Friday, December 20, 2013

Critical Thinking: The Heart of Social Studies

      When I started teaching, I set out on a professional journey to always try and answer, "What is true learning? What is true learning in every content area?"  As an individual, two of my core values are authenticity and competence.  There is something at the soul of learning, a little energy that spins inside of all people (big people AND little people) and it's my job to cause that nebulous of energy to grow.
     I believe one of the most important aspects of learning is honest reflection and self-evaluation.  For teachers, stepping back and taking an honest look at instruction is the impetus for change.  It's difficult because it requires honesty.  It's difficult because it can mean that we have to be critical of ourselves.  It's difficult because sometimes we don't know what we don't know.  But when we do it, the change that we feel creates joy and satisfaction.
I believe thisWe MUST challenge each other to reflect on social studies instruction and embrace more substantial critical thinking in social studies. We can move in this direction if we, as teachers, more effectively seek personal understanding and ownership of the question, "Why is social studies important?"

As teachers of young historians, we must ask ourselves, "Isn't it time that we stop asking students to just learn information and facts? What does it look like for a student to be a historian? How do historians use sources to construct their understanding of the past? What processes and skills does a historian use to think critically about people, events, and ideas? Are we happy with everyone knowing the exact same facts, or are we going to embrace classroom experiences that allow students to bring their ideas and thinking to the table? How do the people, events, and ideas of the past connect to the people, events, and ideas of the present?"

As teachers of young geographers, we must ask ourselves, "Haven't we asked students to color enough maps, or given enough grades for coloring well and making sure labels are legible? What does it look like for a geographer to think about maps and sources that communicate geographic information? If a geographer looks at a source with geographic information, what processes does the geographer use to think about and understand the information? What is the difference between human geography and physical geography...and how are they connected? How does a geographer look at the world?"

As teachers of young economists, we must ask ourselves, "Isn't it time that we expand our view of economics beyond money and invite students to embrace the economic way of thinking? How might we embrace the concepts of scarcity or cost and choice so students can think critically about the multitude of decisions that they will make for the rest of their lives? How might we elevate the concepts of scarcity or cost and choice to understand the decisions made by people and societies in the past and present?"

As teachers of young engaged and informed citizens, we must ask ourselves, "Do we embrace democratic experiences that invite debate and multiple perspectives about issues? Do we develop opportunities where students become aware of how they can be involved in society?  Do we help students to see that the people in every time and place impact change by being involved and informed? Why is civics important?"

I believe we can embrace better social studies instruction if we reflect on what we're doing and start to have honest conversations with each other about GOOD social studies. I also believe that the thinking we ask students to do in reading is the exact same thinking that we should ask students to do in any subject. After all, READING is THINKING!  Critical thinking begins with letting go of tradition -  letting go of the focus on learning facts to regurgitate facts. Embrace thinking. Look at student work to see the thinking that's evident. Listen to the classroom conversation to see if you're creating a classroom where thinking takes place.

I believe that everyone can regularly incorporate two key strategies, and they'll start to illuminate the potential for critical thinking in social studies.

Questioning: Invite students to ask questions often.  Even if those questions are not answered, the questions reveal critical thinking.  Ask questions as a class.  Ask questions in small groups.  Ask questions independently.  Ask questions before you start learning about content.  Ask questions as you are learning about content.  Ask questions as part of the analysis process for maps, primary source, and any other source you're exploring with students.  And when the opportunity presents itself, take a question and turn it back on the students saying, "What do YOU think?"  

Make Connections: Invite students to make connections.  How is this event similar to events today? How does this person's actions help you to understand people of today? How is this place the same and different than where you live? How does this person's choice help you to think about choices you might need to make in life?

Your challenge: Take the time to have a 30 minute conversation with a colleague to answer the question, "What is good social studies instruction that is engaging, creates relevance, and invites students to THINK?"

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Constructing History: Gathering Evidence from Multiple Sources

   As students construct history, they are building deep understanding of people, events, ideas, interactions, and eras.  This idea of constructing history might seem elusive until you see how it's used in real life.

Imagine this scenario:  Your grandparents have passed on and you've been given control of a box that contains a variety of artifacts from their life.  There is a collection of letters with their correspondence during World War II, pictures from a variety of key moments in their lives, and some trinkets that were kept for one reason or another.  You are the "keeper of the artifacts."

In 4th grade, your son comes to you and says, "I need to do a report about my grandparents.  In my report, I have some questions that I need to answer.  Who were they? What was their life like? What were some of their accomplishments in life?"  At this point, you have a choice related to what and how your want your son to learn.

