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Social Studies in Action: A Teaching Practices Library, K-12

This video library for K-12 teachers shows a variety of effective social studies lessons and techniques for use with students at all levels.

A video library for K-12 teachers; 29 half-hour and 3 one-hour video programs, library guide, and website.

ThSocial Studies in Action teaching practices library, professional development guide, and companion website bring to life the National Council for the Social Studies standards. Blending content and methodology, the video library documents 24 teachers and their students in K-12 classrooms across the country actively exploring the social studies. Lively, provocative, and educationally sound, these lessons are designed to inspire thoughtful conversations and reflections on teaching practices in the social studies.

Series Overview

The Social Studies in Action video library and professional development guide bring to life the National Council for the Social Studies standards. Blending content and methodology, the series documents 24 teachers and their students in K-12 classrooms across the country actively exploring the social studies.

Here are some examples of what you’ll see:

  • In San Francisco, first graders create a model city and tackle the city’s problems.
  • In Seattle, fourth graders studying stereotypes encourage publishers to include the Negro league in baseball history books.
  • In Brookline, Massachusetts, 12th graders draw on theories from Plato, Hobbes, and Marx to debate individual rights versus societal needs.

Lively, provocative, and educationally sound, these lessons are designed to inspire thoughtful conversations and reflections.

Using the Videos and Website

Social Studies in Action can be used for individual or group professional development, viewed in real time. The Web guide was designed to help you get the most out of each video. The guide is also available in print form, which you can download from this site. Before watching, review the Video Summary and About the Class sections of the guide. After watching, you can follow the viewing activities listed in the guide, including a second viewing of selected segments. If you are working in a group, discuss the questions provided in the guide; if you are working alone, write down your responses for later reflection.

To help you get the most out of each video, the professional development guide is organized into six parts.

1. Video Summary
This section includes a short summary of the videotaped lesson, a brief overview of the class, and a list of themes and national standards addressed in the lesson. Use this information to determine which lessons will best meet your content and/or methodology needs.

2. About the Class
This section is divided into two parts: Classroom Profile and Lesson Background. The Classroom Profile establishes the larger context, including the school community, where the lesson fits within the course curriculum, and students’ prior knowledge. Information from teacher interviews provides details about the lesson goals and objectives. The Lesson Background highlights each lesson’s content and methodology. Read this section before viewing the video.

3. Watching the Video
This section is divided into four parts: Before You Watch, Watch the Video, Reflecting on the Video, and Looking Closer. Before You Watch poses several questions to activate your current knowledge through reflection, discussion, or both. Watch the Video asks you to take notes on points you find interesting, surprising, or especially important as you watch the video. Reflecting on the Video presents questions to structure your review of your notes. Finally, Looking Closer has you take a second look at specific teaching strategies within the video.

4. Connecting to Your Teaching
This section includes Reflecting on Your Practice, questions that connect the video to your own teaching; and Taking It Back to Your Classroom, practical ideas related to the lesson that you can implement in your class.

5. Standards
This section lists the National Council for the Social Studies themes and content standards that correlate to the lesson.

6. Resources
This section offers print and Web resources related to the lesson, for both teachers and their students.

Tips for Facilitators
The following facilitator tips can enhance the professional development experience:

  • Review the Web or print guide prior to running a study group or workshop.
  • Print and duplicate the Video Summary and About the Class sections of the guide; have all participants read prior to viewing the lesson.
  • Use the suggested questions and continue with other questions that interest you and your colleagues.
  • Allow enough time to wait for participants’ responses.

Integrating Standards and Practices

Themes (PDF)

Content Standards (PDF)

About the NCSS Themes

In 1993, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) appointed a task force to develop social studies curriculum standards for K-12 teachers. At the same time, other educational organizations developed content standards in several disciplines that connect to social studies (e.g., history, geography, civics, economics).

Two years of work and contributions from hundreds of social studies educators led to the NCSS publication Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. This K-12 framework outlines 10 themes to describe performance expectations at early, middle, and high school levels. The themes draw heavily on disciplines whose content and processes have a foundation in social studies.

Lessons in the Social Studies in Action library are linked to the following NCSS themes:

  • Culture: Traditions, beliefs, and values of their own groups and society, as well as those of others
  • Time, Continuity, and Change: The past, as well as stability and change over time
  • People, Places, and Environments: Spatial concepts and relationships
  • Individual Development and Identity: Personal identity and cultural contexts
  • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions: Types of groups and institutions and their relationships to individuals
  • Power, Authority, and Governance: Structure of specific governments and various types of government across time and cultures
  • Production, Distribution, and Consumption: Decisions that peoples and governments make when limited resources exceed wants
  • Science, Technology, and Society: Influence of science and technology over time on the lives of individuals and societies
  • Global Connections: The increasing links of peoples and societies across the world in terms of economy, communication, technology, and other factors
  • Civic Ideals and Practices: Ideals, beliefs, values, and practices associated with informed citizenship

Within Expectations of Excellence, the themes focus on content and methodology, with specific examples of effective instructional practice and what students should know and be able to do. Rich themes and powerful instruction can achieve the major purposes of social studies as described in this NCSS definition: “…to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”

Overview Videos

The Social Studies in Action video library is accompanied by an introductory video and one overview video for each grade band.

