Reframing How to Become More Inclusionary in Social Studies: An Educator and an Expert Reflect

Reframing How to Become More Inclusionary in Social Studies: An Educator and an Expert Reflect

Casey T. Jakubowski

The inclusion or exclusion of people, places, and events from history and a state’s designated social studies curriculum is a political decision, made fraught with what makes the final cut is telling about a system or society (Osler, 2009).  As a New York State certified social studies teacher, and now a teacher educator, I recognize the need to broaden the State’s inclusion of so many different people, events, and history. Usually the addition of underrepresented voices to the predominant narrative focuses on peoples from outside European backgrounds. With the recent passing of my great aunt, and her connection to our family, and my exploration of genealogy, I was wondering  why does Poland not appear as a large empire, and its accomplishments not recorded in the New York State Social Studies Standards? I am also concerned that Poland’s narrative is cast as a victim of world history, and its large and cohesive diaspora ignored?

I was concerned, due to the positionality that I hold as a member of the educated elite (Camicia,2015) raising this exclusion as a “minor complaint” since my ethnic backgrounds (Polish, Irish, and other European nations) are robustly included in the state standards. Yet, I was bothered, remembering what I knew, and what I taught in 9th and 10th grade social studies, and when I was an adjunct college professor teaching introductory world history and United States History (Jakubowski, 2016). Most American students do not know “their history” (Heafner & Fitchett, 2018). As I now have an opportunity to teach future elementary teachers with responsibility to implement social studies, my students and I are partially aware of European history, and the diaspora of most Euro- American Immigrant history, so our pasts are not excluded from most classrooms. Yet  Poles and Polonia have often been treated as “others” due to their Eastern European backgrounds, Catholic and Jewish religions, and the tragedy of the Polish nation forced into the Soviet Sphere of influence after World War II (Davies, 2005). 

In the historiography of the empire, and its diaspora, Poland, has since 1066, leaned west with its culture, language, and religion (Davies, 2005). The nation of Poland uses Latin script, and adopted Western Christianity (Davies, 2005). Historically, its rulers, when not native Polish, have originated from France, the Holy Roman Empire, and western leaning states (Davies, 2005)

The Polish military, from the Siege of Vienna to World War II, have fought valiantly, and often against foreign aggressors (Davies, 2005).  With the Cold War ramping up, and  a desire by the US and the UK to appease Stalin, Poland’s government in exile, its historical contributions to the Western War effort in World War II, and other places were erased from the textbooks (Olsen & Cloud, 2003).

Unfortunately, in New York’s social studies curriculum and framework, a real exclusion of a large and resilient ethnic culture is missing. The importance and impact of Poland and Polonia to the growth and development of the United States needs telling, and it is really concerning that there is a large gap in the curriculum (Thompson, 2005).  This paper serves as a review, from my lens as an ethnically identifying Polish American (Polonia) to examine one of the five largest states (by population) treatment of a large ethnic minority in its history education curriculum.

Literature review

This is a two part brief literature  review. First is a brief introduction to some texts which may help teachers understand the significance of Poland and Polonia in history. The second part is a brief discussion of how exclusion from curricula can impact students. It is important to note, that while all history is significantly political, a question emerges: with almost 1 million Poles and Polonia in New York State, why is such a significant percentage of the population excluded from the social studies curriculum?

Poland and Polonia’s history is robust, and reflects many advances and challenges. Polonia is defined as the diaspora of the Polish Ethnic population into the world (Davies, 2005).  Very little of this profoundly engaging history, culture, and society is intentionally included in the New York State K-12 social studies frameworks. As I have written elsewhere (Jakubowski, 2021; 2020), teacher’s backgrounds are critical and crucial to understanding their professional pathways. Further, the exclusion of Polish and Polonia’s impact on world and US history is very disconcerting, especially as the role which the Pope, the nation, and its American diaspora played in ending the western-eastern cold war (Ubrico, 2006; Weigel, 2010).  I would recommend that we create a more balanced approach to European history, and offer additional opportunities for students to learn about places beyond France, Britain, and Germany.  One place to start is the extraordinary readable work by Bukowczyk (2017) which examines the Polish diaspora to the United States.  Recently published (Bukowczyk, 2021) work concerning Polish and Polonia women is a short, yet extraordinarily useful resource for teachers.

