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5th Grade Social Studies Essay Questions

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Enduring Understanding: B.F. Skinner said, "Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten." This statement explains enduring understandings. In Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, enduring understandings are defined as "specific inferences, based on big ideas, that have lasting value beyond the classroom." These are typically written as full-sentence statements about what, specifically, your students will understand and be able to use later on in life, even when the small details of what they learned have been forgotten.

Enduring understandings are also transferable in new situations. Wiggins and McTighe explain that, because enduring understandings are often abstract, "they require uncoverage through sustained inquiry rather than one-shot coverage. The student must come to understand or be helped to grasp the idea, as a result of work. If teachers treat an understanding like a fact, the student is unlikely to get it."

Essential Question: An essential question is "a question that lies at the heart of a subject or a curriculum (as opposed to being either trivial or leading) and promotes inquiry and uncoverage of a subject. Essential questions thus do not yield a single straightforward answer (as a leading question does) but produces different plausible responses, about which thoughtful and knowledgeable people may disagree." An essential question can be either overarching or topical (unit-specific) in scope.
(Source: Understanding by Design, by Grant P. Wiggins and Jay McTighe; ISBN: 416600353.)

Standard I   Standard II   Standard III   Standard IV    Standard V

Students will understand how the exploration and colonization of North America transformed human history.

Enduring Understandings

  • Exploration and colonization of North America transformed human history.
  • Global trade and cultural exchanges alter the lives of people around the world.
  • Personal freedom among individuals and groups significantly affect us today.
  • Conflicts between cultures and countries contrast with trade and development of self-rule.
  • The New World and the U.S. developed through the struggles of individuals to overcome political problems and conflicts with people and the land.
  • Geography is the foundation for civilization, settlement, and culture.

Objective 1:
Describe and explain the growth and development of the early American colonies.

Essential Questions

  • What motivates people to leave their homeland and settle in a new place?
  • Why do people explore?
  • Why do people settle?
  • How were the early American colonies settled and how did they grow?


  1. Using maps -- including pre-1492 maps -- and other geographic tools, locate and analyze the routes used by the explorers.
  2. Explain how advances in technology lead to an increase in exploration (e.g. ship technology)
  3. Identify explorers who came to the Americas and the nations they represented.
  4. Determine reasons for the exploration of North America (e.g., religious, economic, political).
  5. Compare the geographic and cultural differences between the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies (e.g., religious, economic, political).
  6. Analyze contributions of American Indian people to the colonial settlements.

Objective 2:
Assess the global impact of cultural and economic diffusion as a result of colonization.

Essential Questions

  • How is geography the foundation for civilization, settlement, and culture?
  • What makes land valuable?
  • What story do maps and globes tell?
  • How did American colonization impact the rest of the world?


  1. Describe the cultural and economic impacts that occurred as a result of trade between North America and other markets (e.g., arts, language, ideas, the beginning and expansion of the slave trade, new agricultural markets).
  2. Analyze and explain the population decline in American Indian populations (i.e. disease, warfare, displacement).

Objective 3:
Distinguish between the rights and responsibilities held by different groups of people during the colonial period.

 Essential Questions

  • How does personal freedom among individuals and groups significantly affect us today?
  • What happens when cultures collide?
  • What rights and responsibilities did different groups of people have during the Colonial period?
  • What is the balance between rights and responsibilities?


  1. Compare the varying degrees of freedom held by different groups (e.g. American Indians, landowners, women, indentured servants, enslaved people).
  2. Explain how early leaders established the first colonial governments (e.g. Mayflower compact, charters).
  3. Describe the basic principles and purposes of the Iroquois Confederacy.
Students will understand the chronology and significance of key events leading to self-government.

 Enduring Understandings

  • Key events led to self-government in the colonies.
  • Change comes through revolution.
  • Progress often comes at a price – the extent of which allows history to judge its success.
  • Independence was important to the American colonies.
  • Individuals, even outside of the elected leaders can have a profound impact on history.

Objective 1:
Describe how the movement toward revolution culminated in a Declaration of Independence.

Essential Questions

  • What causes disagreements?
  • What events brought the colonies together as a nation?
  • Why is independence important to you?
  • How did the movement toward revolution cause the Declaration of Independence to be written?


  1. Explain the role of events that led to declaring independence (e.g., French and Indian War, Stamp Act, Boston Tea Party).
  2. Analyze arguments both for and against declaring independence using primary sources from Loyalist and patriot perspectives.
  3. Explain the content and purpose for the Declaration of Independence.

Objective 2:
Evaluate the Revolutionary War’s impact on self-rule.

Essential Questions

  • What factors contribute to war?
  • Which side of the independence issue would you have been on if you had lived in the American colonies? Why?
  • How did the Revolutionary War impact the colonies ability to rule themselves?
  • Does change only come through compromise?
  • Can an individual person make a difference?


