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Planning Your Social Studies Unit Part Four: Planning Content

It’s time for my favorite part: the content. Because what social studies teacher doesn’t love nerding out about history and economics with their students?! It’s my favorite and I’m still fired up about most topics 5 years in. In fact, I think the depth of my understanding of both subjects has deepened, matured, and allowed me to challenge my students even more over time. It’s a beautiful thing.

Anyways, my goal today is to help you map out your content in an easy to follow unit plan. Be sure to check out the process for unit planning I shared in Part Two, as well as the skills implementation I walked you through in Part Three.

Step One: Start with the Standards

Because it’s kind of your job, right? We’ve got to teach what the state dictates. In California, we’ve got some oooooold content standards and zero standardized tests for social studies (at the secondary level) so I do have quite a bit of freedom. And yet I use the content standards as a guideline to ensure my students are learning the same material as other students throughout the state (plus some bonus fun stuff I throw in there for good measure). So read through the state standards. Map out how long each unit should be and what overarching topics you’ll cover in each unit. It’s important to do this early on in the semester to ensure you can cover everything. Then we can zero in on a specific unit.

Step Two: Go Beyond the Textbook

As I said the standards are a good place to start and your textbook is likely aligned with the state standards (if it’s not too outdated…). Now within the unit you’re covering, list out all of the content you need to cover according to the standards AND all the content you learned in college or through research or professional development that you’d love to add in. It’s all important so list it out in chronological order (because that’s what historians do). For example, in my World War I unit, I’m going to include on my list: MAIN causes of the war, assassination of Franz Ferdinand (which I spend a ton of time on because the students find the story fascinating), Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia, the Russian Revolution, etc. So now you have all the things you really want to cover. I love adding in videos, fun facts, crazy stories, and weird moments to spice up my lessons.

Step Three: Essential Questions

Oh my gosh this step is so important! Essential questions are the big, interesting, often open ended historical questions that make learning targeted and interesting. I like to create an essential question for the unit and then make daily essential questions that act as guideposts for students to figure out what they need to learn and why it matters. This is one of my big overarching EQs for my WWI unit: “Is Germany to blame for the start of WWI?” The Allied Powers certainly thought so yet I challenge my students to create their own arguments and opinions- this becomes the prompt for our DBQ essay at the end of the semester.  On the day to day, students read the EQ at the start of class and we often answer the question by the end of class.

Backwards Plan

Yep, just like we did with skills we must also backwards plan our content. It starts with EQs. What do you really want your students to learn? What’s the end result of this unit? What will students know or understand- and how will they demonstrate their knowledge? All of this goes into the framing of your unit plan. Start with the end result: the summative assessment. In fact it helps to make that assessment ahead of time so you can emphasize what’s important to students throughout the unit. Then work backwards- what’s the last piece of content (probably chronologically) that they need to know before the assessment? On your unit plan work backwards in this manner using the list you created in Step Two and the Essential Questions you made in Step Three. Make sure you’re spending more time on topics that are a bigger deal for the assessment.

With these steps, you’ll be able to create a cohesive unit plan that allows you and your students to understand what’s being learned and where the unit is heading.

Best of luck to you friend as you do the hard work now to save yourself stress later. See you next week with Part Five: Putting Skills & Content Together!

With love,

Mrs. P

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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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Planning Your Social Studies Unit Part Two: The Process

So you read my last blog, you’re all set with your cup of tea, and you’re more than ready to knock this whole “unit plan” thing out the park. But where to start?

Isn’t it interesting that out of all the things they could teach us in our credential programs, practical, helpful things like unit planning are often minimized if they’re even taught at all? Like seriously, if you need to know how to make a foldable, I’ve got you covered. We made so. many. foldables. But, like, I didn’t know how to build skills and content into a cohesive unit plan that set myself and my students up for success…

I digress.

The point is that I want to walk you through my process today. In the coming weeks, we’ll cover skill building, content building, and adding in creativity and projects, but today I want to give you a few practical steps to get you started so you have a bird’s eye view of the process before we get into the nitty gritty.

Alright, here’s my process. Now remember that there’s no “right” way to go about this. It’s just the process I’ve refined over time.

