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Teaching Opinion

Response: Common Core Moves Social Studies From ‘Memorization’ to a ‘Meaningful Place’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 22, 2016 18 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What do the Common Core Standards look like in Social Studies classrooms?

The Common Core Standards are having a major impact on how our students our being taught - and tested - in schools. Much has been written about its impact in English and Math classrooms, but their adoption also affects other subjects.

This two-part series will examine what the Common Core Standards look like in Social Studies classes.

Today, Sarah Cooper, Michael Fisher, Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath, Jody Passanisi and Eugenia Mora-Flores share their thoughts.

You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Sarah, Michael and Ruchi on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Readers might also be interested in these collections of previous Classroom Q & A posts:

Implementing The Common Core

Teaching Social Studies

Response From Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches eighth-grade U.S. history and is dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School, a 7-12 independent school near Los Angeles. She has written a book about teaching middle school history, Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9 and also writes regularly for MiddleWeb’s Future of History blog:

In my 8th grade classroom, the best days come when we pull apart a difficult text. Primary or secondary, it doesn’t matter.

We throw specific quotations on the board to probe an author’s argument. We tease out political implications. We analyze for tone - is it plainspoken or hifalutin, and why?

All of these questions, and many more, are reflected directly in the Common Core English Language Arts Standards for History/Social Studies. It’s a fantastic, short list that I’ve consulted repeatedly to make sure that, as a history teacher, I am supporting literacy in my discipline and beyond. If the list didn’t exist, I would need to create it!

Leapfrogging the textbook often leads to the richest activities, as when the standards ask students to “analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.”

One of my favorite examples of this analysis came in a unit on women’s history. We had already watched part of Ken Burns’ video Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I wanted students to feel in their gut how hard it was for the early women’s suffrage reformers to keep going, decades beyond the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.

As historian Christine Stansell wrote in The Feminist Promise about Stanton in 1873, she “was so weary of conventions, she wrote Martha Wright, the old friend who had been with her since Seneca Falls, that ‘I feel as if I would rather go to Heaven this spring than attend another.... Two days full of speaking & resolving & dreading lest some one should make a fool of us all, rehearsing the same old arguments in the same old way, must this be endured to the end of our slavery?’”

After reading this passage about Stanton’s fatigue, they contrasted it with parts of a speech Stanton gave on her eightieth birthday a dozen years later. She brought new energy to the cause in 1885 by saying: “It is unworthy any woman to say ‘my work is done’ so long as she has energy and talent to fill the vacant places in this struggling, suffering sphere of action.”

To connect Stanton’s primary source and Stansell’s secondary source, students filled out a chart that asked what Stanton had learned and what she still wanted to achieve.

What would we believe in so deeply that we would travel on “awful roads, dreadful roads,” as Stanton complained, to communicate our message? Not only does this activity hone in on Common Core skills, but it also asks us to envision the grit needed to crisscross the country well into old age - to put ourselves in the shoes of a reformer 150 years ago.

Response From Michael Fisher

Michael Fisher is an author and education consultant around Common Core, curriculum design, and contemporary learning. His books include Ditch the Daily Lesson Plan: How do I plan for meaningful student learning? (ASCD) and Digital Learning Strategies: How do I assign and assess 21st century work? (ASCD). His website is www.digigogy.com and he can be found on Twitter at @fisher1000:

First and foremost, the standards that a Social Studies/History teacher are bound to are first rooted in content standards for a teacher’s home state. The Common Core standards are a secondary lens through which the content standards can be viewed and serve as an enhancement to the content standards.

The Common Core, in its entirety, can be distilled down to a singular priority: thinking matters. Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) are not news to most Social Studies/History teachers who, for years, have likely been doing Common Core work through DBQ’s, ongoing research, and constructed response assessments. Their instructional practice is rooted in content and students providing evidence to support their inferences and claims.

The version of the Common Core standards for Social Studies/History begins on page 75 of the Common Core State Standards for Literacy document. The difference between the Social Studies version and the regular ELA version has to do with what the students are going to be doing with the skills that they are expected to demonstrate. In short, the skill doesn’t change, but the object of the skill does.

For instance, in the ELA standards in 6th grade, students are expected to cite several pieces of textual evidence to support what the text says explicitly and any inferences they may have made. In the Social Studies version, students are developing the same skill (cite textual evidence) but the object is the analysis of (content related) primary and secondary sources. By and large, this is how most of the standards are versioned for Social Studies. The skill is the same but the object is more Social Studies specific. Comparison of the two versions will be an exercise in recognition and familiarity. One other thing to note is that the additional literacy standards for Social Studies teachers includes just standards for reading informational text and writing. The rest of the standards (literacy, language, listening and speaking, etc.) are only in the ELA only version. That doesn’t mean that a Social Studies teacher would ignore those standards, just that there aren’t Social Studies versions of them.

