Teaching Middle School
Social Studies: Who is at Risk?


Sherry L. Field, Ron Wilhelm, Pat Nickell, John Culligan, and Jan Sparks

The label “at-risk” remains problematic, particularly when it is applied to children from social groups that have been traditionally marginalized in society. We recognize that labeling children as at risk of not doing well academically because of their social background may promote a “blame-the-victim” mentality in schools. We believe a more productive approach to the problem consists in the critical examination of the confluence of school culture and students’ home cultures. Questions to consider in this process include: What culturally biased curricular, instructional, or organizational obstacles does the school place in the learning paths of youngsters? How do the school and individual teachers respect and build on students’ home cultures? How do teachers help students who are learning English as their second language (ESL learners) and students from impoverished settings learn the skills necessary for success in mainstream American society?

When we began to consider all the categories of risk that must be taken into account, we concluded that, in fact, all children may be “at risk” of academic failure—not just those whose risk factors have been identified. Given the unexpected situations, conditions, and powerful negative influences students may encounter during the critical years of middle school, even those whom we consider not to be “at risk” could become so in a heartbeat. For this reason, it is necessary for educators to be concerned with all students in middle school. Is it possible that Manuel, who speaks no English yet, is gifted? That Mason is behind in school not because she’s a slow learner, but because she’s alienated from authority figures and therefore resists their expectations? That quiet, studious Samuel may be struggling with all sorts of emotional trauma after the school day is over?

Middle level learners were the subject of an important report released by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development in 1989. Titled “Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century,” this document urged schools to enable “every middle school student to complete the core academic program successfully” and to hold to the principle that all children can be academically successful given appropriate conditions, encouragement, and opportunities.1 The Carnegie report on adolescent development differed from earlier pronouncements in stating that middle level learners need special conditions, forms of encouragement, and opportunities that are distinct from those needed by younger or by older children. The middle school years were described as a unique period in an individua#146;s development that must be treated uniquely. This was a divergence from earlier thinking in which the individual develops from child to adolescent to adult with a brief, rather ungainly but otherwise inconsequential transition period between childhood and the teenage years.

The Carnegie report emphasized that a number of middle level-appropriate teaching strategies will benefit all students, yet these often continue to be reserved only for the successful students: cooperative learning; service learning; inquiry and analytical learning; and historical (and multicultural) perspective-taking. The report further suggested a number of practices that are not appropriate for optimal learning for all middle-school students: tracking or ability grouping by classes, called “one of the most divisive and damaging school practices in existence”2 (yet still pervasive among middle schools, even though they are divided into “teams”); 45- to 50-minute classes that are scheduled inflexibly; and basing grouping and instructional practices on the assumption that students who experience difficulty in one subject will also struggle in others.

The Carnegie report, along with other research and theory undergirding the middle school movement, such as that of Eccles and Midgley,3 provided the basis for the subtle changes in performance expectations from level to level in the national social studies standards, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for the Social Studies.4 This latter document is also based upon the principle that all students can be academically successful. Supporting text suggests that all students, in order to achieve the expectations (which are challenging at the middle level), must be actively engaged, encouraged to work cooperatively, supported in exploring new conceptualizations and abstractions previously unknown to them, and nurtured to develop confidence in their ability to think at high levels. The following two vignettes from teachers in Georgia and Texas demonstrate how they have adapted their social studies curriculum and practice to meet the needs of all learners in their classrooms.


Perspective from a Georgia Classroom

John Culligan, a co-author of this article, teaches eighth grade social studies (Georgia Studies) in Gwinnett County, the largest school district in the state of Georgia. While Gwinnett County was originally a school district with both rural and suburban qualities, its explosive growth in the past two decades has faced the school district with many challenges. Some of these include a burgeoning immigrant population, overcrowding in schools, teacher shortages in critical needs areas like mathematics, science, and English-as-a-Second Language, and growing populations of “at-risk” students.

In spite of these challenges, the school district regularly is one of the highest-achieving in the state. Five Forks Middle School is situated near the center of the large school district. The school is 25 years old and serves about 1,000 students. More than 90 percent of the students are European American and the minority population is primarily of African American, Latino, and Asian-American children.

