Posts Tagged ‘Social Studies’

Ways to Instantly Use Primary Sources

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

AUTHOR: Courtney Webster, Social Studies Specialist

Primary resources prove the details of our existence. Without them, historians would not be able to research the past.  Primary documents are used by those who want to understand the person, the place or the event to verify or determine what happened.  History if taught with fidelity can be considered a social science, where students look at various sources whether primary or secondary to research, discuss and validate historic events as accurate or not. As teachers, we would love to use resources in our classrooms but some barriers can make it difficult, including: reading difficulties of students, challenging vocabulary, traditional cursive writing and access to sources that are relevant to students.  From records, interviews, images, articles and maps, all primary documents can be useful to social studies courses.  According to Wineburg and Martin, “[h]istory in sourceless classrooms becomes limited to the textbook, effectively silencing the rich chorus of voices that could speak to contemporary readers.”[1] And although new textbooks have incorporated more primary sources into their covers, oftentimes it is more important for students to examine, inquire and analyze the value and importance of such sources through touch and observation. This allows for them to both connect the student understandings, as well as, the context of the event. Whether you are teaching elementary, middle, high school or college, your students should be learning the skills it takes to comprehend historical content through original documentation.  Here are three ways to make the use of primary sources happen in your class today.

  • Create anchor text with major documents.  The United States Constitution is mentioned significantly in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for courses 5, 8, 11 and Government. Naturally, we do not expect students of various grade levels or reading abilities to approach the document the same. However, they should all have access to the writing and language of the original and an opportunity for understanding the basis and evolution of its interpretation. Even more helpful would be if students had a modified version of the Constitution along with the text of the original Constitution. This would support students in seeing how text is summarized and reworded for simplicity. This foundational document should grow in meaning with students each passing year. Using the United States Constitution as an anchor text.  An anchor can be used in multiple ways but the basis of creating an anchor text is for students to revisit the text for deepening their knowledge. A teacher could place the constitution as a working anchor chart on the wall or by including the text in student’s interactive notebook.  The Constitution with its principles and changes are approached in every era of American History.  However, we as teachers allow students to see the document typically during their civics unit only.  Instead, this foundational document should be revisited as much as possible and treated as a mentor text (even though mentor text implies that the text is chosen by the student to help them explore the information further).  Regardless to how the anchor text is viewed, with a close reading strategy and multiple points of reference, the acquisition of this document would be helpful to students, providing them with an opportunity to revisit topics, inquire about meaning and apply context to content with their current unit.  Informational text along with other sources and books can remind students of their civil liberties back to our Democratic Republic playbook with all of the rules, changes and challenges of our great country.

Identify, yet tamper with the evidence.

The word tampering can have a negative connotation, however, both Dr. Wineburg and Dr. Martin use the word tampering to really mean adapt. By adapting, the authors are really saying, accommodate the language of the article.  In fact, “[they] urge teachers to physically alter sources: to change their syntax and vocabulary; to conventionalize their spelling, capitalization and punctuation- even rearranging sentence sequences if necessary…”[2] This particular piece can be time consuming however there are resources that can get you started.  When looking for how to teach primary documents, as well as, for documents that are already modified, go to Teaching[3] Documents and tools are segmented into elementary, middle and high school categories.  Also, there is TexQuest[4]  which has several databases to teachers to use and find sources. Inside many of the databases, you can receive access to modified documents and there is a reading link for students use to listen to the documents as well. To determine whether or not your district has access to TexQuest contact your campus librarian for more details.

Conduct historical inquiry based on a single document

Dr. Wineburg states, “…history reminds us to start with basic questions.”[5]  Students are inquisitive about the people, places and events of the world, however, they are not keen on answering questions because that often times requires the right answer. Students, in our information age, must learn how to form questions to better understand new information beyond the facts.  One can encourage students to build questions by using the PBL “Needs to Know” method. This can happen by allowing students to look at a primary document and simply asking the question, what do we need to know to understand this text or image?  Once students have developed a list of ideas, encourage them to categorize their statements and ask questions based on their list. Another method used to build inquiry is the Question Formulation Technique (QFT).  This is a way of building inquiry was developed by the Right Question Institute[6] founders Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana. Their book Make Just One Change deals with the complexity getting students to think by generating questions. By introducing the QFT technique, teachers are molding students to think about concepts instead of recite facts.

