One way to make Social Studies come alive is by framing it with social & emotional learning (SEL). This approach engages the body, mind and spirit through content and process while teaching specific competencies, such as self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.


Bettelheim (1977) tells us that we learn best through stories.  Social Studies is the unfolding story of humanity. Sharing the drama engages students.  Focus on:

  • Characters -  Give the backstory on the heroes and villains of the day.  

  • Themes – Make the major ideas of the age explicit.  

  • Plot Development – Illustrate the changes from one culture to another or one generation to the next.

The goal is to help students see that Social Studies is an ongoing story in which they play a part, thereby, cultivating both social awareness and self-awareness.  No matter what the era or region, connections can be made to the present day. The more personal the application the better.

Here is an example of how to frame major developments in racism in the United States with the concept of Courage, which is one of the traits related to responsible decision-making.  

Courage is standing up for what is right; facing your fears.  

How was Abraham Lincoln courageous – stand for what is right?  How did Lincoln’s courage pave the way for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement?  Do we need leaders like Lincoln and MLK today? Why or why not?


Providing time and space for students to wrestle with big ideas and how they apply to their lives is paramount.  This can be done by integrating other curricula standards, especially literacy, art and technology, with Social Studies.  In order to engage students in deep thinking about the questions of courage and racism mentioned above, you can use the following processes that require them to exercise their self-management and relationship skills:

  • Guided Conversation – Present the questions and give students the opportunity to respond.  Be sure to explain norms first so everyone feels safe sharing their thoughts and ideas.

  • Journaling – Present the questions and have students reflect and write about them in a notebook dedicated to Big Ideas.

  • News Report – Have students work collaboratively in groups to research their responses to the questions.  Have them write and produce a News Report to share with the class. Costumes and scripts are welcome!

Additionally, acknowledging the desire students have to make a difference in the world and providing opportunities for them to do so through service learning and project-based learning empowers them for social justice.  They need to know that they are vital players in our ongoing story.


This piece was originally published on Education Week's Classroom Q&A blog.