3 Power Strategies That Work For Social Studies

Many of the meetings in our social studies department focus on content, strategies, and assessment. We spend the bulk of the time reflecting on whether our choices are preparing the students to achieve the learning goals.

In the past, we've attempted to focus the use of strategies by choosing between two. This year's conversations have been about dialing in the must-use strategies, the ones that we know work. 

 ... Here's what I think.

Note-Taking and Summarizing
Social studies, in Texas anyway, has the most standards out of the core subjects. The students need to learn a lot of facts and develop context schemes to understand new information conceptually and use it beyond memory recall.

Teaching kids the importance of organizing notes is crucial if they're going to learn how to do stuff with the notes they make. It doesn't matter whether its tables, drawings, half-page, or Cornell notes, the students need to learn to leave room on the page to add analysis and thematic labels.

Regardless of the note-taking format students use, summarizing notes is critical. Some teachers have the students use their notes to respond to the lesson question on a half sheet, which is turned in for a formative check. Others, like myself, prefer the one-sentence summary to be posted anonymously on a tack board or to a Padlet (image below) or TodaysMeet room. When I use one of these discussion web tools, my students receive specific feedback on whiteboardhistory.blogspot.com.

Both Padlet and TodaysMeet provide many share and access format options, including downloadable PDF transcripts.
Find Five Facts is another one of my favorite activities. The title and the directions are one in the same. Students list five facts based on a civilization and theme, for example. The picture below shows my five facts for a Persian Empire explanation. Once the students are better at finding the five facts, I will have them make five facts videos, slide shows, Quizlet decks, infographics, etc. 

We talk about note-taking activities without including ABC notes (also called alphabet soup). I like to have students make an ABC list while watching a video (like Crash Course). This is a particularly fun activity to help them think about what they've learned in a lesson cycle. This example shows a list one of my classes made collaboratively on Google Docs.
Whether notes come from lecture, reading, placard activities, or sharing content with peers, the students will retain more from their work if they bring it all together at the end. Something as simple as the one-sentence summary or a list, group, label is quick and doable. Students will be especially confident if confidentiality is kept and only commentary feedback is provided.

Similarities and Differences
I don't use the words "compare" or "contrast" much in the classroom. It's not that the students don't know what those words mean, well most of them, anyway. They just learn more comfortably when they hear more commonly used words like "similar" and "different."
I recently assigned this comparative analysis activity after two classes of Classical Empires background building and a five fact explanation: (1) Internal vs external forces, (2) Overproduction, (3) Corruption, (4) Invasions, and (5) Social institutions. This was enough to prime the students to complete the tasks. 
If my students are summarizing their notes about types of constitutional governments, for example, I would have them write a one-sentence summary that includes one similarity and one difference between two of the examples from their notes. This could also be down with causes and effects or continuities and changes. Keep it simple by requiring one of each.

When students come together to do cooperative learning activities, it's a great time to have them create a graphic organizer (Venn diagram, side-by-side table,Double Bouble, etc.). For example, if the students are comparing the influences of the Vikings and the Byzantine Empire on the development of Russia, students could be assigned either Vikings or Byzantine and two of each could make a group of four. This sets up two layers of analysis: (1) Students will compare what each of the two like examples wrote in their notes, and (2) Students will compare the two different examples to respond to the issue (influences on the development of Russia).

If possible, have a student make an explanation presentation with an app like Google Slides, Educreations (shown below), ShowMe, or Google Drawing. A student could even post to the classroom blog via e-mail. 

Follow these activities up with group presentations and discussion for formative assessment. Give them a quick quiz at the beginning of the next class to let you know whether the class needs to move forward or take a step back for a moment or two.

Achievement Tracking and Scoring Scales
It's one thing for teachers to know exactly how students are doing, but it's a whole new level of meaning when students can tell you to what extent they are meeting expectations or excelling relative to standards. Achievement tracking and scoring scales support development of this ability by providing feedback that correlates to a consistent set of achievement levels and descriptors. 

Self-tracking is powerful because learners can relate their classroom activities to a personal goal that will support their path to mastering a standard (examples below). And, it's not more work for teachers. Having the students do some of the evaluation puts the documentation mostly in their hands, I do the same for reassessment documentation.

