I always enjoy the annual social studies nerd fest that is the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference. I learn a ton and I love the sessions. But it’s the chance to meet all kinds of people that I enjoy the most.

It seems like I’m always bumping into someone I know or someone who knows someone I know. Or . . . well, if you’ve had the chance to attend you understand. The people make the conference.

And it was in St. Louis in 2013 that I got the chance to meet some folks from the Center for Children and Technology, a division of the Education Development Center. The CCT people were there talking about a new online tool called Zoom In! and I happened past their booth in the vendor area.

My first impression?

Two words. Game changer.

Seriously. If you’re a middle or high school US history teacher, this is something that you need to try. I’m not kidding.

The tool was still in beta back in 2013 but we had just finished revising the Kansas state social studies standards and after talking with the CCT guys, Zoom In! looked like a perfect fit. We wanted teachers and kids to focus on thinking historically – using evidence to solve problems and communicating those solutions in a variety of ways. And it seemed as if Zoom In! was designed to do just that.

Over the last 14 months or so, I’m still convinced. Since our first brief conversation back in the Show Me state, I’ve had the chance to work with Noah Goodman, researcher on the Zoom In! team, and see the tool in action. Several teachers I know volunteered to beta test it. Noah and I, together with Megan – one of the teacher volunteers, are presenting a session next week at the Kansas Learning Forward conference.

This thing is the future of historical thinking – Zoom In! is what social studies instruction in the 21st century should look like. It’s designed from the ground up to train kids to develop solutions to authentic problems while analyzing evidence. More specifically, it’s a tool that supports social studies teachers in aligning their teaching with the Common Core Literacy Standards.

Zoom In! will help social studies teachers train their students to:

  • Read complex texts for evidence and perspective
  • Anticipate and address the reading challenges their students will face
  • Lead sustained, focused discussions of challenging texts in the social studies classroom

One of our local teachers shared that

virtually all my students mentioned that the final product was one of the best papers they’ve ever written. A lot of them asked me when we get to use the tool again; I don’t think I’ve ever had a class that wanted to write a paper.

According to Noah:

Zoom In! is designed to help social studies teachers foster students’ acquisition of literacy skills. One of the site’s most unique features is a set of real-time formative assessment tools that help teachers ‘look in on’ student writing and note-taking as it’s happening, do some diagnostic work, and refine their instruction to give kids the help they need. The site also offers tutorials and videos on how to guide students through the source analysis process, well-crafted ‘hooks’ to help teachers get students excited about the topics, slides to give students essential background knowledge, and more.

The process is pretty simple. Teachers create an account, create classes or sections, add lessons to those classes, share class codes with kids to easily add them to those classes, and bam – you’re ready to go.

Find out more on the Zoom In! info site. You’ll get some videos giving you a sense of what Zoom In! looks like and what it can do. You can preview the 18 lessons created so far and download Teacher Guides. (These are incredibly useful so be sure to do this.) There is also a nice embedded presentation from a student’s perspective that’s helpful.

A few screenshots:

zoom outline

The main screen for students. There are six stages in the process.

zoom doc analysis

Students analyze evidence using the structured note-taking system that saves student thinking.

zoom add a note

Some guiding questions require students insert visual notes onto images.

zoom essay

The purpose of Zoom In! is to train students to respond to a writing prompt, using evidence that they collected during the analysis stage.

Want to be a part of future? Head over to the Zoom In! teacher site to create your account. Your students will do the same thing once you’ve created your classes and are ready to share the class code with them.

If you do create an account, one simple request. Head over here and let Noah that you’re jumping into this. Or send him an email. He’s curious who’s using the tool and especially looking for feedback on improving Zoom In!.