The goal of our Social Studies program is the promotion of civic competence. Students study the different ways people address problems, and gain the knowledge, intellectual processes, and democratic dispositions required to be active and engaged participants in public life.
Preschool-5th Grade Social Studies at Catlin Gabel
Preschoolers’ natural curiosity is rewarded as they begin to understand how to learn about something they are interested in. They learn to recognize what they already know, look at books, ask experts, observe, taste, touch, and share what they have learned with members of the community. The daily practice of study empowers students to learn something new every day.
Inquiry is at the heart of the kindergarten curriculum. Students are supported in their open inquiry and independent thinking, an approach that fosters curiosity, openness to differing perspectives, and the desire to keep learning. The classroom environment is carefully designed to allow for exploration with a variety of materials and mediums for creative expression and storytelling. Teachers design four or five units of study a year around essential questions, such as “What is our relationship with nature?” and “How do we study something?” Small study groups are also formed in response to questions that arise out of the children’s interests, experiences, and explorations.
The 1st grade year begins with building community through the democratic selection of classroom mascots. This exercise introduces students to two concepts that will inform instruction and study throughout the year: Building and contributing to a community with equity, and their connection to animals and the natural world.
Developing a Worldview
Students begin to consider information and issues in the wider world, and develop skills and empathy that become the foundation for more expansive areas of study. They gain understanding about the ways they can make a difference in their classroom, school, community, and the wider world. First graders are also encouraged to look inward, exploring who they are as learners and people, and what they need to be their best selves within the classroom environment.
As students’ focus is drawn outward, they examine ideas about animal conservation and reasons for caring about others in the world beyond the classroom walls. Students hone their skills as researchers as they learn what pioneers in conservation have done, and then take on the role of conservationists themselves, championing endangered and threatened animals.
Research and results
With a goal of educating and inspiring others, 1st graders engage in a culminating project, working in teams to research a species in depth and create a conservation park with life-sized animals, habitats and informational brochures for visitors.
A Sense of Place
Starting in the fall, 2nd graders engage in a primary social studies thread: a sense of place in the Pacific Northwest forest. In wooded areas on campus, and on field trips to nearby forests, they are prompted to consider what it means to be connected to a place, and what makes them feel that connection.
Through outdoor education, place-based experiential learning, and a multi-disciplinary approach, students’ increase their sense of stewardship. They develop questions about the forest that they can research through observation.
As the year progresses, the focus turns to social justice, and the ways students can make their community a better place. They discuss the meaning of fairness, and why they and others deserve access to the things they need in order to thrive. Students are encouraged to adopt an action-oriented mindset; they are asked to consider what contribution they can make to help their community.
At the mid-point in the school year, 2nd graders reflect on the work they’ve done so far this year, and their goals moving forward. To inform this work, they delve into a neuroscience unit in which they develop an understanding of how their brains work and how they can foster optimal conditions for learning. Students learn about neural pathways, and use this knowledge to reflect on their own progress and their areas for continued growth.
Return to the Forest
In the spring, 2nd graders return to the forest theme, with students focusing on ways they can leave places better than they found them. They also learn about the forest from a historical perspective, studying the First Nations who lived in the area and modern First Nation environmental activism. Students end the 2nd grade year with independent forest service projects, and by reading forest-focused non-fiction books.
Third graders work together on classroom agreements, and on learning about themselves and the other members of their classroom community. Identity work through literature studies, poetry writing, and class discussions helps students to think about what it takes to make a community thrive.
Much of the 3rd grade curriculum is devoted to understanding water. Students begin with local water use, the water cycle, Oregon’s climate, watersheds, where our drinking water comes from, and what happens after it goes down the drain. As the year progresses, they examine water beyond our community by learning about how people in other parts of the world access water.
Studies in the Field
Field trips reinforce the students’ water studies in the classroom and on campus. Over the course of the year, the visit the Bull Run Reservoir, a major source of water for the Portland metro area, as well as a wastewater treatment plant, Bonneville Dam, and the Eagle Creek salmon habitat. They also engage in community engagement projects related to aquatic ecosystems and water use.
In preparation for a three-day trip to the Oregon Coast in the spring, students learn about intertidal zones and the creatures that live there. On this trip, they have the opportunity to study tidepool creatures up-close, and to deepen their understanding of how ecosystems change or degrade, and how life forms adapt.
Third graders’ study of geography focuses on Oregon’s diverse geographical features, including waterways, landforms, and communities.
The theme of a year-long social studies investigation is immigration. Students begin with an inquiry into where each of them and their ancestors are from. As they build understanding about why people come to Oregon, they look at geography, economics, history, and government. The unit continues with a look at a specific period in Oregon’s history to help students understand why people came to the Pacific Northwest in the past.
Beyond the Northwest
The immigration inquiry expands into an exploration of the regions of the United States, and why and how people immigrated to this country or moved within it. History, geography, economics, and politics are integrated into this study.
Throughout the year, 4th graders reflect on social justice issues, with an emphasis on multiple perspectives and lifting up underrepresented voices. Students are asked to reflect on and describe their own identity while learning to honor and recognize the diverse identities within their classroom. They explore current events in the news cycle, and bring their own questions and concerns to their classroom community for further research and discussion.
Peace, Conflict, and Change
Through the lens of American history, 5th graders engage throughout the year in the study of peace, conflict, and change. They take class trips that help them to develop a sense of place, while considering the environment, challenges, and opportunities for Northwest Native people.
Native American History and Culture
As the year progresses, students broaden their lens to study Native American history and culture throughout the United States. Fifth graders create artifacts that represent a tribe of their choosing, and curate living history museums to demonstrate and share their new understandings and questions with Beginning/Lower School classmates and families.
Fifth graders engage in a study of Colonial America, beginning with its impact on Native Americans. They examine different reasons people fled Europe for what would become the United States, and look at the similarities and differences between the three broad colonial regions. Students consider whose voices are missing from the historical narrative, and how to access and learn from the experiences of disenfranchised individuals and groups. To better understand the personal impact of slavery, they read an historical novel told from the point of view of a pre-teen girl who is sold into slavery.
The Revolutionary War
In this unit of 5th grade Social Studies, students study the Revolutionary War, and consider whether the conflict was avoidable. They use what they have learned about problem-solving to consider strategies that might have prevented war and bloodshed. Part of this study involves a simulation, with students taking on the role of patriot, loyalist, or undecided member of a colonial town. Reading, writing, role-playing, and decision-making based on actual historical events help bring this period to life in a way that builds empathy and understanding of multiple perspectives.
The Capstone Project
The final unit in 5th grade Social Studies is a capstone project, designed as an opportunity for students to deepen their understanding of peace, conflict, and change through inquiry. Working with their teachers in multiple subject areas, students consider their questions through multiple lenses and disciplines. They end their year with a Celebration of Learning night in which they share with their families their new understandings, process, and further questions.