More Time for Powerful Social Studies
By McCall, Ava L Janssen, Brenda; Riederer, Kathy
ABSTRACT. The authors focus on the collaboration between a university methods professor and two classroom teachers in teaching social studies methods as a way of bridging the gap between university preparation for teaching social studies and putting that preparation into practice in elementary classrooms. The teachers offer recommendations from their own teaching experiences for how preservice teachers can find time for powerful social studies teaching despite pressures to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind in literacy and mathematics. They integrate social studies with literacy and math, use “teachable moments” and transitions between subjects, and incorporate social studies research with computer and media skills. In addition, they employ class meetings to practice the democratic processes of collectively setting and revising class rules, accepting responsibility for those rules, and working together to solve classroom problems. Informal feedback from the preservice teachers reflects their appreciation of advice from classroom teachers with current experience in addressing the challenge of making time for powerful social studies teaching. Keywords: curriculum integration, social studies, university-school collaboration
Preparing preservice elementary teachers to implement examples of powerful social studies teaching and learning (National Council for the Social Studies [NCSS] 1994) and deal with the current barriers to meaningful social studies teaching is a formidable task for social studies methods faculty. For social studies instruction to be powerful, it must be meaningful, integrative, value based, challenging, and active (NCSS 1994). Social studies’ low status within the elementary curriculum and the detrimental effects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on time for teaching social studies are difficult issues to address. In addition, these aspiring teachers often enter the social studies methods course with negative experiences and views of social studies and a lack of confidence in their content knowledge and abilities to teach this subject. At times, students are frustrated when they are unable to observe the kind of social studies teaching methods faculty advocate in “real” elementary classrooms. In this article, we portray how two elementary classroom teachers’ collaboration with a social studies methods professor in teaching a social studies methods course addressed some of these challenges, especially the difficulty of finding time for meaningful social studies instruction.
The Challenging Realities of Social Studies Teaching
Preservice elementary teachers begin the methods course expecting to learn how to teach social studies. A significant number are concerned they may not have enough content knowledge to become effective social studies teachers and worry they will inadvertently communicate their negative attitudes about social studies, based on their prior experiences as students in social studies classes, to their students. They are often dismayed when, at the beginning of the course, the class discusses some of the challenges to meaningful social studies teaching. However, methods instructors must prepare preservice elementary teachers to deal with these challenges when they begin teaching.
One of the most formidable barriers to powerful social studies teaching is social studies’ low status within the elementary curriculum. In a nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 second-, fifth-, and eighth-grade social studies teachers completed in 2005, most claimed their schools did not perceive social studies as important, whereas more than 90 percent of their schools considered math and reading highly important (Leming, Ellington, and Schug 2006). This finding corroborates Phillip J. VanFossen’s (2005) 2002-3 survey of approximately 600 elementary teachers in Indiana who ranked social studies as the least important of the four core subjects of reading/language arts, math, science, and social studies. It also supports Mary E. Hass and Margaret A. Laughlin’s (2001) 1997 survey of 98 elementary teachers who were members of the NCSS. A significant finding of their survey was that teachers’ most frequent concern about social studies education was the low priority schools and school districts give this subject. The teachers believed the lack of emphasis on social studies came from other teachers or school policies that encouraged teaching integrated units in place of social studies or that reading/language arts, mathematics, and science were the primary disciplines within the elementary curriculum. However, Tracy C. Rock et al. (2006) discovered in a 2003 survey of 230 elementary teachers in North Carolina that the teachers personally ranked social studies third, less important than reading/language arts and mathematics, but more significant than science. These teachers claimed their schools equally valued science and social studies, but less so than reading/ language arts and mathematics. Social studies’ lower status corresponds to Larry Cuban’s (1991) observation that social studies is often relegated to the afternoon, when both students and teachers have less energy and attention, whereas language arts and math are taught during the morning.
