Heidi Ebert

Promoting Student Learning in Wisconsin Studies


Dr. Ava L. McCall

To view a slide show of Heidi at work click here.





Teaching Strategies

Assessment Strategies

Teaching Expertise

            Heidi Ebert teaches fourth grade at West Salem Elementary School, the only elementary school in West Salem, a small community near LaCrosse. During the six years she has taught Wisconsin studies, Heidi has developed very sophisticated methods of teaching to keep all students involved and learning and to verify students’ understanding during lessons. When Heidi teaches different Wisconsin studies units, she employs various strategies to support learning among her fourth-graders. In each unit, students read, watch videos, discuss, complete group research, share their research with the class, write, sort terms and categories, re-enact or engage in simulations, and create graphs and charts. Special projects, such as the Living History Museum and Lumberjack Days, also offer opportunities for student engagement. Heidi is very tuned into her students’ participation during whole group and small group activities. Through her careful observations, she knows who is understanding and who is not. Students’ participation is also increased through Heidi’s use of “SLANT” during lessons when her fourth-graders sit up, lean forward and listen, ask questions, take notes, and track the talker.

Wisconsin Studies Goals

            Heidi’s main goal for Wisconsin studies is for her students to know about the state where they live and to experience, appreciate, and be curious about its history. Ideally, Heidi trusts the knowledge her fourth-graders construct about Wisconsin will promote their character and moral development and lead to a sense of responsibility and positive interactions with others. Heidi wants her students to understand that Wisconsin is unique and has variety and versatility. She endeavors to teach her fourth-graders to understand and appreciate Wisconsin’s variations in natural resources, land use, and the economy as well as the variety of people who have influenced the state and contributed resources and ideas or philosophies that underpin political, economic, and social life. Heidi’s students are introduced to similarities and differences among the state’s five geographic regions, including the formation of the land, topography, and natural resources.

            Heidi introduces her students to different groups of people who lived in Wisconsin during different time periods, both Native people and immigrant groups. Heidi’s goals are for her fourth-graders to notice similarities and differences among the groups and understand that people came to Wisconsin throughout time for various reasons and brought their own cultural history with them. People’s backgrounds included their language, traditions, foods, perspectives, and desire to live with others from the same culture. Heidi wants the students to grasp the changes which occurred as people interacted, how decisions were made regarding use of land and resources, and evaluate the changes and decisions in terms of their beneficial and harmful effects. Ultimately, Heidi believes this historical study helps students understand the past so they can make better decisions in the future. She also wants the fourth-graders to realize people are still immigrating to Wisconsin for various reasons.

            Throughout her Wisconsin studies curriculum, Heidi emphasizes broad ideas and the changing nature of knowledge rather than discrete facts. She models her own willingness to learn and remain open minded regarding new ideas. For example, Heidi clarifies with her students that at one time, teachers and texts taught that Columbus discovered America and Nicolet discovered Wisconsin. However, those “facts” did not consider the Native people who were already living in the Americas and Wisconsin. Another of Heidi’s goals is to introduce the fallible nature of texts and encourage students to critique them for different perspectives and reliable content. 

Wisconsin Studies Curriculum

            In Heidi’s fourth-grade classroom, Wisconsin studies is part of the curriculum throughout the academic year. However, in order to devote longer blocks of time (one hour to one and one-half hours daily) to both social studies and science, Heidi alternates teaching science exclusively for several weeks followed by several weeks of teaching social studies. Ultimately, she estimates two-thirds of the school year is devoted to Wisconsin studies.


            The content of Heidi’s Wisconsin studies curriculum is enriched by numerous field trips to reinforce important ideas about early Native Americans, Wisconsin government, the fur trade, the logging industry during the 19th century and today, as well as other state industries, including dairy farming. Heidi begins her Wisconsin studies curriculum with a focus on maps, their function, and the geography of the state. She introduces students to Wisconsin’s five geographic regions and similarities and differences among the land formations, topographies, and natural resources.

