Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Teaching My Own: High School Social Studies

Squeezed on a bench in Pioneer Square.

Over the past dozen years of teaching high schoolers, I've covered a lot of different subjects.

Current Events.

While holding firm to some basic principles, my teaching partner, Heidi, and I experimented with several different formats and strategies for those specific topics. And though I firmly believe there is always more than one way to skin a cat, especially in matters of learning, I share my success stories as food for thought.

Under the Victorian walkway.
One of most interesting subjects to teach to high schoolers is social science.

Current Events.

These are the stories of :

Who we are.
How we came to be this way.
What changes when we move from place to place.
Who leads us and under what rules they operate.
How all of these ideas influence and affect what's happening in the world today.

These subjects come together to tell the story of mankind and, when properly taught, should invoke curiosity and fascination and awe. 

Sadly, traditional teaching methods sometimes sell the social studies short. The typical approach is based around a big, boring textbook with plenty of facts that are stripped of any sense of adventure, passion or even basic emotion.

Yawn. No thanks.

So Heidi and I put our heads together, swapped ideas, and brainstormed our way through several classes, eventually devising an approach to teaching social studies that kept our kids on the edge of their seats.

Here's the step-by-step process we devised, which served us well for many years.

Posing at the Smith Tower, which was once the tallest building west of the Mississippi.

1. Pick a well-defined topic.

The trick to choosing a strong topic is to narrow things down. For example, Heidi led a class on the fifty states of the USA. That went pretty well. But other times, I tried to cover too much. One year we attempted to study the entire history of the United States, and later, we took on the whirlwind challenge of studying each and every country in the world. Those classes were way too broad. After that, I learned my lesson and kept our topics tightly focused:

Waterways covered significant lakes, rivers, waterfalls and seas of the world.
Landmarks focused on the most culturally impactful and well-known man-made attractions in the USA.
U.S. Presidents was a chronological study of the men who have led our country.
Hot Spots zoomed in on conflicted regions of the world today, particularly the Middle East.

All four of these course topics were wide enough to cover the gamut of history, geography, and current events that make up the social sciences. The latter two classes - Presidents and Hot Spots - also touched on many important issues of government, an advanced subject which our maturing students were ready to handle. 

 2. Find a written resource to provide core content.

Yes, we sought out informative, age-appropriate, well-written materials to provide content about our chosen topics.

But not for one minute did we restrict ourselves to traditional textbooks.

Our goal was to find one solid, well-written student-friendly non-fiction book to use as the foundation for our class. By scouring my local library and searching amazon.com for hours, I was able to turn up scholarly yet accessible texts for Presidents and Hot Spots. For Waterways and Landmarks, I couldn't find any books to support the topic as I envisioned it. So I improvised by creating year-long lists of specific areas to be studied - the Mississippi River, the Black Sea, Victoria Falls - and edited Wikipedia articles to create weekly hard-copy handouts for the class. On occasion, I also used Wikipedia handouts to supplement the class text when I wanted to delve deeper into a certain topic - say, the Gettysburg address - than the book provided.

Once the source materials were selected, I broke the material down into a weekly list of topics. Then I created a syllabus, or specific set of reading assignments, which was distributed to the students on the first day of class.

Smith Tower on a blue sky day.

3. Turn weekly assignments into art projects and class presentations that encourage creativity and individuality.

Once we all got into the swing of a new class, our routine settled into the following pattern:

  • At the end of each class, I would introduce the topic of the upcoming reading and share a few tidbits to hopefully spark the students' curiosity and lay some groundwork for the new assignment.
  • At home, each student would read the assignment, and choose a specific topic within that reading to study in more depth. We devoted teaching time to discussions on how to choose an academically valid website, whether Wikipedia is legitimate, and how to gather information without plagiarizing a source.
  • After completing their additional research, each student completed a journal page - a single side of a sheet of paper with a strong visual and a few supporting sentences of text. We encouraged our students to use as much creativity and artistic freedom as possible, and the results were often impressive and sometimes hilarious.
  • In the next class, each student would step to the front of the room and present their additional research on the week's topic, using their journal page as a visual. The supporting sentences helped the students recall what they had learned and prompted their verbal explanations. The social power released by these weekly reports was astonishing. Say a particular student neglected to bring a report to class for a few weeks in a row. Well, Heidi and I had limited means to punish the student; our program does not assign grades so we had little bargaining power. But oh, the power of peer pressure! One withering look from the girls, or a superior sneer from the guys who got their work done, was enough to shame the lazy student into submission and ensure that he (because it was almost always a boy) would definitely get his work done the next week. 
  • While listening to other students give their reports, the kids were expected to take notes on a pre-printed form that Heidi created each week to provide some structure and coherence to the note-taking process. For example, during Presidents class, each page had the name and birth date of the president of the week, his chronological number - George Washington was 1, John Adams was 2, etc - and his most popular nicknames or slogans. This exercise not only gave our students some practice with note-taking but also kept their attention from wandering off. 
4. Encourage memory work. 

