23 November 2013

For the Love of Social Studies!

“As long as I don’t have to miss social studies” was the reply from my ten-year-old son when I told him the school interventionist was going to start pulling him for extra help with reading two times per week.  Really, I couldn’t agree more with him.  You see, my ten-year-old loves history, and has loved history for most of his elementary school aged years, but this year (5th grade) is the first year he has had regular social studies instruction.

Fortunately for my son, he also has a 5th grade teacher who happens to love history too.  She is a National Board Certified Teacher who is dynamic, reflective, thoughtful, and purposeful with instruction.  She also understands the importance of kids moving, exploring, and learning in non test-prep ways (in most of Kentucky, public schools only teach social studies in 5th grade because that’s the year it’s tested for the state testing system).  This is wrong, and even slightly illegal, given that the state has required social studies standards for every year of a child’s elementary grade.  Unfortunately, schools feel pressured by the high-stakes testing and accountability system, so most schools in Kentucky only teach a subject if it’s tested that year  (they only teach science during 4th grade—the year it’s tested, much to the dismay of my older son who loved science and only had it one year grades K-5).

I have written about this frustrating system and approach in previous posts and have shared ways my husband and I have worked to supplement our sons’ public school experiences.  Rather than make this post another soapbox post about how much I want the system to change, I’ve decided to focus on Isaac’s love of history and the great year he’s having because he’s receiving excellent social studies instruction—something that really interests him. 

Isaac says his teacher makes history interesting because she has students role-play, debate, ask lots of questions, read and write (all called for by the Common Core) and explore artifacts she’s collected and keeps in her room.  She also enriches standards based classroom instruction with games and field trips.

On a recent field trip to Fort Boonesborough, the students dipped candles, learned about blacksmithing, heard about Daniel Boone, and very impressively--discussed with one another primary and secondary sources and historical artifacts. They knew what they were talking about, and they were curious, bright-eyed, and attentive as they walked from cabin to cabin.

Not only does Isaac's teacher provide explicit and purposeful social studies instruction, she also supplements the history standards that are part of her fifth grade curriculum with social studies issues related to present day, and she recommends books to children based on their interests.  For Isaac, her recommendation included Kate Messner’s Capture the Flag, set in Washington D.C. (specifically Regan National Airport). This was perfect because Isaac had the requisite background knowledge since our family flew into this airport for our Washington D.C. trip during spring break last year.

 She’s also currently working children’s rights into her instruction and having children learn about Malala and watch clips from the film Girl Rising.  These issues are pertinent to children having a global perspective about the world in which we live.  Even though the standardized test children will take in the spring is focused on early American history, this teacher understands the importance of children learning about the bigger world in which we live.  She purposefully works into instruction issues and topics relevant to current political events as well as historical events being remembered

I decided to check out what the National Council for the Social Studies has to say about learning social studies in elementary school.  Turns out, they have plenty to say about “powerful and purposeful teaching of social studies in elementary schools.” They share links to research and documentation about how the subject has been marginalized in the years since No Child Left Behind was passed.  One of the many important quotes from their site--

teachers should ensure that the social studies experiences woven throughout the curriculum follow logical sequences, allow for depth and focus, and help young learners move forward in their acquisition of knowledge and skills. The curriculum should not become, in the pursuit of integration, a grab bag of random social studies experiences that are related marginally to a theme or project. Rather, concepts should be developed to assure coherence and meaning.”

Thankfully, my son’s teacher practices purposeful instruction and keeps Isaac’s love of history alive each day ensuring he experiences coherence and meaning with what he learns.  We are grateful beyond belief for this excellent teacher and the fabulous year Isaac is experiencing.