            Early in the school year, Heidi’s fourth-graders learn about Wisconsin government, including the three branches of government, the purpose of each branch, the balance of power among the three branches, their governmental representatives, how bills become laws, and distinctions among local, state, and federal government. Heidi emphasizes students’ role in government, including understanding they are represented at each level of government and they must be informed about governmental activities. In order to reinforce these main ideas regarding Wisconsin government, Heidi schedules a field trip to the state capitol building and invites the state senator and representative to lead a simulation with all fourth-graders on how a bill becomes a law.

            Heidi follows a chronological approach in teaching Wisconsin history. She begins with prehistoric Native Americans, focusing on when the Paleo, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian Native American groups lived in the Wisconsin area and their tools, food, clothing, movements, and families. Heidi’s students are encouraged to summarize similarities and differences among the groups and to generalize that time, knowledge, and resources changed the first people’s lives. The fourth-graders consider positive and negative effects of trading and interactions with others. Heidi introduces the evidence historians have for early Native Americans’ lifestyles and encourages students to questions historians’ conclusions when they are not supported by evidence. When Heidi and her students take a field trip to the State Historical Society Museum, they focus on early Native American exhibits to reinforce some of the ideas taught in class.

            When Heidi introduces her fourth-graders to contemporary Native Americans in the state, she concentrates on the creation stories, philosophies, traditions of different nations, and what makes each nation unique. When discussing treaties between Native nations and the U.S. government, she emphasizes there were misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and two perspectives. Heidi endeavors to disrupt some of the stereotypes her students have about Native Americans and uses authentic literature and videos to provide accurate content.

            When Heidi and her students study explorers and the fur trade, they travel to Prairie du Chien to tour an old fur trading post and learn more about the importance of travel on the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers and rendezvous to the fur trade. As they concentrate on European settlement, Heidi focuses on the broad ideas that immigrants came from different parts of the world for various reasons and brought their own languages, traditions, foods, and desire to settle with people from the same background. At the same time the fourth-graders study European immigration to Wisconsin, they also investigate treaties signed between Native nations and the U.S. government and the steps the territory took toward statehood.

            The final topic in Heidi’s Wisconsin studies curriculum is early and contemporary industries, including logging, agriculture, and manufacturing. As the students explore the various regions of the state, Heidi requires the fourth-graders to note important agriculture and industries in each region. When the students tour the State Historical Society Museum, Heidi encourages her students to observe the displays featuring different products made in Wisconsin. Heidi’s students also contact various size manufacturers from diverse state regions to gather information about their products, employment, and impact on Wisconsin’s economy. They then create a school display of what they learned about each company. Heidi’s students’ understanding about agriculture is enhanced through a field trip to an area dairy farm to see various farm animals. 

            In order to reinforce important ideas about 19th century lumbering and modern forestry, each spring all the fourth-grade teachers and students at Heidi’s school travel to the West Salem School District’s forest for two full days of “Lumberjack Days” activities. The school forest contains a red pine plantation, hardwoods, a lodge, cooking/picnic area, and an open area. The teachers, University of Wisconsin LaCrosse education students, the school district’s outdoor education coordinator, a forester, and a living history presenter organize many activities to reinforce important concepts. The students listen to a reader’s theater about Wisconsin forests, participate in a slide show presentation and a living history presentation about early lumbering, and try their hand at lumberjack jobs and work with old tools, such as cant hooks, axes, and crosscut saws. They also have opportunities to complete lumberjack recreational activities, including a tree cookie toss, log rolling contest, skillet toss, lumberjack wrestling, and blanket toss. Finally, all fourth-graders participate in a slide show presentation about contemporary forestry practices and machines and engage in some of the tasks current foresters do, such as measuring the height, diameter, and age of trees without damaging them.

            Heidi also integrates reading and language arts with the study of the state. She asks the fourth-graders to use reading strategies when they read challenging Wisconsin studies text. They preview the text by looking for big ideas, headings, captions for pictures or illustrations, words in italics or bold, and vocabulary words. Heidi guides her students to read for evidence and record main ideas on a graphic organizer. The fourth-graders are taught the process of ordering their ideas, then completing a polished piece of writing summarizing what they learned on a field trip to the state capitol building and the State Historical Society Museum.

