Social studies lesson plans: 17 Ideas to expand your students worldview
A great social studies class takes students around the world, through time, and equips them with the knowledge and tools for engaged global citizenship. This is no small task! How can teachers create exceptional learning opportunities to achieve these lofty goals?
We have a few ideas. Read on for ideas for powerful lessons that will help you bring social studies to life.
These lessons can be adapted for students of all ages. They span all subcategories of social studies: geography, history, anthropology and political science. The ideas and associated resources are ideal for student-centered, project-based classrooms, and many of them work great for distance and remote learning. Let’s get to it!
1. Take students on a virtual museum tour
If your students love field trips, why not take more, virtually? There are a plethora of incredible virtual museums that will engage your students with material curated by the top experts in the world. Here are a few lists of museums with amazing virtual tours:
- A list of museums and galleries with virtual tours
- A list of the 10 best history-oriented museums with virtual tours
- 20 best online museums
- A list of 30 amazing virtual tours
- A list of awesome field trips from the University of Pittsburgh
If you find that your students get sidetracked or don’t focus in museums, you can easily guide their inquiry through museum scavenger hunts. You can make your own or find one online. Here is a great free scavenger hunt based on a virtual visit to an art museum that we found on Teachers Pay Teachers. Pictures below!
My favorite e-field trip is the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History virtual tour. You can pair the tour with this great free scavenger hunt that students can do in the museum, also from Teachers Pay Teachers.
2. Get students exploring and traveling the world via Google Maps Street View and Google Earth
Some great games to play as a class or individually are:
- A Quizlet game that requires students to travel the world on Google Maps searching for info! You can read this article for ideas to do this and see the benefis.
- Geoguessr, a “geography game which takes you on a journey around the world and challenges your ability to recognize your surroundings.”
- Or Mapcrunch, a game where you can virtually experience a point on the globe.
For any of these resources, consider assigning your students a descriptive writing prompt based on a destination they visited. This works especially well on Mapcrunch. Or, assign your students a research project in which students must identify the type of government and leader of each destination they visit!
3. Learn about the Seven Wonders of the Modern World through a four-step process lesson project
The Seven Wonders of the World are a great touchstone to introduce students to geography, cultural heritage, and more. Here’s how we recommend teaching students about the Seven Wonders of the World:
First, frontload your class by providing a brief crash course about the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. You can do this as a mini-lecture, research project, etc!
Next, take the students on a virtual tour of each of the seven Modern Wonders of the World! Then, task each student with designing a tourist pamphlet for it. The pamphlet can include the wonder’s history, cultural significance, facts about its geographic location,, etc. You can create great pamphlets for free on Canva or Flipsnack!
Last, assess the students’ knowledge easily with this Quizlet study set on the Seven Wonders of the Modern World!
Screenshot of Virtual Tour of the Great Wall of China from The China Guide (from virtual tour of each of the seven Modern Wonders of the World) link above.
4. Have students follow the news and create political cartoons/comic strips about a current event
It is often difficult to get students interested in the news. However, my students loved this assignment and rapidly became engaged, inspired and informed political citizens!
Introduce your students to the art of writing and creating comic strips. Then, get them reading, watching and listening to the news!
Next, assign your students to create a comic strip about a current event. There is a fantastic and thorough massive online open course offered by High Tech High and hosted by Coursea that will teach your students how to make comic books. You can create your comic strips on Canva’s comic strip platform, or Storyboardthat.com’s comic strip platform. Your students will love synthesizing the news into creative and goofy comic strips!
5. Create your own news podcast
Assign your students to listen to a weekly or daily news podcast to get them familiar with the format. Then, ask them to make their own news podcast about a current event. Student-friendly websites where students make their own podcasts include: Anchor or SoundTrap.
6. Apply modern technology to the past
Ask students to design an app that could help a historical figure. For example, what app could Nelson Mandela have used to lead the Anti-Apartheid Movement? Appypie.com is a great website that allows students to easily build apps, and it doesn’t require any coding!
7. Celebrate different cultures’ holidays throughout the school year
Students love having parties, so why not make them educational? Make a calendar with lots of different cultures’ holidays on it. Then, assign each student a holiday. Throughout the school year, each student will be in charge of researching the holiday to present to the class and hosting a mini-party to celebrate the holiday.
For example, a student could be assigned to research and host a Holi celebration. Holi is a popular Hindu celebration that usually occurs in March, and occasionally late February. Below is a fantastic video explaining a bit about the history of Holi and how it is celebrated in schools and communities in Australia.
Here is another video explaining a bit more about Holi and showing gorgeous footage of Holi being celebrated in India!
You could have a student research Holi and give a brief 15-minute presentation about the history of Holi and Hinduism, and how Holi is celebrated. Then, the student could plan a Holi party for the class! Here are some suggestions of how to celebrate Holi at your school.
You could celebrate a different holiday every week, all while learning about different cultures, religions, countries and world history!
8. Start a penpal exchange between your class and a class from a different culture or country
This is one of my students’ most cherished school projects. Some of my past students even kept in touch with their cross-culture penpals long after our class ended! There are many benefits of being involved in an international penpal program. To set up a penpal exchange with students from a different culture/country, check out penpalschools.com. Here is a powerful video made by penpalschools.com about its program.
9. For U.S. Students: Learn about indigenous people from your area
Design transformative and powerful lessons about Native American tribes from your area. If your school is on land that historically belonged to indigenous people, have your students research what happened to them and where are they today.
