Social Studies Embedded In Our Lives

10012162166_cde34d427e_bBy Lupe Serna

Growing up, my least favorite subject in school was always social studies. I didn’t enjoy it, it never stuck with me, I just knew I had to take it. I would take notes, study the material, take the test, and then eventually forget most of what I “learned.”

Of course, now I realize I must have never really learned it but, rather, memorized it.

The thing is, I always associated social studies with history, specifically, American history. That’s all it ever was to me. And, quite frankly, it was boring. I heard the same story over and over again each year. But even that wasn’t enough to learn it. You would think that after so many years of being taught the same parts of history something would stick with me. But that was not the case.

As a Spanish-speaking, Mexican immigrant, I could not relate to the material. I was not able to personally connect with, much less engage in, social studies class. Perhaps that’s why I always wrongly associated social studies with history, because I never saw myself reflected in the class content. As a result, I wasn’t able to take the material and apply it to my own life, I wasn’t able to make the necessary connection between the content and reality, I couldn’t partake in authentic intellectual work.

As a future educator, I now realize that that has been the traditional approach to teaching social studies for quite some time now. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be like that. We have the power to change it.

By taking different, non-traditional approaches to the teaching and practice of social studies, students’s retainment of material and ability to explain it highly increases.

If students feel connected to the material, if they see themselves reflected through the content and are fully engaged participants in their own learning, they are more likely to retain what they learn in the classroom and carry it with them to use those skills and strategies in the outside world.

In other words, authentic intellectual work of social studies is constructing knowledge and being able to transfer that understanding into different aspects or situations in our lives.

What exactly does this mean for the classroom?

Authentic intellectual work means that students do so much more than just learn the material or attain knowledge. It means students actually understandthe material. Not only that, they take it a step further than understanding and they, one, discover the content’s value beyond school and, two, take that disciplined inquiry and apply it in their lives.

But before I go on, it is important to clarify what social studies actually consists of.

There really is no set definition for social studies. Usually, when people hear the word social studies, they think of history, politics, geography, and international relations. At least, that’s what I always thought of.

Not many realize that social studies is so much more than just history. Social studies includes topics such as personal idenity, culture, race, language, religion, community involvement, social justice, civil plans and so much more. In a nutshell, social studies includes anything and everything relating to the human society and social relationships.

For the most part, we don’t really think about social studies as something we do. Surprisingly enough, we do in fact “do” social studies on a daily basis, at times when we least expect it. We do social studies by something as simple as interacting with members in our community, actively responding to current events or natural disasters, fundraising money for organizations or our own communities, acting or taking part in a school play that reenacts a moment in history, partaking in civil rallies demanding social justice, etc.

Take, for example, the many times throughout history when civilians have reacted to and spoken out against social injustices by taking to the streets to protest. It happened back during the Civil Rights Movement and it continues to happen today, the most recent example of nation-wide protests being those held to call for the protection of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In protests like these, participants “do” social studies in the following ways:

  1. Stay informed of current events and actively participate in their communities
  2. Use freedom of speech to stand up for what they believe in
  3. Are aware of and accept cultural differences and diversity
  4. Are informed about the effect of certain political decisions on the lives of others
  5. Interact with other individuals and groups
  6. Sympathize with and show their support for those directly affected

This video shows a recent and local protest on the streets of the Southside of Milwaukee, WI, where the community gathered to call for the protection of DACA.

Another misconception about social studies is that only adults take part in it. Youth’s involvement and role in social studies tends to go unnoticed because many are under the assumption that kids, who have not yet experienced much of life nor have attained much knowledge or wisdom, are not capable of contributing to society or having any sort of impact on the world.

However, quite the contrary is true. Kids can be just as powerful and impactful as adults. At times, they can have an even greater impact precisely because they are kids and as kids, they have a clearer, more innocent outlook on life.

Youth “do” social studies in more ways than imagined. A very common activity that children partake in but that is rarely recognized as “doing” social studies is discussion. When children have conversations with individuals or groups, they are, in one way or another, “doing” social studies. Participating in conversations is a great way for children to “do” social studies because it consists of taking an active role in social relationships. By interacting with others, hearing different perspectives, discussing their own view points, expressing their thoughts and feelings, and connecting with others’s stories and experiences, children are actively “doing” social studies.

This video is an example of 2nd-4th grade students “doing” social studies as they perform their own rendition of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” This is a great example of students “doing” social studies because it is evident that students took the material and interpreted in their own way to be able to perform it for an audience. They took history, listened to a different side that is usually not told, made it their own, and, to some extent, re-lived the past by literally putting themselves in the story and taking on different roles. Also, because they were able to fully engage with the material and presented it to an audience, their “doing” of social studies is a lot easier to assess in this situation. Their performance reflects their level of engagement and their investment with the material because in order to perform it well, they must first understand the message they must convey and incorporate props, movements, song, and emotion to do so.

Other examples of youth “doing” social studies are volunteering or doing community service, exploring other cultures and religions, witnessing social justice issues, interacting with people of different backgrounds, acknowledging the diversity within their own homes and the people around them, picking up garbage around their neighborhood, recycling in their homes, being considerate of the amount of water they use, fundraising money for organizations or humanitarian causes, and much more. A few methods of assessment for a non-traditional approach to social studies might be:

  1. Visual respresentations of past and/or current events with captions summarizing students’s explanation of what happened
  2. Visual representations of students’s reactions (physical and/or emotional) to particular stories or shared life experiences
  3. Written reflections about personal encounters or experiences out in the community
  4. A retelling of a story or conversation of students “doing” social studies outside of the classroom
  5. Written responses to the way in which current events were featured in news/media coverage and how it impacted them

A storymap is another example of “doing” social studies because it can serve as a timeline of events that in one way or another impacted an individual, or a group of individuals, while simultaneously telling a story and making it more personal. I created my own storymap to illustrate part of my family’s journey migrating from Mexico to the United States. By mapping this out, I got a better geographical understanding of the long journey that my grandparents, parents, and extended family members made by moving to the United States. It was very impactful because as I reflected on the difficulties, sacrifices, and social injustices that my family has experienced, I realized how strong that has made us and how it has shaped our character. At the same time, it also brought me joy and pride to remind myself of where I come from and what I’ve been through to be where I am today. If that isn’t authentic intellectual work of social studies itself, I don’t know what is.

 

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