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Effective Social Studies Teaching Strategies

My first year of teaching, I asked my students what their least favorite subject was. They, without even thinking twice, said social studies. I made it my mission to change that. I needed to learn how to teach social studies and make social studies interesting for my students.

I remember sitting in fifth grade and hating social studies too. We read from the book and answered questions in complete sentences.  

Sigh.  😒

I couldn’t do that to my students, so I started slowly implementing different ideas and strategies. I wanted the history to come alive. Surely enough, social studies quickly became their favorite subject to learn and by far MY favorite subject to teach! 

10 Strategies for Teaching Social Studies:

1. Use PowerPoint Lessons and Guided Notes

This is the way that I make social studies come alive! My students are always engaged in the lesson because they follow along with the notes, and PowerPoint gives me the opportunity to show them pictures, maps, and videos of the different time periods.

I have created PowerPoint lessons and Guided Notes for my entire social studies curriculum. I teach from the Civil War all the way to the September 11th Attacks. Yes, it has taken me more hours than I care to count to create the lessons, but it has all been worth it!

World War 1 Interactive Notebook

Entire Units Are Linked Below:

2. Go Digital – Use a WebQuest with your Students

A WebQuest is basically an internet hunt. I provide my students with several internet links and a sheet that correlates with them, and they get busy! They love working on the computer, and the different links provide them with very detailed information. Sometimes the information is over their heads, but you will be surprised that even your lowest readers keep up with the material. 

Ellis Island WebQuest Internet Activity
September 11 Internet Activity

3. Integrate Reading Passages

This past year, I used a lot of reading passages with my students – mainly during morning work. The passages usually included a few questions to keep students accountable. There are a lot of awesome passages on Teachers Pay Teachers like this one (it’s free), but you can also use books from the library or information from reliable internet sources. I used these to preview a unit or to go more in-depth than I was able to during my 35 minute social studies block.

4. Use Social Studies Interactive Notes

Along with the reading passages, I also require my students to keep a social studies interactive notebook. I often shrink the reading passages to fit into the notebooks and have students answer the questions right next to the passages. Sometimes I use these instead of guided notes or as an additional resource!

Cold War Interactive Notebook

5. Incorporate FUN homework or social studies projects!

  • Civil War: Write a letter pretending to be a Union soldier during the war. The letter must “look” old. 
Civil War Letter

Civil Rights Movement Lapbook Activity

6. Use Historical Fiction Read Alouds

There are SO MANY amazing picture books and chapter books that add to the “story” you tell during your social studies lessons. 

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Here are some of my favorite pictures books or read alouds that I have used in my 5th grade classroom:  

Civil War and Reconstruction

Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
Henry's Freedom Box
Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson

Westward Expansion

Coolies by Yin
Coolies by Yin

Immigration to Ellis Island

At Ellis Island
At Ellis Island by Louise Peacock

World War 1

War Horse
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

Roaring Twenties and Great Depression

Bud Not Buddy
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

World War 2: There are SO many amazing choices!

Holocaust Read Aloud
Remember Not to Forget by Norman Finkelstein
World War 2 Read Aloud
Faithful Elephants by Tukio Tsuchiya
The Yellow Star
The Yellow Star by Carmen Agra Deedy
Number the Stars
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

The Civil Rights Movement

Rosa Parks Read Aloud
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni
The Story of Ruby Bridges
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles
MLK Book
Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport

The Cold War

Cold War Read Aloud
Flight for Freedom by Kristen Fulton

September 11

Towers Falling
Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

7. Create an Immersive History Experience

Another way to make history come alive is with an immersive experience. Take part of the day (or the whole day) to transform your classroom or grade level into a different time period. 

For example, during our Turn of the Century Unit, my grade level and I transform our fifth grade hall into “Ellis Island.” The day has become more elaborate over the years, but it is one of our favorites! Students receive new identities and families, travel on “steerage class,” go up the Stairs of Separation while “doctors” check them for any ailments, and then enter the Great Hall (where parent volunteers reside) to be be inspected in the Medical Room, Legal Room, Mental Room, and they also take a Citizenship Test. 

It is the #bestdayever

Talk about a memorable experience. The other teachers and I, of course, get into character and make it even more memorable. 

Ellis Island for Students
Ellis Island for Students
Ellis Island for Students

Try your own “Ellis Island” Day, or Pioneer Day, or World War 1 Day – be creative! The kids will never forget it! 

8. Show Engaging History Videos

Throughout my PowerPoint lessons, I integrate a variety of short videos that explain the content even further. Let me tell you, I have learned a thing or two about the time period from these videos as well! 

There are a lot of great sites that you can use to integrate videos into your lesson: 

  • BrainPop – if your school has a subscription, this is a great site for short and informational videos. 
  • WatchKnowLearn – I recently discovered this site and am loving it! It has videos from a variety of websites organized into one place!
  • Dear America Videos are really good (even the boys love them). They are 30 minutes long and really dig deep into the time period. You can find some videos on YouTube for free. 
  • YouTube – we all know this is a great video resource as well, but ALWAYS make sure you preview the ENTIRE video before showing to your students. Speaking from experience, here. 

9. Social Studies Centers

It’s always a good idea to get kids up, moving, and working with a small group to accomplish a task. During our Economics Unit, I created different centers that students rotated through to practice the concepts that we learned in class. They loved it, especially since they were practicing things that had to do with money! 

Economics Centers

Different social studies center ideas include:

SORT Activities: Older Kids LOVE to Cut and Glue! 

Bill of Rights Sort Activity

Task Cards: Easy and Reusable Center Idea

Westward Expansion Task Cards

Crossword Puzzles: This is a fun way to “force” my students to study because they have to look back at their notes.  This Cold War one is FREE.

Cold War Crossword Free

Technology Station: Centers are a great time to have students complete a webquest!

Women's Suffrage Internet Activity

10. Play fun Review Games!

My students absolutely LOVE play review games, and there are a ton of them available! Here are some ideas:

SCOOT!

  1. If you’ve never played Scoot, the kids love it! Here’s how to play: 
  2. In order to play, I generally move student desks in a rectangular pattern – but do what works best for you without too much interruption.
  3. Place one card face down on each desk, and have students stand behind the desk with their pencil and answer sheet.
  4. When you say, “begin,” students flip over the card, write their answer down, and then flip the card back upside down on the desk.
  5. Allow students about 30 seconds or so and then say, “SCOOT!”
  6. Students will move one desk down and answer the question. Repeat until the game is finished!

Quizlet Live!

I wrote a whole blog post about my love of Quizlet. You can read about it HERE.

Jeopardy Style Review Games

It’s always good to mix up test review methods, so if we are not playing Scoot or Quizlet Live, we play Jeopardy Style review games as a class.  

I usually split my class up into two teams. Since I have competitive fifth graders, they usually want to play boys vs. girls.   

I have one person from the first team choose a category and dollar amount. If they cannot answer the question independently, the other team gets a chance to talk about it and collaborate before giving me an answer. If they get it correct, they steal those points. Let me tell you – some of these games get pretty intense! 🙂  I have a number of {FREE} review games in my store:  

Civil War Game
Westward Expansion Game
Turn of the Century Game

If you’ve ever asked yourself what makes an effective social studies teacher…this is it! Make social studies interesting and watch your students love ❤️ learning!

Happy Teaching!

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how to be an effective social studies teacher

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