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Planning Your Social Studies Unit Part Three: Planning Skills

History teachers, let’s face it. We’re in a new century and all (or nearly all) of our students have smart phones and they can just google historical facts. We don’t live in an age where rote memorization is as useful as it used to be. And anyway, aren’t there more important, far reaching skills to teach our students?

I certainly think so. And I believe that this is the direction education is going: the development of transferable, 21st century skills. Oooh, buzz word. What that really means is that we need to prepare our students to enter the workforce and so-called “real” world with the proper skills to succeed in life, college, and as a citizen. They need to be able to read news articles and discern media bias. They need to be able to collaborate with others and actually listen to what other people are saying before arguing. They need to be able to analyze speeches to understand what politicians are truly saying. This is important work.

And I look at historical content as a vehicle to teach these skills. Of course, I’m a total history nerd and think it’s worth learning for the sake of learning. And most of all, I believe history allows students to better understand the world around them.

Yet skills matter too. So today’s focus is planning skill development into your unit plans. Last week I gave an overview of how I actually sit down and develop my unit plans. I’d recommend reading that post first (click here).

Let’s get down to business (to defeat…the huns…).

Step One: Check the Skills Standards

For my state, Common Core contains the skills standards that we implement, which means there is a focus on reading, writing, collaboration, speaking, listening, and analysis of documents. Each unit I focus on developing one or more of these skills so that my students are able to practice the skills multiple times and build up their abilities to reach the grade level standards (and hopefully exceed them). Some of the skills I build into every World History unit, such as collaboration and document analysis. I do this because those particular skills are not only important, but vital to an engaging, rigorous social studies classroom. I recommend reading through the skills standards and writing them in your own words to help yourself understand what they require.

Step Two: Choose the Skills Standards

When unit planning, it’s a good idea to see which skills align well with the content you’re teaching that week (more on content next week!). For example, in my World History Industrial Revolution unit, I focus on document analysis and writing because I really like all of the primary sources from that time period. Students like reading about the living and working conditions and want to know more about how children especially were treated in that time period. They like the technology and talking about the ultra wealthy. So since their interest level is high, the content is not difficult to understand, and there’s a wealth of interesting primary sources, it’s the ideal unit for me to teach document analysis and essay writing. I give them primary and secondary documents to analyze centered around an essential question (a DBQ). And then we work towards an essay, building their writing skills along the way.

Step Three: Backwards Map the Skills

Once you know the grade level skill you’re working towards, it’s vital to backwards map from the end result. I know that my students need to be able to analyze an historical event from the perspective of multiple authors and write an argumentative essay using these authors’ works as evidence. That’s the finished product, the summative assessment.

But how do I get there? On my drawn out calendar, I start by writing down the essay on the last day of the unit. Then I work backwards to lay out a path for students to get there. For example, I know that my students will need to peer edit one another’s essays because it’s not only helpful to the one whose essay is edited, but also sharpens the skills of the editor when they go back to their own essay. So I write down “peer editing” a few class periods before the essay due date. I continue writing out which skills need to be taught on which days leading up to the due dates. Students need to learn about theses, topic sentences, quoting a source, etc. All of that goes on the calendar. I continue working backwards through the unit before I even introduce the essay. I ask myself “how can my students practice document analysis throughout the unit before I give them the essay documents?” I show them primary source videos, have them look at pictures, read through firsthand accounts. They practice analyzing the author’s meaning, point of view, etc. By the time they get to the essay, they’re confident about document analysis because it’s been there all along. The same can be done with building up writing skills throughout the unit.

All of this goes into your calendar. Once it’s in your calendar, you know exactly what your lessons need to look like and what skills they’ll incorporate. Suddenly there’s a method and strategy to your teaching. Students benefit, you benefit.

So take some time this week to check out your skills standards, start understanding them, and build intentionality into your unit plans.

It’s so worth the effort. I promise.

Want to check out the whole blog series? Click: Part One & Part Two.

With love,

Mrs. P

P.S. Part Four here.

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