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5 things we focused on at NCSS

Tiana Miller-Leonard
Nov 26, 2019

Brisket, tacos, and social studies. Those were the highlights of my weekend attending the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference in Austin—not in any specific order, of course. At Newsela, I work on designing content solutions for social studies educators. So when the time came to select the sessions I would attend at NCSS, I approached it with the goal of understanding the gaps and challenges educators were trying to solve for in their classrooms. 

Here are a few of the key trends and takeaways from the conference:   

1. Seeding inquiry everywhere

Again and again at the sessions myself and my colleagues attended, educators grappled with how to better support student-driven inquiry in their social studies classrooms. From planning inquiry lessons that effectively engage students’ disciplinary reasoning skills, to  centering both texts and visual sources such as maps in students’ inquiries, to finding the digital resources that best enable students to investigate compelling questions, the inquiry design model was front and center in educators’ conversations. The popularity of this model does not mean it is without challenges. Educators surfaced several important questions regarding how to do inquiry right:

  • As we push students to drive their own learning, how do we ensure they build enough background knowledge to avoid constructing false narratives about history?

  • How do we find ample sources for students to analyze that are reliable, that integrate both visual and textual information, and that are accessible to all students?

  • If our standards themselves are not oriented around inquiry, how can we integrate the C3 Inquiry Framework alongside our state standards?

As the social studies field leans into inquiry-based instruction, it will be of paramount importance to address each of these questions.

2. Engaging not just with your classroom, but with your world

Social studies educators do not want students’ learnings to remain confined to the classroom. At NCSS, educators made it clear that their goal is to turn their students’ attention outward. Students should not just examine the societal need for mental health services; they should create a health center at their school and share resources with their peers. Students should not merely identify the qualities of effective leadership; they should use that understanding to become leaders in their communities. In doing so, students will develop personal agency and confidence, empathy, communication skills, and a commitment to advocacy. Teachers (of every grade level, and spanning history, civics, geography, and economics specializations) shared examples of projects that pushed their students to take action in the world around them, and encouraged each other to use action-oriented capstone projects to make their students’ learning come to life. 

3. Making sense of digital resources

Perhaps the best example of the resource challenges facing social studies educators came during a Saturday morning session called “Social Studies Resource Smackdown.” Two presenters demoed a handful of their favorite online resources to a room so packed that some sat on the floor and others stood in the back, before handing it over to the audience to add their own favorites to the list. The list grew long! On the one hand, that’s a plus -- it’s clear that there are many organizations dedicated to providing social studies educators with materials for their classrooms. On the other hand, the popularity of the session alone suggests that finding, assessing, and assembling those disparate resources is no small task. One site might present different political takes on the news side by side, while another might have great video clips recreating historical events, while yet another provides students the opportunity to test their own knowledge and study with their peers. Trying to frankenstein them all into one curriculum can be overwhelming! The resource problem isn’t in the supply, it’s in the fractured and inconsistent nature of the digital resource landscape. 

4. Broaching complex topics in the classroom

Educators want you to be safe, but not necessarily comfortable. That’s the conclusion I got from attending multiple sessions exploring “controversial,” “uncomfortable,” “complex,” or “difficult” topics in the social studies classroom. Students need exposure to events and ideas that will challenge and even upset them, if they are to become the informed, engaged citizens we want them to be. Teachers want their students to grapple with race and racism, violence and genocide, politics, the global balance of power, the climate crisis, and more in the safety of their classroom. They just need the resources to do it.

5. Cultivating skepticism, but not cynicism

“Fake news” isn’t only occupying the minds of our legislators. It is also occupying the minds of our teachers. Teachers determine which sources they present in their classrooms, but they cannot control the unwieldy mass of information their students encounter online. This is cause for anxiety, as evidenced by the numerous sessions dedicated to teaching kids to effectively navigate the internet. Educators want to train students to identify bias and motive behind headlines, cross-check facts with multiple sources, consider how quotes, images, and videos may be used out of context, and, yes, view historical memes with a healthy dose of skepticism. But they don’t want students to become cynics. One educator asked his session’s presenters, “how do I convince my students that the prevalence of false information doesn’t mean they can’t trust anything they read?” To start, we’ve got to teach students how to identify the good information, not just the bad. 

The job of a social studies educator is uniquely difficult. Social studies teachers not only have to capture students’ attention and build their knowledge, but also teach them how to ask the right questions and investigate the answers, while honing their abilities to analyze primary sources, maps, images, and the infinite stream of information of vastly varying reliability flowing across the internet. They need to confront their students with the harsh and confusing realities of our past and our present, while pushing them to take action in the world around them. All the while, they’ve got to parse through a growing repository of digital resources to find the best tools and cobble them together into a, oftentimes, self-made curriculum. At NCSS, I saw teachers sharing all sorts of creative strategies for overcoming those challenges. I left inspired by their dedication to turning their students into engaged, informed citizens, and with renewed determination to do my part to alleviate their many challenges.

See you in DC next year! 

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