Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Discourse in Social Studies

Sarah Brewer, Shayna Pond, Chelsee Wilson | Published: August 20th, 2021 by K20 Center


While it is important for students to engage in classroom discourse in their social studies classes to develop their understanding, purposeful and effective opportunities for students to share their thinking and reasoning do not happen on their own. They require deliberate planning and facilitation from teachers. During this interactive session participants will define discourse and discuss its importance in the classroom as well as engage with a variety of instructional strategies and technology resources that foster discourse in the social studies classroom.

Essential Questions

  • Why is discourse important to Social Studies instruction?

  • How do we foster discourse in the Social Studies classroom?

Learning Goals

  • Participants will experience instructional strategies and resources that promote discourse in the social studies classroom.

  • Participants will analyze how these instructional strategies and resources promote discourse in the social studies classroom.

Materials List

  • Devices to access the Internet

  • Sticky Notes

  • Pens/pencils

  • Presentation Slides (attached)

  • Discourse in Social Studies Note Catcher (attached, one per participant)

  • Laws and Practices Shaping the Lives of Women in 1848 Handout (attached, one per participant)

  • Honeycomb Harvest Cards (attached, 1 per participant or small group)

  • Talk Moves Handout (attached, 1 per participant)



Participants will offer descriptive words for what discourse looks like and then participate in a poll about the benefits of discourse.


Participants will explore three strategies that support discourse in the classroom by participating in these strategies as if they are students.


Participants will discuss the benefits of each strategy explored for supporting discourse in their classroom.


In small groups, participants will discuss which strategies they could use in their classroom and consider how they would modify them to best serve their students. Participants will also reflect and discuss in small groups why these strategies are effective at promoting discourse.

Engage: What is Discourse?

Divide participants into small groups. Display slide 3. Ask participants to consider this question - “What words or phrases would you use to describe ‘discourse’ as it relates to the Social Studies classroom?”

Use Mentimeter to set up a word cloud generator to use during the presentation. In Mentimeter create a new presentation using the “word cloud” option for slide 1 and the following prompt: What words or phrases would use to describe the ‘discourse’ as it relates to the Social Studies classroom? Participants should then use their phones or open their devices to go to and use the custom Mentimeter code to connect them with the presentation. As participants enter their responses use the “presentation” mode on Mentimeter to display the word cloud on the board as it is being created. Once all responses have been submitted, you may call on participants to share their observations about the ideas that were contributed to the word cloud. Additionally, you can offer your insights.

Display slide 4 and conclude this discussion by summarizing that classroom discourse encompasses the different written and spoken forms of communication in the classroom, including instances when students are engaged in expressing their ideas, discussing their reasoning, and representing their thinking. Discourse can be talking, listening, writing, reflecting, or representing.

The Value of Discourse

Return to your Menti presentation and create a second slide and use the “ranking” option to create a poll. Include the following as “items” to rank:

  • It helps students develop a deeper understanding of the content.

  • It creates opportunities for students to participate in content-centered discussions.

  • It fosters a student-centered classroom.

  • It allows students to share ideas and respond to the ideas of others.

  • It provides opportunities for students to use higher-order thinking skills like organizing, synthesizing, and interpreting.

  • It gives students practice with expressing their ideas by constructing supported explanations of their thinking, both written and verbal.

Next, display the poll for participants and ask them to read through the items on the screen. Then ask participants to choose the statement they feel best captures why discourse is important to promote in the classroom.

Before displaying the results, ask participants to discuss with their small groups, which item they chose as most important. Ask that each person share what they chose and an explanation of their rationale.

After groups have a chance to share with each other, display the results of the poll and ask for volunteers to share their thoughts.

Return to the lesson slides and display slide 5 and conclude the discussion by noting that each of these items are important reasons for fostering discourse in the social studies classroom. Transition to the next activity by noting that now that we’ve discussed what discourse is and why it’s important to classroom instruction we are going to look at several strategies that can be used to support discourse in the classroom.