Check out this app or visit whose.land.en to learn about the indigenous history of the land you live on. Then, act as advocates! Task your students with designing an infographic to share on social media that will educate the public about the history of the land. If injustices occurred, have them present possible steps towards righting them.
10. More virtual field trips!
The best way to learn about different cultures and countries is through exposure. With virtual field trips, you can teleport your children around the world, visiting a zoo, an aquarium, ancient Egypt and Angkor Wat all in one week. Your students will be blown away! Here are three websites that provide lists of great virtual field trips:
- A list of 25+ amazing virtual field trips
- 30 amazing virtual tours
- A HUGE list of online free virtual field trips created during the COVID-19 shutdown of schools.
We recommend guiding your students' inquiry by assigning them to write journal entries from the perspective of an explorer, tourist or visitor based on their virtual exploration of the site! Finally, solidify and assess your students’ understanding of where they visited through your own Quizlet diagram! Not sure what a Quizlet diagram is? Check it out here!
11. Engage students in a mini-election
First, frontload your class by providing a brief crash course on the U.S. government branches.
Then, ask students to write a reflection paper stating what branch of government they’d want to work in.
Next, have students complete this thorough presidential quiz to come up with one-sentence statements summing up their personal positions on each overarching category (foreign affairs, immigration issues, etc.).
Then, have students create election materials for themselves: slogan, logo, speech, advertisements, etc.
Last, solidify students’ understanding of U.S. government structure with a great Quizlet study set! Your students will have a blast creating creative personal political campaigns and learning about the U.S. government.
12. Host a model united nations
Hosting a Model UN can truly be an amazing life-changing opportunity for students. There are countless amazing benefits of hosting a Model UN! Students feel empowered to learn about the UN, foreign affairs, and critical global issues. Here is a great resource to help you easily host a Model UN in your classroom with ease. You can also use this Quizlet study set to help prep your students for their Model UN.
13. Read and unpack Body Ritual Among the Nacirema, an Anthropology 101 classic
This lesson is perfect for the beginning of the semester. This incredible article blows students’ minds and sparks a fantastic discussion. Have your students read Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,but DON’T tell them who the Nacirema are! Discuss the article and gauge students’ impressions of the Nacirema! Then, reveal … MAJOR SPOILER ALERT … that the Nacirema are Americans (Nacirema = American backwards)! This reading and discussion is the perfect opportunity to introduce the following concepts: culture and ethnocentrism.
Then, ask students to write an updated, 2020 version of Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.
14. Teach students about culture clash, cultural norms and cultural sensitivity through a role-playing exercise
This lesson is also ideal for the beginning of the semester. Students love this exercise. They have a ton of fun and learn important anthropological concepts in a memorable way!
In this exercise, students are broken into two groups (for example, Pinklandia and Bluelandia). Each group is non-verbal. Each group is assigned very specific cultural norms that clash with one another. Each group should not know the other’s assigned cultural norms.
For example: Pinklandians hate to be touched on the head and like to stand very far apart from one another when interacting, while Bluelandians find it respectful to rub someone’s head and rude to stand far apart from one another while speaking. Next, with these “cultural norms” established, send the students into the same room together to attempt to trade items with one another (for example, shoes or paper). See what happens!
This fun exercise will catalyze lots of giggles and laughter, as well as a vibrant discussion about culture clash, cultural norms, cultural sensitivity, and the importance of respectfully communicating our differences.
15. Make a time capsule containing artifacts from today’s culture
After your students form a baseline understanding of culture, challenge them to choose objects be put into an imaginary time capsule. Tell them that the objects must adequately represent the school’s culture. The catch is that the students must unanimously agree on each object. Let this exercise catalyze discussions about diversity within cultures, the ubiquity of culture, cultural artifacts, and cultural heritage.
16. Analyze and celebrate famous speeches such as Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” or Nelson Mandela’s “I am prepared to die.”
Depending on your course content, choose powerful speeches to play for your students. Familiarize your students with the speech’s content and tremendous significance. Then, present your students with many possible creative options to resynthesize and celebrate this speech. You could have students embed the speech into a rap or song on GarageBand (like Chimamanda Adiche’s We Should All Be Feminists into Beyonce’s Flawless), or ask them to create a poster or infographic publicizing it. As with all powerful historical content, a great deal of sensitivity should be utilized in framing this activity as to not trivialize the serious and transformative content.
See a video of Mandela’s 1964 speech here.
17. Discuss a global ethical dilemma such as “Women and the Well.”
Present the following story to your students:
A group of western travelers visit a rural developing community in the Congo. After seeing that the Congolese women walk hours to and from a well each day to collect water, the western travelers install a water well in the center of the Congolese village, without consulting the community, to save the women hours of walking each day.
However, these good intentions backfire. The time the Congolese women spent walking to and from the well was largely the only time the women spent out of their homes and in community with other women. When the women lacked a reason to leave their homes or socialize with their friends, rates of depression, anxiety and domestic abuse skyrocketed in the community.
You can use this story as a catalyst to discuss the complexity of civic and global foreign aid, as well as the merit of asset-based community development (ABCD). Here is a great link to learn about ABCD, and here is a great study set to solidify student understanding of ABCD.
Last, challenge students to create two different action plans implementing ABCD: one to implement positive change in their home communities, and one to implement positive change in a specific community other than their own.
Key Takeaways & Summary
As global connections and cultural diversity continue to increase rapidly, it is more important than ever to increase students’ global citizenship, intercultural competencies and capabilities. We must come together to tackle real-world, global critical issues.
These lesson plans will equip you to expand your students’ worldview and spark breakthrough moments in fun and dynamic ways. We hope you find these lessons as transformative and engaging as our students have!