  1. Plot a time line of the key events of the Revolutionary War.
  2. Profile citizens who rose to greatness as leaders.
  3. Assess how the Revolutionary War changed the way people thought about their own rights.
  4. Explain how the winning of the war set in motion a need for a new government that would serve the needs of the new states.
Students will understand the rights and responsibilities guaranteed in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Enduring Understandings

  • Rights and responsibilities are guaranteed in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.
  • Governments balance the rights and responsibilities of individuals with the common good.
  • The structures and functions of the parts of government interrelate.
  • The Constitution is a living document.
  • The Constitution established principles that guide the government’s decision-making ability, providing a framework by which we can evaluate our nation’s progress and suggest means for improvement.
  • Geography is the foundation for civilization, settlement, and culture.

Objective 1:
Assess the underlying principles of the US Constitution as the framework for the United States' form of government, a compound constitutional republic.

Essential Questions

  • Why do we need rules?
  • What goals, people, and documents influenced the making of the constitution?
  • How is the Constitution a living document?
  • What role does each branch of the federal government play in passing laws?
  • What are the underlying principles of the U.S. Constitution?


  1. Recognize ideas from documents used to develop the Constitution (e.g. Magna Carta, Iroquois Confederacy, Articles of Confederation, Virginia Plan).
  2. Analyze goals outlined in the Preamble.
  3. Distinguish between the role of the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of the government.
  4. Explain the process of passing a law.
  5. Describe the concept of checks and balances.
  6. Discover the basis for the patriotic and citizenship traditions we have today (i.e. Pledge of Allegiance, flag etiquette, voting).

Objective 2:
Assess how the US Constitution has been amended and interpreted over time, and the impact these amendments have had on the rights and responsibilities of citizens of the United States.

Essential Questions

  • How has the U.S. Constitution been amended and interpreted over time?
  • What affect have the amendments had on our rights and responsibilities?
  • What does it take to become a U.S. citizen, and what are my responsibilities as a citizen?
  • What do I need to do to be a good citizen now?
  • What will I need to do to be a good citizen as I grow up?


  1. Explain the significance of the Bill of Rights.
  2. Identify how the rights of selected groups have changed and how the Constitution reflects those changes (e.g. women, enslaved people).
  3. Analyze the impact of the Constitution on their lives today (e.g. freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, petition).
Students will understand that the 19th century was a time of incredible change for the United States, including geographic expansion, constitutional crisis, and economic growth.

Enduring Understandings

  • The 19th century was a time of incredible change for the United States: geographic expansion, constitutional crisis, economic growth – culminating in Civil War.
  • Acceptance of diversity takes shape over time, is based on place and time, and is not static.
  • Major issues of expansion challenged the stability of the nation.
  • Expansion creates conflict.
  • Technological change influences people's lives and society.
  • Social, political and economic opportunities and problems arise from changes in technology.
  • The free-market system in the United States serves as an engine of innovation and invention.
  • Geography is the foundation for civilization, settlement, and culture.

Objective 1:
Investigate the significant events during America’s expansion and the roles people played.

Essential Questions

  • What events, people, and places motivated the expansion of the United States?
  • Is it okay to treat others differently because they look, act, or live another way?
  • What are the significant events during America’s expansion? What roles did people play?


  1. Identify key reasons why people move and the traits necessary for survival.
  2. Examine causes and consequences of important events in the United States expansion (e.g. Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark expedition, treaties with American Indians, Homestead Act, Trail of Tears, California Gold Rush).
  3. Compare the trails that were important during westward expansion (e.g. Oregon, Mormon, Spanish, California).
  4. Assess the impact of expansion on native inhabitants of the west.

Objective 2:
Assess the geographic, cultural, political, and economic divisions between regions that contributed to the Civil War.

Essential Questions

  • Why is “where” important?
  • Why is the Civil War a defining moment in American History?
  • How do geography, climate, and natural resources affect the way, or where people live and work?
  • What does slavery mean, and how does it manifest itself in many forms?
  • What divisions (geographic, cultural, political and economic) between regions contributed to the Civil War?


  1. Describe the impact of physical geography on the cultures of the northern and southern regions (e.g. industrial resources, agriculture, climate).
  2. Compare how cultural and economic differences of the North and South led to tensions.
  3. Identify the range of individual responses to the growing political conflicts between the North and South (e.g. states rights advocates, abolitionists, slaveholders, enslaved people).

Objective 3:
Evaluate the course of events of the Civil War and its impact both immediate and long-term.

Essential Questions

  • What causes disagreement?
  • Was the Civil War worth fighting? Why, or why not?
  • How did the Civil War change the United States?
  • What are some reasons that are worth getting into a fight?
  • Is there such a thing as a "just" war?
  • What events happened during the Civil War and what impact did they have?


  1. Identify the key ideas, events, and leaders of the Civil War using primary sources (e.g. Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation, news accounts, photographic records, diaries).
  2. Contrast the impact of the war on individuals in various regions (e.g. North, South, West).
  3. Explain how the Civil War helped forge ideas of national identity.
  4. Examine the difficulties of reconciliation within the nation.

