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Response: Common Core in Social Studies Looks Like 'the Work of Historians'

(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What do the Common Core Standards look like in Social Studies classrooms?


In Part One of this series, Sarah Cooper, Michael Fisher, Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath, Jody Passanisi and Eugenia Mora-Flores share their thoughts.

You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Sarah, Michael and Ruchi on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Jennifer Hesseltine, Kenny McKee, Erik M. Francis, Wayne Journell, and Dave Stuart Jr. contribute their responses to the question. I've also included a response from a reader.

Response From Jennifer Hesseltine

Jennifer Hesseltine teaches U.S. History at the Malone Middle School in Malone, New York. Jennifer teaches on a cross-curricular team of 8th grade teachers in a 1:1 technology setting, prompting students to engage with the content of the course in a student-centered, hands-on classroom environment. Jennifer is a member of the TED-Ed Innovative Educator program, and recently presented a workshop at TED Summit 2016 entitled, Global Speed Chat.  Jen can be found hosting and participating in the weekly Bammy Award winning #TEDEdChat on Twitter. Connect with Jennifer on Twitter @jenhesseltine:

The Common Core Standards in social studies include a focus on social studies skills rather than focusing on the Jeopardy-like social studies classrooms of the past where students memorized dates and names. The new standards place a special emphasis on students understanding a variety of perspectives when studying various time periods throughout history. In addition, the Common Core Standards require students to gather evidence to support claims throughout history, and in doing so create their own understanding of the world. This approach is very much in line with the ELA Common Core Standards and even the Next Generation Science Standards. The Common Core Standards in social studies mean that students investigate people, places and historical events, gather evidence from primary source documents, and construct their own knowledge about the past, based on their findings. In doing this, students learn to source documents - becoming detectives searching for history, rather than students who simply consume one version or story about history.

Under the Common Core Standards, a social studies classroom will look more like a collaborative space, where students might be debating about what they see in a historical image, or evaluating the words in a letter written by a WWI soldier. Rather than memorizing names and dates, students are now searching for reputable sources of information online to gather evidence about what actually happened during specific time periods and understanding the various sides to our world's ongoing story. In short, students are interacting with information rather than simply consuming it. When students have a question about history, under the Common Core Standards, they should no longer feel that the teacher is the only person who holds the answer--they are now encouraged to search for the information, locate reputable sources, understand the information in context, and share their findings with their peers. The Common Core Standards in the history classroom also mean that students are writing and reading differently than in the past. Rather than writing a research paper about a historical topic, students might be asked to investigate the perspective of various people and write about those perspectives, supporting their writing with evidence from primary source documents. When students read about history, they read with a purpose (to answer a question, or locate evidence).

Finally, students in Common Core social studies classrooms are now being asked to investigate a topic within a time period and create something that shows what they have learned - whether it is a piece of writing, a video clip, or an interactive image using various technologies.

For more information about integrating the Common Core Standards in the social studies classroom, great resources include Zoom In, Stanford History Group, and the New York State Social Studies K-12 Resource Toolkit project with inquiries by C3 Teachers. Your team ELA teacher is an outstanding resource - someone with whom you should absolutely collaborate!

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Response From Kenny McKee

Kenny McKee is a member of the 2014 class of ASCD Emerging Leaders. McKee is a literacy and instructional coach with Buncombe County Schools in Asheville, NC. To learn more about his work, visit his website kennycmckee.com:

How do the Common Core Standards look in social studies? Well, they look much like the work of historians. With many teachers' calls for making learning authentic, the Common Core Standards (especially the reading ones) overwhelmingly support students' historical thinking.

What are the literacy practices of historians? The names vary widely, but I like these five discussed by Nokes in (Re)imagining Content-area Literacy Instruction: observation-making, inference-making, sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization.

For example, many historians read primary and secondary sources to make sense of the past. Depending on the viewpoints of the creators of these sources, there may be disparities in both the events and ideas shared as well as the language which reveals the authors' biases towards them. So to construct evidence-based analyses of the past, historians must use the skills of sourcing (considering how the author and time influenced the construction of the source) and corroboration (or determining some consensus of information across texts).

The CCSS support the skills of sourcing and corroboration, as evidenced in CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.6: "Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts."