  1. Do you tell your son everything about your grandparents so he can learn about their life? OR
  2. Do you tell your son bits and pieces about your grandparents and analyze the box of artifacts to see if you can infer a little bit about their lives?
My belief is that you'd choose the second option, for a variety of reasons.  It's more interesting. It allows you to explore and think about the artifacts with your son. It allows you to see what your son does (or does not) understand about the past. And, it involves a conversation that is determined by the analysis of artifacts (versus you sharing information).

The same thing happens when teachers design learning experiences that ask students to construct history. As teachers we are the "keepers of the artifacts." As we gather and curate our collection of primary sources, we are developing a collection of artifacts that we want students to examine and analyze.

We ask students to construct the history of people, events, ideas, interactions and eras.  We use an inquiry approach to the learning, which involves creating questions with students or providing some key guiding questions.  We guide students to use secondary sources to gather ideas and evidence that will support answering these questions.  Most importantly, we involve students in the critical thinking process of analyzing a variety of primary sources connected to the learning.  We involve students in analyzing the artifacts. Through the process of analysis, students gather additional evidence about people, events, ideas, interactions and eras.  In this way, students are using multiple sources (primary AND secondary) to construct history.

For further investigation, you might consider reading a few other blog posts of mine:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Colorado and U.S. History - How are people, events, and eras connected?

In all states, students typically learn about their state's history in 4th grade.  A significant component of these historical state studies students learning deeply about the people, events, eras, and ideas connected to the state over time.  As someone who loves history, it's fantastic to see teachers abandoning old ways of history instruction (read the book, complete the worksheet) to embrace the historical process (using multiple primary and secondary sources to ask questions, gather historical evidence, and draw historical conclusions). Embracing the historical process is at the heart of a thinking classroom where the teacher places the cognitive load on students and facilitates rich learning experiences.

As students learn about state history, we will always use one of the most important tools of a historian...the timeline.  In the study of state history, standards throughout the nation ask students to recognize the connection between state history and U.S. history.  This connection is crucial because it creates historical context for young students.  U.S. history is presented to students in a way where they begin to be exposed to events and eras, but not necessarily expected to remember them with great complexity.  When we expose students to the events and eras of U.S. history, the timeline becomes a crucial tool to begin seeing these relationships between state and U.S. history.  Below, I hope teachers see how they might construct a timeline with students throughout the course of a state's historical study.  Colorado is the state example that's used.  Teachers are encouraged to consider how this timeline is constructed with students (and by students) over the course of multiple weeks.

NOTE: This timeline is based on these potential connections between Colorado's history and U.S. history.

Step 1: I might create a timeline that represents the range of years for the state's history.  My Colorado example goes from the Pre-Columbian era (before Christopher Columbus) to the present.
Step 1: Create a timeline (or pair of timelines) to show events in your state's history and events in U.S. history.

Step 2: I might establish historical context based on some of the first people or events we are going to study. We are going to begin our study of Colorado with the early people, Ancestral Puebloans, Utes, and Great Plains Indians.  Because of the people and events we're going to study, to the timeline I'd add the following eras for North America and the United States: 1) the pre-Columbian era, 2) the era of European exploration, 3) the era of new European colonies and settlements in the Western hemisphere, and 4) the era when native cultures of the Western Hemisphere interact with the Europeans who have migrated. On the timeline, we'll add these early eras.  I might use shading so students begin to sense the difference between an era and an event.  It's important to note that eras might overlap, as shown on the timeline, and dates don't have to be exact.  We are providing events and eras of the United States to provide historical context.  In class, we might read a few picture books together, look at a few primary source images, and maybe watch brief videos to build this historical context for students.
Step 2: Adding early eras to the timeline.

Step 3: Be creative in adding the time for "long, long ago." In this case, I might add a notecard because it's easily folded when students store their timelines.  I added enough to the timeline to account for the earliest state history that students study.  In Colorado, students examine Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) who lived in the Four Corners region.  
Step 3: Consider the earliest group/events/era you'll study for your state's history, and lengthen your timeline.

Step 4: Start studying some of the early people, events, or eras of the state.  Embrace the historical process (using multiple primary and secondary sources to ask questions, gather historical evidence, and draw historical conclusions). Here, I've added the people, events, and eras that we've examined. On the timeline, you see I've added an era (Ancestral Puebloans) and events (when Utes moved to the region, when Cheyenne and Arapaho moved into the Great Plains).  To the timeline ONLY, I've also added when Colorado becomes a state to provide additional historical context.  I want students to begin building their sense of time.
Step 4: Use the historical process to study the state's early people, events, and eras.
Add these to the timeline on the upper half.

