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Need a great summary tool for basic content? Somebody Wanted But So and Then.

I’ve been spending a ton of time the last few months working with groups around the state, helping facilitate conversations around the upcoming social studies state assessment. One of the questions I get a lot revolves around the issue of helping kids organize and make sense of foundational knowledge while at the same time working on critical thinking skills.

One of my favorite strategies for helping kids make sense of basic content is a simple but powerful summarizing strategy called Somebody Wanted But So.

Summarizing is a skill that I think we sometimes take for granted. We ask our kids to read or watch something and expect them to just be able to remember the content and apply it later during other learning activities. We can easily get caught up in the Curse of Knowledge, assuming that because we know how to summarize and organize information, everyone does too.

But our students often need scaffolding tools to help them see the difference between summarizing and retelling. For many of our students, they are one and the same. Word for word is summarizing and they end up writing way too much.

Or they don’t write enough. Or fail to capture the most important ideas. Or just get frustrated and give up.

Being able to create and organize content is a critical higher order thinking skill that and one of the best things we can do is model for our kids what it can look like. Somebody Wanted But So is a great scaffolding tool that we can use as a model and then hand over to them for individual use.

Like many of the tools we can use in our social studies instruction, the original version of SWBS was often used by ELA to teachers to help students break down novels and short stories. But it works just as well with nonfiction, primary sources, and textbooks.

The process in social studies is pretty simple:

  • After students read / watch / learn about a historical event, lead a whole group discussion about who they think is the main person or group who caused the event. That person or group becomes the Somebody.
  • Then ask what that person wanted. What’s the goal or motivation? That becomes the Wanted.
  • Ask students what happened to keep the Somebody from achieving the Want – what’s the barrier or conflict? Write that in the But column.
  • Discuss the resolution or outcome of the situation and write that in the So column.

The strategy is great for:

  • seeing main ideas as well as specific details
  • making inferences
  • identifying cause and effect
  • making sense of multiple points of view
  • connecting differences and motivations of different people and characters

As your students get better at the process, they will be able to work in small groups, pairs, or individuals. The basic version of SWBS works really well at the elementary level. Especially if you have kids create a foldable out of it:

But you can ramp up expectations for middle or even high school kids by adding another column using T for Then and a Summary area. The Then column encourages kids to take the cause / effect idea even further by asking them to predict what might happen or to document further effects of the So column. (Make it even more complex by adding a second B column titled Because after the Wanted.)

The Summary section can be included to support narrative or argumentative writing skills and could also be used to respond to a specific writing prompt that you provide.

You can also add extra rows to the chart, adding additional people or groups. You could then put your own content into that column, forcing students to see different perspectives. The summary portion could then ask students to make connections between the different groups.

Think about using Google Docs and Google Classroom to provide simple paperless access and sharing. Using Google Docs or other word processing tools would also allow you to ask students to insert primary or secondary sources into their charts to support their thinking. Go a step further and ask your kids to color code their charts – highlighting pieces of evidence as the same colors as the elements in their SWBS charts.

Students could also record a video using a tool such as Adobe Spark video to generate a visual version of their final product.

The cool thing about the SWBS strategy is that it can be adapted in all sorts of ways so that it fits your content and kids. Make it work for you. Your kids will walk out smarter than when they walked in.

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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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