What's Happening in Character?

Using Social Studies to Develop Active Citizens 

Posted by Tina Haas on Thu, Mar 29, 2018 @ 09:03 AM

Social Studies is an inherently personal topic.

It is that time of the school day that has been carved out to specifically look at our history, our accomplishments, failures, systems we have created in order to survive and most importantly, relationships we have developed. It is more than the mere regurgitation of names and dates. It is a wonderful opportunity to look with a critical eye and develop our own ideas while refining our values through connections, self-reflection and conversations with peers. It offers a chance to learn from the past so we can do better for the future.

This is a realization that our world desperately needs.

standardized However,  in the era of standardized testing focusing our energy on literacy and math (which without a doubt, are essential to the successful citizen), our schools have been putting social studies on the back burner. It is the last of the subject areas to be "reinvented" as common-core or next generation thinking. It seems education has deemed it as no longer being crucial to the success of the individual. Nevertheless, one cannot deny its relevance for the success of society.

By connecting their present lives to the patterns of the past, children begin to build an individualized understanding of what it means to be a good citizen, and learn from the positive and negative consequences experienced by our ancestors. It is our duty to empower our youth by giving them access to the necessary knowledge and understanding of how to become informed and active citizens in society.

Our world is in a constant state of conflict. Disagreements between groups with differing moral, ethical, religious, political ideals and wars fought between countries over land and resources are just some of the few. These conflicts eventually create an unavoidable change in the lives of the people directly and indirectly involved. Whether it is on a personal level of self-discovery, or on a grander scale of political and social change, people are always affected. Similar themes emerge time and time again in the history of our world. As Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.” 

It is our responsibility as educators to teach our students to recognize the values and complexities involved in a particular issue while considering the costs and benefits to all parties involved. We need to encourage our students to develop personal opinions based in factual evidence, regardless of whether or not  it aligns with ours. We must focus on whether they align with the values of our democracy while simultaneously being sensitive to cultural differences.

Additionally, more than the critical studies of writings and artifacts of the past, students truly learn what events mean when the topics become personal. When they take action in service projects, write letters to politicians, and see the effects of their actions resonating in their own community, they begin to develop their own system of values and beliefs.

My students have always completed at least one service project a year. This year, we are kicking it up a notch and are completing one a month to be actively engaged citizens. From running a sock drive to collect over 600 pairs of socks for the homeless, to making holiday cards for the elderly, the students show great pride and passion in what they do. When asked at the mid-year point what their favorite part of fifth grade was, the answer was a resounding "service projects".

Examples like these show us how students find their worth regarding citizenship. They are able to see their actions ripple  throughout their community. I have heard students speak out and say, "I'm going to be a senator someday so I can help solve this!" Others have sent me personal research they completed on their own time about an issue that piqued their interest. They have not only developed empathy by learning the importance of remaining an active citizen, but they have also developed a sense of agency in their school and community.

As an educator, what about you?

What changes can you make to bring social studies to life?

When students leave our classrooms they should feel the responsibility of becoming and remaining actively involved citizens. Our country desperately needs our next generation to have the passions, desires, and knowledge of how to become informed and use that information to act for the common good in our society.

It is up to us as educators to light that fire.


tina picTina Haas is a Detroit elementary teacher leader who is passionate about improving the quality of life for families in struggling communities. She spends after work hours writing curriculum and tutoring students in reading and math. Outside of work you can find her crafting, reading, participating in triathlons, and spending time with her family.