Sunday, June 1, 2014

What Am I Doing?!

Education Universe-

I have to figure this out.

The common core is here.  As a social studies teacher, I'm still sorting out what that means.  I think it has something to do with reading... Yes that was joke.

Here's the dilemma:  I'm a social studies teacher.  I don't excel at training a student how to read.  I know that they need to read and read often.  I know that primary sources and informational texts can be complex and challenging.  I know that insights should be taken from what we read.  But I do this instinctively.  I struggle to teach how to do it.  It is difficult to teach someone how to make up their mind for themselves and reference the text as evidence.

This problem compounds itself if students have no knowledge of the content that they are reading about.  A reading passage about the Revolution certainly makes more sense with some context.  If you don't know who Thomas Paine was, the last thing that his words will ever be is Common Sense.

So who am I?  Social studies teacher?  Reading teacher?  Both?  Neither?  It depends on who you ask.  I know what my degree says.  I know what my job placement says.  I know what the standards say.  I know what those in positions to make these decisions for me say.  Needless to say, I need to figure it out.

So let's start with what we know:

Currently, the common core standards for history and social studies are solely focused on reading and are as follows:

Reading in History/Social Sciences Common Core Standards (6-8)

These focus on evidence, citing text, comparing texts, identifying processes and opinions, and main ideas.  Nothing really new there.  There's that last standard that is just sort of like a pinky toe... it's there and that's really all.

And there are some exmplar texts that the standards include to give you an idea of what to use.

Exmplar Texts for Common Core Standards (6-8)

But that clearly isn't enough to teach a course on.  So the question remains, what texts come next?  What primary sources get used?  Illinois has laid out what is to be taught in social studies, so I assume the next step is to go the the Illinois learning standards for social studies.

Illinois Social Studies Standards

5 Goals:  Political systems, economics, history, geography, and social systems.  The texts that I choose should revolve around one of those goals, specifically the standards aligned to middle school.  My textbook, The American Journey, is already aligned to these standards.  It also provides texts and primary sources outside of the main narrative.  Maybe a few things will come from it.

But back to context.  Picking up a letter from John Adams and dissecting it is worthless without a story behind it.  History is our story.  It needs to be discussed.  Yes it is facts and people and places.  But without those bricks of knowledge, how can you ever construct anything out of it?

And it can't be done in a vacuum.  Perhaps older students may do better with this, but in middle school I find it a mistake to jump between historical eras, or even within themes in the same era.  Thematic classes are taught in history to those who have already been exposed to a survey course.  I didn't take American Problems in high school until after I took Civics and U.S. History.  There is a scope and sequence.  There is a canon so to speak.  And it is important.  It's our canon.  Take a look at this to get what I am trying to say.

I cannot believe the intention of these new standards was to find the main idea of the "I Have a Dream" Speech, but not have any concept of when or where Dr. King delivered it.  Tracing the argument, tracing the idea, tracing the thinking should not stop with the text.  It becomes a thread that we can watch become intertwined in our culture.  Sometimes it frays, sometimes it untangles, sometimes it disappears.  Then we can ask why.

So our role as social studies teachers is to help build literacy while working in our content areas.  As I have scoured the web for materials and ideas on just exactly what this looks like.  One thing stands out.  The background knowledge, the content, that we provide in social studies as well as in science are necessary to help students recall information and make more sense of what we read.  Whether it be fiction or an informational text, students who are able to generate comprehension because of context are going to read better.  I like this clip from New York because I see the standards being defended but also in a way that shows that social studies teachers and for that matter science teachers will be more than just presenting text opportunities to students.  This article also stresses the need for all teachers to get involved in literacy, but to leave the decision as to how it looks to those who practice in each discipline.

Inquiry is what these standards want from us.  Critical thinking is the goal.  Asking oneself "What do I think about this?" and "How do I know?"  The intention was not to forget about the journey for the sake of the answer, especially if we're not even sure why we are asking the question.

I like what History Blueprint is doing.  They are doing a far greater job thinking about this than I ever could.  Check out their Civil War unit.  This looks more like the types of things most social studies want to do.

History Blueprint:  The Civil War

And I LOVE the analysis tool the Library of Congress has made for primary sources.  Check this out and then share it with anyone who doesn't use it.

Library of Congress:  Primary Source Analysis Tool

We too need to practice our understanding of citizenship and democracy.  Bring in iCivics to do that.  We can read while we learn about all of these things.  We can learn about our rights and how to protect them.  But we need to do a little of this too to make sure we get it (and have some fun).


Additionally, even the wikipedia entry for the common core notes that foundational U.S. documents are required as part of the curriculum.  That again begs the question of which ones are foundational.  Fortunately the government has helped us out here with it's 100 Milestone Documents.

Even the State of Illinois notes that the shift is to focusing on complex texts and teaching students to be like detectives.  I can spin that with a middle schooler.  I like the idea.  We could even become full-fledged social scientists by performing a history lab.  Students can even engage in writing and discussion using online blogs and secure social media like Edmodo.  It ties together nicely.

Maybe I'm speaking out of turn, but as a social studies teacher, I don't fear these things.  I think this could be truly awesome.  But talk of comprehension, testing, phonics, and fluency are not what these standards demand of me.  Massacring a social studies curriculum to add reading minutes to the day isn't either.

I just solved the world's problems.  Here's what I need on my to do list to make this work:

1.  Technological upkeep, support, and access
2.  Resources for my classroom library
3.  Student participation and follow-through
4.  Parental support
5.  A green light to try new things

I can do this.  Stay classy Universe.

-Mr. J.

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