  1. Grab a paper and pencil. Draw or print out a month long or 6-week long calendar, depending on how long you want your unit to be. Mine last about 6-8 weeks for a longer one and 4 weeks for a shorter one. I usually draw my calendar with sharpie and fill in the daily information with pencil (because we all know I’m not going to get it perfect the first time I write it).
  2. Pull out your school’s calendar and make sure you block off any breaks or in-service days. Write in any special schedules or school events so that everything is in one place and you can tell at a glance what’s going on during the unit besides your lessons (this also helps with workload planning so that you don’t give your students a major test on a rally day).
  3. Now, look at your content standards for the unit (I’ll go more in depth with this in a future post). Break the content standards down into daily pieces of content. Write the pieces of content in pencil on your calendar and map out what topics will be taught on which days. End the unit with a project, test, or other summative assessment- and write it into your calendar. If you don’t know what the project or test will look like yet, that’s fine! Just write “assessment” or “project” for now.
  4. Next, check out the skills standards for your state. Mine are the Common Core standards (again, more on this in a future post). Decide which skill(s) you’d like to focus on building for this unit. For example, my second unit in World History is focused on document analysis and DBQ essay writing skills. Decide when the major skills assessment will take place and mark it on your calendar. Maybe it’s an essay or a Socratic Seminar. Note on your calendar how often you’d like to work on building this skill. For example, you might have students practice analyzing documents once a week leading up to a DBQ essay. Write all these ideas into your calendar.
  5. Use Planbook. I’m not even an affiliate (yet!). I just love Planbook. It’s cheap for a yearly subscription and you can plug your unit plan into it. You can edit it, copy lessons from year to year, add school events or special schedules. It’s the best. And it’s where I put all my unit plans once I’m done planning them.

Now, I realize that you might want more hands on information about how to actually plan for content and skills. No worries- that’s coming in the next two blog posts in February. But get started today! Be willing to fail. Teaching is all a grand experiment anyways and we’re all just refining, reflecting, and learning over time. You certainly can’t be perfect the first time. But you can start with small steps that can make an incredible difference in your life and in your students’ lives.

Stay tuned and keep your head up. You’re doing an incredible job 🙂

With love,

Mrs. P

P.S. Part Three here.

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Planning Your Social Studies Unit Part One: Getting Started

There I was sitting in my classroom at 6pm recovering from the whirlwind of my first day of school as a brand new teacher. I was tired, overwhelmed, and had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I especially had no idea what I was going to teach the next day. I had spent so much time planning that first lesson that I was left cobbling together something for the next day at 6pm on a school night.

Now the idea of me working at school at 6pm for anything other than graduation or back-to-school night is laughable. I simply don’t work that late anymore. But my first year of teaching? Yeah, I was working until 8pm minimum every weeknight and putting in about 10-15 hours on the weekends. I had no social life. I was more engaged to my computer than to my fiance. And thank God my parents were cooking for me because I probably would’ve gone broke eating out every night otherwise. Rough times.

But looking back, the reason lesson planning and grading sucked away all my time (and my soul) was because I had no idea what I was doing. And what’s more- I was a perfectionist. I was truly dissatisfied with free resources I found online. I made most things from scratch and adapted some resources from my coworkers (who, thank the Lord, are very generous, kind people). And it would take me hours to create each lesson. I was so focused on just surviving to the next day that I couldn’t even fathom a unit plan.

That’s where Dennis came in. He was assigned to me as my BTSA mentor. (If you’re not familiar, in California teachers have to complete a program called BTSA their first two years of teaching to clear their credential. It’s about as fun as it sounds. At least I got Dennis out of the deal.) Dennis was awesome. He sat me down and helped me learn how to see the big picture and plan entire units. It was amazing.

To have content and skills on the calendar every day for a month and a half took the guesswork out of what I would teach the next day. And it gave me a sense of where I was going, and what my students actually needed to learn. And most of all, it helped my students learn better. Because, for once, I had direction.

Creating unit plans is vital to being successful as a teacher. Before I had unit plans, I would just realize one day halfway through October that my students should probably write an essay. But with unit plans, you can break down what skills and content need to be taught and then plug those into a timeline. Students will build on skills throughout the unit instead of at random. And you’ll have the ability to know what’s coming up and get ahead on lesson planning. In my opinion, unit plans are sorely underestimated.

Instead of getting overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated, grab a warm cup of tea, pull out some binder paper, and get ready to work. You work hard short term and it’ll save you in the day to day. After all, teaching is hard enough without the added stresses of the unknown.

So, my friend, stick with me this month as I cover the “hows” of creating effective unit plans. It’s life changing stuff.

See you next week.

With love,

Mrs. P

P.S. If you’re looking to get more organized or be more productive so that you can finally stop taking work home, check out this free video I made.

P.S.S. Part Two in this series is here.

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Bring on the Experts! (Personal Finance Series Pt. 5)

Today’s the final push. The last encouragement. I hope by this point you feel far more equipped to teach personal finance in your economics classroom. With the tools I’ve mentioned in my past two blogs and a dose of inspiration, I know you can make an incredible impact in your students’ lives. Financial literacy is so, so important.