Regardless to whether you are stepping into the classroom for the first time or meeting a new group of students for the twenty fifth time, take a new approach to primary documents and have fun watching your students explore social studies with more depth through authentic instruction and text.

[1] Wineburg, S., & Martin, D. (2009, September). Tampering with History: Adapting Primary Sources for Struggling Readers. Social Education, 73(5), 212-216.

[2] Wineburg, S., & Martin, D. (2009, September). Tampering with History: Adapting Primary Sources for Struggling Readers. Social Education, 73(5), 212-216.

[3] Teaching, home of the National History Education Clearinghouse. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2016, from

[4] TexQuest  . (n.d.). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from

[5] Wineburg, S., D. Martin and C. Monte-Sano. Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle & High School History Classrooms. 2013.

[6] The Right Question Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2016, from

Not People, Places or Dates:Using Vocabulary to Instruct Social Studies

Monday, December 7th, 2015

AUTHOR: Courtney Webster, Social Studies Specialist

When reflecting on one’s experiences in history classes while growing up, one might reminisce over lists of content terms, maps and graphs in the classroom. But how much of this material is truly remembered? Access to content has dramatically changed social studies instruction, yet students are receiving similar lists, maps and graphs — only now in a digital format. Many educators strive to build conceptual patterns for students to thread content and events together, working to allow the process of learning to become holistic and not fragmented. However, teachers often find themselves frustrated by student retention in a number of humanities courses. If one were to ask students why they grapple with such courses,  vocabulary would rank high on the list of responses.

The number of words students interact with in social studies is daunting. Marzano and Pickering (2005) results indicate, in Building Academic Vocabulary, that students in grades 6-8 could potentially encounter over 1,300 words in this subject alone during those three years, amounting to more than 50% of the academic words they will encounter while in middle school (pg. 6)1. Forming the foundation of this tremendous volume of terminology is social studies’ comprising four (or more) subjects — history, geography, civics, and economics — a composition that demonstrates the patterns of human behavior while encouraging analysis of  the causes and effects of their decisions.

Vocabulary and the broad field of considerations referred to as literacy are key contributors to the intensive demands of the 8th grade Social Studies STAAR; few campuses have yet to  realize percentage growth in scores on this assessment. The faltering performance in this regard relates to the history of Social Studies standardized testing. Literacy was not a major concern during the era of TAKS, as memory allowed for students to recall and match many of the assessment items. STAAR, however, demands much more of students. They are required to comprehend Early American History at a rigor they will not yet have experienced prior to middle school. The assessment expects students to determine not only cause and effect but also main idea, point of view, and inferences of primary and secondary sources. And several of the distractors written into each test feature two possible answers, only one of which is the best response to the question. Students must demonstrate familiarity of academic words in order to discern the best answer.

The fact that students do not successfully translate their knowledge of dates, facts, and people as demonstrated on local assessments to  the STAAR assessment baffles many  teachers. Recalling information was once the paramount indication of any star pupil, however this is no longer the rule. College and Career readiness, 21st century competencies and a global view of the world have motivated changes to the standardized test to better prepare students for the future. Factual information in social studies only skims the surface of what students should know and be able to do; therefore, vocabulary selection, instruction and application must also transform. A single adjustment to the way teachers determine and the course lexicon and apply it to the curriculum could add volumes to background knowledge development and acquisition of critical thinking skills for all students. Various approaches to literacy, including word development, provide students with options for understanding unit and course content; this shift in direction provides an understanding and  changes the environment of not only the classroom but also the processes of students’ thinking, encouraging a one to seek and understand patterns rather than recall.

