Archive for the ‘social studies’ Tag

Cowboys – A History Lab

Children just don’t see a lot of westerns, and when I taught about cowboys last year it was an uphill battle. This year I decided to do a “Cowboy Lab” – a hands-on experiential activity.

There will be three stations, where students will spend 15 -20 minutes.

Station 1: Roping and Vittles

This is a two-in-one. For half of the time, students will be practicing how to use a lasso (with a chair as the target) and for half the time they will be sampling cowboy vittles – chili, beef jerky, and trail mix. I sent home a letter asking for donations and was overwhelmed with my parents’ generosity.
Station 2: Cattle Drive Creation

Students will have play dough and an assortment of plastic figuriness
Station 3: Make a Western

So Far from the Sea – a picture book lesson

So Far from the Sea, by Eve Bunting is a beautiful, informative, and poignant picture book that tells the story of a family going to visit the grave of their grandfather, who died at the Manzanar Relocation Center during World War II. Chris Soentpiet is the illustrator, and just like in Coolies, his drawings convey a wealth of historical information. Historically, the basics of the whys and hows of the Japanese internment are explained in this story.

I used the sketch to stretch strategy with my students, as they love to draw and the pauses allowed me to step out of the story to provide additional historical background or discuss an illustration in more detail.

Other lesson plans for So Far From the Sea:

Response Cards – An Active Learning Strategy

A teacher asks a question, calls on a student, and gets an answer. Students who aren’t called on are disappointed, and students who didn’t raise their hands are relieved.

Response cards are an easy, inexpensive way for all students to answer every question in a low-risk way! Response cards are a piece of paper, or index card with responses written on it. Students hold them in front of them with their fingers on the answer. You can quickly scan the class to check their understanding.

They can be student or teacher made, the one criteria is that answers must be written on the front and back of the card. That way the student is looking at the answer they are showing you.

Types of Response Cards

  • Multiple-Choice Response Cards – A B C D – I use these with Brainpop quizes and as test review. I made them using wordart and laminated them as I use these fairly frequently)
  • This or That cards – good for comparisons – I’ll use these for groups of people or names (Axis Powers/Allies, Patricians/Plebeians, names) these are usually lesson specific and I’ll have the children make them.
  • 🙂 😐 😦  – Happy face – Neutral Face – Sad Face – Good for inferencing/mood in fiction.
  • Yes/No or True/False cards

Response cards are only limited by your imagination. Individual whiteboards also make great response systems without the limitations of “set” answers. A high tech version of response cards are student response systems that connect to an interactive whiteboard. The important thing is to get as many students involved as much of the time as possible!

Fighting in the Trenches – A History Lab

No fifth graders were actually harmed during this simulation 🙂

The goal:

  1. Show my students how trench fighting had waged for years without really gaining significant territory for either side
  2. Help them understand how the U.S. entry into the war tipped the balance of power.

The Set-Up/Materials

  • Two boxes of “ammunition” (50 sheets of balled up black construction paper, 50 sheets of balled up brown construction paper – artillery)
  •  2 balled up sheets of  yellow construction paper (mustard gas)
  • Desks set up in opposing rows, with a “no man’s land” in the center.
  • Trench Warfare Powerpoint
  • Trench Warfare Animation
  • Teacher Costume (optional)


  • Meet students at door in costume. I took on the persona of a trainer giving new troops a primer on trench warfare before being shipped “over there”.
  • I divided them into two teams by counting them off, they “stowed their gear” in the back and took up positions in the trenches.
  • I showed the first part of the Trench Warfare Powerpoint, then explained the rules of the “training exercise”.


  • Recruits are to begin firing as soon as they hear battle sounds and stop when the sounds stop. (Roughly a 1 minute to 2 minutes)
  • There will be two rounds of fighting so ration your ammunition.
  • Artillery only the first round. You may use only your ammunition.
  • If you get hit at all, you’re dead, and you must fall where you are.

Firing commences. (I liked using the sounds from the Trench Warfare Animation) After enough time passes, I cut the sound.

  • Casualty count from each side. Short debrief – how did it feel to be under fire? To “lose” a fellow soldier?
  • Short talk on conditions in the trenches, with or without more slides from the powerpoint. The rat quotes and trenchfoot pictures were a tad intense I felt for my fifth graders – so I just told the edited stories and read a few actual letters from soldiers.
  • I move the “casualties” to the back row for the next round.

Round 2

  • The only new ammunition is the “mustard gas”. I explain that if that gets into your trench it is “game over”.
  • Students play another round when the noise starts.


  • What will happen is that with equal ammunition and equal numbers, most of the “soldiers” will die on both sides, with no side “winning”.
  • This segues into a “what if” – what if you had twice as many soldiers and ammunition? Would there be a winner then?
  • Short talk about how America’s entry into the war gave the Allies superior numbers and led to the Central Powers surrender.

