On the night of October 4, 1957, Americans could tune in on their radios to hear a small sphere floating in orbit sounding off beeps as it goes along. Sputnik was the first human-made object to go into an orbit around Earth, and thus start something called the Space Race. For such a breakthrough technological achievement, however, it was somewhat limited in its own performance. It could orbit and transmit radio signals back to earth, but beyond that, Sputnik was practically useless except for its role in Cold War Symbolism. It is this symbolism that is thought more often than not, then the education reform that comes after it. The launch of Sputnik is much more than the start of the Space Race; it was a catalyst for education reform and by my calculations, it will take another Sputnik to launch another wave of widely accepted reforms instead of the patchwork introduction of fixes like SGOs, Common Core, and PARCC.
“It is essential to examine the America school system before the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Before 1947 and stemming out of World War Two American schools were still primarily influenced by Progressivist school of ideas and practices from John Dewey. Progressivism emphasized the concept that students could only learn when they had “internalized what they had gained through experience and practiced in their own lives.” (Olson, 2000) In the mid-1940s, a new group called the ‘Life-Adjusters’ began to challenge the progressivist idea and thus began to change them. The main reason being that progressive education failed the majority. This so-called failure along with these new ideas for education and its purpose were based in the 1918 study titled Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. The goal of this new educational philosophy entitled ‘Life-Adjustment’ was to change the fundamental practices of the school. What fundamental practices did this study mean, it was no other than the core academic classes. By disregarding traditional academics, this meant that history, languages, science, and mathematics were less valued to instead focus on the concept of ‘fundamental processes.’ The fundamental process was the curricula and activities for the general student and would thus be the considerations for vocational education, use of leisure time, and other wholesome topics that would improve the capability of a student to live a good and productive life. What supported this study was a national education conference in 1945. From its findings, the committee has found that no more than 20% of students could be reasonably expected to ever attend college, with another 20% destined for a vocational program. This means that only 40 percent of students can further their education and contribute to society; the other problem becomes the other 60%. The obvious recommendation was the adoption of the previously mentioned Life Adjustment education model. It, however, was not going to be all in favor of the Life Adjusters, as these beliefs were incorporated with some progressive concepts. The most important being the concept of tracking students by ability level on every topic. This meant that higher achieving college-and vocational school-bound kids could still get the same education while the other students can get a more general track in which they can succeed. In 1951 the Life Adjustment approach was formalized in the Educational Policy Commission’s report, Education for All American Children. (Bybee, 1997) Life-adjustment education was more utilitarian when compared to the previous progressive practices of earlier education models. The reason for this utilitarian nature is that schools were failing in preparing a majority of its student population for its future so this model instead focused on the needs of the general student. Its proposed curriculum was on functional experiences in areas such as arts, family living, and civic participation. This kind of curriculum was more about preparing an active citizen instead of an educated academic.
Now, when you examine these tracks based on the ability for the student you can draw a comparison to the modern day with Special Education with the process of inclusion and mainstreaming. The method of mainstreaming and inclusion is the result of placing students in the Least Restrictive Environment as a part of the requirements of the IDEA act. (Morin) Mainstreaming is the process of taking your kids with disabilities and putting them in a general classroom, hence the mainstream. This typically comes with some form of help for the student or that the student spends time in special education or resource classes. Without the IDEA act, special education would not have advanced as quickly as it did which thus leads us to why Sputnik was so important.
The National Defense Education Act was spurred into creation off the impact of the Sputnik launch. The overall goal of this specific legislation was to change the country’s educational system to meet the standards of the national government concerning the nation’s defense. Regarding the national defense that meant the subject thought and focused on would have a direct benefit to those job fields. Thus, by increasing the standards of education, the United States hoped the changes would help them either compete or pass the Soviet Union. The importance of the NDEA, much like IDEA, is in the acceleration for reform it caused. The overall effects of NDEA are grants and federal aid for higher education and also a restructuring of school curriculum around that funding. Because of the scientific nature and international significance of Sputnik, the course requirements for students became aligned toward national security and jobs of that nature. Thus, the standard course load stiffened away from Life-Adjustment and added more Math and Science classes. If The Association of American Universities described the NDEA as “inspiring generations of U.S. students to pursue study in fields vital to national security and aide.” (American Association of Universities, 2006) Then it was effective in changing education as they knew it. And when you examine education curricula today, you see that the impact clear as day as almost every high school student for graduation shall have four years of math and 2-3 years of science by the time they do so.
