Social Education as the Curriculum Integrator
The Case of the Environment

Teachers often find themselves deluged with calls to add children’s literature, language arts activities, or even science content to their social studies instruction. Yet while an integrated curriculum is powerful, it may neglect social content. Is it time to advocate that other content areas integrate their curriculum around social education? As a case in point, let us consider how a theme from social education can be developed through children’s literature.

Students currently learn about the environment and environmental issues in nearly every school. After all, it is hard to find elementary students who are not interested in issues like endangered species, ozone depletion, or even water pollution. Educators who are interested in social education might find it intriguing to introduce books about the environment to their colleagues who teach other subjects. Those colleagues may then integrate the social studies along with other content, placing knowledge in a more complete context.

For example, Come Back, Salmon (Cone, 1992) uses well-crafted text and photographs to describe how Jackson Elementary School in Everett, Washington, contributed to cleaning up Pigeon Creek. Such books allow students to join the effort when the school adopted the creek in 1984 and to “be there” when students saw the first salmon three years later. The books below present similar opportunities for children to explore our environment from several perspectives.

Regional Environments

Three books set in the northeastern part of the United States present interesting views of how humans have changed the landscape of our continent over time. A River Ran Wild (Cherry, 1992) explores the true story of the Nashua River Valley from 1400 through 1990. In this book, readers are treated to the varied perspectives humans have had toward this river over the past six centuries. The ways in which humans have used, abused, and worked to restore the river are highlighted through both the text and the illustrations. Cherry’s emphasis on the importance of human action makes this book especially useful for social education themes.

Hudson River by Lourie (1992) provides a narrative and photographic description of this vital waterway. The author uses journal entries from his trip down the Hudson to explore both the river and its history. This book conveys the strength and beauty of the Hudson through an excellent photographic essay.

A particularly engaging book set in the northeast is Giants in the Land (Applebaum, 1993). This story focuses on the giant pines that were once used to construct the huge masts of British warships. It relates how humans harvested and utilized forests in an earlier age. Questions built around “ownership” of the environment and the effects of political change can be explored through the story of these pines which still grow in the northeast.

Individuals and the Environment

Baker’s (1991) Window chronicles a boy’s life and the environmental changes that take place as he grows from infancy to adulthood. This wordless picture book depicts the changes in the environment as seen through the window of the boy’s room. Detailed collages illustrate the transition of the neighborhood from dense forest toward urbanization. Baker cautions readers to think environmentally and take care of our planet.

Save My Rainforest by Zak (1992) tells the story of eight-year-old Omar Castillo. Omar is alarmed when he hears about the destruction of the rainforest in southern Mexico. After much effort, Omar and his father visit the Lacandona Forest. Omar is sufficiently moved by the visit to seek an audience with the President of Mexico. The struggle becomes worthwhile when Omar receives a promise from the President that the forest will be saved for future generations. Omar makes a final plea for us all to save the forest as we see a photograph of the now eleven-year-old on the final page of the book.

In The Empty Lot (Fife, 1991) readers follow an office worker named Harry as he decides to sell a two-acre plot that used to be part of his grandfather’s farm. Harry orders a sign posted: FOR SALE, EMPTY LOT. Upon visiting the lot for the first time in years, Harry is amazed to discover that the lot is anything but empty. A great number of creatures inhabit the land! As a result, Harry is moved to cross out “EMPTY” on the sign and replace it with “OCCUPIED.” Then, after a moment’s thought, Harry alters the sign to read: “OCCUPIED LOT, P.S. EVERY SQUARE INCH IN USE.”

Thompson (1992) crafts an unusual story about an old man who moves into the town dump after it is closed permanently. The man comes to consider the dump his kingdom as he cares for the menagerie of animals that inhabit the place. Readers share as he watches grass and bushes begin to grow again amidst the junk. Thompson’s amazing illustrations in The Paper Bag Prince provide a commentary on our society.

Environmental Action

Informational books which focus on issues can also add a social dimension to the study of particular environmental concerns. Saving Endangered Animals (Silverstein, 1993), for example, provides details about species, their problems, and the organizations helping them to recover. Readers are provided with the data necessary to become involved in environmental action. Habitats: Saving Wild Places (Patent, 1993), another book from the same series, provides specific cases and ways in which young citizens can become involved. Gutnik’s (1993) Recycling: Learning the Four R’s thoroughly explores the details involved with efforts to reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover our often wasted resources. Specific case studies of successful environmental action programs are explored in Gay’s (1993) Caretakers of the Earth. Readers of this book learn something about the individuals who have acted and the impact programs have had on our environment.

In summary, the wide variety of children’s books about the environment makes it possible for teachers to integrate their curriculum around social education themes. Engaging and informative books which add such themes to those issues already covered in the elementary curriculum should clearly be a part of that endeavor. Each of the books explored here, or others like them, will assist in curricular integration and also provide possibilities for extension into the community beyond the classroom.

Although books have been categorized by level, it is important to remember that many books cross levels and the designations are only for the reader’s convenience.

P = Primary (grades 1,2,3)
I = Intermediate (grades 4,5,6)
A = Advanced (grades 7,8,9)

Applebaum, D. (1993). Giants in the land. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. I
Baker, J. (1991). Window. New York: Greenwillow. All Ages.
Cherry, L. (1992). A river ran wild. San Diego, CA: A Gulliver Green Book/Harcourt Brace and Company. I
Cone, M. (1992). Come back, Salmon: How a group of dedicated kids adopted Pigeon Creek and brought it back to life. Photographs by Sidnee Wheelwright. San Francisco: Sierra Club. I
Fife, D. H. (1991). The empty lot. Boston: Sierra Club/Little, Brown. P
Gay, K. (1993). Caretakers of the Earth. Hillsdale, NJ: Enslow. A
Gutnik, M. J. (1993). Recycling: Learning the four R’s Hillsdale, NJ: Enslow. A
Lourie, P. (1992). Hudson River. Honesdale, PA: Caroline House. I/A
Patent, D. H. (1993). Habitats: Saving wild places. Hillsdale, NJ: Enslow. A
Thompson, C. (1992). The paper bag prince. New York: Knopf. P/I
Silverstein, A., Silverstein, V., & Silverstein, R. (1993). Saving endangered animals. Hillsdale, NJ: Enslow. A
Zak, M. (1992). Save my rainforest. Translated by Nancy Schimmel. Volcano, CA: Volcano Press. I/A

About the Authors
Robert H. Lombard, Associate Professor at Western Illinois University, teaches courses in elementary social studies and global education.

Meredith J. McGowan is a librarian and consultant in Tempe, AZ.

Tom McGowan is Associate Professor at Arizona State University. He teaches courses in elementary social studies and literature-based instruction.