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In deciding what to write for the February blog, I was scanning through some past issues of the National Council for the Social Studies’ professional journal, Social Education. I came across an article title that caught my eye from January/February 2009 entitled “Teaching Social Studies as a Subversive Activity” (January/February, 2009, p. 40-42) and I thought, “Hmm…sounds interesting.”
The article, written by Charles L. Mitsakos (recently retired professor of education at River College in Nashua, New Hampshire) and Ann T. Ackerman (associate professor of education at River College) begins by taking a retrospective look at education during the 1960s and ‘70s. They open the article with a quotation from the first paragraph of Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s book Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Two sentences really stood out for me:
"… one of the tenets of a democratic society is that men be allowed to think and express themselves freely on any subject, even to the point of speaking out against the very idea of a democratic society. To the extent that our schools are instruments of such a society, they must develop in the young not only an awareness of this freedom but a will to exercise it, and the intellectual power and perspective to do so effectively."
The writers point out that for a society to prepare itself for the future, it must have the awareness and the will to act and act effectively on this freedom to create an “ever-renewing society.”
For those of us who taught in the 1960s and ‘70s, you might remember a plethora of effective materials rooted in social science disciplines and scholarship. At the elementary level was Larry Senesh’s Our Working World, which introduced economic concepts to elementary school students. The Education Development Center’s Man: A Course of Study presented a strong anthropological and behavioral science focus. And Chuck Quigley’s Your Rights and Responsibilities as an American Citizen gave us meaningful case studies in law and civic education.
The article goes on to point out what a difference 40 years makes. The impact of “No Child Left Behind” and the over-emphasis of standards-based curriculum has been that many teachers have been forced to back away from promoting innovative thinking and from preparing students to effectively participate in a democracy that is the central mission of the social studies. In many elementary schools, the social studies had been relegated to a few hours a week or dropped altogether. Under the NCLB initiative, teachers from primary through 10th grade have been forced to focus their teaching on achieving high test scores in order to avoid being labeled a “failing school.”
It has been said many times during our history that a society that doesn’t have an active, informed and participating citizenry will lose their freedoms and be ruled by an indigenous minority or outside groups. More than in the 1960s, our students must be prepared with democratic skills for a complex, integrated world of the 21st century full of complex problems and social change. Now, more than before, teachers need to help students master skills in creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication and collaboration. We shouldn’t just teach how a bill becomes law, but give students the experience of tackling the real issues of today with innovative simulations that engage students. We shouldn’t just have students look at primary sources, but have them develop “museum exhibits” that creatively present these materials to an authentic audience of fellow students and community members. We shouldn’t just teach geography from textbooks and wall maps, but incorporate online mapping tools like Google Maps.
So how does a teacher be subversive while still adhering to the requirements of state and federal mandates? Modifications are being made to the requirements of NCLB, but change is slow, sporadic, and prone to reversals when the next “Sputnik Moment” hits and politicians charge into the abyss of knee-jerk reform while teachers and students run for cover. One solution is to incorporate materials that are standards-based—meaning that standards-based content and skills are integrated into the lessons and activities—and provide higher-level thinking opportunities. For example, teachers may engage students in activities beyond the basic lesson, such as simulations, debates, or creating their own lessons. Offering real-world experiences, such as service learning projects, gives students valuable interpersonal skills while teaching them the basics of being a citizen.
We can’t wait for others to lead the way. Our political leaders become too mired in partisan arguments, and our school officials are too risk-avoidant to protect test scores. Teachers must lead the way by being “subversive” and implementing quality instruction that adheres to the standards while challenging students with higher-level thinking activities. In this way, teachers will help their students sustain an “ever-renewing society.”