While selecting vocabulary for a lesson should not be an arduous process, the density of the numerous TEKS that apply to social studies instruction make matters more interesting. Many classrooms feature word walls to beautiful effect, however they must remain active tools for learning. Select words to feature based on academic comprehension and not merely content to encourage a  richer learning experience for social studies students. Andrew Jackson, a key figure in American history, is inescapable to the course. Students must know who this president was as a general and politician. An example of effective vocabulary selection functions around arriving at this key historical figure rather than using his doctrine as a starting point. His policies give rise to the term Jacksonian Democracy; in lieu of offering it to your students outright, build from the  conceptual framework or roots using demos- or the term democracy (including various versions). This supports the learners in understanding why this term is linked to the man called ‘Old Hickory’. In refraining from the use of proper nouns (people and places) and dates we provide links to the cognizance of the content. Then students can take the knowledge that they have acquired and apply the content (people, places and dates) to skills such as chronology, summary and position based writings. Thus, students use common nouns, adjectives, and verbs to explain the pattern in the people and develop connections between character and purpose.

While there appear to be an endless array of options for instructing vocabulary, one must keep in mind that it cannot be divvied into a list of definitions, wall or text and only to remain untouched until the unit assessment. Direct instruction to word development is imperative. Robert Marzano provides a six-step approach to vocabulary instruction, whereas Kate Kinsella offers three phases. Regardless of the approach, teachers must take time to teach vocabulary as opposed to assigning vocabulary. The concise description of Dr. Kinsella’s recommendation is to introduce the word, provide verbal practice and collaborate. Both researchers articulate how explicit instruction of the word is fundamental to its understanding. Some classes assign the task of transferring by writing definitions for every word, however this activity does not constitute learning. And even though the Frayer model applied variations to the application of word acquisition with pictures and sentences, many could argue its overuse. When introducing vocabulary, appeal to pre-assessments to have students apply background knowledge or lack thereof. Consider ranking words and attempting to place such words in sentences, even if they do not fit. One could also give variances of the word through cognates or patterns of the word structure. Instruction of words does not have to be lengthy, but should be engaging. Memory of vocabulary occurs only when one fumbles through the use and misuse of the term; therefore application of the terms is necessary for comprehension. In positive classroom environments, students are privy to mistakes when answering in order for real learning to occur. Furthermore, look for opportunities when words appear in social media, songs and quotes regardless of their direct relation to your unit and encourage students to do the same.

Opportunities to read, speak and write using the terms is paramount to a student’s ability to “own” the word. Dr. Kinsella (2013) states, “clearly, there is far more to truly owning a high-utility word than the ability to parrot back a single, inflexible definition when prompted to do so on a test” (p. T5).2 Students may apply their learning to a more than just the assessment when teachers encourage them to make use of their new words. Vocabulary instruction does not cease once the unit is complete. Lesson planning must include purposeful application of words. Take the time to spiral terms into current events while providing words from previous units. Rubrics can be created to ensure words are used in writing and speaking. By providing a rubric to encourage students to use words, teachers can determine what words are mastered.  Make word walls interactive through placing them in sight for students to use during their turn and talk opportunities. Innovate word walls by placing them in student notebooks in correlation with sentence stems or using online tools to provide students with a definition and picture to support their understanding of the definition. According to Marzano and Pickering (2005), “…it is critical that [students] do not simply copy what you have said, but that they construct a definition in their own descriptions, explanations or examples” (pg. 17).1 Processing with vocabulary is much different from recalling terms and definitions.

With all the technical devices derived since the turn of the century, literacy is yet an ever growing hurdle in education. Students desperately need the instruction of vocabulary in terms of social studies to have a better understanding of the world in which we live. People, places and dates are the fruit of social studies curriculum, however academic vocabulary is at the root.


