Skills For Social Studies Success

March 2011, By Cheryl Feuer Gedzelman

When I was in elementary school, my worst grades were in social studies. We read textbooks, learned dates of events and which states produced which crops. Then, we had to memorize lots of details that seemed useless to me, and unsurprisingly, I did not do well on the tests. When I became an elementary-school teacher, I vowed to make social studies interesting for the children. We role-played, wrote and performed skits, read related literature and discussed current events. The tests were open-ended and thought-provoking.

When I asked my children what they think of social studies, they said they hate reading the textbooks. They prefer the few teachers who teach in an exciting way without using books very often. Now that states have standardized tests, like the Virginia SOL’s (standards of learning), children have to memorize more facts than ever. Since they have to cram to prepare for state testing, even the most innovative teachers are stretched to find the time for creativity.

This is the opportunity for parents to help make social studies relevant and alive for their children. Take the time to see what your children are learning about. Read their textbooks with them, and discuss what is happening. Try to visualize events together. You can ask, “What do you think it was like for a child to live during that time?” Point out to your children that the word “history” has the word “story” inside it. According to Emily, a 7th grade student at Rachel Carson Middle School, “If you think of social studies as stories with problems that need to be solved, it seems more interesting and exciting. I like historical fiction because you can really get into the minds of the characters during that time period.”

Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is an excellent way to make history come alive. I recommend the Dear America series (for grades 5-8), which publishes engaging books about children in various time periods, such as the Revolutionary War, the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War, using journal entries. I just read one about the lives of Polish immigrants in the coal mines at the end of the 19th century, which I couldn’t put down. The American Girl series (grades 2-5) also offers appealing stories, from girls’ points of view. Memoirs such as The Diary of Anne Frank (ages 12 and up) are engaging and effectively demonstrate attitudes and human behavior at a particular time and place. Through My Eyes: Autobiography of Ruby Bridges (grades 3-7) tells her story and includes real photographs and newspaper articles.

You can discuss how social studies is connected to today’s world by regularly watching the news together and sharing newspaper articles. Talk about the connections between current events and historical events. For example, how is the U.S. Civil War different from today’s war in Afghanistan?

Texts Matter

Seeing the big picture makes social studies relevant and interesting, but your children still need to have good reading, studying and memorization skills. The social studies textbooks clearly tell you what is important. They highlight key vocabulary words and the names of significant people and events and have illustrations that reinforce the text. The questions at the end of each section emphasize noteworthy points. You can help your children learn the main ideas and important details by focusing on these parts of the text and by discussing and answering the questions at the end of each section.

Once your child has read and discussed the material and has a good understanding of the concepts, it is time to memorize the details. Here are some strategies to help.

Studying Strategies

Remember the big picture. Visualize historical events. Then, add some details that you have trouble remembering, and visualize the stories with the added details.
Create a study guide, or use the one the teacher gave you.
Study with a friend or parent-make sure someone tests you on the details.
Create charts, diagrams and pictures. (One student created a board game with her mom to learn information for a test.)
Use school-approved websites to clarify and elaborate on your information.
Take the time to do your best without last-minute cramming. The more time you take learning the material, the longer the retention, which will come in handy in the future.
Use mnemonic strategies to help retrieve information and strengthen long-term retention.
Mnemonic Strategies

Acronyms: An abbreviation in which each letter stands for the first letter in a list of words to remember. Example: HOMES to recall the Great Lakes of North America: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.
Acrostics: Use the first letter of each word in a sentence to retrieve a list of words. Example: Mustard With Ketchup Tastes Nice (or Nasty) to remember the states that border Virginia: Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina
Rhyming: Example: “I before e, except after c, or when sounded as a, as in neighbor and weigh.”
Singing: Examples: the traditional alphabet song and “Fifty Nifty United States.”
Make up a silly story to help you remember words, phrases or events.
Finally, put it all together. You can help your children make social studies relevant, make it come alive and find studying strategies that work best for each child. Many students don’t understand why they need to learn about history. I think the best reason is to learn from successes and mistakes to improve the future and prevent some of the calamities that happened in the past. Just like in our everyday lives, the past is always a learning experience.

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