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

Friday, October 30, 2009

The State of the Social Studies: Rhetoric and Reality

Recently, I have been visiting social studies classrooms all across Northeast Ohio. These visits range from interviewing teachers, students, and principals about their views towards the social studies to actually observing social studies teachers. I must say that the greatest part of my job as Assistant Professor of Education is that I have the opportunity to make such visits and have these substantive conversations. All too often the theories we advocate for in teacher education are seen as disconnected and irrelevant to the ‘realities’ of the needs of today’s schools and students.

I’m reminded of an interaction I had with a pre-service social studies student at the conclusion of a college course. He asked me if I really believed that it was possible to “…hold all students to high expectations”, and to “… use the social studies to foster informed and active democratic citizens despite the challenges families, schools, and the field face.” My answer was short and to the point, “… I do believe we as teachers can never give up on any student… I believe a strong education to be the last best hope for a better and brighter future.” This sort of questioning the value and relevance of educational theory is all too common amongst both pre-service education students and actual social studies teachers. This really bothers me as it is my passion and profession to help prepare the knowledgeable, caring, and devoted social studies teachers; the kind we need to fulfill the goals enlisted by the social studies.

Harry and Rosemary Wong, in The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher (2009), describes how teacher education programs often fail to teach pre-service teachers what they really need to know in order to become good teachers. Being bothered and agitated by what is seen as the irrelevance of traditional teacher education programs, I have opted to spend as much time as possible during the past 4 months ‘living in the realities of social studies teachers and students.’ My goal was to better understand teacher practice, and student engagement in the social studies. Also, to better understand how schools, teachers, and students have changed since I last taught five years ago as a high school social studies teacher. I was amazed at what I found, especially, in regards to the value of a good social studies education.

The first question I asked myself as I conducted my observation was “Based upon students’ experiences in the social studies, what’s its relationship to their learning the skills, understanding, and attitudes necessary for democratic citizenship? What I found was that the majority of students either had their heads buried in social studies textbooks (being asked to jot down every important ‘fact’ on a worksheet) or they were bored out of their minds taking notes from uneventful lectures. I must say that at times I found it difficult to stay attentive. I can’t even tell how many times I heard the teacher disciplining students as they drifted off-task to remind them, “You’re going to need to know this for college.” Like it or not, students in the social studies are predominantly being asked to learn from textbooks and lecture. There was nothing social about these social studies classes. Students were being inundated with what textbooks and their teachers perceived as facts and universal truths. In these classrooms, the social studies was being used to teach a disdain for all things social. Students learned the importance of obedience, obeying authority, and writing down what others told them (i.e. textbook or teacher) without thinking critically about it. I now ask, given the rhetoric of the social studies (“fostering informed and active democratic citizens”), how close are we to fulfilling that purpose in America’s schools?

On the brighter side, I found many instances where students were actually being taught essential skills for good citizenship. What’s interesting is that many of these instances occurred OUTISDE of social studies instruction. One such instance included a group of students standing up against a bully. Before entering their social studies classroom, a group of students were waiting for their teacher to open the door. Upon waiting to enter, one of the male students in the class began to make fun of and ridicule a special needs student for her physical appearance. Which I thought was horrible on many levels, ESPCIALLY, since all the students just completed a section in their social studies text on discrimination and the Holocaust. Just as I was walking over to confront the student on his comments, I witnessed something amazing. Two girls at their locker close to the incident, who were non-participants in the class, confronted the bully. The two girls told the male student that words hurt, and they found his comments to be completely inappropriate. While their initiative to confront this bullying was inspiring, I found that the many students that witnessed this incident learning from the courage of these ladies. These bystanders had learned something very valuable about good citizenship from these two girls, something missing in many traditional social studies classrooms. These students, through their experience, came to understand how being a good citizen often means making the right and sometimes difficult decision.

As we consider the future of the social studies, we have to contemplate the type of future we say we want versus the one we’re actually creating. The rhetoric of using the social studies to inspire, to engage, and to better our Planet is quite strong. However, we should always measure this against reality (teacher practice). With growing teacher, student, and school accountability for increases in standardized tests scores, and with a growing gap between the schools that have and the have nots, we have to reflect upon how these challenges influence our overall mission. We as a profession have to demand more out of ourselves and one another. We have to understand, much like those students that witnessed the courageous civic acts by those female students, we all have to be the change we wish to see in this world. The time is now for the social studies and its teachers to reach for praxis and a higher ground. This includes embracing methods and approaches that align to our stated civic purpose.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Social Networking & The Social Studies For Citizenship Education

Young people today have grown accustomed to living portions of their life online, shopping , socializing, and learning. According to a 2005 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, over 87% of those between the ages of 12 and 17 are online. As youth increasingly access and use the Internet, this creates an ideal opportunity for civic educators to help students use the tools they are most familiar with to learn about and advocate for certain causes. Traditionalists have often questioned and brushed off youth civic efforts in cyberspace (Putnam, 2002). This includes discounting youth researching, organization, collaborating, and even protesting issues online. In fact, as Earl and Schusssman assert, “One must question whether existing (traditional) notions of what encompasses civic engagement tend to ignore, devalue, and otherwise marginalize ways in which young people are connecting with one another to collectively make a difference in their worlds.” The fact remains, youth are using the devices they are familiar with, namely the Internet and other electronic technologies, to learn about and advocate for certain civic causes (Maguth, 2009; Bennett, 2008).

