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May 1, 1998
Vol. 55
No. 8

Voices: The Teacher / Making Social Studies Social

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      After 12 years as a college professor of education, I returned to teaching 4th grade, hoping to find I could still cut it as a classroom teacher. In planning for the transition, I recalled the lessons and methods used by my best teachers when I was a student.
      Oddly, I scarcely remembered my textbooks. Instead, I remembered Mrs. Bradley, who interrupted 2nd grade reading every day so we could sing. And Brother Richard, whose tales of his summer working in Appalachia added depth to our religion class. Or Mr. Maloney, who played the Beatles' song, "Hey Jude," and informed us, a group of volatile 16-year-old boys, that the song wasn't about sex and drugs, as we had thought, but about "angst . . . a quality, gentlemen, from which you shall all someday suffer." (I wrote that down so I would recognize angst when it appeared in my life. Trust me, it helped.)
      I realized that I, like these teachers, wanted to be someone who mattered to the children in my care, and textbooks would have little place in fulfilling that desire.
      I jumped into teaching without a text the second day of school in social studies class. Our curriculum was based on states and regions, so I asked my class:
      "Boys and girls, tell me something about the United States—anything."
      "It's big," said Martha.
      "There are lots of mountains in Colorado," ventured James.
      "California has more people than any place else—and more money, too!" chimed in Erin.
      "Okay, now tell me something you'd like to learn about the United States."
      Michael answered first: "I'd like to know if Minnesota really has 10,000 lakes, like it says on their license plates."
      Lydia was more practical: "I'd like to know how to drive from here to Disney World, because my mom says it's too expensive to fly."
      Carla wondered: "Why do homeless people always seem to live in big cities?"
      Inside the heads of these 10-year-olds was more information and inquisitiveness than in even the best-written textbook.
      Beginning that day, and continuing on through the warm days of June, our social studies theme became "The U.S. is US." We targeted people in our region or nation who could use our help or deserved a thank you, and we contacted them by letter or phone.
      During the year, we communicated with victims of a hurricane; the governor of Ohio (he had cried at a press conference—we told him that was okay); the owner of a toy company who had donated $17,000 in toys to homeless children; a 9-year-old Haitian refugee who had found a new home in Miami; and the family of a local man who was paralyzed when an unidentified person threw a brick through his car window. We sent 200 of our own stuffed animals to a family shelter in Cleveland in February because, according to Billy, "People stop thinking about helping once Christmas is over."
      We learned our states. Each student selected a favorite state and developed a brochure for visitors, complete with maps, sites of interest, and suggestions for appropriate clothing.
      Throughout each lesson we learned that social studies is only "social" when we get involved with other people. States and regions mean very little unless we learn about the individuals who inhabit them, and nothing feels better than thanking or comforting a stranger who shares our American home.
      The textbooks? Yes, they came in handy, as supplements, when we needed an atlas or a fact sheet on a state's population or terrain, or if we needed to know the difference between a mesa and a plateau. But our states and regions, our nation's people, our biggest problems, and our best solutions were out there, on the TV news and in the local papers.
      We didn't finish our textbooks last year, and in June the bindings on them still snapped and crackled when we opened them flat, but I hope that when my students try to remember their teachers and what they learned, they will remember that the U.S. is us.

      Dr. James R. Delisle has taught gifted children and those who work on their behalf for more than 39 years. Delisle retired from Kent State University in 2008 after 25 years of service there as a distinguished professor of special education. Throughout his career, Delisle has taken time away from college teaching to return to his "classroom roots," volunteering as a 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 8th grade teacher in 1991, 1997, and 2006. Delisle has also taught gifted middle school students one day a week between 1998–2008 in the Twinsburg, Ohio, public schools. For the past six years, Delisle has worked part time with highly gifted 9th and 10th graders at the Scholars' Academy in Conway, South Carolina.

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