Instruction & Curriculum

It’s Time to take Social Studies Seriously in Schools

Quick request:
Raise your hand if you took a Social Studies course in high school.
Next, think about whether it was a required course or an elective.
On June 1st, 2020, The Educators Room Instagram Account (@theeducatorsroom) reposted a post from Rachel (Goan) Turner’s Twitter account (@ChattanoogaChat) who tweeted about the future of Social Studies in our schools. See tweet below:

This tweet captured the experiences I’ve had growing up as a student myself, and thoughts that I’ve had as an educator. When I was in high school in Jamaica, and I was getting to sit my CSEC (Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate) examinations, which are similar to O-level exams, we were asked to choose subjects that we wanted to take, for which we would then sit exams for. I chose Social Studies – it was an obvious choice to me, but to other students in my year, it was considered to be a waste of time, and it generally wasn’t taken seriously.
However, from the 9 subjects that I took that year, Social Studies was one of the most useful subjects in terms of my life and my overall understanding of historical and current Caribbean affairs. Fast forward to teacher’s college and Social Studies wasn’t an option on its own for student-teachers to pursue. It was coupled with History, and even then, I don’t remember anyone, including myself, choosing to be a Social Studies teacher and taking that track. Again, it felt like Social Studies was the first choice.
Fast forward even more and I’m an English teacher, through and through. I am obsessed with novels and the lives that exist within them. I love introducing my students to the complex stories of the characters that are journeying through the books we read. However, last year, I taught the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, and like all the other books I teach, I dedicated time to building background knowledge in order to better understand the context of the text. This included discussing the Jim Crow era, racist housing practices that exist in Chicago (where the play takes place), the Civil Rights Movement, amongst other topics e.g. the 13th & 14th Amendments to the United States constitution. My students, who are quite apt, were then able to create a pretty good picture of the overt & systemic racism that Black people faced in the country. As we read the text, we discussed the use of certain words within the text, one of which was the N-word (which Mrs. Johnson, one of the characters, says in Act II, Scene II & Walter later on in the play).
With recommendations from a colleague, who provided amazing resources about teaching the history of the word, I provided historical information about the N-word and how white people used to and continue to demean and demonize Africans and African-Americans. Although it was used in a different context in the play, I wanted to teach my students about how white people weaponized that word towards Black Americans, in particular. What shocked me about this activity is that almost all of my students, except for my one Black student, didn’t know the painful history of this term. They just knew it was a word that they don’t say but they didn’t know why they shouldn’t say it.
Furthermore, at the end of the unit, I showed current statistics that show continued disparities between Black Americans and white Americans in relation to education, employment, healthcare treatment, and police brutality in American society today. This, again, came as a surprise to my students – who mostly did all their schooling in Canada – who believed that racial inequality was a thing of the past. They naively believe that discrimination ended with the end of slavery. This led to me think about the following questions:
Whose histories are prioritized in classrooms?
In what ways do teachers and course materials (textbooks etc.) sanitize the histories of white colonists terror towards Black, and Brown communities (inclusive of Indigenous populations)?
How do we teach current affairs? What narratives are centered and which are only taught in elective classes?
Whose histories are taught in history class as something of the past vs. as current movements?
How do I as a Black educator continue to educate my students on real stories, beyond characters in a novel?
The last question has lingered with me since last fall, and as I’ve described in past articles, I’ve worked diligently to include diverse stories in my classroom. My aim is to have my students thinking critically and critiquing the status quo, through the work we do in the classroom. I aim to have a revolutionary classroom – which requires more experience and years of putting in the work – but it is at the core of my work.
As such, I’ve decided that it’s time to get qualified to teach Social Studies and work to have it be a part of the core curriculum in Canadian public schools, rather than an elective subject. It is truly time for schools to place more emphasis on Social Studies because it is the main avenue to educate our students on the civil liberties that are privileged to certain groups of persons, while denied to others. It is where we can engage in discussions about Anthropology, Psychology & Sociology, which can teach students about human behavior, societal institutions, patterns of human socialization, etc. and how these things work within society and their overall purposes.
It’s time to have equity studies, and civics be the center of our classroom discussions because Social Studies is one of the bases by which we can really produce more global-minded students who are better able to recognize inequities within their societies and the world in general. Furthermore, there should be a discussion about action, in conjunction with theory, to allow for student-generated, youth-led acts for change. So, as the post shared by Educator’s Room stated, 2020-2021 will and should be the Year of the Social Studies teacher. But it should go beyond that. The full, and real histories of our students of color must be taught and it shouldn’t just be the jobs of the teachers of the color. It must be integrated into the curriculum. Make it mandatory, because our histories must be taught in the required courses.

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