Monday, February 28, 2011

Questioning the Schedule: Reading about Social Studies in the Elementary Classroom

Taking in the view from Songzanlin Monastery

When you talk to elementary school teachers these days about what they are teaching and how their days with students unfold you may be surprised by the impact of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on every aspect of the average classroom experience.  High standards and accountability make sense in theory and may sound reasonable in federal offices, where there are no teachers, and no children. There the ideas are translated into priorities for the all-important funding of public education. Ironically, their impact on this most recent generation of students comes right at the time when the importance of global awareness as an essential element of education should be increasingly obvious.

Watching the folk dance in Zhongdian.
If you were asked to choose a discipline that would serve as the bridge that connects all aspects of elementary education, something tells me it would not be test taking. For me, in this rapidly shrinking world, it would be Social Studies. I see learning about People as the territory in which reading, math, science and art all come together. And yet, in schools across Washington State, teachers are left with as little as three forty-five minute periods a week to teach art, social studies and science.  This is a choice most schools have made in the hopes of improving test scores and demonstrating increased student learning. Whether preparing for tests is learning has thus far not been demonstrated.

In the present educational environment exemplary teaching can be found in classrooms where the teachers are willing to go against the grain of current trends and school culture.  Richard Allington summarizes the habits of these teachers in his article The Six Ts of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction (2002).  For students to become proficient readers they must spend time reading at a comfortable or “easy” level.  That is different for each student.  The scripted one-size-fits-all model that continues to gain momentum is the exact opposite of what kids need. 

Classrooms should be filled with books at appropriate levels and kids should spend time reading throughout the day.  With a little bit of extra effort a teacher can put together book boxes that change every six weeks or so around the theme of an integrated study (Social Studies!).  The class can all be reading books about the same topic, not the same book. The World Affairs Council Global Classroom is one place teachers can turn to find relevant resources and information, including book lists, organized around topics that support a vibrant social studies curriculum for elementary classrooms.

A study of the Tibetan Plateau, the roof of the world, is a place where social studies and science come together.  Through the use of maps and geography skills young students can begin to think about the significance of a place that holds the most ice of any place besides the Polar Regions.  The fact that this ice is the source of the major rivers of Asia, which provide drinking water for over two billion people makes for very interesting reading, at any level.

I would use a book like A Drop Around the World by Barbara McKinney (1998) along with two beautiful books by Thomas Locker, Mountain Dance (2002) and Water Dance (2002) to stimulate class discussions about water.  Once the group has spent some time looking at the maps and identifying the major rivers I would begin to ask questions about the people who live in this unique environment.  I would share Tibetan Tales from the Top of the World by Naomi Rose (2009) to begin a discussion of Tibetan culture.  Another book that I would be sure to include in my classroom study would be The Chiru of High Tibet by Jacqueline Briggs Martin (2010) that tells the true story of these endangered animals and the people who are trying to protect them.

Effective teachers understand that the best way to improve reading skills is to read more.  Given that the current classroom schedule provides time for reading, it is more a practical than a radical solution to spend some of that time reading about essential topics that are being squeezed out of the curriculum.

The use of picture books to learn about Tibet supports each student’s need to practice reading to become better readers.  It also addresses the need for our students to become global citizens of the 21st century through learning more about the world and its people throughout the school day, everyday.  Not in just 45 minutes a week. 

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