            Reading, writing, and speaking skills are an important component of the Living History Museum project, which all West Salem fourth-graders participate in each March. The students research a specific person, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, or a general role, such as a lead miner, who is significant in Wisconsin’s history. Then they prepare a three- to five-minute oral presentation about the person while assuming the identity of the person or role. The fourth-graders also create a two-dimensional or three-dimensional display highlighting important ideas about the person’s life or role, practice their presentation by delivering it to the other students in their classroom, and give their final presentation to parents and community members during the Living History Museum event at the school. The students spend about two weeks on the project, from brainstorming and deciding on their role or person to giving their final presentation. Heidi gives her fourth-graders the freedom to select their subject to increase their motivation and encourages them to use creativity in their display.

Wisconsin Studies Teaching Strategies

            One of Heidi’s main strengths as a Wisconsin studies teacher is her sophisticated teaching methods to promote participation and learning. She also has refined strategies for determining students’ engagement and understanding. Heidi teaches her fourth-graders to be “with it” during class discussions and activities, provides many opportunities for participation, carefully observes for indications of engagement and understanding, and draws disengaged children back into discussions. She selects teaching strategies to support all students’ learning, including two children with special needs and six who are struggling readers. Heidi often uses whole class reading and processing of challenging Wisconsin studies text and asks students to read the text again at home with a family member. For students who do not have family assistance, another staff member works with them before school.

            To support her fourth-graders’ success with such large projects as the Living History Museum, Heidi requests assistance from the students’ families, provides significant personal attention, and utilizes school resources. Overall, Heidi believes enough school support is given for all students to complete the Living History Museum project successfully. First of all, Heidi and the media center director and specialist assist students in locating sources for their research, then Heidi guides them as they read different print sources from biographies, non-fiction, and the Internet, and synthesize, organize and paraphrase what they learned. Heidi is aware of different learning styles among her students and encourages some to read and absorb without taking notes and others to record important ideas. As they work on their oral presentation, Heidi knows which students should write and memorize what they will say about their character or role and which should speak from what they learned. When students practice their presentations, Heidi provides feedback on their voice and eye contact. An additional source of school support comes from the special education staff. Since two of Heidi’s students qualify for special education services, the special education teachers also assist a number of her fourth-graders as they complete the project. For example, this year they generously offered to help additional students who chose the same character, Black Hawk, as one of the special education students investigated. The small group of students worked together in the special education classroom to read, discuss what they learned from the readings, and summarize important ideas about Black Hawk. For a few fourth-graders who do not have family assistance in the project, Heidi takes advantage of the after-school program which provides individual help for students to complete the project.

            An explicit component of Heidi’s teaching is clarifying how her fourth-graders can demonstrate they are “with it” during class discussions and activities. Students know they must answer questions, nod their head, and have eye contact. Early in the school year, Heidi introduces her fourth-graders to the “SLANT” method of participating. Students are expected to sit up, lean forward and listen, ask questions, take notes, and track the talker. Heidi believes if her fourth-graders “SLANT,” they are more likely learning because they are attentive and engaged.

            Heidi also offers many avenues for participation, including think-pair-share, small group discussions and activities, and whole class responses. She recognizes when she poses a question to the entire class, then asks one student to answer, the remaining students are often not involved. By asking the fourth-graders to think of an idea, then share their idea with a partner or work with a small group of three or four to discuss ideas or complete an activity, more students are engaged and likely learning. Participation is also increased when Heidi requests whole class simultaneous responses by posing a question and prompting, “One, two, three, everybody answer!” To keep students involved during the Living History Museum presentations, Heidi asks the fourth-graders in the audience to record interesting information they learned from each presentation and offer feedback to the presenter.