Objective 4:
Understand the impact of major economic forces at work in the post-Civil War.

Essential Questions

  • How does where you live influence how you live?
  • How did the inventions of the 19th century affect the people and how they lived?
  • What conditions brought immigrants to the United States and what were their lives like after they came?
  • How did economic forces impact the post-Civil War era?


  1. Assess how the free-market system in the United States serves as an engine of change and innovation.
  2. Describe the wide-ranging impact of the Industrial Revolution (e.g. inventions, industries, innovations).
  3. Evaluate the roles new immigrants played in the economy of this time.
Students will address the causes, consequences and implications of the emergence of the United States as a world power.

Enduring Understandings

  • The United States emerged as a world power with influence which spanned the globe.
  • Power comes with responsibility.
  • People are either part of the problem or part of the solution.

Objective 1:
Describe the role of the United States during World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II.
Essential Questions

  • What is power?
  • How is power gained, used, and justified?
  • What role did the U.S. play during World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II?


  1. Review the impact of World War I on the United States.
  2. Summarize the consequences of the Great Depression on the United States (e.g. mass migration, the New Deal).
  3. Analyze how the United States’ involvement in World War II led to its emergence as a superpower.

Objective 2:
Assess the impact of social and political movements in recent United States history.

Essential Questions

  • Who were the "winners" and who were the "losers" in ________? (women’s movement, civil rights movement, child labor reforms)
  • What impact did the social and political movements of the 20th century have on the United States?


  1. Identify major social movements of the 20th century (e.g. the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, child labor reforms).
  2. Identify leaders of social and political movements

Objective 3:
Evaluate the role of the United States as a world power.
Essential Questions

  • Is it true that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it?
  • Is history the story told by the "winners" or “losers”?
  • How is power gained, used, and justified?
  • How can abuse of power be avoided?
  • Why and how is the United States a world power, and what does that mean?


  1. Assess differing points of view on the role of the US as a world power (e.g. influencing the spread of democracy, supporting the rule of law, advocating human rights, promoting environmental stewardship).
  2. Identify a current issue facing the world and propose a role the United States could play in being part of a solution (e.g. genocide, child labor, civil rights, education, public health, environmental protections, suffrage, economic disparities).

The Online Standards Resource pages are a collaborative project between the Utah State Board of Education and the Utah Education Network. If you would like to recommend a high quality resource, contact Robert Austin.

5th Grade Writing Prompts #2: 
Social Studies

This collection of 10 free 5th grade writing prompts takes a look back at the world of the past along with certain factors about the world today. Social studies include such subjects of geography, history, sociology and archaeology that can be extremely interesting to our intrepid young students. Take advantage of that interest to increase their love of writing!

You may notice that the numbers on this page do not start at 1 and work their way up. This is because these 10 5th grade writing prompts are an excerpt from my book, 500 Writing Prompts for Kids: First Grade through Fifth Grade. If you like these free samples, the full version is available in both digital and paperback form. 

5th Grade Writing Prompts #2: Social Studies

231. If you were the President of the United States (or the leader of your country if outside the U.S.) what do you think you would do to change your country for the better? Who would your top advisors be? How would you deal with all the tough problems?

232. Throughout history there have been thousands of men and women who have done amazing things and we study their lives to this very day. Who is your favorite person you’ve learned about in history studies and why? Are there any ways that this person is like you?

233. There are many different cultures in the world that are different from your own. What are three other cultures that you know of and what are some of their traditions? Do you think you would enjoy living with one of those cultures for a month?

234. Imagine that you are on an archaeological dig (essentially, a bunch of people looking for old stuff in the ground) and you come upon an amazing discover. What is it and what do you do when you become famous for the discovery?

235. Sociology is the study of how people interact in society. If you imagined your school as a tiny little society, how would you describe how it works? Are there certain groups? Are some people nice and are some people mean? How do you and your friends fit into this society?

236. The federal government of the United States makes various laws meant to ensure that all people all treated fairly and equally. If you had the ability to create laws at your school what would they be and why? Do you think that everybody would like these laws?

237. What is the most historical place that you’ve ever been? Some examples of historical places include museums, monuments and famous locations (like the field of the Battle of Gettysburg). Talk about how this place affected you and if there are any historical places you’d like to go in the future.

238. Imagine that one of your ancestors (like your great-great-great grandmother) was somebody very important and famous. Tell the story of this person from your family and what made them such a national treasure.

239. Geography is a part of social studies and it involves the study of the Earth including maps. If you looked at a map of your town from 200 years ago, how would it be different? Describe at least five differences. What would a person from 200 years ago have to say about a map of the town in the present day?

240. If your class had to pick a class president for your grade or school, who do you think would make a good candidate and why? What would some of the responsibilities of this position be? Do you think this person would get enough votes (a majority) to win the election? 

Done with 5th Grade Writing Prompts? Go back to Creative Writing Prompts.

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Written by Bryan Cohen

Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on Google+ and Facebook.

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