Friday, April 29, 2011

Social Studies...NYC's Sad Casualty of Standardized Testing

This morning, during independent reading time, I was discussing a book with one of my students....and he was a little confused. It was "Dust Bowl", a poetic account of a little girl living through the Great Depression. I asked him, "Vinnie, have you ever heard of the Great Depression?" He said, "Ummm, noooo....".

Feeling very discouraged and trying my hardest not to show it, I sat next to him and quietly gave him a quick explanation of that time period.  I ended my little lesson with, "The great Depression ended in the late 1930s under the presidency of FDR, his New Deal really helped. Soon after, World War II began." By now, three other boys had put down their own books and were candidly eavesdropping with great fascination, and it dawned on me that none of then knew about the Great Depression, either. I know this because they had their I'm-hearing-new-information faces on.

Andy, one of the listeners, piped up, "Is World War II still going on?" Poker-face. For a second, I thought he was joking.
I kept a poker face, too, but I'll admit, it was difficult to hide my shock. I said, "No, Andy, dear. WWII ended in 1945."

He frowned, deep in thought for a second, his big preadolescent brown eyes shifting. "Well, is it WW III now, then?"

Again, I responded calmly. Mind you, it takes years of experience with children to master this skill when inside, you are bubbling up. I was actually bubbling up with sympathy and frustration. It was bubbling up so much that I closed my eyes for a second, took a deep breath, and then pushed on. This helps me to be sure the right words come out, and I don't say anything that may insult my students. "No, there is no WW III."

(Hmmmm...I seem to be overusing the word "bubbling"....coincidence?)

The boys went back to their books. I tried to recover. Andy is a very bright kid. He is a talented dancer, artist, and poet. Although he lacks self-control, he is respectful to adults and puts a good effort into his academics. Vinnie excels in math, is reading above a 6th grade level, and is very well-spoken and as sensible as a twelve year old boy can possibly be.

And yet, one of them knows nothing about WWII and the other knows nothing about The Great Depression. NOTHING. In addition, until I informed them myself, a large majority if my class did not know that our country is at war. At the beginning of the school year, we were reading a passage about Anne Frank. Just to assess my students' prior knowledge before reading, I asked, by show of hands, who had heard of The Holocaust. About half of my class raised their hands.

I mulled over this during my lunch period, finding myself distracted from the massivle pile of papers I was attempting to grade while eating my bologna sandwich. Recently, I have (obviously) been writing and reading a whole lot about about Education "Reform". I know this "reform" focuses primarily on Language Arts and Mathematics because the NYS Standardized tests supposedly assess childrens' abilities in these TWO areas of academics, denouncing Social Studies, Science, Art, Music, Enrichment, Conflict Resolution, and Creative Writing.  Although Social Studies and Science are testing sbjects as well, they are only tested every few years, usually on fourth and eighth grade levels. Teachers, such as myself, who teach either ELA or math on the sixth-grade level are under a microscope that Social Studies teachers, for example, are not. Don't worry, I'm not blaming them. Their passion and inspiration is being stifled as well. In fact, the Social Studies teachers at my school MUST take an ELA test-driven approach to teaching their content. The research projects and engaging activities that involve the use of technology and art supplies in the classroom have been replaced with DBQs (Document-Based Questions) and multiple-choice passages based on the Social Studies curriculum.
So, what happens to History? Do our students grow up without the information that teaches them empathy? Will our students grow up only to repeat history's disasters because they were deprived of understanding the key elements of humanity? How is this system going to shape them into thoughtful adults? It isn't. The education they are entitled to today is meant to turn them into drones.

As and English teacher, I have found ways around this. We read historical fiction. We research and discuss the non-fiction passages in test prep books that are related to history.  I do what I can. But I am not equipped to teach both subjects, because I am not allowed the time to do so. They have a Social Studies teacher, and his pedagogy is being squelched as well.

This is an emergency!!

My own students are clueless about crucial eras in American History, WORLD history, because their elementary teachers had to focus on the subjects that are tested as per the policies of education "reformers". Suddenly, in the past 10 or so years, history and social studies have been placed on the back burner. The proof is in my students. How could we, as NYC teachers, let this happen? Are we so afraid of the system's repercussions on us as professionals that we have compromised our own pedagogy?

Our NYC students are being robbed of a Social Studies education. Are suburban children deprived as well?

My son is in the third grade in a suburb outside of the city. He has learned, on top of test prep of course, a decent amount in Social Studies this year. He has studied economics, the Bill Of Rights, Native Americans, The Great Wall of China...the list goes on and on. His teacher is doing a great job teaching the subject so that it is engaging, and as a result, my son has learned about current events, who he is as an American as well as the value of other cultures.

Do you see a marked inconsistency here? Students who live in fairly affluent areas seem to have more of a right to a decent Social Studies education than those who live in poor areas of NYC. Yet, my students NEED this education more than anyone! Learning about History and Social studies is a vital element to self-discovery. My kids have no idea who they are. We don't even have to time to educate them about their OWN communities or cultures!

When I was a little girl, I learned about the Holocaust in Elementary School. I can't remember which grade. I learned about the Incas, the Myans, Ferdinand Magellan, The Chinese New Year. We did projects that not only involved writing, but arts and crafts as well. We built mini pueblos, constructed dioramas.

Every Friday, I would climb onto a school bus with my 5th grade class and volunteer at a Senior Center. I'd sing and dance and play cards with my senior citizen "buddy". I learned to dance the Charleston from the 1920s, and the song, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" from the Depression Era. I heard firsthand accounts of soldiers and survivors, and reacted emotionally. This is how  learned the history of the 20th Century.

