Thinking on Education: Teaching the History of Voting Rights

Students sitting at the desks of today’s classrooms are America’s next voters. They literally will be the deciders of our nation’s future.

To that end, they must understand the importance and power of voting. We educators, in partnership with their parents, are in an important position to help them appreciate this responsibility. Teaching the younger generation about their civic duty has less to do with politics and more to do with freedom of choice.

“For the nation’s democracy to function properly and for government to provide fair representation, all eligible Americans must have the opportunity to vote — and be encouraged to do so. Our collective self-rule is established and fostered through free, fair, accessible, and secure elections through which the voice of every eligible American is heard,” said Danielle Root and Liz Kennedy, of the Center for American Progress, in a July 2018 article.

Teaching the History of Voting Rights

Teaching students the history of voting rights within the United States can help them better understand the weight and sway they have in exercising this right.

Our nation’s democratic process may be an example to others, but it took many protests, movements, and the mobilization of large groups of disenfranchised residents to get where we are today. Education about the history of voting in America expands students’ minds, and gives them a greater appreciation for their own ability to share their voice.

According to research by KQED, when George Washington was elected as our first president in 1789, only 6 percent of the population could vote. This was due to land ownership laws and states’ differing voting regulations. Thus, only white male landowners could vote.

In 1856, land ownership was finally removed from voting requirements, opening the poll doors to all white men.

Black Voters

Studies Weekly vote
African Americans vote for the first time, as depicted in 1867 on the cover of Harper’s magazine. Engraving by Alfred R. Waud.

In 1868, the U.S. passed the 14th Amendment, granting citizenship to former slaves. Legislators followed up with the 15th Amendment in 1870, declaring that the right to vote could not be denied because of race. As citizens, male African Americans could legally vote.

Despite this legislation, some states enacted measures, such as literacy tests and voting taxes to subvert African Americans’ ability to register to vote. In some states, groups used violence and intimidation tactics to keep these same voters away from the polls.

These subversive efforts continued until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. It made it illegal for states to impose discriminatory restrictions on who could vote. This act came after decades of African American bloodshed while exercising their given right.

Female Voters

Studies Weekly vote
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, left, and Susan B. Anthony.

Women had been trying to acquire their own right to vote since 1848. It took them more than 70 years to successfully secure that vote in 1920. Well-known early leaders in this fight — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth — died before seeing women prevail.

Minority Voters

Despite the 14th and 15th Amendments, many minority groups in America’s history had to forge their own difficult routes to voting.

Native Americans

Though they could be considered America’s first residents, Native Americans had no voting rights within the new republic. In 1876, the Supreme Court ruled that Native Americans were not citizens as defined by the 14th Amendment and had no voting rights.

Their path to polling places took many steps.

Studies Weekly voteAfter the 1887 Dawes Act, Native Americans could obtain citizenship and the right to vote only by giving up their tribal affiliations. The Indian Naturalization Act passed three years later, and Native Americans could apply for citizenship through an application process similar to the process of immigrant naturalization.

Decades later, Native American veterans were granted citizenship after they served in the military during WWI. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 also granted citizenship to Native Americans born in the United States. But, again, many states passed laws and policies during this time to prohibit Native Americans from voting.

Finally in 1947, after Miguel Trujillo — a Native American and former Marine — successfully sued New Mexico denying his right to vote, barriers to voting started to crumble. It still took until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for this right to be guaranteed.

Asian Americans

Though they were an integral part of building America, especially in the West, Asian Americans had no citizenship rights.

Studies Weekly voteThe Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred people of Chinese ancestry from becoming citizens. Then 40 years later, the Supreme Court ruled that people of Japanese heritage were ineligible to become naturalized citizens. A Congressional ruling in 1925 barred Filipino Americans from citizenship unless they served three years in the Navy.

Finally, in 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act granted all people of Asian ancestry the right to become citizens.

Puerto Rico and D.C.
Studies Weekly vote
La Perla, a district in Old San Juan.

