If You Really Want to Make America Great Again, Stop Ignoring Social Studies

Oct 23, 2018 12:00:00 AM


It’s funny how a student can make you pause and think hard about something you teach. Recently, I didn’t just pause, I got smacked upside the head like an unexpected foul ball at baseball game. How? After two days of debating our founding documents, one of my students threw me this curve ball in a lesson reflection.
Wouldn’t it be great if our country would take a moment to pause and reflect on the reasoning behind the Constitution? The Founding Fathers wanted to make America great after a long war for freedom, but they were educated, pragmatic and thoughtful about how they set out to form this country based on a written document which is a cornerstone in our country, the Constitution. I don’t know if our citizens today really think about the true meaning of it, or for that matter can even describe the principles of that document. I would guess most them don’t care and take for granted what the Constitution says anyhow. Until eighth grade, I had never heard much about it before, and I really didn’t think it applied to me. Boy was I wrong.
Hmm. Part of that statement made me cringe. Every public school that receives federal funds is required to teach about the Constitution once a year. We did these lessons as part of our studies for Constitution Day. But the lack of prior knowledge this student described is a reality that springs from the marginalization of social studies. Research shows the testing era had a laser-like focus on language arts and math, with less time devoted to social studies or civics education. Many argue that social studies content is easily woven into literacy units. They cite national standards suggesting that instruction in the use of nonfiction and informational text means that social studies will be present in the classroom. Others suggest that social studies will at least be embedded in interdisciplinary instruction because it is a core content area. Wrong. We have yet to see this happen, and the proof is in classrooms and our communities across America. If we as a country are satisfied with the status quo, and based on current national conversations I am betting most of us are not, then keep things the same. If not, then as an educator, parent or community member, consider these three beginning steps to change this narrative.

Teach Kids Hands-On Civics From Kindergarten Through College

Learning about our rights and responsibilities as citizens cannot start early enough. Our students are affected by media earlier than ever. Teaching students about their community, their nation and our global society is critical when many have access to a digital device and news 24/7. (At least when they aren’t grounded from it, right?) I am not talking about bringing partisan politics in the classroom, I am talking about developing citizen skills. We need to teach students how to critically examine what they hear, express their opinions in a safe and professional manner and be active citizens who work for the common good. [pullquote position="right"]If they do not get this instruction at school or at home, where will they get it?[/pullquote] Most districts still require some form of civics instruction, but most students still lack a place to put what they learn into action. They need opportunities to cement that knowledge into a meaningful real-world experience that remains with them when rote facts do not.

Get Serious About Interdisciplinary Studies

As a profession, we must advocate for both planning time and flexibility in instruction so that meaningful content and discussions on equality, liberty, equity, opportunity and freedom exist all content areas. How about debating environmental legislation or discussing the theme of a book and how it relates to an era of change? Can we use art and music to express how our local communities deal with the struggles and celebrations of democracy? Let’s bring creativity in the classroom with a twist of civics too.

When Administrators Try to Take Our Time, We Need to Just Say No

One of the most important things we can do as stakeholders who care about students is to stop allowing social studies instruction to be impacted by school routines and perceived necessities. Stop allowing all school pictures to be taken during social studies classes every year. Spread out counseling sessions, health instruction, safety trainings and other mandated activities across all content areas. (By the way, school scheduling committees, that does not mean placing everything during electives classes either.) If we are really going to Make America Great Again, then the change must come from within. The only way to have a true democratic republic is to have an educated citizenry. If it seems at times that we do not have one now, we had better zero in on social studies. Without the full understanding of our civil rights and civic duties that social studies offers, we won’t have an educated citizenry now or in the future.

Michelle Pearson

Michelle Pearson is the 2011 Colorado State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. She is is a middle school social studies teacher in the Adams 12 Five Star School District in Thornton, Colorado, where she has been teaching for 25 years.

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