Step 5: As we shift into the next portion of our study, I know we're going to examine the explorers in Colorado. Some early explorers came with the Europeans, and later explorers came after the Louisiana Purchase when people came to specifically explore the state.  Knowing this, I've added a few key events to provide context. (Jamestown and Plymouth as the first English colonies, the Declaration of Independence, and the Louisiana Purchas).  Again, we might read about these events as a class, look at a few picture books, examine a few primary sources, or watch a brief video.  The focus is not on the details of the event, but helping students to build historical context by getting the big ideas for any era or event.
Step 5: Add the next key events or eras in U.S. history.

Step 6: Study some of  the different explorers and exploration eras using the historical process (using multiple primary and secondary sources to ask questions, gather historical evidence, and draw historical conclusions). Add them to your timeline.
Step 6: The addition of explorers and exploration eras to the timeline. 

Step 7: New U.S. events and eras were added.  Look at the image to notice the events and eras that I've added.  You'll notice the addition of Westward Expansion.  While historians would argue with my approach, I've added it because I want students to understand that the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Homestead Act (1862), and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad (1863-1869) caused two big waves of people to move west AND into Colorado.  We'll be studying the first wave to hit Colorado (trappers, traders, and mountain men) and the second wave to hit Colorado (miners, ranchers, and farmers).  Notice how I've also added the era of Native American removal.  I've added this because I want students to have a better sense of the interactions that take place between new people in Colorado and those who were inhabitants of the land for centuries. This picture shows the new events and eras for the United States and for Colorado.  
Step 7: Adding new events and eras from U.S. history. 

Step 8: Last, I've added key eras and events for U.S. and Colorado history in the 20th century.  To me, the most significant events or eras in the United States are Women's Suffrage (era), passage of the 19th Amendment (event), the Great Depression (era), and World War II (era/event). In Colorado, we are connected because we gave women the right to vote in 1893, prior to passage of the 19th Amendment. We experienced the Dust Bowl, which is connected to the Great Depression.  We also built and moved Japanese to an internment camp at Amache, which is connected to World War II.  
Step 8: Colorado and the United States in the 20th century.

Below, the finished product.  It's an incredible tool to help students keep track of people, events and eras.  The timeline can be used as a tool for inquiry into the question, "How is the history of Colorado related to the history of North America and the United States?" It can be used to have discussions with students so they see how we are connected to the past...the opportunity to see continuity and change over time.  Plus, IT'S PRETTY COOL!  The experience of making this timeline and using it with your students will change the way you look at history forever.  Good luck!
The Final Product!

If you're creating digital timelines, it's tough to get this creative. I encourage you to consider LINE.DO and the one from Red, Write, Think

Friday, November 1, 2013

WHY we teach REGIONS of Colorado

Traditionally, when teachers begin their study of Colorado, they help students to examine the physical landscape.  Through this examination, students apply the geographic concept of region.  From this map, kids can get a birds-eye view of our state without the buildings and without the people.  The natural landscape reveals some patterns that allow us to recognize the different regions we have in our state (plains, plateaus, and mountains).
But why do we invite students to understand the physical geography of our state?  What's the point?  I think the National Geography Standards: Geography for Life give us clues to the relevance of learning about our state's geography.  Students learn how to apply geography to interpret the past.  

Learning about the physical geography of Colorado's regions means that students understand the physical characteristics of places and environments are the settings for events in the past, present, and future.  Imagine great books without the setting. Simply stated, the setting is critical to a deep understanding of the story.

As students learn about the complex story of Colorado's past, it's crucial that they incorporate a rich understanding of our state's geography.  
  • How does a student connect with the Ancestral Puebloan, Ute and Arapaho native cultures without knowing about the Great Plains?  
  • How does a student feel the struggle of a trader, trapper, or mountain man without sensing a life within the mountains and plateaus? 
  • How does a student understand farm life and settlement during the Homestead Act without feeling the vastness of the plains?  
  • How does a student understand the development of Denver without recognizing how our water supply is uniquely connected to flowing water from the Continental Divide down to the Great Plains?  
Our history is intertwined with our geography and students have a deeper understanding of Colorado's past, present, and future when they see the influence of physical geography.  The question is, "How will you, as a teacher, help students to recognize this connection knowing that it supports a richer understanding of history?"