The lack of attention to social studies instruction is also documented by the amount of time teachers devote to this subject. VanFossen (2005) found that approximately 400 Indiana kindergarten- fifth-grade teachers who responded to his survey spent fewer than 18 minutes per day or 90 minutes per week on social studies. Similarly, Rock et al. (2006) discovered that a majority of the North Carolina kindergarten-sixth-grade teachers they surveyed taught social studies only two to three days per week for 30-45 minutes per day or 90-135 minutes per week. Both the North Carolina and Indiana teachers taught social studies fewer than the 60 minutes per day or 300 minutes per week the NCSS recommends (Rock et al.). However, 70 percent of the 700 second- and fifthgrade teachers in James S. Leming, Lucien Ellington, and Mark Schug’s (2006) study claimed to spend fewer than 240 minutes per week teaching social studies, which is closer to the NCSS’s recommendation, but 50 percent of the second- and fifth-grade teachers surveyed integrated social studies with other subjects when they taught it. When clarifying the reasons for the limited time devoted to teaching social studies, both the Indiana and North Carolina teachers cited the influence of the high- stakes state test that focused on math and reading (Rock et al.; VanFossen). In contrast, only 26 percent of the 1,000 teachers in Leming and his colleagues’ study claimed to spend less time on social studies because of state testing (Leming, Ellington, and Schug).
VanFossen’s (2005) and Rock et al.’s (2006) research findings are consistent with the detrimental effects of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 on social studies teaching. In the fall of 2003, the Council for Basic Education initiated a study of K-12 students’ access to a liberal arts curriculum because of the concern that state budget cuts and NCLB were narrowing the academic curriculum. The council surveyed 956 elementary and secondary school principals in Illinois, Maryland, New York, and New Mexico about current and anticipated curriculum changes. One significant finding was that 29 percent of elementary (K-5) principals reported a decrease in instructional time for social studies, civics, and geography in their schools, while 47 percent of elementary principals in schools serving large numbers of minority students made the same claim. In contrast, about 75 percent of all principals reported increases in instructional time for reading, writing, and mathematics, and nearly 50 percent identified more time for teaching science (von Zastrow and Janc 2004). In a recent survey of all fifty states on NCLB’s impact on schools during 2005, the fourth year of the law’s implementation, 33 percent of the districts surveyed reported decreasing to a great extent or somewhat the time spent teaching social studies to increase the amount of time teaching reading and math (Rentner 2006).
In addition to preparing preservice teachers to address the low status and limited time for teaching social studies, social studies methods faculty often must face the incongruence between their recommendations for teaching social studies and what preservice teachers observe in real classrooms (Meuwissen 2005). Kevin W. Meuwissen encourages teacher educators to develop strong partnerships with classroom teachers who mentor preservice teachers during their field placements to help them address the conflicts between the “ideal” and the “real” social studies teaching.
Collaboratively Teaching Social Studies Methods
As a way of bridging the gap between the university preparation for teaching social studies and the elementary classrooms where social studies is taught, we collaboratively taught social studies methods during the 2006-7 academic year. A University of Wisconsin System pre-K-16 Teacher Quality Initiative Grant funded the collaborative teaching project. The grant provided for a full-time, semester-long intern for Kathy’s fourth-grade classroom during the fall of 2006 and another intern for Brenda’s second-grade classroom for the spring of 2007. One intern worked with Kathy’s students while Kathy cotaught the social studies methods course with Ava in the fall at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and the second intern took over Brenda’s classroom when Brenda cotaught the course in the spring. The grant’s focus was to integrate the wisdom of practice or the pedagogical content knowledge of experienced in- service teachers in a social studies methods course and better prepare preservice teachers for the classroom. It was also designed to align the teacher education program with the needs of area school districts to help preservice teachers make the transition from preservice to in-service teachers.
Both Kathy and Brenda had completed social studies methods with Ava as preservice teachers a number of years earlier, and Ava asked them to coteach the course based on their exemplary work in the course. At the time of the collaborative project, Kathy was a fourthgrade teacher with four years of experience whereas Brenda had six years of experience teaching second grade in the Oshkosh Area School District. They had both mentored clinical students in the past and felt they had benefited from the fresh ideas the preservice teachers brought into the classroom. Kathy became involved in the project as a way to provide valuable opportunities to the clinicians that had been afforded to her as a preservice teacher. She had excellent clinical and intern experiences with the school district that led to a teaching position. Kathy believed the project would allow her to help other preservice teachers get a positive start in their careers. Brenda became involved in the project in part because she was frustrated with the limited amount of time allocated to the social studies curriculum and wanted to revisit new methods for integrating social studies instruction into the literacy program. Both Kathy and Brenda felt they, and ultimately their elementary students, would benefit from a professional exchange through planning the course with Ava and participating in the methods class with the preservice teachers.