  • Introduction to the Video Library
  • A Standards Overview, K-5
  • A Standards Overview, 6-8
  • A Standards Overview, 9-12

The introductory video summarizes the content and teaching practices of the Social Studies in Action library and issues tapes, including clips from the classroom videos, reflections from teachers and the project’s advisors, and an introduction to the Web and print guide.

The segments capture the range of content and teaching practices shown in the collection. You’ll see examples of mock trials, simulations, cooperative learning, presentations, controversial issues, and more. You’ll see teachers engaging students in Supreme Court cases, controversial issues, historical change, geography, and the elements of citizenship. You will also see teachers developing their students’ understanding of how social studies connects to larger issues in the community and world. The physical classrooms themselves are rich examples of how teachers can maximize their space for teaching social studies concepts. Watch the introductory tape to quickly familiarize yourself with the entire collection and to help you decide which videos you want to watch.

Each overview video illustrates innovative and vibrant ways of connecting social studies lessons to the standards-based themes developed by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). The overview videos show teachers across all grade levels using the most age-appropriate strategies to bring social studies to life for students.

Use these videos to:

  • launch a professional development workshop;
  • facilitate a discussion about social studies methodology; or
  • show parents how standards connect to social studies lessons.

They are designed to help teachers find new and creative ways of implementing NCSS themes in social studies in all grade levels.

Individual Lesson Summaries

Grades K-2

Historical Change
David Kitts introduces the concept of change over time by identifying similarities and differences between past and current farming practices. Based on children’s literature, his first-grade students draw time wheels to illustrate their understandings of events in agricultural history, while comparing the major changes in farming technology.

China Through Mapping
Mimi Norton uses mapping exercises and other activities to increase her second graders’ understanding and appreciation of China’s major natural landmarks. Students demonstrate their knowledge of China’s geography by constructing a large map and placing the major landmarks in the appropriate positions.

Leaders, Community, and Citizens
Cynthia Vaughn teaches her first graders about connections among citizens, community issues, and local and national leaders, by diagramming those connections on a class chart. Students also explore life in a fictional community through role-plays as its citizens and leaders addressing local problems and possible solutions.

Making Bread Together
Meylin Gonzalez created a fictional bread company to explain basic economic concepts to her kindergarten class. Through participation in the bread-making assembly line, students learn about production, marketing, and the distinction between needs and wants. They also learn about the importance of communication and cooperation in creating and selling a finished product.

Caring for the Community
Debbie Lerner uses her school’s remodeling project to teach her multi-age class about community resources. Students discuss the planning, funding, and execution of the construction, talk to the district superintendent, and plan their contributions to the remodeling project.

Celebrations of Light
During the winter, Eileen Mesmer teaches her kindergarten and first-grade class about seasonal holidays from various religious and ethnic traditions, and identifies both the social and scientific aspects of winter solstice. Students participate in group discussions and demonstrations, read stories about the topics, and make posters.

Grades 3-5

Explorers in North America
Rob Cuddi teaches fifth graders about the impact of explorers in North America, in relation to history, economics, and the environment. Students work in groups to research a particular explorer, write his or her epitaph, create short skits about the explorer, and make posters.

California Missions
Osvaldo Rubio introduces his fourth-grade class to the history of California missions. Specifically, he presents the effects of social, political, and cultural factors; and the consequences of Spanish peoples interacting with Native Americans. The class discusses cultural ethics and responsibility, and students make art and multimedia presentations.

State Government and the Role of the Citizen
Diane Kerr teaches her fourth-graders the functions of the three branches of government and the process through which a bill becomes a law. Students make and present posters and flipbooks to demonstrate their understandings of the state Supreme Court, the system of checks and balances, and the budget. After a discussion about an important local issue, the class writes letters to the district representative, proposing a new bill.

Using Primary Sources
Kathleen Waffle uses colonial-era primary sources to teach her fifth-graders about life when the colonies began to experience economic growth. Based on two primary sources from the time period, students use a graphic organizer to analyze specific trades and the master-apprentice relationship, and to compare current business practices to those of colonial times.

Making a Difference Through Giving
Darlene Jones-Inge helps fourth graders find ways to become better citizens by making realistic contributions to the world, the country, and their community. The class defines community and the importance of voting, and identifies major societal problems. In groups, the students then list gifts they want to give to the world, vote on a gift that the class will later work on, and make posters.

Understanding Stereotypes
Libby Sinclair’s fourth- and fifth-grade students investigate stereotypes through discussion and examples in literature. Working in groups, they then research an example of a historical omission, and write to publishers, sharing their knowledge to persuade them to include the information in later publications.