Friday, October 25, 2013

Using Maps to Examine Change Over Time in Major Cities

Esri has produced some wonderful resources in their storymaps.  In digging through their examples, I found a few that I loved.  Through using overlayed maps of the past onto a map of the present, students can identify how places have changed over time.  The maps present evidence and students can list the changes that have taken place based on their analysis of the mapping tools.  Great stuff!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Simulation: Village to Industrial Town in 21 Stages

As students look at geographic issues, they identify different types of interactions.  They might look at the interaction between human systems and physical systems (how do physical systems cause people to adapt, how do people impact physical systems).  They might also look at human systems impacting human systems (how do human systems impact other human systems, what happens when one human system impacts another human system).

This simulation (Village to Industrial Town in 21 Stages) allows students to sense how a place changes over time, and how places solve different geographic solve.  In some cases, the solutions create additional geographic issues to try and solve.

While teachers do not have the textbook that's referenced in the simulation, this is a great starting place for examining the change in places over time...and how each change reflects a solution at one moment in time.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Using Concept-Based Charts to Focus on Conceptual Goals

While my previous post looked at students using facts skillfully based on what students should be able to do, we must also be supporting students in their development of conceptual ideas.  (Jeffco teachers will notice that report cards elevate these two descriptors as 1) demonstrates understanding of social studies concepts and content and 2) applies skills and processes of social studies effectively...see the blog post that digs into those descriptors.)

Conceptually speaking, every content area has its most significant concepts.  The most significant concepts of a content can be seen as big ideas or as organizing concepts.  In addition, essential questions are written so students apply inquiry to uncover what we want students to understand.

As a classroom tool, teachers might consider creating a chart that communicates all of the concepts for a unit.  The essential questions can be used to help students and teachers stay focused on the unit's conceptual goals, while the words and phrases (big ideas and organizing concepts) can be included to help students and teachers discuss and use the conceptual language of history, geography, economics, and civics. If we build expectations around the regular use of academic vocabulary, then students will eventually view the use of academic vocabulary as the norm.

Some of you might be interested in looking at the framework for Preschool-12th grade Social Studies. This 

For teachers interested in viewing examples of the social studies concept-based classroom charts by grade level, access the appropriate grade level document.


For RIGOROUS learning, begin by thinking about what STUDENTS WILL BE ABLE TO DO

If we plan with the end in mind....
in the end, we want students to use knowledge skillfully. 

(We also want students to use knowledge to explain their understanding of conceptual ideas. For this post, I'm going to focus on how students use knowledge to successfully show what they are able to do with that knowledge).

If we begin by considering what students should be able to do, we are carefully considering how students are going to use their knowledge.  We have the end in students will use their knowledge.
First, consider these real life examples where we keep the end in mind:

If we purchase a hammer, we don't decide how to use the hammer after the purchase.  We purchase the hammer knowing exactly how it is going to be used in a particular project.  We need the hammer for a particular purpose before we purchase the hammer. My goal is to use tools effectively to construct something.

When I'm on the internet reading information about nutrition and diet needs, I'm doing it because I know that I want to start eating healthier and smarter.  My goal defines what I'm going to learn. My goal is to analyze foods to develop a plan for healthier eating.

If Halloween is around the corner, we don't grab bags of candy from the store and then decide how to use them.  We grab the bags of candy knowing that they're needed for Halloween traditions. My goal is to offer the best candy possible to gain the admiration of neighborhood kids.

In gardening, we have a sense of what things we want to grow and the function those plants will have in our cooking after they develop and ripen.  It doesn't make sense to grow something without knowing how it will potentially be used.  My goal is to arrange items in a garden so they grow successfully and meet my needs as a cook.

If I'm a college student who needs a job, I know that my goal is to locate the critical attributes of a resume so I can write an effective resume.  I don't learn critical attributes for a resume and then suddenly decide it would be a fabulous time to write a resume.  My purpose for knowing information is established in advance.
When a teachers uses desired results for learning, they might begin with what students should know.  Why wouldn't we?  That's what we've always done! Tony Robbins stated, "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten."  Maybe it's time to change our approach to thinking about instruction.  What if we start with what students should be able to do?  After all, the rigor of learning partially lives in what students should be able to do...THE SKILLS of the practitioner!  Here, you'll see some sample statements for what students will be able to do.  Think of this as a potential starting place for your planning. 

As students progress through the grades, what they are asked to do builds in complexity.  Teachers will notice this, which means that the teacher should consider some significants questions as part of the planning process.  Planning for HOW students will show what they are able TO DO means that the teacher is automatically shifting his/her thinking to ASSESSMENT of what students will be able TO DO. Check out the questions on the right to inform what this thinking might look like?  Notice how teachers intentionally invite students to transfer and apply thinking strategies (traditionally taught in reading) and writing to learn (modeled and intentionally taught to writers).

