Social Studies: Reading to Foster Perspective-Taking

Perspective-taking is especially important as teachers and students think more deeply about the meaning of equity—how we might achieve it, and what might be standing in the way of social justice and fairness to all. Students must learn to pose essential questions: Who makes decisions and who is left out? Who benefits and who is left out? Who suffers? Why is a given practice fair or unfair?

There are many books available for teaching the importance of perspective-taking so students can begin to think about equity and respond to questions such as these. Some are light and humorous, like The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A. Wolf. Others are more thought-provoking, and explore personal issues such as bullying or sensing what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes. There are other books that examine historical events from perspectives that are different from the commonly held view. For social emotional learning, I have selected stories of a more serious nature, listed below, though each is intriguing in its own way.

Looking at something differently can lead to a new view of the situation

Ann Jonas has written and illustrated two books, Round Trip and Reflections, that show the importance of perspective in astonishing ways. Both are excellent. Here I focus on Reflections.

It was late on Friday afternoon when I recently visited a fourth-grade classroom to read this story. At the outset, no one seemed especially thrilled to be ending their week this way, and I had to ask them (more than once) to move closer to me so they wouldn’t miss the details in the pictures. Keeping them engaged during the first half of the story was a challenge. A child wakes up in a small seaside town and throughout the day, encounters morning fishermen, the first ferry of the day, an approaching storm, a boat yard, a peach orchard, and a grove of trees. Until this point, it’s a simple personal narrative, no high adventure here.

Then there’s the trip back home—at which point, readers are prompted to turn the book around. The scary birch grove has now transformed into a pond with lily pads and frogs. The boat yard, turned upside down, is a campsite, the rowboats reimagined as tents. A family flying kites has taken the place of sailboats under gathering clouds. Students are mesmerized by these and other transformations, astounded that they could have missed this alternate view the first time around. Which is the whole point!

“You changed my life!” one boy announced after I’d read the last page. I doubt it, but I did help him and his classmates recognize that if they don’t look hard for other possible perspectives, they will probably miss them. I often read this book before discussing a topic that begs for more of an open mind than I think will come easily to some students.

There can be many sides to the same story

If there’s one issue that has the attention of all educators, it’s bullying. We implore our students: Think about how you’d feel if you were the kid being bullied. Sometimes they heed our lectures, other times, not so much. The set of three books called the Weird! Series goes a step further. It tells the same bullying story from three different perspectives: the child being bullied, the bully, and the bystander. What I especially like is that it helps readers understand that all the players are victims in their own way.

I begin by reading Weird, which is the bullied-child’s version of the story. Luisa gives up many of the things she loves because Sam, the bully, belittles her at every turn: her polka dot boots, the way she greets her father in Spanish, and greets her mom with a kiss. Sam says she’s just weird, which prompts Luisa to be “unweird” by giving up the things that are important to her—until eventually, she barely recognizes herself. She tries ignoring Sam instead, and finds this is the best remedy. No longer able to intimidate Luisa, Sam gives up her bullying ways.

I then read Tough, the story from the bully’s perspective. Sam wants to keep things “cool” at school, letting everyone know she’s the one to make the rules. Her goal isn’t to be mean so much as to make sure everyone knows she’s tough. As the story proceeds, readers see what’s behind her behavior: Sam is bullied at home by her big brother and at school, needs to feel like she’s in control. Readers see how hard it can be to break the cycle, though eventually with the help of her teacher, Sam sees that being kind can also be cool.

Finally, there’s Dare, the story of the bystander, Jayla. She was Sam’s victim last year, and is so relieved that Luisa has taken her place that she won’t stand up to Sam, even when Sam dares her to do hurtful things like tell Luisa her hair looks weird or that she can’t sit at their table during lunch. Jayla doesn’t like the person she’s becoming, and eventually dares to tell Luisa how sorry she is for not standing up for her. Instead of being scared, she now feels prepared with strategies to respond to Sam’s toughness. Gradually, Sam begins to leave Jayla and Luisa alone. There are many messages to extract from these three books, perhaps the most basic of which is that bullying and how to handle it is complicated.

