3 Tips to Make Social Studies Hands-On

Social studies activities and resources to make teaching social studies fun!    Good Afternoon, from Vestal's 21st Century Classroom! I’m Meghan Vestal and I am excited to have the privilege of being one of the newest bloggers for Virginia is for Teachers! I have about six years of experience as an educator in Virginia. I have taught 4th and 5th grades in Charlottesville and Lynchburg. I also spent two years as the Education Director for Amazement Square Children’s Museum (if you took a field trip there between 2012-2014, we may have met!). With a minor in social studies and a master’s degree in Public Policy, I am passionate about creating social studies activities that get students excited about history. For my first post, I would like to share just a few ways I have made social studies a favorite subject for almost every student I have taught.

As a classroom teacher, I have sat in on a lot of IEP meetings. I can’t recall the details of most of these meetings, but there is one from about a year ago that I cannot get out of my head. As I listened to the special education teacher explain the student’s grades, it was difficult for me to not say anything when she told the parents the student was failing Virginia Studies because it was not possible to make social studies hands-on or fun. This is a comment I frequently hear teachers make and, as a lover of all things history and government, I find this statement to be appalling. People love to watch action, drama, and romance on the big screen. So, how can the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional conventions, or the affairs of multiple U.S. presidents be boring!? A few years ago, I received the most meaningful letter I have ever received from a student. In it, the student said he always thought social studies was boring but, after being in my class, it had become his favorite subject because he learned it could be fun. I want to hear more students saying those words and here are a few ways I have made it happen in my class.

1.  Experience New Places Without Leaving Your Classroom

I don’t think there is anything more fun or hands-on to teach than geography! To start, throw out the traditional construction paper and markers and get creative with map making! Most teachers have play dough somewhere in their classroom and I have found this to be one of the best geography tools. When my students are studying the regions of Virginia, they use play dough to construct 3D maps. After the playdough dries, the students add major rivers with glitter glue and label major cities with markers. Many students have told me this is one of their favorite activities from the entire school year. 

Another fun geography activity, that incorporates career readiness skills, is having the students become tourism directors for whatever location they are learning about. When studying the products and industries of Virginia, I put my students in groups and they must develop a marketing campaign for Virginia that incorporates information about all 5 regions. Students must create a slogan, a brochure, and film a commercial showcasing the 5 regions.

In addition to hands-on activities, there are free digital resources available that make it easy for students to learn about new places, even if they cannot actually visit those places. Google Earth is one of my student’s favorite resources. This is a free download that works great on an iPad or computer.  When we are studying historical sites, such as Monticello or Appomattox Court House, my students actually get to visit these places by finding the location on a digital map and then zooming in to examine actual street views of site.  e have also been able to travel across the entire state of Virginia, with an eye level view, to see how the terrain changes from east to west. 

Social studies activities and resources to make teaching social studies fun!

2.  Throw Out the Textbook and Make Everything Project Based 

I hear a lot of students say social studies is their least favorite subject because it is boring.  I think that is because they have come to associate social studies with reading a textbook and then filling out a worksheet. Granted, there is a certain degree of reading and comprehension needed to ensure students are getting all the information, but it is possible to do something creative with those facts! 

In my classroom, social studies is always taught using project-based learning and students are expected to complete a project before each unit test. Above, I shared the tourism project students create during the unit on Virginia’s regions. Another popular project my students have completed is creating board games with an objective to get the settlers safely from England to Jamestown. We then keep these games in the classroom throughout the year for students to play during indoor recess. 

Project based learning also leaves LOTS of room for critical thinking. For example, when learning about the Civil War, I put the students into groups and have them pull from a hat whether they will represent the north or the south. The groups then have to research the reasons why their side wanted to go to war and use this information to create a poster that might have been used during the time period, convincing others to join their cause. Initially, this was a challenging concept for the students who selected the south. But, I made sure to remind them that part of history is understanding the mindset of various individuals, even individuals who have done horrible things. As the famous saying goes, “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”  I have included some links to some of my project based units at the conclusion of this post. 

Social studies review can also be hands-on using escape rooms. Escape rooms require students to solve a series of challenges and puzzles to reveal hidden information and unlock secret codes. Creating a classroom escape room does not have to be complicated or expensive. You can learn more about creating easy, inexpensive social studies escape rooms by reading my blog post "Create the Perfect Classroom Escape Room."

3.  Make Memorizing Facts Fun

Teachers frequently use sayings and songs to help students remember a lot of information at once but there are a few things to keep in mind if it is truly going to be successful. First, when it comes to sayings, students are more likely to remember sayings that are silly or random. My students use sayings like “James York Reads Poorly” to remember important rivers in Virginia and the popular phrase “Never Taste Ketchup With Mustard” to remember the states surrounding Virginia. These sayings don’t necessarily have anything to do with what is being taught but the kids think these are funny so the information sticks.

Next, music is one of the best ways to help students remember information but it must be done properly for the students to really buy into it. Most importantly, make sure it is music the students enjoy! A few years ago, I had a class of 4th graders who loved Maroon 5. So, I wrote a song about the products and industries of Virginia to the tune of Maroon 5’s song "Misery." The students couldn’t get enough of it! We sang it all the time and I even had to ask some students to hum softer when they were taking the unit test. A colleague saw how successful this was and tried to replicate it in her 3rd grade class. She wrote a song comparing Greece and Rome to the tune of "Good Riddance" by Green Day. A few days later, she came to me and asked why the kids weren’t getting into it. I like Green Day as much as the next girl who grew up in the 90s, but 3rd graders today don’t have a clue what Green Day is. My colleague rewrote her song to the tune of a Selena Gomez song and it was a success! The students just needed something they could relate to.  

Virginia's Products & Industries Song

I hope I’ve sparked a few ideas to spice up your social studies class! If you are looking for some pre-made, hands-on social studies units, be sure to check these out that appear in my store. Click on each of the images to learn more about the resource. And if you are looking for more resources and information about social studies, make sure to sign up for my newsletter! I often feature information about making social studies hands-on and fun. When you sign up, you will also be able to download by Ultimate Guide on How to Effectively Use Technology to Teach for FREE!

 Virginia Regions Unit       Virginia Studies Bundle- Entire Year! {PDF & Digital Included}

Virginia Studies Task Card Bundle

Next month, find out how to take students on a field trip to a local museum or historical site even if you have a tight budget (or no budget at all). I will be sharing a post with places throughout Virginia that offer free and discounted field trips and/or classroom outreach programs at a significantly discounted price.   


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