Congress passed further voting rights laws in the 1970s and 1990s to guarantee better access to polls and voter registration. But today Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories still do not have full voting representation in the federal government. Stateside, those living in Washington D.C. have the right to vote for president, but do not have any representatives in Congress.

Importance of Voter Turnout

The right to vote in American elections has a long history of conflict, and students need to understand the value of making their voice heard. Voter turnout on election days is one of the most powerful ways citizens can do that. It also can be an effective path to enacting change that strengthens the rights of all citizens.

“It’s essential that all of us turn out to vote. Every vote is a building block in our democracy. The more people who vote, the stronger our system of government becomes. As a nation, we should do much better. We can do much better,” said Linda A. Klein of the American Bar Association in an October 2018 article.

As former President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”

We highlight women’s contributions to our nation’s history, often during Women’s History Month, and the right to vote is an important topic. During March, and throughout the year, voting rights should be a serious study for our students who will be our next generation of leaders.

Example of the Tennessee Social Studies Curriculum

Find more primary sources and articles about voting through your Studies Weekly online platform at




For some other great lesson plan ideas, visit at:

Further reading:

“Increasing Voter Participation in America,” Center for American Progress, July 11, 2018

“11 Facts about Voting,”

“Why is Voting Important? — Lesson for Kids,” Chapter 2, Lesson 26, at

“Key takeaways about Latino voters in the 2018 midterm elections,” Pew Research Center, Nov. 9, 2018

“How Millennials voted this election,” Brookings Institution, Nov. 21, 2016

“Voting: A Privilege, a Duty, and a Path to a Stronger Democracy,” American Bar Association, Oct. 9, 2018

“7 Reasons You Should Vote In This Year’s Elections,” Huffington Post, Feb. 19, 2016

Thinking on Education: Why are Discussions about Equality Flashpoints in the Classroom?


Gender equality

Gender Equality.

Racial equalityCivil Rights.
Racial Equality.

Human Rights Issues

These are some of the topics considered “controversial” in society, on social media, and in the classroom.

But why? In today’s society — more than 150 years since the end of America’s Civil War, almost 100 years since women gained voting rights in America, and 55 years since the Civil Rights Act — why are discussions about rights and equality still flashpoints?

Though our society made these important strides forward in decades past, strongly built foundations and beliefs still rumble beneath those issues. And sadly, there are too many people still unwilling to conduct an open dialogue about these uncomfortable truths, even today.

“It’s a conversation no one ever wants to have,” explained Loki Mulholland, Studies Weekly video manager, founding member of the Studies Weekly Diversity Board, Emmy award-winning filmmaker, and speaker on race relations in America, in a February 2018 presentation at Boise State University.

But he advocates having those conversations, because these issues still affect our students and people all over the world.

Global Inequality

Globally, racial and gender equality are still under attack, explained Tendayi Achiume, special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance at the United Nations, in two separate reports to the U.N. in March 2018 and July 2018.

“From crowds of youths marching to neo‑Nazi chants in Charlottesville, Warsaw and Berlin, to the racist and xenophobic attitudes of politicians in the highest levels of office worldwide … the assault on the human dignity of millions around the world has reached alarming proportions,” she said last March.

systemic equality barriers
Mother carrying her baby on her back at the Missira neighborhood in the city of Bissau, Guinea Bissau, Feb. 6, 2018.

That is why we must still talk about equality and rights. Yes, it is sometimes scary, but we — as educators of our nation’s students — need to thoughtfully and purposefully wade into these murky and muddy issues.

“We don’t give our students enough credit. They know what is going on and it’s our job to connect the dots of what is happening today to the past, and how they fit into that picture. We should be empowering our students to make decisions and draw conclusions,” Mulholland said. “If we don’t talk about it and work towards improving inequality, then nothing is going to change. The students play a role in addressing the inequalities they see around them.”

