Participating in the life of the country

How Middle School social studies curriculum helps students consider the responsibilities of citizenship

By David Ellenberg, 8th Grade History Teacher

Educating for democracy is at the heart of much social studies teaching, and it’s where I start with 8th graders in the fall of each year. Regardless of previous topics they’ve confronted, pieces of history they've learned and forgotten, or the political leanings of their families, all young people need to understand their rights, and to consider the responsibilities of citizenship. Being actively engaged in civic affairs remains a guiding principle throughout the year’s units of study.

Since becoming a teacher in 1983, I’ve spent my career with middle school students, primarily in science and social studies classrooms. Learning, of course, takes place in many realms beyond the classroom, such as doing service, traveling on grade level trips and global adventures, in advisory groupings, and engaging in conversations while eating at the Barn.

In the social studies classroom, where I’ve been since 2000, citizenship topics are featured. We address questions such as “How does one participate in the life of a country?,” “What are individual rights and how do they mesh with the needs of the many?,” and “Why should one care about large complex problems that make one’s head hurt?”

Thick questions like these take time to unpack and sort through. A significant challenge is, therefore, what topics to bring forth for examination. And that leads to curricular choices, none of which are perfect. Over time, units change based on teacher interest, cross-divisional discussions, themes set forth by school administrators, and, of course, the interests of the students. Currently, 8th grade topics are framed by three themes: United States civics, the Holocaust and human behavior, and a multicultural study of American history. Opportunities to educate for democracy come forth readily from each.

During the fall, students examine the nation’s founding documents. By looking carefully at the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the country’s guiding principles become clearer. Amendments that expanded civil rights protections are essential for students to consider. From that foundation, students research controversial topics in American life, such as abortion, death penalty, guns on college campuses, end-of-life decision making, privacy rights, student free speech and censorship, and prayer in public settings. Research and argumentative essay writing techniques are emphasized along with critical thinking and presentation skills. When a competent paper is completed, students face each other in one-on-one debates; considering opinions one disagrees with is a key component of this work. The events are filmed and posted to student blogs where reflection on the whole project occurs. Classmates receive a good education about difficult topics, and opponents hone public speaking skills.

Come winter, the large and difficult themes of the Holocaust and its place in human history are taken on. The content of the social studies class dovetails with that of 8th grade English. Students examine themes of early 20th century history, from the decline of colonial empires, to the rise of fascist states, to the unsettling resolutions of World War II. Concerns about how well societies treat and protect citizen rights are universal, and this unit enables students to grapple with this theme. What went so terribly wrong in early to mid-20th century Germany? How can societies do better and avoid such horror in the future? What are the warning signs that a society may be slipping in its commitment to rights protections?

Eight grade students bring good energy to these complex questions. Because classroom tone can be somber, part of the term is spent examining the deeds of Holocaust upstanders, those who found ways to do the right thing while events in the world around them were so awful. Upstanders are rescuers who subverted Nazi action and ideology. The Kraus family from Philadelphia went to Austria in early 1939 and brought 50 children to the United States. Nicholas Winton, an English businessman, ran a Kindertransport that rescued hundreds of children from central Europe. Irena Sendler smuggled children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and placed them with righteous Christian families, thus guaranteeing their survival. And Sempo Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat working in Lithuania who issued 2,000 transit visas to Jews, thus allowing them to travel across Russia’s vastness and find safety. These stories and others help students understand that one can act to do right even during the most challenging circumstances.

For the spring term, curriculum turns to multicultural America. Some students come to the topic knowing pieces of the “master narrative,” the standard stories of U.S. history that begin with the colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth. They know of western expansion, Manifest Destiny and the Civil War. These themes normally have a strong focus on the deeds of Americans from white European and Protestant heritage. That demographic is deeply significant in the nation’s history, yet so many other heritage groups make up the densely-quilted fabric of American life. The unit uses themes developed by Ronald Takaki, a professor who spent much of his career in the California university system. His work helps students expand their understanding of how the country’s multicultural past informs the modern day. From native removal and slavery, to waves of immigration and the expansion of civil rights protections, a more nuanced understanding of the United States and its past is at the heart of class studies. There is often talk of preparing students for the realities of the world today (or the unknowns of tomorrow). Educating for democracy demands that students are educated for diversity. They will benefit from better understanding the unique tapestry of the cultural groups with whom they share the country.

Connected to the democratic values of the curriculum, classroom design comes into play when teaching for democracy. During the spring term, students develop seminars with each student part of a leadership team. As leaders, students choose pre-seminar readings and assign them to peers. They facilitate discussions, evaluate classmate participation, assign homework, and work together to maximize student learning. Putting students in charge helps them practice the democratic skills of communication, address controversy, and work together for the common good.

In teaching for democracy, both cognitive skills (researching, writing, learning multiple sides of a controversy) and non-cognitive skills (time management, teaching others by bringing voice to thorny ideas, and reflecting on one’s performance) are equally important. These skills help students prepare for civic life. Confronting topics of controversy, and discussing them respectfully with those holding opposing points of view, are lifelong skills, and ones that benefit the collective in a democratic society.