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You got your regular hexagons. You got your visual hexagons. Both are awesome for making connections.

More than several years ago, I asked my daughter, a fourth grader at the time, to work her way through the very cool Plimoth Plantation’s You Are the Historian simulation. It’s a wonderful online tool that asks kids to answer a very simple question – what really happened at the first Thanksgiving. Using evidence and video clips from experts, elementary students learn to make a claim and create a final product using evidence that supports their answer.

And I wanted a product review from a true end user. Used to these sort of requests from her history nerd father, Erin plunged in. During our in-depth debrief over milk and cookies, I asked her a variety of questions about her experience. Much of the conversation is now forgotten but I still remember what she said when I asked her to tell me one thing that she would share with her teacher the next day.

The past is what happened. And history is what we say happened.

I couldn’t have been prouder.

Of course, we still made her wade through the rest of her K-12 experience but doesn’t Erin’s comment pretty much sum up the whole point of teaching social studies? Yes, there was a whole ton of foundational knowledge that she continued to gather. There were specific sorts of skills she continued to perfect. But the core of what we want students like Erin to walk away with is embedded in the simple idea that history is about interpretation and analysis.

About balancing bias and perspective, about collective and individual memory, about investigation and rethinking and keeping an open mind. About making sense of evidence and making a claim using that evidence.

Traditional social studies and history instruction – instruction that focuses on helping kids find the “correct answers” through the use of traditional lecture / take note / fill in the blank / memorize the content is not just poor instruction. It also denies students the opportunity to learn the valuable skills of balancing multiple perspectives and accepting the absence of a single “history” and the co-existence of multiple “histories.”

We too often get caught up in the attempt to “cover” our content. To get to the end of the chapter. To the end of the textbook. And in doing so, we end up pushing process and thinking skills offstage rather than allowing them to share the spotlight with content. We need to go beyond basic foundational knowledge and create a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty in how things are going to work out.

One suggestion?

If our students really are going to learn and master historical thinking skills, it’s essential that they experience for themselves how historians reach their conclusions. (See Sam Wineburg and his Reading Like a Historian, his SHEG website, and . . . well, just about anything that Sam has ever written.)

But what can that look like? You may want to try an activity using hexagons – it’s a strategy that can help your students grapple with historical viewpoints and start to understand connections between them.

The concept of hexagons are part of a larger idea called SOLO. The basic idea is that students are given a set of paper or laminated hexagons and asked to write key words or phrases from a specific topic on them using dry erase markers. Students then link together related hexagons and explain why they arranged the hexagons the way they did. The more explained connections, the more complex the thinking. (Interested in the complicated theory?)

You can also provide hexagons with words or phrases already on them to scaffold the task a bit for students.

Why hexagons? Our newly revised state standards, the NCSS College, Career, and Civic Life standards, and chances are your own state standards all ask students to develop specific historical and critical thinking skills. These probably sound familiar:

  • Recognize and evaluate
  • Analyze context
  • Draw conclusions
  • Investigate and connect
  • Advance a thesis
  • Analyze connections among events
  • Explain multiple causes and effects
  • Organize applicable evidence

Hexagons are perfect for asking kids to demonstrate these sorts of skills – both as a formative during learning and a summative assessment after learning.

Why hexagons? Because they’ve got six sides and when you give a pile of them to kids, they’re gonna immediately start fitting them together. This is a great way to make student thinking visible – both as students are arranging the hexagons and as they write summaries that explain their arrangement.And while no strategy is a 100% silver bullet, asking kids to piece together their own hexagon connections almost always ensures total engagement.

Need a few examples?

Start with this simple ELA example from The Learning Spy:



Or this middle school Revolutionary War version shared by KCSS past president Kori Green:

I love the idea of using visuals rather than text. JiveSpin has a ton of examples:

So . . . let’s imagine that you want to try this as part of your Civil War unit. What steps are involved?

