I have a confession to make: I had no idea what I was doing my first year of teaching. For those of you who’ve been reading my blog for awhile now, this comes as absolutely no surprise to you. But my first year, I was at my first school teaching World History & Econ for the first time, and I was drowning in grading and other paperwork (like BTSA for all you California teachers).
Drowning is an understatement. One time I was so behind on grading that a student came up to me and asked for some feedback on the Personal Finance Project we’d been working on. He’d turned in 4 of the assignments so far and I had not graded even one. To give you some insight, I collect one of these assignments about every other week which means… I was about 2 months behind on grading. Yikes. So I went home, graded all weekend, and gave him the feedback. Then I stayed up late Sunday night because, you know, lesson plans. Someone has to write them. I had no systems. I had no methods. I had chaos. I read the textbooks and scoured the internet for information to make sure I was teaching Econ and World History correctly. It was time consuming and hard.
The hardest part was that I didn’t just want any old lessons. No- I wanted amazing, engaging lessons. I wanted to come in every day with little butterflies in my stomach about my lessons. I wanted to be a little scared to teach them and take risks by handing the classroom over to my students sometimes with awesome projects, simulations, and activities. So I stayed up late. And I had no social life. And I spent my days off grading, grading, grading. That was my reality my first two years of teaching.
Until I got sick. At 23 years old I had blood clots and needed not one, but three procedures and one major surgery to fix the issue. I was so behind on grading and lesson planning that I would just cry, cry, cry. Thankfully, my community group was full of teachers. They came alongside me in love. They wanted to help. They taught me balance. They taught me systems. They taught me to stop taking work home. So my third year of teaching was all about establishing and implementing systems that worked. And over time, I’ve not only created incredible lessons that I love sharing with other teachers, but I love teaching teachers about how I’ve gotten to the point where I almost never take work home.
I grade at school. I am productive during my preps. It’s life changing. Not sure where to start? Check out my free video. Ask for help from those more experienced than you. Find resources online, free and paid. Work smarter, not harder. I know it’ll bless your life.
One of my regular teaching practices is including short (or sometimes longer) simulations. After all, simulations are incredibly powerful in the secondary classroom. I was reminded of how important simulations are the other day. It’s the regular practice of my school to have teachers observe one another in “Learning Walks” so we can learn from other brilliant teachers and improve our own teaching practice. It’s non-judgmental and it’s so normal for us to share classrooms and have others observing that it’s not really a problem for anyone.
Anyways, a new teacher happened to observe during my rent control simulation. It’s one of my favorites. Students are split into renters and landlords and given a certain amount of money they can afford or charge. Of course there are far more renters than landlords and the simulation is not only hilarious as kids scramble to get landlords to choose them, but it illustrates the issues created by rent control. Then we debrief and tease out the lessons before I show them graphically how the housing shortage is created. It’s incredibly low prep, it takes about 5 minutes, and it illustrates my point better than any lecture alone could accomplish. Afterwards, the teacher came up to me really excited. She asked more about how to integrate simulations in her classroom.
So here’s my advice: start small. Do quick simulations. Look at your lessons and think of interesting ways to teach the concept that incorporate movement, student choice, etc. I’ve found some simulations for free online. For example, google the “dot game” for the Cold War. It’s low prep and hilarious. Students start accusing each other of being “dots” and it beautifully illustrates the ridiculous hysteria surrounding communism in the 1950s. The power of these simulations is that students remember the concepts much better throughout the year and into the rest of their schooling. They’ll come up to me later and say “remember when we…” or during review for a test I’ll say “remember when we…” and it jogs their memory.
Because simulations are so powerful!
Need a little inspo to get started? Check out two of my simulation resources below.
Rise to Power Simulation for Introducing Hitler, Dictators, & WWII
I love me some quality professional development. I really do. My school allows us to attend the California Social Studies Conference every year and I nerd out over the different workshops. At heart, I just love to learn.