Recently, the faculty created Success Teams, groups of students and their teacher who work together to ensure the academic success of every team member. Students who are in danger of academic failure, yet who do not qualify to receive services through one of the special education programs, are invited to be members of a Success Team. Teams in the sixth and seventh grades meet as self-contained, small classes of approximately 14 students per teacher. The eighth grade Success Teams are integrated into the larger population of students in science and social studies and are self-contained in smaller, concentrated classes in math and language arts. John serves as the eighth grade social studies Success Team teacher, and he meets at least four times a week with the other subject area Success Team teachers. In both formal and informal sessions, the teachers identify students about whom they are concerned, share information about why a student may be struggling, and discuss strategies to meet their students’ needs.

Largely as a result of their collective concern over at-risk students, most of the Success Team teachers at Five Forks have begun to change the way that they approach their content-area teaching to be more holistic, inclusive, and affective. The overarching philosophy is to get to know the students well, both personally and academically, and to get to know the students’ strengths and weaknesses. Many parent conferences are scheduled early in the school year to find out what problems the students may have had in the past and to enlist parental support.

Success Team teachers have adapted an advisor/advisee program to promote academic success and teamwork. Classes at Five Forks are organized by longer, block schedule periods, and a portion of each Support Team school day consists of 30 minutes each day during which activities are planned for students to work together on social and academic tasks. Teachers are available for individual help, and Thursdays are devoted to peer tutoring and academic counseling. To enhance socialization during the academic portion of the advisor/advisee periods, teachers also create and develop activities such as Problem Solving in Literature, Brainy Games, Career Planning; and Athletic Fun.

John has developed a variety of successful strategies to engage his students in the topic of Georgia Studies. Assuring reluctant students that social studies is both accessible and relevant to their lives is a mantra from the first day of class. Analogies are important in class discussions, and students in John’s class learn how to develop appropriate contemporary analogies for the historical content they learn. Students are also immersed in a variety of learning activities, such as the use of literature, role play, mapping, computer assisted research and reporting, demonstrations, and simulations.

At the beginning of the school year, the Success Team studies the indigenous population of Georgia, especially the Cherokee and the Creek. The Team concentrates on the process by which European colonization changed their culture, and eventually forced the removal of both groups. One of the lessons students complete is a mock letter from the perspective of a Native American whose village has been “visited” by DeSoto during his search for gold. The writer of the letter warns a neighboring village that the Spaniards are coming, and describes the interactions from the standpoint of a Native American, including suggestions on how to deal with the problem. John teaches the concept of cause and effect with the children’s book, A Fly Went By by Mike McClintock. To illustrate the process of global domination, he has students play the board game Risk. Most students are able to focus intently on the game and to transfer the experience to a larger understanding of the strategies employed by the colonial powers, England, Spain, and France, during this period. John also highlights the goals of the European colonists of the Americas from their point of view—e.g., God, gold, natural resources and glory.

When teaching the Colonial to Revolutionary Period, John uses what he calls “the school supply hoax” to help students internalize colonists’ feelings about the Intolerable Acts. Students can be warned that they will have an unusual lesson soon. The next day, they are told that a law has just been enacted in the state to help solve an education budget crisis. All school supplies in the future must be purchased from the school, and profits will help fund schools across the state. Supplies must have the school seal in order to be acceptable. Students immediately erupt into a flurry of protestations and questions. They understand that this unfair law will have an immediate effect upon their lives as the discussion continues. To begin the second half of the lesson, John reveals that the new “law” is actually a hoax. From this small simulation, students are led into a discussion and understanding of the emotions that must have erupted from colonists over the passage of the Intolerable Acts. As a follow up, students create a “protest poster” to illustrate their comprehension of prerevolutionary issues, and these are displayed in the classroom.