Last, go back and see what students should know.  You may notice that the things students should know are simply the supports for what students should be able to do.  The things students should know are players in the game...they're actors in the play....they're pieces in the puzzle...droplets in the wave)(you catch my drift).

It's a slight paradigm shift in thinking but it might be a very important shift that will allow you to focus on the rigor that we want to bring into our classrooms!

What are your thoughts?

How does this approach to thinking challenge your thinking?

What do you understand now that you didn't understand before?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Connecting Facts/Details to Concepts in Changing Face of North America

This week, I had an excellent conversation with teachers about the unit Changing Face of North America: Emergence of a New World Society.  In this unit, it's easy for teachers to think that lots of content information is important.  As we look at concept-based instruction, one thing we have to remember as teachers is...more information does not necessarily equate to smarter students.  Concept-based instruction involves helping students to connect the facts they learn to the broader, more enduring concepts.  In turn, we asked this question. "How do we support students in connecting facts/details to concepts?"  For teachers who use a notebook or graphic organizers to help students track their conceptual understanding, we discussed how students would come back often to these notebook pages or graphic organizers as they learn more factual information and work to connect these facts to different conceptual lenses.

The use of essential questions is connected to inquiry (and to concept-based instruction).  As students learn more information, they can approach each essential question with greater complexity.  Essential questions are written with students as the audience while their corresponding understandings are written with teachers as the audience. 

Last, when teachers look at the Stage 1 Desired Results for a unit of study, there are content specific words and phrases that can also be used by teachers and students in classroom conversations (and writing).  These words and phrases are Big Ideas or Organizing Concepts.  In this unit, these words and phrases are connected to history and geography.  Teachers might consider how to weave this vocabulary and these ideas into classroom discussion (and writing) knowing that these big ideas and organizing concepts continue to appear for students from preschool through 12th grade.  
As we move ahead in our learning about concept-based instruction,  explore how students might use a notebook or graphic organizers to connect student learning to the unit's concepts (essential questions, big ideas, and organizing concepts).  These connections help students to make sense of their learning so the unit is not about a string of facts; the unit is about broader concepts and students have the opportunity to connect the facts/details to the broader concepts.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Western Hemisphere: Current Events 2013-2014

The goal of this blog post, which will be updated throughout the 2013-2014 school year, is to provide news stories from the Western Hemisphere that would be appropriate to discuss with students.  Quite frequently, I notice how teachers use current events in their classroom.  Consider this...How might the study of current events connect to curriculum goals within social studies so students come away from 6th grade have a richer sense of what's going on in the Western Hemisphere? How might I support students in applying a political, economic, or social/cultural lens to understanding current events?  As students track stories, teachers might further develop student sense of place by placing stories on maps of the Western Hemisphere. (The most current stories will be at the top, and I'll update as frequently as time permits.)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Uncovering Conceptual Ideas by Connecting Learning Activities to Essential Questions

     Concept-based instruction involves a paradigm shift for educators.  Lynn Erickson, author of Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom (2007), offers a crucial philosophical foundation of concept-based instruction.

umbraco.MacroEngines.DynamicXml"The paradigm shift, to shape the conceptual mind, requires teaching inductively to the concepts...using the topics and facts as a supporting tool rather than a final destination.  There are two important points to this statement. 1) Teaching inductively means that students are guided to understanding concepts.... The (concepts) are not generally taught directly as facts because this robs the student of the opportunity to think things through to deeper levels of understanding."  (p. 34)

I like to think of it this way.  When I receive a news headline update on my phone, I begin down the road towards understanding the story.  When I read an article about the story, I understand the story a little more. When I watch a tv segment about the story, I understand the story even more. When I read editorial pieces sharing broader perspectives about the event, my understanding continues to expand.  Over time, my understanding of the story continues to grow, each experience (news headline, article, tv segment, and editorials) allow me to slowly uncover a richer understanding of the story.

When considering the desired results within curriculum, we might begin by looking at the conceptual ideas that we want students to understand.  To complement these understandings, teachers are given essential questions, which are written for students and can be used to guide the inquiry and thinking of students.  Essential questions are not answered after one classroom experience, their complexity is revealed over time and we might consider how planning a unit of study incorporates the opportunity for students to revisit an essential questions.

* * * * * * * * * * * 
Consider how this might play out in a 4th grade economic unit on Choices and Opportunity Cost (Economics).

