Early Education

How social studies can help young kids make sense of the world

Civic engagement matters today more than ever, yet social studies in the early grades are sidelined. To make up for this absence, some educators seek outside training on how to handle sensitive issues in the classroom

Teachers and administrators get acquainted at a Border Crossers workshop for educators about discussing race and racism in the classroom.

Teachers and administrators get acquainted at a Border Crossers workshop for educators about discussing race and racism in the classroom.

This story about social studies instruction is part of a series about innovative practices in the core subjects in the early grades. Read about math, science and reading.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — One of the longtime goals of public education is to produce young people capable of participating in the democratic process. Experts say that requires regular and high-quality social studies lessons, starting in kindergarten, to teach kids to be critical thinkers and communicators who know how to take meaningful action.

Yet, as teachers scramble to meet math and reading standards, social studies lessons have been pushed far back on the list of academic priorities, especially in the early grades.

“Without social studies, we lose the civic mission of public schools,” said Stephanie Serriere, a former early-grade teacher who is now an associate professor of social studies education at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus. “Ultimately, we can’t prepare children for living in a rich, diverse democracy if we don’t expose them to the controversial topics inherent in our democracy.”

Time spent teaching social studies has declined in the last two decades, particularly since the 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind, which favored a focus on math, reading and accountability as a way of addressing the country’s growing achievement gap between rich and poor children. Social studies in the early grades was especially affected by that legislation: kindergarten through second grade became reading, writing and math crunch time in preparation for the testing that begins in third grade.

“Social studies is like the lima beans on the curricular plate of the elementary student’s day,” said Paul Fitchett, associate professor and director of curriculum and instruction for the doctoral program in education at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Research shows that teachers coming from elementary ed programs feel the least competent in teaching social studies, compared to math, English language arts and even the sciences.” Because social studies isn’t an academic priority in many states, teachers often receive inadequate training from teacher-prep programs on how to teach the subject; once they begin teaching in the classroom, according to the National Council for the Social Studies, teachers need continued professional development to allow them to master the skills of effective social studies instructions. Often, educators say, that training is lacking.

Related: Why students are ignorant of the civil rights movement

Because social studies teaching continues to be given short shrift, educators sometimes seek instructional help in the form of sessions organized outside of school.

On a rainy Saturday morning this spring, 40 teachers and school administrators sat on folding chairs in the basement of a Brooklyn school for an all-day workshop on how to talk about race in the classroom. Organized by Border Crossers, a nonprofit group that trains teachers, administrators and parents how to explore race and racism, the event was led by trainers Ana Duque and Ben Howort, both former teachers.

Border Crossers trainers Ben Howort and Ana Duque are both former elementary school teachers.

Border Crossers trainers Ben Howort and Ana Duque are both former elementary school teachers.

“I do this work because, as a former kindergarten through third-grade teacher, and as a parent, I learned that when children have the language to explain race and racism, good things can happen,” Duque told the group. “There’s something about race that’s so fundamentally uncomfortable in our culture — especially when it intercepts with conversations about class and privilege.”

The workshop began with a discussion of racism from both historical and current perspectives, how it shows up in schools and classrooms today, why and how students of color were first denied equal educational opportunities, and how students of color continue to reap unequal opportunity from public education in the United States. After lunch, participants split up into small groups and practiced applying the day’s lessons to various fictional classroom scenarios.

“Racism cannot be solved in a six-hour workshop,” Howort told the group. “But hopefully you’ll leave with a lot more questions, a sense of urgency to catapult yourself into new knowledge.”

Related: It’s time our educational institutions instilled some civic-minded values in students

When it comes to dealing with sensitive issues like race, class, equity and gender, Duque, who teaches elementary school social studies curriculum development at Hunter College School of Education, said she wants her student-teachers to understand that social studies is not a skill to be practiced but rather an opportunity for inquiry and exploration. “If you, as the teacher, come into the classroom trusting that children have knowledge about the world already, then they can build an understanding of the world with you, the teacher, to guide them,” she said.

When social studies aren’t part of the early-grade curriculum, she noted, the impact lasts through generations. “I’m finding that children don’t fully understand what’s happening in the world; they’re not given the time or space to process what’s happening because a) no one’s talking about it, and b) no one’s helping them connect what’s happening today to the systems and patterns of the past,” said Duque,. “So now I’m seeing student teachers, products of No Child Left Behind, who never experienced rigorous social studies in their schooling either, so they don’t even know how to teach it. When I ask them to take part in inquiry, research or exploration, they don’t know how to do that.”

Experts recommend that, starting in preschool, students receive daily social studies lessons in order to fully develop the skills needed to become engaged citizens who are ready for college and careers. Common Core standards, however, tucked social studies into English Language Arts, relegating it to side-subject status rather than a discipline unto itself. That makes it even harder for teachers in the early grades as they work to meet Common Core standards while getting students test-ready for third grade.

