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An inquirED Blog

When Covid-19 Closes Your School: Social Studies Resources

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

Thanks to our webinar guests Dr. Tina Heafner (NCSS President), Christina French (Director of K-6 Curriculum, Lakota Local Schools), and Elisbeth Ventling Simon (VP of Learning Experiences, inquirED). During the webinar, we explored social studies resources, and talked about ideas and suggestions during this challenging time. Thanks to our guests Dr. Tina Heafner (NCSS President) and Christina French (Director of K-6 Curriculum, Lakota Local Schools), and Elisbeth Ventling Simon (VP of Learning Experiences, inquirED).

General Content and Resources

  • New weekly inquiries for Early, Intermediate, and Middle School students. Releasing one a week for 10 weeks. All centered on the compelling question: How can we stay together when we're apart?

  • Christina's favorite resource. Online read-alouds.

  • Martin's favorite resource. Great image library for visual prompts.

  • It looks low tech - but a great teaching tool for middle and high school.

  • Actors reading picture books - with a good selection. You can embed videos in your platform.

  • One of the greatest sources of grade-level articles on the web. It's free for the rest of the year. Take advantage of the ability to adjust the reading level of a source.

Teaching About COVID

  • New webpage from NCSS for COVID-19 teaching resources. NCSS is updating this with new resources and will continue to support social studies educators as we all deal with unprecedented educational challenges.

  • NCSS is partnering with the World History Digital Education Foundation to publish in a short timeframe a special teaching module focused on COVID-19 for students in grades 9-12. The module is the first curriculum material based on the current COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Special Webinar: More Deadly Than War: How Do We Teach the Lessons of Pandemics — While We Are in One?

  • Did the Black Death destroy medieval Europe? Did cholera pave the way for modern Manhattan? Did yellow fever help end the slave trade? Remarkably, the answer to all of these questions is yes.

  • This dramatic narrative, told through the stories and voices of the people caught in the deadly maelstrom of the Spanish Flu epidemic, explores how this vast, global epidemic was intertwined with the horrors of World War I—and how it could happen again.

Part II: Participant questions from the webinar

Getting Started

Q: Is there a framework that speaks to what highly effective remote learning should look like? As a curriculum supervisor who may have to observe teachers engaged in remote learning, what do I look for?

Tina Heafner (TH): I'm not aware of a framework but will look into it. This would be a great topic for a webinar. From my professional experience, I began remote observations of teacher candidates and teachers (ROGI and WiTL projects) years ago and have published research on these programs. There are key aspects of teaching f2f that transfer to online learning. There are also some of these skills that look a little different online, e.g. establishing instructor presence, engagement of students (e.g. questioning and ways to invite student participation), responsiveness and communication. When observing someone teaching online there has to be both asynchronous and synchronous components. Think about the learning environment that we discussed yesterday-- there's still a learning environment online that's usually in the form of a course, tasks, or assignment. How that's structured facilitates learning and engagement differently. Here are two resources we use for online teaching evaluations: Guided Observation Form and Narrative Observation Form They are formative tools. Discussion of teaching afterwards is also key to supporting professional reflection. There's a lot of decision-making that may not be visible. I use debriefing after every observation, which begins first with teacher talk and teacher reflection before I offer any thoughts. This is an optimal time to support reflection and experimentation. I would be quite concerned about punitive evaluations in a new teaching environment. We are all learning together. I would approach this new ecology of teaching like we do with preservice educators (with patience, positive support, and mastery learning).

Q: I would like to know how to even get started. I need an example framework. I have been on a spring break track out and we are just coming back. These past two weeks have made me anxious about to how do I even start?

Martin Andrews (MA): It’s like being thrown into the deep end! The best example framework is the one you have been using all year (with adjustments).

  • Try to transfer the familiar elements of your classroom to the online space. While the delivery will be different, the routine or structure could be the same. This provides reassurance and consistency to students (and you!)

    • This could be as “low tech” as assigning work and turning in work, doing exit tickets, journal prompts, etc.

    • It could be as “high tech” as virtual morning meetings, discussion groups, Socratic Seminars, etc.

  • Reduce the amount of work/instruction and focus on the essentials

    • You won’t be able to accomplish as much through distance learning as you did in your normal classroom. That’s ok. Focus on what matters most.

  • Set up virtual office hours (if possible) or other ways to meet face-to-face with students (two-dimensionally, of course!)

Q: I need clarification in regards to if I am allowed to teach new information or do I have to review? I'm waiting on my admin for details. But if I have to review, how can I just stop at WWI and not keep going?

MA: You definitely need clarity from your admin. There’s no reason why you can’t teach new information, but just keep in mind that the volume of content covered will go down. If you normally expect to get through the Cold War by the end of the year, that might not happen. Try to dig into the new subject matter in a deep way - offering opportunities for students not only to absorb new information but DO and CREATE in response to it. Think back to the assignments, projects, and instructional practices that students have been engaged with the most in the past (and those that are your favorites, too!) and lean into those.