Social Studies teachers should review their version of the standards and think about how they will impact their instructional practice. They will continue to build strong content knowledge while having evidence based discussions and writing informational or explanatory texts. Students will continue to analyze, evaluate, compare, contrast, distinguish, and cite the way they always have but teachers will want to look to the additional information beyond the skills (verbs) in the Common Core standards to inform specific alignment and the documentation of that alignment in their curricula.

Response From Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath

Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath is vice-president of CA-NAME and recently authored the book Social Studies, Literacy, and Social Justice in the Common Core Classroom: A Guide for Teachers and co-authored the book Preparing to Teach Social Studies for Social Justice: Becoming a Renegade with Alison Dover and Nick Henning. A former elementary school teacher, her teaching and research interests focus on justice-oriented teaching, social studies education, and critical literacy. She works as a teacher educator and consultant throughout schools in the Bay Area:

For the past 10 years, I have focused my research on understanding how teachers are enacting justice-oriented social studies curriculum with and despite challenges surrounding standards and accountability. In this response, I detail how elementary teachers are approaching the new standards.

To begin, the art of teaching social studies for social justice is highly complex. Teachers must work intentionally to challenge normative thought by integrating multiple perspectives into the curriculum, especially the voices of those dominated, marginalized, or traditionally excluded in texts. They connect the stories of struggle and resistance to contemporary social justice issues and make connections between historical events and present-day circumstances. In addition, teachers and students work collaboratively to make change in their school and community. Given this immense challenge justice-oriented teachers take on, how does the Common Core fit in?

As the K-5 standards for history/social studies are integrated into the K-5 reading standards, teachers must think carefully to find ways to teach social studies content and language arts/literacy as complementary subjects. Social studies is a subject area that continues to be marginalized, especially with the Common Core’s focus on math and literacy. By teaching language arts and social studies as complementary subjects, a teacher is integrating critical thinking skills and eliciting higher-order thinking into subject matter.

For example, in an interactive read-aloud, a teacher may read her 5th grade students “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” (Coerr, 1977). This is the story of Sadako, a girl who lived in Hiroshima at the time of the atomic bombing by the United States. During guided reading, a teacher may continue to integrate social studies and language arts by finding short stories about World War II and the atomic bombing for students to read with their small groups. In guided reading groups, a teacher could work on building students’ reading comprehension and analytical reading skills, while also getting students to think critically about the perspectives portrayed in their texts. She could ask her students questions such as: Whose voice is heard in the text? Whose is not? How is the message in this text different or the same as Sadako’s story? By integrating social studies content into language arts, a teacher is able to cover standards, find space for social studies, and teach students social studies and language arts from a critical perspective.

The standards advocate for classroom instructional strategies that move away from traditional, lecture-based, direct instruction towards emphasizing skills such as analyzing primary and secondary sources. Teachers have the opportunity to create classrooms where students learn to be historians. Students learn to ask critical questions, interrogate multiple texts, question what they read, draw on their background knowledge, and draw conclusions based on the evidence they have gathered.

With greater latitude surrounding the Common Core standards, teachers may also have the opportunity to integrate critical readings and design research projects that encourage students to examine multiple perspectives and engage in more complex and critical readings. Finding ways to teach social studies at the elementary level can be especially challenging, given the marginalization of the subject area at many schools. With the standards calling for the integration of social studies content into language arts/literacy, I believe there is hope that essential social studies skills and content can be taught through the careful designing of language arts curriculum. In my book, “Social Studies, Literacy, and Social Justice in the Common Core Classroom: A Guide for Teachers,” I provide a framework with myriad strategies to help teachers in designing justice-oriented social studies and language arts curriculum and meeting Common Core standards. In the book, you will also find examples of lesson plans and tools to help you teach social studies for social justice.

Response From Jody Passanisi

Jody Passanisi is an 8th grade history teacher at an independent school in Los Angeles, a social studies curriculum consultant, and adjunct instructor in social studies methods at Mt. St. Mary’s University. Her book, History Revisited: Tools and Projects to Engage Middle SChool Students in Social Studies is co-published by Routledge and Middleweb. Follow Jody on Twitter @21centuryteachr:

Common Core standards rely on writing and the close reading of complex text to help develop students’ critical thinking skills. In a social studies classroom, students can activate and master these skills as they engage in historiography, independent and discerning research, evaluative writing, and a process of examining the present through the lens of the past.

Reading expository texts--both primary and secondary sources--is essential in a social studies classroom. But having students read and comprehend a text is just the beginning. We can engage students more actively in reading, and get them to delve deeply as if they are themselves historians, by having them compare different sources on the same historical event and then analyze why these perspectives might be different. Students of history need to develop an enduring understanding that history is a narrative of a series of events, pieced together by evidence and the opinions of interpreters-- and not simply facts meant to be memorized.

That is what the Common Core standards at their heart are meant to do: move the history classroom out of the realm of memorization--reading the book and looking up the answers-- and into a more complex and meaningful place.