Lively Analogies

Connecting new information to students’ lives is an integral part of the learning process. For example, John compares colonialism with contemporary family life. He explains that, as the “Mother Country,” England played the role of “parent.” Each colony played the role of a child. Some of the children were older than others. Students identify the oldest colonies (Virginia and Massachusetts, founded in the early 1600s) and the youngest (Georgia was founded in 1733). Students are also asked to compare characteristics of younger children with those of older teenagers. John and his students discuss the sometimes-rebellious nature of adolescents, and they compare their generalizations with actions taken by the colonies. While teaching his students the various issues facing the colonies, and the later issues facing the new nation, he refers to his analogies on a regular basis.

The classroom setting is changed often, to accommodate various activities. These may range from a colonial home setting, to a Civil War army camp, to a courtroom scene. Simulations and role plays are important motivators for Success Team students, as are hands-on activities. During a unit on Settler Expansion, students create three-dimensional maps. They learn to make PowerPoint computer presentations to culminate their research about court cases which have affected Georgia history.

Students are formed into cooperative groups to complete a Civil War Project. Each group researches a topic or an era, such as Causes of the War; South Carolina Secession to 1861; 1861-1863: Effects of the War on the Home Front; Weapons and Technology; Individuals of the War; and 1864: End of the War. Ken Burns’s The Civil War videos are among those materials utilized as research tools. Students complete their research in a week, and prepare a presentation for the class. Last spring, several groups dressed in period costume, one group organized a television-panel show to represent ordinary people and the effect the war had on their lives, several groups brought in family artifacts, etc., and one group developed a computer simulation to show the development and use of technology during the Civil War.

A popular culminating activity for the school year is an individual inquiry, during which students are asked to research and personify any historical character that they can link to Georgia. They often select cultural figures (actors, musicians such as Ray Charles, or writers such as Margaret Mitchell); political figures, such as George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter; or personal figures, such as an ancestor. After their research, which may be done on the Internet, in a library or state archive, or in interviews, students are required to design and create a project board, and to write a perspective paper reflecting the time and place during which the person lived and how that person reacted to societal and political issues. In the paper, students make personal comments in a different colored ink, asserting their own perspective, questions, and concerns. On presentation day, students take on the role of their figure and come to school dressed as him or her, present their project boards and perspective papers, and interact with other attendees, who include parents and other students.

Using technology is a routine part of the school day for teachers and students in Gwinnett County. Each teacher has an up-to-date computer at his or her desk and an inkjet printer in the classroom. Computers are networked within the school and county, and are connected to the Internet. Computers are used for all typical administrative duties (providing grade books, report cards, attendance records, e-mail correspondence) and for instructional purposes. Additional computers are available for student use in classrooms. Most teachers also have access to Averkey boxes, which allow them to project their computer screens on to classroom television screens. John regularly uses this feature for presentation of student projects, and also for teacher-led presentations to the class. In addition, three computer labs and technology support staff assist teachers in development of curriculum and acquisition of skills.

Perspective from a Texas Classroom

Jan Sparks, a co-author of this article, teaches sixth grade language arts and social studies at Leila P. Cowart Elementary School in the Dallas Public Schools. For the past eight years she has served as a mentor teacher for senior student teachers in the University of North Texas-Dallas Public Schools Professional Development School at Cowart. In the twenty-eight years she has taught at Cowart Elementary, Jan has observed dramatic changes in the demographics of the student population. When she began in 1972, more than 80 percent of the students represented European American ancestry and another 20 percent were Latino, principally from Mexican or Mexican American backgrounds. Gradually, the population in the area served by Cowart has become 99 percent Latino as immigrants from Central America and Mexico have moved into the working class neighborhood. With an annual enrollment of between 1,100 and 1,200 students in grades pre-kindergarten through six, Cowart Elementary is the third largest elementary school in the Dallas Public Schools system. Perhaps between 80 and 90 percent of the parents hold low-paying, unskilled, or semi-skilled jobs. Cowart families and teachers struggle with many contemporary problems—such as drugs, a high school dropout rate, and gang activity—associated with urban, working class neighborhoods.