Exploring Discourse Strategies

Explain to participants that they are going to explore three instructional strategies that can be used to support discourse in the classroom. For each strategy introduced, there will be an Explore, Explain, and Extend cycle. First we will explore the strategy by participating (as if we are students) in the strategy using a Social Studies content example, then we will explain in our own words how this strategy is useful for supporting discourse. After we have explored all of these strategies, we will Extend our thinking by considering how to use these strategies in your own classrooms.

Discourse Strategy 1: Analyzing texts with Surprising, Interesting, Troubling


Display slide 6. The first strategy to be explored is called SIT - Surprising, Interesting, Troubling. Explain to participants that the SIT strategy helps students analyze texts, videos, or images. Students are first given a text to read, a video to watch, or an image to observe. Then, students are asked to identify one surprising fact or idea, one interesting fact or idea, and one troubling fact or idea. Once students have had a chance to consider their individual responses they can then share their ideas and reasoning with small groups and/or during a whole class discussion.

Give each participant a copy of the Laws and Practices Shaping the Lives of Women in 1848 and tell them that they are going to practice using the SIT strategy as students would use it in the classroom. Explain to participants that they are receiving a document that students might be given in a U.S. history course. The document consists of a list of laws and social practices that shaped the lives of women in 1848 - the year of the Seneca Falls Convention or the first public meeting devoted to women’s rights.

Display slide 7. Tell them to read over and examine the document and consider something that surprises them, something that interests them, and something that troubles them. Once participants have had a chance to individually read the document ask them to discuss their responses with their small groups. Give each three sticky notes and ask that each group work together to write a response for S, I, and T, one response on each sticky.

When all groups have finished writing their responses, call on each group to share out. Ask a representative from each group to post their stickies on a white board or large poster paper that has been labeled Surprising, Interesting, Troubling.

Conclude the discussion by noting that the responses that were shared were great examples of using the SIT strategy and could help get the conversation going about the realities women faced in the 1800s. You can also share that this activity is used in The Seneca Falls Convention and the Declaration of Sentiments lesson on K20’s LEARN website.


Display slide 8. Pass out the Discourse in Social Studies Note Catcher handout. Tell participants that now, based on their experience with the SIT strategy, consider the following question: How does the SIT strategy help foster discourse in the classroom? Ask that participants discuss this with their small groups. As they discuss they can also fill out the SIT strategy section of their Note Catcher handout.

When groups are finished talking bring the whole group back together and ask for groups to share their thoughts with the whole group.

Summarize the discussion highlighting that SIT can promote discourse because it provides students with a structure for content-centered discussions in which students must share their thinking with their peers. They must make a claim and then support that claim with evidence and reasoning. This could be done both verbally and in writing.

Discourse Strategy 2: Making connections with Honeycomb Harvest


Display slide 9 and transition to the next strategy, Honeycomb Harvest. The Honeycomb Harvest strategy uses hexagonal cards to encourage students to make physical connections to represent their learning. Each hexagon contains a term related to the content students are studying. Terms that are related to each other will be placed together with their sides touching. Students can work individually or in groups to arrange their honeycombs and must justify their reasoning once they have completed their honeycombs.

Display slide 10. Explain to participants that the terms on the screen are related to American government and will be the terms that they will be working with as they experiment with the honeycomb harvest strategy. Provide sets of the Honeycomb Harvest cards to each participant or small group of participants. Give participants about 5-10 minutes to arrange the honeycombs to best represent their understanding of these government concepts. You might consider giving an example to help participants get started. For example, you could say that the “separation of powers” and “checks and balances” honeycombs could touch because they both involve the three branches of government.

If you chose to have individuals complete the harvest ask that each individual share their reasoning with their small group. If small groups completed their harvests together, ask that they rotate to another group to see another arrangement to compare and contrast.

Bring the group back together and explain that they should have noticed that each person/group arranged their honeycombs differently. It should be expected your students will produce a variety of arrangements. As long as students can accurately justify their reasoning their arrangement would be considered “correct.”


