Social Studies: Developing Good Citizens
In elementary schools social studies is often the subject that is “left behind,” at least in the traditional sense. Time may not be blocked off each day for a specific “social studies” time. We may feel like the subject is being neglected, even forgotten.
Many of us think of social studies as learning about history, but it is so much more. Social studies’ main purpose is to develop good citizens of our classrooms, schools, state, country and world. The purpose of social studies as stated by the Preamble to the North Carolina Essential Standards is to “develop young people who are knowledgeable, critical, and capable of making informed decisions about the world and their place in it.” and “to prepare young people to participate actively and responsibly in a culturally diverse, democratic and increasingly interdependent world.”
The N.C. Social Studies Essential Standards are written in five strands: history, geography, civics and government, economics and financial literacy, and culture. As students progress through their social studies experiences in the public schools, each area is addressed with more rigor and relevance. So how can this be done in a time where “social studies” as we used to know it is put on the back burner?
In the Transylvania County Elementary Schools, every day is a social studies day! Starting with being part of a group of diverse classmates, students become aware of similarities and differences. Students learn that they have a role and responsibilities within the community of their classroom. Each collaboration and conflict with classmates is a learning moment toward being a good citizen. Special event days, like Constitution Day and Veterans Day, stimulate activities and discussion that develop awareness of civic responsibility and the structure of our government. Today’s students enjoy the School House Rock videos as much as we did when we were young. Remember: “The Shot Heard ‘round the World” and “I’m Just a Bill.”
Students learn about geographic location, from the concrete, finding their classroom, the lunchroom, the playground, to the more abstract, locating their city, state, country on maps and even more fun, zooming in to their house on Google Earth. Geography map skills continue to be developed on field trips like Muddy Sneakers, where students learn to use a compass, read contours, and follow trails in DuPont Forest.
Math lessons involve understanding the monetary value assigned to coins and bills. Students and teachers discuss how money is “made” (created at the mint) and “made” or earned. The difference between wants and needs are talked about, shopping lists created, costs calculated. The purpose and importance of taxes in our society is integrated into our lessons. Who paid for the desks and books we are using? This question leads to great discussions.
Through informational text and historical fiction, students read about important people of the past, including how they lived, events and hardships they faced, comparing and contrasting the lives students live today with those of the past. Diverse cultures are explored through illustrations and story, leading students to explore their own backgrounds and traditions. Life on a Midwestern farm in the early 1900s is described in Patricia MacLachlan’s “Sarah, Plain and Tall.” “The Birchbark House” by Louise Erdrich narrates the daily life of a Native American Ojibwa family in the late 1900s after a small pox epidemic. The culture of baseball is beautifully illustrated and documented in Kadir Nelson’s “We Are the Ship: the Story of Negro League Baseball.” And the emotional ties from around the world after the tragic events of 9/11 bring healing and hope in Carmen Deedy’s “14 Cows for America.” These books and more build historical understanding, cultural sensitivity, and discussion, leading students on their own social studies quest for more information.
Social studies is happening as fourth graders explore North Carolina’s rich culture, geographic regions, history, government, and economics. Deeper studies of other states allow students to compare and contrast cultures, geography and economics of these United States. Celebrating the winter holidays of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa gives students the opportunity to build an understanding of their own traditions as well as other people’s traditions. Creating a “museum display” of the three branches of government asks students to be creative while understanding the structure of our government. Setting up a lemonade stand on the playground, calculating costs and selling a product, with a set goal in mind, brings the processes of economics to the classroom.
These are just a few of the ways that social studies is happening everyday in the Transylvania County elementary school classrooms.
All this active social studies is preparing our students for deeper study of history, geography, civics and government, economics and financial literacy, and culture that will come in middle school, high school and beyond. Again, from the Preamble to the North Carolina Essential Standards in Studies, “Thomas Jefferson, among others, emphasized that the vitality of a democracy depends upon the education and active participation of its citizens.” Social studies in our Transylvania County Public Schools: Developing good citizens of our classroom, school, state, country and world.
(Jeanne DeJong is a fifth grade teacher at Brevard Elementary School.)