1. Essential Questions: "How do people make thoughtful decisions?"  and "How do you know when you've made a good decision? How do you know when you've made a bad decision?"  (When students answer these questions at the start of the unit, they'll bring their background knowledge and reveal what they understand about these ideas.  This gives good information to the teacher to inform instruction.)
2.  Learning Activites: Teacher engage students in learning about choices (daily and financial choices).  Students also learn about opportunity cost.  When students have a variety of choices about what to do with their free time, they make a choice. The next best alternative that is given up is the opportunity cost.
3. Revisit the essential questions.  A teacher might say, "Based on what you've learned about opportunity cost, what other thinking can you include in your answer to the essential questions?"
4.  Learning Activities: Teachers engage students in learning about risks associated with choices (daily and financial choices).  As people make choices, adding the variable of risk helps students sense that this can also influence a decision.
5. Revisit the essential questions.  A teacher might say, "Based on what you've learned about risk, what other thinking can you include in your answer to the essential questions?"
6.  Learning Activities: Teachers engage students in learning about positive and negative incentives associated with daily choices and financial choices.
7. Revisit the essential questions.  A teacher might say, "Based on what you've learned about positive and negative incentives, what other thinking can you include in your answer to the essential questions?"
* * * * * * * * * * * 

In this example, student learning does not stop with facts.  Student learning goes deeper as students continue to connect facts back to broader conceptual ideas.  In doing so, students revisit essential questions to uncover a concept over time, just as a news story reveals its depth and complexity over time. To me, this is one way to take the philosophy of concept-based instruction and implement its ideas into instructional practice.  

How do you see concept-based instruction playing out in your classroom?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Kids Fixing Bicycles - Understanding Through an Economic Lens

CBS Sunday Morning has always captured my interest. One particular story fascinated me, because it involved kids making their own choices about how to use their time. The story is titled In N.J., some kids learn there is no free ride

Many people might look at this story through a civics lens. The civics concept of citizenship can be elevated to understand how citizens work together to bring important change to communities.

I want to take a different spin on this story, because people sometimes struggle to see that economic thinking is not just about money.  Economic thinking can be applied to any situation where a decision is made.  In this story, the kids choose to spend at least eight hours fixing a bike.  As an incentive, students are given a refurbished bike at the end of their volunteer work.

When we apply the concepts of scarcity  - cost and choice - and opportunity cost, economic thinking might look like this.

  1. I don't have enough time in my day to do everything that I want to do.  In this situation, my time is scarce
  2. I can choose to use my eight hours in different ways.  I could watch tv, read a book, play with friends, sleep, play with the dog, sit around and be a bum, ..... every other option is a choice
  3. If I choose to use my eight hours volunteering to fix bicycles, there are costs.  My choice would mean that "during these eight hours" I cannot watch tv, I cannot read a book, I cannot play with friends, I cannot play with the dog, and I cannot sit around and be a bum....all of these things are costs given up because of my decision to use my time this way.
  4. When I look at all of the other things that I could have done with my eight hours, the one that is most difficult for me to give up is playing with my friends.  More than anything, I LOVE to play with my friends.  For this reason, playing with my friends is my opportunity cost
Economic thinking is automatically incorporated into any situation where people make decisions.  As teachers, our goal is to help kids understand how to utilize economic reasoning and critical thinking in making a decision.  This is a skill that will allow students to be more thoughtful now AND in the future. Helping students to slow down and consider alternatives within a decision helps them to apply economic thinking to a situation.  Consider some of the other decisions that students make on a daily basis, and ask yourself, "How would I ask students to show me their economic thinking within this decision? What might this look like in student work?"

Examples of student decisions:
1. Every day students decide whether to do their homework or not.
2. Every day, students decide who they will sit with at lunch (often the same students). Check out my blog posting on this economic decision.
3. Every day, students decide whether to put maximum effort into their work.
4. Every day, students decide if they are going to interact with their peers respectfully...or not.
5. Every day, students decide how to use their free time at home. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Exploring Historical Process and Primary Sources: A Strategy to Start the Year

To begin, I want to thank a Kansas curriculum specialist for this idea from his blog posting Tip of the Week: 5 Great Ways to Start School for Social Studies Teachers.

From his blog, here's the strategy:
History in a Bag
"Purchase or find enough brown paper bags for all of your students. Write a number on each bag and give one to every kid. Ask them to place five personal items into the bag, close it and to remember the number (for identification later). These items can be anything in their pockets, backpack, etc. Place all of the bags in a pile and have the students select one at random.

Provide a series of questions that they will answer as they attempt to decipher these “artifacts.” Is this person male or female? What do they think is important? How old is this person? Where do they live? The questions aren’t so important as the rationale used to answer the question. You want kids to start thinking about how we know what we know, to start to understand the historical process.

Have students get into groups of two or three to explain their answers. As a large group, ask kids to identify the owners of their bag’s artifacts. Lead a discussion about historical process and how we know what we know."