But you know what? There are topics you probably don’t know and don’t really care to learn. For me, this is taxes. I’m TurboTax all the way. Honestly, the last thing I want to do is spend time learning the ins and outs of doing my own taxes.

And yet, students probably need someone to walk them through that process. And that’s where the experts come in! So if you have a topic or two you’re truly just not willing to learn, I’ve got a few suggestions to help you out. I supplement my Personal Finance Project with the resources below.

  1. Experts. Every semester, I bring in young accountants from a local (major) tax firm. They volunteer their time to teach my students the basics of taxes and all the forms involved. They have their own curriculum and handouts. It’s a beautiful thing. And it’s free!
  2. Speakers. Maybe you have a friend or coworker who’s not technically an expert, but generally knows a lot about one of the topics you need to cover. Perfect! Bring ’em in!
  3. Video Tutorials. Youtube is a beautiful thing. There are so many resources there for personal finance. There are explanations of how to finance a car, take out a mortgage, do your taxes, etc. Find a video that means the needs of your students and bam! You’re covered.
  4. Documentaries. I love using the documentary In Debt We Trust which is a bit outdated, but it’s on Youtube and it has excellent information on the cycle of credit card debt. It goes over how young students are often targeted by credit card companies and end up in massive consumer debt before they graduate. It’s a good one to pause and discuss as you go.

Most of all, I’d just encourage you to admit when you don’t know something. It’s better to say “I don’t know” than to give students incorrect information. I learned this the hard way my first year of teaching personal finance. It’s okay not to know. You’re still a good teacher. And what you’re doing is not only important but potentially life changing.

If you want to check out my other blog posts in this series, click here: Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4

I can’t wait for you to implement your personal finance units. I know you’ll be great.

With love,

Mrs. P

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How to Teach Financial Literacy in the Economics Classroom Pt. 2 (Personal Finance Series Pt. 4)

The first time I taught Economics (5 years ago, wow!), I was living at home saving up for my wedding. I had an abundance of student loans and so did my husband-to-be, who was just finishing up grad school. I knew nothing about mortgages, retirement, health insurance, or the wonder of meal delivery services. But I knew all about saving money for a big future expenses, being thrifty with my spending, and, of course, student loans.

So I told my students what I knew. It wasn’t fancy. I just did a Q & A session about my areas of expertise. I even told my students that I didn’t know much about those other topics. And you know what? They still learned. They asked really good questions and we researched the answers to questions I didn’t know as a class.

Here’s what I learned: you don’t have to be an expert in everything to help students. You just need to share what you know, have an open heart, and be honest when you’re not sure.

Last week, I gave ya’ll (can Californians say “ya’ll”? real question.) 4 nitty gritty steps towards implementing personal finance lessons in the Economics secondary classroom. Today, I’m going to give you some guidelines for creating mini-lessons to supplement your students’ personal finance projects or lessons. Check out my personal finance project here if you’d like an organized, engaging, research-based project laid out for you. I also want to encourage you to add your own flair to any project or lesson you implement!

Implementing Mini Lessons

Last week I laid out the steps for creating your personal finance project and/or lessons so let’s fast forward to adding in mini lessons! I use these periodically throughout the semester to give students more insight into certain topics they’re researching for their project that week. These can be simple or they can be detailed and structured. Mini lessons are 20-30 minute bonus lessons you give on certain topics before students start researching or working on their projects/budgets.

Here are some super low prep mini lesson formats that I like:

  • Simple Q & A: You can write a topic like “housing” on the board and have students simply raise their hands to ask any questions they have about that topic. To get their minds thinking, you can have them write questions on post-its and then you can answer those questions in front of the class.
  • Think Alouds: This is a new concept to me that was part of PD at my school this year (yes, we actually have quality PD, thank the Lord Jesus). Basically you verbalize how you go about doing something to students so hey can learn how experts think. So I plug my laptop into the projector, open a browser, and show students how I go about searching for housing. I verbalize my thought process and why some houses/apartments are desirable over others. I explain how “internet access” is different from “free wifi” because you wouldn’t really know that as a naive teenager. Students can ask questions along the way.
  • Before & Afters: I show my students my first budget (in percentages, not real numbers, obviously). Things being as they were, I didn’t have a budget until my first year of teaching. I made A LOT of mistakes and students often giggle at my first attempt at a budget. Then I show them my updated budget (percentages) and we discuss the changes and how these changes helped me pay back loans.

