EDISON, NJ - When children are asked to explain what they learn in Social Studies, they typically reply with a memorized fact or event.  But how might students’ responses differ if they engaged in deep analytical historical studies that explored complex, multiple perspectives within significant historical time periods and events? What if children could own their learning, make meaningful personal connections, and lead the charge with teaching their peers? At Washington School, breathing life into the Social Studies units of study has transformed how students view history and culture.

When third graders first learned that they would each take on the role of “Cultural Ambassador” to educate their peers about their cultures, the enthusiasm was palpable. Not only were they eager to share their own heritage, but they were curious and intrigued to learn about the rich cultures of their peers.

This multi-dimensional project took weeks of thorough preparations. Students engaged in extensive research on their chromebooks, created informative brochures utilizing non-fiction text and graphic organizational features, composed Google Slideshow Presentations, and wrote oral presentations to accompany these slideshows.

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All these efforts led up to a culminating Cultural Day, and third grade Cultural Ambassadors were ready for show time! Nearly a hundred parents joined the audience to tour incredible international displays and hear finely-polished presentations. Explaining their family’s traditions, displaying the types of cultural clothing they wear, and teaching phrases in their language, the children were all able to showcase interesting facets of their culture. Captivated audiences learned about countries from nearly every continent, from Mexico, to Pakistan, Kenya, Poland, and so many others.

For many children, the best part came after the presentations: a delicious sampling of cultural foods, generously provided by our parents! The feast of biryani rice from India, rice pudding from Cuba, baked ziti from Italy, and many more, provided a multi-cultural “cocktail hour” like no other! “Now THIS is my favorite part!” commented a third grader, munching on a samosa.

Meanwhile, Washington’s fifth grade transformation of the Social Studies American Revolution unit began with a single question from a student: “I wonder how old King George felt about that?” From there, other children chimed in on the conversation with their own speculations about various perspectives surrounding this pivotal moment in America’s history. They began sharing their own wonderings about how historical figures and groups from various walks of life must have felt about the same event. That’s when it became clear that the students’ natural curiosities would inspire and guide the entire study of the American Revolution! Based upon their interests, students then joined the Patriots, Loyalists, and Neutralists.

To begin, the students each created their own character who would live before, during, and after the American Revolution. Their jobs were to create a character journal of these men, women, and children as if they were experiencing the events as they happened; to see history through another person’s eyes. Meanwhile, in writing, the children were tasked with choosing a historical figure from that same time period. They researched and discovered this figure’s role in American History, focusing upon the independence of our great nation and how each individual made an impact on the course of events. But, this was not an ordinary biography: each student created a scrapbook from their integral person’s point-of-view, highlighting the major events in their lives, as well as their significant contributions to the American Revolution.  

Viewing the research through the lens of their character unlocked rich inferences and deeper analysis about how the events leading up to, during, and after the American Revolution uniquely impacted each of these three groups of people as well as their chosen historical figure. 

Each day, as students studied the unfolding events, each group would share their follow-up journal entry for the day, giving them an opportunity to fine-tune their oral fluency and public speaking skills, while providing unique vantage points of each event for their peer audience. In addition, students’ auditory comprehension and analytic discussion skills were honed, as they listened and responded to one another with genuine interest and, at times, concern for the character’s well-being during the tumultuous periods of the revolution.  

For the Grade 5 culminating activity, a Revolutionary Fair, history literally came to life. The students dressed up as their biographical characters and shared their timelines through scrapbook and Google Slideshow Presentations with parent and peer audiences. In addition, the children shared Colonial Newspapers which they had created with Google Docs. The headlines and advertisements were historically accurate and engaging, captivating the attention and interest of all students. These activities empowered each child to understand, and teach others about, history on a very personal level.    

Undoubtedly, if you were to now ask a Washington School student to explain what they have learned in Social Studies, be prepared to have a seat and enjoy a lengthy, exciting description.