            Another of Heidi’s skills is her ability to observe carefully and keep mental notes of students’ participation and understanding. She regularly surveys the fourth-graders’ facial expressions and body language for indications of understanding or confusion. Heidi reads students’ lips when they respond to questions as a class. She listens in on small group discussions and notices who talks, who listens, who appears “with it,” and who seems lost. Children’s behaviors which may be considered distracting, Heidi chooses to ignore as long as they do not interfere with anyone’s learning or attention. She is aware of which students are more confident in their learning and others who are less confident and provides opportunities for all fourth-graders to contribute to class discussions with their knowledge and ideas.

            Heidi acknowledges her responsibility to help all students learn, but struggles with the dilemma of drawing apparently uninterested children into the content at the expense of those who are attentive and want to learn. She recognizes that not all fourth-graders understand the importance or relevance of Wisconsin studies. One way Heidi handles this dilemma is through conversations with unengaged students to let them know she is available for help when they are ready to learn. At other times, if Heidi discovers students who are not responding or understanding, she employs various strategies to draw them into group activities. She uses eye contact with students, a touch on their shoulders, or includes their names in the discussion.

            Heidi uses a variety of teaching methods to appeal to her students, including reading, discussing, cutting and sorting, watching videos, organizing ideas on charts, writing, listening to music, taking field trips, and engaging in simulations. In order to enhance learning from videos, Heidi usually shows a video more than one time. The first viewing provides an overview on the topic, and the second viewing concentrates on important ideas and concepts. Heidi pauses the video to highlight significant points and provides guiding questions to lead students in focusing on specific content. Prior to Wisconsin studies field trips, Heidi prepares them with class readings, discussions, or activities such as Internet research. Following the trip, they summarize what they learned through discussions and writing.

            Another important teaching strategy is Heidi’s encouragement for her students to connect new concepts or ideas to themselves or their background knowledge. Without such links, she realizes content is not understandable to her fourth-graders. When introducing the first people of Wisconsin, she shows the students several different timelines to represent the time period from the Ice Age through today, including where the students fit on the timeline. When Heidi and the students read about the various foods which early Native Americans ate, they compare these foods to their own diets. At times, Heidi and her students create a very extensive Wisconsin history timeline, which summarizes what they studied from prehistory to the current year, including important events, changes, and people who influenced the state. The fourth-graders identify where they, their parents, grandparents, and great great grandparents fit on the timeline to help them connect personally to Wisconsin’s history.

Wisconsin Studies Resources

            Heidi has a considerable collection of resources for teaching about Wisconsin. Her classroom is filled with various maps, timelines, charts, textbooks, old Badger history magazines, current Badger history texts, children’s picture books and trade books, CD Roms, curriculum guides, and videos. For the most part, Heidi’s Wisconsin studies teaching resources are provided courtesy of her school district. During the 2002-2003 school year, the fourth-grade teachers have $4,000 to spend for grade-level curricular materials in all content areas. In addition, a one-year grant from a family allowed teachers to purchase supplementary materials for teaching about the state.

            All teachers, including Heidi, have current pull-down maps for their classrooms, compliments of the West Salem School District. The principal, Lowell Salo, allocates money for each grade level, and the teachers from each grade level decide collectively how to spend these funds. For the fourth-grade teachers, they typically pay for guest speakers, expenses related to Lumberjack Days in the school forest, field trips, new Badger history texts, and audiovisual materials. Any remaining grade-level funds are distributed equally among all teachers from the grade level. Heidi usually purchases such resources as velcro, relief, or plastic maps, globes, posters, and any individual trade books or textbooks pertaining to Wisconsin studies with these funds. If there are any school district funds remaining at the end of the school year, the principal makes this money available to teachers who still need instructional materials.