I remember turning in my homework and speaking to teachers respectfully. That was very important. I remember taking Enrichment class and building a cardboard robot with a tape recorder inside her, and recording my voice so she could talk. I invented a velcro book cover and grew plants and painted murals. I remember in 4th grade, writing a 60-page novel while my teacher encouraged, inspired and supported me, telling me that one day I could publish my own book. She never stopped me to fill in a bubble sheet or asked me to identify the Most Relevant Details in my writing. I did take a standardized test here and there, but I don't remember them being all that important. And when I did take them, I panicked during the test, because I am not a good test-taker. It was understood that the tests didn't define my true abilities.

I went to NYC Schools until the sixth grade.

Guess what? I turned out rather nicely, if I do say so myself. I grew up and went to college and earned a masters' degree and became a teacher in the very same school system that educated me when I was little. What a rude awakening. It was like stepping into a completely different world. What haaaapened??? It was unrecognizable. Gone were the rainbows of my childhood. They were replaced by the gray clouds of Corporate Education Reform.

It's mind-boggling. Bloomberg and Klein and GWB and Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee managed to single-handedly DEMOLISH the education of MILLIONS AND MILLIONS of children, exploiting their parents by keeping them poor and misinformed, WHILE bullying teachers into completely dismissing the most valuable components of education (History, Social Studies, science, music, and art) that are so obviously vital to the intellectual growth of their students. Innovative teaching practices that have been proven effective by numerous research studies, professors of education, and scholars have been thrown to the wind. It's terrifying. What will become of our democracy if our students don't even know what democracy means?

That's all, folks. I've worked myself up. I'm too furious to write. It's Friday night. No more stress.


  1. I agree with you 100%. As a social studies teacher, I am deeply saddened by the state of social studies in both our schools and society. We need to do something! Your blog post has done an excellent job of educating people about the problem but we need to do even more (I'm not saying you aren't doing enough, I don't know what you are doing). We need to be persistent in educating both the public and the policy makers of the problem and how to fix it.

    I really appreciate your efforts as an English teacher to educate children about other content areas because after all, every content area is connected and helps explain the world.

    Keep fighting the good fight! Your passion is contagious!

  2. Thank you! I love it when people comment on my blog. I wish it would happen more often. because then I would know what my viewers think of it!
    You are right, publishing online is not enough. And unfortunalely, there is this sense of apathy in my school system (at least the parts of it that I see) when it comes to fighting for emphasis on the other content areas.
    I'm trying to arrange to go to the Save Our Schools March on Washington in late July. Come summer, I'm going to attend some school board meetings in my sons' district, but deepest my concern is for urban children.

    I think informing the parents is the first step because policymakers seem to have made up their minds about not listening to teachers. I just got some links to parent organizations on FB and I am going to plaster my blog all over them.

    I have plenty of posts that discuss all sorts of wretched problems with our Education Policies today! :)

    Thank you for reading, and for your feedback!

  3. I just wrote an entire response, but it got lost when trying to post! Just want to say that I feel your pain when it comes to having to teach so much history so that the students can understand the literature. I am teaching American Lit this year and have spent plenty of time discussing history and culture so they can understand the text better. Tomorrow we return from break and will be doing the Jazz era and Harlem Renaissance. Wish me luck!

  4. Very thought daughter is in 7th grade in a school system outside of NYC in New Jersey. She is main streamed some of the time in Social Studies and most of the time in a small group of Learning Disabled students. She happened to walk in while I was reading this blog and asked her if she new about the Holocaust. She surprisingly couldn't tell me anything about it, but insisted she had heard of it. She was aware of the Cold War, the Great Depression, FDR and WWII. So the suburbs are doing a decent job even in the LLD classes. Hmmmm. My son went through the NYC system through 2nd Grade, loved Social Studies then and even in College. Good Luck with building this awareness!

  5. Thank you for taking the time to write and spread the words about what is really going on....I am glad you sent me an email inviting me to your blog.


  6. ART-tivist--
    You're so welcome...although I don't remember emailing...I posted on a lot of Organization's Walls on FB. I'm glad you checked it out...hopefully I'll have time to write more soon..but this week is busy. STATE TEST WEEK!! aaaagh, yucky. I just told my students today, "NO MORE multiple choice for the rest of the year...I promise!" I'm going to check out your blog and post it on my list! I love having new readers :)

    Ronald...maybe when your son whent to school in NYC, that was before NCLB? Or when it was just starting? Thanks for your insights. Very interesting.

    Helen, best of luck with Jazz and Harlem! That sounds like fun to teach. Luckily, I really enjoy teaching history as it relates to literature, but it would be easier if the kids had more prior knowledge. I think the SS teachers at my school do a fantastic job of keeping their lessons engaging with the little amount of time they have.

  7. I worked at a "failing" school that was very very test-driven. Therefore, since 5th graders do not test in history, I taught it....maybe 3x...all year. This was not my intention but with 3 hrs of ELA a day, 2.5 of math, PE, assemblies, etc we honestly only had 3 hours in the year to cover history. Such a disservice to our children, our future. But who cares, they were a failing school of immigrant children in poverty, worth only their dismal math and ela skills. The "spark" I saw in some of their eyes, the boy interested in engineering, the diplomatic child who could cheer anyone up...didn't matter to anyone but myself. :(