It’s okay. Sam Wineburg says kids can hate your class.
Okay. I don’t want kids to hate social studies. Let’s be clear about that from the get go. But . . . I also think that we sometimes fall off the wagon on the other end by working way too hard trying to find activities that our kids will enjoy or projects that are “engaging.”
It’s been more than just a few years since I first heard Sam Wineburg speak. I had read his book Thinking Historically and Other Unnatural Acts. Read some of his early articles on historical thinking skills and loved his ideas about how we needed to re-think our approach to teaching history. But it wasn’t until a combined Kansas / Missouri Council for History Education conference way back in 2008 that I first heard him speak. He opened the conference with a keynote highlighting the main ideas in his book.
And now, of course, he’s a future social studies Hall of Famer having helped to swing the pendulum of social studies instruction over to something more focused on a balance of both content and process.
But something he said way back in 2008 has stuck with me:
I don’t think that a history class should be about things such as History Alive or about making cute posters, or about making history “engaging.” It’s about getting students to thinking rigorously about the evidence. Fun is okay, but I would rather have them hate the class and come out having the skills needed to be good citizens than having them enjoy themselves.
Mmm . . . “I would rather have them hate the class.” I get it. And totally agree – especially in today’s world of intentional and unintentional fake news. We need citizens who are able to evaluate information, ask the right sorts of questions, and make decisions based on facts rather than emotion. Way more important than just having a good time in class.
I was one of those teachers who did a ton of projects. Lots of hands on stuff. Lots of engaged kids. Lots of cute posters. We even used potatoes once to recreate wood cuts and 17th century propaganda posters. (Yeah . . . sharp knives, potato peelings, and colored ink. I did not make friends with the custodial stuff that day.) But I’m not convinced all of my kids left my class with the “skills needed to be good citizens.” My focus was on creating engaged kids, not historical thinking and citizenship skills.
And I while I agree that citizenship & thinking skills need to be our priority, I also think we can find a balance that encourages and supports historical thinking skills while also engaging kids with interesting and fun activities.
Jill usually kicks off her school year with a Historical Thinking Boot Camp, giving kids the tools they’ll need to do advanced work as the rest of the year unfolds. Her kids have created Note Card Confessions that focus on high level document analysis.
I’ve had the chance to act as a judge at Adam’s annual History Hall of Fame competition. Together with the ELA teachers in the building, kids are perfecting their information collection skills, their ability to make sense of evidence, and their argumentative skills.
Kori, along with teachers from around the country, created a long-term activity titled Just Action. Her kids research a variety of authentic topics tied to both historical and current events. Using their new knowledge, they participate in multiple live chats with teachers who role play as world and local leaders, diplomats, journalists, and other news makers. Each live chat ask kids to argue for or against a variety of prompts using the knowledge they’ve gathered. One of her topics from a few years ago? Solve the refugee crisis in Syria.
TJ and Derek have kids draft countries in their World Geography classes complete with Facebook Live video, TJ and Derek as snarky ESPN draft analysts, and a breakdown of the top draft picks. They’ve hosted a Buffalo Wild Wings sponsored Middle East Hot Wing Challenge. And, yes, it involves both teachers and students eating chicken wings. HOT chicken wings. The hooks are the draft and the wings. The learning happens before as kids develop arguments based on research and discussion led by TJ and Derek.
These social studies rock stars are proving that it is possible to do both. The best of both worlds – historical thinking *and* engagement.
Need a few more ideas? Larry Ferlazzo recently wrote a two part post titled Helping Students Get Into History. Before you head over and get inspired, here’s a few spoilers:
Start with Larry’s short PDF about maximizing the chances for a successful lesson
Dig deep into Diana Laufenberg’s suggestions for using visuals and visual data.
Discovery and curiosity can be incredibly useful tools to make social studies exciting. Diana uses Dollar Street to get students aware of the diversity of life experiences throughout the world. The activity would be to send students into the resources to come up with questions and wonderings about what they see. Maybe as kids learn about WWII Japanese internment – start with the questions that arise from this graphic.
Connect the past and the present with current events.
Sarah Cooper uses Facing History and Ourselves to start with students’ own identities and help them connect with “upstanders” who have stood up again injustice throughout history, including during the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. She also likes the Choices Program, a program from Brown University that pulls together past and present to help students make sense of current issues.
Suzie Boss loves using Project-Based Learning.
She suggests that you don’t have to look far within the discipline of social studies to find provocative, real-world questions: What are my responsibilities as a citizen in a democracy? How can I figure out which information I can trust? How can my understanding of history help me make better decisions today? How can I make a difference on local or global issues?
Make a personal connection.
I wrote about personal primary sources a bit ago. That can look like this and this. History has to be relevant to our students. Too often kids don’t see the connection between then and now, them and us.
Introduce the unexpected.
There is power in the unexpected. Different is good. Weird is better. Kids love the DEI. Need a place to find weird history stuff? Cracked. Yup. Cracked. The old Mad Magazine wannabe now online. Edit what you find cause it’s sometimes NSFW but your kids are gonna love the history oddness.
Never forget people stories.
History is about stories and emotion. The stuff has to be real. So connect kids to actual people and the decisions that they had to make. I love Twitter to help tell stories – cause it can look like this and this. Or maybe current events like this student led push on gun control or #BLM.
Find ways to convey your joy
If you’re a history teacher, you love the detective work of research – analyzing sources and putting the pieces of the puzzle together, forming interpretations and drawing conclusions. We need to find ways to convey this enjoyment to our kids. It’s okay to be passionate about what we do.
Finally, realize that is not one or the other. You and your kids can have both process and engagement.