach facts, people, events, causes, results, etc… about history.  After all, history is a story, so much of the time is spent explaining the story.   However, I don’t think that’s enough.  Along with teaching students skills, students should also learn how “HISTORY” is used in modern culture.

For example, the movie Lincoln can be discussed in the context of President Obama’s second election.

One thing students enjoy is talking about controversies.  The problem with most controversies in history is that many of them were solved (rightly or wrongly), but either way, you have a conclusion.  Finding a NEW controversy will liven up your classroom.

Recently, the President of Emory University got himself into trouble for writing an essay where he uses the 3/5ths Compromise as an example.  Here’s the story.  Here’s his essay.

Here’s what you’d do as the teacher:

  • Show your students the headline, “Emory University’s Leader Reopens Its Racial Wounds,” and have them predict what he may have said or done.
  • Give the students the story from the NYT.
  • Give the students his editorial.
  • Allow the students to research the 3/5ths Compromise.  See who in the story has the correct understanding of the 3/5ths Compromise.
  • Have them answer the question, “Did the President of Emory University Do Anything Wrong?”

It involves primary source documents, current events, research, critical thinking, and for students to come up with their own opinions.