Display slide 11. Tell participants that now, based on their experience with the Honeycomb Harvest strategy, consider the following question: How does the Honeycomb Harvest strategy help foster discourse in the classroom? Ask that participants discuss this with their small groups. As they discuss they can also fill out the Honeycomb Harvest strategy section of their Note Catcher handout.

When groups are finished talking bring the whole group back together and ask for groups to share their thoughts with the whole group.

Summarize the discussion highlighting that the Honeycomb Harvest allows students to explain their reasoning and negotiate their thinking with their peers to represent their thinking about the content.

Discourse Strategy 3: Academic conversations with Talk Moves


Display slide 12. Introduce the final strategy called Talk Moves. Talk Moves are sentence starters that help students learn how to effectively participate in academic conversations with their peers. These sentence starters support students in expressing their ideas, asking questions, and supporting their claims with evidence. Give each participate a copy of the Talk Moves handout and explain that this handout can be given to students any time there is going to be small group or whole group discussion. As students are involved in the discussion they can look to the sentence starters on the handout to support them in participating in the conversation.

One way to use this strategy is when students are asked to discuss historical documents. Let’s explore how this might look in your classroom. For example, we are going to look at the Langston Hughes poem called I, Too, that might be read as part of a high school US history lesson or unit about the Harlem Renaissance. This poem is on the back of the Talk Moves handout.

Ask participants to read the poem and then look over the Talk Moves handout. Explain to participants that you will give them five minutes with their small groups to practice using the Talk Moves sentence starters to engage in an academic conversation about the poem and its historical significance.


Display slide 13. Tell participants that now, based on their experience with the Talk Moves strategy, consider the following question: How does the Talk Moves strategy help foster discourse in the classroom? Ask that participants discuss this with their small groups. As they discuss they can also fill out the Talk Moves strategy section of their Note Catcher handout.

When groups are finished talking bring the whole group back together and ask for groups to share their thoughts with the whole group.

Summarize discussion noting the connections participants made between Talk Moves and promoting discourse in the classroom. Highlight that Talk Moves can support discourse because it helps students develop the skills necessary to participate in academic conversation where they must express and share their ideas as well as consider and listen to the ideas and opinions of others.

Extend/Evaluate: Reflecting on Discourse

To conclude this session, display slide 14. Ask participants to consider their students and reflect on how these strategies would look in their classroom. Discuss the following questions with their small groups:

  • Which of today’s strategies do you plan to implement in your classroom? Why?

  • Why do you think these strategies are effective in promoting discourse? Explain.

  • How might you modify these strategies to work with your students? Explain.

Participants can also record their responses on the back of the Note Catcher handout if they wish.

After groups have had a chance to discuss, ask that participants record their answers on their Note Catcher.

Once participants have had a chance to do this, call on volunteers to share out to the whole group.

Research Rationale

Authentic learning—exploring meaningful concepts, their relationships, and real-world context—is inherent to disciplined inquiry and complex understanding. Rule (2006) noted that rich problems adhere to principles such as “personal meaningfulness to students; construction, refinement, or extension of a model; self-evaluation; documentation of mathematical thinking; useful prototype for other structurally similar problems; and generalization to a broader range of situations.” Not surprisingly, these traits are similar to the traits of good essential questions. There are a number of academic benefits for students and teachers which can be accomplished purely by giving time and space in the classroom for students to have conversations. When student conversation is an integrated part of the learning, students get practice working with one another, they get practice being accountable to others, listening, sharing their ideas in ways that others can understand, and working together to make decisions (Gillies, 2016;  Resnick, Michaels, & Connor, 2010; Gibbs, 2006). The learning that results from student conversations increases student motivation, self-esteem, and problem-solving outcomes. For teachers, giving students a space to speak gives insight into how students are organizing their thoughts and can serve as formative assessments of what students are learning over the course of a lesson.


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