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Kristin | January 25, 2013

Don't Know Much About History


60401726By Kristin

My students, struggling readers all, are reading a chapter from Junius Edwards' novel, If We Must Die.  We've studied Claude McKay's poem of the same name so my students felt pretty comfortable with what they would encounter thematically, but when Edwards revealed the story's setting by telling us Will had been wounded in Korea and had been fired for trying to register to vote, my students had a hard time inferring the time or the place. 

We talked about it, figured it out and moved on, but it's more evidence to me that knowing history helps a student's reading as much as the ability to read helps a student learn history.  I'm increasingly concerned at the way history, social studies and civics get pushed to the side to make more time for math and reading.  Eliminating history to give students an extra dose of reading was brought up as a possibility at a recent department meeting.  This is being done for struggling readers at some Seattle schools in an effort to raise reading scores on standardized tests. My colleagues refuse to go this route and as a teacher, historian and parent, I am glad.  Standardized tests are one kind of reading, and not one that lasts for long.  Being able to read and appreciate literature and being an equipped citizen are lifelong skills, and two that I prioritize in my instruction.

My district is moving toward Common Core Standards.  They are an improvement on what we were using, but if you read the history standards you'll see that they are basically a list of reading skills that now need to be taught in social studies classes.  We're moving this direction because so many students have no family culture of literacy.  These students start so far behind, and fall behind so much during summer break (and even weekends) compared to their more literacy-privileged classmates that there is a nationwide push to teach literacy in every class.

My husband, who teaches fifth grade, says he needs to choose between science and social studies. There isn't time for both because math, reading and writing have become so important.  And now, thanks to Student Growth Ratings that measure a child's growth in only reading and math, teachers are feeling pressured to spend more time on those two areas.  In elementary, this means social studies (and art, p.e., music, and recess) gets less time.  In middle school, educators who teach language arts / social studies blocks feel pressured to spend more time on reading than writing or social studies.

Only a handful of Seattle teachers received Student Growth Ratings in this year's preliminary roll out, but they've had a big impact on the morale of my colleagues who have received them.  Even though they know the ratings don't affect their evaluations, even though they know ratings that measure growth May-May can't possibly capture one teacher's impact on a child's growth, and even though they know a standardized test can't fully measure a child's abilities, they have still been demoralized by the ratings and have struggled with how they'll prioritize instruction in their classrooms.  The suicide of a Los Angeles elementary teacher whose "low" student growth rating was publicly revealed should not be taken lightly.  Telling teachers their worth is measured by student growth in only two academic areas is difficult to take, and a big mistake.

There is a lot of pressure to drop social studies, or to use it as time for literacy instruction.  I disagree with this shift.

An understanding of history - events, places, policies, people, and eras - makes for a better reader.  My students have very narrow understandings of the world - almost entirely local, almost entirely now and the past 10 years.  They need explicit, well-structured, thoughtful instruction in local, national and world history, or my efforts to teach them to infer, and more importantly their ability to be thoughtful citizens, are made less possible.  Something Will, in If We Must Die,  would certainly feel strongly about.  After all, he risked it all to register to vote.







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Mark, those are such great examples of why knowing history helps students read.

Maren, you're right. Children need to be fully educated.

Students need social studies. Students need foreign languages and the arts. Our state and our country need citizens with a basic background in these areas--narrowing the school curriculum in the name of accountability is a terrible thing.

A student's prior schema about a topic has a significant impact on their "comprehension" of a text. Two days ago, I had my students read "Boy at the Window," a poem which includes a line that is an allusion to Adam and the Garden of Eden. Most of my students--to my amazement--didn't know enough of even that context to make sense of this. As soon as I spent twenty seconds explaining it, bam, light-bulbs went off, erasers were activated, and the poem suddenly made sense. Same when we read "Harlem" by Langston Hughes. Same with that line in chapter one of Mockingbird about having nothing to fear but fear itself. I even had students who were shocked to hear that there had been a "World War I." I asked what other wars they knew about in history and they said WWII and Vietnam... and suddenly they realized "that's why it was world war TWO!"

And, it isn't their fault (necessarily).

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