“Dismantling the Wall, One Brick at a Time”: Overcoming Barriers to Parochialism in Social Studies Classrooms

 

Stuart J. Foster and John D. Hoge

Veteran eighth grade social studies educator Geri Collins teaches children whose lives are, for the most part, reasonably sheltered, comfortable, and insular. The educational context she encounters differs greatly from that found in school districts where students experience violence and deprivation on a daily basis. As a result, it offers different challenges.

In the growing, but relatively small, school district in North Georgia where Geri teaches, students are not rich, but they are comfortable, occupying a world uncomplicated by urban problems and pressures. This conservative and largely homogenous white community celebrates traditional knowledge, established order, and fundamentalist Christian values. Unemployment in the area is negligible, and most students know that a high school education will provide them with a basic income sufficient to sustain them in the community. Consequently, a degree of complacency and apathy permeates student attitudes toward school.

As a social studies teacher, Geri finds that her greatest challenge is to achieve a balance between respecting the wishes of the community and challenging students to see the world beyond the narrow confines of their own immediate experience. As Geri explains, “It is almost as if these children have a wall around them that does not allow them to see the world beyond.” Her task as a social studies teacher, she believes, is to open students’ minds to other possibilities, perspectives, and human experiences. Overall, her mission, she proposes, is to “dismantle the wall, one brick at a time.”

The challenge that confronts Geri Collins is not atypical. For, although demographic and societal changes are rapidly reshaping the ethnic and cultural composition of many American communities, a vast number of school districts remain in which a homogeneous white citizenry appears suspicious of, and resistant to, change or “different” ideas. Accordingly, attention to how one social studies teacher seeks to challenge students to think beyond the boundaries of their own community, to explore sensitive and controversial public issues, and to open students’ eyes to the perspectives and values of others, may provide some valuable lessons for other colleagues in the field of social studies.

 

Observing Classroom Practice

Repeated observations of Geri’s classroom attest to her desire to arouse students from the comfortable complacency of their lives. Although Geri is accountable to a mandated state curriculum that requires the teaching of state and U. S. history, she frequently uses the standardized curriculum as a “jumping off” point to advance her teaching goals.

For example, in her treatment of civil rights, she invites students to actively consider the meaning and significance of social protest. Discussion of civil rights proceeds from the traditional coverage of Martin Luther King to a broader exploration of why protest is vital to the advancement of democratic society. Students examine the lyrics of both contemporary protest songs, such as those by Rage Against the Machine, and sixties protest songs by, for example, Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The underlying message Collins attempts to convey is that some people have always resisted the status quo and tried to change society for the better. In a similar vein, Geri introduces the Declaration of Independence and other historical documents as prime examples of socio-political protest.

Geri wants her students to know and to believe that individuals can make an important difference in a democratic society. Accordingly, she requires students to work together to identify social issues that they feel strongly about. Students deliberate a range of issues (e.g., reducing the driving age, cruelty to animals, destruction of the rain forest, opposition to rigid school dress codes) and then write to a local, state, or national elected representative to convey their opinions. Although Geri appreciates that student letters to an elected representative or school administrator have their limitations, she has found that elected representatives often do write back to the students, and that this has a significant impact on student attitudes toward government. She also proudly relates how one letter written by a student protesting smoking in public places was recently published in the local newspaper.

Geri encourages students to recognize that, as citizens of a democratic nation, they have both rights and responsibilities. She introduces her students to differing perspectives on race relations, social inequality, and religious freedom. She helps students to address contemporary and historical debates over, for example, immigration, flag burning, and land rights, and to question their own taken-for-granted assumptions.

For example, an emerging and controversial issue in the local community is the rapid growth of the Hispanic population. Many students vehemently protest this new development and seriously question the benefits of immigration. Accordingly, Geri challenges students to examine their prejudices. She assigns students to research their own family heritages as a step toward reflecting on how most Americans have originated from immigrant families. The experiences and contributions of immigrant families in the United States are explored in order to give students a broader perspective on contemporary immigration.

Another intriguing feature of Geri’s instruction is her use of personal experiences—her own and others’—to help students appreciate that the past is made up of very real human experiences. For example, she talks about growing up in a society characterized by signs for “whites only” and how it felt to her. On another occasion, her father spoke to the class about the Great Depression. An eighty-year-old ordained Baptist minister who still preaches to a small congregation in downtown Atlanta, he recounted the story of how his father’s home-building business in Las Vegas, New Mexico, collapsed during the Depression, and of the dramatic impact this had on his life. Students were captivated by the contrast between life “back then” and today, and especially, by the differences in what things cost and the lack of conveniences and luxuries in his life that they take for granted.

 

Characteristics of Effective Practice

Numerous observations of Geri’s classroom supplemented by lengthy conversations with her offered valuable insights into elements of wise practice in her social studies instruction. In particular, four important elements characterize the essence of her teaching. These elements serve her well in addressing the challenges of her particular school setting, and can also inform wise practice in almost any teaching situation.

First, Geri has a very clear rationale for teaching social studies. Consistently, she emphasizes that the two most important functions of social studies are (a) to encourage students to realize that they can effect change, and (b) to open students’ minds to the beliefs of others. Above all, she believes that educators must challenge students to create a better world. To promote such a far-reaching goal, Geri urges her students to question and challenge their preexisting assumptions. She is committed to including diverse perspectives on events and issues, and she openly encourages students to become actively involved in analyzing and articulating their beliefs. “If you don’t get children actively involved in the classroom,” she argues, “they will not have the tools to become actively involved in the outside world.”

