Promote the Benefits of Social Studies
On September 11, 2001, we watched in horror as the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsed to the ground after Al-Qaeda terrorists plowed fuel-filled jetliners into them. Over 2,600 people were killed. My students flooded into class, demanding that the president "bomb somebody!" In the days that followed, I found myself giving impromptu lessons on constitutional authority and comparative religions, not only to students but also to adults.
Seven years later, in a class discussion on the day after the historic 2008 U.S. presidential election, I said that I had not expected to see an African American president in my lifetime. An African American student looked at me quizzically and said, "My granny said the same thing. I don't understand why."
The Past Informs the Present
Students' reactions to these two epochal events in modern history brought home how essential social studies education is in the world today. A demand that the president "bomb somebody" demonstrated an essential disconnect between what can happen and what is allowed to happen. And it seemed incomprehensible to me that an African American student could not understand the historical implications of Barack Obama's election.
As we educate the future citizens of this nation, we cannot allow them to leave our schools without an understanding of the foundations of our history and government. How we accomplish this is the question at hand.
On the national level, the answer lies in making sure that social studies are an integral part of any reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Continued effort by organizations like the National Council for the Social Studies and ASCD are a start, but individuals make a huge difference. We must keep up a continual stream of e-mails and letters to congressional leaders. As educators, persuasion is a basic tool in our arsenal. We must use it to open the eyes of those in Washington so that when our students become our leaders, they will have the necessary understanding of who we are and what we stand for as a nation.
On a state level, push for a "four by four" graduation requirement that insists on four years of high school study in each of the four core disciplines: math, science, English language arts, and social studies. An understanding of the content in social studies is essential for participation in the civic life of the community—which will include every one of our students. Plus, the thinking skills, research techniques, and writing taught in social studies can help students draw on and make connections with the content of the other core disciplines.
Marshal Your Teaching Talents
On the local level, teach. Include more than just the basic standards; make sure that the students are exposed to the depth and breadth of the social studies disciplines. Elementary teachers may have to take a stealth approach at first as they deal with a prevailing attitude favoring English language arts and math, but the results in both knowledge and test scores make education in social studies obvious. On the secondary level, move outside the classroom to embrace extracurricular activities, such as mock trials and the Model UN, which allow students to explore the judicial system and diplomacy in depth. Involve students in service projects that show them just how they can apply what they are learning to the real world. Look around—there is so much to be done.
Over spring break this year, my daughter and I crawled around on the playground of a local elementary school for three days, repainting a U.S. map that had become chipped and faded. In the weeks that followed, my daughter, a teacher at the school, watched class after class out on the playground "doing social studies." That's one small step for Pleasant Grove Elementary School to inspire social studies education—what steps will you take?
Sue Blanchette is president of the National Council for the Social Studies and a retired educator with 32 years of experience in secondary education with the Dallas (Tex.) Independent School District.
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 22. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.