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Social Studies and the Young Learner

The goal of Social Studies and the Young Learner is to capture and enthuse elementary teachers across the country by providing relevant and useful information about the teaching of social studies to elementary students.The teaching techniques presented in this peer-reviewed journal are designed to stimulate the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills vital to classroom success. SSYL is published quarterly: September/October; November/December; January/February; and March/April. Members who receive SSYL also get two issues of Social Education—the May/June issue (which includes the Notable Trade Books for Young People list) and the September issue.

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Cultivating Civic Life through Studying Current Events

by Kathryn M. Obenchain and Julie L. Pennington
Guest Editors

A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to Farce or Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
—James Madison, 1822

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.” That is a powerful statement and one that supports our broad mission as educators.1 But there is more to Madison’s statement. In democratic nations, such as the United States, citizens need access to a wide variety of information in order to make informed and reasoned decisions. Access to, or the “means of acquiring” information, means more than the ability to click on a news website, open a newspaper, or read a blog. Access also means having the necessary knowledge, skills, and dispositions to know how to find and evaluate information, ways of thinking about that information, and knowing what to do with our new understandings about the world we live in.

How do our students understand the intersection of their lives with the lives of others in their local, national, and global communities? One strategy that social studies teachers use to help students understand those intersections, and to connect the classroom to the broader communities, is through the use of current events. Current events may be addressed in a variety of ways in the elementary classroom, including a daily news portion of the school day, or as content for teaching students how to engage in civil discourse.2 In this special issue of Social Studies and Young Learner, we asked authors to share ideas for explicitly connecting civic life in and out of the classroom through the study of current events. We offered a guiding question to authors: How do we help elementary students explore current events, whether they be local, national, or global, in ways that support their development as informed and engaged democratic citizens? This question, situated within the goals of Social Studies and the Young Learner provided the framework for this issue. Further, most, if not all of us are familiar with the NCSS definition of social studies, including its clear statement, “The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”3 The authors writing for this issue of SSYL offer unique and powerful ways to include current events in the elementary social studies classroom, with explicit attention to the role that learning about current events can play in supporting the development of an informed and engaged citizenry.

Carolyn O’Mahony’s opening article, “A Guide to Selecting Powerful Current Events for Study,” provides a wonderful framework for teachers in choosing the types of current events to examine. Specifically, she situates this framework within important social studies concepts such as authority, and offers related questions such as “Who has authority in this situation?” This framework is useful for both teacher and student in determining what types of current events to study and what sorts of questions about an event can enhance social studies learning and promote civic life.

In their article “Hunger in Our Midst: Civic Learning in the Context of Difficult Issues,” Jennifer Hauver and Glennda Shealey-Griffiths provide a great example of engaged citizenship as they detail an elementary unit of study in which students explored the issue of hunger in their local community. Students not only learned about hunger as an issue facing their community (including some of their classmates), they learned how to use community resources and how to take action to address immediate and long term needs.

Nancy P. Gallavan and Shannon R. Maiden walk us through the process of teaching students to navigate the technology (whether it be a map or an online interactive resource) for the purpose of exploring current events. Their article, “When Natural Disasters Strike: How Can We Help? Participatory Citizenship and Internet Resources,” describes how students can put their new understandings to use in ways that will help their fellow citizens. These authors also provide classroom handouts that comprise the Pullout in this issue of SSYL.

Karon LeCompte, Brooke Blevins, and Brandi Ray share classroom experiences in their article “Teaching Current Events and Media Literacy: Critical Thinking, Effective Communication, and Active Citizenship.” Upper elementary students used a variety of research skills to identify and explore current events and issues within their own community. Using an action civics approach, students also developed and enacted a plan to address the issues that their exploration of local current events highlighted

The article “Addressing Current Events in Age-Appropriate Ways: Learning about the Confederate Flag Controversy” by Jeannette D. Alarcón, Pratigya Marhatta, and Emily Price is a powerful example of the importance of teaching students how to engage in an informed discussion about controversial current events. Through activities focused on the need to be an informed participant in a discussion, the value of listening to differing opinions, and a citizen’s responsibility to take action, the first graders in this lesson had the opportunity to engage in powerful and purposeful social studies.

In the concluding article, “‘Now Let’s Decide’: Using Current Events to Practice Democracy,” authors Terence A. Beck and Walter C. Parker provide thoughtful guidance on both choosing an appropriate current event, as well as the implementation of a specific decision-making framework. Working from their goal of focusing on current events that require a solution, the authors detail how they chose the topic of homelessness and how the topic was explored using the decision-making framework. Each of these dimensions provide life-long lessons for engaging in community and civic life.

We believe there is something for every elementary teacher in this issue. We hope that you find this diverse set of articles useful as you consider using current events as a way to cultivate civic life.


  1. James Madison writing to W. T. Barry (August 4, 1822),
  2. Walter C. Parker, Social Studies in Elementary Education (14th ed.) (Boston: Pearson, 2012); Jeff Passe, “A Counter-Intuitive Strategy: Reduce Student Stress by Teaching Current Events,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 29, no 3 (2008): 27–31.
  3. NCSS, National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Silver Spring, MD, 2010): 3.
  4. Walter C. Parker, Social Studies in Elementary Education (14th ed.) (Boston: Pearson, 2012).

Guidelines for Contributors to SSYL

The goal of Social Studies and the Young Learner is to a) capture and enthuse elementary teachers across the country; and b) provide relevant and useful information about the teaching of social studies to elementary students. The editor especially encourages submission of manuscripts authored by K-5 classroom teachers themselves, or co-authored by professors and classroom teachers.