Discussing Inequality in the Classroom

Despite the current shouting matches between current political leaders, discussions on equality and rights do not need to be divisive. And the classroom is one of the most perfect places to have these discussions.

“Young people need to understand equality and know their rights, to understand both how they should be treated, and how they should treat others. Teaching these topics creates a safe place for students to explore, discuss, challenge and form their own opinions and values,” the Equality and Human Rights Commission said in a May 2016 statement.

Beyond Inequality: Systemic Barriers

Even beyond discussions around equality, we should also teach our students about societal equity and the systemic barriers that women, people of color, and other minority groups continue to face. This idea is best defined through this image, originally created by Craig Froehle:equality and equity and systemic barriersThe true history of America includes elements of systemic racism, systemic sexism and other systemic barriers to equality and equity for all. Our society still feels the effects of those today.

Mulholland pointed out just one example of this in his Boise presentation last year. He explained that just one generation ago, African American people — many who are still alive today — received truly inadequate and inaccurate education as a result of segregation. Education — which most of us believe today is the key to opportunity — was not equal or equitable.

Equality of Opportunity

In education, we’ve advanced far since that era of history. Today, educators implement a variety of processes that reach the learner where they are, to give them the best possibly equality of outcome. But we still have more to do, as explained in Stanford University’s “Equality of Opportunity and Education” project.

The Stanford project utilized philosopher Peter Westen’s idea that “opportunity is a three-way relationship between a person, some obstacles, and a desired goal. However, a person only has an opportunity if she has a chance of achieving that goal. One cannot have an opportunity if one faces insurmountable obstacles that make it impossible to secure the goal.”

Further, “for opportunities to be equal within a group, each member of that group must face the same relevant obstacles, none insurmountable, with respect to achieving the same desirable goal.”

It’s Only Us

Just like the fence image above illustrates, ideally all Americans may all be equal under the law, but may not have a true equality of opportunity.

Unfortunately, many American residents face insurmountable obstacles because of their gender, race, religion, culture, geography, socio-economic status or other minority identification. Because of this, they cannot reach the same heights others can.

So, until our we strategically remove these barriers and biases, we must still discuss equality and rights, and listen to and believe others’ experiences.

racial equalityWe need to stop seeing these issues as revolving around “us and them” and simply revolving around “us.”

“You have to be willing to open yourself up, to get uncomfortable and go there,” Mulholland concluded.

On Education: Creating a better Multicultural Curriculum

Multicultural CurriculumHow do you teach today’s culturally and socio-economically diverse students when often their history and literature curricula are predominantly Eurocentric?

That is a question we’ve been grappling with at Studies Weekly. In the past, some of our own publications included this unconscious bias. Recognizing that, we’ve been working diligently to completely revamp and reframe them.

This pivot is reflected in our Guiding Principles, which state, “We will have a minimum of two points of view present about the main topic taught in each weekly unit.” Because we know our students represent a wide swath of skin tones, ancestry, experiences and languages, we try to include multiple perspectives in our publications.

We don’t want to have “other” perspectives — we want all perspectives included to better create a full picture of events, movements and people of history.

We don’t claim to be leaders in this approach, though. Many educators have been calling for diversity in the classroom and multicultural education materials that speak to all learners.

As Samantha Washington explained in her September 2018 article in The Century Foundation, studies show that students in diverse public schools harbor less racial prejudice and more self-confidence. She advocated that “equitable education reform must be invested in diversifying not only classrooms, but lesson plans, too.”

“That students with vastly different backgrounds are still being taught that only one history is worth knowing reveals what has always been a deeper question in American education: whose history is essential, and what are we teaching students when we tell them that theirs is not? In the fight for racial equity in the classroom, we must stress the importance of students learning from a curriculum which reinforces that their own histories, and, by extension, their own identities, matter,” she concluded.

But how can educators value the histories of all their students?

“As our country and schools become more ethically and culturally diverse, elementary teachers must have tools to help them plan for broadening the perspectives of the children they teach,” said professors Joyce H. Burstein and Lisa Hutton in Social Studies and the Young Learner in 2005.