Grades 6-8

Explorations in Archeology and History
Gwen Larsen introduces her sixth graders to connections among their family histories, the human family, and the development of civilizations. She explains how archeologists investigate artifacts, including noting physical details, asking questions, and exploring oral traditions. In groups, students then examine and write about artifacts. Later, each student brings an heirloom from home to share with the class.

Exploring Geography Through African History
Lisa Farrow teaches her seventh graders about the role of geography in African history. After researching and constructing timelines, maps, and posters, students identify how Africa’s geography affects its economics and history. Students also compare trading patterns, languages, and religions of various African empires.

The Amistad Case
Gary Fisher places the Amistad slave ship case at the center of his lesson about the U.S. Supreme Court and the evolution of African American rights. His eighth graders work in groups to research, construct, and present arguments for both sides in a role-play of the Amistad case trial. The lesson addresses issues of morality, justice, law, communication, and cultural differences.

Population and Resource Distribution
Becky Forristal emphasizes the relationship between population and resource distribution through a simulation exercise in which each student is assigned a world region. Her seventh graders work in small groups to distribute resources and tackle global issues, such as immigration, war, and standards of living.

Landmark Supreme Court Cases
Wendy Ewbank guides her seventh- and eighth-grade students through two simulation exercises to examine the nature of individual rights and the U.S. Supreme Court’s role in sustaining them. Students debate whether burning the American flag should be protected under the First Amendment and conduct a mock press conference in which they play key figures from historical landmark cases.

The Middle East Conflict
Justin Zimmerman introduces his sixth graders to the Middle East through the region’s geography, history, economy, and religions. Using hypothetical situations and a study of current events, students gain a basic understanding of the current conflict and confront the challenges of devising fair solutions.

Grades 9-12

Public Opinion and the Vietnam War
Liz Morrison’s ninth graders explore the controversy of the Vietnam War by investigating primary sources. After making predictions about opinion polls, students examine factual data, news clips, song lyrics, and articles from the time period. Based on this research, they analyze how much public opinion influenced U.S. government policy during the war.

Migration From Latin America
Mavis Weir teaches her 10th graders about migration through group research on six Latin American countries. Each group uses primary and secondary sources to create a multi-faceted product that illustrates its assigned country’s economic, political, and social living conditions and possible reasons for migration to the United States.

Competing Ideologies
Wendell Brooks focuses on the U.S. founding principle of democracy to illuminate how competing ideologies drive world events. His ninth graders work in groups to research and present the impact of a major political ideology between World War I and today.

Economic Dilemmas and Solutions
In preparation for their final exam, Steve Page’s 12th graders review economic terms by analyzing a series of realistic economic and social problems. In groups, students research and develop solutions, which they present through posters and skits.

Gender-Based Distinctions
Tim Rockey’s 12th graders investigate controversial laws to evaluate legal interpretations of gender discrimination. In groups, students debate controversial gender discrimination laws and gender-based distinctions. Each group produces a poster stating when it believes gender-based distinctions are accurate and discrimination is reasonable.

The Individual in Society
In an in-depth study of five philosophers, Brian Poon asks his 12th graders to examine the role of the individual in creating a just society. Using the case of a fictional society on the brink of civil war, students develop solutions based on the ideology of one of the five philosophers.

Copyright Information

Copyright © 2002 WGBH Educational Foundation Legal Policy

Who's Who

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the nation’s largest professional organization for social studies educators, collaborated with WGBH Educational Foundation and Annenberg Media to create a product that would support reflection and discussion about excellent social studies teaching. Social Studies in Action: A Teaching Practices Library is the result.

Each video lesson is keyed to the NCSS curriculum standards, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. NCSS recognizes the library as an important tool for social studies educators–teachers entering the field, those new in teaching, as well as experienced educators–as video overviews, issues, lessons and web-based support stimulate viewer discussion and reflection about excellence in professional practice.

Mary A. McFarland, Writer
Dr. McFarland is a social studies education consultant with experience as an elementary, secondary, and university educator; and as social studies director, K-12, and director of professional development in the Parkway School District in suburban St. Louis, Missouri. From 1989-90, she served as president of the National Council for the Social Studies. She has consulted or presented in 27 states, Canada, Japan, Germany, South Korea, and Latvia on topics such as planning, instruction, and assessment in social studies; civic education; scope and sequence; critical thinking, reading, and writing in social studies; and trends and issues in education. She has written professional articles, web-based curriculum, and is the current co-author of an elementary social studies series for grades K-8.


Executive Producer:
Ted Sicker

Mary McFarland

Lisa Rosenthal
Chris Wise

Joseph Brandt

Editorial Production:
Denise Blumenthal
Melanie MacFarlane

Additional Editorial Content:
Vanessa Hayes
Lana Sloutsky

Academic Advisors:
Susan Adler
Tamera Berman
Rick Theisen


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-635-9