Learning, Language, Literacy, and Inquiry in History and Social Science Classroom: Going Beyond the Textbook and Teaching All Students
Social Studies is one of the most unique subjects in a school curriculum. Throughout a child’s academic career he or she will encounter different history, political science, and behavior science classes. Each class will have their own set of vocabulary, concepts, and descriptive terms that a student will need to comprehend in order to have a basic understanding and to pass the class. Therefore, a good teacher needs to incorporate how to understand those distinctive terms and also how to use them correctly in a homework, test, or life setting. Social Studies is an extremely broad topic that is not given the respected amount of time in the school year to dive into the content in depth. This is the reason why some feel that history is boring and uninteresting. If you skim through a topic, in any subject, and just throw out facts without any explanation or connection social studies will be a dreary subject. My paper’s overarching question is: how can we engage students to have them understand the deeper meaning of historical facts. An experience social teacher shouldn’t have their student memorize facts and years, but instead apply facts to the big picture of social studies and have them understand the importance and relation to other concepts.
The nature and mission of social studies can be complex. James Loewen points of in his book, Teaching What Really Happened, that the correct knowledge of this subject can be used as a weapon (Teaching What Really Happened, 2010). Knowing the correct knowledge about the past can be useful to better yourself in the future. If you question the information given to you and use inquiry for a deeper meaning and understanding, you will not let society dumb you down of take advantage of you. History and social studies will prepare you for any job that you will endeavor in the future because everyone will be at least one thing when they are older-Americans. This subject will help you become better American citizens by understanding what makes a society, helping you become a critical thinker, making you aware to not believe in false ideologies, and making you appreciate America without an ethnocentric view (Teaching What Really Happened, 2010). All these reason can only happen if you have a deep understanding of social studies and not just a memorization of facts.
Even though history can be an exciting and intriguing subject, most students view it as dull and boring. Social studies is a subject that American students take the most, but appreciate the least (Why Don’t You Just Tell Us the Answer, 2011). Students view history as an endless procession of facts and memorization, which is not interesting to anyone at any age. If you ask your students what ‘historical thinking’ is, they will look at you with a blank expression (Reading like an Historian, 2011). The key to making the subject of social studies interesting, and to engage students, is to understand why facts happen and being able to link and connect them together. If students have a deeper understanding of facts, they will have a better understanding of history and social studies. A teacher can do this by having your students develop key historical thinking skills. Some examples of these skills are causality, chronology, multiple perspectives, intent and motivation, and change over time (Why Don’t You Just Tell Us the Answer, 2011). These skills will make you students explain why certain things happened, what influenced them, and whose viewpoint and bias is being looked at. All of which will influence your students to understand facts better. If you as a teacher find creative and innovative ways for students to have a deeper understanding of why these facts happen, your chances of them enjoying social studies will greatly improve.
A deeper meaning of facts is the key for students to understand social studies, but how do you do so while keeping them engaged while appealing to different learners? A simple answer is you have to engage your students in diverse ways and always keep them using different skills and talents to access the understanding of information. In Teaching What Really Happened, history comes alive when students do. History becomes important when it become relevant to students. A good way of doing that is to look at local history and the students own historical background (Teaching What Really Happened, 2010). This will show students how history can affect themselves and others around them firsthand. You can also engage students by activating prior and cultural knowledge, such as the Pocahontas Disney film, interesting documents, discussions and debates, primary sources, images, videos, and other multimedia tools (Reading like an Historian, 2011). As a teacher you must walk on the wild side, release your death grip, and take off the security blanket of the textbook to engage your students to make them understand social studies.
