I’m on a board that oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, and the most recent report card was a shocker. It showed that 13 percent of U.S. students hit the NAEP “proficient” mark in U.S. history and 22 percent reached that goal in civics. How are students supposed to learn from the past or participate in civic life with scores like those?
The students who took that test were in eighth grade, but their knowledge and skill gaps didn’t start in middle school. These results were a wake-up call for me to add social studies into my already-packed day. Like most elementary teachers, I don’t have a set social studies curriculum or many resources to work with. Elementary teachers get limited time to teach social studies, particularly with the intense focus on improving reading and math, core subjects that took an enormous hit during the pandemic. But we can’t just throw up our hands. Here are some of the strategies I’m focusing on this year.
I plan to work with peers to find more resources and collaboratively plan social studies lessons. I’ll start by getting together with my fourth-grade team to look at the standards and research strategies and resources. We’ve had some success in recent years teaching social studies with a newspaper-style resource written specifically for elementary students. My fourth graders find the topics engaging and articles accessible.
A priority is to create real-world experiences for our students centered on history and government. We are planning a field trip to Raleigh to visit our state capitol, legislative building, executive mansion, and history museum.
While we don’t have a prescribed curriculum, North Carolina, like many states, has social studies standards, so it’s good to look for materials that align to those and spend time with colleagues in professional learning circles analyzing those standards and thinking collectively about how to meet them.
MAKE IT CROSS-CURRICULAR
One way to expand time on social studies is to integrate it with other content. A natural way to do this is by embedding lessons on history and civics into English language arts instruction. I’m fortunate that our school uses an ELA curriculum that systematically builds student knowledge on important topics, devoting time in fourth grade on themes like the American Revolution and the Constitution. Research shows that building background and content knowledge improves reading comprehension, while also helping students learn more about the topics they’re studying. It’s a win-win.
Writing assignments offer another way to deepen student learning. In my class this year, students analyzed three different texts on the American Revolution. They then wrote a short essay on the differences between the loyalists and patriots. Finally, they had to choose a side and explain why they chose that side. This assignment met history, writing, and ELA standards.
KEEP IT REAL
One goal for next year is to enhance our engagement with authentic civic leaders in our community. One of my former classes worked together to come up with questions about issues they cared about for our school board members, county commissioners, and district superintendent. We reached out to them through emails. Students created a slide show to share with their peers what they learned about that specific civic leader’s position and responsibilities.
Next year, I hope to invite local civic leaders to come to my classroom and talk with my students about issues they care about and how these issues can be solved. I’m also thinking about asking students to come up with a specific problem in the community that they’d like to work on collectively and solutions they can propose to policy makers or elected officials. This would be a great way to build their advocacy skills. Knowing my students pretty well, I think better playground equipment and new skateboard parks might be on their agenda. Research suggests that this kind of project-based approach to social studies instruction, in which students engage and interact with authentic audiences, really improves student learning.
Students can also learn about and understand local history by visiting nearby local historical sites or civic institutions. Next year, I’m looking forward to taking students to important sites near us, like Bath, North Carolina’s first town, and Tryon Palace, the official residence of the British governors of North Carolina in the 1700s.
FOCUS ON YOUR GROWTH
It’s not just kids who need field trips. One of my goals is to find meaningful professional development opportunities related to social studies instruction. I used to teach in Florida and recall colleagues going to St. Augustine as part of a professional development opportunity to learn about and better teach Florida history. A range of organizations also offer professional development opportunities for teachers in social studies. These include the National Geographic Society, museums and institutions like the Smithsonian, and state education agencies. I plan to learn more about what’s out there and encourage other educators to do the same.
On summer break this year, I added a few historical and civic books to my reading list, including The Lost Colonists: Their Fortune and Probable Fate (America’s 400th Anniversary Series) and Civic Education in the Elementary Grades: Promoting Student Engagement in an Era of Accountability.
The challenge before us is huge. If we do not begin focusing on social studies in early grades, we will continue to have young adults who lack critical knowledge about their government, how to engage in the democratic process, and our collective history. That worries me terribly, but it also motivates me to work for change.