From the  American Revolution (Pulaski & Kosciuszko) Polish nobility heroically assisted Washington and others to fight for American independence.  Marie nee Sklodowska Curie, became the only winner of the Nobel prize in Chemistry and Physics. Poland was viewed as the breadbasket of Eastern Europe, and provided significant grains to Europe. After the division of Poland and the late 1800s uprisings, millions of Poles immigrated to the United States, where they became workers and leaders in the industrialization of cities in the Northeast. Through their ancestors’ hard work, and creation of religious and cultural communities, especially in urban areas, Polonia anchored the rise in industry and community architecture with the soaring churches and foods which are hearty and now part of American foods.  Dr Francis Fronczak, the first Polish American awarded a medical doctor degree, and became the Commissioner of Health, and led efforts during World War I and II for relief both in Europe and in the United States for displaced persons (Dabrowski, 2018).

When called upon to serve its adopted homeland in the trenches of World War I and II, as well as Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, Polonia produced statesmen, leaders,  heroes, like LT. COL.  Matthew Urban, and General John Shalikashvilli (Bukowicz, 2017). With so much history to select, it is upsetting that Poland and Polonia are not a greater part of New York State’s social studies curriculum (Jakubowski, 2016).

Literature review: Exclusions

There has recently been significant national debate on who, what, and why certain aspects of teaching are acceptable.  As revealed by the debate over critical race theory, slavery, and under represented communities, many conservative state legislatures have enacted legislation banning the teaching of controversy. The public debate has led to a number of critiques of not only state legislatures, but of state standards in social studies, and who is included, who is excluded, and the politics behind the decisions (Popp, et al, 2021)

As one leading article reported (Au & Apple, 2009), all curriculum is designed to include or exclude people, events and memory for a multitude of reasons. With the current debates concerning Critical Race Theory, and what the term means, and the legality of teaching the topic in schools, many social studies teachers and elementary educators are concerned that a heritage crusade is emerging from the conservative powers to limit exposure to a wide range of topics, including slavery in the United States’ schools (Giroux, 2021).   Harris & Reynolds, (2014) in their review and study of history curriculum discovered that  “feel a lack of personal connection to the past, as they do not see themselves in the history they are taught.”  The need to ensure students understand history is crucial and critical. It is even more important that as the United States, and New York diversify, the increase of historically marginalized groups are included in the curriculum.  In a profoundly important study, Levstik (2008), investigated and found how absences in the state sponsored curriculum extended into the textbook, and classroom repertoire of teachers. Barton & Levstik (2018) also found this phenomena in a second study, and discovered that adolescents who are excluded from the curriculum as an identity group seek to understand what happened, both positively and negatively.

 Where there is absence, there is silence. And silence, especially among Polonia, has historical roots in discriminiation. As Pula (1995) and many others have reported, early Polish immigrants, and then later  Polish Americans faced significant discrimination from the more settled white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and others. The anti-Eastern European, anti-Catholic, and other forms of bigotry in the nation created burdens within the communities. In Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Albany, and New York City, many Polonia members created their own communities, civic societies, and schools, as the education system was charged with creating Americans, and recruiting for the Protestant churches through public bible readings. As Bukowczyk (1998) revealed in his work, the Polish American Community was othered deeply and with true discrimination across the north eastern United States, as labor looked upon these post 1890 immigrants as obsticles towards increasing pay, benefits, and unionization.

Therefore, a rich historical tradition is missing from the United States and world, with the exclusion of this literature. And, with significant numbers of Polish Americans in the New York State cities, suburbs, and rural areas, we now turn to the actual study of New York State’s Social Studies Curriculum.

The study

Utilizing critical discourse analysis (Gee, 2014) this paper examines the New York State Social Studies framework.  Critical Discourse Analysis is the examination of the materials and resources within a document. Critical Discourse Analysis further asks why documents were created, and what the significant purpose for the communication to a broader range of people beyond the initial stakeholders who created the document. The framework is crucial, as New York is one of the largest states in the United States, and is influential in publishing classroom resources such as textbooks. Further, many New York teachers are part of larger, national professional groups in the teaching of education majors, and social studies groups. This study reviewed the 2021 updates of the New York State Social Studies frameworks, or (NYSSSF, 2021) the guiding document for teachers and students in the 600+ school districts in New York State. 

