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Social studies teachers can help students personalize history by embracing individualized pathways and oral or local history projects

Personalizing history for more impactful student learning


Social studies teachers can help students personalize history by embracing individualized pathways and oral or local history projects

Key points:

It is no accident that the new National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) definition of social studies is focused on “human experiences and the spaces in which we interact as humans.” The culture and climate of the social studies classroom has changed, and the way teachers teach social studies has to change with it. The modern social studies classroom should now be a classroom full of student inquiry and choice. Students should be learning the contextual background of a subject and working on the skills they need to critically analyze social studies content.

Personalized paths, oral histories, and local histories are strategies that resonate with the NCSS definition to bring the human experience into the K-12 classroom, because these strategies allow  students to determine how their life fits into the story of history and to discover why the past matters to them.

Encouraging deep dives

One way teachers can bring the new definition to life in their classrooms is to support students in taking deep dives into different aspects of the content they’re learning, going beyond the general surveys taught in the past. Because the curriculum in a class like AP U.S. History can be so vast, one concern that always weighs heavily on new teachers is getting through all the content for everyone. Deep dive projects allow teachers to focus on teaching the big picture and context, while the depth comes from student inquiry. Deep dives also provide more personal meaning to the student, allowing them to enter the story of history, which leaves them with a much greater long-term understanding.

Changing the classroom to support these personalized pathways takes some new teaching strategies. Teachers need to help students find their personalized path, understand oral history, or at times explore local history. This will help students determine how their personal interests and passions can be brought into the social studies classroom.

Some advice to make these projects the most successful:

  • Students need a strong understanding of the big picture prior to starting the project. They need to be able to place their findings in the overall context of the course.
  • Students also need practice with primary and secondary sources before diving in and analyzing and finding their own. They need access to a rich variety of secondary and primary sources beyond the textbook to set them up with the skills necessary to succeed in their own deep dive.
  • Students need to understand sourcing and how to recognize inherent bias. Once students have mastered those skills, they will need guidance to the sources needed for the project–but not a hand-picked list; they should be curating some of these sources on their own. This is a great opportunity to partner with other teachers as well as your school’s media center/library resource staff.

Facilitating oral history projects

Focusing on the human experiences in history puts more emphasis on primary sources such as oral histories and local histories. Starting with what your grandparents, neighbors, or community members remember about a historical event immediately transforms history from an abstract concept to a personal story about real people.

Any enlightening oral history project begins with teaching students about the historical context, how to ask the right questions, and how to tell a story from a first-hand perspective. Before a student can examine local histories or interview a person about an historical event, they should consult secondary sources to construct a firm knowledge of the larger moment in time. The local history or the interview allows them to find personal connections to a primary source.

From there, the students should consult academic journals or models for historical analysis, then bring their perspective into their conclusions. The teachers’ role here is to guide students through the framework of history through secondary sources, prepare them to select primary sources, and then challenge students to do their own historical interpretation. The goal is for students to create historical interpretation, not just consume it. They can develop their own conclusions about why history matters and how they and their local communities fit into (or challenge) the larger story.

Bringing the human experience to assessment

Bringing the human experience into history and putting the historical interpretation into the hands of students will change how history teachers assess their students, as well. The performance assessment of oral histories could be in the form of podcasts, movies, interviews, as well as the more traditional writing. Primary sources can be performances, not just sources for analysis. Teachers can challenge students to understand a primary source so completely that they can present it to the class as if they are the speaker. This requires the student to really know the speaker, to really know the time, and to internalize the impact and significance of words spoken by humans of the past.

Ultimately, the new definition of social studies allows for a greater focus on skills and analysis. The transition away from continuous direct instruction that spans only the breadth—and rarely the depth—of history, will increase, not decrease, the content and connections for students in the social studies classroom.

At the same time, teachers will be free to let go of the checklist of facts and dates and embrace the deep dives into the depth of the story of history. Teachers do not have to know everything about the content the students are researching. Often when given the tools, students will come up with sources the teacher may not have even known existed.

Teachers will coach students in document analysis, historical contextualization, and document curation, but they will no longer have to be the expert in every minute detail.  Personalizing the path for students means teachers do not need to worry so much about the breadth of history and can allow students to take custom dives into the depth of history. Allowing students to select where they want to dig deeper into the larger story of history empowers students to truly experience history through the lives of humans.

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