The field predicated on citizenship education, the social studies (NCSS, 2009), must reexamine the ways in which it aims to prepare citizens in the wake of massive technological gains. For instance, the White House, CNN, and many local governments and police departments are becoming even more dependent upon social networking tools to inform and learn from citizens (Charitier, 2008). As protests erupted after the 2009 Iranian Presidential elections, and mainstream international journalists were banned from the streets, citizens of the world became increasingly dependent upon digital savvy citizens inside Iran using their cell phones and laptops to upload information to social networking sites, and to inform outsiders about any governmental instability and human rights violations. In fact, U.S. officials even claimed that the Internet, namely social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, provided the United States government with critical information (Labott, 2009). As digital natives uploaded pictures of peaceful protesters being abused and murdered by Iranian authorities (i.e. ‘Nada’), the world watch as these brave enraged Iranian citizens spoke of their quest for fair and free elections.

Even the White House has turned to social networking technologies to open up the lines of governmental transparency and to inform citizens. One of the first Executive Orders of President Obama was for the federal government to “establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.” Citizens can now participate in discussions with governmental agencies and officials about particular issues through Facebook and MySpace. Besides reading about and commenting on civic issues through social networking sites, the Obama Administration has asked citizens to help submit their insights via the Internet to improve the efficiency of government. On May 1, 2009, the Obama Administration sent out its first tweet warning American citizens about the H1N1 flue (a.k.a. ‘Swine Flue’). Routine tweets from the White House have also informed citizens about other domestic and foreign issues. In fact, twenty-five federal agencies now have YouTube Channels (Scherer, 2009).

As the federal government has turned to the Internet to educate citizens, one would assume the field predicated on citizenship education, the social studies, would do so as well. However, as indicated by the latest research (VanFossen, 2008; Berson, 2002), teachers’ and students’ use of technology in the social studies for civic education has been ‘lackluster’ at best. The field is still heavily dependent upon textbooks, lecture, and rote memorization. Despite the Internet allowing for greater access in learning about and communicating with others on current civic issues, the social studies has opted to maintain its traditional course. Future citizens are not learning in the social studies how to use those tools they are most familiar with to contribution to their community and world. However, as evident by the large gains made by today’s youth in cyberspace, the real gains in civic education come outside the social studies. In order for the social studies to stay relevant in a digital and global age, a deeper examination of the ways in which it goes about educating future citizens in necessary.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Audience Response Systems in the Social Studies

Students are increasingly turning to the use of technology to access information, communicate and to create digital artifacts (Bennett, 2007). As society’s demand for technologically literate citizens grows, schools must contemplate the degree to which they empower future citizens with these necessary 21st century skills. As a social studies researcher and doctoral student, I must side with those researchers conclude there's often a lackluster use of technology for civic purposes in many of America’s classrooms. With a lack of resources and training, teacher education programs and professional developments must aim to help teachers use those technologies they do have access to more meaningfully.

In order to illustrate my point, I wish to describe the all too common use of the never-ending PowerPoint presentation. Students are often forced to listen to and record insurmountable groupings of text and facts. They are often then asked to memorize these facts for passage on a standardized test. This usually involves students being forced to stay quite, and nearly half of them falling asleep! Even though research points to the necessity of higher-level thinking and participation in meaningful learning (see Benjamin Bloom), many teachers inappropriately use this technology to encourage rote memorization and lower-level thinking. With PowerPoint being as popular a tool as it is, teacher educators must ask themselves ‘how can we help teachers better use the tools they do have access to in promoting higher-level thinking?” Thus, what can teachers due to make a common technology like PowerPoint more relevant and engaging for students?

While there are a lot of ways to entice student learning with PowerPoint (limiting text, asking frequent questions, the infusion of visuals and sounds, and making these presentations participatory), I wish to identify and explain another piece of technology that holds promise towards engaging student learners. is a devise that allows teachers to instantaneously poll students on their views and opinions. Students can respond to important questions posed by the teacher by using their cell phone or the Internet. Imagine, students actually using their cell phones to text their votes and opinions into a PowerPoint presentation. With the number of students owning cell phone increasing, teachers are frequently telling students to put away their cell phones away in class. But, what if cell phones could actually contribute to class discussions? What I like best about is that it’s easy to use and has a FREE plan that works well for teachers. The free plan requires that visitors sign-up for an account (they ask for the usual information: name, e-mail address). The free plan is also limited in that only 30 votes can be recorded per poll (so if you have a class of under 30 students each student could vote once and you would be ok).

After signing up for an account, the teacher has a choice of what type of poll they want to create and infuse into a PowerPoint presentation. They can include a fixed response poll whereby students selected from possible choices (much like when the audience is asked to text their responses to American Idol). Another type of poll offered is opened responses. After the teacher poses a question to students (such as ‘What are your feelings on global warming?’), students can use their cell phones to text their response into the presentation. As student respond, their answers are automatically uploaded in real time into a PowerPoint presentation. This devise holds promise in making PowerPoint presentations more interactive and student-centered. Student response could serve as a catalyst into a richer classroom discussion.

While this possible tool holds promise, teachers must understand that well constructed and engaging PowerPoint presentations does not mean throwing one slide or question from into a presentation. This tool is simply one additional way to make the presentation more student-friendly and interactive. It also provides teachers with a way to document and check for student understanding/ perspectives. If the presentation is systematically flawed with overabundant text, disengaging content, and sour presentation, this audience response device will do little to promote learning. However, if used in the right way, this audience response devise holds great promise in making PowerPoint presentations more interactive and engaging. Furthermore, it seizes those digital tools a growing amount of students use to access information, communicate, and construct digital artifacts with.

For more information, see the following websites:
1. Polleverywhere
2. Polleverywhere inserted into PowerPoint 2003
3. Youtube video on ways to use Pollingeverwhere for academia

Global and Social Studies Education

The website/blog allows educators in the social studies to reflect upon key issues in the social studies. It also allows teachers the opportunity to access resources that help infuse instructional media and technology, and global perspectives in their teaching.