I Used to Have my Student Take Notes – I Don’t Anymore – My Class is Better as a Result

As a Social Studies teacher, I’m obsessed with having my students think critically about the topic of History. Still, it’s difficult to have students think critically without some background knowledge. Therefore, I’ve taken on the task of making sure that my students gain background knowledge with a variety of activities and tasks. It has been a process for me to develop those strategies. I thought I might share some of those strategies here to inspire you to think about the classroom experience for your students.

I’ve been teaching for 15 years. For my first 10 years of teaching, the majority of class time I spent lecturing and presenting guided notes to my students. I had typed up and outlined most of the information that my students were required to know. Through the class period, I would explain the information with stories and the students will fill in the blanks on their guided notes. At the end of each unit, the students would be presented with a list of terms. They would take the guided notes, write a definition, and draw a picture for the definition.

Over my first 10 years of teaching, I became better and better at telling a good story. I learned more details about the historical topics I was teaching, and my jokes became more refined. Still, I found this process exhausting, and despite my enthusiasm, I could tell that my students were bored. Heck, I was bored with myself! Telling the same story year after year made me lose interest in my profession. I also felt like I was trivializing history. The students merely memorized the major facts presented in the notes and then regurgitated those on tests. This was not what I wanted to be as a teacher, and this was not how I wanted my students to see History.

About 5 years ago, I decided that something needed to change. At first, I really wasn’t sure how I wanted to change my classroom. I tried some new lessons and teaching techniques that simply didn’t work. My daily class was more hectic and random for a while as I figured out a new system for myself. My lovely, compliant students went along with whatever I tried and gave me feedback when they were confused by an idea. Meanwhile, my state (NY) decided to change the teaching standards, the C3framework came about, and so did Common Core. I also switched to standards based grading. Although the past five years were tumultuous at times, I’ve come out of this process feeling like a revived and much more innovative teacher. The classroom experience for my students has been much better as a result.

While my class is still in a little bit of flux (which I think is a good thing), I’ve gradually developed a set of principles which guide my new style of teaching. The biggest change involves how my students gain access to new content knowledge.

The guided notes have been thrown out, and fill-in-the-blank is not something my students will see. I do lecture occasionally, but I went through the year and picked out my most interesting lectures or the ones that I felt were the most conceptually difficult for my students. I only lectured about 5 days last year. When I did so, I gave my students the full page of notes and as I went through the topic, they annotated in the margins. This way, they were listening more closely to the lecture. They weren’t waiting for the new fill-in-the-blank word to appear on the screen. This year I’m going to try doodle notes, to see if they improve focus even more.

Since I no longer lecture 3 times a week, a bunch of space has appeared in my teaching schedule. I still have a ton of information to convey to students, but I’ve had to figure out ways to have them learn that information without presenting it to them directly. Here are some of the techniques I’ve devised.

  1. Historical Backgrounds – This is probably the easiest way I present information. I’ve written short reading passages about various topics. By writing my own, I’ve been able to hone in on exactly what I want my students to know. I’ve divided the text into sections, and then I’ve had the students read the text with a partner. There is a question for each section that the students answer, or I have them write a summarizing sentence. If my students read in class, I’ll have them read a section, answer a question, and then rotate partners. I like using historical backgrounds if I’m going to have students complete an activity that requires some baseline knowledge.
  2. Videos with Questions – Yes, this can also be a pretty basic process. Still, there are some great videos out there for U.S. History. I’m personally attached to “docu-dramas.” These videos have some acting and some discussion from historians. As the students watch the video, I’ll hand out a page of questions for students to answer. I try to make sure that my questions aren’t just factual. For instance, we watch a documentary discussing Andrew Jackson and his actions as a president. I’ll have the students watch a particular section, and then pause the video. They’ll describe the action, and then I have them come up with adjectives to describe Jackson in that moment. What did Jackson’s duel tell us about his character? The students will brainstorm adjectives like impulsive, angry or passionate.
  3. Mini- Skits – These I love! I’ve only created a few, but it’s on my agenda this year to add more to my schedule. For my skits, I usually focus on information that the students might find dry. I then research that what was actually said, and what actually happened at the event. I have a seventh-grade sense of humor, so I lay out a simple plot, and then add some seventh grader style jokes. The skits are never not fun.
  4. Primary Source Stations – I’ve previously written about how I encourage students to analyze primary sources. Sometimes information is easily conveyed through primary sources. I shouldn’t be the person explaining to students what slave life was like. The voices of actual slaves can do that for me. I curate a bunch of primary sources and then set up stations around the classroom. This always proves to be much more compelling to students than my voice.
  5. Simulations – My last major activity to help students gain background knowledge is a simulation. Simulations can take on a variety of forms. I love immersing students within the history by having students become a historical character. Events may be relayed to them, and then the focus is on their reaction as the character. Instead of telling students about the “rebel yell” during the Civil War, have them practice a rebel yell. As middle school students are naturally self-centered, they love the idea that their response to an event is what matters.

Obviously, content knowledge is only the first step. As stated previously, my true goal is to have my students think critically about History, and then ultimately write about History. I’ll save that discussion for another blog post.

How do you help your students to gain content knowledge?  Join the discussion in the comments below. 





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