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Social Studies in Action: A Methodology Workshop, K-5

Applying Themes and Disciplines

What do we teach? Working from the NCSS themes and standards, the onscreen teachers identify approaches to integrating disciplines while teaching social studies content. Classroom video segments illustrate effective strategies for teaching across the curriculum and provide an opportunity to reflect on teaching practices. The session ends with the teachers developing a lesson plan that incorporates a variety of themes and disciplines.

Applying Themes and Disciplines

With so much to teach and so little time to teach it, organizing a social studies curriculum can be a daunting task. This session addresses the question: How do we decide what to teach? It is designed to help teachers use the NCSS themes and related academic disciplines as building blocks for the social studies curriculum, and to make teaching more comprehensive.

To help you improve your lesson planning, in this session you will:

  • Explore the themes and disciplines central to social studies.
  • Learn how lessons can be organized around themes and disciplines.
  • Analyze lessons in terms of the themes and disciplines they cover.
  • Apply this discipline-based thematic approach to your own lesson planning.

Identify themes and disciplines in social studies.

• Identify theme-based concepts and strategies used to teach them.

• Apply content and methodology to your own teaching.


1. Getting Started

Watch the video introduction to familiarize yourself with the session, instructor, and participants. As you watch, consider these questions:

  • What are the building blocks for your social studies curriculum?
  • How do you incorporate social studies standards into lesson content?

View Video Segment: Introduction

You’ll find this segment at the beginning of the video. Watch for about 14 minutes.

In this video segment, workshop participants explore a new organizational technique for lesson planning.

2. What Do You Know?

A graphic organizer can help you see the relationship among themes, disciplines, and the concepts and processes taught. Use the Graphic Organizer (PDF) to review the NCSS themes and corresponding academic disciplines, then list social studies concepts you teach that relate to each theme and discipline.

3. Reflect on Your Work

After you have completed the graphic organizer, review your answers and consider the following questions:

  • How was this similar to or different from the way you organize your curriculum?
  • How can NCSS themes and disciplines guide your teaching?


Key Concepts from Glossary

Discipline-based content

NCSS themes

Authentic intellectual work


Read each of the articles listed below to learn how themes and disciplines provide building blocks for social studies teaching.

After you read the articles, write answers to the following questions. You can use the Reading Questions form (PDF).

  1. What is the relationship between themes and disciplines?
  2. How can themes and disciplines be used to develop units?
  3. What are the criteria for authentic intellectual work in social studies?
  4. Explain how integrated lessons maximize students’ skills and understanding.

Save your written work to submit as an assignment.


NCSS Themes (PDF)
Defines the 10 thematic strands that make up the social studies standards.

National Council for the Social Studies. “Executive Summary.” Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies.

Operationalizing the Thematic Strands of Social Studies (PDF)
Provides an example of how to develop a unit based on NCSS themes.

Krey, DeAn. “Operationalizing the Thematic Strands of Social Studies for Young Learners.” National Council for the Social Studies.

Authentic Intellectual Work in Social Studies (PDF)
Describes criteria for authentic intellectual work in social studies.

Scheurman, Geoffrey, and Fred M. Newmann. “Authentic Intellectual Work in Social Studies: Putting Performance Before Pedagogy.” Social Education, 1998.


The following video segment provides classroom examples of theme-based lessons in social studies.

View Video Segment: Theme-Based Lessons

You’ll find this segment approximately 14 minutes into the video. Watch for about 19 minutes.

As you watch, note the themes, disciplines, concepts, and processes demonstrated in the classroom examples. Record your observations on the Viewing Chart (PDF), then compare your answers to those of the workshop participants.

After you’ve completed the chart, write your answers to the following questions:

  • How do the two lessons differ in terms of teaching strategies?
  • How many disciplines does each lesson cover? What would you add?
  • What factors determine whether a lesson plan is based on a single discipline or multiple disciplines?
  • What are the advantages of an integrated lesson plan?

Save your written work to submit as an assignment.


Now that you have observed how teachers use themes and disciplines to plan lessons, apply what you have learned by completing these activities.

1. Developing Teaching Activities


Connecting Themes and Disciplines
Go to Interactive Activity

A non-interactive version of this activity is available as a PDF document.

Save your written work to submit as an assignment.

2. Planning a Lesson

Choose one of the teaching activities you listed in Activity 1 to develop a lesson. If you are taking all eight sessions, continue to work on the unit you began in session 1. Use the Planning a Lesson(PDF) worksheet to help you organize your lesson plan. Be sure to include:

  • Lesson title
  • Theme
  • Related disciplines
  • Objectives
  • Concepts and processes
  • Learning activities and assignments

If you are taking all eight sessions for credit, you will continue to refine and develop lessons in subsequent assignments. Save a copy of your work.

Save your written work to submit as an assignment.

View Video Segment: Mini-Lesson

You’ll find this segment approximately 33 minutes into the video. Watch for about 25 minutes.

In this segment, workshop participants develop lesson plans based on the book How Many Days to America? Note how they use themes and disciplines as building blocks for their lessons.


What Did You Learn?
In this session, you have observed how themes can serve as organizing strands for the social studies curriculum. You have also practiced developing a lesson based on themes and disciplines.

Now write a Summary (PDF) of what you’ve learned. Be sure to include:

  • the relationship between disciplines, themes, concepts, and processes;
  • how disciplines, themes, concepts, and processes help you plan content-rich social studies units and lessons; and
  • organizing or teaching strategies you plan to apply in your own teaching.

Save your written work to submit as an assignment.


Refer to the Assignments below to be sure you’ve completed all assignments for this session.



Hartoonian, Michael H., and Margaret A. Laughlin. Succeed with the Standards in Your Social Studies Classroom. Portland, ME: J. Weston Walch, 1997.

National Council for the Social Studies. Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994.



Active Learning Practices for Schools
Provides information about teaching and understanding.

National Council for the Social Studies
Contains excerpts from Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies.

Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People
Links an annual list of trade books to the 10 themes from the social studies standards.



If you are taking this workshop for credit or professional development, submit the following assignments for session 4: Applying Themes and Disciplines.

  1. Explore: Read the articles and respond to the questions that follow.
  2. Explain: Watch the video segment, complete the Viewing Chart, and answer the questions that follow.
  3. Apply: Apply what you’ve learned and complete the interactive activity, Connecting Themes and Disciplines.
  4. Apply: Complete the Planning a Lesson activity.
  5. Evaluate: Summarize what you’ve learned and how you will apply new strategies in your teaching.