            Heidi’s classroom walls contain an impressive array of Wisconsin maps. One map is made from velcro and contains an outline of the state and movable labels for different cities, lakes, rivers, and geographical regions of the state. Students can manipulate the labels to show where cities, rivers, or regions are located. A relief map of Wisconsin is very valuable in helping the fourth-graders understand topographical differences among the five state regions. By touching the map, Heidi’s students can feel the distinctions between lowlands and highlands. A large pull-down map of Wisconsin allows the entire class to see political and physical features of the state. Heidi also uses the Wisconsin Map Studies Program, 1981 edition, published by the Graphic Learning Corporation to introduce her students to geography, the fur trade, Native Americans, and exploration. The student write-on maps and activity sheets are especially valuable because they provide a hands-on activity which her fourth-graders can accomplish independently, with partners, or in small groups. However, Heidi finds it necessary to guide her students in understanding the purpose of the activities. Another set of large maps published by Overmap Educational Resources, Heidi uses focus on the Ice Age, Native Americans, and Exploration and Settlement. Along with the maps is a manual of worksheets, activities, and questions to guide her fourth-graders in concentrating on different aspects of the maps.

            Texts are also a valuable resource for teaching Wisconsin studies, although Heidi uses them judiciously. She especially values the new Badger history texts Learning from the Land: Wisconsin Land Use and Digging and Discovery: Wisconsin Archaeology because of their accuracy. However, Heidi finds the texts challenging for her students to read, so these materials are read with the entire class followed by re-reading at home with family members. Heidi selectively uses parts of the nationally published texts Wisconsin Story by English and Calhoun (1992) and the updated version Wisconsin Adventure by English and Calhoun (2000). Some components provide a good introduction to some topics, such as the first Native Americans, but also contain inaccuracies. Heidi reads the text critically with her fourth-graders. At times, Heidi relies on the textbook Follett Social Studies: Exploring Our State Wisconsin, published in 1977, for an introduction to some topics, such as geography.

            Heidi continues to use selected articles from old Badger history magazines, especially articles pertaining to geography, different ethnic groups, industry, and agriculture. Her classroom library contains an impressive collection of individual picture books and trade books for students to use as they prepare for the Living History Museum. For this special event, each fourth-grader assumes the role of an historical or contemporary figure in Wisconsin, such as a logger, immigrant, or governor, completes research on the person or role, prepares a script to introduce herself or himself to others, dresses for the part, and assumes the role of that person throughout the Living History Museum event.

            Heidi relies on a few technological resources to overview Wisconsin studies and provide important content for specific topics. Heidi finds the CD-Rom Celebrating People, Places and Past an effective resource for introducing students to land, people, work, recreation, and government during different time periods, such as before glaciers, glacial time, Native people, fur trade, frontier, and the present. When teaching about logging, Heidi uses the CD Rom The Changing of the Land: A Wisconsin Forest History Unit, which deals with forestry history and includes environmental perspectives. Heidi contributed to this resource and especially values the student activities and teacher background components.

            Heidi and other fourth-grade teachers and students also benefit from the school forest as a teaching and learning resource and the expertise and contributions of Barb Thompson, the Outdoor Education Coordinator for the school district. Ms. Thompson develops the school forest curriculum, provides inservice for teachers on the curriculum, and helps lead the Lumberjack Days for all fourth-grade classes. Ms. Thompson is an important Wisconsin studies resource which enriches the fourth-graders’ understanding of the various jobs in lumber camps, current forestry practices, and plant use among Native Americans and early immigrants.

Wisconsin Studies Assessment Strategies

            Heidi does not use formal tests to assess students’ understanding of Wisconsin studies, but periodically quizzes them on their knowledge of Wisconsin geography, including important cities, bodies of water, and surrounding states. She also uses informal assessments, such as asking students to sort, match, and order ideas and concepts. Assessment occurs as Heidi observes and engages in conversations with students during Wisconsin studies activities. She admits she would like to develop additional assessment strategies to allow her students to show higher levels of thinking including comparison, contrast, and evaluation.

            When students present their Living History Museum projects, Heidi uses the same rubric as the one employed in judging the Wisconsin Heritage Projects. The rubric is discussed with her fourth-graders to emphasize the skills and higher levels of thinking they are developing and the more advanced work they are completing. Heidi and her students compare the Living History Museum project rubric with the rubric for the senior exit project, which all West Salem students must complete before graduating from high school. In addition, the fourth-graders are quizzed about what they learned from their peers’ Living History Museum presentations.