1 Marzano, R., & Pickering, D. (2005). Building academic vocabulary: Teacher’s manual. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

2 Kinsella, K. (2013). Academic vocabulary toolkit mastering high-use words for academic achievement. Boston, MA: National Geographic Learning.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye…Proclamation 2015 is Now in Progress! A Look at the Social Studies Instructional Materials Adoption Process

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Author: Rachel Hernandez-Eckert, Social Studies Specialist

Duct tape seems to be our best friend right now.  The duct tape that holds the binding of that 10 year old Social Studies textbook, that is.  It seems like an eternity since our last textbook adoption for Social Studies and it is rather exciting that it is finally here.  We are embarking on something new though; this is just not a textbook adoption, but an instructional materials adoption for K-12 Social Studies.  This is a big deal for us and we must tread carefully.

In November, TEA is slated to release the SBOE approved recommended list of instructional materials by publisher.  Although this document will be a working list for school districts, districts do not have to purchase instructional materials exclusively from that list.  There is a caveat to choosing from the approved list though.  School districts will have to justify on their own how the materials align to the TEKS – the accountability will lie exclusively with the school district.  Be aware that the instructional materials submitted for the recommended list only have to meet 50% of the state standards and many questions arise from this seemingly moderate percentage. Take a look at the few inquiry questions from TEA’s Proclamation 2015 Q&A document:

Question: How it is determined that a submitted product is at least 50% compliant with the TEKS? Does a book need to reach 50% compliancy in each strand, or can the percentages vary from strand to strand, as long as they add up to 50%?

Answer: The 50% requirement refers to student expectations, not strands. A product does not need to meet 50% of the student expectations in each strand. A product needs only to meet 50% of all of the student expectations. The percentage of coverage can vary from strand to strand as long as 50% of all the student expectations are addressed.

Question:  Regarding the following: “Materials must meet at least 50% of the elements of the TEKS in both the student version and the teacher version.” Does this mean that (at least) 50% of the elements of the TEKS must be covered in the TE apart from coverage in the SE?

Answer: Materials must meet at least 50% of the TEKS in the teacher version of the instructional materials and at least 50% of the TEKS in the student version. For the purpose of determining eligibility for adoption, only those student expectations that are addressed in both the student and teacher materials will be considered.

 Since the materials available are not exclusively textbooks, school districts are left to consider factors that may not have been prevalent in the last adoption.  Considerations such as: Do we have the infrastructure to support accessing exclusive online content or electronic resources?  Will my teachers need to be trained on accessing online materials?  Do these materials meet the needs of our campuses, such as materials available in Spanish?  How do we ensure that we are investing in the right materials for Social Studies classrooms while considering our district’s future growth?

I’ve heard from school districts that are in the full swing of forming committees of teachers to examine adoption materials and have created evaluation rubrics for their teachers to employ in the review process.  I’ve also heard from school districts that have yet to start the entire development.  If your district is still in the beginning stages of navigating the materials adoption, you have until the spring to make decisions that will probably last another 10 years or possibly longer.

Below are a few tools that may be helpful to you as you begin your review process:

Making a Case for Information Literacy

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Author:  Leslie Barrett, Education Specialist: Technology & Library Media Services

Information literacy. What is it? Quite simply, it is the ability to sift through an abundant quantity of information to find what you need to accurately answer a question you have. It is knowing how to refine an information search to get a smaller but more accurate selection of resources to answer your question (i.e., “puma NOT shoes”). And it is knowing when one source (National Geographic) may be more reliable than another source (Bob’s Blog About Cool Science Stuff).

So why does it matter? The information landscape of today’s digital world is changing at incredible rates. According to Gonzalez (2004), the “half-life of knowledge,” or the time between acquiring knowledge and the obsolescence of that knowledge, is shrinking. Effectiveness in today’s workforce requires knowing how to stay current on the most up-to-date information possible. “As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses” (Siemens, 2005). Knowing how to find out is rapidly replacing knowing. Information literacy is knowing how to find out.

