Archives For National Council of Social Studies

“We are not used to live with such bewildering uncertainty,” wrote Jessica Stern in a New York Times editorial How Terror Hardens Us on Sunday (12/6/15) after the San Bernardino, California, shootings.

Stern, an adult, was writing about adults collectively when she used the pronoun”we.”

That same bewildering uncertainty also confronts our children, our students in schools. That bewildering uncertainty is happening at a vulnerable time, just when they are just learning to be citizens in our democracy. That same state of terror, a state of intense fear, has an impact on their state of mind as each terrorist attack, Stern notes, “evokes a powerful sense of dread.”

 Stern, a professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, co-authored ISIS: The State of Terror. She noted in her editorial:

“It [terrorism] is exactly that kind of psychological warfare that It is a form of psychological warfare whose goal is to bolster the morale of its supporters and demoralize and frighten its target audience — the victims and their communities. Terrorists aim to make us feel afraid, and to overreact in fear.”

Students in our classrooms today attend schools where terrorism or home-grown violence is a possibility; the term “lockdown” is part of their vocabulary. At every grade level, they have every reason to believe that they could be a target audience. while motives for violence have differed, many students are aware that high-profile incidents have happened in schools: Columbine (1999) and Sandy Hook (2012).

As educators in all disciplines at every grade level struggle to help students deal with recent events that are identified as terrorism, perhaps the discipline of social studies is the subject where educators can best counter a terrorist’s goal to have our students “afraid and overreact in fear.”

That academic responsibility to help students cope was claimed 14 years ago by the president of the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) in 2001, months after the attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center.

Most frequent words in the speech given by Aiden Davis in 2011 to the National Council of Social Studies after 9/11 (

The most frequent words enlarged from the speech given by Aiden Davis, President of National Council of Social Studies after 9/11/2001 (



When Adrian Davis delivered his 2001 NCSS Presidential Address to the nation’s social studies teachers, he explained their role as educators included efforts to “to work to reconstruct schools to become laboratories for democratic life” by saying:

“Schools do not exist in a vacuum. They are not isolated from their neighborhoods and communities. Schools and teaching reflect society, and they participate in constructing the future society.”

When Davis gave this address, he was making the case that terrorism had made the discipline of social studies more relevant to future societies than ever before. He anticipated that there would be people who could “overreact in fear”; his address hoped to point out that students would need guidance so that democracy would survive the bewildering uncertainty after 9/11:

 As social studies educators, we need to reinforce the ideals of equality, equity, freedom, and justice against a backlash of antidemocratic sentiments and hostile divisions. As social studies educators, we need to teach our students not only how to understand and tolerate but also how to respect others who are different, how to cooperate with one another, and to work together for the common good.

Davis’s concerns about teaching respect and how to cooperate are even more important today when there is heated rhetoric conflating terrorism with religion. His reason to encourage social studies teachers to reinforce the ideals of equality, equity, freedom, and justice provides a solution to the concerns in Stern raised in her How Terror Hardens Us.

Stern’s editorial concludes, “If we are to prevail in the war on terrorism, we need to remember that the freedoms we aspire to come with great responsibilities.”

On behalf of all social studies educators, Davis accepted those responsibilities. As he concluded, he made clear the commitment he was making for teachers, “We have an opportunity to teach the coming generations to preserve and extend the United States as an experiment in building a democratic community….teaching is where we touch the future.”

The future is always uncertain, but educators, especially social studies educators, can provide students the skills of citizenship to deal with uncertainty so that they will not overreact in fear.

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.