A commonly held belief may not be the only way of looking at something

The Thanksgiving story we’ve typically shared with students is more of a fairytale than a verified account of history. There were no tall hats with buckles on them. It was a raucous party with drinking and gambling as opposed to a religious event. The partygoers ate deer, not turkey. It was most likely held in September or October, not November. And the role of Native Americans was significantly different from the way it is often portrayed. (“6 Things Everyone Believes About Thanksgiving,” n.d.)

We need a book with a different perspective to give students a more accurate view of the real Thanksgiving story. For this, Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving is a great resource. Told in the first-person from Squanto’s point of view, he explains how he was tricked by a white friend, taken to Europe, and enslaved. The myth of the great friendship between the Native Americans and pilgrims is dispelled by Squanto’s stories of his people’s generosity and the poor treatment they received in return at the hands of the white settlers. This story is a great conversation starter, with opportunities for some of that careful listening mentioned earlier.

Ignoring a different perspective might lead to unfortunate consequences

Sometimes failing to listen is not only limiting, as demonstrated by the many untrue beliefs about Thanksgiving, but also potentially dangerous, as it was in Encounter, an alternate version of the Columbus story. In this book, a young Taino boy runs to his chief to report “three great-sailed canoes” nearing their shore, and is fearful of what might happen next. But the chief will not heed the warning, telling the boy he is only a child.

From the boy’s perspective, the strange creatures who arrive on the boats may not be human, because they hide their bodies in colors and hide their feet as well. There are bushes growing on their chins, and how could skin so pale come from the earth? Students are intrigued to see the world through this boy’s eyes—the evil he recognizes in the silver spears of the strangers, and in the darts that thunder from their sticks. Still, his elders will not listen. Then the boy is captured, forced to sail away on one of the great canoes. The last page shows an old man in a suit jacket perched on a tree-stump many centuries later, reminiscing about his lands forever lost to the pale-faced strangers. How important is listening? How important is exploring a different perspective? This book invites such important conversations.

Try to see something through another person’s eyes

Sometimes we ask students to understand another person’s perspective just because it’s the “right” thing to do, although they may not know much about the situation that calls for this response. Insight into the underlying issue is key to more genuine buy-in when it comes to perspective-taking. The book Going Home illustrates this. In the story, Carlos describes his family’s visit to Mexico for Christmas. He and his sisters were born there, but came to America with their parents years earlier. The children can’t fathom why their parents are so excited to make the trip, but that changes as soon as they arrive in their family’s small village.

Amid the animated dinner chatter, Carlos notices that his parents have never been livelier. Everyone is impressed that he and his sisters are dressed nicely and can speak English. Papa tells them the schools in America are good and his children are getting a fine education, and that he has steady work in his new country. As Carlos and his sisters fall asleep that night under the stars, Mama and Papa come out of grandfather’s house and begin to dance, so pleased to be home, if only briefly. In that moment, Carlos understands that for his parents, Mexico will always be home. They left so their children could have “the opportunities.” It’s a perspective-changing insight.

This post is an excerpt from Nancy Boyles’ book, Classroom Reading to Engage the Heart and Mind: 200+ Picture Books to Start SEL Conversations (W. W. Norton, April 2020).

Nancy Boyles, formerly a classroom teacher and professor of reading at Southern Connecticut State University, is the author of multiple books for literacy educators. She is currently a consultant working with districts and educational agencies to provide workshops, model lessons in classrooms, and assist with curriculum development.

Social Studies: Integrating Social and Emotional Learning

Teachers have always known that they have a duty to teach students, not just content. Most of the skills taught beyond the core curriculum fit under the umbrella of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). CASEL identifies five competencies of SEL: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making. While all of these competencies should be practiced in the social studies classroom, I want to focus on two: 

Social Awareness

  • Perspective-taking
  • Empathy
  • Appreciating diversity
  • Respect for others 

Responsible Decision-Making

  • Identifying problems
  • Analyzing situations
  • Solving problems
  • Evaluating
  • Reflecting
  • Ethical Responsibility 

One of the first problems that historians must address is historical viewpoints. Whose point of view has been documented? What is the motive behind choosing a certain perspective? Do we only have the story of those in power? Whose story is missing? Have we considered the perspective of others who may have a different gender, ethnicity, culture, or socio-economic status?