Recognizing that some textbooks don’t provide multiple perspectives, they shared a fabulous teaching strategy for elementary educators: a Multiple Perspectives Planning Guide for tackling historical events that have multiple viewpoints. Of course, most of history has at least two sides to it — if not more — so this guide works well for any social studies classroom.

The guide focuses on a historical event, and takes students through its context and the major players there. Students delve into both primary and secondary sources from the event, looking for different viewpoints and perspectives. Burstein and Hutton also suggest using historical fiction trade books as sources, especially at the elementary level, because many are written by authors who hail from unique perspectives not always included in textbooks.

Multiple Perspectives Planning GuideThis learning strategy validates different cultural experiences, allows children the chance to identify with histories that truly reflect their own and others’ heritage, while also teaching them important critical thinking and analysis skills, and an ability to recognize complex situations.
In explaining the guide, Burstein and Hutton gave the example of children playing and resolving disputes in school yard. When problems happen at recess, “Children naturally want to tell their side of a story …. Students are burning to report their version of what happened.”

“Teachers need to capitalize on this natural inclination to have ‘their story told’ when teaching history,” they continued. “Historians are like a person who suddenly comes upon the scene of the playground dispute. The historian hunts for different accounts, artifacts, evidence and viewpoints of time periods in history.”

Looking at the bigger picture, today’s textbooks and lesson materials need to include these varied accounts and viewpoints. They cannot include token remarks highlighting important contributions from women, minorities and other cultures. Instead, these perspectives must be fully integrated into the curriculum, as Paul C. Gorski explains at

Gorski encourages true curriculum reform. In his listing of “Key Characteristics of a Multicultural Curriculum,” Gorski explains that creating a truly multicultural curriculum includes changes to the following within the classroom:

Teacher delivery must address different learning styles and perspectives and challenge typical power dynamics in the classroom.

Content must accurately represent the contributions and perspectives of all groups, while avoiding stereotypes and language that represents a bias or one perspective.

Educators should incorporate diversity in learning materials — both in language and perspective — and also type, i.e: texts, newspapers, videos, images, games, etc.

Present content, events and movements from a variety of lenses, and through more than just a few “heroic characters.”

Include the perspectives and experiences of your students and their heritage, and encourage ways to connect these with relevant historical events.

Hold honest discussions about racism, sexism and other forms of oppression, and connect students to their local and global community.

Constantly evaluate and assess curriculum “for completeness, accuracy, and bias.”

As Burstein and Hutton explain, “Providing options in perspective helps children understand that history and the social sciences are made up of many different sources and points of view.”

Today’s students hail from a diversity of experiences, and social studies are a great way for them to explore those perspectives and their place in the world.

To see how Studies Weekly incorporates multiple perspectives in our publications, request a free sample.

On Education: The “Power of Yet” in the classroom

Power of Yet: Growth mindset in educationMost successful entrepreneurs say they overcame many mistakes, challenges and setbacks to get where they are.

“I’m convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance,” the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, is quoted as saying.

Students — from elementary to secondary — can and should learn this grit and determination.

That is the “power of yet” Carol S. Dweck described in her November 2014 TedTalk. Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, is known for her work identifying the growth and fixed mindsets.

Without the power of yet, students basically are graded on their ability to show their skill or knowledge level. Regardless of pass or fail, they move on to a new topic. The power of yet allows students to progress, to see where they made mistakes, and learn how to correct them.

This is the strength successful entrepreneurs harness, explained Arash Asli, co-founder and CEO of, in his May 25, 2018 post at

“Much of the entrepreneurial life is about trial and error and mistakes are a natural byproduct of that. But more than this, mistakes are an opportunity for growth. Extract all of the value from them that you can,” he said.

If more students understood that mistakes have value and can lead to growth, and were allowed the space and time to experiment with and experience this, the next generation would be better prepared for adulthood.