Reasons for Optimism: Local Support for Powerful Social Studies Instruction
After raising some of the challenges to powerful social studies teaching with the preservice teachers in the course, Ava, Kathy, and Brenda wanted them to know that, in Wisconsin and the local school district, social studies is a mandated part of the curriculum. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Oshkosh Area School District expect teachers to integrate social studies instruction into the school day. The state established minimum amounts of time for teaching social studies, ranging from 10 percent of the kindergarten school day to 225 minutes per week in fifth grade. The Oshkosh Area School District expects teachers to spend at least the minimum amount of time teaching social studies, ranging from 150 minutes per week in kindergarten to 225 minutes per week in fifth grade. In Kathy and Brenda’s schools, these guidelines, while mandatory, mean that much of the time required for social studies instruction needs to be integrated in the literacy block and other curricular areas to meet the minimal requirement. Notably, the amount of time recommended for teaching social studies in the local school district and within Wisconsin is fewer than the 300 minutes per week advocated by the NCSS, but more than the amount of time actually spent teaching social studies on average in North Carolina (90-135 minutes per week) and Indiana (90 minutes per week), according to teachers surveyed (Rock et al. 2006; VanFossen 2005). The issue of time spent teaching social studies is significant because powerful social studies instruction requires substantial focus to help students understand important concepts and ideas and become actively involved in their learning.
In addition to social studies being a mandated part of the curriculum, social studies helps accomplish the Oshkosh Area School District’s mission, which is to “empower students to be lifelong learners and caring, responsible citizens of our global community” (Oshkosh Area School District 2006). This is ultimately the main goal of social studies: “To help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world” (NCSS 1994, 3). Social studies is often the subject in which teachers address difficult or controversial topics, elements that are important in accomplishing this mission. It provides opportunities for students to study and respond to such issues as cultural diversity, poverty and homelessness, equality and freedom, and other social issues to which students may not otherwise have been exposed.
Not only does social studies help achieve the local school district’s mission but Brenda and Kathy also know from experience in working with elementary students that when they raise certain social issues, children become very engaged and want to effect change. Students find it interesting to learn about other cultures, and in discovering inequalities that children their age have experienced in the past and may be experiencing today, they become passionate about their learning and want to help solve the problem. This is ultimately how a number of Kathy and Brenda’s school service projects-which advance the school district’s mission-have developed.
Addressing Challenges to Powerful Social Studies Teaching
By addressing the time constraints for teaching social studies in the methods course, Kathy and Brenda offered several ideas and strategies for expanding that time by integrating social studies into other content areas, teaching it throughout the school day, and infusing social studies concepts into the creation of a respectful classroom community. Their curriculum integration suggestions also advanced significant social studies goals, an important aspect of appropriate curricular integration (Brophy and Alleman 2007; National Council for the Social Studies 1994).
Integrating Social Studies with Literacy
Integrating literacy and children’s literature with social studies has long been recommended for enhancing social studies teaching (Sandmann and Ahern 2002). The NCSS annually publishes in its journal, Social Education, its recommended list of children’s and young adult literature to use in teaching social studies standards in the journal supplement “Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.” In addition, the organization published Children’s Literature in Social Studies: Teaching to the Standards (Krey 1998) and Linking Literature with Life: The NCSS Standards and Children’s Literature for the Middle Grades (Sandmann and Ahern), which offer teaching strategies and annotations of recommended trade book titles for teaching the national social studies standards. However, Margit E. McGuire (2007) cautions teachers who teach social studies content through literacy to focus on powerful social studies ideas rather than low-level reading comprehension and skills. With this in mind, Kathy and Brenda concentrate on the social studies benchmarks and learning goals while using literacy skills to achieve those. They use substantial discussions of the social studies content rather than literal reading comprehension for students to fully understand the social studies concepts and develop high-level reading skills.