Geri candidly admits that such passionate beliefs may run counter to the desires of families in which conservative values remain paramount. Nevertheless, Geri remains committed to her mission. Indeed, she elicits enormous satisfaction from those moments when students engage in lively debates over controversial issues or challenge orthodox views. In many respects, the joy that she takes from these learning situations both energize and motivate her personally. Elliot Eisner has described this quality as the aesthetic in teaching:

When one finds in schools a climate that makes it possible to take pride in one’s craft ... when one receives from students the kind of glow that says you have touched my life, satisfactions flow that exceed whatever it is that sabbaticals and vacations can provide. The aesthetic in teaching is the experience secured from being able to put your own signature on your own work — to look at it and say it was good ... Only a few scattered [moments] throughout the week are enough to keep us going. But without them teaching would be draining rather than nourishing ... 1

Unquestionably, for Geri, the knowledge that she has affected the lives and minds of young people is exceedingly “nourishing” and leads her to constantly look for new and creative ways to stimulate students’ thinking.

A second fundamental characteristic of Geri’s teaching style is her commitment to convey social studies issues and information in accessible and interesting ways. Through simulations, role plays, class debates, guest speakers, field trips, drama, and engaging lectures and storytelling, she employs a range of pedagogical skills that enable her to breathe life into the way students approach the subject. She varies her techniques; at times she is directly involved in leading the lesson, while at other times she steps back to allow students to take over. Significantly, many of her lessons crackle with an aura of anticipation, as students never know quite what to expect.

Although she employs didactic teaching methods such as direct lecture, at the core of Geri’s instruction is the belief that her role is to facilitate learning. In their 1988 article on “Models of Wisdom,” Wineburg and Wilson remarked on how one of the teachers they observed, Mr. Jensen, was like a choreographer in a Broadway musical. On the night of the show, the choreographer is not present on stage, although he has worked tirelessly in previous months to ensure a perfect performance.2 This analogy applies to Geri. On days in which students debated or gave presentations on topics, she appeared almost invisible, rarely interrupting discussion or needing to bring order to the proceedings. However, the smoothness of the class was the result of careful planning, her knowledge of the students, her creativity, and her careful preparation of materials derived from multiple sources.

Geri believes that meaningful learning is most likely to take place when issues or events are studied in-depth. Accordingly, she is prepared to devote curriculum time to “mock Congress” simulations or to discussions and explorations arising from movies such as “The Long Walk Home,” which focuses on the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955. She gives considerable attention to a simulation exercise based on the establishment of Jamestown colony in the early 17th century. Although she wants students to appreciate the historical significance of events in Virginia, more importantly, she challenges students to consider what fundamental elements are required of a civilized society. As part of the instruction, students create their own “ideal society” and discuss issues surrounding the nature and role of government, individual rights and responsibilities, land ownership, equity, justice, and law.

The third characteristic of Geri’s teaching is the artistic way in which she reacts to specific contexts and clues in her classroom. Eisner makes the important point that teaching can never be predominantly a scientific process. He notes that, in any class, the times are legion when a particular moment arises in which the rules fail and artistry takes over. He comments:

We face a class, we raise a question, we get little or no response. Theoretical frameworks and the findings of research studies provide only limited help. What we do is look for clues. We try to read the muted and enigmatic messages in our students’ faces, in their posture, in their comportment. We look for a light at one end of the room, then at the other. Our sensibilities come into play as we try to construe the meaning of the particular situation we face. And what do we face? Do we call on a particular student to get the ball rolling? Do we recast the question? Do we keep on talking and hope for the best? Our educational imagination begins to operate and we consider options. Theory helps, but as a guide, not a prescription ... Is artistry involved? Clearly it is ... 3

Such pedagogical artistry was on display on countless occasions in Geri’s classroom. She knew her students and was a master of reading clues. She knew when to change pace, when to ask a question, when to stop and listen, when to sow doubt, when to clarify, and when to seize an opportunity to prompt students to think and learn. Her teaching was characterized by her constant interaction with the students, her unbridled sense of humor, and her warm and caring nature. Clearly she loves teaching social studies and cares about her students and—most importantly of al#151;her students know this.

A final characteristic of Geri’s teaching is that she understands her role as a curriculum mediator. Teachers in Georgia are required to follow the framework of the state mandated “Quality Core Curriculum.” Geri’s duty, she believes, is not to capitulate to bureaucratic curriculum pressures, but to breathe life, energy, and relevance into sterile curriculum documents. She is prepared to engage in intellectual risk taking. Fundamentally, what she teaches in her class is her curriculum, fashioned in a way chosen by her, not by an anonymous outsider. As she argues, “If you only teach the required curriculum, you are doing your students a disservice.” According to Geri, a truly meaningful social studies curriculum only can be effective if it first considers the needs of students, and second, helps students build a greater appreciation of what it means to be an active American citizen.

Overall, the challenge for Geri Collins is to make her students sit up and think about themselves, their values, and their beliefs in relation to the world around them. Thus, she devises a curriculum that constantly makes connections between students’ own experiences and those in the broader society. She uses her vast repertoire of pedagogical skills to conjure up learning experiences that are interesting and meaningful. She engages student in intellectual tasks that are intended to encourage critical thinking and informed judgment. In so doing, ultimately she sets her students on the journey to active, responsible, and broad-minded citizenship.

 

Notes

1. Elliot W. Eisner, “The Art and Craft of Teaching,” Educational Leadership 40 (January 1983): 12.

2. Samuel S. Wineburg and Suzanne M. Wilson, “Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History,” Phi Delta Kappan 70 (September 1988): 52.

3. Eisner, 10.

 

Stuart J. Foster and John D. Hoge are Associate
Professors in the Department of Social Science Education at the University of Georgia, Athens.