“In kindergarten through second grade, teachers are focused on getting kids to read. Sometimes they’re using social studies as a reader — the word is integration, they’re integrating social studies into reading and language arts — and we’ve seen that done very poorly,” said Serriere, adding that there are some notable exceptions. “Most states either don’t test social studies, or the social studies test doesn’t really count toward adequate yearly progress.”

In an effort to bring social studies back and make it more coherent and challenging, the National Council for Social Studies in 2013 published the C3 Framework, an inquiry-based guide for states to use as a supplement to the Common Core standards. The C3 framework — the three Cs refer to college, career and civic life — includes curriculums in civics, economics, geography and history. Serriere said C3 is being used across the country. Critics say the framework waters down meaningful social studies instruction and fails to adequately inspire students to civic action.

"I’m positive that if we did this in my school, there would be blocks,” said Erica Davis, pictured at the Border Crossers training for educators.

“I’m positive that if we did this in my school, there would be blocks,” said Erica Davis, pictured at the Border Crossers training for educators.

Back at the Border Crossers training, Erica Davis, a workshop participant and assistant principal at a small New York City public elementary school, said she signed up for the workshop because it felt like important work. “But I’m positive that if we did this in my school, there would be blocks,” said Davis, who noted that discussions at her school about race and gender quickly become stiff and closed. And yet, she added, when conversations about race and other sensitive topics aren’t part of everyday classroom teaching, children aren’t prepared to handle difficult subjects. “We don’t have these conversations in our schools. We don’t make it comfortable. For example, we freak out when kids use the N word but we don’t support them to have further conversations about it,” said Davis. “So anyone who’s moved through the American school system just isn’t equipped to handle these issues.”

As teachers and administrators progressed through the day’s work, the two trainers repeated a mantra: “How often are we willing to misstep, to misspeak?” Howort asked the group. “When having conversations about race, you’re going to step in it — it’s just going to happen. It’s a continuous learning process.”

Indeed, as teachers discussed sensitive subjects like the complex power dynamics within schools and classrooms or white teachers teaching students of color, for instance, tempers flared at several points in the day as participants struggled to find the right words to talk about these issues.

Related: Teaching kids how battles about race from 150 years ago mirror today’s conflicts 

Social studies, said Serriere, is the place to incorporate sensitive conversations in the early grades. “If we listen to children and pay attention to what they’re bringing into the classroom, we realize it’s full of issues about race, class, gender, money — all those things,” she said. “So if we have an emergent curriculum in which we’re asking, ‘What’s on your mind? What isn’t fair? What bothers you? What could be improved in society?’ it might start very small, but I am confident, based on my experience in elementary classrooms, that all these issues are present in even the most homogeneous classrooms.”

Folding in difficult conversations about sensitive issues in the early grades is crucial preparation for delving more deeply into various social studies disciplines in the later grades. History, for example, with its accounts of wars, slavery, intrigue and fierce battles for rights is full of social and ethical issues including religion, race relations, gender roles, cultural differences and the merits of different political and economic systems.

As early as kindergarten, when children are at an age at which they like talking about themselves, students may begin discussing identity. “Any opportunity you can give them to talk about themselves [you should use], but in the context of some kind of social identity where you define it, give them some language,” said Duque. “Then they get an awareness of who they are within the context of other people.” First- and second-graders are ready to discuss stereotypes, the ways in which people categorize each other, and they are also able to think about re-categorizing people based on a variety of criteria. “The world categorizes people based on race, and if we never challenge or address it, then kids assume that’s the right way to engage with the world,” said Duque. “Personally, I think all these issues should be part of early-grade curriculums. And it’s important that there is also an active, purposeful relationship with families so they are involved in the conversations.”

At the workshop, Howort wrapped up the day with a bit of advice: Once a teacher decides to take on sensitive issues in the classroom, it’s crucial to have a support system. “You’ve got to have allies as teachers, so when you mess up, you have someone you can discuss it with. Set up your system so you don’t burn out,” Howort told the group.

Social studies remains a low priority in many school districts and will likely remain so until districts or states mandate daily or weekly social studies instructional time, similar to English and math instructional time requirements, said Fitchett of the University of North Carolina. That may be a tough sell, he acknowledged. “Social studies can tend to be a political hot potato,” he said. “It can ruffle a lot of feathers in terms of how it’s being used. But who doesn’t want children to be part of the democratic process? Who doesn’t want young people to be critical consumers of the world around them? Maybe I’m too optimistic here, but I think that — across parties — most people want that.”

This story about social studies in elementary school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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