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Virginia Journal of Education

Something for Everyone

Professor, students create website with inclusive social studies units for elementary students.

By Gail A. McEachron

As a college professor helping to prepare pre-service elementary teachers in social studies, it has been rewarding to see their excitement as they prepare curriculum units. Some of them worry, though, about being able to teach social studies that is culturally responsive, given today’s rapidly-changing student populations. However, we have found that once they choose an engaging topic and receive guidance about best practice in social studies, they soon develop the creative energy and confidence that comes with curriculum development.

With a desire to capture their passion and to share their model units with a wider audience, I’ve developed a website to showcase their efforts. Here, I’d like to share some exemplary units and field-tested lessons with teachers passionate about bringing diverse perspectives to young learners. 

Teachers in the Commonwealth are working hard to keep pace with the dramatic demographic changes in Virginia and the U.S. in the last 20 years. These units can help them integrate global information with our existing Standards of Learning, and students for whom these lessons have been designed will benefit by seeing themselves in the curriculum.

Social Development in the Young Learner
Research has provided us with important knowledge about social development in the young learner. In Democracy and Education, John Dewey recommends that students be exposed to diverse ways of being in the world to learn about cultures different from the ones into which they were born. Nel Noddings argues that themes of care help students connect to subject matter and other people. Sonia Nieto emphasizes the importance of showing respect for others and how this is not something that emerges naturally in all children, and also says our civil rights are easily lost if we’re not proactive about social justice. When students are living in fairly homogeneous environments, there is a great opportunity for teachers to introduce diverse cultures through curriculum materials. Our hope for this website is that it makes it possible for teachers to be inclusive of cultural differences based on race, gender, religion, national origin, exceptionalities and class.

Social studies and the arts are disciplines that encourage creative expression in young children. Researcher Maxine Greene argues for classroom activities that allow for more human expressiveness, social interaction, and reflection. In each of the units featured on our website, William & Mary students ensured that elementary students got to create visual arts, music and dance.

Biography also plays an important role throughout the development of these social studies units. Studying the lives of individuals who dared to make a difference helps young people recognize and develop important qualities and actions.
Best Practice and Lesson Design
When designing lessons, students were given guidelines for best practices in social studies teaching. Expanded from an earlier list published in my text Self in the World: Elementary and Middle School Social Studies, the list included Western and non-Western perspectives; diversified experiences based on ethnicity, class, gender, exceptionalities, and other cultural distinctions, including religion; historical events and famous people balanced with the lives of ordinary individuals and students’ daily lives; access to people and resources from the community; and differentiation based on learning styles, culture, abilities, exceptionalities, developmental stages and family structure.

Using these elements as a foundation, our students worked independently or in groups to develop units. Those working independently typically developed a unit for a specific grade level while those in groups developed lessons across primary and upper elementary levels. The units include an historical narrative, primary resources, pre- and post-assessments, and a variety of teaching strategies, including map and globe skills, biography, concept attainment, direct instruction, inquiry and art criticism. All lessons are aligned with national and Virginia standards.

Most of the featured Virginia standards are pertinent to American history. The units are listed by region as well as by periods and themes developed for the U.S. History Framework for the 2006 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). The regions of the world beyond the United States are Europe, Africa, Australia/Oceania, Asia, North and Central America, South America, Caribbean and the Middle East.
You can find our more than 225 lessons on this website:  

One Example: Global Awareness of Ancient Civilizations
The African nation of Mali enjoys a relatively new position as a major ancient civilization in the elementary social studies curriculum. Several of our pre-service students provide windows into ancient and modern Mali by featuring its architecture, technology, artforms, geography and current events in the units they created. Included in their unit is an historical narrative that presents the ancient empire from 1230 to 1450 C.E.; information about Sundiata and his grandson, Mansa Musa, who were two major leaders of ancient Mali; and the importance of the oral histories passed down through the Mandinka griots, or storytellers. 

Upper elementary students go into greater depth about the political, economic and religious aspects of ancient Mali through the study of Sundiata’s leadership, nomadic trade along the Trans-Saharan trade routes, and an examination of ancient religious texts.  For fully developed lesson plans on these topics, see the following link:  Here are some examples from the unit for primary students:
Using map skills, primary students learn why Timbuktu was an important trading center in ancient Mali. Through the read-aloud, My Baby, by Jeanette Winter, they also learn about and then create mud cloths.