We are seeing more and more digital devices being included in classrooms to facilitate the learning process. This creates perfect opportunities to make sure we are integrating information literacy skills into our content area instruction. Fortunately, some common threads of information literacy are already woven into the process standards of the four major content area TEKS. Consider the following TEKS examples:

 ELAR Research Strand

Students are expected to know how to locate a range of relevant sources and evaluate, synthesize, and present ideas and information.

ELAR Figure 19

Students are expected to apply deep comprehension strategies when reading such as:

establish a purpose for reading,

ask questions of the text,

make connections (text to self, text, community),

make inferences and support with text evidence,

summarize, and

monitor and adjust comprehension.

 Social Studies Process Standards

Students are expected to use a problem-solving process to identify a problem, gather information, list and consider options, consider advantages and disadvantages, choose and implement a solution, and evaluate the effectiveness of the solution.

Science Process Standards

In all fields of science, students are expected to analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student. In addition, students will evaluate the accuracy of the information related to promotional materials for products and services such as nutritional labels.

Mathematics Process Standards

Students will use a problem-solving model that incorporates analyzing given information, formulating a plan or strategy, determining a solution, justifying the solution, and evaluating the problem-solving process and the reasonableness of the solution.

In creating learning activities around these standards, teachers can incorporate opportunities for students to search the web and databases of scholarly resources to find information to support their content understanding. When Google searches produce information that is inaccurate or too broad, the opportunity exists to teach students ways to refine searches or access more scholarly sources to yield more effective results. With the return of state funded database access through teachers in Texas public schools and open enrollment charter schools will have free/low cost access to digital academic resources to support information literacy integration. Your campus librarian can be a fantastic resource to assist teachers in integrating information literacy skills into instruction, but it is important that information literacy skills integration is occurring regularly in classroom activities and not just on occasional library visits.

As the “basis for lifelong learning” (ACRL, 2000), information literacy is one of the greatest skills we can instill in our students. The increasing availability of technology in our classrooms makes integrating information literacy skills into instruction an attainable goal.



ACRL. (2000). Information literacy competency standards for higher education. Retrieved from

Gonzalez, C. (2004). The role of blended learning in the world of technology. Retrieved from

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Retrieved from

Briscoe Primary Sources Tied to the 7th Grade Texas History and U.S. History TEKS

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Authors: Rachel Hernandez-Eckert, Education Specialist, Social Studies and Catherine Bell, Intern, The Archives of American Gardens, Washington, D.C.

I had the teacher “warm fuzzies” a few months back.  You know, that really proud feeling you get when one of your students has an amazing moment of learning or accomplishment.  You feel really proud to think that you had a little something to do with that.  My moment came when I visited the UT iSchool Open House in May to see UT graduate student, Catherine Bell, present her Capstone Poster Session.  I have been working as an adviser to Catherine since fall 2013 for her project with the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.  She was looking for guidance on how to make primary sources accessible for classroom teachers using the Briscoe’s resources.  In a nutshell here’s what she did:

1. She studied the Social Studies TEKS. (Hooray for the non-teacher who actually studied our standards!)

2. With the help of the Briscoe staff, she looked for primary source resources at the Briscoe that could be possibly tied with the standards for 7th Grade Texas History and the high school U.S. History course.

3. She worked with the Briscoe staff to digitally link these resources to the standards.

Although this is an oversimplification of the work that was done, it took her a long while to do all this.  Now, these resources are available to you.

Read about her journey and obtain resource access below —

I am Catherine Bell and I have recently graduated with a Master of Science in Information Studies (MSIS) from the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Information. If you are thinking, “master of what?” or “what is an information school?” let me briefly explain. The School of Information, or iSchool as we lovingly call it, is where future librarians and archivists learn the best ways to present information to anyone and everyone. The iSchool really strives to make the world a better place, starting with knowledge and information management. With my degree, I am officially an “information professional.”

