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Why Teach Social Studies at the Elementary Level

January 08, 2014
Gail Hall


   As instructional time for ELA and math has increased over the past few years, time spent on social studies topics, such as history and geography, has fallen dramatically in many elementary classrooms. This should concern all of us in education, if we are truly interested in developing well-rounded students.
   It has been well documented in educational journals (i.e.  The Geography Teacher and the Journal of Geography) that children need practice with spatial thinking in order to do well later on in middle school and in high school, when they are expected to know how to read and to intepret maps.
   For young children to get this experience, they need to get out of their
seats, out of their schools, and MOVE within their spatial world. They need to know what mapping means, and they need to be creating their own maps with keys and scales that represent places and distances.
   We, in New York State, are lucky to have such a rich history. Yet, sadly, many of our students will never truly appreciate it unless we successfully integrate history into our ELA instruction. To my thinking, only squeezing in short social studies lessons whenever there is a small gap between isolated reading, writing, and math lessons doesn’t do the trick. Integrating historical novels, such as Drums at Saratoga at the 4th grade level, is a much richer way of teaching history and reading skills. For students to fully understand the motives of the historical figures in these novels, and to grasp the relevance of the historical events, students must be taught to read “closely” as suggested by the Common Core State Standards.
   For proof that the Common Core encourages the integration of social studies concepts into ELA instruction, refer to the Shifts in Practice document which includes:
·        Balancing Informational & Literary Text
·        Building Knowledge in the Disciplines
·        Staircase of Complexity
·        Text-based Answers
·        Writing from Sources
·        Academic Vocabulary
   I plead with my elementary colleagues to make sure to integrate social studies wherever you can in your instruction. Also, getting students out into their community to take part in hands-on geography projects, or to learn about the fascinating history of this area, can be very motivating and educational for students. It can help build the background knowledge they will need as they are challenged with high expectations in the classroom.
   So, get those kids out into their town and region to discover our many local museums, waterways, and unique places like the Erie Canal or Fort Niagara.
There is so much to explore!
Editor's Note: Gail is a fourth grade teacher in the Winchester Elementary School in West Seneca, NY (near Buffalo). She has been a leader in the New York Geographic Alliance for many years. Gail practices what she preaches. She takes her students outdoors frequently, and her instruction is infused regularly with geography and history. Gail is the primary author of one or our Erie Canal Module lessons, a great example of closed reading. She is also currently organizing the Great Lakes Student Summit, to be held in Buffalo on May 15, 2014.
We also suggest that the article in this section, "New Social Studies Framework Now Available." Despite what many believe, social studies (geography, history, economics, civics, etc.) is NOT optional in the elementary grades!