Monday, July 4, 2011

Learning about "Social Studies"

On the fourth of July, it seemed like a good time to address a question I'm often asked, which is, "what exactly should we be teaching for social studies?"  I just answered this question this week for a mom who was thinking about high school and wondering what the colleges expect.

As with any homeschooling plan of action, the first thing is to ignore purposefully what the public schools would be doing in any particular grade.  As long time readers know, I am not opposed to everything/everybody that is involved with the public school. My own mom worked there for many years. However, social studies education is one area where the public schools have done a very ineffective job for many years.

So here we are on the 4th of July.  As many people know, recent polls have shown a pathetic level of knowledge of even the basics of American history.  Most young people these days have only a vague idea of what they are supposed to be celebrating on this holiday.  I have known supposedly well-educated young people recently who had no idea who many of the founders of the country were, who thought Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution, who didn't have any clue what the Bill of Rights was, and who  genuinely believed that the first amendment said something about the separation of church and state.

None of this is news to the average homeschooler.  Today I want to address a slightly different issue...the issue of ethnocentrism.  Yes, it is important to know about American history, to understand (and actually READ the Consitituition), to know how the U.S government works,  the basics of capitalism, and the ideas of the founding fathers.  However, as Christians, we owe our allegiance to something greater than a country.

Along with the U.S. history in your curriculum, be sure to help your children develop a knowledge of the rest of the world.   One thing I saw, over and over, at our resource center, was that by the time a student came to us for a high school level class, he or she often had huge gaps in their knowledge.  Those unit studies that were popular homeschooling topics, like Romans, or Vikings, or Greeks, or the Civil War, had been covered extensively.  Yet hardly anyone could tell me the names or locations of the countries in South America or Africa, or explain the history of "the two Chinas"....Everybody knew about World War II, and nobody knew about World War I.  Everybody knew about the Great Depression in the United States; nobody knew anything about the major depression that hit in Germany between the wars, resulting in the rise of Hitler.

Of course, this is exactly what makes moms come to me asking for help.  Everybody is deathly afraid that they will somehow "miss" something important when working with their homeschoolers, thereby somehow rendering them hopeless and unable to get into college. In the long haul, what matters most is developing a love of learning in your children and giving the desire and skills to enable them to continue learning throughout their adult lives.  Nobody can know "everything" at the age of 18. (Although most 18 year olds think they know everything...but that's another topic.) However, a little thought and planning can avoid such huge gaps and help provide a basic platform for further learning.

When planning for teaching social studies, I would follow these steps:

1. Forget/ignore what public school instruction is in social studies at a particular age. It doesn't matter, and your own plans will probably be superior to whatever they would be learning in school.  (Note to any public school parents who may be reading this:  Read to your kids, take them interesting places when you can...You can add on what the schools aren't teaching them and have fun doing it!)

2. Whatever you do, try to make it relevant and fun.  History can be the driest subject in the world or the most exciting one.  Start with local history, consider reenactments or theatre involvements, go on interesting field trips, read good books instead of textbooks.

3. When dealing with children 12 and down, there is nothing wrong with doing this a bit "hodge-podge"...but a good time line on the wall might do wonders in helping to tie things together.  Also, whatever you are studying, start with local, go to U.S., but don't ignore the rest of the world!  Learning about other cultures is vital in today's world.  Two of my own children live outside the United States; all but one have done extensive traveling.  I didn't leave this continent until I was in my fifties.  My mother never left the U.S.  My grandmother never left Wisconsin.  Things are changing, and we have to change along with it!

4. When the kids are about middle school age it is a good time to do some subjects more linear...U.S. history from the beginning to current, a good overall view of world history and geography, perhaps some emphasis on missions work.  Middle school years are a good time to prepare them for high school level work.  Emphasize the skills they are developing (research, public speaking, reading and writing, thinking), as well as  the specific knowledge base they are developing.  Both are important at this stage.

 5. When high school comes around, the typical social studies curriculum includes U.S. History, World History, World Geography, and Political Science/Economics.  Most homeschoolers already know a lot of U.S. History by then, so my tendency is to go heavier on the more difficult subjects in high school, such as economics, Constitutional law, and World History.  This doesn't mean you have to switch to boring methods of instruction...it just requires a little bit more planning, which should always involve the students at this stage.

6.  No matter what the age of the student, textbooks are always the worst kind of instruction in this area.  The best is personal involvement, (like real family trips), the second best is reading a good book written by someone who is actually interested in a particular topic. Good quality videos can also provide interesting vicarious experiences.  When I was teaching a world history class at the resource center, I always got the video of the bomber pilot who bombed Hiroshima discussing his experiences that day.  (For those of you in Georgia, it is available at the Cobb County Public Library). Just a little more interesting than reading about it in a textbook!

For those of you who have coops or resource centers where you can have group experiences, one final suggestion....my social studies classes at the resource center were also always my thinly-disguised speech classes.  Over and over, my old students who have now graduated college, come back and tell me this was the best thing we did for them there.  In middle school, they were expected to do group oral projects; in 9th grade they began taking ten minute pieces of class to teach, and by their senior year they were each teaching two complete classes a year.....An important part of this, I believe, is that they got to choose their own topics...It is always much easier to learn to speak in public when you are talking about something that you are interested in yourself!  I'm a great public speaker when I'm talking about homeschooling, but put me up there on a topic of someone else's choice, I'd probably be horrible.

Okay...way too long a post on a holiday weekend.  Get out there and enjoy the day with your families!

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