Squishiness Watch

by Robert Pondiscio
October 22nd, 2012

A “draft framework” for common social studies standards is scheduled for release next month.  If a report by Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz is any indication, they might be so devoid of curricular content as to be functionally meaningless.

“Social studies specialists have been working with state department of education officials and others to create standards in that subject,” Gewertz notes.  That means expert guidance on the history and geography subject matter children should learn in each grade–the seven continents and oceans of the world in kindergarten; Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt in first grade; the U.S. Constitution in second grade–right?  I mean that is the point of this exercise, isn’t it?   Gewertz’s blog post indicates those looking for specificity might be disappointed.

“Early signs suggest that you shouldn’t expect something that prescribes the specific issues, trends, or events that students should study, but rather describes the structure, tools, and habits of mind they need in order to undertake an exploration of the discipline, and offers states a frame for the content they choose.”

Just asking: If the “framework” for social studies takes a pass on detailing what’s worth knowing and contents itself instead with a squishy and unsatisfying description of the “structure, tools and habits of mind,” how–how exactly, please–will that be anything than redundant with the CCSS ELA standards?

The ELA standards strike a hammer blow for a content-rich vision of literacy in U.S. classrooms without detailing the content.  It’s a step in the wrong direction if social studies specialists are unwilling to begin to detail at least some of what that content should include.

Perhaps the authors of the draft framework would like to help themselves to the Core Knowledge Sequence for Pre-K to 8th grade.  It’s free for your downloading.  Take it.  Steal it.  Call it your own.


Teaching Columbus

by Robert Pondiscio
October 11th, 2010

Brave explorer or genocidal maniac?  Will the real Christopher Columbus stand up?  And what should we tell our students about the man and his legacy?

Columbus Day is a “ complex and conflicting event” for Mr. D, a New York City social studies teacher.   The explorer was the only Italian he saw in most social studies textbooks growing up.   Compared to pop culture icons like Don Corleone and Tony Soprano, Columbus “was proof that Italians need not be criminals to succeed on this continent. Yet the decades of historical revision about him cannot be ignored,” he writes.

“In academia, Columbus-bashing is a cottage industry: you’re not even considered a credible historian if you don’t rough up old Chris at least a little bit.   Like an incoming tide, the knocking of Columbus involved numerous waves and relentless advances….Even the stone-cold fact of Columbus’ first voyage has been downgraded from a “discovery” to an “encounter”, as if Chris and the Taino were matched up on eHarmony using their ridiculously long questionnaire.   

So, Mr. D asks: Is there enough good to salvage Columbus’ holiday from total irrelevance?

Whether you admire or abhor the man, this much is true: Columbus’ first voyage was a world-changing event.  A barrier that seemed impossible was now breached; in fact multiple times, by Columbus himself.  Two worlds once isolated now formed a new and transformative connection, for good or ill.  The development of two continents, and subsequently the world at large, could have taken a far different course had the voyage not succeeded.

Teachers should make sure Columbus gets his day in the sun—warts and all, Mr D concludes.  “Please, no more crappy wall decorations with three pathetic sailboats and what looks like Buster Brown in a funny robe saying hi to what appears to be Sitting Bull and the Hekawi tribe from F Troop,” he writes.Give your students the real deal about the voyage, the dangers, and the historical significance of reaching the Americas.”

Mary Kay 2, Columbus 1

by Robert Pondiscio
January 14th, 2010

The Texas State Board of Education is taking testimony in advance of voting on new social studies curriculum standards.  “But, as usual in votes before the conservative-led board, the wide-reaching guidelines are full of potential ideological flashpoints,” the Wall Street Journal notes.

Early quibbles over how much prominence to give civil rights leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall, and the inclusion of Christmas seem to have been smoothed over. Board Chairman Gail Lowe said at the start of the hearing that Chavez and Christmas will not be removed from the standards….In early testimony, the board was urged to include more examples of influential Mexican Americans in the nation’s history and to further acknowledge Sikhism as a major world religion.

Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the conservative Free Market Foundation came to the hearings seeking greater acknowledgement  of the “strong Christian faith” of Martin Luther King and other historical figures in the standards.  “He’ll also ask the board to reconsider mentioning makeup entrepreneur Mary Kay Ash of Addison, Texas, more often than Christopher Columbus in the curriculum standard,” the Journal notes. “At present Ms. Ash is mentioned twice; Columbus once.”

(H/T: Matthew Levey)

‘Scuse Me, Great Nations Comin’ Through!

by Robert Pondiscio
October 12th, 2009

The Wall Street Journal notes the tradition of honoring Christopher Columbus for sailing the ocean blue in 1492 “is facing rougher seas than the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria” and wonders if the holiday is in danger of sailing off the calendar. 

Columbus’ stature in elementary school classrooms has declined through the years.  The Associated Press notes “many teachers are trying to present a more balanced perspective of what happened after Columbus reached the Caribbean and the suffering of indigenous populations.” In Texas, the idea that Columbus “discovered America” is out.  Instead, 5th graders learn about the “Columbian Exchange” — the widespread exchange of people, plants, animals, goods, ideas and diseases that occurred after Columbus landed in the Americas.   Fourth graders at one Pennsylvania school held a mock trial and found the navigator guilty of thievery, the AP reports.  They sentenced him to life in prison.   “In their own verbiage, he was a bad guy,” said teacher Laurie Crawford.

Over at Jay Greene’s Blog, Jay points out that ”many of the new answers offered are at least as simplistic and historically false as the established answers they are meant to replace.”  Describing the people from whom Europeans confiscated lands as “Indigenous Peoples or First Nations” is inaccurate, since those people had previously confiscated it from earlier groups.  “You can’t just declare that history starts whenever it suits you,” Greene writes. 

These arguments aren’t going away anytime soon.  For a decidely arch take on the “Columbian Exchange,” here’s Randy Newman’s wry  ”The Great Nations of Europe.”

Columbus sailed for India, found Salvador instead.
He shook hands with some Indians and soon they all were dead.
They got TB and typhoid and athlete’s foot, diptheria and the flu,
‘Scuse me great nations comin’ through!

Curriculum vs. Kumbaya

by Robert Pondiscio
February 27th, 2009

If you want to promote tolerance and respect for Muslim students, perhaps teaching children something about Islam might help.  Teachers College has come out with a guide for teachers “designed to enhance understanding of Islam and promote tolerance of Muslim students.”  But EdWeek’s Mary Ann Zehr points out the guide ”gives only tangential treatment to religion in favor of focusing on the culture and identity of Muslims.”

The guide doesn’t discuss, for example, the five pillars of Islam, the significance of Ramadan, or the differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.  One of the most direct references to religion that I could find is a link to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life about the beliefs and practices of Muslims (search by “tradition”). But that survey tells you about as much about Islam as a religion as a survey of the beliefs and practices of Roman Catholics  in the United States tells you about Catholicism.

In contrast, the Core Knowledge Sequence introduces major world religions in the first grade.  In the fourth grade, the spread of Islam is examined along with Islamic art.  One of the lessons in the TC cycle asks students to examine and evaluate depictions of Muslims and Islam in the media.  Great idea.  Hard to do if you’re coming to the subject cold.  “There are still entrenched suspicions and profound misconceptions about Islam and Muslim culture,” the TC guide notes.  And there will continue to be unless you actually teach the subject.

Muy Estúpido

by Robert Pondiscio
February 11th, 2009

Si usted puede leer esto, usted podrá comprender estudios sociales clase en esta escuela primaria de Wisconsin.  ¿Cómo se dice “well-intentioned nonsense” en español?

(Inclino el sombrero a Joanne Jacobs)

Is Black History Month Still Needed?

by Robert Pondiscio
January 30th, 2009

February is Black History Month, an annual elementary school staple.  But is it still necessary and relevant in the Age of Obama?

