Insightful Social Studies Gaining Momentum

Lots of good things are happening.

I wrote a piece earlier this week for the Shanker Blog about larger concerns with the Common Core and is lack of attention to Civics, putting this effort in a larger context.  The Washington Post picked it up Wednesday, and Diane Ravitch just blogged about it as well.

We now have open lines of communication with multiple officials at the state level involved in the writing of the curriculum and with the power to ultimately approve it.  We have also established relationships with NYC officials, as well as with people working on larger national efforts.

We hope to have exciting news about next steps in the very near future, but in the meantime, please sign up for our Mailing List so we can communicated directly with you to organize, and so we can let people know just how many people are with us.

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What the New Curriculum Would Do to My Economics Class

by Michael Perlberg

For the past three years, I’ve had the privilege to teach the capstone social studies course at the Bushwick School for Social Justice.  This course looks at government and economics through a social justice lens and prepares students to be productive citizens, critical thinkers, and successful college students.

The introduction of the Common Core excited me. I finally had a framework to organize my course around. I was able to develop rigorous performance assessments around key college readiness standards, and was able to track my students’ performance and develop interventions when they struggled and enrichment when they met the standards more quickly then I expected. I designed units that culminated in authentic research based tasks that answered relevant and engaging questions. The students responded with excitement, engagement and work at levels far above what their Regents scores indicated they were capable of.

I expected that the New York State standards would follow suit by melding big historical questions with the Common Core reading and writing standards.  Instead we have been presented with an exhaustive list of bland standards with the Common Core pasted on top of them.

Let me discuss how this will play out in my current course, Economics.  Continue reading

How a Meaningful History Class Could Look

by David Sherrin

In my previous piece, I described my dismay at the approach of the Social Studies Framework and my hopes that we move toward a more rigorous and authentic practice involving inquiry and questioning. But is this high-level work doable in high school? My ten years of experience teaching in public and private schools in New York City, working with both some of the brightest and most struggling students, has shown me that it is possible and feasible. The key ingredients are to provide talented and motivated teachers with the tools of inquiry and the freedom to strive for excellence. This is what my principal, Kate Burch, envisioned at Harvest Collegiate when she told her teachers to go out and create their “dream” courses. The result, as I have seen from colleagues and experienced myself, is more often than not the cultivation of impassioned discussion, curious students, rigorous thought, and core skill-building.

The two dream classes that I developed are called “Heroes and Villains” and “Sports, Fashion, and Politics.” In each, I sought to frame the class with topics (personal stories, sports, clothing) that are compelling to teenagers, especially those who are often frustrated and unmotivated when placed in traditional academic settings. But my goal was to do so in a rich, authentic way that resulted in real learning and the cultivation of strong historical thinking, reading, and writing skills.

“Heroes and Villains,” for example, uses in-depth study of fascinating individuals in history, such as Hernan Cortes, Martin Luther, and Galileo, as lenses to explore the agency people hold in the world and the larger historical transformations like the exploration of the Americas, the Protestant Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution. Students read acclaimed biographies, compare competing primary sources, and simulate historical trials. “Sports, Fashion, and Politics” utilizes topics like cricket in India, soccer in Africa, the cultural diffusion of Victorian fashion, the role of Gandhi’s spinning wheel, the 1980 Olympic boycott and the “miracle” of the United States’ hockey victory against the Soviet Union to explore the meaning of colonialism and the Cold War. Each of these classes also includes a full research paper.

These courses cannot address the wide breadth of content required by the NYS framework because they search for depth, understanding and substance over a smorgasbord of forgettable superficial facts. They are also unique courses that would never be created or agreed upon by consensus even among a group of progressive educators.

Amazing things happen whenever strong teachers are given the opportunity to create and explore.

I am certainly not alone. All across the city, impassioned teachers are developing meaningful thematic courses, from the thought-provoking Genocide and Human Rights class at Facing History School to American Foreign Policy at Urban Assembly.  The caveat, of course, is that not every teacher is a star. Most, though, are perfectly capable of creating something valuable if allowed to pursue their areas of expertise and passion. More importantly, I think most of us are willing to endure a few subpar classes in order to have others that are inspiring. A unified social studies framework that requires certain core “facts” in global history to be drilled is destined to kill ingenuity in favor of dull rote memorization. It reminds me a bit of shopping for a mattress for my soon-to-be child and realizing that all children, by law, are exposed to harmful chemical fire retardants in order to possibly protect a few from a rare blaze.

Here’s the reality: these courses take time. A real unit takes about three to four weeks to unfold with another week or so to assess, especially if a meaningful project is incorporated. Students need time to process, repeat, discuss, and inquire about any complex historical event. As a result, six full content units over the course of the year are ideal in addition to a full research paper. The topics that the NYS framework requires are interesting and important; but they are not necessarily more valuable than others that are omitted and the main problem is that there is simply too much content jumbled up in the mix. Their product in 10th grade, for example, includes ten units jam-packed with ideas that require considerable time to unpack in a meaningful way with teenagers. One unit includes the study of World War I, nationalism, fascism, the Great Depression, World War II, and post-war alliances. This is too much, it is destructive to real learning, and it is simply unacceptable.