E-mail your manuscript directly to the Editor (listed below). Expect an acknowledgement of receipt within a week. Manuscripts submitted for a particular theme issue are due four months prior to publication. Final decisions are usually made within one year.


The first page should contain the title, word count, and contact information for all authors: name, title, position, complete mailing address, e-mail, phone, and fax. Identify the lead and/or corresponding author. The authors' names should appear only on this page for purposes of blind peer review.

Include a statement that the manuscript has not been submitted or published elsewhere. The second page should begin with the title and start the main text. With regard to citation notes, follow The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) as closely as possible (not APA style). See examples of notes in the journal.

Margins: 1 inch top and bottom and 1.25 inch sides
Font: 12-point, Times New Roman
Length: Double Space, 1000 - 3000 words

Images and Examples

Follow up your e-mailed submission by mailing photocopies of examples of student work and learning, if possible—writing, photos of projects, art, or other media. Submit tables, graphics, photos, etc. as separate files by e-mail, not embedded in the text. If the manuscript is accepted, we will request high-resolution image files or glossy prints. Please set your digital camera at high resolution. Authors must obtain parental permission allowing publication of photos of students, as well as permission for the reprint of copyrighted materials used in a lesson.

Peer Review

SSYL is peer reviewed. If a manuscript is considered for publication, the author must be willing to work with the editor on revisions. SSYL is published by the National Council for the Social Studies.


Authors of published manuscripts receive up to 50 complimentary copies of the journal in which the article appears, courtesy of NCSS. Authors are not paid for contributions.

Please feel free to contact Editor Scott Waring (University of Central Florida), at

Who May Submit an Article?

Anybody may submit an article to Social Studies and the Young Learner. The editors especially look for manuscripts co-authored by classroom teachers and professors, or authored by K-5 classroom teachers alone.

What are Good Topics?

Articles in Social Studies and the Young Learner show how social studies (history, geography, civics, economics, anthropology, etc.) is taught in the pre-K-6 classroom. The lead article often provides background on the theme for that issue. A children’s literature piece describes how to use quality books in the classroom. A pullout usually includes a lesson with handouts.

See the call for manuscripts tab to see themes of upcoming issues of SSYL (but you may also write on a topic that does not fit a theme).

How Will My Paper Be Judged?

This checklist shows the features that editors and reviewers will be watching for. Read your own paper against this checklist.

  1. I have described the basic setting (grade level, time required to teach each activity, materials and resources needed)
  2. The social studies content is strong (students learn history, civics, geography, economics, or anthropology, etc.) See the themes I-X in Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies
  3. I have included examples of classroom experience (what students said, how they responded, and pedagogical pitfalls that arose and how to avoid them)
  4. I have included examples of young students’ work (writing, art, quotes, photos of students in action)
  5. Other teachers could use these ideas and methods (Can this lesson or activity be applied to other classrooms, in other states, with a low budget, and with a reasonable commitment of time and materials?)
  6. There is a clear assessment of student learning. (How is student learning measured at end of the lesson? Are discussion questions or test questions included?)
  7. I have linked the subject matter in my paper to state and national content standards and to the required curriculum of my school for this grade level.
  8. I have avoided using the passive voice.
    Right: The teacher corrects and grades the papers. Wrong: Papers are corrected and graded by the teacher.
  9. I follow the the Chicago style handbook for notes, and do not use Endnote or Reference Manager programs.
  10. My notes follow this style-
    BOOKS: Alfie Kohn, What to Look For in a Classroom (San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass, 1998), 45.
    ARTICLES: Bruce E. Larson, "The Makah: Exploring Public Issues During a Structured Classroom Discussion,"
    Social Studies and the Young Learner 10, no. 1 (September/October 1997): 10-13.
    WEBSITES: "Creating the United States," (Library of Congress),
  11. When citing online resources, I recommend specific, student-friendly websites, avoiding Wikipedia and Google.
  12. I kept my reading audience in mind. (Will classroom teachers, who are the primary audience of SSYL, eagerly read this from start to finish? Will they find it useful to their actual practice?)


Ask a colleague to read your paper and check it for grammar, organization, and writing style.

Who, When, and How?

Be sure to follow the basic advice found at the “Guide” tab to Social Studies and the Young Learner when you format text, type references, shoot photographs, write a cover letter, and submit your manuscript.

Other Questions?

Please feel free to contact Editor Scott Waring (University of Central Florida), at

The Editor of SSYL is Scott Waring (University of Central Florida). Contact him at

Editorial Board

Jan Alleman – Michigan State University
Ellen Ballock – Gordon College
Michelle Bauml – Texas Christian University
Elizabeth Bellows – Appalachian State University
Angel Bestwick – Kutztown University
Lisa Brown Buchanan – University of North Carolina Wilmington
Nancy Gallavan – University of Central Arkansas
Eric Groce – Appalachian State University
Mary Beth Henning – Northern Illinois University
Lynda Herrera – Marymount University
Liz Hinde – Metropolitan State University of Denver
Janie Hubbard – The University of Alabama
Roi Kawai – University of Wisconsin in La Crosse
Sarah Montgomery – University of Northern Iowa
Scott Morrison – Elon University
Kim O’Neil – National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
Laura Quaynor – Lewis University
Scott Roberts – Central Michigan University
Tracy Rock – University of North Carolina Charlotte
Ellen Santora – Independent Researcher and Consultant
Sarah Shear – Penn State University-Altoona
Jay Shuttleworth – Long Island University, Brooklyn
Emma Thacker – James Madison
Cheryl Torrez – University of New Mexico
Christina Tschida – East Carolina University

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