As an example: in most careers, workers do not receive grades associated with their work, because employees must see a task through completion — not just to a C+ effort. The most successful companies expect their workers to perform well. When employees fumble, managers expect them to bounce back, fix and learn what made a project fail or a product bomb.

This mentality, if better implemented in the classroom, could help students form a growth mindset — one that shows them failure is truly a part of learning.

“[I]f you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade ‘Not Yet’, you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future,” Dweck said.

Dweck, as part of the Mindset Kit — a free resource for teachers to help them develop the growth mindset in themselves and their students — recently dared learners to stop running from difficulties and failures, but to embrace them.

“If it was easy, well, then you probably already knew how to do it,” she said in a Mindset Kit video. “We should have kids asking for harder work, wanting the challenging problem. I want challenge to become the new comfort zone, not easy.”

Power of Yet: Growth mindset in educationEducation circles are still debating how to effectively implement growth mindset training within the classroom. But the power of yet — the power of encouraging and celebrating persistence, of reveling in grit and overcoming obstacles — is still an important lesson we need to teach our children.

On Education: Confronting Political Polarization in the Social Studies Classroom

Political polarizationPolitics today are highly polarized, and are in danger of becoming more so.

“Politicians used to recognize that their opponents had the same goal: Make the world a better place for their constituents. Now debate’s greatest accomplishment has been to diminish the integrity of office,” said Lawrence Lhulier in his March 2017 Education Week article, Teaching About Politics in a Polarized World.

With today’s 24-hour news cycle and the prevalence of political echo chambers on Facebook and Twitter, we often cannot escape Washington’s machinations. For the sake of our sanity, sometimes we must turn off our electronics and find a space of quiet. For the sake of our students, though, we often must bravely wade into the quagmire of controversial political issues.

No other group of educators is as well-equipped to lead this charge than social studies teachers. As Marc Tucker explained in his September 2017 Education Week article, history teachers have a unique opportunity to teach the next generation of voters and legislators how to listen, work together and compromise — skills current legislators seem to have forgotten.

“Maybe, just maybe, with the right kind of leadership, we have a chance to rise above identity politics, an opportunity to create a politics based instead on our need for one another, our ability to reach across all of our divisions to create something that only this incredible mixing of ideas, backgrounds, cultures, races and religious beliefs could create,” Tucker said in his article, Can History Teachers Build a New Politics?.

This can be scary though, as teachers fear a backlash from parents and potentially jeopardizing their job security. Teachers may even struggle with how to discuss highly charged topics without incorporating their own biases. But again, with all of history’s messy examples at their fingertips, social studies teachers can confidently guide students through productive disagreements to thoughtful discussion and reflection.

Remember, it’s about student learning and growth, not indoctrination.

Lhulier cautioned against making “children mouthpieces for our own ideologies.” He encouraged teachers to confront and crush their own echo chambers before tackling political subjects in the classroom.

“[W]hat if we used their beginner’s minds as a reminder that there is a better course? Uncorrupted by the prejudices that destroy curiosity and breed fear, children love hearing new ideas. They are able to agree to disagree without the lingering angst that has divided our nation so deeply,” he said.

Aim for a balanced approach to issues.

Even at the elementary level, students are constantly questioning and pondering the world around them. Many — like children of immigrant parents, for example — are personally experiencing the effects of larger political maneuvers. Allowing them a space to research, discuss and respectfully debate these issues is potentially more relevant to them than the memorizing date the RMS Lusitania sank.

Using these outside influences to inform teaching takes the teacher’s bias out of the equation. Teachers then can incorporate and focus on the critical thinking skills and learning strategies students need to address these topics.

Tamp out fake news.

Good social studies teachers already teach their students how to observe, reflect, question validate historical events, figures and sources. Those same skills apply to current issues as well.