Social studies teachers can teach Social Awareness by having students consider alternative historical perspectives. What was the Native American perspective on the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War? How did the term “God-given rights” make them feel? How did enslaved people feel? Did they think that their lives would get better or worse if the colonies won? 

By practicing empathy toward those whose history has not been traditionally emphasized, students learn to fathom the rich fabric of human culture and to respect those who may have had different life experiences. Social Awareness is vital to a well-rounded view of history and for appreciating the diversity of culture within the United States. 

After considering multiple viewpoints, students should practice Responsible Decision-Making. Student historians can observe primary and secondary sources through a multitude of mediums. Students should critically analyze situations and evaluate the historical choices that people have made. Reflecting on the ethics of these decisions, they can contemplate whether or not they would have made the same choices. 

In my American history class, we scrutinized U.S. foreign policy from the Spanish American War to the present. Students looked at the many U.S. interventions around the world, and questioned if our motive was seeded in Manifest Destiny (the positive propaganda of spreading Christianity, democracy, and civilization) or if we had selfish reasons based in political power and economic gain. We discussed the custom of American politicians explaining foreign policy in terms of morality, rather than the realpolitik philosophy of many other countries.

For each intervention, students examined the viewpoints of the government, military, businesses, and common people of both the U.S. and the country with which the U.S. was involved. Additionally, students considered the perspectives of allies and enemies of the United States, and sorted through multiple primary and secondary sources, evaluating viewpoints and biases.

The short answer to what students discovered is that it’s complicated. The U.S. is neither “good” nor “bad;” every foreign policy decision is a complex combination of many interest groups. In each intervention, some groups benefited and others did not. By analyzing the policy decisions made, students learned to appreciate all the people involved. This is especially important in our current political climate that pits only two, narrow viewpoints against each other without any nuance. In social studies classrooms students should be pushed to think past this entrenched dichotomy so that they can negotiate realistic compromises on complex national and global issues. 

With Thanksgiving coming up, we have the perfect opportunity for students of all ages to practice Social Awareness and Responsible Decision-Making. They could ponder:

  • Is the traditional story of Thanksgiving historically accurate? 
  • How do cultural and religious beliefs influence the telling of the story?
  • How would Native Americans tell the story of the first Thanksgiving?  
  • How did Thanksgiving become a national holiday and what was the motivation of the politicians who declared it? 
  • How has Thanksgiving been used as national propaganda and myth making of the origin of our country? 
  • What is the current responsibility of the United States toward indigenous peoples? 
  • How can we both celebrate Thanksgiving with our families and honor Native people who suffered loss of land and livelihood?
  • For additional ideas, see “A Racial Justice Guide to Thanksgiving for Educators and Families” by the Center for Racial Justice in Education.

Social Awareness and Responsible Decision-Making are vital skills for all students. Social studies is the perfect content area to cultivate these skills so that future generations have the tools to respectfully collaborate and negotiate viable solutions to global issues. 

Mike Kaechele is a Project Based Learning (PBL) coach and National Faculty member of Buck Institute for Education, leading workshops around the country to help teachers make the shift to student-centered inquiry. During 15 years of PBL teaching, Mike has taught social studies, math, STEM, and STEAM classes. His passion is inspiring educators to design engaging PBL curriculum for all content areas and age levels.

Social Studies: Four Big Questions to Connect Then and Now

For many students, studying history can feel like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle has been dumped on their desk. How do they even begin to sort it out, much less make sense of a jumble of discreet events in the hopes of ever glimpsing the big picture?