Since the mid 1970s, the number of students learning English as a Second Language has been steadily increasing. Jan has continued to alter both her curriculum and instructional practice in order to meet the diverse learning needs of these students. Jan is clearly energized each school year by the challenges she faces as she tries to meet the varied academic abilities and needs of her students. She has developed a repertoire of instructional strategies to help her ESL students learn English while also learning social studies concepts. These strategies, examples of her curriculum, and her philosophy of teaching ESL students are reported in subsequent paragraphs of this article.

In the Texas curriculum, sixth grade students learn introductory world history and geography. Jan teaches language arts and social studies in an integrated curriculum that she has developed and modifies each year. Her instructional strategies are characterized by a combination of visual presentations, oral reading and discussion, group work projects, a few field trips, and experiential learning activities.

Early in her work with ESL students, Jan recognized that they would not be able to read the social studies texts written on a sixth or seventh grade level, so over the years she has sought out supplemental materials that are high interest but on a lower reading level. Many of her ESL students are not able to read silently in English and comprehend, so much of her instruction is spoken, with passages placed on the overhead projector. She, or a student who reads well, or the whole class will read the passage and follow with a whole class discussion. All of the students sit close around her and the overhead projector. By the end of the year, she finds that this supportive environment encourages ESL students to volunteer to read as they gain more confidence in their English speaking ability.

Jan also uses videos and computer technology when teaching about other cultures. Cowart Elementary has three computer labs, and Jan’s sixth graders receive computer instruction daily over two six-week periods during the year. The computer teacher works with Jan to incorporate her unit of culture study into students’ learning of computer skills. For example, during a recent unit on Egypt, students learned to use the Internet to conduct research and to develop definitions for terms they discovered in their social studies textbooks and classroom discussions. The computer teacher even helped the students create a PowerPoint presentation of photographs to illustrate their group essays about various aspects of Egyptian culture and geography. As a unit finale, the computer teacher helped the students create a bulletin board to display their group essays and photographs.

Jan’s classroom contains two computers as well, which she allows the students to use occasionally to conduct research or to write up their findings. One computer, containing a software program of low-level reading activities, is often reserved for students with little English ability. These students work independently at their own pace to develop their English vocabulary while Jan works with the rest of the class.


Bilingual Assets

Jan encourages her students to use their knowledge of their home language, Spanish, to decipher English words that have the same Latin roots. In fact, she began the 2000-2001 school year with an emphasis on how to use Spanish to recognize Latin roots in English words. Although one of Jan’s undergraduate majors was Spanish, she does not consider herself fluent, but does use some Spanish occasionally in class. Her students laugh at her accent and correct her, but they and their parents also understand that she respects their home culture and is not trying to ignore it or erase it. Rather, she uses it to build bridges to new knowledge. By revealing her imperfect Spanish, Jan also shows the ESL students that learning a new language means taking risks and making mistakes.

Jan helps students connect aspects of their home culture to material elements of the cultures they study. For example, when learning about the foods typical of a culture, she helps students identify similar items they eat—pointing out, for example, the similarity between tortillas and pita bread. She remarks, “They really get excited when it’s something that they know.” Jan also tries to expose students to a wide variety of music from various cultures. She reports, “One time I played a song by a popular Latin American singer and they got very excited because it was a song on one of the novelas (Spanish language soap operas) they watched on television.”

Units of study of the ancient civilizations in Egypt and Greece are always popular with her students, but she includes studies of contemporary countries as well. For example, for the 2000 Olympic Games, students investigated the geography, economics, political organization, and history of selected countries, kept track of which countries won medals on a chart, and wrote short biographies of some of the athletes.

Jan is alert for exhibitions in local museums. She is concerned that her students, particularly the ESL students, lack not only knowledge of English but also of their surroundings and life experiences in general. She incorporated a unit on China one year when an exhibition of art and artifacts from China came to a local museum. She used museum instructional materials for pre-field trip activities to prepare her students for the museum visit and followed the visit with other activities.