  • Start by deciding what people, places, ideas, and events you want kids to connect. Short phrases like “naval blockade by Union forces” can work as well as single words such as “Lincoln.”.
  • Depending on grade ability level, starting with fewer than ten hexagons is probably a good idea the first time through. Remember that these connections represent high levels of thinking. The more hexagons you ask kids to mess with, the more abstract and high level the activity becomes.
  • Decide on textual or visual. Realize that visual hexagons have the potential for powerful learning. But using visuals rather than text can make connections more difficult for kids because it adds an extra layer of decoding that students must perform.
  • Decide whether this is an individual or group activity. For formative assessments during learning, I love the idea of students work together in groups. For summative, I’m thinking groups but probably individuals. (Read on for an example of using hexagons as an individual summative assessment.)
  • Create your hexagons. There are few ways to do this. Social studies rock star and tech tool guru Russel Tarr has create a handy hexagon generator on his site. This is my go-to tool. Simply copy and paste in your words and phrases and with a couple of clicks, the tool generates both a Word document and a web-based version. (Try out this Civil War online example.)
  • I like using a hard copy version – I think kids appreciate the tactile experience. Your mileage may vary. Kids can spread out the paper versions on desktops, glue them down on paper for more permanent versions, or even edit a Google Doc.

  • Pam Hook also has a hexagon generator. It’s clunkier to use and only makes 10 at a time but I like that it makes bigger hexagons that are easier to cut out. She’s also created a very cool iOS mobile app that you may want to try out if you work in a one-to-one classroom. (Though it’s gonna run you $1.99.)
  • You might also try using different colors for different things – perhaps red for people, green for ideas, and yellow for events. A short YouTube video highlights this variation.
  • Once you have whatever version you decide to use, ask students to arrange the hexagons in sequences and clusters – defending and annotating the connections they make. Give students time to organize the hexagons into categories that make sense to them. You can require that all hexagons must be connected somehow or allow students to make smaller groupings. Require brief written explanations for their connections.

(Student sample from @megankohlman)

  • Also think about allowing students to throw out a certain number of hexagons – especially as you ramp up the number. Have kids put these in a separate pile. Use these piles for additional review / instruction and a future hexagon activity to assess their new learning.
  • Once they’ve finished creating their connections, have students roam around in a gallery walk, looking at arrangements of other groups. You can ask kids to post clarifying questions next to these other hexagon arrangements or station a group member to hang around to address questions and explain connections.
  • Ramp up the thinking by adding items to the original collection that should NOT be part of the group – say . . . adding “1929 Stock Market Crash” to a collection focused on western expansion during the 1800s. Or add blank hexagons and ask kids to add terms that should be present but that you purposely left out of their collection.
  • Ask students to take photos or screenshots of their temporary arrangements and use them to write summaries of their thinking using Google Docs or other digital tool. If you’re having kids glue hexagons down, the backside of the paper is perfect for posting their summary. These summaries should incorporate evidence to explain the connections they made while arranging their hexagons. 

Need an idea for individual summative assessment? Try using what I call the triangle.

  • In this version, you fill in the ten hexagons with content and provide each student with a copy. Then ask students to write explanations about three (or four or six or one) of the connections represented by the letters on the triangle. This version has connections between just two hexagons. You could easily put the letters at the corners where three hexagons meet to ramp up the required thinking. Another option would be to have kids insert their own ten items and then you select the required connections they need to write about. (I picked up the original idea for this somewhere in the last few years. I think from our ESSDACK PLC. But whoever developed it? Genius.)
  • Either way, we’re going to ask students to explain their connections and to make a claim using evidence. Perfect for an end of learning summative assessment

Your brain should already be thinking about what this might look like in your history and social studies classrooms. Maybe you use primary and secondary sources rather content knowledge. Maybe all the hexagons are people. Or ideas. Or events. Or connect social studies content with fiction or non-fiction sources. Or editorials from different newspapers. Or images from past and present. Or combine ideas from then and now. Or you ask kids to highlight continuity and change. Or cause and effect. Or . . . you get the idea. Lots of ways to use this.

Get even more classrooms examples from Chuck Taft and Russel Tarr:

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Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Work with Me page.

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