June 19, 2014
I have spent a lot of time lately researching and writing about some pretty complex topics– social entrepreneurship, microfinance loans in developing countries, and international human rights documents. What surprises most people when I discuss my work is that I research teaching these topics to elementary students.
I taught middle school social studies for several years and have had other classroom experiences working with elementary students as young as Kindergarten. I also spent many years consulting with elementary teachers about social studies instruction. In my work, I came across lots of people that doubted what young students could do regarding social studies–so much so that they were hesitant to teach the subject at all. I heard so many comments like “These students can’t work in groups”, or “No way will these students understand [fill in the blank historical event” or “My students can’t….”
You get the idea. In my opinion, some of these statements were a bit unfounded. Sure, a lot of the students in these classrooms had very little experience with social studies but that shouldn’t be a reason to NEVER give them that experience. I’ll never forget one teacher saying that she couldn’t teach social studies in Kindergarten because her students had no background knowledge. They’ve only been on the earth for 5 years! Of course they have very little background knowledge! Instead of the attitude of “I need to give these students the background knowledge and experience”, she used their inexperience as a reason to avoid social studies. In these teachers’ defenses, however, many of them have had very little experience learning social studies themselves. When it requires some work, knowledge, and guidance to help your students learn social studies and you are out of your comfort zone providing this, it makes sense that this becomes a very scary endeavor.
But let’s not project this discomfort on students when making claims about what they can or can’t do. I came across this quote from Sheldon Berman last year as I was writing my dissertation:
“Our conception of the child as egocentric, morally immature, uninterested in the social and political world, and unable to understand it has effectively deprived young people of the kind of contact they need to make society and politics salient. Young people’s distance from politics and their lack of interest may be the effect of our misconceptions, our ignorance of their potential, and our protectiveness (Berman, 1997, p. 193).”
Berman understood that sometimes young children’s perceived or actual inabilities are because of our own projections of what they can do. In my work, I set out to show teachers and students that are doing amazing work to highlight what students CAN do, and I am continually impressed but not surprised when young students rise to the challenge.
Most recently, I worked with a group of 5th grade students at Lanley Elementary. I engaged these students in a project-based unit centered around economics, but also integrating math and literacy as well. The students learned about entrepreneurs and what they need to start and run successful businesses through concepts of revenue, cost, profit, loans, interest, and price. They also learned about how some entrepreneurs start social businesses that address community needs and that some people in developing countries need small loans to get these businesses off the ground.
In teams, the students started social businesses that addressed a community need that they chose– helping raise awareness of child abuse victims. The students received a loan to create and sell products like homemade calendars with inspirational messages, and a variety of children’s toys that were royal blue, the color of child abuse victims awareness. Together, we found an organization working to build a homeless shelter specifically for children and teenagers. Because we had learned about human rights, the students made the connection between homelessness and child welfare. By the end of the project, the students had more than $700 to donate to this shelter. They created a final presentation that they gave to the entire school that described their work and presented the shelter with their profit money.
I faced the same problems as many teachers do when I began the project: the students had trouble working together in groups and they had little to no background knowledge on economic concepts. But we kept at it, and yes, even though this project took a while and was very challenging at times, the students rose to the occasion. That paragraph above doesn’t do justice to all that they learned about economic concepts and math concepts. It doesn’t do justice to all of the amazing literature they read through the unit and the practice they had reading complex informational text, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More importantly, in my opinion, the project gave the students experience making a positive impact in their community. After one successful experience making a difference; whose to say that they won’t be inspired to do more now that they have done it once before?
Since I now am responsible for working with pre-service teachers, I need to somehow get it across to them not to underestimate their future students either. This will involve me getting them more comfortable with teaching elementary social studies to break this cycle. It’ll be a lot of hard work and effort on my part, but I’m pretty sure pre-service teachers are more capable than one would think as well.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” – Margaret Mead
Written by: Annie Whitlock is an Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at the University of Michigan-Flint. She teaches elementary social studies and writing methods. @AnnieWhitlock