Skip to main content


Getting students to ‘own’ their learning

students analyzing slavery documentsHave you ever felt like there is not enough time to teach all the standards? This seems to be a prevalent issue, especially for social studies teachers. As teachers, we want to create opportunities for learning with space for students to use teachers as a resource but yet have the ability to question, research, and find evidence as a basis of their knowledge that meet all the Iowa Core standards. But how do you make this happen so it is not a check off of standards, but rather the development of metacognitive thinkers who know how to share their thinking and work collaboratively? The answer: the power of integration!

When I couple literacy and social studies standards together, it allows students to gain background knowledge and context into topics that pique their interest and meet all the targeted standards at once. Students become actively involved in a topic because they are continually asking questions, researching, drawing conclusions, and guiding me to determine what comes next in the learning experience.

So what does coupling literacy and social studies standards look like? First, consider what you want the kids to know and be able to do by the end of the unit. For example, I want students to analyze historical events and patterns and consider how they relate to each other and their lives today. I pose a broad inquiry question that can be answered in more than one way, but encompasses the essence of becoming a citizen who can analyze evidence and then take action on their findings. An example of an essential/compelling question: How do people overcome hardships? This is broad and can be answered in many ways. For our learning experience, I will be narrowing the hardship focus to encompass slavery through the Civil Rights Movement.

Next, identify Social Studies and ELA Standards in third grade that link together to provide a learning opportunity for students and how I will assess them. In social studies, SS.3-5.H.1: Understand historical patterns, periods of time and the relationships among these elements, will be my main focus. In literacy, it is (RI.3.1) Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers, (RI3.9) Compare and contrast the most important and points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic, and (RI.3.IA.1) Employ the full range of research based comprehension strategies; summarizing. When considering a formative assessment, I chose three aspects for the lesson: a story map because it addresses numerous standards, a close reading passage summary and a comparison of the texts with a Venn diagram and audio recording for explaining their evidence.

Finally, I am ready to plan my lesson(s) to couple the learning in both subjects. Kids naturally ask questions, so I need to choose purposeful complex texts that will allow them to question at a deeper level while considering answers that can be found in the text, but also intrigue kids to research and dig deeper into the social studies topic. When teaching social studies, the events and patterns in history naturally lend themselves to critical thinking, so it is important for me to choose sources that will allow them to see multiple perspectives.

Explicitly teaching children strategies of how to analyze sources is key to their success of citing evidence. In my class, students were asking questions about how slavery ended in the United States. To help answer their questions, I provided images and a KWL chart (graphic organizer) to analyze how slavery began. After analyzing the images, I provided a text set, Slavery, the Civil War & Reconstruction: The Emancipation Proclamation, from to read during our shared reading time. We used the close reading strategy to dig deeper into the text.

Viewing the images, completing the chart, and reading the text set are happening during the literacy block. During the social studies block, I integrated an interactive read aloud, The Wagon by Tony Johnston, to incorporate analyzing the primary source of the 13th Amendment. The outcome of this series of lessons piqued the kids’ interest to investigate and ask even more questions such as: How are amendments made to the Constitution? What happened after the amendment was made? Does an amendment stay in the Constitution forever? How many amendments are there?

It is important to consider a variety of sources, perspectives, and resources to truly meet SS.3-5.H.1: Understand historical patterns, periods of time and the relationships among these elements. If I had told the kids the 13th Amendment was added to the Constitution to abolish slavery, they would not have continued the questioning process that developed with the lesson focused on inquiry. Instead, it would have been a fact to memorize, more than likely forgotten, and a checkmark by the standard to say, “I taught that.” But, when reflecting on the lesson, would the kids have learned it? When we empower our students to seek answers to their own questions and guide them with resources, we allow kids to “own” their learning.

When we support students with appropriate resources as they ask questions and empower them with thinking and citing evidence skills, they begin to be citizens who can navigate situations, draw conclusions, and make connections to real world situations. Teaching essential concepts and skills while integrating literacy and social studies allows students a platform for deep thinking and understanding – and teachers more time to teach all the standards.


Reading Passages:

  • (You will need to set up an account, but it is free.)
  • (You will need to set up an account, but it is free.)


  • The Wagon by Tony Johnston (lesson focus)

Other Related Books:

  • Meet Addy: An American Girl (American Girls Collection) (Melodye Benson Rosales (Illustrator), et al; 1993, Pleasant Company Publications) Rosales (Illustrator), et al; 1993, Pleasant Company Publications)
  • Follow the Drinking Gourd (Jeanette Winter; 1992, Dragonfly.)
  • Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (Deborah Hopkinson; 1995, Dragonfly.)
  • If You Lived During the Time of Slavery (Anne Kamma; 2004, Scholastic.)
  • Night Boat to Freedom (Margot Raven; 2006, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.)
  • Freedom River (Doreen Rappaport; 2000, Jump At the Sun, Hyperion Books For Children.)
  • Henry’s Freedom Box (Ellen Levine; 2007, Scholastic Publishing Company.)
  • If You Traveled On the Underground Railroad (Ellen Levine; 1988, Scholastic Publishing Company.)
  • When Harriet Met Sojourner (Catherine Clinton; 2007, Amistad, Katherine Tegen Books, An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.)

Graphic Organizers:

Primary Sources (slavery images for analyzing):

How to Explicitly Teaching Historical Thinking Strategies in an Elementary Classroom:

Commenting to this blog

Can't see the commenting block or comments below? Check that social media is not being blocked on your network. We are using a product called Disqus for the commenting portion of the View from a Field blog.

  • It is easiest to post comments to this blog through your Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Disqus account.
  • Another option is to comment as a guest. After typing your comment in the box, place your cursor and type your name in the Name field. Then, type your email address and mark the "I'd rather post as a guest" check box. Finally, submit your comment by clicking on the gray button with the white arrow.