Yet I’ve noticed there’s a growing trend at these conferences and on social media that hates on lectures. It’s so strong that for a time I even considered myself failing my students for giving lectures. I heard person after person tell me things like “they’re too teacher centered” or “they’re too boring” or “students don’t learn that way.”
But you know what? Lectures are kind of how the world works. If you go to Church on a Sunday, what will you hear? A lecture. If you go to professional development in the business world or attend conferences, what do you hear? Lectures. If you go to college, what will you hear in almost every single class for your first few years? Lectures. In business meetings, what is your boss or coworker giving you? A lecture.
Sure, they’re disguised as other things in the real world. We call them “presentations” or “messages” or “professional development.” But you know what they really are? Lectures. And if we don’t teach our students how to learn by listening, writing, and processing information, I believe we’re doing them a disservice.
Now here’s the thing: lecture absolutely can be ineffective. Absolutely. We all know what an ineffective lecture looks and sounds like when we’re on the receiving end. They can be boring, unhelpful, overly long, and a waste of time. I’m not defending all lectures in the classroom. I’m defending effective lectures.
How do effective lectures benefit students? Well, they appeal to auditory and visual learners. Writing things down is also kinesthetic (not strongly, but it’s there). Writing things down allows students to remember information. Listening to you, the expert, allows students to retain and understand the content oftentimes better than if they’re reading it on their own. Lectures provide a baseline of information so your students have the tools they need to explore further with projects, activities, and other student-centered lessons. Lectures allow students to ask questions, collaborate, and hear memorable stories. Effective lectures are helpful.
So what’s an effective lecture? I follow a few simple guidelines below to keep my lectures fresh, effective, and beneficial to students.
- Keep them short but impactful. Younger students, like those in grades 9-10, need shorter lectures. 15 minutes tops. They lose interest and stop learning after that. Older students, like juniors and seniors, can handle up to about 25 minutes. But honestly, that should be the absolute max. I keep mine about 20 mins for seniors studying Econ. Sift through your slides and delete anything unhelpful. Get rid of anything that’s not on the assessment or related to the EQ. Make sure everything on your slides is actually important.
- Minimize the amount students write down. Honestly, I make fill in notes. My students write enough to keep them processing information but not so much that we’re sitting there waiting for that one kid to finish. I also like fill in notes because they’re more organized for students to find and reference later. However, I know some teachers want to focus on teaching students to take effective notes. In that case, don’t put a ton of info on each slide. Keep it to the point and ask yourself “if I were a student reading this later, would I understand what I wrote down?” That’ll add a layer of clarity to what you’re putting on your slides. You can add more information by telling stories or giving examples verbally while students are writing.
- Start with an Essential Question. It’s the “point” of the lecture- the thing you want your students to walk away understanding. It’s always open ended and includes the student learning objective for the day. I always have a student read it before we begin and then we come back to it at the end of lecture to discuss or write a response to it. This is adapted from the AVID strategy of note taking called Cornell Notes.
- Tell stories. Or give examples. When I’m lecturing about Stalin’s rise to power, you better believe I’m going to tell stories about how he liked to play god by randomly crossing people off his “kill list” during his purges. When I’m lecturing about demand, I’m definitely going to include data, statistics, and current events related to consumerism. I’m not going to write them on my slides but I’m going to say them and students will listen because it’s actually interesting. It sticks with them. And funnily (a word?) enough, even though kids don’t write these things down, they’re often the examples students give in the free response section of my exams.
- Don’t just talk for 20 minutes. Every 2 or 3 slides, I love to include Think-Pair-Shares or Think About It slides where students process the information on their own, through writing, or verbally with their partner or as a whole class. They think critically by coming up with their own examples or interpret political cartoons I’ve thrown on the slide or an endless list of possibilities. It does wonders for student engagement and even more for student retention.
- Reinforce or build on the content in other ways. I view lectures as a way to build a foundation. But everything we teach should be taught in multiple ways. After my lecture, students will practice supply and demand problems or research an interesting topic related to the Holocaust, or read primary sources about Stalin’s cruelty or begin a partner project. Again, endless possibilities but it’s all about the transfer of ownership of the information from teacher to student. I especially love seeing my students dig deep and teach me things I didn’t even know.