The apparent result of Sputnik is not just in the historical context of historians of Devine and Dickson who propose a situation of American paranoia in retrospect to their calm leader, but rather the impact on education reform that we can see in the foundation of today’s schools. (Divine, 1993; Dickson, 2001) In an interesting article by a psychologist, he recognizes that there is a problem with modern educational reform. At the national level, the federal government spending on education has skyrocketed, with no comparable improvement in educational outcomes in such programs like Head Start, New Math, Nation at Risk, Goals 2000, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, charter schools, Next Generation Science Standards, and Common Core? (Klemm). We have had little to show in terms of the results of these programs as we keep trying to create better-standardized tests and are even thinking of replacing the common core in many states even though it only came out in 2009. The problem with modern education reform may not be with the program, but with the implementation. If states are allowed to pick and choose on adopting or adapting these reforms based on the fear of losing government spending, then the speed and acceptance rate would be relatively minor and too late before it impacted most of the nation. Klemm later states in the previous article “I think the real problem is that students generally lack learning competencies. Amazingly, schools tell students more about what to learn than how to learn” (Klemm, 2014). This is something that can have a much more lasting impact because it is on the level of teacher adaptation. If we are teaching these competencies instead of solely content, we can make sure that students can turn into these lifelong learners. It is effortless for a teacher to teach Organization, Understanding, Synthesis, Memory, Application, Creativity because it involves no money, but instead an adaptation of a lesson plan. Organization can be as simple as upgrading our technology to a cohesive system like Google Classroom where students can access all work and assignments and the same can be said for teachers. Creativity can be new ways to teach a lesson or new activities.
It’s important to touch on memory, which is commonly related to tests. Instead of teaching kids to take these tests, let’s make them create better mental connections for better learning. If students can connect historical themes to present day events than they can more easily recall this knowledge for other subjects. The problem with social studies is the idea that we teach to one test, and then the student can forget that knowledge. If we work on creating these connections, they can easily recall this knowledge in other classes or everyday life. Instead of a focus on a national reform movement that is bogged down by politics, let’s do something that only teachers have control over, which is how we teach students.
If we want to change education before national reform is ever sufficient, we as teachers must be proactive and as Social Studies teacher that may be the essential part of our jobs. If we can get tour students to transfer the Think like a Historian skill to other subjects, we can change their mind on the value of history. So until we have another Sputnik, we are stuck in the process of revolution. (Kuhn 1962) We had Sputnik in 1957, We had The Nation at Risk in 1983, what is the next event to revolutionize education? The next logical step is the quick improvement in technology, which may drastically change how and where we teach. Whatever the next Sputnik is, to make sure it is a more effective reform like NDEA it takes us as Teachers to be open-minded and accepting to the changes. Because, whatever reform or new ideas are thrown our way, we still need to be ready to change for the sake of our students.
Association of Universities. (2006). A National Defense Education Act for the
21st century: Renewing our commitment to U.S. students, science,
scholarship, and security.
Bybee, R. (1997). The Sputnik era: Why is this educational
reform different from all the others? Center
for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education Symposium “Reflecting on Sputnik: Linking the Past,
Present, and Future of Educational Reform.” Washington, DC.
P. (2001). Sputnik: Shock of the Century.
New York, NY: Walker Publishers.
(1993). The Sputnik Challenge. New
York: Oxford University Press.
Instead of looking at a history textbook, or studying an event like the Great Depression, one could look through the lens of the great boxer, Joe Louis, to get an invaluable historical experience. Louis’ career undermined some of the major problems in America at the time, and also highlights how sports ties into everyday life in America. ‘The Brown Bomber’ becomes the second ever, African American heavyweight champion when he dismantles the German, Max Schmeling, in less than two minutes. The implications of the ring becomes more than just a symbol of two men imposing their will on one another. It became an international struggle for power: in politics, culture, and society. Joe Louis and boxing came to represent something far greater than just sports. Ultimately, White America used boxing and Joe Louis as a tool for political and cultural manipulation; and Joe Louis’ career exposes the racism so deeply embedded in American society.
