Making Time for Science and Social Studies

Let’s face it—finding enough time to teach science and social studies can be a challenge. For example, as a first grade teacher, my schedule allows me only a single 30-minute block in which to tackle both science and social studies, and that just isn’t enough instruction time for these crucial subjects. Thirty minutes just isn’t enough time to teach anything!

In order to make the most of my time with my students, I decided to think creatively about how I can incorporate science and social studies into our daily schedule. Below are the strategies I found most useful, which can help elementary school teachers find time for science and social studies in their packed schedules—not only in a short 30-minute time frame.

1. Teach Science and Social Studies Units Separately

This is a simple and common-sense strategy that has worked well for me. Each year, instead of teaching science and social studies simultaneously in the classroom, I teach my units separately. This provides to my students the opportunity to dive deeper into each subject, rather than just touch the surface of both. Students achieve mastery when they go deeper, not wider. 

2. Teach Thematic Units

This essentially means incorporating science/social studies content into reader’s and writer’s workshops. At the beginning of each school year when I sit down with my first grade teammates to create our curriculum calendar, we strategically choose which science or social studies unit best corresponds with our reading and writing units.

Below is a sample 1st grade Common Core–aligned curriculum calendar, which I created with colleagues at my former school.

This type of planning works well with nonfiction reading and writing units because I strategically select texts that support my science and social studies units of study. During whole class, small group, and independent work, students have the chance to practice important nonfiction reading skills and strategies while also learning science and social studies concepts, and reinforcing that new knowledge by thinking and talking about the texts.

By the same token, students can apply what they have learned from rich reading content to support their writing. For instance, they may use research about animals to write an all-about book, or use information learned about the seasons to write a persuasive paragraph, or write a poem about properties of matter. The possibilities are endless!

I’m sure you’re now wondering: How can I incorporate science and social studies into my fiction units? I have to admit that integrating science and social studies during a nonfiction reading and writing unit comes more naturally. But although integrating these areas of study into fiction can be more difficult, it is still a rewarding challenge. One social studies unit I particularly enjoy is Citizenship, when we spend quite some time discussing what good citizenship means. I partner this exploration with a Kevin Henkes author study and a realistic fiction writing unit. Henkes’s books convey life lessons that support many of the ideas around citizenship that we discuss as a class, and which my students incorporate into the characters they create.

This leads me to my next suggestion:

3. Teach Science/Social Studies in Lieu of Writer's Workshop 

Don’t panic! You will only need to do this one, maybe two days each week.

Like most teachers, I realized this problem of not having time to do it all during my first year in the classroom. My literacy coach at the time said that writer’s workshop only has to be done three times each week, and you can do science or social studies during that block one or two times a week. This was eye-opening, and I’ve carried this guidance with me since then. My current principal also encourages teachers to do science and social studies “labs” once a week during writing time! Being able to teach science or social studies during writing essentially opens up one or two additional hours each week to teach content! It is also a perfect time to do those activities that definitely take longer than 30 minutes: science experiments, research, engagement in group projects, and so forth.

And even though it isn’t the “official” writers workshop writing process, there's still significant writing involved. Science writing includes recording observations and data, writing steps to a procedure/experiment, and writing conclusions and any new information learned. “Social studies writing” includes taking research notes, writing reports, or writing new information learned in a social studies notebook. Students will absolutely still be writing every day.

4. Choose Science and Social Studies Texts for Guided Reading Groups

This suggestion is a great opportunity to creatively involve science and social studies in your weekly schedule. When planning and implementing guided reading groups, strategically pick science and social studies texts that align to your current unit of study throughout the school year. During this time, students in your guided reading groups can have yet another opportunity to absorb content while practicing reading strategies.

5. Make Science and Social Studies Texts Available and Accessible in Your Classroom Library 

During each unit, select and have “thematic unit” book bins accessible to your students in a way that is best suited for your classroom setup, on display and in a special place where your students know to visit for books to read. When kids “book-shop” and choose their just-right books for independent reading, encourage them to pick one or two books from the “thematic unit” bin. They can read these books during independent reading time and be exposed to science and social studies content.

6. Home Projects

Science and social studies take-home projects promote further discovery for students on topics they may want to learn more about. They can take their time to conduct research, and then prepare their work for an audience. This will also give them an opportunity to perhaps work with technology and collaborate with their families at home. When students present their projects to the class, they get the benefit of both public speaking and learning from their peers. (Participating in the school science fair is another way to achieve these goals.)

7. Collaborate with School Science Teacher 

I took advantage of this when teaching in New York City. On the days when my students had science, I would teach related content during classroom time before science, and then the science teacher would follow up with an experiment, or vice versa. This is especially valuable for building background knowledge necessary to conduct an experiment. It also provides an extended period of time for engaging in exploratory science-focused learning. 

My strategy is to provide my students with science and social studies content whenever and wherever possible, without being constrained by the half-hour block I'm given to cover these two content areas. 

BONUS: Click here to download a PDF poster version!