These examples show the two types of achievement tracking that my students do after a major assessment. We use this information to review achievement for purpose of focusing remedial work before reassessment. This information is also helpful to present to parents when issues start to develop.

Achievement Tracking through Self-Reflection
This is completed by students immediately after the major summative. It is also reviewed when the marked papers are returned. Students, at that time, are asked to make adjustments to reflect achievement and write a goal to support learning.

Achievement Tracking through Assessment Items

Students circle the ones they missed and mark a check in the far right column if they answered a majority of the standard's assessment items correctly.  
This is a student-friendly adaptation of Marzano's scoring scale.

Thanks for reading. Please share comments, stories, or anything that might make these ideas stronger for myself and others.  

4 Activities With Google Drawing

Here's the challenge ... 
Take a critical thinking skill and a piece of content and make an activity on Google Drawing. Share it in the comments below.

Google Drawings
Three of the following examples below where edited from Will Kimbley's originals +Will Kimbley. The Classical Empires map was an adaptation of a map I already made with Drawing.

I usually have the students free draw and label a simple outline map on their own. The drag and drop could serve as a quick check for understanding.

Please view these in Drawing and remember to make a copy of the drawing to enable editing in Drive.  

1. Historical facebook

Another Brick in the Wall: Practice and Formative Assessment

I remember good days and bad days from my first year teaching AP World History. But the thing I remember most was when a student told me about how she felt when she took the practice test at another school, administered by a different teacher. 

"He was giving them all these reminders about things that I didn't even understand," she told me, just before the guilt of not preparing her made all my other worries that day seem insignificant. I had to address the problem students faced with the AP exam.

The Problem

The problem is often the same year after year: students don't do well on the essays. So we have them write more essays. Practice. Practice. Practice. And the results remain the same. Maybe the achievement levels are a little higher but nothing considerable. I think we shifted 1s to 2s with the added practice approach, but not many 2s to 3s or 3s to 4s or 5s. 

Last year, we started chunking the skills practice. It yielded the highest achievement gain since I started. In four years, we had assigned fewer reading pages in the book, reduced lecture-based instruction, increased targeted skills practice and assessment, and the passing rate had doubled. Now, it's time to take it to the next level because we're not even close to the national average. 

The name of the game, this year, is assessment design, frequent practice, and targeting skills based on last year's results and this year's needs. 

Looking at the Data

My PLC partner and I met this past summer to review student work samples released by College Board. We looked at the student work to determine what a 7 out of 9 looks like, what a 5 out of 9 looks like, and so on. (1) We came to the conclusion that our students needed regular practice writing thesis statements according to the CCOT and comparative essay requirements. (2) We also concluded that requiring specific examples to support explanations must become a routine in our classrooms. 

Some of you might be wondering what a CCOT essay is. Don't worry about it. I won't even tell my students what it is until they've been practicing the essential elements for a while under more conversational labels.

Note-Taking and Summarizing 

My solution to the anxiety some students have to navigate when they hear "thesis statement," is the one-sentence summary. The students take a lot of notes, whether it's from reading activities, discussions, image analysis, or the occasional lecture, so they need a summarization piece that brings together their note-taking while practicing writing better sentences. It's also import that the summaries can be shared out regularly and more publicly. The answer was The Wall. 

The tack wall in the back of the room has been converted into our color-coded, one-sentence summary space. So far, students have been required to summarize their notes in response to a question based on the curriculum framework. We use red paper for political issues, blue for social, and green for economic. 

The Wall is my main formative assessment piece. It's designed to allow for many levels of knowledge demonstration. It has allowed us to merge a simple classroom routine with a critical formative assessment. 

Clear Expectations

The first assessment expectation was to write complete sentences with specific examples to support main points. This was preceded by activities that practiced analyzing for context and point of view.

Students are then asked to mark a few posts with a plus sign if they're okay with it or a delta sign if they think it needs to be changed. This helps guide our discussion about where the class is in terms of meeting the expectations.

The next AP essay expectation will be to have them summarize by including one thing that has changed throughout the period of study and one that has stayed the same. That's the CCOT part (continuity and change over time). Since the date range is required for the exam thesis statement, I will have them write it in the summary sentence, as well. But no mention of thesis statements will occur in my class until 
they're good at writing them. 


