Building and understanding community, a microcosm of society, is (or should be) a pillar of our education system. Yet, dwindling attention to civics and the social studies pushes such learning to the periphery, if taught at all. However, like parents who sneak veggies into their kids’ food, teachers can find ways to slip it in, especially with quality literature (to say nothing of what could be accomplished on the web).
In between college and “the real world” I found myself working two dream jobs: as an instructor at The Mountain Institute and as assistant instructor at North Carolina Outward Bound School. The two experiences played a major role in shaping how I approached teaching language arts in my elementary classrooms.
As an outdoor educator, there are three main skill sets necessary for success:
- A proficiency with technical systems related to camping, climbing, caving, and wilderness navigation using map & compass.
- The ability to teach said systems and then scaffold student independence with them in order to maximize safety and build toward mastery.
- The capacity to understand the student experience and connect with them to a meaningful degree. In essence, to build community through shared experiences and discussions.
It is the latter that most profoundly shaped, and ultimately married, my social studies and literature curriculums.
Students, no matter the age, inhabit a social world we as teachers can faint imagine. While we concern ourselves with lessons, assessments, paperwork, communicating with parents, professional development, collaborating with colleagues, and trying to balance an educator’s workload with family life, students experience the learning environment from an almost purely social perspective.
For them, the social fabric they find themselves a part of is profoundly absorbing, and much more palpable than the abstractions we hope they’ll master.
So, what does this have to do with literature and social studies? Everything.
During trainings for both organizations, we instructors-to-be were tossed headlong into the role of students – expected to share resources, communicate to solve problems, and confront the unknown as a team. Living, sleeping, paddling, climbing, cooking, and getting lost together exacerbated differences and infused decision-making with emotions not uncommon in daily life.
In debriefing discussions, the trainers encouraged us to deconstruct and reflect on the student experience through the lens of being students ourselves. In doing so, they cultivated empathy, tolerance, and compassion, thereby facilitating our ability to connect with our students. It is a perspective that continues to inform my instruction.
During my nine years as a classroom teacher I’ve been reminded time and again that while helping students gain knowledge and skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic is an objective, it is not the primary objective. It is my opinion that, first and foremost, students must become life long learners. For this reason, I care very little about whether they know what year the Civil War began and care much more that they are curious about factors that shape our world – be they geological, anthropological, or astronomical.
It is through this lens that my love for teaching social studies with literature first took root.
I should at this point be clear that while the social studies includes topics related to history and geography, it is inherently about how humans interact with each other and the world.
What better place to find myriad examples of those relationships than literature?
Plus, well-written literature (of which there is an ever growing body of for children and YA) envelops students in a world where they can explore social relationships, gaining valuable data about choices that work and choices that don’t.
With civic education in decline and ramped up attention given to test prep and standardized scores, we need to preserve the human experience when it comes to learning. Students need to interact, discuss, explore, and experience. They need to marinate with materials that connect them with the larger world. Digital domains can help do this. So can quality literature and engaged dialogues.
But for good old fashioned social studies, don’t nothing beat a shared slog up a steep slope in the pouring rain, lost; followed by a hot cocoa reflection and debriefing, around a small Leave No Trace fire.