Issues of Access and Equity

Q: How do we provide services to students who do not have access to the internet?

How do you ensure equity for all when creating distance learning opportunities? Equity in terms of meeting the needs of students with IEPs, low-income students who may not have access to technology or the internet, and language barriers.

MA: It’s important that schools and districts have consistent and considered policies to provide instruction to all students. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer across districts either, because the differences among districts are so vast. One thing we do know is that responsibility can’t be left up to individual teachers. With that said, some schools and districts are delivering instructional materials to students (along with lunches, etc.). If you’re being asked to prepare materials that will be sent home to students:

  • Think about it not only as a way to instruct - but to connect. An individual student may need to hear from you right now, that you are thinking about them, that you miss them. Take that opportunity.

  • Our impetus may be to pile on worksheets, but that won’t be engaging to students (or likely to be completed!) Simplify the tasks and workload - and (if possible) give students a chance to reflect, document their experience, and communicate with you.

MA: For students with IEP’s and other unique learning needs in your classroom, communicate as much as possible with your support team to ensure a holistic approach is being taken with their instruction. This will be an ongoing process as you translate classroom accommodations to adaptations for distance learning. Reducing and chunking material, limited instructional time, and clarity and simplicity of tasks will clearly be of great importance. You are not alone in searching for answers to these challenges right now, and we are all on inquiry to discover solutions.

Q: How do you go about helping the students who struggle with technology, not just with the content of the subject? (Especially the ELLs who may need the extra instruction, in addition, to help with managing the tech)

MA: You bring up a really important point regarding technology. Just because someone has access to technology, doesn’t mean there aren’t still barriers to learning. As we all have experienced when trying out a new tech tool, actually using technology can be a great barrier! There’s no simple answer. Keep considering how to remove barriers:

  • There are instructions for most platforms in multiple languages. Can you direct students and families to those when recommending a specific tool?

  • How low tech can your tech be? Avoid platforms that have downloads to install, multi-step processes of registration, etc. A “1,2,3” rule is good to follow - can the child or parent be using the tool in 3 simple steps?


Q: What is appropriate to hold students accountable for in this remote learning environment, thinking about their different circumstances and own challenges they may be facing in their homes?

Elisabeth Ventling Simon (EVS): There is no one rule for what students should be held accountable for. Schools should consider what reasonable expectations are for students in their community, keeping in mind that students have different homes, resources, and family support. Many have IEPs and their accommodations don’t address remote learning at all. Additionally, access to instructional content and support is not equitable. Schools must clarify what is reasonable, communicate this to teachers and families, and then recognize that a one-size-fits-all model isn’t going to work for everyone.

Q: How will we address the discrepancy in learning when we return to school?

EVS: As you have in the past! Teachers are professionals at dealing with students at varying levels and catching kids up when they miss instruction. That’s not to say “deal with it,” but to acknowledge that this WILL happen and that teachers and schools need to prepare for learning and achievement gaps.

Q: What are your thoughts on formal summative assessments during this remote learning time? Are you allowing teachers to assign tests/quizzes or are you trying to promote more formative project-based assessments the driving force? In NY many teachers are still concerned about the NYS Regents Exams as they have not been suspended as of yet.

EVS: Any kind of formal, summative test or quiz has its own set of difficulties and limitations in a digital learning environment. That includes questions about cheating, the transfer and meaning of grades, etc. Instead, follow your instinct to make formative, project-based assessments “the driving force.” Think about performance tasks that ask kids to apply skills and respond to personally relevant material.

Online Interactions: Video Conferencing, Discussions, and More

Q: Do you have a list of best practices for synchronous (live) teaching and learning with the tools available?


Optimize Audio-Video Communication

  • Mute attendees upon entry, plan ahead for background display and noises

  • Headsets with microphones recommended to reduce echo, know how to change settings

Review communication rules

  • Raise hand to request to speak, etc.

Use Interactive Features to engage the learner

  • Raise hand, Yes/no polls, Emoticons, Use whiteboards

Screenshare/Annotate to demonstrate tasks

Use Breakout rooms for small group discussion

  • An instructor can visit all the rooms. A Timer can be used

Have students present

  • Don’t read notes or slides verbatim. Turn camera on.

Other Ideas

  • Invite guest speakers. Record and Share. Visit other teachers in their virtual space to learn from them

Q: How worthwhile are video conferences when only my bold students participate?

MA: I love this question! Because it takes a really important issue that we consider as teachers in non-virtual classrooms (ie. How do we have equitable class discussions?) and transfers it to the virtual space. Depending on the technology you’re using, some of the same strategies you use in the classroom can work in the digital space.

  • Breaking students into smaller groups (maybe meeting with only 5 students at a time) may help balance out the participation dynamic and allow more reticent students to speak up.