How is this connected to the  history concept of Historical Process?

When students construct their own understanding of history, they collect lots of ideas related to the people, events, ideas, and interactions of a time or place.  Those ideas might come from secondary sources or from primary sources.  As we teach students to engage in the practices of a historian, we expose them to a number of primary sources. When using this strategy, we have the opportunity to help students understand that the artifacts in the bag are like primary sources. Historical process involves pulling together information that learners glean from primary and secondary sources.

If we asked students to analyze the artifacts, we would encourage students to 1) identify what they notice about the artifacts, 2) ask questions about the artifacts, 3) predict what each artifact tells us about the student. This process of analysis is also part of the historical process.

Last, we might ask students, "How might we use all of the artifacts to describe this person?"  Students determine how each of these artifacts (or pieces) are connected. This synthesis of their ideas is when students construct history using multiple pieces of evidence (or artifacts).  This type of synthesis, or pulling the pieces together to create a story based on evidence, is also part of the historical process.  

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Physical Geography and the Great Plains Region

My recent discovery is a tool called ThingLink; it was used to add the resources to the image you see in this posting.  ThingLink is definitely my new favorite tool...endless possibilities for instruction, especially schools moving to 1:1 instruction.

Conceptual ideas Within the Image
This collection of resources about the Great Plains might be used to help students explore the geographic concept of "region." Students might use the attached resources to answer such questions as:
1. If the Great Plains is a geographic region, how would you describe "region"?
2. How would you describe the Great Plains region?
3. What are some examples of the impact this region's physical geography has on wildlife and people?
4. How would you compare the Great Plains region to ____(different region here)___?

Application of Skills and Thinking Processes 
that Might Be Developed Using These Resources
1. Organize information using a variety of graphic organizers.
2. Analysis of maps and other geographic sources.
3. Describing a region and comparing/contrasting regions of Colorado, the United States and the world.

* * * * What other resources might you want to see added to this ThingLink so it's useful for students in 4th grade? * * * *

(Click on the links embedded into this image.)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Using the Question Formation Technique to Explore Conceptual Ideas in Elementary Social Studies

Just yesterday, we were able to bring together 100 teachers for a Preschool-6th grade Social Studies Kickoff, with the goal of exposing teachers to new ideas, elevating strategies and tools for critical thinking, and enhancing collaboration among elementary social studies teachers.

With our district's focus on concept-based learning and quality instruction, we decided to expose teachers to an instructional strategy from the Right Question Institute out of Harvard University. We chose this strategy because asking questions is a strategy that's used by teachers in all content areas at all grade levels. The Right Question Institute developed a well-researched and incredibly powerful critical thinking experience known as the Question Formation Technique.  Their rationale for designing this technique is explained by one of the book's authors, Dan Rothstein,  in this TED Talk (13:41). In this talk, you'll notice how the skill of asking questions declines from age 5 to age 18.  You might predict that a variety of variables impact this pattern, but the bottom line is...IT'S SAD! Asking questions is a skill, and it's a skill that needs developing if we are to have students who participate in society as critical thinkers.  With the Question Formation Technique, teachers "express deep satisfaction as they see their students rapidly develop divergent, convergent, and metacognitive thinking abilities and become more confident learners." (p. 2) (To find out more, check out the link above or look into their book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.)
The Question Formation Technique involves a process where teachers design something known as a Question Focus, an "item" designed to elicit questions and critical thinking from the learner. Learners then engage in a process using the Question Focus, a process where each step has been carefully studied and refined to maximize the questioning and critical thinking experience for learners.  In general, this is the process.  (Teachers can access all necessary resources by creating a log-in at and looking under "resources.")

Below, you'll find a list of each Question Focus that was developed specifically for social studies in each grade level.  Included is a general sense of the conceptual ideas we were hoping would be elevated when learners were engaged in the Question Formation Technique.  Every Question Focus was designed as an introduction to a significant conceptual idea so students would begin to explore questions at the heart of learning instead of the teacher simply presenting the essential questions for the learning. We felt that this process created greater ownership by learners, and in this case, ownership of future learning that is based on conceptual curriculum goals or understandings.   (NOTE: A Question Focus might be applicable to other grades depending on the purpose for its use.  Questions will always be different as individuals, as groups, and as critical thinking abilities develop among learners.)

