Teaching Opinion

Several Ways We Can Teach Social Studies More Effectively -- Part One

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 24, 2012 10 min read
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(This is the first post in a three part series. Part Two can be read here)

I asked:

What’s the best advice you can give to Social Studies teachers who want to be more effective?

Today, I’ll share guest responses from three talented and experienced educators: Stephen Lazar, Bill Bigelow, and Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez.

I’ll publish “Part Two” on Thursday, which will include the comments from several other contributors.

“Part Three” will appear next Wednesday, and will share many suggestions shared from readers (there’s still time if you would like to share yours!), along with my own advice.

The next “question of the week” will appear in ten days.

Response From Stephen Lazar

Stephen Lazar is currently a National-Board Certified social studies teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is a co-founder of Harvest Collegiate High School, a new public school opening this September in Manhattan. He works with teachers throughout New York to support inquiry-based instruction. He is on the executive board of ATSS/UFT and is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. His article, “Septima Clark: Organizing for Positive Freedom,” appears in The New Black History, edited by the late Manning Marable and Elizabeth Hinton. He blogs about teaching and reflects on his practice at Outside the Cave:

Teaching Social Studies presents teachers with a unique set of challenges not always found in other disciplines. Students tend to see Social Studies in general, and History in particular, as the subject matter that has the least relevancy to their current lives and their future needs. And while a certain degree of cultural literacy and understanding of the past is a worthy goal, I have to concede that our students have a point. The best advice I can give Social Studies teachers who want to be more effective is to remember that we teach students, not content.

While standards may dictate that students be able to explain the Green Revolution, the human beings in our classes demand that the information we help them learn also help them develop as people. Students may enter our rooms asking, “when am I ever going to need use this information?” We need to help them leave wondering, “what lessons can I learn from the past to help myself and our society make better decisions in the future?” A study of the Green Revolution, then, becomes a lesson in how a seemingly wonderful solution to problem (hunger) can have unintended consequences that are potentially far more catastrophic (overpopulation, increased reliance on polluting fossil fuels). By focusing on transferable goals, students will not only be more engaged, but will better remember and understand the content.

It is far easier to focus on teaching students when there is less content to worry about; less becomes more. But for those like myself who face high stakes exams, as we have in New York, this is not always an option. Nonetheless, teachers can and should still focus on larger transfer goals.

To do so, it becomes imperative that teachers prioritize content. Even though I personally have a far greater interest in the ancient Greeks than the Romans, I spend far more time in my global classes on the Romans as their civilization yields far more transferable lessons to the decisions students will have to make as citizens. To be able to do this, I rush through the Greeks in a day. I sacrifice understanding of the different views of Plato and Aristotle, as much as it pains the former philosophy major inside me, so that my students can examine how a republic can turn into an empire, so that students may be on the watch for similar conditions in our American republic.

As you sit down to plan your next unit, start by asking two questions: “What do I want my students to remember about this unit in ten years?” and “How can my students use the information and skills outside of my class right now?” The answers to these two questions can then guide the assessments and lessons your students will experience.

Response From Bill Bigelow

Bill Bigelow is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-director of the Zinn Education Project. He is the author or co-editor of many books on teaching, including Rethinking Columbus, A People’s History for the Classroom, and Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World. He taught high school social studies in Portland, Ore. for almost 30 years.

Bill offers his advice specifically to new Social Studies teachers, but they are words worth hearing for all of us no matter how long we’ve been teaching:

Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can pass along to new social studies teachers is the reminder that the textbook is not the curriculum. Increasingly, fewer and fewer giant multinational corporations produce our social studies textbooks. And all these for-profit entities have a vested interest in students (and teachers) not developing a critical awareness of the patterns of power and wealth that benefit those corporations.

That means that social studies teachers need to rely on ourselves, on networks of critical teachers, on non-profit publishers, and on the communities we serve, as the sources of curriculum.

Teach about what matters. Our job is to excite students about the world, to help them see the role that they can play in making society more equal and more just, to express their ideas powerfully, to see that social studies is about real people’s lives and about their relationship to each other and to nature. Enter the profession as a scholar, an historian, an activist, a curricular artist -- not as a subordinate to some “official” curriculum established far away from our classrooms by self-interested parties.

Creating a lively, playful, experiential curriculum about things that matter is more fun for students, and for us as teachers, too. The more that your students find meaning and joy in the social studies curriculum, the more vital your professional lives will be and the longer you will likely stay in teaching.

