As an elementary teacher in a self-contained classroom, I teach social studies every day. At times this can be difficult since *gasp*, we don’t have textbooks. I know this may come as a shock to many, but it’s my reality, and I make thebest of it. The administration at my school, just doesn’t see the importance of adopting a social studies curriculum since it isn’t a “high stakes” testing subject. So what is an educator to do? Improvise. 

The last time my social studies textbooks were updated, Nixon was in office.

The last time my social studies textbooks were updated, Nixon was in office.

Picture books 

I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to supplement an ailing or nonexistent social studies curriculum is with picture books. What I do:

1.) Pull the state standards

2.) Make a list of topics,

3.) Go on a classroom and Google hunt for books that fit

My first year teaching, I was given a box of books by a friend. One of the books that was in the box, The Memory Coat by Elvira Woodruff, is an encouraging tale about how a boy’s coat helped secure his family’s future in the U.S. Not only is the story endearing, it is the perfect introduction for a lesson on immigration. At the end of the year when I asked students which story they liked the most, it was their favorite.

I did something similar while teaching my fourth graders about the Revolutionary War. The traditional articles and videos that I found online weren’t written on a fourth grade level, so instead I bought a used copy of Rosalyn Schanzer’s book George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen by Both Sides

This was one of the best five dollar purchases I’ve ever made. I used the book to lead a thoughtful, week long discussion of viewpoints of both the British and the Colonists. Engagement was at an all-time high!

Here’s a link to an excellent list of read-alouds by social studies and grade: 

This link also provides a list of books with social studies related themes. It also includes a short summary of each book and theme

And this is one of the best websites I have found for finding trade books to use during social studies lessons.  Published by the NCSS, it has 16 years’ worth of PDFs of notable trade books to use while teaching Social Studies.

Historical Fiction

Another great option for supplementing the curriculum is historical fiction. Like picture books, historical fiction chapter books cover social studies topics in a unique way: through the eyes of a character. has thousands included in their booklists (see the link below). There are lots of teen selections as well as some that are appropriate for younger kids. 

Reading these books to or with students is a unique way to engage students in topics that are traditionally “textbook taught”. While scanning through the lists, I spotted one of my middle school favorite’s, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor. This book can be used to show the struggles of African Americans during the Jim Crow Era. Another classic, Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan, outlines the difficulties faced during the Great Depression. The options seem endless.

The best thing of all is that many of these selections (picture book or chapter books) can be found in read aloud form on Youtube or purchased through Audible making them a cheaper and more interesting alternative to traditional textbooks. 

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