discussion of using Joe Louis in the high school social studies classroom is
one you would not anticipate as being part of a history lesson. Despite this
common thought, the boxer’s career is in the backdrop of World War I, fascism,
Nazism, Jim Crow laws, the Great Depression, socioeconomic status, World War
II, all leading up to the Civil Rights era in the U.S. Analyzing sport and race
in America is a huge topic that I feel many history teachers glaze over rather
precariously. This goes back to education in America and the current system
that we are in; many professionals believe that teaching controversial topics is
part of the job. For example, Matt Soley, who is a senior program officer in
the Education and Training Division at the United States Institute of Peace in
Washington, D.C., gave a strong outlook on teaching controversial topics in the
classroom (Soley, 2006, 10). His article, “If It’s Controversial, Why Teach It?”,
presents the idea that there are many positive benefits with bringing
controversial topics to the forefront of the classroom. The same can be said
about Joe Louis and his career. Although it is controversial in terms of how
you could show the facts, aside from that, the historical themes are vast: the
discrimination he faced, racism in America that is infused by the dominant
culture, and how much sports can connect to society at the time.
I propose that the
historical value provided in a boxing fight between Joe Louis and Max
Schmeling, or the rise of sports in America during the 1920s, can be an
exciting and unique resource for students to learn. At the high school many
students are involved with extracurricular activities or sports. Providing
several lessons about Joe Louis and his boxing career, or examining along the
lines of race and sport in America, can be a refreshing topic of discussion.
When you think back to high school, and covering U.S history in the 20th
century, students often conceive of the following: World 1, the stock market
crash, Great Depression, World War II, Civil Rights, and Cold War. It is a
stagnant chronological order that may provide a few lessons that generate excitement
from students, but presents little else. If one were to sit back and question
how a lesson about Joe Louis and boxing does not fit into this agenda, you may
want to reconsider.
often examined Joe Louis’ fights with Max Schmeling in a way that could
generate awesome classroom lessons, divergent discussions, projects,
presentations, and create a refreshing new way to teach the 1920s, 30s, and 40s
in America. Lewis Erenberg’s The Greatest
Fight of Our Generation: Louis vs Schmeling argues that “the boxers carried
some of the deepest political and social tensions of a period wracked by
political, racial, and national conflicts. They moved the racial basis of
American and German nationalism to the forefront of American politics and
national identity” (2006, 10). David Margolick, another historian, has stated
that “The fight implicated both the future of race relations and the prestige
of two powerful nations. Each fighter was bearing his shoulders more than any
athlete ever had” (2005, 6).
arguments, a teacher can discuss the importance of sport in America during the
1930s, and show how sport and race were deeply embedded in our country. This is
a very intense study, but it can be simplified for any high school grade level
because you can draw parallels to sports today in America and look at how
certain issues about race or culture in America have been brought up through
the nation’s best athletes. For example, years later with Muhammed Ali refusing
to go into the draft, or even more recent, Colin Kaepernick’s decision to not
stand for the national anthem. The career of Joe Louis, and boxers even earlier
than his time can highlight the impact sports have on race, and the people of
Using Joe Louis as
a topic for classroom discussion does not only relate to the struggle African
Americans had with gaining equal opportunity, or his giant fights with Max
Schmeling; you can look at print culture from the time period to also identify
with different concepts. To further students’ engagement, you can look at
various cartoons and pictures of Joe Louis to help elicit more of a response
from your class. Analyzing pictures from World War II and how Joe Louis fought
in the war, becoming known as “G.I Joe” Louis is a great way to talk about how
he was portrayed during the time period, what American culture was really
looking at with these images, and how this may relate to the Civil Rights era.
There are so many different ways to use Joe Louis and sports in the 20th
century for your classroom benefit. This multifarious figure pulls out both
controversial and very important lessons that students should know. For
example, Rebecca Sklaroff, another historian who studied Louis’ career, said it
is important to understand why Joe Louis—as the predominant black figure in all
sectors of war propaganda—held such meaning both for those who developed the
iconography and for those who received it” (2002, 963). This notion goes back
to how Joe Louis and the pictures or cartoons constructed of him, can be seen
as a defining moment in American culture during this time. This would be a very
cool and interactive way of getting students engaged and to think critically.