Students then wrote a letter home from the trenches describing their experience while the sound effects blared away in the background. It was a great day in class, and their letters were terrific.

The lesson was based on an idea I had read about in Bring History Alive, and this handout

Special thanks to Mr. Berlin, for his Trench Warfare Powerpoint.

Also invaluable is the Trench Warfare Animation from Class Zone.

Find Someone Who – A Preview/Review Activity

A twitter post reminded me of “Find Someone Who” icebreaker – you know the one where you have a list or bingo-style board of characteristics (hair color,  has moved, has a pet, etc) and you circulate around the room looking for “someone who” fits that characteristic.

If you’ve never participated in this, here is a link with a thorough description.

I love motion activities, and so I’ve adapted it to use for content – either as a preview or review activity.

For a preview activity, make a list of things that relate (however tangentially) to your unit. Allow for the Find Someone Who procedure.

Example for the Middle Ages:

  • FSW has played chess
  • FSW has seen a movie with a knight in it.
  • FSW has ever dressed up as a princess.
  • FSW has been to Medieval Times.
  • FSW thinks sword fighting is cool.
  • FSW can tell you about King Arthur and Camelot
  • FSW has read one of these books: Crispin and the Cross of Lead, Catherine called Birdy, A Door in the Wall

Review games are even easier, because you are dealing with a common body of content.

  • FSW can sketch the Feudal Pyramid
  • FSW can show where the Crusades were fought on a map
  • FSW can list three types of jobs a serf might perform
  • FSW can explain why the Church was so important
  • FSW can define the word “cathedral”

When I do content based Find Someone Who activities, I make sure I circulate so that I can monitor conversations. Students must sign off that they have actually explained, showed, or drawn what was required. If I suspect students are randomly signing, I’ll ask that student to explain, show, or draw for me. If they can’t they must sit down, and do a quiet review activity at their seat.

Trench Warfare Animation – an Interactive Whiteboard Resource

There are some really terrific resources available on the internet, and this is one of them.

The site features a great graphic of trench warfare in action, complete with sound effects. The graphic is clickable, allow viewers to learn more about the scene – trench warfare, no man’s land, machine guns, chemical warfare and dogfights. High interest and informative, without a high “gross” factor.

Trench Warefare Animation

Quiz Quiz Trade – A Review Game

It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s useful.

What you need:

  • A set of questions and answers printed or written out on cards.
  • One card for each student.
  • About five minutes.

You can create the cards, or let students do this, or you can do it yourself using index cards or a table in Word.


  • Teacher announces: Quiz Quiz Trade
  • Students:
  • Find a partner.
  • Student 1 asks Student 2 the question on the card.
  • Student 2 either answers it or says I don’t know. (It is important to the speed of the game that students admit when they don’t know)
  • Student 1 either congratulates Student 2 or goes over the answer.
  • Student 2 then repeats the procedure with Student 1.
  • Student 1 and Student 2 trade cards and find a new partner.
  • I usually let students play Quiz Quiz Trade for about 5 minutes.

They know I will stop the game immediately at the first sign of inappropriate behavior, and since they love it that is enough to keep this activity running smoothly.

When I introduce the game, I have two students come stand at the front of the room, and wallk them through the process I have written out above.  I review “deal-breakers” which for me include: running, refusing to take a question from a classmate, faces made at classmates, anything derogatory or rude, anything that is not class/topic related.

I usually monitor by wandering through the milling crowd with a card. Some students like to ask me the questions, so I always carry a card.

I learned this strategy at a Kagan Cooperative Learning workshop, and if you ever get the opportunity to attend one I highly recommend it!

Title Pages – An Interactive Notebook Assignment

Whenever we start a new unit of instruction, I have my students create a title page to preview the content.

Together, we set up the page and write the title of the unit.  I always draw one on the board and let them know which pages in the book they can choose their pictures from. Pictures can be charts, maps, and actual images. They can be from the students’ imaginations. No stick figures, and they need to have captions.

Before they start drawing, I preview essential question and the the guiding questions from the unit. I lead them through a chapter walk highlighting key events. Then the students choose their pictures and draw them.

It takes a good half-hour of student work to create a solid title page, so I feel that the intro and chapter walk are key in making it a worthwhile activity.


Don’t have a half-hour? Students not big on the drawing thing?

Alternatives to picture gallery title pages:

  • Acrostics – Acrostics of the title can be great title pages.
  • A-Z wordsearches – students scan the chapter/lesson and look for words that start with each of the letters of the alphabet. This activity is based on the Janet Allen strategy:
  • History One-Pager from Mr. Roughton – (although as a title page activity, I would limit this to one period. Students could complete it on a legal size sheet of copy paper and then glue it in, or use a two-page spread.


