State of the Social Studies

TomClairAbeThis week’s post comes from Thomas Fulbright, current KCSS president and history teacher at Hope Street Academy, a public charter school in Topeka since 2008. Thomas intends “to spend my entire life convincing them how exciting and important history is.”  His bio picture is daughter Claire and Thomas  meeting President Lincoln.

This past July, I attended a Library of Congress Primary Source SummitTF NameTag hosted by the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies.  We covered a number of topics beyond just social studies pedagogy with a focus on the use of primary sources. By the end of the summit I was feeling good about the State of the Social Studies in Kansas, and in addition, reinvigorated in my personal purpose for teaching social studies.  Let me tell you why & hopefully you will feel the same way (sorry you couldn’t come with me to Minnesota).

First – the State of the Social Studies.

The summit was attended by representatives from the state councils for the social studies of 17 states in the Library of Congress’ Midwest region. (Fun fact – according to the LOC grouping, the Midwest includes states such as Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee).  Each state briefly described what they considered to be the State of Social Studies in their home state. Comments by the summit attendees made me feel really good about how our state approaches standards and assessment. Apparently many states have standards that don’t actually encourage good social studies pedagogy. 

I don’t know why this came as a surprise but it did make me grateful for our Kansas State Department of Education and all of the people who have worked on our state’s standards committees.

Next, we discussed assessment in social studies. While no attendee was a real big fan of the idea of standardized tests, we all acknowledged that assessments were useful in ensuring that school district administrators made social studies a priority instead of a singular focus on other subjects such as ELA and math. 

Model of Bison Anatomy in the Minnesota History Center.

The conversation made me happy, especially since we all have seen the direction our state’s social studies assessment is moving, namely towards an authentic and meaningful classroom based assessment that will be supportive of good social studies pedagogy. Needless to say, at the end of the State of the Social Studies conversation I was feeling very good about teaching in the state of Kansas. Many other states are following the ALEC playbook and requiring students to take the American citizenship test as part of the assessment process. This practice simply encourages the memorization of facts, not the teaching of actual critical thinking skills needed by students to actually take civic action.

Second – Why what we do matters.

Following the state of the discipline conversation, we moved to a discussion on the purpose of teaching social studies. You may be familiar with the “teachers build the builders” poem. This is the idea that teachers are important because they teach students the skills they need to become successful in life following graduation. 

While we didn’t want to criticize any idea that is complimentary of teachers, we just felt the idea of this poem expressed the idea that subjects focused directly on the skills related to careers – STEM and technology, for example – are seen as the most important.  When our Founding Fathers and Mothers espoused the importance of education, they typically were not saying public education was important because it would teach students the skills required for future jobs. Instead they focused on the idea that a widely available education was necessary in order to have a citizenry that could maintain a democracy.  For example, what Thomas

person holding fountain pen

In his letter to James Madison in 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote Above all things, I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”  (His letter also mentions the Bill of Rights, which reminds me – Happy Constitution Day). 

This conversation at the summit didn’t really teach us anything new, we all know the importance of what we are trying to do in our classrooms. All social studies teachers should revisit and affirm our commitment to teaching in a way that produces a citizenry that possesses a deep historical knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge. With these skills gained in our classrooms students become citizens who actively participate in our Democracy in constructive ways.

You can imagine how these conversation had me ready to teach again this fall! My hope these two messages will also inspire you this fall. 

  •  Kansas is a great place to be a social studies teacher.
  •  Your role as a social studies teacher is vital to the success of our Democracy.  

About Kori Green

I teach 8th grade social studies at El Dorado Middle School in El Dorado, KS. I enjoy U.S. history, dabble in British history, and love incorporating technology in the classroom.

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