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Not Just Another Boring History Class

Teaching social studies without including current events defeats the entire purpose of taking a social studies class. The entire reason for including the social studies into school from kindergarten to senior year of high school is to prepare students to be active members of their community. Teaching history is for them to look back on what our country, and others, have done, and make informed decisions by learning from the mistakes of others. A social studies classroom that doesn’t include connections to the present is meaningless to students. I must confess that I did not like history in high school. My teacher made history all about the past and never brought up how it was relevant today. Everything was primary source analyzation and reading chapter after chapter from the textbook. As entertaining he was as a teacher, none of the material held any value to the students because we could not see the relevance. This is exactly why using current events and other social issues as an anchor for your lessons will never fail. Students are more interested in making those connections to the past because they hold relevance to everyday life. In this post, I will be discussing my most recent lesson on the controversial topic of immigration to the U.S., and including current events such as the NYC terrorist attack on Halloween, DACA, and the civil war occurring in Myanmar. From my observations and the exit slips I was given, the students were all very engaged and seemed very interested. Many of the students have parents or grandparents who are immigrants, so the lesson held even more significance for them.

My essential question I gave the students was “is it our responsibility to help those in need?” I borrowed this question from my classmates who had done their current events lesson on the same topic I had already written my second lesson about. They discussed the Syrian refugees, but I felt their essential question was really great and used it in my lesson on immigrants and immigration policies. My Big Idea was that there are many reasons someone may feel they need to leave their home and that they should not be turned away from receiving help. This lesson was very geared toward teaching tolerance, and because many students come from families of immigrants, the lesson hit home for them and I could tell. The only time I stood at the front of the room during these 90 minutes were to explain the directions and provide them with key terms: Immigration, Emigration, Refugee, Asylum-Seeker, Humanitarian Crisis, and Persecution. This part only took 15 minutes, and the other 75 were devoted to group work. I split the class into 6 groups of 6. I had 4 examples of humanitarian crises (Rwanda, Irish Potato Famine, Puerto Rico/Hurricane Maria, and Myanmar) and the other 2 groups received a policy for immigrants to America, DACA and the Diversity Visa Lottery Program. Each group was given two sources read that discussed each topic (if I had more than one class period, I would have had them research and find their own sources) and were invited to research further on the subject if more information was needed. Again, students were only required to read the two articles pertaining to their crisis or policy. I gave students about 45 minutes to research their topic and the remaining 35 minutes were dedicated to presentations and my closing discussion. Students were encouraged to go to the library and find books or other sources on their topic, as well as considering other sources from online databases. Again, if I could make this into a two-day lesson, I would make one class strictly on research and have them find all of their own sources, and then made the second day a day of presentations, where each group has to have a 5–8 minute presentation on their topic and how it is relevant to the refugee crisis today. Then spent the rest of the time summarizing each topic and writing their answers to the exit slip question/my essential question. There were a few key points I made about the presentations: they are very informal and there would be 6 people at once up front, so public speaking should be a little easier, but most importantly, everyone had to say something. Nobody could go up front with their group and say nothing; everyone had to participate and put in at least two sentences on their behalf. Although some were still nervous and shaky up front, I tried to make the presentation portion as least threatening as possible. I felt Inclusive Classroom Community (number 11 of the Core SS Practices) was hit well in my lesson, and my supervisor agreed. Anyways, here is a list of the 12 sources I curated for this lesson.

The lottery was a very current event, because three days before I gave my lesson, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, and a receiver of a green card because of this lottery program, ran his truck into a group of bicyclists in Manhattan. Donald Trump wasted no time in criticizing the terrorist, but also the program that gave him a visa in the first place. I chose to include this topic in my lesson because I was furious. Less than a month earlier, a white citizen opened fire in Las Vegas and the reaction from the government was that he probably had a mental illness. Government officials had no discussion about gun control. However, when an immigrant commits a terror attack, within an hour, the president is stating that our immigration policy is the problem and that even fewer green cards should be given out. However, there are so many people in less fortunate countries who truly need the help and the opportunities. This was the big idea that I wanted them to realize. Every current event and social issue is viewed differently and if they don’t believe immigrants should be allowed into the U.S., that is fine. All I want them to be able to do is see the other side and make an informed opinion. Below I have included some examples of exit slips I received after the students researched their event/policy and heard what everyone else was researching. For the slip, they were to reflect on the issues and policies they just learned about, and were to answer the question “is it our responsibility to help those in need?” Of course, there were a few who’s answers avoided the question, but I would say at least 90% of them really grasped the material. Below are a few examples. I also included one example of the worksheet they were to use as a guide during their research.

By making this a student-centered lesson, and by being there to guide their thinking, I allowed students to make their own connections. If I could redo this lesson, I would have included more connections to thinking historically. I tried to use the Irish Potato Famine as somewhat of a connection, but I wish I had maybe included another example from the past, maybe before the Famine. However, I feel like by including current events in place of historic events, my message was better received. I was really excited by how involved the entire class was. There were three or four students who seemed quiet or disinterested, I wasn’t sure, but the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. This is exactly why I am glad I used a handful of current events and social issues in my lesson, I saw all students interested in what I was trying to get across.

I truly believe that as a social studies teacher, it is our duty to root our social studies curriculum in connecting history to economics to sociology to political science and how they all intertwine and have relevance in their futures. Students should get the Big Idea that there is weight in every person’s actions and decisions. In particular, I want to teach students who are democratic citizens, and want them to realize it is important to fight for your beliefs, and there are centuries upon millenniums of history that tell us this. To learn from our mistakes, as both a country and a society, is important in moving forward. Too much of history is just telling the facts, but I want to gather the key facts that hold relevance to the growth of America, Europe, Africa, etc. and how those events still matter today.

I know this does not have to do with my lesson, but I am giving an example of a way I could connect current events to the past if I were to do a current event lesson this week. There is always something going on, and even if for whatever reason, there have been few notable events, contemporary social issues are always relevant. For example, I believe I have discussed my first lesson person, but it was on dominant narratives. For that lesson, I connected slavery in the United States to how African Americans are still not truly free today. It is important for students to be aware of what is happening in the world, and when done right, is usually interesting!

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