Through the comparison of sources, students will see that history isn’t just one dominant narrative, but rather an experience that has been recorded and saved in a particular way for a particular purpose. Students can analyze different primary sources on an event in order to get a more holistic understanding: for example, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Students could look at the event through the eyes of the President of the United States, a Japanese civilian, a pilot of the Enola Gay, and a civilian in the United States. Then they could turn to different historians’ writings on those same events and compare and contrast based on the perspective of the secondary source historians. Perhaps students could even compare a textbook in Japan vs. a textbook in the United States and discuss the differences. The discussion-- the why things might be written differently-- is the cornerstone of the source comparison conversation and the critical thinking aspect highlighted in the Common Core. It is this conversation that will allow students to understand that their own perspective, culture, and place in history shapes the way that they see the world as well.

Any event can be compared and contrasted in this way; this is why the Common Core standards focus on skills rather than content, What students are really focusing on is a way of thinking and understanding history that they can take with them and apply to whatever historical event or time period they are studying. It is then that students will have something unique to say about history. They will begin to be able to formulate evaluative statements that they can back up with their research. Teaching this kind of writing along with the reading of expository text, is key. It works in harmony with English instruction and mirrors what students will need to do going forward in high school and beyond: read analytically and carefully and then write evaluatively about historical events with a clear perspective.

With a teacher’s guidance, and with tools such as an Inquiry Chart (or I-Chart-- a visual organizer that compares the same event through different sources), students will be engaged the difficult work of thinking and writing about history like historians--and will be meeting the Common Core standards at the same time.

Eugenia Mora-Flores

Eugenia Mora-Flores is an Associate Professor in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California (USC). She teaches courses on first and second language acquisition, Latino culture, and in literacy development for elementary and secondary students. She has written 9 books in the area of literacy and academic language development (ALD) for English learners. Eugenia further works as a consultant for a variety of elementary, middle and high schools across the country in the areas of English Language Development (ELD), ALD and writing instruction:

INTEGRATION was the key word that accompanied the Common Core Standards. And since their release, a wave of integration followed, with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the English language development (ELD) standards. These three standards sets are clearly aligned and the integration is present within the standards themselves. For example, when looking at the NGSS standards the CCS English Language Arts and Math standards are noted at the bottom of each standard set. The new ELD standards list the CCS ELA standards alongside each ELD standard. What we don’t find is a clear alignment with Social Studies standard. But I think there is more there than meets the eye.

Though the clarity of integration is not specifically noted in the CCS with Social Studies, the connection between ELA and Social Studies has historically been united through humanities. English language arts is how we learn social studies content (by reading it), process the information (by interpreting it) and express our understanding of our history (by presenting our learning). Language arts is how we access content and in turn express what we have learned. Social studies is such a text rich content area that students apply all of their literacy skills and strategies to access the content and express their learning.

One of the most obvious ways to connect the Common Core with Social studies is through the focus on information text with the CCS. The reading standards for informational text make the connection simple as students are asked to develop a range of skills and strategies to read and when reading informational text. I share with teachers all the time, make your social studies text some of the texts you use to teach your CCS reading informational text standards. For example, the CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.2.1 standard reads: “Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.” Use a social studies text on standard H.S.S 1.3 Students know and understand the symbols, icons, and traditions of the United States that provide continuity and a sense of community across time. The teacher can have students ask questions about different state and national symbols and in turn have students answer questions about their learning as well.

In addition, students are asked to write informational and opinion/argumentative text through the CCS writing standards, which lends itself well to writing about history and social studies. Students can write reports on what they have learned and give their opinions about the importance and impact of historical events on our lives today. Social studies is filled with not only informational text but opinion/argumentative writings. Students have for years, read famous speeches, such as the Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech that show them how words can inspire and form history. This is the work of language arts; students interpret history and write about it.

Think about integration by starting with a comprehensive objective. A learning objective should include the following, content, thinking skill, resources, and products. For example, take the following objective: Students will be able to describe national symbols and their purpose by reading the book, “Celebrate America: A Guide to America’s greatest symbols” and draw and write about one symbol in their notebook. Let’s deconstruct the objective:

Content: National Symbols

Thinking Skill: Describe

Resource: Book- “Celebrate America: A Guide to American’s greatest symbols.”

Product: Notebook entry-drawing with written text

So what does this all mean for integration? I like to teach my students to think about integration by constructing learning experiences that capture the /C/TS/R/P by pulling these elements from the standards. This is where the Common Core and Social Studies standards come together. When thinking about the content, pull from your social studies standards, for the thinking skills pull from your CCS ELA reading informational text standards, resources can be a range of social studies texts and materials, including videos, pictures, books, paintings, audio clips, etc. and your products can come from the speaking and writing CCS ELA standards to show what they learned. You can create a list of your content, thinking skills, resources and products and mix and match them to form a variety of integrated CCS ELA and Social Studies learning objectives.

Thanks to Sarah, Michael, Ruchi, Jody and Eugenia for their contributions!

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