In the local school district, literacy instruction consumes a large portion of instructional time during a school day, and effective literacy instruction includes a teacher read-aloud component (Calkins 2001). Brenda and Kathy both teach social studies concepts through the selection of books and materials to read aloud to their students. They use many trade books to address social issues and other social studies concepts, including homelessness, racism, and the human aspects of war. For example, to introduce homelessness, Brenda uses the books Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting (1991) and I Can Hear the Sun by Patricia Polacco (1999). She also reads Polacco’s (2001) Mr. Lincoln’s Way to address bullying and racism. While reading these books aloud, Brenda and her students discuss the social issues indepth, and the children make real-life connections to gain a broader perspective of the world and develop empathy for challenges others are facing. Brenda’s selection of books dealing with social issues is congruent with powerful social studies and its emphasis on including controversial issues and concern for the common good. Kathy introduces her immigration unit by reading Coming to America: The Story of Immigration by Betsy Maestro (1996) during her literacy time. Through Kathy’s readaloud modeling, her fourth graders learn to use high-level reading comprehension skills while hearing about and discussing important social studies topics. Her students develop a deeper understanding of the various reasons people have immigrated to America, including voluntary and involuntary immigration, and become motivated to investigate immigration to Wisconsin.
Readers’ Theater is another possible component of the literacy block in which social studies concepts can be integrated. Kathy uses scripts from Wisconsin History on Stage: Scripts for Grades 4-8 by Matt Blessing (1999) to build students’ reading fluency while learning about Wisconsin explorers, the underground railroad, and the Civil War. For example, while reading Jean Nicolet and the Exploration of Wisconsin (one of the scripts in Blessing’s book), students discuss the interactions between Native Americans and European explorers and their effects on one another. Kathy encourages her fourth graders to examine the interactions from both Native American and European perspectives. Kathy’s use of trade books and Readers’ Theater to introduce different perspectives on immigration and interactions among Native people and explorers follows the recommendation for challenging content and varying perspectives on topics in social studies teaching. Both Kathy and Brenda have chosen books with social studies themes to integrate into reading instruction. This integration addresses the varied reading levels of the students and, simultaneously, provides an opportunity to discuss different social studies concepts with elementary-age children. These discussions help students gain historical perspective and social awareness, ultimately leading to social responsibility. Kathy introduces different genres to her fourth graders through literature discussion groups, including biographies, historical fiction, and nonfiction that lend themselves well to integrating social studies concepts within the literacy block. In addressing the issue of civil rights, for example, Kathy uses Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison (2004) and The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles (1995) with literature discussion groups. In a similar way, Brenda reads Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport (2001) within a small reading group to discuss the Civil Rights movement with her second-grade students. Both Kathy and Brenda believe discussion of the Civil Rights movement not only exposes the students to historical changes in racial issues in the United States but it also helps them empathize with others dealing with racial inequalities and promotes social responsibility. They encourage their students to show social responsibility by respecting others and their rights, treating others fairly, and embracing those who are different from themselves. Powerful social studies teaching also encourages students “to be respectful of the dignity and rights of others when interacting socially, and to emphasize basic democratic concepts and principles . . .” (NCSS 1994, 166) and includes a commitment to social responsibility and action. Kathy’s school, for example, is very culturally and racially diverse and includes recent refugees from Sudan. To help the entire student body understand the backgrounds of the new Sudanese students, the staff read aloud and discussed with the students the book Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan by Mary Williams (2005). The fifth graders were so responsive to the text that they convinced other area schools and local businesses to help raise money to build schools and wells in Africa. In this way, students were able to realize they were not too young to help and could get personally involved.
Beside reading, speaking, and listening skills, the literacy block also includes a writing component. After completing research on historical figures who have made an important impact on the world, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ruby Bridges, Kathy’s students create time capsules that include a biographical/informational writing component. Her hope is that, through this type of research and writing, her students will learn important leadership qualities and will strive to become tomorrow’s leaders. In addition, Kathy has her students write persuasive pieces from the perspective of nineteenth-century Wisconsin immigrants encouraging family members from their home countries to come to Wisconsin. This writing piece helps the students understand and internalize the reasons for immigration. Both writing activities reflect appropriate integration of language arts with social studies, required for powerful teaching, as students understand important concepts of immigration and leadership through writing.
