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Teaching Point of View in Social Studies

January 10, 2023 No Comments

Teaching students to recognize historical perspective and point of view is such a big part of studying history. Instead of only looking at one side, we want students to consider how different people experienced the events that have taken place.

That said, understanding multiple perspectives can be really tough for elementary students – not just in history, but on the playground, am I right?! And it’s definitely more challenging when we’re talking about people who lived long ago. But there are some easy ways you can help your students work on this critical thinking skill in your social studies lessons!

Start with Background Knowledge

Students can’t identify historical perspectives if they don’t have background knowledge in place. It’s really helpful to take some time to teach about what was happening in a certain place at a certain time, and what the needs and wants were for different groups of people involved.

For example, fourth graders in Virginia learn about the interactions between Jamestown’s early settlers and the native peoples already living in the area. Studying the geography of the area, the lives of the native peoples, and the goals of the English settlers will help students better understand each group’s point of view.

recognizing perspectives poster and graphic organizer to compare 2 points of view

Use Guiding Questions and Prompts

It helps to have some go-to questions and prompts you can use when looking at different perspectives. I like using a graphic organizer (like somebody-wanted-but-so-then) or anchor chart because I think the visuals help students better understand.

Here are some questions you can try (these work for groups of people, too):

  • What is this person’s background? Does he/she have an occupation, a family, a home, etc.?
  • What motivated this person? What were his/her goals?
  • What is this person’s beliefs or values? How did he/she feel about ___________?
  • Why did he/she make the choices they did? What did he/she stand to gain or lose?
  • How would __________ have impacted him/her?

You can also ask questions to help develop empathy in your students (i.e., how would you have felt if you were ______), as long as you’re being careful to be sensitive.

Use Primary Sources

Firsthand accounts are awesome to use to teach points of view of diverse groups in their own voices. Some examples are diary or journal entries, letters, speeches, and interviews. It can be tricky to find ones that work at an elementary level, but they’re definitely out there (like this LoC lesson on the Civil War through a child’s perspective).

Compare and Contrast

Being able to compare and contrast is a huge part of recognizing point of view and opinions of different groups of people. A Venn diagram or t-chart can help students compare the needs and wants of each group, their choices before and during a historical event, and the event’s impact on their lives.

In this activity, students read primary source quotes from Captain John Smith and Powhatan. And then they analyze how each viewed the impact of the arrival of English settlers in (what is now now) Virginia.

VS.1d helps students recognize different points of view as you teach Virginia's history

Look at Cause and Effect

Along with exploring point of view, we can help students investigate how a historical event impacted different groups of people in various ways. A graphic organizer is a great way to map this out. (Be sure to scroll to the end for a free set you can use.)

Use Read Alouds to Show Different Points of View

Along with primary sources, I love using read-alouds to show different experiences of people throughout history. Here are two that work well:

George vs George book cover

George vs. George: The American Revolution As Seen from Both Sides

Colonial Voices book cover (great for teaching historical perspectives about the beginning of the American Revolution)

Colonial Voices: Hear Them Speak

And of course you can always read several books about the same event to compare and contrast perspectives. Literary nonfiction books are great for this!

Teaching multiple perspectives can be challenging, but it really helps students better connect to and understand what they’re learning. I hope this post gave you some ideas for teaching point of view in your social studies class. Let me know what other ways you like to teach this skill!

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