Likewise, current events can seem like a carousel of unconnected facts, experiences, and impressions leaving them with a vague sense of déjà vu. This is particularly true as news cycles accelerate, volume goes up and it’s difficult to decipher what’s happening amidst the noise.

Faced with the challenge of wrapping their brains around what’s occurred in the past and connecting it to the history that’s being written right under their noses, can you blame kids if they’re tempted to throw up their hands and say, “Humans! Who knows what they’ll do next?”

So your challenge as you approach these subjects is to help your students create a template for thinking about Then and Now in a way that highlights the common threads in human behavior over time, so they can begin to identify the forces that hold society together or pull it apart, to see discernable patterns that connect the past with today’s headlines.

One way to approach this challenge is to invite your students to think like anthropologists, trying to figure out what drives human behavior by studying how humans continuously grapple with four big questions:

  • How do we survive?
  • How do we thrive? 
  • How do we evolve? 
  • What makes us devolve?

In every era of recorded history, humans keep revisiting this short list of challenges—sometimes getting better, sometimes losing ground. Current events are simply evidence of our latest efforts.

Let’s look at the issue of voting, which dominates the news in this year before the election, with stories about voting rights, voter suppression, eliminating polling places, purging voter rolls, voter turnout, and voter apathy. This critical topic reaches back to the ancient Greeks, with notable milestones along the way as we journey back to earlier times: the courage of the civil rights marchers, the hunger strikes of the suffragettes, universal suffrage for non-landowning males after the French revolution, and the Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy which promoted participatory democracy hundreds of years before our Declaration of Independence.

The Greeks were so convinced that citizen participation was paramount in a democracy that showing up was mandatory. Any eligible voters found lounging around the agora instead of attending debates on the topics of the day, were marked men. Slaves would smack the back of their white togas with a rope dipped in red chalk to advertise that they’d shirked their responsibilities. Now there’s a juicy prompt for a classroom conversation that’s stunningly relevant as we head into an election year.

Suppose you want to give this Big Question approach a try, using the four questions provided above or fine-tuning the list to your curricular focus. A simple way to road test the process is to dedicate a bulletin board to the effort. Post the big questions at the top and invite your students to bring in headlines from the newspaper or downloaded from the internet.

Now comes thinking and linking. Ask them to decide what is the most appropriate category for each headline. Are the events reported most concerned with surviving, thriving, evolution or devolution? This can lead to lively debates as some headlines may straddle two questions. The thinking is what’s important.

The headline, “Cars Banned from City Center to Curb Pollution,” is a case in point. Some students may immediately place it in the survival column because clean air is fundamental to human life, while others may opt for thrive because cleaner air promotes better health, productivity and longevity. But a third opinion may be that this headline actually belongs in the evolve category, for while it may look technologically regressive to ban cars, it could also indicate movement toward more sustainable energy sources, prioritizing the good of the whole community over personal convenience, and protecting the natural world.

After sorting and posting, you can begin to link the present to the past with a series of open-ended questions, such as: 

  • Can you think of similar events in the past?
  • What kind of solutions did people come up with then?
  • What difficulties did they encounter?
  • What might work now?

As your students become more familiar with the nuances of the big questions, they’ll get better at spotting trends in contemporary life and take pride in their ability to see the bigger picture.

You may be thinking “This will take a lot of time and I have so much material to cover. Can I really afford this kind of inquiry-based approach in a test-driven atmosphere?”

I know that pressure. I was in a classroom for nearly twenty-five years and as a principal, I had to be concerned with the performance of 750 students. But we must have the courage to ask this question: What kind of citizens do we want for our world?

I hope the answer is: People with a keen awareness of the main forces at play in the world who will ask “what is my role in that world?” and answer “vital participation.”

This post is adapted from a chapter in Laurel Schmidt’s book, Social Studies that Sticks: How to Bring Content and Concepts to Life

Laurel Schmidt is also the author of Classroom Confidential: The 12 Secrets of Great Teachers, Gardening in the Minefield: A Survival Guide for School Administrators, and Seven Times Smarter: How To Develop the Seven Intelligences in Your Child.

