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Subject-Specific Resources

Developing Content Literacy for Social Studies Teachers

Being an effective social studies teacher requires great diligence. As most social studies teachers are required to teach courses outside of their expertise, they must regularly update their knowledge of the varied fields of study covered by the broad definition of social studies.

There are multitudes of ways that you can increase your knowledge of the discipline you are required to teach. Use the following ideas to improve and maintain your level of literacy in the social studies.
  1. Become familiar with the national and state standards of the course that you teach. Once you have access to the standards, correlate them with the textbook or materials that you use in your classroom. Do this by paraphrasing the standard in a language that you understand and researching materials in your textbook or other resources that fit that standard. Another option is to rephrase each standard and put it in the form of a question. This will help you familiarize yourself with the minimum level of mastery required in order for you to effectively teach the course.

  2. Keep up with current events. Read your local and national newspapers. Watch CNN, C-Span and other news programs that may have material that will enhance your lessons. Integrating current events into your lessons helps you become familiar with the topics and brings relevancy to the students as they learn new information.

  3. Research information using the Web. To learn more about your topic, go to reliable Web sources such as those from National Geographic, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute, or TIME magazine. From these sites, and others, you can access in-depth information, including primary sources. You can also utilize search engines, such as Google, or Yahoo! to find additional information that will deepen your understanding of what you are teaching. When studying a new country, research the population, culture, literacy rate, and other pertinent facts that will interest you and your students.

  4. Use your media center and librarian to undertake research. Check out videos and books about your topics to increase your knowledge. The librarian at your school may have access to university library lending programs from which you can borrow high quality resources about your topic. Your library might also offer additional resources, such as A & E biographies or The History Channel documentaries, to help you gain extended knowledge about specific historical people and events.

  5. Use maps in your classroom. Geography, whether it is a stand-alone course or an extension of the lesson, will be a great visual asset to the material. You need to study and be aware of the geography of locations before you introduce it to students. A good atlas is a worthwhile personal investment. In the classroom, you can use pull down maps, map overlays, or a computer and digital projector to be able to have class discussions about the geography of the places that your class is studying. Make certain your resources reflect accurate place-names and political boundaries before using them.

  6. Surround yourself with strong teachers. Become friendly with other teachers in your department, team, or content area. Don't be afraid to ask for help-most teachers love to share good lessons and will be honored to be asked for assistance. Talk to other teachers about what resources and materials they find effective in their classrooms.

  7. Use graphic organizers to classify topics that may be new material for you. Writing down and arranging new information will assist you in learning it. Using the graphic organizers will allow you to put all of the new information in an organized format that will help you decide what is and is not important for your lessons.

  8. Use bulleted lists to prepare for lectures and presentations. Making a list is another way to assist you when learning new material that you must present to the class. Use section titles and sub headings from textbooks to become familiar with the main ideas.

  9. Familiarize yourself with subject-specific vocabulary. Learn the meanings and correct pronunciations of new terms. As the teacher, you will want to feel confident when presenting new information, especially when the vocabulary is unfamiliar to you and your students.

  10. Bring in guest speakers. There is a wealth of knowledge in most school communities. Ask your PTA or principal to share the names of possible speakers. Invite families of foreign-born students or veterans who have served overseas to share information about the people and places you are studying.
Every social studies teacher encounters new and unfamiliar material at some point and must study it before teaching it in the classroom. Ultimately, these exercises in lifelong learning are part of what makes being a social studies teacher so stimulating and satisfying.

This article was submitted by Susan Hirsch, Social Studies Chair, East Wake High School in Wendell, North Carolina. She is also a Kenan Fellow at North Carolina State University.

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