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Why One District Takes A Deliberate Approach To Shaping Informed Students

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
High school social studies teacher Adam Foote leads a class of ninth graders in a discussion about current immigration laws at Baldwin High School.

Social studies teachers in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District say they’re concerned that they aren’t preparing students to be contributing citizens.

For the first time in many years, Andrea Huffman, director of district curriculum, gathered all of the social studies teachers this summer to discuss where lessons were coming up short and what could be improved. The subject isn’t assessed by standardized tests in Pennsylvania, and because of that, the curriculum hasn’t been reviewed as often.

Huffman found there was a disconnect between the skills high school teachers expected students would have by the time they reached their freshman year, and the content elementary school teachers thought they had to get through.

During professional development days, teachers created curriculum templates for every grade level, with citizenship as the common theme.

In kindergarten, lessons can be as simple as reinforcing following the rules, being an attentive listener and working hard.

“What does it mean to be nice to each other and be respectful? Those skill sets are extremely important and will really help shape them to who they become once they graduate high school,” Huffman said.

Another way to emphasize citizenship is by drawing connections between history and issues the country currently faces, says Huffman.

“What has happened in the past definitely impacts what’s happening today and the decisions that they make today will definitely have an impact on the future,” she said.

High School social studies teacher Adam Foote said he is trying to teach history holistically.

He recently led a freshmen class through a discussion about historical and contemporary activism. He repeatedly asks them to define if the participants were good or bad citizens.

Were those who helped slaves escape to free states through the Underground Railroad doing the right thing, even as they broke the law? What about the activists who stalled the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline?

As the students debated the ethics of the activists, Foote told them that history isn’t like math – there isn’t just one answer.

“Were there times in history where we celebrate heroes of history that didn’t follow the law? So we don’t want them leaving here thinking they should just go and break the law, but we want them to understand that their definition of someone might be a little more complex than a sort of simplistic answer,” he said.

Huffman and the teachers want to have more of these kinds of conversations.

“What's so important is making students realize what does it mean to be a good citizen to talk about those characteristics review those characteristics and then in turn what does it mean to be a bad citizen? And are we even defining those two things appropriately? Because oftentimes there are folks that don't follow rules and are doing really good things,” she said.

Foote said his students used to memorize historical events, but didn’t understand the context. He worried that they forgot what they just learned when they left the classroom.

Freshmen Yasmine Mckenzie appreciates the connections she’s learning about. She hadn’t heard the term “civic duty” used when she studied the Underground Railroad.

“It was illegal for people to help other people out, but they still did it because they knew it was the right thing,” she said. “And it shows that even then there were really good people that knew that was the right thing.”

Foote wraps up the conversations about citizenship and civic duty by emphasizing that if students don’t agree with laws, it’s important for them to be informed citizens who can eventually vote for people they agree with.

Huffman said she thinks more schools will move to intentionally focus on civil debates and civic duty because students spend a lot of their day in school buildings.

“I think, before, we thought it was the responsibility of the schools to teach the students the content. But it's not just about what's happening in history, it's not just about the math, it's not just about the reading,” she said.

“While those foundational skills are important, nobody would negate that, we definitely have a responsibility and it's so much more powerful to help students truly understand what it means to be a good person.”