The Chicago Tribune’s Exploring Race blog notes that Carter G. Woodson, the African-American historian and publisher of the Journal of Negro History, was pessimistic about whether African-American history would be accepted as part of mainstream history. So Woodson and his colleagues came up with the idea for Negro History Week during the second week in February, because it coincided with the birthdays of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.

Initially, Negro History Week was a way to highlight—to non-blacks— the myriad contributions that blacks have made to this country. But it also was designed to boost the self-esteem of blacks, many of whom were unaware of their own history. The observance later became Black History Month, which begins Sunday, and over the years, so much has changed—not the least of which was the recent inauguration of a man of color as the 44th President of the United States.

“Considering the reason for starting the observance,” asks the Tribune, “is there still a need to highlight black history in this regard?”

Elvis Is In the Building

by Robert Pondiscio
November 7th, 2008

Hats off to the Traut Core Knowledge Elementary School in Ft. Collins, Colorado, where 6th graders transformed their school gym into a living “wax museum” to show off what they learned about various historic people.  The kids created displays, gave presentations to classmates and with the help of parent volunteers, dressed up as the person for others to see. 

The 75 living wax figures in included explorers, presidents, inventors and entertainers including Elvis, Ansel Adams, Marie Antoinette, Jackie Robinson and Sacajawea, and earned the school a write-up in the local paper. 

The characters weren’t exactly made of wax like the famous mannequins at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum; Instead, they were sixth graders dressed in ornate costumes who assumed motionless positions when given the command. The silence was more representative of a library than a gym, and the posed students barely blinked as younger classes in single file lines walked by the 75 exhibits.

“When a person you know goes by and stares at you, it’s hard not to laugh,” said sixth-grader Summer Paulson, who was dressed as Elizabeth Blackwell, the world’s first woman doctor.

That Core Knowledge stuff…all that deadly dull rote learning and drills.

Unacceptable is the New “Adequate”

by Robert Pondiscio
August 7th, 2008

Asked under oath in a deposition if science is ”part of an adequate education” in the state of Georgia, Joanne Leonard said “I think you can do without science.”  What about social studies? Is that part of a child’s ”adequate” education?  “I would want them exposed to social studies,” Leonard said, ”but I think they can succeed in the world without social studies, and that is my opinion, my personal opinion.”

Ms. Leonard’s deposition was taken in a lawsuit brought by rural Georgia schools, who say the state isn’t giving them enough money to provide the “adequate education” required under law.  Much of the case involves defining “adequate”  And who is Joanne Leonard? Only the state Department of Education’s Director of Accountability.

I’m trying to think of what the appropriate response to this should be from Georgians, but I can’t think of anything that doesn’t involve pitchforks and torches.  But I can think of something else Georgia can do without.

(HT: Joanne Jacobs)

The Politics of History

by Robert Pondiscio
July 31st, 2008

Lawmakers in California have had a busy summer deciding what students in the Golden State should be taught in school.  A bill requiring that a 1946 court ruling on desegregation be added to the curriculum won strong support, as did a measure that adds the contribution of Filipino-American soldiers.  Legislation requiring lessons on the contributions of Italian Americans, Native Americans and the deportation of Mexican citizens during the Depression are pending. 

An editorial in one local paper makes sport of the whole miasma:

OK, boys and girls, please turn to page 151 of your state history book and skip down to the section on the contributions of Filipino-American soldiers in World War II. We were going to talk about the contributions of the Chinese, but seeing as how that isn’t mandatory, we’re going to take a pass.

Please be prepared immediately after recess to discuss Myanmar’s failure to adopt U.S. concepts of Democracy.  Yes, Jimmy, I know you’re only in fourth grade, but a bipartisan state Senate majority felt California students were getting way behind in their comparative political theory. And we wouldn’t want to argue with bipartisan state Senate majorities, now would we?

Fortunately, we will have time to go over our spelling words a couple of more times this week because the governor vetoed Senate Bill 908, which would have encouraged each California grade level to include a section on global warming.

“They all have merit,” concludes an editorial in the Contra Costa Times, “but it is not the job of individual legislators to alter the public school curriculum on a piecemeal basis. This is the purview of the state Board of Education.”