Saturday, August 7, 2010

Social Studies--a scary subject.

I have been writing notes, pondering, talking to myself, and in general, wondering how to approach this subject of what should be taught in Social Studies.  Before we get all tangled up in the subject, let's agree that social studies is made up of history, geography, civics, psychology, health, sociology, anthropology, and economics.  Yes, religions (note the "s" on the end of that word) is also included in social studies however because of the separation of church and state in this country it is somewhat removed.  When I say somewhat, we do study the pilgrims, and some of the early settlers who came to this country for religious freedom.  Sort of hard to study early United States history without getting into religion.  But the teachers I have known and watched certainly stay away from the actualities of religions in their classes.  

So the question in front of us today is what social studies should we be teaching our kids in the K-12 classrooms?  It is interesting that the State of Texas has elected officials (a board) who are charged with deciding which social studies is to be taught.  I disagree with this board but since I don't live in Texas I shall refrain from commenting upon their decisions.  It's their problem.

Most teachers who teach some form of the social studies areas that I have outlined use some textbook which in most if not all cases has been approved by the local school board.  A school district's curriculum committee generally comprised of parents and teachers and perhaps one or two administrators will  look at textbooks, workbooks, and general courses of study for each grade and high school subject areas.  Most of this is based upon the agreed statewide curriculum proposed by the State Office of Public Instruction.  I would say that in most school districts social studies starts broadly in the early grades and becomes more specific and detailed in the secondary schools.  Makes sense.  These courses of study are generally reviewed every ten years or so.  

As an example, most primary classrooms generally start with studying the local neighborhood.  Who are our neighborhood helpers? (firemen, policemen, grocer, mailmen, doctors and nurses, etc.)  Some of the primers in reading will have stories that will help with this concept. 

But by the time we reach the intermediate grades, the study focusses on the beginnings of the United States and the western expansion.  The war of independence and the civil war are studied.  In some districts (and textbooks) the Mexican war and the Spanish American war are also included.  But for the most part it is the western expansion that occupies much of the social studies period in the classroom.  Lewis and Clark, the gold rush, the pony express are all included.  And let's not forget wagon trains.  All interesting stuff to fourth and fifth graders and most of this "stuff" is history and geography.  

I did get a replication of the Declaration of Independence from the local Coca-Cola Company one year, full size and put it up on my bulletin board.  It was quite impressive and we read it together in class.  But it was the handwriting that caught their eye and for a time it seemed like everyone was trying to improve on their handwriting.  So much for social studies.

Shortly after the computers were introduced to the public schools a software program called "Oregon Trails" was published.  It was a simulation program in which the student at the computer had to make decisions as to what she/he were going to be, how many oxen to take, how much food to put in the wagon, etc.  Lots of decision.  Then you start out and have to cross the first river, depending upon the time of year will determine the deepness and danger level of the river.  Some of your party may be killed.  But you forge on.  

One of my complaints with Oregon Trails which by the way became extremely popular in the schools, was that as your party entered the plains, you are attacked by indians.  I argued at one conference that that put an unfair light on our "native Americans."  I live near the great Lummi nation and knew when this program was offered in the local schools that unless the Lummi children could wipe out the entire wagon train they were unhappy.  I still wonder why the authors of Oregon Trails left it in the program.  I tell this story to illustrate the many complexities that we have in social studies.  Plato's question, "which knowledge is of most worth," is still valid today.

However, to be fair, the Oregon Trails software was one of the first materials for teaching that allowed the student to "own" their learning.  They had to make the decisions and decide what to do--it wasn't just reading from a textbook or having a teacher tell them something.   It was history, anthropology, geography, sociology, civics, psychology all rolled up in one teaching package in which the student had to participate.  And they did with gusto.  Who could made it to Oregon became the prize.

There are still many, many potholes in the road to the successful social studies curriculum.  I have heard recently that veteran groups want all the wars that the United States has been in to be studied.  And one chamber of commerce wants all the successful business men from their area included in the curriculum.  The asian community wants their celebrations included and the study of the holocaust is now mandated by law in this state. As each ethnic group comes of age, they want their history to be studied.  

When I first started teaching most teachers that I knew were very much opposed to letting their students know which political party they favored.  Even today I think many teachers still remain secretive about their political outlook since they know that their thinking could influence the students....and it is the students making up their own minds that it critical to teaching social studies in the upper grades.  I've talked to a few high school teachers who teach history and civics and they say they are keeping their heads down.  They do not want to get into arguments with the parents.  It's a tough road.  How to teach political science without being political.  Hmmmm?

Bet you don't know the rules for flying the American Flag!  Let me know and I'll grade your e-mail.  

And thanks to all those teachers who teach something without letting the students know their feelings and values.  "I want you to make up your own mind."  Bravo, teachers.  Bravo.  You are good.