Several years ago, back when I taught in a fourth grade self contained classroom, I taught Social Studies to my fourth graders. We had a great time learning about Ancient Civilizations. Back then, the Massachusetts State Frameworks had Ancient Civilizations as part of the fourth grade standards. We researched, read, wrote, simulated, created, discussed, performed and learned about Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. We laughed, had fun and we learned about Social Studies.
By the end of my tenth year teaching in an elementary school, not only had the standards changed to teaching the geography of North America to Massachusetts fourth graders ( I was fine with that...geography is important and still falls under the Social Studies umbrella) but the time allotted for teaching Social Studies in the classroom decreased significantly. I was told to embed the Social Studies Curriculum into reading lessons. Not a problem there are plenty of nonfiction books out there that we can read and respond to reading. What was missing was the time for hands-on exploration, creating the Great Wall of China, completing archaeological digs, living history museums to teach our fellow students, teachers and parents. It just wasn't the same. I mean, try working on map skills during your reading block and have an administrator tell you that was not a proper activity for a reading class. I continued to embed my reading lessons with geography as much as possible. The setting of the story is in Florida. Let's locate Florida on a map...
So gradually, Social Studies instruction got put on the back burner. Reading and math were the priority, both important skills and necessary to become productive, hardworking well informed members of society, but doesn't Social Studies provide those skills too? After all, in order to understand different aspects of society (politics, current events, cultural differences, historical facts, point of view...) requires higher level thinking skills, synthesizing and judging information to make informed decisions, formulate opinions and participate in a discussion.
After 10 years of teaching at the elementary school, it closed and I was placed in the position I am currently in now. I began to feel that teaching Social Studies had value and worth again. I had for periods of 60 minute classes to devote to the subject of teaching Social Studies, and there was a History and Social Science MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) to boot. At least, there was. By 2008 the History and Social Science MCAS for 7th and 10th grade students in Massachusetts was placed on hold for "Budget Concerns". What???
In 2012 the US History MCAS graduation requirement was supposed to be reinstated (Pioneer Institute http://pioneerinstitute.org/), "But in 2009, the state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education recommended and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved postponing the requirement, citing the $2.4 million annual cost of administration. Neither has revisited the issue in the intervening three years."
I made my peace with no MCAS test for History and Social Science. I don't feel the same demands that my teammates feel with these high stakes tests looming over their heads. I can teach the rigor of the standards and still find time to play a game, complete an art project or an activity without feeling as though I am not going to have enough time to cover all of the content before the exam and short change the students out of valuable knowledge and skills.
I made peace, that is until the other day when I read a column in the Lowell Sun by Michael Goldman. Goldman made it very clear that our naturalized citizens have learned more US History than our high school students. If you were born and raised in another country and emigrated to the United States from your home land, you have to pass a US History Test if you want to become a Naturalized U.S. citizen. My mother took the test and became a U. S. citizen many, many, many years ago. To this day she is very knowledgable about the United States, God bless her 86 year old heart!
Goldman suggests that high school students should be able to take and pass the same citizenship test, because they cant't be ready to participate in the political process( i.e. voting ) if they can't pass a basic test on our history, government and how the government operates. "Naturalized citizens are required to do it. So should citizens lucky enough to have been born here."
Goldman's column continues to talk about how a random sampling of 15 junior and senior college students, all U.S. citizens, all graduates of Massachusetts public High Schools and all in good standing at their university could not pass the test of 20 questions selected from the 100 possibilities that a potential citizen would face to become a citizen.
These are not difficult questions to answer. Nine out of the fifteen students did not know the year the Declaration of Independence was adopted, though they all new it was July 4th. When asked "during the Cold War, what was the main concern of the U.S.?" Debt, opium and the battle over the North and South were given as answers. Goldman also gives other examples and frightening answers that these 15 students gave. The only question that all were able to answer was "Who was Martin Luther King?"