Integrating Social Studies with Math
Although math is a subject less frequently integrated with social studies, students need mathematical knowledge and skills when learning geography and economics (Brophy and Alleman 2007). In the local school district, math is another area of the curriculum that is allotted a great deal of instructional time throughout the school day-more than social studies, but less than literacy. Everyday Math, developed by the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project, is the Oshkosh Area School District’s math program for kindergarten through fifth grade. Kathy uses the math program’s introduction of geographical concepts such as latitude and longitude, scale, and map- reading skills during the math block and continues to discuss geography during the limited time allotted for formal social studies instruction. Kathy’s students apply the basic geographical concepts to the study of Wisconsin and its place in the world. They learn the relative size and location of Wisconsin in relation to other parts of the world; the physical, human, and natural features of the state; and how the natural geographical regions of Wisconsin and the lakes and rivers around it impacted Wisconsin’s growth and industrial development.
Integrating Social Studies throughout the School Day
In addition to integrating social studies into the literacy and math content areas, there are numerous ways to incorporate social studies throughout the school day by addressing “teachable moments,” using transitional time, and incorporating social studies research with computer and media skills. For example, when Brenda’s second graders come to school concerned about a current event, she takes time to have a class discussion to help the students understand its impact. This past year she discussed with her students their concern about a school family’s loss of their home in a fire and how they could help through donations of toys, clothing, and other household items. Similarly, when Kathy’s fourth graders arrived at school concerned with the rising gas prices, they discussed the environmental impact of automobiles, the potential effect of boycotts on oil companies, and what students could do to encourage their families to conserve. Such “teachable moments” are also examples of powerful social studies teaching, which responds to students’ interests and local issues and allows students to apply what they are learning in their lives outside school.
Kathy uses transitional times between art, music, and physical education classes to review social studies content by posing questions and encouraging her class to respond collaboratively. As students wait to begin their art or music class, Kathy may review important geographical content by asking such questions as “What are the five geographic regions of Wisconsin and important qualities of each?” The students quietly talk with the person next to them to arrive at an answer.
Powerful social studies teaching requires meaningful integration or “include[s] effective use of technology that can add important dimensions to students’ learning” (NCSS 1994, 165). Kathy and Brenda both integrate social studies content with required media and computer skills. For example, Kathy has her students use media skills to research print resources on early Native American nations of Wisconsin to find information about their creation stories, traditional ways of life, and first interactions with Europeans. Her students then use computer skills to create group PowerPoint presentations to organize and demonstrate what they learned. The students present their PowerPoint presentations to the class, allowing them to make comparisons among the various Native American nations and construct generalizations about the nations’ common values and beliefs. Kathy then holds a discussion with her students, comparing the values those groups held in the past to the dominant values of today’s society. Brenda has her second graders complete similar research and computer presentations on the history of industry, transportation, and communication in communities within the United States, including Oshkosh. Each year Brenda and her students choose communities to study that are related to their family histories. Her students are able to see similarities in the development and growth between Oshkosh and other U.S. communities they study. The use of technology in both Kathy and Brenda’s classrooms deepens students’ understanding of significant social studies ideas.
Infusing Social Studies within the Creation of a Respectful Classroom Community
Class meetings provide a perfect opportunity to include civics instruction and practice social skills. At the beginning of the school year, both Brenda and Kathy use class meetings to collaboratively develop rules and responsibilities through a democratic process, with every student having a voice and decisions being reached by consensus. When either the teacher or the students have concerns, they raise them during the meeting and suggest possible solutions. The class evaluates each suggestion and then votes on the most viable solution. Class meetings are also used to celebrate those things that are going well in the class. By consistently using this process, the students are able to take ownership in the decision making, which ultimately leads to few behavioral problems. Furthermore, the students are learning how to be members of a democratic society by cooperatively helping to set the rules or “laws of the classroom,” accepting responsibility for following those rules, revisiting and revising the rules as needed, and developing the problem-solving skills necessary for becoming responsible citizens. Kathy and Brenda’s students not only study democratic processes but also experience them. These experiences are also examples of powerful social studies teaching and learning because students are active and participate in authentic activities using social studies content for life applications.