“Politicians and media figures repeat false narratives so frequently that the general public often assumes them to be accurate,” said William McCorkle, Mikel W. Cole, and Mindy Spearman in their 2018 Social Education article, Confronting False Narratives in the Debate over Immigration.

replacing fake news with facts

The authors asserted that in society today, the classroom where students are taught analytic questioning skills “may be one of the few settings where evidence and reason can address popularly held fears and challenge unsubstantiated claims, or in the jargon of the day, ‘fake news.’”

When teachers require students to research both sides of an issue, question and validate data and sources — real learning happens.

Teach listening skills.

So many today have lost the ability to listen. Those on the world stage repeatedly shout each other down or shut each other out. Educators can teach students how to respectfully listen — to fully hear and absorb another’s facts and opinions and ponder them before retorting.

Yes, history has many examples of those who demonized those with differing views. Many wars started because of these beliefs.

But the world’s history is also replete with examples of political and civic leaders who understood and worked with those who held different opinions. They remind us it is possible.

“The ability to embrace productive disagreements based on serious consideration of fact patterns, and on the opinions that emerge from these facts, is a key civic competency that often results in compromises or changes in opinion,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Rey Junco in their 2018 Social Education article, Teaching Controversial Issues in a Time of Polarization.

Wrestling with politics in the classroom is a daunting task, but one education thought leaders believe is essential.

“[T]eaching politics in the classroom is exactly what has to happen in order to change the trajectory of the current political discourse,” Lhulier said.

On Education: Teaching Sensitive Subjects in the Classroom

Teaching sensitive subjects in the classroomIn society today, schools cannot avoid the controversial issues and events of our world.

Nor should they.

Our nation’s schools are more racially diverse than ever, and that trend will continue. According to the Pew Research Center and the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher diversity in those same classrooms lags behind.

This begs the question, how can all teachers — regardless of how diverse or homogeneous their classroom is — respectfully and objectively teach their students about sensitive historic and current issues within the classroom?

Here are just a few key strategies culled from experienced educators:

1. Create a safe, inclusive learning environment.

All students must feel safe and respected before tackling subjects they may have strong feelings about, may touch on their own ethnic or cultural history, or may brush against family influences and opinions. They must also understand how to respect others.

“As always, the kids are the most vital part of our curriculum. If we are really listening to them, we know that current topics weigh on them every day,” said Sara Ahmed, co-author of “Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry,” in a November 2016 Education Week discussion.

Ahmed suggests approaching sensitive topics less as “controversial” – which often brings out defensiveness and avoidance – and more as “relevant.” She also encourages teachers to frame discussion rules before engaging in a topic.Choices you have when you disagree -- teaching sensitive subjects in the classroom

2. Put in the preparation.

Teachers must prepare well for engaging their students in sensitive discussions, said Jennifer Borgioli, a former special education teacher and senior consultant at Learner-Centered Initiatives.

“Helping students navigate controversial topics requires thoughtful planning, research and clear structures,” Borgioli said in the same November 2016 Education Week discussion. “Our responsibility to teach students how to engage in controversial topics doesn’t mean tackling every issue that’s sure to generate strong opinions. Rather, it’s about being strategic and thoughtful as we ensure students have the resources to understand their opinions and the tools to successfully navigate conversations when friends and family share theirs.”

This preparation may look like pre-lessons on finding, questioning and citing primary sources and research. It could include graphic organizers that help students identify the discussion topic, their response and evidence to support it, plus evidence to support another view. It also should include opportunities for active listening and reflection.

3. Teacher opinions have no place in the classroom when dealing with sensitive subjects. 

“A teacher’s role in the classroom implies that they cannot use their position for spouting out their personal opinions,” said Jordan Catapano, an assistant principal, in a 2016 TeachHub article. This not only protects teachers from potential repercussions, he added, but also respects their students’ own perspectives and experiences. “[Y]oung minds are more susceptible to conforming to an authority figure’s perspective. Where sensitive topics arise, I avoid inserting any personal thoughts or feelings into the discussion.”