So there you have it. At the end of the day, lecturing doesn’t make you a bad teacher. Effective lectures are helpful and prepare students for the real world.
Any other tips and tricks to keep your lectures effective? Drop ’em in the comments!
When I first started teaching I was 22 years old. And you guys. I have a straight-up baby face. Now even 5 years later it’s like my face is frozen in time. I therefore get mistaken as a student frequently, which my students find hilarious. But I digress.
Even now when I tell people I teach high school seniors, they’re usually either impressed or surprised. “I could never teach seniors! That’d be too scary” they say. I find this really interesting, especially because I actually find the elementary age kids more scary (and germy). And they almost always bring up my youthful appearance. The implication, I think, is that I can’t be respected by teenagers because I look like one.
This post is not meant to hate on these people who ask these questions. Quite the opposite. I actually find it kind of funny that the older the students get, the more afraid people seem to be when it comes to teaching them. But in my opinion, the best kept secret is that teaching seniors is the easiest.
Trust me. I’ve taught every grade in high school. I’ve even taught 8th grade. And to me, sophomores are actually the toughest group (and I totally love them, don’t worry). But seniors? They’re great. Here’s why.
- They have a much longer attention span. Not so much in May of their senior year. But for the most part, they can pay attention to long discussions like the ones we engage with during Socratic Seminars. You don’t have to fight so much for their attention- they’re older and can handle it for the most part.
- You can have real conversations with them. Like actually interesting, adult-level conversations with back-and-forth. You just don’t get that with sophomores (though juniors are okay at it). They even get things like nuance. So as you’re teaching Econ you can discuss slightly different perspectives on government involvement in the Economy and they track with you. It’s a beautiful thing.
- You can give them more ownership of their learning. Now I firmly believe that every grade level can and should take ownership of their learning. But seniors take it a step further. They want to dig into the real world concepts. They want to know how the world works because they’re about to enter it full steam ahead. They’ll ask real, interesting questions that will challenge you.
- You can go deeper. They’ve accumulated so much knowledge from their previous years in high school that you don’t have to lay as much foundation before you teach something new. For example, most of my kids already know what communism is so when I go into types of economies, I don’t have to spend a day explaining Karl Marx. I just have to give a quick refresher and they’re good to go.
Now. Don’t misunderstand me. I actually love sophomores and juniors too. It’s just that seniors are unique in their awesomeness. And I want to share that enthusiasm. So if you’re going into your first year teaching seniors, don’t be too worried. They’re a great group.
So you look at your schedule for the new year and realize you’re teaching Econ for the first time. Crap, you think, this subject is so boring. All I remember from high school is there’s a ton of graphs and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off- style lectures.
Oh friend, let me assure you. You’ve just been handed a straight up gift. After all, we don’t have to teach in the same boring ways we were taught and if you didn’t have an awesome Econ teacher in high school, well, that can give you an unfair bias against the subject.
After all, there are really, truly few subjects as relevant to your high schoolers as Economics. And that’s the beauty of teaching Econ: you don’t have to work that hard to convince your students it’s worth learning.
So with that in mind, here are my top four reasons why Econ is awesome:
- It’s easy to fall in love with the subject. Even though I didn’t come into teaching Econ with a bias against it, I didn’t remember everything from high school and I absolutely had not taken even one Econ class in college. So I had to learn alongside my students, often keeping just a day or two ahead of them in my understanding. But as time progressed I fell in love with how much understanding Economics can inform your daily life, decision-making process, and general way of seeing the world. Cost-benefit analyses and opportunity cost become part of your daily life and consideration. You’ll see incentives everywhere. And you know what? You’ll actually start to understand a lot more of what politicians are talking about when you watch the news. It’s great.
- You’ll never hear your students ask “why are we learning this?” Because it’s obvious. Every single topic makes sense and will allow your students to better understand themselves, their purchasing habits, the economy, and politics. If you’re lucky they might even start applying Economic concepts to their lives. I’ve had students tell me that they see the world differently and examine their choices more closely after taking my class. What more can my teacher heart ask for?!