Learning, language, literacy, and inquiry all play important roles in understanding simple social studies terms as well as engaging students to understand a deeper meaning of the content. Learning is to gain knowledge or skills in a certain area. Learning knowledge is obviously important for social studies, as well as any other school subject, because you need to learn one set of concepts, terms, and facts to move on to another set of academic ideas. A good teacher will have their students’ link and understand the connection between the two groups of information. Social studies rely on students to acquire new skills. For example, a simple lesson, such as the one in Reading like a Historian entitled “Lincoln in Context”, requires the students to use evidence based thinking and argumentation, question sources, contextualize sources, synthesize multiple accounts, and to listen carefully (Reading like an Historian, 2011). I have been teaching World Geography this semester and another skill that needs to be learned is map skills. Most teachers assume map skills are taught discretely or that they will develop on their own (Teaching Social Studies to English Language Learners, 2009). But these skills need to be learned directly and it is bad to assume that your students have these skills. Learning is the overall goal in social studies and language, literacy, and inquiry are the foundations of it.
Learning is the most important concept in the group because without it new knowledge will not be stored or transferred. Learning in the subject of social studies is similar and different then other content areas. In all academics you will find that students learn in different ways and social studies provides a range of activities for students to discover and to shine (Teaching What Really Happened, 2010). Some activities could be classroom discussions, group work, individual work, presentations, worksheets, projects, and exams. Like most classes, social studies relies on the textbook for a foundation of knowledge. But, the textbook is not the best option because students can find it boring, they do not learn as much, and textbooks will foster memorization of facts and not a deep understanding of those facts (Teaching What Really Happened, 2010). The overall goal of learning social studies is not to memorized facts, but to explain and understand facts. Some instructional strategies that will support all students to understand social studies are discussion and questions, discovery and exploration, historical comprehension, and cooperative learning skills (Teaching Social Studies to English Language Learners, 2009 and Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer, 2011). I will go into more detail of these concepts later in the paper.
Social studies is different than other subjects because good teachers make their students question the textbook. You will not find that in a math or science class. There are two ways that an instructor can do this. First, the teacher can show students that the textbook does not hold all the information on a subject. Teaching What Really Matters shows a great example of page 38 dealing with American Presidents and slavery. It is important for students to know that a textbook is not the “say all end all” with information. The second way is for teachers to show students old textbooks and how each can carry different viewpoints of certain figures. Again, Teaching What Really Matters has a great example about Herbert Hoover on page 39. Another way that social studies is different than other subjects, in terms of learning, is that teachers have to be aware that your student body will have a large gap of performance between males and females, whites and non-whites, and rich and poor. That is due to teachers expectations of race and gender, race cultural biases in standardized tests, and social class cultural biases in standardized tests (Teaching What Really Happened, 2010). Teachers have to be aware of this so they can find different ways for their students, of all races and gender, to understand the importance, value, and deeper meaning of social studies.
Language is another important feature in history. Language deals with different forms of communication, especially with verbal and writing for social studies. In a typical class students will be writing down notes from a PowerPoint or writing down information to complete a worksheet or activity. Students will also have to write essays, letters, lists, mock newspaper articles, or to create a website. Verbally, students will have to ask and answers questions from the teacher to clear up any misunderstanding or to add onto the lecture. Your students will also have to speak effectively in a debate or mock court assignment (Teaching What Really Happened, 2010). Your students will struggle with the concept of language when they need to use higher level thinking skills for reading and writing. (Teaching Social Studies to English Language Learners, 2009). A good strategy to help students with the language of social studies is cooperative learning. Communication, listening, and articulating thoughts are greatly improved in group work. Collaborative learning helps with verbal skills and helps develop thinking skills and understanding of new concepts. To use this concept successfully, the teacher has to structure the groups and assignment well. The students will need to know the responsibility of each role has to be clearly as well. Any group work, big or small, can aid and support students for understanding the language of social studies (Teaching Social Studies to English Language Learners, 2009). Language is a crucial aspect of social studies because it highlights the basic skills needed to learn the content.