Now, what do I have to do with social studies or Region 13? As part of my graduate experience, I completed a Capstone project instead of writing a thesis.  A Capstone is a practical experience lasting one semester during which an iSchool student develops something for an organization of their choosing.  I worked with the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History to help them find a way to promote primary resources and also connect with teachers, an audience that is often forgotten by many archives. The planning for this project occurred around the time Region 13 Social Studies Specialist, Rachel Hernandez, reached out to the Briscoe Center to see what they could offer local teachers. I began working with Amy Bowman (a photo archivist) and Margaret Schlankey (head of reference services) to envision a resource which would be useful for both the Briscoe Center and Texas teachers. They connected me with Rachel who was able to bring in the education aspect of the project that I was lacking. I have no teaching experience, and wanted to make sure any resource created would be practical and easy to use for teachers.

My project consisted of familiarizing myself with the TEKS, using the Briscoe’s Digital Media Repository to search their collections, and consulting with educators throughout the development of the websites created. The Briscoe has a great tool, which is accessible to anyone with the internet, called the Digital Media Repository (DMR) and is a database of their digitized materials. Now this does not include absolutely everything the Briscoe has but it is still a huge database.  The DMR can be found here, and you can use basic search terms to look for archival materials. My project worked to take out some of the foot work for anyone unfamiliar with materials housed at the Briscoe and simultaneously created a link to the TEKS for teachers. After some deep thinking of how to best present these connections, we chose to take the exact language found in the TEKS and create hyperlinks to DMR search results. So, for instance, the 7th grade geography standard for maps contains a hyperlink to the DMR search results of “Texas maps.”

This was done for 7th Texas History and U.S. history since 1877.  The website can be found here along with a description of how to use the resource.  Click on each respective course link to get the drop down list of standards.  

Another aspect of my project was to present and promote this resource in various ways. Each time I share this resource with educators and even fellow archivists, people get excited. There is an excitement for sharing primary resources, an excitement for creating similar projects at other archives, and the realization that this is a local resource. The staff at the Briscoe is excited to have another amazing resource to promote their collections, and is always eager to answer any questions that come their way.  As extensive as we tried to make this resource, it only showcases a fraction of the materials that can be found at the Briscoe.  I encourage each of you to not only share this resource with your fellow teachers, but to check out the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History as well.

Curating Social Studies Content on Pinterest

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Author: Rachel Hernandez-Eckert, Education Specialist:  Social Studies

Have you ever torn pages out of a magazine and put them on a bulletin board or in a folder labeled Great Ideas? Although that is still a practical way to collect ideas from a tangible item in your hand, how do you save digital content in the same way?  I have taken to saving digital content through Pinterest, the free online pinning board.  Although most people use Pinterest for style, food and craft ideas, I recommend using it as an educational resource for finding Social Studies specific content, obtaining ideas for instructional practices and curating your own content.

With Pinterest, you have the flexibility to:

  • Create boards based on what you teach or even establish boards by unit or theme.
  • Connect with others in the Social Studies world, like me, and see what content your peers haveon their boards.  (You can follow my Social Studies boards at:
  • Connect to institutions like the Smithsonian Museum or PBS and pin digital archive pieces, videos and lessons ideas posted by these groups.
  • Search for content based on the Social Studies TEKS.  For example, type Galveston Hurricane, 1900, (Texas History 7.10B) in the search box to find pictures of the hurricane destruction in Galveston.  Or search for a specific historical figure such as Nelson Mandela (World History 22E), to see a mélange of quotes, images and video clips about his life.
  • Cruise elementary boards and secondary boards for ideas and vice versa. I found elementary anchor charts for building literacy in the classroom that would work to enhance secondary Social Studies instruction…love it!
  • Curate your work or student work.  Here’s an example of a picture that I pinned from a workshop I led a few months back.  I wanted to record examples of an Observe, Reflect and Question analysis activity using a primary source print from the Library of Congress.   I took a picture of the completed posters from the workshop and posted them a Pinterest board with an explanation of the activity.  Now when I am working with other teachers, I can pull up the picture so they can see an example of what the activity looks like.

