Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Using Our Communities as Learning Laboratories in Social Studies
One of the greatest features of attending The Annual Conference of the National Council for the Social Studies is having the ability to talk with other social studies teachers from around the United States and world. As I sit here in the massive Georgia World Conference Center in Atlanta, Georgia, I find myself reflecting on a conversation I recently had with a high school social studies teacher in Atlanta. This was one of those conversations that really got me thinking about actual teacher practice and student learning. The high school social studies teacher from Atlanta informed me of a recent movement in his district to implement ‘pre-packaged’ social studies curricula. All teachers have been instructed to use a curriculum guide, which is supposedly aligned to the state standards. This guide is filled with worksheets, lecture notes, and a thorough pacing guide to accompany the district mandated social studies textbook. When asked about how his students feel about this ‘pre-packaged’ curriculum, the social studies teacher in Atlanta told me they often find the lessons and activities dry and boring. He went on to inform me of how the curriculum encourages low level memorization and employs more of a traditional framework whereby students work independently to complete assignments. Administrators should be able to stop into any American History classroom in the district and all teachers should be covering the same material. Despite the obvious concern of not all students learning at similar rates and in like styles, I was even more troubled at the implications of this sort of ‘pre-packaging’ and abuse of lecture/ the textbook on student learning.
This was the very point I emphasized in my presentation at the NCSS Annual Conference (see attached Power Point below). The abuse of lecture, worksheets, and textbooks fails to connect students to their community and world (Loewen, 2009). In fact, this type of social studies curriculum is often perceived by students as boring and irrelevant (Schug, Todd, & Berry, 1984; Shaughnessy & Haladyana, 1985). Having had the opportunity to visit and learn about the wonders of this historically rich city (Atlanta), I was a bit perplexed at how teachers are often left incapacitated and ignorant on ways of using their community to teach students important concepts and skills in the social studies. For instance, students in Atlanta are often left to learn about the Civil Rights Movement through boring, outdated, and politically charged textbooks. Yes, in one of this nation’s most historically significant areas in regards to civil rights, students are left to learn these concepts through a textbook. It was in an upstairs bedroom of 501 Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia whereby one of this nation’s greatest Civil Rights leaders was born. From his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, it was this king who inspired us to serve a great cause and be a “Drum Major for Justice.” This rich Atlanta, national, and world history is lost in a dependence upon textbooks (most of which are published in New York, Texas, and California).
In the social studies we have to rethink the ways in which we go about connecting future citizens to their community. Pre-packaged curriculums that treat the art of teaching like a science or the abuse of textbooks often discourage student interest in their community. Social studies teachers have an obligation to get students excited about participating in the social, economic, political, and environmental institutions in their community to make it a better place. With so much history, resources, and opportunities, teachers must begin to use the students’ local community as a learning laboratory. Through place-based education, teachers afford students authentic opportunities to serve, participate in, and engage their local community. For instance, in a study of globalization, students could examine the economic impact of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Students could interview city residents and business owners. In fact, students could even develop a walking tour of Olympic Park to see firsthand how their city is connected to the rest of the world. Students around the nation should be asked to explore and investigate their own communities. Teachers should ask students to study local politics, economics, geography, socio-cultural forces, and environmental issues.
Having taught high school social studies in rural Ohio, I can’t help but to think about ways in which I brought community leaders and activists into the classroom to discuss important local issues with students. This ranged from in class political debates with members of city council to students learning about ways to organize comunity projects from a experienced leader of a local nonprofit. In one activity, students interviewed local farmers on the influences of globalization. The students were amazed to learn how local farmers were very attuned to and dependent upon the global marketplace. These students began to think about the social studies in a whole new light. Instead of seeing history, economics, or government as a series of disconnected facts, names, and dates in a textbook, students were beginning to understand how concepts in the social studies influenced their everyday life. In fact, the social studies was being used to get students invested in and passionate about their community.
Place based education is one way in which students can learn concepts in the social studies through real life exploration in their community. This sort of learning is often authentic and meaningful to students. Students are usually excited about having these learning opportunities and are therefore more engaged (Promise of Place, 2009). Instead of fostering rote memorization from boring textbooks, place based education provides students with the opportunity to build connections between students and their community and from citizen to citizen. As social studies teachers, we need to take advantage of the learning opportunities afforded to us by our local communities. Ranging from returning war veterans, local business owners, neighboring organizations and institutions, to seniors that have watched their community grow, there’s so much promise in using 'place' and its people. This promise is predicated on social studies teachers using their community to foster those skills vital to informed, active, and responsible citizenship.
Presentation at the Annual Conference for the Social Studies: Place Based Education