The genesis for the latest social studies framework was the desire of the New York State Education Department, in the Board of Regents action plan to update the framework after the release of the Common Core State Learning Standards, identified the need to include more “history” post 9-11.  It was decided in 2014 to empanel a list of experts in multiple fields to create a more robust social studies curriculum, and a new set of Regents Exams, which are the penultimate end of course exams. With significant criticism of past regents exams by scholars (Dozono, 2020; Grant, 2001; Hursh, 2001; Maestri, 2006) the decision was made to implement new regents exam format, and mandate teachers and students, alike, focus on content specifications which was explicitly spelled out under broader  key ideas and  conceptual understandings (NYSSSF, 2021, p. 10).  The new framework retained the 10 areas of core knowledge and skills from the National Council for the Social Studies, and implemented five skills of an engaged scholar, as part of the national College, Career, and Civic Life standards (Swan & Griffin, 2013). An Inquiry Arc suggested to teachers that the C3 Standards, along with state specific content, would create a “ better social studies” experience for students (Swan & Griffin, 2013).

Undertaking Discourse Analysis, I started with an overall read of the K-12 New York State Framework. From the initial read, I explored for specific words related to Poland, the grade level of their first appearance, and then their frequency.


Poland specifically appears once in the entire 150+ page document. In 11th grade United States history and geography, Poland is included as a “throwaway” to the cold war, specifically how decisions were made to impact people following World War II. The point of the specific bullet is focused on America, and its Cold War conflict with the USSR. While 11th grade is focused on the United States, the unit wants students to understand how the previously “insulated” United States was forced onto the world stage as an emerging superpower. What does this significant lack of content mean? An over 1000 year old empire, the home to a number of scientific, political, religious, cultural, environmental and archeological treasures is absent. 


How can teachers be helped, educated, and resourced when there is a glaring and profound absence of one of the more significant ethic groups in the state? First, throughout the document, there are “latitudes’ ‘ given to teachers to allow them to focus on “local history” as necessary.  In the 2000 census, almost one million Polish and Polonia lived in New York State. Polish Americans are local to the State. Therefore, it is up to teachers in the classroom to include the Polish and Polish Americans across the curriculum, with little formal resources and training.

Second, the state of the current curriculum must be revised. With the (renewed) rise of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and the continued immigration of Poles to North America as the European Union and the United Kingdom have reduced acceptance of Polonia migrants. The state education department’s curriculum office must ensure that in their next revision to the state social studies scope and sequence, the Polish and Polish American community is represented in the topics covered.

Third, most students are unprepared with understanding the role of Eastern Europeans in US and American culture from the second great immigration wave post 1890. While the Irish, Armenian, Bosnian, and other tragedies are included, why are the achievements, and repression of the Polish not? Why does the 9th and 10th grade World history and Geography curriculum not include mention of the founding of Jagiellon University, the Liberal Veto by the Sejim? Why are the Western  names of the scholars, such as Copernicus and Curie included, but not their Polish ones?  The Polish Americans contribution to US history is profoundly lacking as well. Many immigrant Poles were part of the farming communities, the second industrialization in the United States, and the suburbanization following World War II. Many Polish American communities in the Northeast built the large churches which dot city skylines. The laborers, families, and homesteaders contributed to the growth and economic prosperity of the post World War II era. The Polonia community actively sent monetary aid to relatives in Poland suffering under communism. These Americans witnessed, supported and thrived, using their limited influence to help Pope John Paul II end communism in the Eastern European nations. Their Polish Language newspapers spread the business advertisements of local entrepreneurs, and their choices of houses, often vacated by previous immigrant communities enlivened downtowns, until the Post World War II suburbanization efforts and red lining led to the decay we see today. Yet the Polish culture and tradition of many communities is rebounding, and there is hope that the revitalization of historic Polonia will lead to more knowledge and understanding (Pienkos, 2019). 


History and Social Studies are an ever evolving part of the New York State school curriculum and standards. As literature reviewed above explains, excluding students from the curriculum leads to disengagement, and disassociation. In New York, one of the largest ethic groups, the Polish and Polish Americans, are de facto excluded from over 99% of the curriculum. In reviewing the 2021 New York State Social Studies Frameworks, the total number of times Poland, Polish Americans, or related content is explicitly covered is once. Therefore, the State of New York is excluding one of the largest and most significant groups from study. The lack of inclusion of Polish and Polish American history effectively excludes future generations an opportunity to explore the contributions, interdisciplinary, of one of the largest empires, and important immigrant communities to the United States. It is imperative that the New York State Education Department right this wrong, in order to increase the inclusivity in its guide to teaching and learning for the fourth largest state in the nation.


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