In the same way that I hope that the state will not require our students to learn history in the rote way that we did, I do not want to force other teachers to take a thematic approach if the traditional route works in their classroom. I don’t look down upon the contributors to the standards or dismiss their knowledge and skills. I just would not have accepted their task knowing what the outcome would be. I wish that those who value authentic historical education will create a curriculum with built-in flexibility in content in order to allow an emphasis on core skills.

David Sherrin is a Social Studies teacher and department coordinator at Harvest Collegiate. He has ten years of experience teaching in New York City schools. His passion is to engage all students in learning about the complexities of the past and in participating in deep historical, ethical, and historiographical debates, often through the use of role-playing and the analysis of key primary and secondary sources. 

New Curriculum Squashes Debate

by David Sherrin

The creators of the New York State Common Core 9-12 Social Studies Framework fulfilled a task that I never would have wished for myself. At my former school, I once participated in an endeavor to develop a common 9-10 social studies curriculum. After a week of debate amongst a half-dozen like-minded progressive educators, we emerged with a bland, somewhat insipid program that appeared suspiciously similar to the traditional Global History and Geography course. It was the only option that could achieve any level of consensus. It became a solid, if somewhat forgettable, set of units and lessons that appeased all but fully pleased and inspired no one.

The men and women who drafted the state-wide social studies framework faced an even more daunting obstacle: developing a core curriculum that could meet the needs of every teacher and student from Brooklyn to Plattsburgh. I am sure that the participants are smart, dedicated, and hopeful individuals who aspired to make a lasting contribution to education. The first thirty pages, which deal with skills and the incorporation of the Common Core, are thoughtful, productive, and extremely relevant.

The problem from the start, though, is that their mission was self-destructive, like winding through a labyrinth with no possible exit. This became the case as soon as they delved into content. The reason is simple: creating a unified curriculum with a core knowledge in world history that every student must know, and every teacher must teach, betrays the very foundations of inquiry, curiosity, and depth that lies at the heart of historical thinking. The goal of any historian, we must realize, is not to learn what everyone else knows but rather to acquire new and specific knowledge that can make a real contribution to our collective memory of the past.

Here are two examples of what I mean. The curriculum takes areas of historical doubt and debate (which historians call historiography) and turns them into undisputed fact. This seems to happen most often in the murky realm of “cause and effect.” In the unit on the Silk Road, which would include the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan, one key understanding from the framework is that “greater economic power increased political and military power, which enabled the expansion of empires.” But the Mongols were really nomadic horsemen who conquered lands of vastly greater economic strength. Historical thinking would ask students to question that cause-effect relationship.

Likewise, in the unit on absolutism, the framers ask students to know that “the increased wealth generated by Atlantic trade networks enabled European monarchs to consolidate power leading to the rise of absolutist governments.” A strong teacher would push teenagers to question the cause-effect relationship since some absolute monarchies existed before Atlantic trade networks and some took hold in places like Prussia and Russia, where there were no Atlantic networks. The students might even inquire as to whether “absolutism” is a valid historical concept given the strong Cortes (assembly) in Philip II’s Spain and the Parliament in England under Henry VIII.

In my next piece, I will articulate an alternative vision for what a global history course could look like.

David Sherrin is a Social Studies teacher and department coordinator at Harvest Collegiate. He has ten years of experience teaching in New York City schools. His passion is to engage all students in learning about the complexities of the past and in participating in deep historical, ethical, and historiographical debates, often through the use of role-playing and the analysis of key primary and secondary sources. 

Give us Questions, Not Answers

On the draft framework’s opening page, there are a list of objectives that I found refreshing. According to the Framework, the purpose of Social Studies “is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”  Towards that end, the Framework claims to allow “Students to develop an understanding of concepts and key ideas driven by case studies, analysis of primary and secondary source documents, and an examination of patterns of events in history,” and teachers “to have increased decision‐making power about how to teach and illustrate conceptual understandings and key ideas to promote student understanding.”  On those three points rests the entirety of the work I do with curriculum, teachers, and students.   Count me in!

A little of the substance that follows this promising introduction does take steps forward towards indicating what students should be able to do in high school social studies courses.  Both the Common Core standards, which I’ve written about elsewhere, and the conception and inclusion of the Social Studies Practices, are significant advancements from previous State guidelines which only focused on content knowledge.

However, the extended list of 59 Key Ideas and the deluge of Understandings completely undermine those efforts.  I have three main concerns, as well as suggestions to address these concerns.

First, a certain interpretation of history is established through the “Key Ideas” which is meant to be transferred to students, as opposed to a series of questions being posted to lead to the inquiry necessary to demonstrate most of the Common Core standards such as argument, (Writing 1), comparing texts with different views (Reading 9), and all the Practices.  This static approach to historical content assumes we know what matters about the past and simply need to transfer it to students, rather than acknowledging that social studies is a contested field of knowledge, in which interpretations of the past are continually questioned and reevaluated in light of evidence. Continue reading