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Bringing Literature Into the Social Studies Classroom

Today, Breeanna Elliott, a history teacher and the outreach specialist at Boston University's African Studies Center, shares why an interdisciplinary approach is critical to teach a balanced social studies course. 

By guest blogger Breeanna Elliott 

"I am not certain when I first heard the word mau-mau. It may have been during the first round-up, after Bwana Ruin's gun disappeared and was to have been stolen by the mau-mau. That fateful morning we had woken up to find our village surrounded by soldiers. Hundreds upon hundreds of heavily armed white soldiers. They rounded us all up—every man, woman and child—and herded us into the cattle auction pen outside the village. There they made us sit on fresh cow dung to wait for Bwana Ruin...They kept us in the cattle enclosure until the sun came up, bright and hot, and the children started to complain of hunger. Even then the soldiers would not let us go home or tell us what they wanted with us." Excerpt from The Mzungu Boy (2005) by Meja Mwangi

As core content classes become increasingly segregated from one another, and as the emphasis on testable English/Language Arts and math skills eclipses those of the other subjects, the opportunities for the development of interdisciplinary skills and activities in the classroom are fewer and further between. Yet, for the social studies classroom especially, the interdisciplinary approach is essential to engaging students in the course material, developing background knowledge, fostering an in-depth understanding of a topic, and challenging the dominant historical narrative in popular culture. 

Fostering Empathy and Understanding
While there are unique skills students must learn in the social studies classroom, the use of literature to supplement study is critical in engaging students in the lives and stories of others, as well as fostering a sense of empathy and higher-level understanding of the broad human experience. When students can relate to, and connect with, the experiences of those they study, the learning opportunity is not only a richer one, but also one that builds on prior experiences. It reduces the preconceived emphasis on the differences between histories, peoples, and cultures, and instead celebrates similarities across time and place. Literature offers the opportunity to humanize history, bringing it closer to home, and to illuminate the contours of the past. 

In-Depth Study
africa_literature_education.jpegIntegrating relevant literature to a curricular unit can serve as a way to develop basic background knowledge and a mental image bank for students. This is particularly crucial for areas of study that suffer from stereotypes, such as African studies. Depending on the topic, students bring varying amounts of knowledge to the classroom—some may have no familiarity with the topic at all. Using excerpts from literature to introduce a topic is a way to engage students while also pre-teaching certain important concepts or historical timelines that will be discussed throughout the unit. Marrying an engaging story and important content knowledge encourages student retention of the material and builds a memorable foundation on which to build an entire unit.

Too often social studies courses, as dictated by state or local frameworks, are survey-like in nature, favoring broad scopes rather than in-depth study. Incorporating literature allows for a more intensive study of an event, person, and/or time period. This can lead to a more nuanced analysis of a topic and offers great opportunities for comparative reading assignments within and across units.

Multiple Perspectives
Lastly, combining social studies themes and skills with excerpts from relevant works of literature complicates traditionally fact-oriented narratives of social studies. Literature embodies a multiplicity of perspectives, unlike the traditional textbook, and encourages students to think like true historians—they must consider the author's bias and sources, question the authenticity of the story presented, and incorporate the information learned into their overall understanding of the topic. 

Interdisciplinary Example
One example of integrating literature into the social studies classroom is available online from the Boston University African Studies Center. The Mau Mau Uprising resource page presents a collection of primary sources, lesson plans, and literature excerpts that help to nuance the often fact-oriented narrative of colonization events in Africa. Focusing on the state of emergency declared in British-colonized Kenya from October 1952 to December 1959, the resources offered present alternative perspectives concerning the nature of the uprising against British rule and challenge the label of the Kenyan uprisers as "frenzied terrorists." The materials are introduced within a conceptual framework that revisits and redefines contemporary understandings of African resistance and rebellion as illustrated in literature. The use of The Mzungu Boy excerpt offers a visceral account of life under British rule and contributes a unique, and often unrecognized, perspective to the history of the Mau Mau.

Meja Mwangi, the author of The Mzungu Boy (2005) quoted above (and included in the resource page), is a Kenyan filmmaker and writer born in 1948, at the cusp of the Mau Mau Uprising. Many of his initial works focused on the Mau Mau and the struggle against colonial rule. A member of the Kikuyu ethnic group himself and a youth during the struggle for independence, Mwangi's writings on the experiences of the rebellion are semi-autobiographical. The text allows students to hear from the perspective of a young, naïve child during the period just prior to Kenyan independence, which contributes to their ability to approximate the lived experience of individuals during this time period. In a review of the work by Lori Walker, she writes, "Meja Mwangi's book offers an opportunity to understand and discuss the roots and legacy of racism, as well as create an awareness of how the oppression that still exists in many forms impacts young people around the world." Furthermore, the quality and accuracy of this work is confirmed by its status as a winner of the 2006 Children's Africana Book Award (CABA) for the best book for older readers.

For middle and high school classrooms, this book offers an entry point for navigating the complicated and contradictory histories of the Mau Mau through the lens of literature. It serves as one example of many for how literature can be utilized to supplement material in the social studies classroom in diverse ways.

Global Literature Resources
While educators may be interested in incorporating literature into their social studies classroom, many are often at a loss when it comes to finding those reliable resources. For recommendations on the best books to use in the classroom related to area studies, the best sources include the following annual awards for books related to:

Follow the African Studies Center on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo of Bridgewater State University undergraduate education students participating in a workshop on teaching African studies in the classroom. Courtesy of the author. 

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