Archives For teaching social studies

Here is an educational policy riddle: How much background knowledge does a student need to read a historical text?

According to New York Engage website: None.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are being implemented state by state, and there is an emphasis from teaching students background knowledge to teaching students skills, specifically the skill of close reading.

The pedegogy is explained by The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC):

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (PARCC, 2011)

There are many lessons that strongly advocate the use of close reading in teaching historical texts on the website, including a set of exemplar lessons for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address promoted by CCSS contributor and now College Board President, David Coleman. The lesson’s introduction states:

The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading–that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

Photo of Lincoln delivering Gettysburg Address- (

Photo of Lincoln delivering
Gettysburg Address- (

The lesson plan is organized in three sections. In the first, students are handed a copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and perform several “cold” readings, to themselves and then with the class.

Lesson Plan SECTION 1 What’s at stake: a nation as a place and as an idea

Students silently read, then the teacher reads aloud the text of the Gettysburg Address while students follow along.

  • Students translate into their own words the first and second paragraph. 
  • Students answer guiding questions regarding the first two paragraphs

Please note, there is no mention of any historical context for the speech. Students will come to this 273-word speech without the background knowledge that the Battle of Gettysburg was fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863, and this battle is considered the most important engagement of the American Civil War. They will not know that the battle resulted in “Union casualties of 23,000, while the Confederates had lost some 28,000 men–more than a third of Lee’s army” ( They will not know how the Army of Northern Virginia achieved an apex into Union territory with “Pickett’s Charge,” a failed attempt by General George Pickett  to break through the Union line in South Central Pennsylvania, and that the charge resulted in the death of thousands of rebel soldiers. They will not know how the newly appointed Major General George Gordon Meade of the Army of the Potomac met the challenges of General Robert E. Lee by ordering responses to skirmishes on Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, and in the Devil’s Den. They will not know that Meade would then be replaced by General Ulysses S. Grant in part because Meade did not pursue Lee’s troops in their retreat to Virginia.

Instead of referencing any of this historical background, the guding questions in the lesson’s outline imagine the students as blank slates and mention another historical event:

A. When was “four score and seven years ago”? B. What important thing happened in 1776?

The guiding responses for teachers seem to begrudge an acknowledgement that keeping students bound to the four corners of a text is impossible, and that, yes, a little prior knowledge of history is helpful when reading a historical text:

This question, of course, goes beyond the text to explore students’ prior knowledge and associations. Students may or may not know that the Declaration of Independence was issued in 1776, but they will likely know it is a very important date – one that they themselves have heard before. Something very important happened on that date.  It’s OK to mention the Declaration, but the next step is to discover what students can infer about 1776 from Lincoln’s own words now in front of them.

In addition, there are admonishments in Appendix A of the lesson not to ask questions such as, “Why did the North fight the civil war?”

Answering these sorts of questions require students to go outside the text, and indeed in this particular instance asking them these questions actually undermine what Lincoln is trying to say. Lincoln nowhere in the Gettysburg Address distinguishes between the North and South (or northern versus southern soldiers for that matter). Answering such questions take the student away from the actual point Lincoln is making in the text of the speech regarding equality and self-government.

The lesson plan continues:

Lesson Plan SECTION 2  From funeral to new birth

  • Students are re-acquainted with the first two paragraphs of the speech.
  • Students translate the third and final paragraph into their own words.
  • Students answer guiding questions regarding the third paragraph of the Gettysburg Address.

Please note this does not provide the context of the speech that was given that crisp morning of November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the National Cemetery on a damp battlefield that only months before had been dampened red with the blood of tens of thousands of soldiers from either side. The students would be unaware that Lincoln had taken the train from Washington the day before and was feeling slightly feverish on the day of the speech. There is some speculation that he may have been suffering from the early stages of smallpox when he delivered the speech reading from a single piece of paper in a high clear voice. The students would not know that Lincoln’s scheduled time at the podium followed a two hour (memorized) speech by Edward Everett, who later wrote to Lincoln stating, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” The students would not know that many of the 15,000 crowd members did not hear Lincoln’s two minute speech; the 10 sentences were over before many audience members realized Lincoln had been speaking. The students would not know that this speech marked Lincoln’s first public statement about principles of equality, and they would not know that he considered the speech to be a failure.

Lesson Plan SECTION 3  Dedication as national identity and personal devotion

  • Students trace the accumulated meaning of the word “dedicate” through the text
  • Students write a brief essay on the structure of Lincoln’s argument

The lesson provides links to the five handwritten copies of the text, in the “Additional ELA Task #1: Comparison of the drafts of the speech” so that students can see drafts of the speech and the inclusion of “under God” in the latter three versions. There is also an additional Social Studies task that incorporates the position of respected historian Gary Wills from his book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Worlds that Remade America. This activity suggests students use excerpts from Wills’s book and an editorial from the Chicago Times (November 23, 1863) to debate “Lincoln’s reading of the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution”. One excerpt from Wills’s book includes the statement,”The stakes of the three days’ butchery are made intellectual, with abstract truths being vindicated.” Finally, here is information about the battle itself; the battle lasted three days and soldiers died.

