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Need a handy assessment tool? Make a pie.

I had such a good time today. Any time I get the chance to spend time with a bunch of other social studies teachers, not much can ruin the day. Seriously . . . a whole day talking, sharing, playing with, and exploring the best social studies tools, resources, and strategies?

And during our time together we messed around with a tool that I had almost forgotten about. The Pie Chart.

The Pie Chart is a powerful graphic organizer / writing scaffold / assessment tool / Swiss army knife. It does it all and is drop dead simple. I first learned about the Pie almost a decade ago from social studies super star Nathan McAlister.

Nate was part of our Teaching American History grant as the summer seminar master teacher and used the Pie Chart as a hook activity to kick start a conversation about the causes of the Civil War.

Steps he took:

  • Split us into groups of 2-3.
  • Give each group a page with a large circle drawn on it.
  • Asked us to think about three possible causes of the Civil War – slavery, economics, states rights. (He did allow us to add other causes if we wanted.)
  • He then asked us to a create a pie chart using our blank circle that divided the causes into percentages. So if someone wanted to suggest that the single cause of the war was Economics, the pie will be 100% the color of Economics.
  • Each group shared their chart and explained why they baked their pie the way they did.


Nathan later changed the prompt a bit to focus more on how different groups at different periods of time would have answered the question. This helps avoid a situation where a student tries to argue that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War – even though Nathan provided tons of primary sources that would make that sort of argument difficult.

So if you choose to use his Civil War example, you might try a prompt that looks like this:


History is about evidence and what story the evidence tells us. Is there new evidence to support a different pie chart? I could be just as easily convinced to recreate my pie to look completely different – if the evidence supported it.

The cool thing about the Pie Chart activity is that there are lots of ways to argue and lots of opportunity for conversation. The hook, of course, is that kids will want to know the answer. This gives you the chance to present your kids with tons of resources and primary documents to help them solve the problem on their own.

And the beauty of the pie chart is that it works for any historical event or conversation. Causes of the Great Depression? World War One? The growth of the middle class? Immigration? Supreme Court cases? Which government branch is most important? Yup. All of the above.

Be sure to provide three or four options for your kids to put on their Pie Chart. For a WWI pie, you would probably use the traditional MAIN – militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism. Do the same for other issues that your kids will work with.

Nate used the Pie Chart as a hook activity. But I also love the idea of using it as an assessment at the end of learning. Ask each kid to create their Pie from your prompt and require a product that explains their percentages. Perfect for documenting their ability to state a claim using evidence.

Give it a try. Let me know how it goes.

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