Social studies inspires responsible citizens

Social studies teaches students to engage in democratic process
By: | Issue: November, 2015
October 16, 2015

Injecting “social responsibility” lessons into social studies classrooms better prepares students to become informed citizens eager to participate in a democracy.

Educators will learn about the many ways to reach this goal at this year’s National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference, which carries the theme “celebrate social responsibility.”

Various presentations at the conference this year focus on Hurricane Katrina, an event with special meaning at this year’s conference, which is being held in New Orleans from Nov. 13 to 15.

Colleen Sears, an assistant professor of music education at the College of New Jersey, says the hurricane is an opportunity for K12 teachers to explore issues of social responsibility through the lens of music and art.

Sears created a high school social studies curriculum using clips from When the Levees Broke, a Spike Lee documentary about the hurricane, and a mini-opera titled Katrina Ballads.

Watching these pieces facilitates conversations about social justice in the immediate aftermath of Katrina and in more recent events across the country including police shootings, and issues of race and social inequality.

Discussing events that happened a century ago or even decades ago is easier for students than discussing events, such as police brutality and refugees from Syria, that are happening now, she adds.

“Music, film and art can be a really powerful bridge between the safety of talking about things that happened in the past and being able to talk about issues that are happening right now that are simultaneously affecting our classrooms and our communities,” Sears says.

The financial struggles of many hurricane survivors can also spark conversation and lessons learned. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta developed a high school economics course called “Katrina’s Classroom: Money Skills for Life.”

“Katrina’s Classroom,” uses video interviews with local high school students about the hardships they experienced after the stormÑfrom losing all their belongings to having to financial challenges starting over in a new cityÑto teach personal and emergency financial planning, says Claire Loup, a senior economic and financial education specialist with the bank.

Personal financial planning might not seem like an obvious social studies topic, but Loup says the topic leads to broader lessons about the national economy, and can encourage a sense of social responsibility in students by teaching them to question the claims of politicians.

Both curriculum approaches can be adapted to any community or current event, Sears and Loup say.

C3 uses vary

Another key topic at the conference, and one that has a range of applications, is the ongoing adoption and implementation of the C3 Framework.

Not all states use the framework, but a growing number of districts use it to drive everything from professional development to curriculum selection.

The framework, which emphasizes inquiry-based learning, is not a set of standards but rather guides states in updating social studies curricula.

One C3 project garnering strong interest is the New York State Toolkit, a free open source K12 social studies curriculum based on the C3 inquiry arc, says David Bailor, director of meetings and exhibits at NCSS. The inquiry arcÑa set of four steps or “dimensions” for framing social studies lessons around questions or inquiriesÑis at the heart of the C3 framework.

Another promising C3 area is a growing collaboration between social studies teachers and English teachers. NCSS is working on a projectÑfunded by the Bill and Melinda Gates FoundationÑ examining how the framework can be used to meet Common Core State Standards in the areas of literacy.

The C3 Literacy Collaborative project is aimed at putting the C3 Framework into practice in the classroom, while aligning curriculum and assessments with state literacy standards, says Ana Post, director of external relations and council communication at NCSS.

For example, Post adds, because social studies lessons often have rich historical documents to pull from, they provide great opportunity for meeting the nonfiction text requirements of the CCSS.

Jessica Terrell is a freelance writer based in Hawaii