Moving Ahead, Together
July 20, 2020
July 20, 2020
By Matthew W. McCarty
We need social studies in our public schools, and the reason is simple: Every student should understand the essential skills and ideas needed be an informed and engaged citizen. Our public schools and our communities depend on it.
I believe that a high-quality social studies curriculum should be a national one and should meet priorities defined by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in its 2016 strategic plan. NCSS creates, sets, and monitors the teaching and implementation of social studies curriculum across the country. Some NCSS members have become concerned that social studies curricula become ones susceptible to being quickly altered, revised, or even eliminated in favor of the more emphasized and tested areas of English/Language Arts and Mathematics. However, I believe that a sound and strong social studies curriculum will not only enhance English/Language Arts and Mathematics instruction, but also help incorporate critical thinking and speaking skills into all instructional content.
The priorities targeted by NCSS in its strategic plan—collaboration, communication, innovation inclusiveness, influence, and leadership—should undergird the creating or refining of any local social studies curriculum. The first of these priorities, collaboration, is the foundational aspect. Successful collaboration includes opportunities for educators to work with local, state, and federal governments to provide field trips, speaking engagements, video conferences, and job-shadowing opportunities, such as page programs in the U.S. Congress, for students. Communication is simply creating or enhancing access to important resources for both students and educators. School divisions can purchase online databases such as Proquest, ERIC, or other sources of information that students can use for research and educators can use to craft quality, research-based lesson plans.
Innovation and inclusiveness are essential to addressing social studies’ ever-changing topics. I have used virtual field trips, such as the Gettysburg Battlefield Virtual tour (see here), to give my students another, very important perspective on the most pivotal episode of the Civil War. Educators should be able to include cultural, civic, and community-based needs when designing and implementing lessons. Local school divisions can support these priorities by providing funds for exchange programs, virtual field trips, food days, and opportunities for students to attend cultural events.
The remaining two priorities, influence and leadership, are also critically important for local school divisions. I had the privilege of serving as lead social studies teacher while working in Wise County from 2009 to 2011. In that role, I organized curriculum committees that created standards-based pacing guides for social studies classes at both the middle and high school level. This opportunity gave me the skills that I needed to advocate for social studies and to work with colleagues to improve instruction. Professional development opportunities, such as graduate coursework; professional conferences such as the yearly NCSS and American Historical Association meetings; and chances to share expertise by serving on local and state curriculum committees, can help to create an innovative curriculum. The NCSS and AHA both offer memberships to PK-12 teachers that include teaching resources and opportunities to collaborate with colleagues.
I have been fortunate to have opportunities to engage and advocate with colleagues around Virginia, both as a teacher and as an administrator. In 2014, I served on the World History and Geography to 1500 Standards of Learning (SOL) assessment committee. Our group of educators met to discuss the effectiveness and rigor of questions on the World History exam. As a building administrator, I have worked with teachers and central office colleagues to develop performance-based social studies assessments that can effectively gauge student understanding. An added benefit of advocating for social studies is being able to visit a World Geography class when a colleague has a food day and seeing the excitement in students when they have made cuisine from around the world for their fellow students and teachers to enjoy.
Used properly, these priorities will help ensure students use critical thinking, self-monitoring, and decision-making skills and allow school divisions to craft rigorous and challenging curriculum. Such an approach should also seek to make sure that the background, cultural identity, and contributions of all students are included.
To further underscore the importance of social studies, school divisions must ensure that teachers are qualified and content-knowledgeable. It is important for school divisions to work with their state departments of education to ensure rigorous, relevant licensing programs for prospective social studies teachers and to provide opportunities for post-graduate education. Local divisions can use the NCSS priorities to help develop great professional development opportunities for social studies teachers similar to those in English/Language Arts and Math.
With an emphasis on social studies, students will understand that when they graduate from high school and enter the workforce or post-secondary education, they are expected to assume the responsibilities required of all citizens. Young people will also be equipped with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions and guide them toward being good, participatory members of their communities.
McCarty, EdD, a member of the Pulaski County Education Association, teaches in the Restorative Academy at Pulaski County High School, and is always interested in collaborating with colleagues and leaders.
The National Council for the Social Studies has curated a collection of classroom activities, reading material, and teaching strategies for all grade levels in its Digital Library. It’s searchable and can be accessed here.