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History Nerd Fest 2013 – Energize your elementary social studies classroom

I need some energy here. Caffeine is wearing off. But Barb Knighton is on fire. Barb is the NCSS 2013 elementary teacher of the year and rocking it. So I should be good.

barb knighton

She will not be sharing lessons but strategies that can be adapted to just about  any grade level or content. She’s got six:

1. Start with the familiar
Connect your stuff with what the students already know. For example, she teaches US regions to 4th graders. She starts with stuff they already know.

Look around our classroom. Is it divided into different areas? Different regions?

And so kids map out their room into regions. Then their school. Then their city, state, actual regions. Same with the levels of government – starting with the classroom, school, and school district.

2. Put yourself in the lesson
This increases engagement and makes connections between you and your kids, kids and the content. Barb says it also provides a safety net – using yourself as an example gives you control over content. Rather than

She was getting ready to take a trip to Boston. She told her kids

I’ve got a problem. How do I get from the airport to my hotel? You’ve been learning about transportation, right? What are my options?

This sort of question sucks kids in to helping out. Make a list. Do some research – cause this is a real person with a real problem. And she come back and the kids couldn’t wait to hear how she got around.

She has been talking about migration around the United States and push/pull factors. She started the conversation by telling stories of her family and her moving around. As a child. Off to college. After college. Kids dig this stuff.

3. Co-constructed learning materials
Creating things together with your students engage them in their own learning process. So rather than purchasing posters or bulletin board kinds of things, Barb has her students generate the materials that hang around the room. Students are becoming generators of their own knowledge, owners of that knowledge.

Plus, when you leave stuff up, kids can see all of the work they have done over time. Barb collects everything and at the end of the year, she spreads everything out on the floor and kids get all excited reviewing their work. Then she lets kids pick and choose stuff to take home.

4. Narrative style
It’s all about telling stories. It’s not a lecture. It has to be narrative text, not expository. This can be so engaging, it creates an emotional connection to the content, and help kids organize the information by providing specific data points that kids can hang the story on.

Barb told a story about her niece who needed a coat, making specific mention of her name. She talked about how the niece had several different choices – a new coat, hand-me-down coat, sew a new one, borrow one. The lesson is all about economic choices but it’s all tied to a specific person with a specific name that kids can connect with.

5. Big ideas
Starting with what you most want them to hold onto at the end of the lesson. This helps focus our instruction and keeps a laser on what we want kids to be doing when the lesson is over. She uses “I can” statements with her kids. This helps meet curricula goals and saves time because she not all over the place doing stuff just because something is “fun and engaging.”

6. Connect to the Common Core
Start with your big ideas and use them to connect with Common Core stuff. Part of this means increasing our use of non-fiction reading texts. She’s making a big push, God bless her, for using fiction and non-fiction social studies texts to teach the ELA stuff from the CC document.

One requirement is to have elementary kids do research. Why not use human geography topics for this ELA requirement. Research man-made monuments such as Mount Rushmore or the Statute of Liberty and document how they changed the environment.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great tips. Learn from the best. NCSS and local and state affiliates identify the best in the field of social studies. Awards are like the Academy Awards of Social Studies where the leaders are honored, and then the rest of us have mentors. Thanks Pearson for highlighting this NCSS award-winning teacher.

    November 26, 2013
    • glennw #

      Thanks for the comment! I enjoyed Barb’s tips and stories. Seems like a great fit for elementary.


      November 26, 2013

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