Louis’ career also
represents the Civil Rights movement, in which he is leader for his time
period. For the topic of race in America, a social studies class should know
what type of black figures were present during the early 20th century. Joe
Louis is absolutely one of them, for his dominance in the ring expressed
equality that did not promote a violent response (Margolick, 2005, 81). Going
back to my high school experience, seldom was their ever discussions about key
black leaders during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, it is not until the Civil Rights
era that we got into black history more critically. Using Joe Louis’ career and
sports in America before his time, as well as print culture from the period,
you can dig very deep into so many themes that tie into the Civil Rights
discussion. The foundation of Jim Crow laws, as well as the way dominant
culture, who is predominantly white men, actively controlled the narrative in
society, is something that students should know. Whether his story, and sports,
connects to race may be controversial or an intense discussion, it is something
students need to know when covering the 20th century in American history.
To be considered a
successful teacher, you must get your students engaged, asking questions,
problem solving, and being able to critically think. Joe Louis, who represents
a multifarious figure in American history, can hit all of these aspects of
getting your students to critically think and ask questions. The historical
significance of his career is like walking into a minefield, everywhere you
step you are hitting material that can be excellent for your classroom! What
are you waiting for as a teacher? You have to go out and find historically
relevant material for your class, no student is going to want to discuss the
Great Depression via PowerPoint, just so you can outline all of the hardships.
Rather, discuss the rise of urbanization through the lens of sports,
celebrities, and race in America. Instead of showing some of the hardships
outlined in a PowerPoint, you can dive into cartoons and images that the
popular culture embraced from the time. History can be exposed in the most
subtle ways. The career of Joe Louis provides a wealth of significance topics
in the high school social studies classroom: Jim Crow, Americanism with sports
and race, print culture, and what a African American leader looked like at the
time. There are so many options to choose from, digging deeper into the career
of Joe Louis would be a valuable topic for examining 20th century America.
Erenberg, L. (2006). The
greatest fight of our generation: Louis v. Schmeling. Oxford University
Margolick, D. (2006). Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max
Schmeling, and a World on the Brink. New
York: First Vintage Books Edition.
Sklaroff, L.R. (2002. Constructing G.I. Joe Louis: Cultural
Solutions to the “Negro Problem” during World War II, Journal of American History, 89 (3), 958-983.
Soley, M. (1996). If It Is Controversial, Why Teach It. National Council for the Social Studies.
Social Education 60 (1).
For most students social studies may never be the most exciting topic in this day and age, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to engage them with new material. It seems that most of the content in European and World History classes focuses on broad themes over a significant amount of time. Issues like the French Revolution and imperialism take up large portions of curricula, and there is little time left to look into more specific events that could be just as valuable in affecting the learning experience of students. In my middle and high school experience Russia and the states it governed before and during the Soviet era were rarely ever touched upon. By giving students the opportunity to examine the history of Crimea and its relationship to Russia they could learn about the impact a relatively small area could still have on a nation’s sense of history.
Crimea is a peninsula along the
northern coast of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe, roughly 200 miles from where
the 2014 Olympic games took place, and is home to a variety of multi-ethnic
groups. Currently the area is under Russian authority but the relationship
Russia has with Crimea has not always been clear. To put it mildly, Crimea has
a rich history and has bounced around in terms of who governs the territory a
multitude of times. In 2014, Russia forcibly took back the Crimea under the
direction of President Vladimir Putin, an event that sparked widespread
criticism in the Western press for a few years. Students normally would have no
understanding of an event like this and why Russia would take such swift
action. However, by explaining the significance Crimea has in the hearts of
Russian people, students gain the ability to make their own observations on the
situation and other events down the road.
The Crimean Tatar Khanate, a break
off from the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan’s empire was a predominate power for
nearly 300 years in European affairs, but even most secondary level students
have never heard anything about it. They were vastly successful in trading
goods with Italians and raided Russia for years without any consequences. The
Khanate existed under the authority of the Ottoman Empire until Russia went to
war against the Ottomans in 1768 and subsequently defeated them six years
later. The 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainardzhi did not immediately hand over the
Crimean Tatar Khanate to Russia, but rather gave them a chance for
independence. The independence would be short lived however.