In the classroom, students may investigate a text set, using a matrix to collect information about each document in order to make an informed statement about a specific event, time period, or movement. In addition, this work reflects CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.9: Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

In other words, the CCSS present differing discipline-specific reading skills for English language arts, history/social studies, and science and technical subjects. The reading standards for each subject specify the thinking and literacy practices to aid the work of "doing" the subject.

If we want students to "do" history, the CCSS reading standards are extremely effective.

Many resources exist that can support teachers in using the CCSS reading standards to facilitate historical thinking, including the Reading Like a Historian lessons from the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) and sample Socratic seminar lesson plans from the National Paideia Center.

For a sample of what this might look like in the classroom, check out this blog post about a collaboration with a US History teacher.

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Response From Erik M. Francis

Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the author of Now THAT'S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning, published by ASCD.  He is also the owner and lead professional education specialist for Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development on teaching and learning that address the cognitive rigor of college and career ready standards:

The Common Core State Standards in the social studies classroom can be used to used to emphasize and promote authentic or disciplinary literacy -- particular, reading, writing, and discussion in history and the social sciences.  The ELA CCSS Reading Standards are conceptual and skills-based, informing teachers and students what are the literacy skills they must develop and demonstrate when reading informational text. 

The ELA CCSS Writing Standards can serve as driving essential questions that challenge and engage students write and present arguments, write and produce informational texts, research to build and present knowledge, or even write and share narratives about the events, ideas, individuals, and topics they are learning.   The ELA CCSS Writing Standards can also be used to challenge students to think creatively about what kind of original narrative can they write and share that describes and explains a historical event, idea, and individual through historical fiction.  Where the social studies standards provide the content knowledge and conceptual understanding students will need to develop and demonstrate in history and the social sciences, the CCSS reading and writing standards will help students develop and demonstrate the ability to express and share their learning about a specific subject or particular topic in history or social studies.

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Response From Wayne Journell

Dr. Wayne Journell is an associate professor of secondary social studies education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where he studies the teaching of politics and political processes in K-12 education. He is the editor of Theory & Research in Social Education, the premier research journal in social studies education, and is the editor of Reassessing the Social Studies Curriculum: Promoting Critical Civic Engagement in a Politically Polarized, Post-9/11 World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Teaching Social Studies in an Era of Divisiveness: The Challenges of Discussing Social Issues in a Non-Partisan Way (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

When students are asked to describe their social studies education, their first response is usually some variation of "boring" or "irrelevant." When asked to elaborate, students often link these opinions to rote memorization and regurgitation of dates and facts. Like most stereotypes, the trope about social studies instruction as dull memorization of facts is nested in a kernel of truth. If one were to walk in most middle and high school social studies classes in the United States, chances are they would see a teacher lecturing and students copying notes from a PowerPoint slide. Yet, most of these same teachers know that social studies can be a vibrant discipline that requires students to engage with both historical and contemporary issues in ways that encourage critical reasoning and deliberation of important civic issues.

Why does this disconnect between the theoretical applicability of social studies and current classroom practices exist? State social studies standards are often a disjointed collection of facts that are designed to be assessed using multiple choice tests, which turns social studies into a high-stakes game of trivial pursuit. It did not take long for teachers to figure out that the most effective way to "beat the game" is by having students memorize the answers.

The Common Core offers a different perspective, one that frames social studies as a conduit to the skills of text evaluation, source corroboration, reading comprehension, and argumentation. In effect, the Common Core shifts the focus of social studies instruction from what to how, making social studies more engaging for students and providing them with essential skills.

Social studies teachers and scholars, however, have complained that the Common Core nestled social studies too far into the realm of literacy which diluted the disciplinary elements of the various content areas. The response from the National Council for the Social Studies was to create a framework designed to accompany the Common Core called the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, which was published in 2013. 

The C3 Framework retains the overarching premise of the Common Core but does so in a way that allows students to approach history, geography, civics, and economics using disciplinary-specific tools and ways of thinking. The hallmark of the C3 is the idea of inquiry arcs in which students consider compelling questions, develop conclusions, and take informed action based on those conclusions.

An example of this inquiry arc in practice can be found on the C3 Teachers website (http://www.c3teachers.org/). Teachers start with a compelling, or overarching, question (e.g., "Was the French Revolution Successful?"). Students then consider supporting questions that help scaffold them toward better understanding of the issue (e.g., "What were the social, economic, and political problems in prerevolutionary France?") and develop opinions on those supporting questions by engaging in disciplinary practices (e.g., analyzing/corroborating primary sources). After those supporting questions have been answered, students take a position on the compelling question via a summative performance task (e.g., an essay or project). Finally, students attempt to tie what they have learned to a contemporary issue and take reasonable informed action (e.g., investigate a current "unfinished revolution" and write an editorial in the school or local paper informing others).