  • If you are having a whole-class discussion, select a small number of students to participate directly and have others listen to the discussion. Over the course of a week, you can rotate through all your students.

  • If you have the ability to mute video and audio, you can use equity sticks to call on specific students.

  • Give students a chance to prepare questions or answers before the discussion, so they don’t feel “on the spot” and can participate with confidence.

Q: How do I remotely teach my students to respond in discussions with thoughtful, engaging questions?

MA: Some of the answers above apply to this question. Specifically, having students prepare for a discussion rather than expecting them to come up with questions in the moment is always a good strategy. Also, ask yourself: is the technology causing a distraction or barrier? How can I lessen that by setting up the virtual discussion in a different way? Beyond that, I think there is a great opportunity to continue to help students learn how to produce, improve, and prioritize questions. The best protocol I’ve ever encountered for that is the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) from the folks at the Right Question Institute. Fortunately, you’re in luck! We are having a webinar with the Right Question Institute and NCSS on April 8th to talk about how to use the QFT and other protocols in distance learning. Sign up here!

Q: How can a teacher who greatly values face-to-face interaction and building student relationships, maintain meaningful instruction.

MA: No doubt it will be a process and learning curve for you. But some of those same practices that work in your classroom can transfer to the digital space.

  • Do you say hello and connect to individual students when they enter your room? Pick a small number of students to directly check-in with each day via a short message. Rotate through your class over the week.

  • Because you value relationships, students might feel they “know you” in the classroom. Give students a chance to see you via video - record yourself in your house - your workspace, with your kids. Give them a tour of your life. If they value knowing you and being known by you in the classroom, I bet they would really value a behind the scenes look.

  • Think about the opportunities the situation and medium provides. Suddenly, we all have something in common. How can we use this commonality to deepen relationships? Trust your instincts.

Q: A lot of school districts I've seen have not liked students using Zoom, due to issues with confidentiality related to student info. Responses to that? Next best-suited technology tools?

MA: I have my own issues with Zoom - even though I think it is the best tool for running a discussion. Namely, it requires parents and students to download and install software. That can be a big barrier. I think Google Meet is the next best option (and preferable in some ways).

  • All students can join a Google Meet if they have the meeting link - no need to install anything.

  • You could meet with small groups of students by creating different events in your calendar/scheduling different Meets. Each group would have their own link.

  • You can share your screen easily to demonstrate work.

  • With the advanced features available now to everyone, you can...record yourself and live stream meetings. This means you could have some students in the meeting with you - and others watching. This would be helpful for keeping discussions equitable.

Q: Maybe this is silly but when you video yourself doesn't the image appear backward? How can we do a read-aloud so it's clear?

MA: Not silly at all! Typically the camera on the back of your phone (the one you take pictures of others with) will record text the right way. The other camera (the one you take selfies with) will give you backwards text. So use the back camera and you should be fine! If for some reason you have to record text with the selfie camera, you can also “flip” your selfie view in many phones, so that it shows text the right way. Just google “flip selfie video in {your phone}.

Here are some more tips:

  • You can find a really cheap phone tripod on amazon to help you record.

  • Don’t forget to record in landscape view!

  • Follow rules for good picture taking (don’t have your back to the window/light source, etc.).

  • Do a rehearsal to try out your shot.


Q: Covid research-based assignments for high school were mentioned. I fully understand the transfer application. Do you think students are already stressed by the media overload about the virus?

MA: Yes - they probably are stressed! Any investigation of COVID should directly address what students are feeling right now. I’m curious about how addressing those stresses and fears through inquiry might actually help students process, understand, and contextualize those feelings.

You could start by framing any investigation into COVID with an Inquiry Question/Compelling Question that takes your concern head on: How can understanding COVID and the history of pandemics reduce our fear and uncertainty? This could be the question that frames the entire inquiry.

As part of the inquiry, one investigation question could target the way information is spread: What is the best way to get information about COVID that doesn’t stoke fear?

  • A lesson could analyze media reporting on the virus, asking important questions about the conflicting purpose of media companies as for profit information and entertainment companies.

  • A specific task in that lesson could have students analyze a screenshot of network coverage - breaking down the colors, fonts, and words used that specifically attempt to stoke fears.

Take a look at the resources the NCSS is putting together and keep following your instincts to use investigation and social studies inquiry to consider the lived experience of your students.


Part III: A video recording of the webinar

Finally, if you were not able to attend the webinar, please view the recording below.


inquirED has moved beyond the textbook, offering a customizable, digital curriculum that supports teachers in shifting to student-centered instruction. inquirED delivers year-long, student-centered curriculum and assessment with engaging content and activities for students and embedded professional learning for teachers. Inquiry Journeys is inquirED’s core elementary social studies curriculum. Inquiry Journeys is a comprehensive inquiry-based curriculum with embedded PD that helps teachers shift their practice to a more inquiry-based approach. Learn More.


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