Creating Citizens in the History Classroom
Reviewed by Linda Biondi
Imagine that the ever changing world is your curriculum. That is the way it is for social studies teachers. History changes each day – from local news to news of the world. The job of a social studies teacher is to teach history past and present and to prepare students for the future. The enormity of the job is overwhelming. The impact and influence on history, powerful.
Most educators believe that the teaching of civics should be a high priority in our schools. But how to do it with the limited time that you have and limited resources? Try reading the book, Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom, Grades 6-9.
Moving away from traditional methods
I recently had a conversation with the director of a summer camp for underprivileged children. He mentioned that they wanted to incorporate civics into their summer “curriculum” in such a way that it would encourage children to want to learn more about civics and also enjoy what they were learning . (After all, it was summer!)
When he asked me what my definition of civics education was, I had a difficult time framing a current definition. We talked about what most people perceived civics to be. Frankly, the definition I thought about giving him painted a picture of a boring classroom with row upon row of students facing the blackboard, robotically raising their hands to answer a question that relied upon regurgitating facts in a text book.
After thinking about it for a bit, I realized my definition was quite “old.” That definition certainly didn’t paint a picture of how I taught social studies or what we want today for our students: to be active classroom participants and to become active, informed citizens.
Alive, relevant, and meaningful
When I began to read the book Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom, Grades 6-9, I was elated. The more I read the book, the more I wanted to learn about great ways to teach civics. Sarah Cooper’s recently published book reflects the changes in civics education – it’s full of ideas that are alive, relevant, and meaningful.
Most social studies curriculum standards have the same wording to some degree:
● provide students with the knowledge, skills, and perspectives needed to become active, informed citizens and contributing members of local, state, national, and global communities in the digital age … enable students to think critically and systematically about local, regional, national, and global issues. (New Jersey Student Learning Standards, Social Studies)
● provide the framework needed to educate students for the challenges of citizenship in a democracy. (The National Social Studies Curriculum Standards)
Cooper’s insightful tour of her social studies classroom is eye-opening and reflective. I am positive that when teachers read this book, it will change the way they look at teaching social studies. They will be guiding their students in the development of a deep desire to think, challenge, seek answers, and make a difference in the world.
Igniting a passion for discovery
This is definitely not a book of lesson plans or pre-designed projects. It is not a book that directs you to a craft store to purchase clay, tri fold display boards, shoe boxes (for dioramas), or fancy scrapbook paper. It is a book that encourages us to ignite a passion for discovery, challenge students to seek information from primary and secondary sources, and help them be creative, apply their learning, and form their own opinions about “adult topics.”
The question (especially for teachers in self-contained classrooms) is how to fit it in and where to begin.
- Chapter 1 covers how to incorporate current events by teaching thematically and layering primary sources.
- Chapter 2 talks about the difficulty of remaining neutral as an educator in the classroom.
- Chapter 3 uses primary sources and shows how they can build the link to the past and present
- Chapter 4 describes how to help students with current events, taking it a step further than just reading an article from the local paper.
- Chapter 5 highlights the importance of writing to build literacy and analytical skills (op-ed article and in-depth reforms research project).
- Chapter 6 challenges students to engage in discussions and debate topics that matter.
- Chapter 7 transfers the awareness and empathy learned through discussions, channeling them into community action.
The author is honest from the beginning, sharing many of her mishaps and also her triumphs. For example, it wasn’t until the end of the “Glory” unit that she realized she had neglected to teach about Fort Sumter (beginning of the Civil War). It was omitted from her curriculum. As Cooper began to examine her teaching more closely, she sought feedback from colleagues and students to ensure that the standards were included, especially those that needed specific dates, events, and people.
As I listened to Cooper’s story of how her teaching developed (she’s the author of an earlier book titled Making History Mine), I found myself wishing I was back in middle school and relearning history in a new way. Instead of being assigned text to read and then answer questions that required “spitting back facts,” I learned methods of teaching social studies that required students to think, ponder, question, ruminate about their answers, and apply their learning.
Enliven learning with current events
To become a well informed citizen, you need to be informed about the world around you – current events. Think about when you were assigned “current events.” It was probably to find one by Friday and summarize it. If you were a procrastinator, your current event might be current. However, if you choose to read and respond to a “current event” a week in advance, by the time you presented it, the event may have drastically changed. And think about it, if it was such an important issue, most of your classmates probably are responding with the same article!
The answer to how to assign “current events” in a meaningful way is explained by Cooper with authentic examples. The ideas she shares are appropriate to any grade level when using current events in the classroom. Here are a few:
- Perhaps you can consider teaching thematically and have students respond according to patterns in history or by “layering,” studying a series of primary and secondary sources and linking them to the historical theme you are studying. (Ex. How would labor leader agitator Florence Kelly, author Barbara Ehrenreich , and reformer Helen Keller solve the Syrian refugee crisis? P.23).
- Interview a parent or significant adult about how they read the news (extremely insightful information about your students’ home life).
Building empathy through student actions
The last chapter of Creating Citizens is a call for action via empathy. Cooper shares strategies to build up empathy through hosting guest speakers and staging class trips (including virtual field trips) that bring the world to our students. She’s good with showing films that help students envision the impact a person can have affecting changes in history. The last section of the chapter describes two interdisciplinary units that require students to take action: Community Impact Projects.
Truthfully, as a retired educator, I wish I had had this book when I was still teaching in the classroom. However, as a supervisor for student teachers and informal mentor to teachers in my former school, I am excited to be able to share this book with them. Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom, Grades 6-9 is a book that is applicable to all teachers and all grade levels because Cooper teaches children how to think like a historian.
In these days when news sources are sometimes questionable and politics is often emotional, to say the least, we need to be able to teach our students to think, analyze, make connections, and be civil to each other.
“Young people need adult support. They need us to help them master the skills to put their hard-earned knowledge into action. They need us to help them contextualize their historical understanding and their own lived experiences in a way that inspires action rather than disengagement…We need to recognize when it’s their turn to make the phone call, speak up at the meeting, or make the video that’s destined to go viral.” (Levinson, 2012)
A year into her retirement from teaching fourth graders, Linda Biondi is currently supervising preservice and student teachers at Rider University. This summer she will be co-facilitating a weeklong writing institute in conjunction with the National Writing Project at Rider. She volunteers for two service organizations: Homefront and Dress for Success of Central New Jersey – both organizations that have a mission to end poverty and homelessness. The mission of Dress for Success is to empower women to achieve with economic independence.