Teaching Social Studies = Being (and Creating) Critical Consumers

One of my goals this year has been to finish reading some of the books that I started over the past couple of years. As I organized field trips and events for the Teaching American History grant, there were often wonderful books that I would start to read, but would not have the time to finish because I would have to move on to the next task/event/workshop/topic. In addition to my pile of gotta-gitr’-done books, I read several others, just because I could (one of the perks of being retired – well, semi-retired, at least.) Although most of the books have something to do with history, there is a memoir on the list, and a more “sciency” book about redwood trees (Thank you Jay!) Here’s the list so far:

  • The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic by John Demos
  • The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan
  • Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkin
  • The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death by Jill Lepore
  • The Wild Trees by Richard Preston
  • West with the Night by Beryl Markham
  • Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensible Man by Walter Stahr
  • The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan
  • Generous Enemies by Judith Van Buskirk
  • In Small Things Forgotten: An Archeology of Early American Life by James Deetz

I also read several novels by the likes of Nora Roberts, David Baldacci and a few Kindle freebies. All in all, it’s a pretty eclectic list! So what have I learned from all of this reading?

First of all, I now know lots of things that will certainly make me a desirable member of your next trivia night team. The questions would have to be pretty obscure ones, but if you need me, I am available!

Second, I continue to confirm to myself that I will read (almost) anything. Somehow I have not yet latched onto the zombie/vampire/horror genres, but otherwise, bring it on! I will have a go! I have certainly gotten more interested in history and memoir of late, but I have always enjoyed historical fiction, so I guess that’s not so surprising.

Third, as far as historical writing, there is always more to learn about people and events. I can see why historians usually specialize in a particular era or topic because there is SO MUCH to know!! One cannot possible know it all, but I’ll keep trying…

Finally, and relevant to the point of this blog’s title, as readers, and especially as teachers, we must be critical consumers of the information that is out there. I have enjoyed reading all of these books, and part of the reading process has been to question the author and source the information. Where did this information come from? What is the evidence that supports this interpretation? What is the context? Is there another way to interpret this? What do other writers/historians say about this?

This idea of being critical consumers is important not only for us but for our students as well. We must model for our students what it means to question the information we use and the materials we put in front of our students. There is so much information available to us and our students, we have to help them develop the skills necessary to sort it out and think about it critically. This is an essential skill for navigating both history and current events!

Which brings us (finally) to “The Inquiries” (dun dun dunnnn!) Now that most of the NYS Toolkit Inquiries have been posted (78 of the 84 have been released as I write this), I encourage you to check them out. Teams of writers, piloters and reviewers have spent lots of time working on them and I think you will find much that will be useful to you and your students. The inquiries are structured and scaffolded tasks and sources that are intended to build our students’ content knowledge and disciplinary skills around a compelling question. My advice is to look them over and implement one to see how the inquiry design model works within your curriculum. (BTW inquiries are NOT an entire curriculum. One of my teacher friends calls them “moments” within the larger curriculum – a good way of thinking about them.) However, it would be foolish to think that they are a perfect fit for your classroom or for your particular students. On the other hand, it would be equally imprudent to dismiss them as useless without careful examination and thoughtful analysis. We will be doing some of this thoughtful analysis at our Social Studies Leadership Network meetings this fall. All are welcome to attend!

Now, ask me a trivia question!


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