Erik M. Francis, ASCD author and owner of Maverik Education, agrees.

“The most important thing teachers need to keep in mind is to stay out of the conversation. Be an unbiased moderator and guide the students through inquiry. Not only will that allow the students to be the one to express and share their ideas but also protect the teacher from any complaints that might come from parents,” he said in the November 2016 Education Week article. “We cannot control what comes out of the mouths of babes. We can only guide and teach students to make proper choices and consider others’ feelings.”

“To discuss potentially sensitive or contentious issues can certainly be a tricky path, but to ignore them means ignoring a big part of society and humanity.” – Jordan Capatano.
Additionally, teachers should always keep parents informed about sensitive topics that are part of classroom discussions. Capatano explained that as teachers let parents know what topics are under discussion and how teachers are addressing them, it can be a catalyst for further family dialogue at home.

4. Focus on investigating perspectives and ideas.

Students should have time to explore multiple voices and sources on a topic. They should understand the difference between addressing an idea and attacking a person.

“It is critical to successful discourse on a controversial topic that the discussion remains focused on the topic at hand, and is not waylaid by wrong or misleading information,” Borgioli said.

The goal of these discussions should also not necessarily be aimed at finding the right answer, but allowing students the ability to discover their own perspectives.

It’s also okay to allow space for students to not come to any conclusions. Sometimes issues are so complex that “I don’t know,” may be the only answer. Accepting this as an option also encourages students to engage in the topic outside of the classroom.

“It’s an amazing feeling when you witness a kid tackling a large concept that’s tough to talk about. It’s even better when you know you’re making them think like they never did before,” said Kevin Scott, former director of member engagement at ASCD, in the November 2016 Education Week article.

Above all else, teachers should not fear tackling sensitive topics in the classroom because they already are a part of many students’ experiences. Helping students navigate this experience is an important part of student growth.

“I remind myself often that it’s not my goal to teach students what to think, but how to think. To discuss potentially sensitive or contentious issues can certainly be a tricky path, but to ignore them means ignoring a big part of society and humanity,” Capatano said.

On Education: Social Studies is a Powerful Tool to Teach Empathy

Studies Weekly Social Studies CurriculumFor better or worse, students in classrooms today — even down to the elementary level — are firmly part of the selfie generation. Many, in just a few years’ time, have more pictures on a smartphone of their own faces than older generations have from their entire lifetimes.

Teachers, principals and districts have a unique challenge to expand children’s learning beyond the classroom and connect them to others’ experiences across the world. Social studies instruction, when done correctly, is a potent tool to get students outside of selfness, and teach them empathy — or the ability to imagine what others are feeling outside of their own experience.

Social economist and author Jeremy Rifkin, in his August 2010 RSA Animate talk, explained that scientifically speaking, “we are actually soft-wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves.” Rifkin went further to assert that, contrary to what we see in the world around us today, humans are not soft-wired for aggression and violence, but for connection.

Social Studies teaches empathy

Of all the elementary school subjects, social studies has the power to tap into children’s natural empathy and need for connection. Social studies is full of stories — from both leaders and common people, all who valiantly or violently constructed change within their own sphere. Many of these narratives come from different lands and diverse viewpoints.

“When we encounter a multiplicity of voices and human experiences, we are humbled by the vast sea of events, information and ideas, and how little we know,” said Matt Doran and his team in February 2016 at the teacher resource site, Social Studies for the 21st Century.

That humility helps students of social studies empathetically experience and understand another’s condition from that person’s perspective.

Social Studies expands our view

At its very basic level, social studies teaches us about ourselves by teaching us about “the other.” Thus, through its stories, conflicts, compromises and resolutions, social studies teaches empathy with authenticity. Teachers have no need of crafting character lessons because their students discover the true character of historical figures through questioning, pondering and debating sources and views.

Lauren Owen, in a November 2015 Edutopia article, explained that modeling, teaching and using empathy in the classroom not only benefits that room, but beyond.