By “experiential,” I mean that we need to show students the world, not just tell them about it. We need a curriculum of role plays, simulations, and demonstrations that can bring social dynamics alive in the classroom, which is another reason to see yourself as a curricular artist and not as a mere dispenser of information. (See the Zinn Education Project for numerous models of different kinds of role plays and participatory curricula.)

Don’t forget that our students’ lives are also part of social studies. Bring those lives into the curriculum. Issues of race, class, culture, gender, language, and nationality all play out in the broader society, but also in students’ day-to-day experiences. Social studies is not just about famous people and Big Events, it’s about our students and the choices they face everyday. Find ways to blend their stories into the curriculum. (For example, see Linda Christensen’s books Reading, Writing, and Rising Up and Teaching for Joy and Justice.)

Especially these days, to teach social studies requires us to push at the boundaries that have traditionally confined our discipline. Arguably the most pressing issue facing humankind is climate change. Social studies teachers may not feel comfortable talking about atmospheric parts per million of carbon dioxide, but this is our issue as much as it “belongs” to science teachers. The causes of the climate crisis, its social impact, proposals for its mitigation, and ultimately how we can create a world of ecological sanity--these are all social issues, albeit ones marginalized in state standards and textbooks.

Remember, social studies is not only about chronicling events and memorizing dates. It’s less about description, than about explanation. It’s about questioning society, searching for patterns, and developing the tools to make the world a better place. Teaching social studies means showing how ordinary people have made a difference throughout history. In countless ways, we need to bring that activist sensibility to our students.

Response From Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez is a fifth-grade teacher in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District, and was named the district’s 2010 Teacher of the Year. Sarah is a National Board Certified Teacher and a former Sacramento County History Day Teacher of the Year. She is a member of Accomplished California Teachers:

As elementary school teachers, we have an incredible responsibility. Though our students will no doubt specialize in their own favorite subjects later in their educational careers, it is our job as elementary teachers to lay a foundation upon which they can build. It’s impossible to do this job well without, as the Beatles would say, a little help from our friends.

Surround yourself with the best (and use their ideas in your classroom!)

Find ways to connect with teachers throughout your district. In our district we have something called Vertical Team, where teachers who teach fifth-grade through twelfth come together. The meetings are teacher-run, and thus teacher-centered, providing us all with rich, meaningful professional development. There may be similar things in your district already established.

I was incredibly lucky to be part of a master’s program comprised of teachers in my district. Together we supported one another through the National Board process. As a result of National Board, I find myself constantly asking how lessons will impact student learning. If an approach isn’t going to have significant impact on student learning, I abandon it. While the National Board process in itself was extremely meaningful, the relationships I forged with my colleagues were equally, if not more, valuable. Consider joining a group of teachers pursuing National Board, or bringing the idea of doing Take One! to your school site.

If you can’t find an already established group that meets your needs, create your own. A handful of my colleagues and I formed a writing group four years ago. We meet every month or so to share student work, stories about writing, and tips that work well in our rooms.

Groups like these provide opportunities to share knowledge, reflect on classroom practice, and push yourself and your colleagues to the next level. You will leave meetings re-energized and excited about trying new things in your room.

Step outside of your school, district, and even state

There are lots of incredible opportunities out there, just waiting for someone like you to apply. The summer programs I have attended have had long-lasting effects. The Writing Project, specifically the Area3 Writing Project’s Summer Institute, transformed the way I teach writing and it’s no wonder so many participants describe it as “life changing.”

For fifth-grade teachers, the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute in Virginia is a must. This truly makes history come alive, and it offers scholarships!

Another great opportunity is the National Endowment for the Humanities Landmark Grants. The NEH offers workshops in a variety of states on an assortment of topics. The stipend will cover all of your costs, which is an extra bonus.

Bring in the reinforcements!

Guest speakers can make learning come alive for your students. Find areas where your expertise may be lacking, and invite an expert to come and talk with your students. Recently I had a cardiologist and a surgeon teach different aspects of the human body. Not only did they do a terrific job and provide my students with important content knowledge, but my students were also provided role models for a possible future career. Look for areas where you can bring in people from the outside -- by bringing in parents, and community members, your students benefit tremendously.

Get informed, and involved

This is a tough time in education, and our voices are often being ignored when it comes to policy decisions. Write letters to the editor to offer your insight after “educational” articles have been published, pick up the phone and ask your elected officials to fund education, and speak out to families. Together, we can be a powerful group!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Stephen, Bill and Sarah for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. I’m way behind in acknowledging questions that have been sent in, but I promise to get caught up in the summer!

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting Part Two of this series on Thursday and the next “question of the week” in ten days.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.