Adding Your Own Flair

Something I really want to emphasize here is that you don’t have to be an expert in everything. It’s okay to give some topics more attention than others. For example, I spend quite a bit of class time talking about repaying student loans and living a minimalist lifestyle while in debt. This is my personal experience and I’m passionate about helping my students see that they can be hopeful about their future finances. I also teach a population of college-bound, low income students so these lessons might not apply to your students. So find out what they need, what you’ve learned, and what you care about. Bring that information into your classroom.

And most of all, be genuine. Be passionate. Be clear. Removing the mist from students’ eyes regarding personal finance can be life-changing and encouraging for them. Don’t make it a boring experience- show them that finances has everything to do with their future. So be your normal engaging teacher self and let personal finance become an area of genuine interest for your students.

Stay tuned for next week’s post, which will cover how get the help you need when it comes to the personal finance topics you know nothing about!

If you missed my last blogs in the series check them out here: Pt 1, Pt. 2, Pt.3

With love,

Mrs. P

P.S. Part 5 here.

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How to Teach Financial Literacy in the Economics Classroom Pt. 1 (Personal Finance Series Pt. 3)

Nobody ever taught me how to make a budget. Sure, I picked up tips and tricks from my family and friends over time. But nobody ever sat me down to explain how to manage my finances and what my budget should look like. As a result, I lived in fear of money for most of college and even my early adulthood. I was afraid of running out of money or borrowing too much (student loans, ugh!) so I basically tried to rarely spend any money (even though those loan payments hit my account every quarter). I wasn’t generous. I never wanted to go out to eat. I was coming from a place of scarcity.

And you know what I learned? That when you don’t spend money, you end up with a lot of money in your checking account. I learned how to live cheaply, simply, minimalistically (is that a word?) throughout college when I had no income.

You know what else I learned? When you have no idea what you’re doing and you’re borrowing money you’ll end up taking out the wrong kinds of loans. I signed up for student loans during the worst interest rates for the type of loans I had in recent history. My interest rates ranged from 6-9%. I wish I were kidding. By the time I graduated, the amount of money I owed was way, way more than I had taken out in loans. This was scary.

And yet- I consider this valuable learning. Don’t get me wrong, I messed up big time. Yet less than 5 years out of college, my husband and I are debt free. And our mistakes and our fumbling through learning how to make and maintain a budget are exactly what make me qualified to teach personal finance. It’s not that I’m an expert, it’s that I learned the hard way.

So today, as we get into the first part of the nitty gritty of planning to teach personal finance, think about what you already know. What have you learned the hard way? Because these learning experiences can become valuable mini lessons as you teach personal finance in the Economics classroom. Being honest with your students about where you messed up and where you had success helps them see this process as a journey- and gives them hope that they too can recover from bad financial decisions (or hopefully avoid making them in the first place). And if you don’t know much…well, that’s what Google is for!

So as you start to plan your personal finance unit (or use my project), here are some practical, hands on tips! Next week I’ll be back with even more so stay tuned!

Step One: Decide what you want the project to look like. Is it going to be an entire unit of study where you cover a topic in class every day and students learn how to budget in a short period of time? Will you (like me) sprinkle topics and mini lessons throughout the semester so that students mostly complete the research/project at home or in smaller chunks of class time?

Step Two: Organize your topics. What will you cover? Do a little research and decide what your students will learn. I have my students start with finding their post-college job and then researching the college they want to go to so they can calculate student debt estimates. Mine is a college prep school so maybe the college research won’t apply to you. Then my students interview their parents for financial wisdom. Then as the semester unfolds we cover these topics in this order: housing, food, transportation, utilities/insurance/health/bills, clothing/entertainment/shopping, debt, investment/charity/gifts/savings which all culminate into a final budget.

Step Three: Decide how students will learn the information. Will they primarily do research (that’s what I do!)? Will you deliver mini-lessons on each topic? Will you, like me, mostly have them research but also include mini lessons on topics you’re an expert in? For my classroom, I add in mini lessons on finding housing, grocery shopping, and repaying debt. I spend a lot of time teaching about credit vs. debit cards and which student loans have the lowest interest rates. I even take my students step by step through my budgeting journey and how exactly I tackled my student debt. Many students tell me this was the most useful information. You know why? It’s my personal experience- and that’s powerful to young adults.

Step Four: Implement it! Just go for it! There’s no reason to wait or doubt yourself. After all, it’s vital information your students need.

Stay tuned for next week’s post, which will cover how to create mini lessons and add your own flair!

If you missed my last blogs in the series check them out here: Part One & Part Two.

With love,

Mrs. P

P.S. Part Four here.