Empathy instruction leads to:

• A more positive classroom culture and helps students build friendships outside of themselves.

Strengthening the community. “As children learn empathy skills by communicating cross-culturally with their classmates, those skills will transfer to their lives in their community. The deeper relationships that result from strong empathy skills have the potential to strengthen a community and build trust,” Owen said.

Preparing students to be better leaders in their world as they learn to understand the perspectives of those they lead.

“We have more in common than that which divides us,” said HRH Princess Lamia Al Saud, secretary general and member of the Board of Trustees at Alwaleed Philanthropies, in a 2017 Huffington Post article. 

“More connects us than separates us.”   T’Challa, King of Wakanda

T’Challa, king of Wakanda, echoed this sentiment in the 2018 movie, “Black Panther.” But in today’s politically charged and consistently contentious society, it is hard for students to believe this.

Studying the stories of history is a proven way to get students outside themselves, and find the hope and bravery needed to reach out to others.

On Education: The Case for Social Studies in Elementary Classrooms

Social studies is important to student's civic and literacy educationTechnology and globalization connect the world more today than in any era of history, but our children may not be prepared to be responsible citizens within it.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, elementary teachers increased English and mathematics instruction time over the past two decades in response to assessment pressures. Conversely, social studies instruction decreased, and is taught less in elementary schools today than at any time over the past 30 years.

Many feel there already is, and will be, a potent impact on society if social studies instruction continues to shrink.

Social Studies creates better citizens

“Without social studies, we lose the civic mission of public schools,” said Stephanie Serriere, a former teacher and associate professor of social studies education at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus, in a July 12, 2018 article by Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report. “Ultimately, we can’t prepare children for living in a rich, diverse democracy if we don’t expose them to the controversial topics inherent in our democracy.”

Many, like Serriere, stump for more social studies time within the classroom. They feel similar to Nelson Mandela, who said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

These educators believe social studies teaches us how to live — how to be that change in a free society. But they are fighting an uphill battle as U.S. educational organizations concentrate instructional time to standardized tests and assessments.

“Our global community owes children opportunities to explore the variety and complexity of human experience through a dynamic and meaningful education,” said the National Council for the Social Studies in a 2017 statement. “When children are grounded in democratic principles, immersed in age-appropriate democratic strategies, and engaged in meaningful inquiry, they construct the foundational skills that prepare them to participate respectfully and intelligently in a nation and world marked by globalization, interdependence, human diversity, and societal change.”

The NCSS went further to explain that the purpose of elementary school social studies is to enable students to understand, participate in, and make informed decisions about their world. This is not necessarily a skill students learn in English or math class, but in a space that fosters questioning, problem-solving and making thoughtful value judgments.

“The teaching and learning processes within social studies are uniquely organized to develop these capacities, beginning with the youngest learners in our schools,” the NCSS statement concluded.

Social Studies creates better readers and learners
“We need to understand, social studies is the plate in education.” – Cathy Marston
Cathy Marston, a veteran elementary teacher and 2016 California educator of the year, makes the case that in addition to helping her students make sense of the world around them, social studies also promotes literacy, even among the most struggling readers. Social studies content integration, she explained, lets students practice and apply reading comprehension strategies in content area texts.

“These are not two separate content areas, they actually have synergy in their relationship,” she said in a recent presentation about Studies Weekly. “They are both better because of each other. They are much better when working in unison.”

Additionally, though it goes against current educational trends, the case can be made that social studies works synergistically with other subjects in teaching the whole child, not just the future mathematicians or writers of the world. Marston explained that the all-encompassing nature of social studies can be the plate in the feast of daily learning. Social studies carries and connects all other subjects in the elementary school day.

“We need to understand, social studies is the plate in education,” she said. “Everything revolves around social studies. In a world that demands independent and cooperative problem solving to address complex social, economic, ethical and personal concerns, core social studies content is as basic for success as reading, writing and computing.”