Clock Partners

This is a partnering strategy that I believe will be the trifecta:

  • everyone pairs with everybody else at some point
  • once practiced, it should be a seemless and easy transition to partners
  • something the students can see as fair – thus limiting complaints

In this strategy, students are given a blank clock face, and asked to “make appointments” with each other to fill up the hours, for up to twelve partners. I say “up to” as some teachers only assign even or odd numbers to make the number of partners more manageable.  Eve Heaton, of Science Notebooking, has posted about this in detail on her blog, along with a nice clock face.

After re-reading her posts, and doing some additional reading on Proteacher and AtoZ Teacherstuff forums I’ve thought through my procedures. I’m going to start doing this in January, and break the process down into steps. If it goes well, I’ll do it next year starting in August. I don’t plan on spending more than 10 minutes per day over three days on the setup and practice.

Day 1:

  • Introduce the idea and “ground rules”
    • If someone asks you to be their buddy, you must say yes. No making faces, no backing away.
    • Walk and talk quietly as you make your appointments.
    • Pass out the clocks, and have them write their name in the middle.
    • Today we will make appointments for 2, 6, and 10 o’clock.
    • These will be partners I have chosen for them. I will review the ground rules of being polite. No making faces or comments.
    • To create these pairs I will rank the students ability-wise in order from highest to lowest. Then I will split this list in half and place them side by side. Since there are three appointments needed, I pair the student at the top of the left column with the first three students on the right, making adjustments as needed.
    • I will make a master spreadsheet of these teacher created pairs and show them on my Promethean board.
    • Procedure for students:
      • Find your 2 o’clock partner and stand back to back.
      • I will check to make sure everyone is responding appropriately and in they are paired correctly, then they can write their partners names in the correct part of the clock.
      • To avoid accidental “overbooking” I’m going to have them color in the space for that hour.
      • Repeat for the other two teacher chosen appointments.
      • Students will glue clocks in to their notebooks.

Day 2

  • Students will pair with their clock partners to answer some review questions from yesterdays lessons. Three questions, one for each appointment we made yesterday.
  • Today we will make three more appointments – 2, 6, and 10 o’clock.
  • Procedure for finding partners:
    • Students will choose a partner of the opposite gender and turn back to back.
    • When I see that everyone has a partner, then they can write their partners names in the correct part of the clock.
    • To avoid accidental “overbooking” I’m going to have them color in the space for that hour.

Day 3

  • Students will answer review questions from yesterday’s lesson by working with their clock partners. 2 questions today, one partner from the first day and one partner from the second day.
  • We will make 3 appointments today at 12, 4, and 8 o’clock. These will be “student choice” partners – they will only be limited to students who are not already on their clocks.
  • Procedure for finding partners:
    • Students will choose a partner and turn back to back.
    • When I see that everyone as a partner, then they can write their partners names in the correct part of the clock.
    • To avoid accidental “overbooking” I’m going to have them color in the space for that hour.

This will leave three open spaces on the clock, but will create 9 pairs. My average class size is eighteen, so I could add a friend for a class of twenty, or take one away for a class of 16. I still control what groups I want them to work in by calling the hour, so it doesn’t matter.

Random thoughts:

  • students whose partner is not there will report to the board and I will assign them to a group.
  • I think I will use a spinning wheel on my promethean board with the clock numbers on it to occasionally choose “hours” to increase the “random” factor.
  • I want to make a concerted effort to use the strategy at least two to three times a week.

Variation on the Clock:

  • Baseball Partners – Diagram of a baseball field, four partners.
  • Ocean/Continent Partners – Outline Map of the world, 7+ partners depending on how many you fill in.
  • Cell phone partners (same principle as clock using the keypad numbers instead of hours)

I would love to hear from you if you successfully use this strategy – please include your tips and tricks or if you know another variation!

The Ball Game – A Motion Strategy

Sometimes the simple things can make the biggest difference.

I use this anytime I feel my kiddos need “waking up” as it generates immediate interest. I keep an inflatable world globe ball by my desk at all times, just in case.

The game couldn’t be simpler. I ask a question, if the student knows the answer then they raise both arms to catch the ball. I throw it, they catch it, and answer the question. They throw it back. Repeat. The kids absolutely love this. If I ask a question that has a list for an answer, we’ll do a “think fast” round. In a “think fast” round I announce the topic (inventions, presidents, etc.) and start the game by throwing the ball to a student. If the student gives a correct answer, they then toss the ball to another student, who then answers.

Any ball will do, but the globes are great for social studies. A teacher friend of mine and fellow blogger uses a numbered soccer ball and pre-written questions. There are also commercially made inflatables with reading comprehension questions for informational texts that  the children also adore.

Here is a link to those on Amazon.

A teacher I work with kicked this up several notches, using a soccer ball and pre-written questions. I asked her to write it up for me, and she was kind enough to write a very descriptive post as a comment. Be sure to scroll down!