This process presents students with an understanding of topics that extends well beyond simple questions like "what happened in the French Revolution?" Unfortunately, as of this writing, only a handful of states have officially adopted the C3 to accompany their state social studies standards. I am hopeful, though, that as research continues to show the Common Core and C3 represent a progressive approach to social studies instruction, more states will jump on the bandwagon.

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Response From Dave Stuart Jr.

Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) is a high school teacher who also writes and researches about literacy instruction, character strengths, and teacher flourishing. His blog is read by over 35,000 people each month, and he gives keynote speeches and workshops around the country. He believes that all students and teachers can flourish, and he hopes his work helps you toward that goal:

For too many social studies teachers, the Common Core Standards still mean the exaltation of Skill at the diminishment of Knowledge. When we parrot tweetables like "It's not what you know, it's what you can do," we throw out more than bathwater. If our aim is to create social studies classrooms where the reading, writing, speaking, and listening standards are being met, we're defeating ourselves if we cast aspersion on the idea of student as knowledge builder. When skill development replaces knowledge building, we're in trouble because

  1. the CCSS themselves emphasize the importance of knowledge-building in college and career readiness in their introductory matter;
  2. higher-order skill development can't happen apart from a rich body of foundational knowledge;
  3. you need to know stuff to be able to read stuff -- an idea I develop further here.

And so the CCSS-achieving Social Studies classroom seeks to maximize success through an intense focus on two questions:

What are the key pieces of knowledge that my students need to know for a given unit?

In history classes, we need students to develop mental knowledge networks that can be accessed chronologically (think timelines) and geographically (think maps). This is the first step to successful knowledge building in social studies.

And then, in all social studies classes, we need our students to build conceptual knowledge. We begin by asking, "What is the key conceptual vocabulary for this unit?", and we create a list of these words and we teach them to our students using something like Marzano's academic vocabulary procedure, and we reinforce them with something simple, like posting a word wall or requiring students to use a conceptual vocabulary word in this week's pop-up debate.

What quantity of literacy work will my students do in this unit?

Every social studies teacher should be able to give a parent or an administrator or a colleague a simple set of numbers:

  • How many texts will students read during a given unit? It's useful to organize this quantity by text type, such as 10 pages from the textbook (contrary to popular opinion, the CCSS don't seem to have banned these, and most colleges certainly haven't), 4 articles, 9 primary source documents, and 2 political cartoons.
  • How many pages (or paragraphs, or words) of writing will students produce during a given unit? Of this work, how much will be quickwrites (at the start or end of class), how much will be readable, and how much will be polished?
  • How many times will students speak, at an appropriate academic level, with their peers, during a given unit? I would simply organize this by small group or peer-to-peer speaking (using something simple like Think-Pair-Share) and whole class speaking (again, using the same simple structure all year long, something like Socratic Seminar or, in my social studies classroom, Pop-Up Debate).

Only after we've established simple measures of quantity should we then go in and dither microanalyze for genre, complexity, and such. American social studies classrooms first have a literacy quantity problem, and then they have a literacy quality problem. The CCSS have a chance of improving things, but only if they're implemented with a sane grasp on common sense.

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Responses From Readers

Lisa S. Bass, M.Ed, NBCT.:

Social Studies Standards in my first grade classroom are integrated into Language Arts. Many times stories are read and then activities follow that allow for students to demonstrate an understanding of concepts. For example, through read alouds and short videos, students learned about citizenship and rules, both in the classroom and in the communities. Students watched short videos that included animated characters modeling poor citizenship (trustworthiness, responsibility, respect, caring, fair, citizenship) and then we read books in which the characters demonstrated the same traits. We followed up with created a graphic organizer that incorporated these citizenship traits.

Other standards, such as past vs. present, are integrated into Language Arts through read alouds that are followed up with creating Venn Diagrams to compare things from the past with the present. Also, this standard is brought to life by showing artifacts from the past and comparing them to the present.

Thanks to Jennifer, Kenny, Erik, Wayne and Dave, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected].When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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