Question Focus Samples: Preschool to 6th Grade
  • 6th grade Question Focus: This was designed to be used with a Western Hemisphere study when students begin to examine the era of European exploration and to consider multiple perspectives when analyzing the impact of exploration on early cultures of the Western Hemisphere.
  • 5th grade Question Focus: This was designed to be used with a unit titled Changing Face of North America: Emergence of a New World Society (We no longer use the Euro-centric title of "Colonial America"). The goal was to elicit questions related to why people came to the Atlantic coast of North America, where they settled, why, and the patterns that existed within this migration of people.
  • 4th grade Question Focus: This was designed to go with a state study of Colorado.  The goal was to cause learners to ask who came to Colorado over time, why, and where did they settle.
  • 3rd grade Question Focus: This was designed to go with a study of Denver titled The Big City.  The goal was to illuminate the idea that citizens and government work together to create important changes over time. 
  • 2nd grade Question Focus: This was designed to go with a civics study.  The goal was to cause students to think about various forms of conflict and active citizenship of students.  An image of the man scratching his head was placed on a mirror and then the mirror was placed at the top of the page where you see three scenarios of conflicting students.
  • 1st grade Question Focus:  This was designed to go with a history unit and was created to help students consider how and why things have continued to stay the same or change over time. This is the history concept of continuity and change over time
  • Kindergarten Question Focus: This was designed to go with a civics study where students explore the purpose of classroom rules, citizenship, and roles within the classroom.
  • Preschool Question Focus: This was designed to go with civics learning related to respectful interaction and classroom rules. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Backwards Design and Concept-Based Assessment in "Changing Face of North America" (the colonial era)

Backwards design means that we develop the appropriate assessments for a unit of study so we can monitor the development of student learning.  Instead of creating an assessment to test what we taught, we must create assessments that assess what students are expected to know, understand, and be able to do.

As part of concept-based learning, we want to incorporate more opportunities to see if students have developed conceptual understanding.  In a 5th grade unit titled The Changing Face of North America (some districts still use the Eurocentirc title of Colonial America), students should walk away with deep understanding of social, political, and economic facets of this era. 

Colorado Academic Standards state that students should be able to explain the development of political, social and economic institutions in the British American colonies.  Notice how this standard implies deep conceptual knowledge.  A teacher can't create an assessment with fill-in-the-blank or true-false questions and come away knowing if students can EXPLAIN these ideas.

To approach this goal, consider this performance assessment that connects student understanding of political, social and economic institutions to the historical concept of continuity and change over time

Instead of saying, "What do I need to teach?", begin your own mental conversation by asking, "If I were the student, what learning experiences would I need to prepare me for this assessment?"  You may even go so far as to try and complete the assessment as an adult.   Once you sense the learning experiences that students need, you may have a better sense of how to construct learning in a rigorous conceptual way.  (I suggest creating concept-based timelines as a tool for students.) It may not be easy at first, but we must move beyond the days of assessment that's about regurgitating facts...we must move to assessment that causes students to use facts to explain more complex concepts.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

How does physical geography support understanding the geographic concept of region?

In your mind, using your mental map, how do you picture the United States?  Do you picture individual states or do you picture a set of states within a region?  Why do you think you have a mental picture of the United States by region? probably connect to characteristics connected to human geography (regions with political dispositions, regions with unique ethnic populations, regions with varying economic patterns, regions with different population density).  You might also view U.S. regions in a particular way because of how you associate physical features, climate, and weather patterns with different regions.

When teachers support students in developing the geography concept of region, we often begin with physical geography.  Physical geography allows students to consider facets such as landforms and climate.  In addition, we can begin to understand how weather patterns help students to develop an understanding of region

With recent news, people around the nation and the world are connected to the impact of tornados (physical geography, weather patterns) on people (human geography).  As someone from Denver, I watch the stories about this phenomena and have some connection knowing that a number of tornados occur in the plains region of Colorado.  Still, I often look at tornados as something that's connected to the midwest region and southeast region.  Imagine if you were watching these news stories from California, would you have a connection?  Probably not, and you would most likely associate this weather pattern with other regions in the United States.  In contrast, I associate forest fires with Colorado and the west region.  I associate hurricanes with the southeast region, portions of the southwest, and, increasingly, with the northeast. 

What regions do you think of when you hear about...drought? Blizzards?  Ice storms? El Nino? Hurricanes? Excessive heat?  Excessive humidity?

If we can support students in thinking through the conceptual lens of region, then we connect them to a deeper geographic understanding of the world.  Below, find some geographic tools to help support this learning with students who are beginning to explore regions of the United States.

(Note: I debated titling this posting Get Rid of Old Fashioned Fact-Based State Studies, Become a More Concept-Based Geography Teacher and Help Students Think About the United States Through the Concept of Region)


Find out about the deadliest and costliest hurricanes to strike the United States, in this LiveScience infographic.