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We Can Do Better

A plea to parents, the board and the administration to craft a more lively, international elementary school social studies curriculum

Dear fellow citizens and parents of South Orange and Maplewood, this editorial is a plea – addressed to you, and through you to the Board and the school administration. This Monday, the Board will consider a proposed revision to elements of the K-5 Social Studies curriculum. We cannot accept it. We must ask the administration to slow down, to pause, and to give our children the education they deserve.

Words, words, words – I will explain all. But first, from the heart – I love history and I love sharing it with kids. That is why I earned a doctorate in US History and have spent a quarter century writing and editing nonfiction books for young people, and sharing them in schools. I have probably met your children since I’ve spoken in every one of our elementary schools – sharing my passion for history. I know how excited young people can be when the past is a detective story and the hunt for clues takes them all around the world. But I am also a parent who has seen his son, entering 7th grade, subjected to a numbing sequence of Social Studies units on NJ geography, the Lenape, and the Founding Fathers, year after sleepy year.

When I heard the Elementary School curriculum was to be revised this year I asked to see it. Unlike English Language Arts, which is online, the Social Studies curriculum has never been posted. It took me months of begging to get to see it – and there on paper was the blueprint for the endless repetition my son, and your children, lived through: NJ, Indians, and Founders in 3rd grade, 4th grade, and 5th grade, followed by US history in 6th grade. I then looked at the curricular support materials for 3rd and 4th grade. They would be unacceptable if written by third graders. Here is one example: “Starting from early spring to late autumn, many Native American tribes moved around frequently, searching for things to eat…In California, the Foragers harvested acorns from oak trees and ground them into flour…Tribes grew corn, wheat, fruits and garden vegetables often using clever methods.” Have you ever heard of the Forager people? Did you know they grew corn and wheat – presumably in their down time when not out Foraging.

OK so the past was bad, I assumed that this year’s revision would be much better. No, the sequence has not been changed. The same relentless repetition of local and US history. If your children have been through elementary school, how many times did they get the American Revolution? The Lenape? The Constitution? Westward migration? By contrast, in our community which is 40% African American and increasingly both Asian and Hispanic, how many times did they study the history of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, or the Americas? How often did they have the chance to explore Ancient Egypt, China, India, Greece, or Rome? Not once in the past, and, if this revision goes through, not once now.

I have been told the administration feels hamstrung because teachers in elementary school have just one hour a week for Social Studies. But why should that time be devoted to repeating the same material? And neighboring school districts, such as Millburn, which have the same constraints, study Ancient Civilizations in elementary school. Indeed our revised Language Arts curriculum for 3rd grade includes Ancient Civilization. Why waste Social Studies time on a stand alone stub on the Lenape (which we are mandated to cover again in 4th grade) when we could blend history and reading in a dynamic cross-curricular third grade?

Parents, we can pull together on this and support the administration, which does indeed have a lot on its plate. Join me in asking our educational leaders to pause, go back to the drawing board, drop the repetition of the US history units and craft a 3rd grade ancient civilization Social Studies strand to interweave with and enhance global ELA.

Social Studies is a beautiful subject; it is the investigation of everything human beings ever did, to winkle out secrets and map out patterns. It is the playpen for question and debate. Our children deserve a curriculum sparkling with life, filled opportunities for new discovery. That is what a revised curriculum should look like – whether it involves one hour of teaching a week or one hundred. Please join me in insisting that the administration give our children that opportunity to explore the world, investigate the past, and develop the critical thinking skills of future citizens.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Amy Higer June 18, 2012 at 07:54 PM
I believe the answer to your question, Andrew, is the latter. The narrowing of the curriculum is the result of powerful incentives driven, but not mandated, by NCLB. This is a central point Diane Ravitch made in her recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. There are pockets of opposition forming against this insanity among educational leaders, including in NJ, but only pockets. I understand Mr. Aronson did not write his original essay to take on this much broader issue, but I wonder what we can really do with creating a robust and rigorous curriculum when our public school education is taken over by the narrow goal of producing test score gains in only two subjects. By all means, let's support creation of an excellent social studies curriculum for the hour a week we have to spend on social studies. But let's not give up the fight for better education by failing to challenge the broader structural constraints. Perhaps we can all work together on that one?
Michael Paris June 18, 2012 at 08:09 PM
Anna. I didn't intend to say anything nasty, and I don't think I did. I'm sorry you were offended, and I apologize if anyone else was. I merely wanted to point out that we all come at these issues from some particular political perspectives. That is inevitable, in my opinion, and it applies to everyone. I understand this effort as primarily a call for more process. But it is also a substantive claim--namely, that the BOE would be making a grave mistake were it to endorse the proposed social studies curriculum (which none of us, save Mr. Aronson, have seen) tonight, because, all things considered, we can and should do better than this. The claim is that "this," that is, what is proposed now, is not very good at all. So these are the issues to be decided: Should there be more process? Why or why not? Can what is being proposed now be defended as the best we can do under the circumstances? If there should be more process, what should that process look like? Who should be involved in it, why, and how? I don't have enough information to make an informed judgment on any of these questions, so I'll reserve judgment until I hear what the superintendent, the board, and other parents have to say about it.
Andrew Lee June 19, 2012 at 01:35 AM
@Amy Higer: Thank you for answering my question. Although I think test scores do have some value, I share your concerns. From what Board members said tonight, I think they understand these concerns.
Marc Aronson June 19, 2012 at 10:19 AM
THANK YOU To everyone who posted here in an engaged and thoughtful fashion, and, especially, to the administration. Last night Dr. Osborne decided to pull back the existing proposal for K-5 (I think it is actually K-4, one of the years had been discussed earlier) in order to revisit it in view of alignment with MYP. In other words they listened to us, to all of you, to the community, and he made the difficult right decision. As Marina said to the Board, this shows that we can all work together, we can row in the same direction, to craft the kind of education we all believe is possible. I look forward to helping in any way to craft a viable, inspiring, international, and interdisciplinary K-5 Social Stuides curriculum -- stay tuned.
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