Immigration Protests Cast Spotlight on Social Studies Teachers, Content...

Policy and Government

Immigration Protests Cast Spotlight on Social Studies Teachers, Content Developers

By Tony Wan and Sydney Johnson     Jan 31, 2017

Immigration Protests Cast Spotlight on Social Studies Teachers, Content Developers

One of the first things students learn about in social studies class is the pilgrims, and how different people fled to a new land to start new lives. It’s an oversimplified narrative, one that glosses over the unjust consequences in the aftermath of their arrival. Yet the moral of the story rings true for students and adults alike: the country was built on a respect for diversity, tolerance and opportunity.

In the past week, U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order to temporarily restrict immigration from a list of majority-Muslim countries and indefinitely suspending refugees from Syria has called many of those founding principles into question. Protests have erupted at airports across the country, many involving children.

The controversial order has thrust many educators into an uncomfortable position. Especially challenging are those teaching social studies, history or civics, as they wrestle with the task of teaching these subjects in a critical way, while refraining from injecting personal opinions or persuasion.

Yet many are stepping up to the challenge. One of those teachers is Sabrina Brooks, a seventh grade humanities teacher at San Francisco Friends School, who began her class yesterday by having students read and discuss material in Nicholas Kristof’s editorial, “President Trump, meet my family.”

Brooks didn’t have Kristof’s editorial etched into her lesson plans until this weekend, when protests around the country unfolded in response to the travel ban. But it fit with the unit she has been teaching on decision-making in times of injustice. The unit, as Brooks describes, looks at “history of immigration policy marginalization of at risk groups, the factors that led to Hitler's rise, and the behavior of people who were bystanders and upstanders in these contexts.”

“We can look at the historical time periods and see certain parallels… there were a lot of concerns about letting in Jewish refugees in the 1940s and [the U.S.] turned people away,” says Brooks. “I don’t paint a picture to [the students], I think it’s clear to the kids what the connections are.”

Brooks acknowledges she has more leeway with her approach teaching at an independent school in the Bay Area. But instructors in traditional districts across the country are grappling with these lessons as well.

Michael Linane, a ninth grade world history and geography teacher at Old Rochester Regional High School in Massachusetts, starts his class off everyday with students reading the day’s news headlines on Chromebooks. Many students had questions about the legality of the ban, which led to a lesson in the difference between a law and an executive order. Those questions were relatively easy to answer, Linane says, but there are much more difficult aspects of teaching these subjects.

“I’m in a predominantly white community where Trump was very popular... not many students asked, ‘How will this affect my family?’” he says. “For me the challenge is making this relevant for students. It’s difficult for me to explain modern Islamophobia in an hour.”

But the challenge is what makes his lessons important, and Linane underlines that he’s approaching the material in a balanced way by “factually approaching it” through news articles and tools such as iCivics.

Lending a Hand

Teachers are not alone is wrestling with ways to address the divisive topic: curriculum developers want to provide them resources to make lessons go a bit more smoothly. Just as politicians like to say, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” educators and entrepreneurs see these challenging times as an opportunity to reinforce the importance of civics education.

“What’s happening today is that we’re becoming more polarized, and that poses a lot of challenges for non-partisan organizations,” says Louise Dube, Executive Director of iCivics. Her nonprofit offers 19 short games that aim to teach children how the United States government operates. The simulations cover areas such as the Supreme Court, Bill of Rights and the immigration and naturalization process.

Particularly timely, she adds, are games like Executive Command, which allows players to simulate a President’s first 100 days in the office. “What we know about what the executive branch can do now is being challenged,” says Dube. She hopes that, through the game and guidance from a teacher, students will be able to come to their own conclusions on questions like, “Is our President extending the meaning of executive power?”

Dube says her team’s focus is to imbue critical thinking skills among students without treading into politicized opinions. “Democracy is not a simple process, and we want to illustrate that for kids. They should be able to think critically about all news coming at them through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram” and other media sources.

Civics and social studies are typically not subjects that attract attention—either from the media or investors. Yet the surge of traffic to iCivics games suggests there is a demand for these resources. Dube says last November—election month—saw more than three million gameplays on the site, among its highest totals. She estimates there are roughly five million students who have played a game since the start of the 2016-17 school year.

Another content provider that’s seen a similar trend is Newsela, which provides current events and nonfiction reading materials and quizzes for readers of different levels. “Social studies teachers today are especially engaged and not shying away,” observes Jennifer Coogan, the company’s Chief Content Officer. On Monday, the company released a story on the history of U.S. immigration. Already it’s been assigned by teachers more than 2,600 times—a high volume in a short timeframe, says Coogan.

At a time when headlines and emotions can influence conversations, setting current events in historical context can help learners tackle sensitive subjects. Drawing connections to the past, Coogan hopes, can also help students draw connections to themes in other subjects like literature. Other Newsela content that’s seen a boost are resources on Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” and “1984” (which recently topped Amazon’s best-seller list.)

At a time when both critical thinking and critical reading may seem amiss from social media conversations, history and literature can help ground students in developing their own perspective. Resources should help students “look at issues from an inquiry perspective, rather than just dive straight into a pro/con debate,” according to Coogan.

But teachers could use a boost. “I think the role of teachers in the classroom as nonpartisan guides is really challenged in this time, and they need support,” says Dube.

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