Preservice Teachers’ Reactions to a Collaboratively Taught Methods Course
The preservice teachers listened attentively to Kathy and Brenda’s suggestions for expanding the amount of time during the school day that could be devoted to social studies, asked questions, and spoke with them during class breaks. The aspiring teachers especially valued recommendations from current classroom teachers who were familiar with the constraints on powerful social studies teaching but used strategies to cope with those constraints. As Ava introduced various resources and strategies to move toward powerful social studies teaching and learning, the preservice teachers frequently looked to Brenda and Kathy to confirm that Ava’s suggestions were viable in “real” elementary classrooms. One preservice teacher commented on the helpfulness of Kathy’s contributions to class in a note: “Thanks for taking the time to share some insights about all the topics we covered in class. It helps because we learn about the topics, but hardly get to hear about how those topics turn out in the classroom.” Another expressed her appreciation for Brenda’s contributions to class in her journal: This class was very productive in discussing what social studies is and relating that to the standards. We discussed how unfortunate it is that social studies gets little time in schools, but has a huge impact on students’ lives. We concluded that in order for students to take away the most information from social studies they should be engaged in constructing their own learning (constructivism). I really appreciated Mrs. [Brenda] Janssen’s insights. It is good to have someone with experience interject comments into discussions.
After Kathy elaborated on the numerous ways social studies can be integrated with other subjects and addressed throughout the school day, one preservice teacher acknowledged social studies’ significance in her journal:
I found the standards discussed by Mrs. [Kathy] Riederer very helpful in looking at why the social studies curriculum is so important in elementary grades. Students should be exposed early on to where they live, where they came from; get students interested in reading and writing about history, people, places, etc.; how the democratic society is used in the classroom and how that connects with our government, voting, rights; how economics influences the world around us (supply/demand-gas prices); and how to look at other perspectives when studying people, racism, poverty, classism.
Conclusion and Future Challenges to Powerful Social Studies Teaching
Brenda and Kathy’s contributions to the social studies methods course enriched the content, expanded the pedagogical strategies and teaching resources, and provided real classroom examples of powerful social studies teaching. Ava observed greater attention from preservice teachers to the contributions of two instructors than when she taught the class alone. Unfortunately, the grant that allowed Kathy and Brenda to coteach with Ava was funded for only one year. To foster sustained collaboration or partnerships (Meuwissen 2005) between classroom teachers and university methods faculty, teacher educators, like Ava, must create a structure for maintaining this approach. For example, preservice teachers might interview experienced teachers about their social studies teaching and share their findings in class, classroom teachers may serve as occasional guest speakers in the methods course, or methods instructors could display videotaped examples of powerful social studies teaching in local classrooms.
In addition to the challenge for funding to bridge the gap between ideal and real social studies teaching, the Oshkosh Area School District recently reduced the required amount of time for teaching social studies from 150 minutes to 112 minutes per week in kindergarten and from 225 minutes to 175 minutes per week in fifth grade and increased the amount of time for teaching literacy. The change is effective for the 2007-8 academic year. However, the school district still embraces its mission “to empower students to be lifelong learners and caring, responsible citizens of our global community” (Oshkosh Area School District 2006). It will be even more important in the future for social studies methods professors to show preservice teachers the strategies that classroom teachers such as Brenda and Kathy use for powerful social studies teaching even when there is less time for social studies.
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AVA MCCALL is in her nineteenth year as an elementary social studies methods professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. She is also in her ninth year as chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department. BRENDA JANSSEN is currently in her eighth year at Jefferson Elementary School in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, teaching second grade and mentoring clinical students from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. KATHY RIEDERER is currently in her sixth year at Webster Stanley Elementary School in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where she teaches fourth grade and mentors interns, student teachers, and clinical students from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
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