Wisconsin Studies Teaching Expertise

            Heidi has 16 years of teaching experience, but only six years devoted to teaching fourth-grade Wisconsin studies. However, during this period, Heidi has developed an extensive knowledge base, a large collection of teaching resources, and sophisticated teaching methods to enrich her students’ opportunities to learn about their state. Among the fourth-grade teachers at her school, Heidi is considered the Wisconsin studies “expert” and has been the catalyst to expand the resources used to include more contemporary materials. Heidi laments the lack of graduate courses on Wisconsin history at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, but has taken advantage of other opportunities and developed extensive content knowledge about the history and geography of the state. Heidi’s expertise appears to stem from her school district’s focus on students, additional support for teaching and learning from various school district staff, support for teachers’ professional development, and her own initiative. She has also benefitted from connections with Bobbie Malone and her staff from the State Historical Society’s Office of School Services, who prepare accurate, contemporary teaching materials for Wisconsin studies.

            Overall, Heidi credits the school district’s consistent efforts to “do what is best for kids.” To this end, teachers share ideas and teaching expertise with one another. The principal, Lowell Salo, provides teachers at West Salem Elementary School with release time and funds for attending professional conferences and workshops. He also supports teachers’ curriculum planning time either during the school day or after school. Although the focus of this curriculum planning time is often reading and mathematics, the fourth-grade teachers meet and share strategies for integrating reading and language arts with science and social studies. Because substitute teachers are hired to teach their classes, the teachers are able to work together during the school day.

            The media center director Lisa Hugo and media center specialist Mary Hundt support Heidi’s Wisconsin studies teaching in numerous ways. They assist teachers and students in finding resources they need for special projects, regularly search for Wisconsin books to add to the media center’s collection, identify good web sites about Wisconsin, purchase Wisconsin studies books and CD-Roms suggested by teachers, inform teachers of new resources as they become aware of them, borrow videos on Wisconsin from CESA for teacher and classroom use, and tape educational programs dealing with Wisconsin produced by the Public Broadcast System. When Ms. Hundt does book talks with fourth-grade classes, she often introduces Wisconsin authors, books set in the state, or historical fiction about Wisconsin. When she teaches the fourth-graders how to use reference materials, she frequently selects materials focusing on Wisconsin, such as an atlas or Wisconsin State Capital’s Blue Book.

            Heidi’s own desire to teach accurate content motivates her to develop current knowledge about Wisconsin history and geography. She attends conferences, listens to others, travels the state, and reads to enrich her own understanding about Wisconsin. Heidi also reflects carefully on her own experiences and how to help her students understand important Wisconsin studies ideas and concepts.

Advice to Wisconsin Studies Teachers

            Heidi encourages all fourth-grade teachers to scrutinize the content of Wisconsin studies for its accuracy, realize that history is always changing, and remain ready to learn new content. Rather than focus on mastering a body of knowledge, Heidi suggests Wisconsin studies teachers develop an appreciation for historical changes, which makes teaching history more interesting and intriguing. In addition, she believes it is important for teachers to admit to their students when they do not know answers to their questions and have gaps in their historical knowledge. However, this admission must be accompanied by a willingness to learn. Whenever possible, Heidi asks teachers to use historically accurate, dependable, and current curricular materials. One source of such materials, according to Heidi’s experiences, is the State Historical Society’s Office of School Services. Even so, she believes it is always important to encourage students to question and scrutinize sources for their reliability. Heidi has found fourth-graders are capable of such critical analysis.

            Heidi also urges fourth-grade teachers to consider the Wisconsin studies content from their students’ perspectives and develop teaching strategies to make connections between the content and their fourth-graders’ worlds. She emphasizes the importance of fostering students’ questioning, reading, and willingness to learn more about Wisconsin studies.

Wisconsin Studies

Teaching Social Studies