Social Studies for Humans

by Christina Jenkins

When I first started teaching seventh grade social studies at a middle school in New York City, I looked at the curriculum (pre-Columbus to the Civil War) and had an idea: I would paint the outline of the North American continent on a large wall in my classroom and fill it with colonies – and later, states – as we moved westward towards June. I imagined that it would be an ever-changing visual reminder of how this country came to be.

And then, first year teaching hit me hard, and that outline remained an outline long after we’d covered the Revolution, early government, and the War of 1812. By that point, several students from our homeroom class had moved away, and I think we were all trying to figure out where we were going. And then one day, Joseph drew a picture of Angela (the first student to leave us) and taped it to the wall underneath a sign reading “Wall of Memory” right about where Missouri should have been.  Joseph, more than any of us, had figured out how to use that space to tell a story.

It turns out that social studies is fundamentally about humans. It is critically important for our students to understand their Constitutional rights and the historical context for the founding and growth of this country. But, as Joseph knew intuitively and as I’ve learned over 8 years as an educator, humans come first. I now teach anthropology (truly, primarily, about humans), feminism (humans and power), cartography (how humans situate themselves in the world), design (how humans experience the world) and many other classes at a public high school where I’m privileged to teach what I feel I can teach best. I believe that my fundamental responsibility as an educator is to create learning experiences that are human-centered, and believe strongly that social studies is the “discipline” where that responsibility is most acutely felt. Whether we are teachers of geography or global history or anthropology, we must be empowered to raise and struggle with these questions about what makes us who we are.

Christina Jenkins teaches social studies at the NYC iSchool.

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