Teaching Social Studies = A Corps of Discovery

Welcome to the first edition of the transformed Teaching American History blog, now the Teaching Social Studies blog! Although I will continue to write about historical and critical thinking, standards and teaching and learning in the classroom, the focus will widen to all social studies content.

I just (finally) finished the book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose, the story of the Corps of Discovery and their trip of exploration of the Northwest from 1803 to 1806. I had started it in the spring in preparation for our first TAH book giveaway, but I was not able to finish it as the school year got busier and busier. I am now on a mission to complete the pile of books that I have started and half-read, so that I can move along to the pile of books that I want to read but have yet to start. So many books and so little time!!

As I was reading about Lewis and Clark and their expedition into little-explored territory and unpredictable circumstances, I began to wonder if there are lessons we could learn from Corps of Discovery as social studies teachers and administrators investigate the new NYS Social Studies Framework and begin to determine its impact on teaching and learning in classrooms.

Planning and Preparation: Meriwether Lewis spent an enormous amount of time preparing for the trip. He spent months learning about zoology, botany, medicine, geography, celestial navigation and much more. He and William Clark hand-picked the men, armaments and supplies that they would take on their expedition as well as planning the route as far as they could, based on what they knew at the time. Beyond a certain point in the trip, though, they could image what they might find, but they couldn’t be sure. Our work with the Social Studies will also require planning and preparation. We should expect to work on the Framework this year to discover what it says, what it means and how we need to apply it in the classroom. At some point, we will need to use our imaginations, such as with unknown changes to the Regents assessments, but that shouldn’t stop us from planning as far as we can, based on what we know now.

Collaboration and Shared Leadership: Lewis and Clark were the Captains of the expedition in a model of shared leadership – they sought each other’s counsel and had each other’s backs. And although Lewis and Clark were clearly in charge of the expedition, it is also clear that they did not accomplish this exploration on their own. The expedition consisted of military men, fur traders who acted as interpreters, a woman, her infant and a slave belonging to William Clark. Every member of the expedition was crucial to its success. Lewis and Clark sought input from the members of the Corps and, at times, let the majority rule. In our work with the new Framework, we cannot ever think that we can do it on our own. We need to work in collaboration with our colleagues and seek out counsel about how to approach this work for the benefit of our students’ learning.

Risk and Reward: Lewis and Clark and the members of the expedition knew they were risking everything for the success of the mission and, at times, they all made mistakes. They got lost, followed the wrong trail, stopped when they should have kept going, kept going when they should have stopped, lost horses, boats, supplies and time. Even in the face of all their mistakes, however, they never threw up their hands in defeat. They never gave up. They believed the rewards were worth the cost. To be a teacher these days is to understand the risks and the challenges of new standards, new curriculum and new assessments. It can be overwhelming. We can’t let ourselves feel be defeated because we know that the work we put in to understanding the new Framework and rethinking curriculum and teaching will be worth the reward of improved student learning.

I recommend the book and hope you will have a chance to be part of your own Corps of Discovery of the new Social Studies Framework! Let me know what you find when you get there!


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