This assessment is for feedback, only. To provide this feedback to students as quickly as possible, I take pictures of a sample of the posts that represent a range of achievement and write commentary under each picture on our classroom activity blog, whiteboardhistory.blogspot.com

Since the wall posts are anonymous, the students are encouraged to read all of them and the feedback to further focus understanding of the expectations. The next step is to have them comment on the strengths and weaknesses, provide examples to substantiate the statements, or find themes to organize the evidence they've collected.   

The Underlying Goal

The key is to build the skills one piece at a time, brick by brick, as our athletic department says. It's also important to leave out unfamiliar jargon. They don't need confusing labels to learn how to do things. Once their confidence and proficiency levels are high, I will teach them the labels, which will probably fix any thesis-statement baggage they bring to class. 

We will probably only write about three essays all year. That's one more than last year. I know that this might sound counter intuitive, but I am tired of doing the same thing with minimal results. Plus, I don't subscribe to the belief that we prepare students for college by throwing college-sized workloads at them. 

If you don't buy any of this, check out what the kids say about AP World History classes on Twitter #apworldhistory or #apworld. You can see the progression with some from complaining and stressing about workload to giving up and just wanting to get through the test to say it's done, not really caring much about the results. Is that really the culture we want to nurture in our academic programs?

Thanks for reading. Please leave comments, suggestions, disagreements, and, most importantly, stories. 

Mr. D's Rules for Marking

I've watched this video about 20 times in the past year or two. It's always going to be funny to me because when you get the message behind the exaggeration it's something we've already seen.

I thought that a list of rules based on Mr. D's approach would be a fun way to share my perspective on marking papers and assessment design.

1. Bill: "There goes your weekend, eh, markin'?" Mr. D: "Not really."

Trim the fat. Tests and quizzes that attempt to assess too much can wear out both teachers and students. Try to focus on one standard at a time. Try scaffolding the writing expectations throughout the year by looking closely at sentences for a couple months before looking at paragraph structure. Also, think about grouping standards into one learning target based on skills or background knowledge.

2. "These are essay questions. If I were to read these, it would take forever. So, I don't."

If students are not writing the stuff you're looking for, skip it. It sends two messages. (1) Don't waste time filling the page to gain a shot of dopamine from the appearance of completion. (2) We only have time for relevant work, and here it is. Mark the successes and have students rewrite the parts that didn't get marks so that all of their writing meets the level of the expectation. Try a feedback model like SE2R by Mark Barnes.

3. "Sometimes their answers are better."

Leave students room to demonstrate what they know and can do. Write open questions that are more thematic and conceptual, allowing students to draw from a body of information with which they can more confidently show mastery.

4. "That way, I don't have to give her a 100."

Grades create enough anxiety. Inaccurate grades are just destructive. Using scoring scales and rubrics can help ensure "A" students are really the top of the class. This is not to say that you should design an assessment or scale that makes a perfect score unattainable. My scoring scales usually require students to exceed the expectation in order to receive more than a 90. I ask myself if the student went beyond the call of the task and cheer for them to produce great work. It happens, a lot.

5. "You just put marks on it."

If you put marks on the paper and write the score at the top, that's all the students will ever care about. When teachers do this, research has suggested that there is a zero percent achievement gain associated with writing scores on papers. In fact, according to this same research, the only achievement gain is 30 percent when comments are provided without a score. When both comments and the score are present, the achievement gain goes back to zero. So choose either score or comments. You'll save time with this rule and a couple of the others.

Thanks for reading. Please comment below on successes, troubles, agreements, disagreements, etc. 

Learning Through Assessment

Before he gives an assessment, the old sage grants his pupils hope for a fruitful learning experience. Maybe that's not exactly what he says, but whatever comes out that day, he communicates to his students the importance of keeping the learning process alive, always, and especially when taking a quiz.

I was reminded of this story while making the following two card decks for professional development. I thought Quizlet would be a different way to discuss some of our new district, campus, and department initiatives.

After studying the decks and practicing the games, try the quizzes by clicking the heading links.

Grading Beliefs and Practices

Targeted Skills (based on STAAR results) and Instructional Activities