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The Value of Modern Social Studies in Cultivating Real World Literacy

By Christine Sciascia

The argument for engaging social studies education has never been more timely in the USA. With a polarizing presidential election, tense international events like the continuation of the civil war in Syria, and consistently low NAEP scores on history, geography, and civics, it's increasingly critical for students to have a strong understanding of the world around them. Enter social studies, a subject that encompasses topics ranging from history to civics, and, recently, digital and media literacy.

When it comes down to it, social studies is about giving students the tools to build understanding that extends beyond their classroom. The study of the people, places, things, and geography over time prepares students for a global landscape. With the recent focus on English Language Arts (ELA) and math standards, though, many teachers are finding it difficult to incorporate social studies into their curriculum, leaving students with a dearth of knowledge of the broader world around them. In my experience, however, social studies can not only align with the Common Core but can, in fact, support teaching complex ELA topics with engaging content. One of the biggest factors in doing this has been the increase in access to new learning resources.

In my 13 years of teaching history and social studies, I’ve seen how edtech has opened up the kinds of resources available to me, my peers, and my students, resulting in a better teaching and learning experience. The New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) recently overhauled the scope and sequence of its social studies program to focus on partnerships with institutions throughout the city. These collaborations are connecting the content and primary sources held by local libraries, museums, cultural centers, and foundations with the needs of NYC schools, giving teachers and students access to rich, engaging resources (like the original sketches of the Brooklyn Bridge) that bring their social studies lessons to life. Eric Contreras, the Executive Director of the NYCDOE’s social studies department recently told me that “this kind of collaboration wouldn’t have been possible 30 years ago before the prevalence of digital tools.” I fully agree. When I started teaching in 2003, my students had to wade through printed materials for relevant information, but over the last few years, the wealth of social studies resources suddenly at their fingertips has solidified my belief in the power of edtech.

Beyond access to more resources, the shift to digital has also changed my role from lecturer to facilitator. My students are immersed in social studies content. Their learning has become more self-directed; these new digital tools and materials are allowing my students to engage with primary sources, current events, and historical subject matter in deeply meaningful ways. Repositories like the Library of Congress and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History have a wealth of digital resources that illuminate American history at my students’ fingertips. Launched last spring, TIME Edge gives them access to current events content written specifically for middle school grades as well as paired content from 90 years of primary sources from TIME Magazine through the TIME Vault.

Access to enhanced digital resources has also allowed my students to dig deeper into content areas of personal interest on their own. Instead of simply reporting back on a singular topic, I’m watching my students follow information trails, learning everything they can about a certain subject. A good example of this the “gallery walk” project we do in class. In a gallery walk my students become experts in certain topics by researching high quality resources using their tablets and assembling visual displays to present information to their classmates. This kind of project was certainly possible before our 1:1 transition using computers and printing their resources, but the combination of my students having reliable sources available on their tablets and the functionality of programs such as Nearpod, ShowMe, Prezi, and Google Slides has transformed this project from being teacher-led and time consuming to something my students can own themselves, from start to finish. This level of student ownership is necessary in 21st century education as we are prepare students for life well beyond the structured classroom environment.

This new access to media and digital resources has benefits beyond the classroom as well. During a SXSWedu panel I sat on, D.C. Vito of The LAMP, a NYC-based organization focused on teaching media literacy, shared how increased access to digital resources as the primary method of conveying media has created a need for teaching literacy with these tools. In other words the internet gives my students access to seemingly endless resources, but not all websites are created equally. That means my role as a teacher has expanded to include helping my students understand what it means for a resource to be reliable and high quality and how to identify indicators of bias or skewed perspective.

This matters for many reasons, but in my opinion one stands out: A strong understanding of social studies allows students to actively participate in the world around them—at school, at home or in their communities. Understanding the implications of a piece of news or being able to break down a convoluted campaign ad gives students a sense of place in the larger world. Social studies provides them with the internal resources they need to be active, engaged citizens, which in turn builds self confidence and sense of purpose.

At a time when students are bombarded by media, having the ability to digest news content is a critical part of ensuring the stability of our future. We need students to understand how our electoral process functions, even if they aren’t old enough to vote. We need students to have an appreciation of the multiculturalism that this country is built upon. We need students to recognize their place and, more importantly, their power to participate in their world. Social studies gives students all of these things, and digital resources are making this subject more accessible. Enabling partnerships, showcasing content and painting a beautiful (though often complicated and messy) picture of this world we all live in are making social studies even more relevant than it ever has been before.


Christine Sciascia (@Sciash) is an 8th grade social studies teacher at Mark Twain Intermediate School in Brooklyn and an adjunct lecturer at Brooklyn College teaching gifted education. 

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of New York). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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