- You have the opportunity to teach real life skills like personal finance. If it’s not taught elsewhere at your school, it belongs in the Econ classroom (in my humble opinion). I’ve written an entire blog series on this topic which you can find here. Suffice it to say, this can be life-changing stuff for your students…and prevent a lot of heartache for them later.
- It’s relevant. More than any subject taught at my school. From the personal decision making process in Unit 1 to the way prices are determined by the market in Unit 2 to how markets function and what businesses look like in Unit 3 to the macroeconomic concepts in Unit 4, all of it will enrich your students’ lives and understanding of the world. They’ll understand the dangers of trade wars, assess the current state of the economy, and read the signs of an impending recession. It’s all so good.
Looking for help on planning your first unit? Check out my series on creating unit plans. And let me know in the comments if you’ve got any questions about teaching this awesome subject! I’m so excited for you to get started 🙂
If you’ve been with me for the last two posts (skills here and content here), you’ve got a calendar full of all the skills and content you need to cover in your Social Studies Unit. Now it’s time for my favorite part: putting everything together. Because for me, it’s all about student engagement and creativity. It’s my chance to ask myself “how can I creativity teach this skill using this content?” And, friend, the possibilities are simply endless!
So take a good, hard look at your calendar and allow the possibilities to form in your mind. Find creative, fun, or interesting ways to pair your content with your skills. If it’s a listening skill, can you have students listen to an audio recording of someone talking about trench foot (always a favorite topic for my sophomores)? If it’s skill related to sequencing events, can you have your students create an Instagram timeline of major events in your unit? If it’s a writing skill, could your students pretend they’re witnessing the Reign of Terror and describe what they see? If it’s a life skill like personal finance, could your students engage in research and plan out their future budget?
As I said, there’s no limit to what interesting lessons you can create when you brainstorm the content paired with the skills. For each day in your unit, go through this process of thinking through the options you have. Then fill in your calendar with concrete lessons or ideas for lessons. This will save you so much time when you’re actually teaching the unit because you’ve already ensured that learning will happen through the previous two calendaring exercises and now you can reduce the decisions your future self will need to make.
So friend, as you continue in your process, here are a few of my favorite ideas and lessons to help get your creative juices flowing:
- Use interesting projects that cover multiple topics and use several different skills while spanning a week or two of your unit. My favorite projects: Shark Tank for Econ & Cold War “March Madness” for World History.
- Have students dig into research in the topics of their choice. You can even have them complete a writing assignment at the end. My favorite research assignments: GDP & the Standard of Living for Econ & Holocaust Inquiry Project for World History.
- Incorporate social media, memes, or other activities that students recognize and already enjoy.
- Ask students to debate an interesting topic. Key word: interesting. That’s how you get the buy in. My favorite debate: Minimum Wage Debate for Econ.
- Allow students to listen to a historical podcast or audio recording. I love the podcast Presidential and have my US History students answer critical thinking questions while they listen.
- Utilize technology like a QR Code Scavenger Hunt or a review game like Kahoot or Quizziz. My favorite Econ final review: QR Codes.
- Reinforce the foundational principles of a government or economy through end of the world style activities that require critical thinking. My favorite end of the world activity: Zombie Apocalypse Economy.
- Conduct Socratic Seminars based on a text or research question. Students will practice source analysis, listening, and speaking skills all in one fell swoop. My favorite Econ Socratic Seminar materials here.
- Let your students get creative as they make their own videos. These videos can be on a plethora of topics and in a variety of styles, but my favorite is when my students research and then become an entrepreneur in their own videos.
- Forget the magazines and have your students create a digital collage related to your topic using photos they have taken. My favorite collages: Progressive Era Photo Collage for US History & Consumerism Photo Collage for Econ.
Honestly, this is barely scratching the surface of all the possibilities for your classroom. But always come back to this question “how could I make this more fun or relevant or interesting to a teenager?” And have fun with it. That’s the best way I know to ensure your students will enjoy your lessons too.