Heidi and I both believe in the power of memory work. Memorization alone does not learning make, but for most subjects, there is a set of facts or data that must be committed to memory in order to master the subject. So we chose, for each class, a relevant body of information and challenged our kids to memorize.

And boy, did they. 

At the beginning of each class, as a warm-up, Heidi would prepare some sort of fill-in-the-blank or matching quiz to test the memory work. We would usually time the tests, and the students loved the pressure of beating the clock - or each other. I was surprised at how readily the students not only accepted the challenge of memory work, but totally excelled at it. Using a variety of games, flash cards, and activities as well as the weekly tests, all of our students managed to memorize the names of the fifty states and their capitals, the names of forty-four presidents in chronological order, and the locations, flags, capitals and spellings of the countries in the Middle East. 

Even better, our students learned how to memorize and gained confidence in that useful, transferable real-world skill. 

5. Create cool special projects.

On top of the regular weekly report pages (which were eventually bound into journals for each student), we assigned periodic special assignments. These projects were designed to:
  • draw the students deeper into important topics of their own choosing.
  • provide opportunities for more multisensory, experiential learning.
  • present their ideas and handiwork to the class, sharing more in-depth facts and details than the weekly reports
  • break the routine of the week-in, week-out assignments and generate some fun
Heidi and I would set some parameters to the challenge:

Recreate your favorite landmark out of food.
Make a realistic 3D model of your favorite waterway.
Pretend you are an adventurer like Lewis and Clark. Make a journal, and write in it about your adventures.

And then we would turn our students loose to interpret the assignment, and eventually to share their creations with the class.

Hammering Man, a moving statue that guards the entry to the Seattle Art Museum.

6. Go places.

Classrooms are great places for gathering together with our kids and sharing ideas. But there's nothing like venturing out into the big, bold world to really wrap students' heads around some new ideas. 

It can be a challenge to put together class trips. 

First, you have to find a worthy destination within striking distance.
Second, it's vital to wrangle commitment from students and their parents to make time in their schedules to attend.
Then, there are countless logistics to be managed and small details to work out regarding money, rides, and late-hour changes to the plan.
Last but certainly not least, it takes a cool head and a steady stomach to herd even a handful of well-behaved teens through a public venue. 

Still, every time Heidi and I ventured forth with our students, we were all rewarded by our efforts. Best of all was the elaborate tour of Seattle's top landmarks that we devised at the end of our Landmarks class, as shown in the pics on this series of posts. It was a hilariously discombobulated afternoon, navigating heavy city traffic, desperately seeking parking places, and arranging photo ops at each and every stop. 

But it was worth every sweaty minute and I'd do it all again in a heartbeat.

7. Celebrate what you've learned.

Class parties are a must in our book. Interestingly, we found a winning combination by scheduling final exams at the front half of the class hour, and then following it up with a topic-related party afterwards. The party mood brought the students into class in a jubilant mood; the final exam made them work to earn their reward.

I can recall a midterm party day for Hot Spots in which each student was required to name for me each of the Middle East countries and their capital city, and locate them on a wordless map. The students faced other challenges, and came to me and my map when they had completed all the other work for the test. When they were done with me, they were free to move on to the party table and feast on Middle Eastern food.

Most of the students knew these facts cold, and made quick work of my questions. A few struggled and came up short. That's pretty typical for any class test.

But what was quite extraordinary is that every one of those frustrated students came back to me, plate of hummus and figs in hand, and asked for another chance to perform the oral exam. Stunned, I certainly said yes - one of the boys needed two or three more tries, but eventually, every student in the class scored 100% on the map work. 

When the other kids realized what was happening, most of them also circled back to me and said, "Hey, can I do it again too?" Even the students with perfect scores wanted to honor their learning by reciting key facts one more time to an astonished and most appreciative teacher. 

Now that's what I call a celebration. 

Celebrating around the big man's ankles.

The photos in this post came from the culminating adventures of a class we taught on United States Landmarks. After a year spent discussing the historical, geographic and cultural implications of one hundred of our nation's most iconic sites and scenes, we took our students on a whirlwind tour of Seattle's top landmarks. It was one of the finest afternoons of my homeschooling career and a sweet, sweet memory today.

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