The enterprise of reading the Gettysburg Address without context defeats PARRC’s stated objective of having the students “arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole”. The irony is that in forwarding their own interpretation of the speech, David Coleman and the lesson plan developers have missed Lincoln’s purpose entirely; Lincoln directs the audience to forget the words of the speech, but never to forget the sacrifices made by the soldiers during that brutal conflict:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Lincoln wrote and delivered the Gettysburg Address to remind his audience “that these dead shall not have died in vain”. Analyzing the language of the address isolated from the Civil War context that created the tone and message is a hollow academic exercise. Instead, students must be taught the historical context so that they fully understand Lincoln’s purpose in praising those who, “gave the last full measure of devotion.”

“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

Continue Reading…

A question was posed on the Education Week column run by Larry Ferrlazzo. On this particular posting, he asked the question, “How Can We Teach Social Studies More Effectively?”

This year, I am the interim Social Studies Department Chair in addition to my role as English Department Chair.  As an academic interloper, I have had the opportunity to study how the scope and sequence of our middle/high school social studies program (7-12)  is delivered. I humbly offered  the following suggestions to Ferrlazzo’s question:

To be an effective Social Studies teacher, a teacher must be inter-disciplined.  The definition of social studies adopted by the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS)  in 1992 addresses the broad reach of the subject:

“Social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences.”

In other words, social studies is the most interdisciplinary subject in our curriculum, therefore:

1. Collaborate:

Although English is  natural fit, social studies teachers should not stop there, but look to collaborate with all disciplines. Some subjects pair well (Renaissance=science+art), but do not discount the math necessary for economics and statistics needed to understand any period of history.Social studies teachers have the opportunity to collaborate with other departments in delivering curriculum using either the familiar chronological approach or by using a thematic approach (“Revolutions”). These teachers can help students make the connections between subject areas rather than see each information limited to four classroom walls.  For example, students in grade 10 were reading All Quiet on the Western Front in English at the same time when WWI was being studied in Modern World History. I was trying to make a point about how the narrator was confronting the shift from the man to man combat to the  battlefield which featured increasing mechanized warfare when a student interrupted me, “Mrs. P says that WWI showed that the increasing the technology and machines in war gets you get farther and farther from your enemy.” There was a pause, and then another student chimed in ,“And now we use drones in Afghanistan and we are farther from the enemy than ever before.”  I didn’t have to make my point at all. Mrs. P, 10th grade social studies teacher, had already covered weapons introduced in WWI and  was making connections from WWI to the war in Afghanistan. She was providing the setting while I was introducing the emotional impact on people/characters, and our collaboration made for greater student understanding.

2. Ditch the Textbook and Increase Non-Fiction Reading:

I have come to view the social studies textbooks as heavy…too heavy and too costly. I suggest social studies teachers use these in a classroom as a resource for note-taking only. These textbooks are ideal for teaching students about sub-headings, how to read charts and maps, and information sidebars in class, but there are other resources for delivering content. Use to create online textbooks for reading home, perhaps in a flipped model, with a variety of reading materials-newspaper articles, magazine links, and websites. Use wikis to post links, upload materials, and receive comments from students. Check out the amazing amount of materials on Larry Ferrlazzo’s blog and Richard Byrne’s blog (updated almost hourly!) or Greg Kulowiec’s blog to see what software can be used for research or content delivery.  Place materials in Google Docs for student access and collaboration. After looking at all the new software available today, I am fully in favoring of ditching the textbook!

Of course, losing the textbook means a teachers can also assign more authentic reading. The Common Core State Standards require 70% informational texts for students by grade 12. The anchor standards and high school standards for reading and writing in social studies (history) in literacy work in tandem to define college and career readiness expectations. Increasing student access to reading materials is key to meeting increased requirements in reading of informational texts. I would suggest organizing classroom libraries with non-fiction materials and providing time in class to read these materials. Coordinate with the school librarian to pull books that deal with a topic currently studied and suggest students  choose a book off the cart. For example, we have added numerous popular trade non-fiction titles in the English classroom libraries that could be easily used in a social studies classroom such as:

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
Patriots by Joseph J. Ellis
Hiroshima by John Hershey
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
Kaffir Boy: The Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa by Mark Mathebane
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsson
Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

3. Increase the Project Based Learning:

There’s a lot to be said for the diorama. Every student has made at least one, and despite the loss of precious classroom real estate to 30 shoebox recreations of a medieval castle, these projects are incredibly powerful learning experiences because they are “hands-on”.  Debate, trials, and simulations are also all ways that project based learning can be used. Our 8th grade recreated the Ellis Island experience in the gym and hallways last month.  Teachers were “medical inspectors” and  Ellis Island staff asking questions about employment possibilities and each immigrant’s finances.  Each 8th grade student had prepared an immigration profile based on research on the Ellis Island website and was “processed” individually or in family “groups.” This experience was only one of several simulations our teachers have used to immerse students in a historical context.

Project based learning can be delivered as games, in role-playing, or in developing living museums. Students need to BE the people of history to better understand how people and events from the past effect and connect to their present circumstances in their “study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.” (NCSS, 1992)

I have enjoyed this year of working with my social studies colleagues. They are responsible for many of the skills that are necessary for literacy, specifically writing and note-taking. They are critical to successfully implementing the newly adopted Common Core State Standards at every grade level. What joins our disciplines in English and social studies are the fundamental elements of story; while English teachers are centered on the individual character and “his-story”, the social studies teachers are responsible for what happens to the individual in “history”. Ours can be the continuing of a “beautiful friendship” in education.