The great thing about Pinterest is that you can still keep it personal and retain the boards you may have already established or even create “secret boards” so others will not see the boards dedicated to your secret love of cats or the board entitled, Lotto Funded…Keep Dreaming. A word of caution: you can get sucked in to Pinterest, ignore your family and your grading responsibilities.  Kidding aside, consider limiting your perusal time each day or utilizing other free moments of time for pinning.  Lastly, make a concerted effort to go back to your pins and consider real application of these ideas in your classroom instruction…because what is the point of all of this if you don’t actually use it?


The Genius of Genius Hour

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Author:  Leslie Barrett, Specialist:  Technology & Library Media Services

Image courtesy of


Genius Hour is an education trend that is getting a considerable amount of buzz lately.  It is a concept inspired by Google’s 20 percent time, a policy that affords Google engineers 20 percent of their work time (one day per week) to pursue “passion projects” related to their official job duties.  This encouragement of choice and innovation has resulted in the development of many of Google’s products, including Gmail and Google News.

Translated to a classroom setting, Genius Hour is a small chunk of time – the hour part is arbitrary – where students are allowed to investigate any topic of their choice.  While the topic does not have to be related to any specific content area, there are guidelines and checkpoints that teachers and students should adhere to in order to maximize the educational benefit of the experience.

While student choice is key, topics must be presented to and approved by the teacher.  This helps provide structure for students in crafting a topic that will result in deep exploration, and not just questions that can be answered by a quick Google search.  It also sets the tone that although this project will be fun, there are still expectations around topic acceptability and student learning.

Students are expected to present their investigation findings at the conclusion of their research.  This accountability piece communicates that Genius Hour projects are not just goof-off free time, but a project to be taken seriously.  Additionally, presentations give students experience communicating to an audience and designing a presentation with an authentic audience in mind.  It also creates a platform to inspire new ideas and thinking about future projects among classmates.

Genius Hour project timeframes can vary based on individual teachers’ schedules.  Some teachers choose to do projects with prescribed timeframes (i.e., a 6 week cycle), while other teachers find it better to allow each individual project to conclude naturally.  Even the “hour” designation of Genius Hour is just a suggestion.  Some teachers, particularly secondary teachers who are subject to finite class periods, allow one class period a week to be devoted to Genius Hour projects.  Some teachers incorporate Genius Hour time as part of daily activity options when students are finished with their assigned class work.  Other teachers, particularly at the elementary level, may choose to implement Genius Hour in lieu of Fun Friday activities that have little academic value.  The key is to mold the idea to what works in individual classrooms.

A key component of Genius Hour projects is regular teacher-student check in conferences.  This is how teachers help students stay on track, and how they can address misconceptions or guide learning.  Teachers can offer mini workshops during Genius Hour time to help groups of students who are struggling with similar issues.

Through the course of Genius Hour topic exploration, students are developing a myriad of skills in an authentic, student-directed learning environment.  The most obvious is information fluency.  Students are driven by a need to locate accurate and reliable information about a topic that is meaningful to them.  Students will need to organize and summarize the information they are locating, and it’s a perfect platform to reinforce the digital citizenship skills of avoiding plagiarism, fair use, giving attribution and citing sources.  While investigating information students are naturally applying the reading and writing skills being taught in the content areas.  As they learn more about specific topics of interest they are expanding and internalizing content knowledge in various areas.  In preparation for their final product students are synthesizing the information they have uncovered and reassembling it in a new and creative way to showcase new understanding.