Social Studies: Teaching about Elections

How to teach politics without getting too political

The tricky thing about teaching politics to any grade level of students is leaving your own politics out of it. I always knew I had taught a successful unit if by the end, students still did not know which way I leaned politically. I have had colleagues who make it very clear which way they lean, even going so far as to have bumper stickers or signage touting specific candidates hanging in their classroom. This always bothered me because although I think teachers are responsible for influencing our students to be learners, there are certain topics we have no business influencing. I subscribe to the Linus theory:

“I’ve learned there are three things you don’t discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

Linus Van Pelt (Charles Schultz)

This does not mean ignoring the issues altogether though. It is important for students be aware there are religions that are different than the one they practice just as there are different stances on politics. You also want to mine student interest whenever it rears its head so whenever the presidential election rolls around, I would always have my students participate in an election of their own.

I would show them the political spectrum:

I would explain each of these parts of the spectrum:

  • Radical: Advocating extreme policies, usually used in connection with extreme left-wing politics.
  • Liberal: A belief that regards the individual as a rational being capable of overcoming obstacles to a better world and supports changes in the political and economic status quo.
  • Moderate: Middle of the road politics that believe that some things should change while others can remain with the status quo.
  • Conservative: A defense of the political and economic status quo against forces of change; holds that established customs, laws, and traditions should guide society.
  • Reactionary: Advocating extremely conservative politics.

And explain that depending on how far right or left on the spectrum, the more radical your politics. This would often times spark a discussion about how any main stream politicians tend to be in the moderate range because it appeals to a larger number of voters.

After students have a pretty good grasp of the political spectrum, rather than talking about the current election and its politics, a place where it is very easy to get caught in the weeds, I have students form groups and create their own political party. This allows them to bring their opinions, beliefs, and background to the conversation rather than the teacher providing the dialogue for them.

Each person in the group took on a specific role. The choices were:

  • President: Is responsible for a speech that lays out the party’s platform as well as how they stand on three specific issues.
  • Vice-President: Is responsible for a speech that matches the President’s platform as well as how they stand on three different specific issues.
  • Campaign manager: Is in charge of managing the entire campaign from the speeches to the advertisements to the candidates.
  • Speech writer: Is responsible for helping the President and Vice-President to craft their speeches, needs to cross check the speeches to make sure they do not contradict one another.
  • Press secretary: Responsible for the marketing of the candidates from their advertisements to their slogan.

This way students can choose roles where they have strengths. In other words, someone who is comfortable speaking in public might take on one of the candidate roles, while a student talented in art could focus on designing the campaign poster. A student who has good ideas but is shy may help write the speeches while an organized child would be great for the role of the campaign manager and keeping everyone on task.

The group then decides where their party stands on specific political topics. I provided them with a list of them:

As the teacher, it is up to you whether you want to include such hot topic issues such as abortion, gay rights, or the death penalty. It would depend on the age of your students as well as the temperament of your administration and parents.

To increase the authentic nature of this project, I always made the venue for the candidate speeches as real to life as possible. I called city hall to see if we could use their facilities. I invited prominent community members to serve on the panel that would evaluate the speeches including the school superintendent, business leaders, and the mayor. I even invited the press to come and cover the event, so students were seeing how this worked in the real world rather than in the test tube of a classroom.

I usually only did this project during the presidential election year because that was when interest was highest with all of the news exposure and advertisements, but it could be done any election year. I did this with students as low as 5th grade all the way to seniors in high school. This project could be adapted to local or state issues as well. The important thing is that while students are learning about politics, they are able to include their own voice and opinions. If you would like a lesson plan for this project you can download one for free at

Todd Stanley is the author of many teacher-education books including Project-Based Learning for Gifted Students, Authentic Learning, and his latest Case Studies and Case-Based Learning. He served as a classroom teacher for 18 years and is currently the gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local Schools. You can follow him on Twitter @the_gifted_guy or visit his website at where you can access blogs, resources, and view PD presentations.