Literacy is a fundamental talent needed to succeed in social studies. The term literacy is the ability to read or write. Literacy and language are pretty similar. If one does not understand the language, then he or she cannot read or write anything conceptual. If one cannot read or write, then he or she cannot express themselves and your knowledge of the content. In the above paragraph, I pointed out the importance of writing in social studies, but the ability to read is equally as important for the subject. For a simple social studies assignment, you need to be able to read effectively by finding the main ideas in a text, read critically by assessing if the ideas are supported by evidence, and to read a map (Teaching What Really Happened, 2010). Your students will struggle with the lack of familiarity with historical terms, processes, vocabulary, and complex sentences. Students will also struggle with finding what part of the text is important. (Teaching Social Studies to English Language Learners, 2009). To combat that weakness, teachers can have lessons that require historical comprehension. To acquire that skill, lessons can focus on reconstructing the literal meaning of a historical passage. Try to make the students understand why it is important and why they are learning it. Your learners will need to indentify the central question of a histocal narrative to understand the main point of it. This will make them understand the central theme and focus of the piece. Students should understand that using visual data can help them recognize the point of a text. A good example would be: why would a graph show an increase population and how does it relate to the text about the industrial age (Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer, 2011)? Activities like these will increase a student’s chance of understanding what is going on in a text. To succeed in social studies, students need to be able to read and write critically to understand information.
The last concept of skills needed to be able to function in a social studies classroom is the ability to inquire about information. Inquiry is the skill of to asking and questioning information or sources. This expertise, inquiry, is the hardest to archive because one needs to be able to learn, understand the langue, and to be literate. It is the most complex skill of the group. Most of your students that can apply this ability well will be your honors or AP students, but you should still have high expectations for your lower tier students. Even though this skill is difficult, it is extremely important for your students to acquire it because this will make them understand the deeper meaning of facts. As teachers we can foster this skill by guiding questions. A good guiding questions is something that represents an important issue or theme, debatable, has enough content, interesting and challenging to your students, and appropriate given the materials available (Why Don’t You Just Tell Us the Answer, 2011). Teachers can foster inquiry in two ways to support all students. First is discussion and questioning. Teachers need to guide their students through discussion to foster inquiry. You can do this by sharing the responsibility and authority for class discussions. With class discussions, focus on speaking less as a teacher, having longer wait times, modeling desire behaviors, and assisting students to build off each other. When questioning students through inquiry, you can aide them by pointing to pictures or words, using visual cues, breaking down questions, and asking questions with ‘how’ and ‘where’ to get them thinking (Teaching Social Studies to English Language Learners, 2009). Another great way to support students with inquiry is the concept of discovery and exploration. This is when students hypothesize and investigate about social studies facts instead of relying on the teacher for answers. This can make students more engaged because students are normally more interested in their own discovery of knowledge rather than being told of it. To do this correctly, the teacher need to select a topic that encourages students to develop their own theories, something controversial and open ending. Teachers need to remember that this activity will require more class time and that there are no set answers. Exploration can be done when students are able to creatively construct an approximation of a real historical event. This makes students develop hunches by leaning on past prior knowledge and acquiring new knowledge to fill in the gaps (Teaching Social Studies to English Language Learners, 2009). Inquiry is the key for students to understand the deeper meaning of historical facts, but one needs to be able to read, write, speak, and process other simpler social studies skills to do so correctly.
Having a deep understand of social studies and making connections is the key for your students to gain a larger appreciation for the subject. You need to make your students engaged in the subject for them to want to find, solve, and search for the truth and underlying meanings of historical facts. You do so by moving away from textbooks and finding other activities, strategies, and tools to make the subject come alive and interesting. Social studies is an unique subject because it is so vast and different, but you can find ways to make this subject interesting and focused if you find the right tools and devices. You need to find ways to make the students understand that social studies is more than just facts, lectures, and maps. Teachers can do that by implementing strategies to make them critical think. Once again this is all about the activities and assignments that you give out, but also how you ask questions and the expectations you hold your students to. If you focus on the language, literacy, learning, and inquiry of social studies they will achieve it. Social studies is important because it will make your students look at information differently and to look at facts outside the box. If you can make your students realize they have to critical think to find an answer instead of just searching for in on an internet search browser, then you will prepare them as humans, citizens, and positive people for society.