Ideas And Identity: What Social Studies Teaches Us

Her face was quiet and still but her big brown eyes blazed with intensity, “Can you believe he went to jail to help the Indian people. He wouldn’t fight, but he didn’t give up on what he believed.” A glossy picture of Gandhi lay spread across her desk and she looked back down at it, and it was apparent  that her mind was trying to work out this new information. She took a deep breath and said, “I’m just so surprised. He got their freedom.” As a young girl of Indian immigrants finding a real life superhero that mirrors herself is profoundly important.  

He was trying to explain why Helen Keller used sign language, “She was blind, so she couldn’t see, and she was deaf.” He was trying to think about how sign language would work if you couldn’t see, “She had to talk to people using her hands and she also used braille.” He looked closely at his partner and started to scratch his head and move from side to side.  Clearly his partner was still confused, he went on to say, “Braille are these bumps that you feel with your fingers. It’s a kind of writing like a code.” His clear blue eyes searching his partner’s face to check for understanding.

Our Biography Unit of Study gave our students a glimpse of what a life well lived, one that is fueled by passion could be.  Now we are getting ready to show them the world. Social studies expands students’ understanding for what it means to live in communities around the world. We are often surprised by how much children already know, but also dismayed by their misunderstandings.  They are naturally curious about the world and now we are going to feed that curiosity with source documents and the freedom to expand their learning. We are getting  ready to launch into our Informational / World Communities Unit of Study which will take us to the end of the school year.  It’s an opportunity to engage our students in a long term project that flexes their facility for the reading/writing process.  We are asking them to to use all they have learned to produce a culminating project. Two guiding questions are at the forefront of our thinking:

  1. How do we teach content and the reading and writing process in the service of greater comprehension?
  2. How do we offer choice with an expectation that certain grade level content understandings will be learned?

Breaking Apart The Unit of Study:

The reading process: how readers learn to access texts:

  • Main idea and supporting details
  • Text Structure: compare and contrast, problem and solution, sequence
  • Using text features
  • Synthesizing information
  • Inferring and predicting
  • Summarizing
  • Analyzing information
  • Critiquing information
  • Making real life connections
  • Adjusting reading for multiple genres eg. traditional literature/expository text

NYS Grade 3 Content Understandings: what third graders need to learn:   

  • Politics (government, laws, leaders, propaganda)
  • Geography (maps, landmarks)
  • Economics(needs and wants, SuperPowers vs. Third World, money, natural resources)
  • Social / Cultural Dynamics (art, music, religion, food, holidays, traditions)
  • History (timelines, artifacts, source documents)

Nuts and Bolts:

  • We will pick 2 countries from each continent except Antarctica (We will choose countries that show the diversity of each continent).  
  • Children will vote on the countries they would like to study (Top 3 choices)
  • We will set up partnerships for each country (Looking at academics and social components)
  • Partway through the unit we will merge the partnerships into their continent group (Let them dive deeply into their own country to gain a strong understanding before joining together)
  • Each partnership and group will be provided text sets with multiple genres, artifacts, timelines, maps etc. (multi-sources for deeper learning)

Grade level content::

  • Compare and contrast- Pick a category (history, geography, economics, politics or social)  to look deeply at.  Compare and contrast the two countries in your continent.
  • Personify their country-  Make your countries come to life.  Teach others about your country by becoming it and showing it through the country’s eyes.
  • Problem and Solution-Form a “United Nations” problem solving group who can analyze and critique problems and provide solutions to real life issues. Pick a real life problem and explain how your two countries can work together to solve it.
  • Predict and Infer-Look into the future- What will your countries be like in 10 years? Use their history and present day conditions as a reference.

Providing Choice:

Create a choice board for activities where each group will make one selection for each social studies standard. Each activity is assigned a point value (1,2,3) depending on its level of critical thinking. See our anchor chart: Skyscraper QAR/Bloom Groups must complete a total of 10 points.


  • Create a timeline of important events (1 pt)
  • Personal Top 10- news headlines from history (2 pts)
  • Write a simple play to act out an event in history (3 pts)


  • Create a topographical map (1 pt)
  • Create a travel brochure with landmarks and important information about your country (2 pts)
  • Write a newspaper clip explaining how your country uses its geography to be successful (3 pts)


  • Create a model to demonstrate the setup of the country’s government (1 pt)
  • Create a political cartoon about an event in history (2pts)
  • Write a speech that an important leader from your country might have said  (3 pts)


  • Make an economics map to show where your natural resources are located and how much money they are worth (1 pt)
  • Pick an item & represent the cost by making money from each of your countries (compare and contrast) (2 pts)
  • Make a diagram to show the average cost of living in your countries (average income, house, car, food) (3 pts)


  • Create a menu of food that is a part of your country’s culture (1 pt)
  • Plan a celebration for a special holiday or tradition your country celebrates (2 pts)
  • Set up a gallery that represents a theme for your country (freedom, perseverance, oppression).  Showcase famous art, literature and music to represent this theme and explain how they all relate. (3 pts)

The fun has just begun. We are so excited about this work and we can’t wait to get started: gathering videos, source documents, and building text sets.  We are driven as we imagine our students’ excitement and curiosity. Just as the Biography Unit of Study flipped a switch and children could begin to conceptualize how remarkable humanity can be, so too will their understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the world. This is their work and it has to be important because this is how they will learn what it means to work hard and create something that is driven by an internal desire to learn and grow.  There is so much to anticipate, we cannot know how this planning will be received or what the children will bring to this process.  We do know that we are showing them what it means to live a life where real work matters and that what we do everyday makes a difference.  TedTalk: Barry Schwartz: The Way We Think About Work Is Broken

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