Student Christine Ammirati taught her weeklong unit on ancient Mali to third graders in Williamsburg. Each day, students assumed the role of a farmer, salt trader or gold miner. Ammirati questioned students regarding their content knowledge and awarded tokens for correct answers, such as a bean for the farmer, a gold stone for the miner, or a salt packet for the salt trader. At the end of the week, students simulated barter by trading their products with the goal of achieving balance among food, salt (as a preservative), and money.

“The students were highly engaged during class and were extremely eager to participate in discussions,” says Ammirati. “As a result of this high emotional involvement, I believe, they performed strongly on assessments.” 

Ammirati also taught a map skills lesson that reinforced the location of some of ancient Mali’s natural resources. In order to align the originally developed lesson to the Virginia Standards of Learning, she shifted the focus from map scales to coordinate grids, asking students to find gold mines, salt mines, and trade routes on a map of Africa while reinforcing the use of an alphanumeric grid.

Ammirati’s reflections after teaching the Mali unit can provide valuable insights to both experienced and future teachers. “I loved that the lesson was memorable and transcended book learning,” she says. “I think the pedagogy of using the hands-on trading activity made the entire week’s lesson arc come alive. It was fun for our students to use game settings for review and revision, and it reinforced the SOLs. The bartering exercise taught those who didn’t make enough effort to balance their resources that now they had a problem—they either starved quickly or learned to trade. There was one boy in particular who only wanted gold, so I took his entire cup and told him that while he was wealthy, he didn’t have any food to feed his family. His entire family perished due to starvation. I think that’s a lesson that he’ll never forget. I had the tactile motion of taking his cup and removing it. It became less of a brain game and more of a hands-on discovery.”

To reinforce the oral traditions in Mali, Ammirati had students take on the role of Sundiata and become griots. They had a tunic and a talking stick and they would come as volunteers to the front of the class. 

“Instead of just telling them about griots, we had them enact and be part of the lifestyle of Mali by telling oral histories as a griot,” Ammirati says. “We did that after I told the story of Sundiata. The details from the students were exquisite and sometimes surprising. For example, I remember the students using specific adjectives to describe Sundiata’s life. They were using words from the book, and they were highly engaged and much more attuned to the story because they knew that they would have an opportunity to become a griot.” 

Africa is a continent whose diverse nations have traditionally received minor attention in elementary schools. As revealed by the lessons on ancient Mali, this important civilization has played a major role in connecting Africans to the rest of the world and the rest of the world to Africa. While the boundaries of ancient Mali have changed over the centuries, the rich Malian culture continues to thrive through religion, the arts and politics.

When I asked Ammirati about the importance of teaching about Mali and about Africa in general, she said, “I think it increases an awareness of another part of the world. Many young people refer to Africa as one country—by acknowledging Mali’s current role and past history you emphasize that these are countries not continents.
“It also gives honor to a heritage that many Americans share. Mali is African, not far from the Slave Coast from where the enslaved were brought to the colonies. So it has relevance to our own American history. It also has relevance to Islam, and opens up discussions on that topic. Timbuktu was referenced by Ibn Battuta in the book I read to the students entitled Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta 1325-1354, and I made connections between him and Marco Polo’s travels with the aim of saying that it wasn’t just Europeans who were exploring the world and bringing knowledge back to their countries. This is a great way to make extensions beyond our Western orientation.”

Jamie Bradley, who was also part of the team that developed the Mali unit, taught a lesson on Sundiata during student teaching. She modified the original lesson by asking students to create a timeline of Sundiata’s life using online technologies VoiceThread or Photo Story.

“This is more engaging and even offers a chance to involve the families at home and allow the teacher to learn more about each child through his or her project,” says Bradley. “It’s great to see some students who do not get as motivated by paper projects display their talents through technology.” This approach is an engaging way to learn about the students’ families, and another way to extend diversity at home and in the classroom. 

Embracing Diversity
There are great opportunities to broaden students’ horizons and introduce them to diverse perspectives in social studies curricula and instructional strategies. The many examples available on the website we’ve developed help show some of the creative ways in which our pre-service teachers embraced diversity in their teacher preparation program. We hoped to impress upon them two things: one, that the process of creating and integrating pluralistic lessons into their teaching was fun, and two, they have an opportunity to demonstrate teacher leadership by using the website to make their materials available to educators everywhere.

McEachron is a professor of Curriculum and Instruction at The College of William & Mary and serves as the faculty advisor to W&M’s Student VEA chapter.




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