Social studies and history teachers can play an important role in achieving the literacy goals of the common core as those subjects naturally lend themselves to the goals delineated by the English Language Arts Standards. If we are to increase students’ understanding and engage them; if we want them to learn to think critically and be problem solvers; then, we have to teach them in ways that reflect how we work in the real world. Effective teaching does not artificially separate subjects; effective teaching integrates subject areas in ways that enhance the teaching of each discipline. Social studies and history classes are perfect places to engage students in many areas of the literacy components of the common core at every grade level. If we give history and English teachers the time and the school scheduling to work together, they could plan units of study that will meet the literacy goals of the common core and the history/social studies curricula.
Many people reflect on their social studies and history classes and recall how much they disliked being in those classes. Why? The answer most of the time is because of the manner in which they were taught; that is, social studies and history became a series of dates, people’s names and the names of places, and their teachers expected simple answers on tests, with the occasional essay question thrown in to try to ease their conscience for watering down the course throughout the term.. That is not an effective way to teach history.
History is more than just a series of facts; history is a narrative of the interactions between and among people; it is the events, cultural trends, customs and laws in a particular period of time, including all of the “drama” that goes on between and among people even to this day. As we studied history throughout our academic careers, some of us managed to have teachers who brought home that very important point; that people still went to work then, as they do today; that people still read newspapers and books popular for that period; that most of human interaction then was a difference in technological advances, rather than in what it is to be “human.” The sciences, the arts, exploration and new discoveries add to cultures and advance humanity. Most would define that as one kind of evolution.
Effective teachers of social studies and history are the ones that help students to understand what occurred on the battlefields of the American Civil War. They look to examples of letters to loved ones written on the battlefields to make history come to life. Effective teachers are the ones that bring students to understand what else is happening in the real world, as well, beyond the battlefields; not just in America, but the big picture of what is going on elsewhere in the world.. Literature of and about the Civil War are a part of her lesson plans; so are the scientific advances of the period, as well as the trends in the fine arts to round out her unit. That is how effective history teachers plan their lessons; they give their students a well-rounded, in-depth unit that helps them to put events in context. This constructive teaching leads students to develop a deeper understanding.
History teachers who teach this way should be paired up with a similarly apt English teacher for the purpose of developing units of study for their students that work toward the standards of both disciplines. This pairing is an appropriate fit. The common core English standards call for more reading in nonfiction areas; the standards call for interpreting and evaluating written material of different types of sources; the standards call for students to develop intellectual skills that can only be accomplished through rigorous instruction by well prepared, knowledgeable teachers. In such a context, pairing up English and history teachers makes even more sense, as it effectively multiplies their efforts. There are myriad opportunities for engaging students in lessons in history that also advance the English standards, i.e. poetry, critiques and essays.I have no doubts that teaching in this model would cover less ground in terms of historical periods. Make no mistake, teaching/leaning in this model is not superficial; it has depth and breadth that raises the quality of students’ achievement. The powers that be have to make choices in this respect. Does it boil down to a debate on the quantity of history units versus fewer units with higher quality?
An interdisciplinary unit on the American Civil War may include:
• Reading materials about the Civil War (fiction and non-fiction) e.g. The Red Badge of Courage, Gettysburg, Boys War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk About the War, articles from Harper’s Magazine, letters written on the battlefield from both sides.
• Literature written by authors of the period: Whitman, Hawthorne, Stowe, Alcott, Dickens, Carroll, Verne (Did Verne’s ideas ever become reality in modern times?)
• Scientific advancements: Darwin, communications inventions, first submarine, transcontinental railway in U.S., invention of dynamite, building the Suez Canal, adding machines (first computers)
• Art and music of the period would add another dimension to this unit of study. Visits to local museums and colleges to utilize their resources.
As one may imagine, the lists go on and on. Students and teacher can explore together in a variety of ways. Teachers can form student groups to research any number of these areas to report to the whole class, using a variety of media. One starting point, through dramatic sketches, may be to look at a slice of life today and research how it may have occurred in the typical family in the North or South in the 1860s. Students can explore in ways that are limited only by the imaginations and creativity of the teacher and students. There are myriad directions and paths to follow that can be challenging to each and every student, leaving no one without ways to participate and fulfill the goals of the course.
Teachers today face many challenges, not the least of which is how to motivate students to learn, how to nurture their curiosity and their desire to explore. In this age of technology, instant communication and advancements in every area of life, school districts and colleges of education must train teachers and future teachers to prepare units of study that are interdisciplinary, motivating and well planned. They must also incorporate the technology that young people are using every day, putting their devices to productive use in the classroom..
We educators and parents have to advocate for a different and better way to teach young people. We have to advocate for a different way to schedule whole schools and the overall manner in which a district is organized. Schools have to become places where knowledge is integrated and learning is relevant. History and English teachers working together can provide the model for accomplishing those goals.
Next up: How science and mathematics teachers can teach in this collaborative model.