When using the materials, the students locate the country on maps, learn some things about the history and culture, and discuss what items they will see in the exhibit. For the annual unit on ancient Egypt, which Jan uses to get the students hooked on social studies (they are fascinated by the mummies), the students read some of the ancient myths, assemble a three-dimensional puzzle of a pyramid, and learn to write their name in hieroglyphics with potato stamps. On more than one occasion, museum docents have commented that her students know more about ancient Egypt than do typical high school students.

Throughout the year, Jan’s students develop oral expression in English by memorizing, first, some lines in a poem, then the entire poem to recite for the class. Jan reports that one young girl who arrived from Mexico in August was able to memorize the entire poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” by December. Usually by the end of the year in May, the beginning ESL students are able to read in English on a third or fourth grade level.

An important part of social studies education consists in preparing youngsters for civic efficacy, particularly the ability to work together in a group to resolve problems. From time to time throughout the year, Jan structures group work opportunities. She thoughtfully and carefully organizes each group so that there are differing ability levels and so that students proficient in English will encourage the participation of the ESL students. Each group, composed of three or four students, submits a plan of action in which all members have a role before beginning a project such as a diorama, poster, or writing activity. Jan restructures each group for each project so that all of the students learn to interact with each other. Jan explains, “I just kind of watch how they work together and most of the time they learn to interact and they learn they don’t have a choice, that it’s not just with their friends. And I get some beautiful work.”

Group work has not eliminated the discrimination that the native speakers of English often mete out to the ESL students. Even students who were themselves classified ESL earlier in their elementary schooling often tease the newer arrivals. The recently immigrated ESL students, particularly the boys, tend to form a clique unto themselves. Jan integrates beginning ESL students completely in the social studies lessons by pairing them with carefully chosen bilingual peers so that the ESL students may participate fully in lessons and understand concepts and her instructions. Also, Jan has adopted a strategy that she hopes helps students who speak English fluently appreciate the gifts of her ESL students, thus breaking the cycle of discrimination. She often takes her students outside so that the ESL boys, who often happen to be good soccer players, can play with and against the other students.

Jan often uses art projects, particularly drawing activities, to evaluate student learning, as can be seen in the accompanying drawings on ancient Egypt and latitude/longitude. After studying Egyptian culture, the students were asked to draw various examples of Egyptian architecture and provide a brief description of their use. For the longitude and latitude exercise, students were told to draw for each latitude examples of the type of geography, clothing, housing, flora and fauna, weather, and crops cultivated in each zone. Children whose written English is inadequate are able to demonstrate through their art work a wealth of knowledge gained in each unit of study. As a regular activity throughout the year, students make a picture dictionary of new terms by drawing a picture of the word.


Responding to Risk

John’s and Jan’s efforts respond to the risk of a student’s academic failure by meeting the learning needs of students in several ways. John prepares his pupils to solve problems with technology-based research. Jan builds her students’ knowledge of the world by helping them realize the connections to their natural cultural knowledge and assets. Both practices are characterized by minds-on and hands-on social studies lessons that are active, challenging, integrative, meaningful, and value-based. Both teachers use group settings to build up students’ confidence in their ability to learn and excel. Both emphasize alternative methods of acquiring and demonstrating knowledge and skills.



1. David W. Hornbeck et al. Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century (Washington, DC: Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989), 49.

2. Ibid., 49.

3. J. Eccles. and C. Midgley, “Stage/Environment Fit: Developmentally Appropriate Classrooms for Young Adolescents,” in C. Ames and R. Ames, Eds., Research on Motivation in Education, Vol. 3: Goals and Cognitions (New York: Academic Press, 1989), 139-186.

4. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994).


Associate professors Sherry L. Field and Pat Nickell perform teaching and research concerning elementary and middle level social studies students and curriculum at the University of Georgia, Athens. Sherry is editor of Social Studies and the Young Learner. Pat is past-president of National Council for the Social Studies, 1996-97.
John Culligan is a teacher at Five Forks Middle School in Gwinnett County, Georgia, and a doctoral student at The University of Georgia. As an associate professor at University of North Texas,
Ron W. Wilhelm works with preservice and inservice teachers. He collaborates with Jan Sparks, who teaches at Cowart Elementary School in Dallas.