With so many educational advantages, it’s easy to see why many teachers are making room for students to explore their passions through Genius Hour activities.  To learn more please access the following links:

Eight Pillars of Innovation by Susan Wojcicki, Google Think Insights

The Google Way:  Give Engineers Room by Bharat Mediratta, NY Times Job Market

Using Edmodo to Facilitate Book Study: What I Learned

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Author: Rachel Hernandez-Eckert

In the September 2013 In-Sight newsletter, I wrote about the beginnings of a group book study that our grant cohort is engaging in. We are studying “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12.  Because the group consists of 26 educators from 18 different school districts, we had to wrestle with the issue of facilitating a book study without meeting face-to-face.  My colleagues and I decided that the best platform to do this through is Edmodo. (Edmodo is an online platform created to connect teachers and students in a “free and safe way.”)  Since I had never used Edmodo before, I had to take the time to play in the platform and discover the capabilities that it had.  We discovered that we could establish a group and post notes, quizzes and polls, create small groups within the larger group, and establish folders and documents in a library that we could then link to a post.  We could also hyperlink webpages and embed videos in a variety of ways for our group members to view.  For the book study aspect, we established a reading schedule and every Friday we post questions that require participant response.  The Edmodo group served two different purposes; first, we use it as our main avenue of communication and to share documents pertinent to our cohort of educators.  The result was the decline of mass e-mail communiqués.  Second, we were able to create small groups for our participants to engage in online discussion about the text they were reading.  The result was that we could actually see our participants in “process mode” as they read, learned and reflected together.



My recommendation for anyone trying to replicate this is to discover and practice with the platform features before you formally establish a group.  You may consider inviting a few colleagues to serve as your beta test group and make comparisons about what you see as the owner of the group and what they see as a participant.  I felt pretty proficient in the platform to launch the group, but I found subtle features that could only be learned once the group was established.  If you are considering using Edmodo to facilitate a book study as we did, you must establish a learning plan and consider posting weekly questions to bring your participants back to the platform for discussion.  The best part about this method of delivery was that I still felt connected with the grant cohort and we have been able to engage in learning collectively, even though we did not meet again until the following month.

The Social Studies Critical Thinking Lab

Friday, September 20th, 2013

Author: Rachel Hernandez-Eckert

We all get ideas from time to time, but not all ideas are equal.  Some ideas are just fleeting thoughts, while other ideas actually turn into something substantial.  My hope for one particular idea is to have a lasting and meaningful impact.  In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that this idea wasn’t exactly mine (my apologies if I led you on).  In October of 2012, I attended a session at the Western History Association Conference that was co-led by a professor from Northern Arizona University.  The professor, Linda Sargent Wood, spoke of “History Labs” that she incorporated into her methods class for pre-service history teachers.   I thought this was a pretty interesting idea, so I took to finding her published article, Hooked on Inquiry: History Labs in the Methods Course.  As I read it, I was captivated by the idea of presenting students with an assemblage of primary and secondary sources and posing a historical problem that requires students to interpret through historical investigation.   Dr. Wood intended for her students to “…wrestle with historical narratives and accounts rather than simply memorizing facts and concepts.”


After reading Dr. Wood’s article, I thought this idea needed to be incorporated somehow into my work as a Social Studies Education Specialist at Region 13,  so we applied for a Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Grant using the historical lab as the cornerstone idea.  The goal of the grant, The Social Studies Critical Thinking Lab, is to use the Library of Congress digital primary source materials to produce teacher-created historical labs.   Region 13 was funded for the grant in August 2013 and within a few short weeks we quickly moved to forming a cohort of elementary, middle, and high school social studies teachers that will spend time in deeper scholarship around the development of historical labs.


To assist in the process of learning, we will be engaging in a group study of Bruce Lesh’s book, “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12.  Written by an experienced history teacher, this book chronicles Lesh’s approach to developing and incorporating historical study investigations with his students at the center of the process.  It is a remarkable read for anyone searching for a practicable method of engaging students in historical analysis.  The teacher cohort formed for this grant will dedicate time to creating labs of their own to guide students in effective reasoning, decision making, and historical interpretation.  I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to cultivate a professional learning community among my peers that will ultimately impact students.  I think this idea is getting at the heart of what it means to think critically.



Lesh, Bruce. A. “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 (Portland: Stenhouse, 2011).

Wood, Linda Sargent, “Hooked on Inquiry: History Labs in the Methods Course,” The History Teacher 45 (2012), 549-567, accessed January 2013.