Catherine II, the Tsarina of the
Russian state upon the signing of Kuchuk-Kainardzhi, took the opportunity of
the Crimean Tatar Khanate’s independence to place a ruler of her choosing on
the throne. It may be confusing for students to see how a state could be
independent but still have their ruler chosen from the outside. However, the
ruler Catherine II chose was Sahin Giray, a well-educated Muslim man who
descended from the Giray dynasty that had ruled over the area for prior
centuries. Catherine thought she gave Crimea the best shot it could have at
independence by picking Giray, however he could not keep stability among the
various groups of people living under his reign. Crimean independence lasted a
brief nine years before it was time for big brother Russia to step back in the
In 1783 Russia officially annexed
the territory known as the Crimea. Alan Fisher, a historian from Michigan State
University, asserts that “It was only after every possible means of
establishing Sahin Giray as an autocratic and independent sovereign had been
exhausted that Catherine carried out “the final solution” to the Tatar Problem”
(Fisher, 1967). Of course, the “final solution” that Fisher was alluding to is
that Russia takes over predominant control and authority of Crimea. It is
important for students to have the background on the time that Crimea was not
under Russian authority to see that maybe there was a slight chance for
independence prior to Catherine the Great’s annexation.
Students should also get to see how
important the Crimea was to the Russian state as a whole to further explain
their annexation effort. While traveling through the Crimea in 1787 Catherine
referred to the area as “Paradise on Earth” (Schonle, 2001). Catherine was
enthralled by the beauty of the peninsula and made it an effort to rebuild the
war-torn parts of Crimea into Russia’s own personal Garden of Eden. This wasn’t
an effort overtly forced on the Crimean people because she enlisted the help of
the local nobles and princes in reforming the land.
One major area of study for world
history students at the secondary level is the Enlightenment. They could
connect that to the Crimean issue as well. Catherine the Great considered
herself a significant contributor the Enlightenment and wrote over hundreds of
pieces and exchanged correspondence with great minds of the period like
Voltaire. The Enlightenment connects with Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in
1783 because it was considered (still is by some) to be an act of enlightened
despotism. Was Catherine trying to do what she thought was generally right for
the people of the Crimea or was she acting in her own self-interests? These are
the kinds of procedural knowledge questions that force students to think
critically about issues and come up with their own responses.
Studying a specific area rather than
a large general theme allows students the opportunity to examine cultural
aspects that are too often overlooked. The Crimea became so enriched in the
hearts of Russians for a number of religious and nationalistic claims.
Vladimir, a Kyivan Prince was supposedly baptised around Crimea in the area of
Chersonesos. This notion was later supported by the touring of the Crimea and
respects paid to these sights by Tsar Alexander I (Kozelsky, 2014). Russians
also have strong ties to the Crimean peninsula because of Sevastopol, the largest
city. In a 2014 address Vladimir Putin stated “This is also Sevastopol-a
legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the
birthplace of Russia’s black sea fleet” (Putin 2014). Sevastopol is home to
Russia’s main fleet along the Black Sea as Putin stated, so they feel a sense
of pride in knowing that this area belongs to them.
Knowing how valuable the Crimea is
to the people of Russia is important for students to understand because they’ll
see the effect losing a meaningful territory can have. In February of 1954 the
colorful Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was concerned with the heavy amount of
suffering placed on the people of Ukraine by World War II. He took it upon
himself to gift the territory of Crimea to the Ukraine as a penance for their
sacrifices. Although authority was transferred to Ukraine, Russians still
accessed the Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol and most citizens consider
themselves part of the Russian state. There was no real need for Russians to
get involved until 2014 when massive protests over a corrupt regime under
Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych emerged. In February of 2014 “little green
men” or disguised Russian soldiers infiltrated Crimea and forcibly seized the
territory back as their own. The swift re-annexation of the Crimea can seem
harsh, but referendums were put out that consistently approved of Russian
authority in Crimea. These kinds of quick turbulent political events can be
hard to grasp without a detailed background.
So where does this leave Crimea
today and why is it important for students to have the opportunity to learn
about it in a social studies classroom? Russia has split Crimea into two
separate entities consisting of the Republic of Crimea and the Federal City of
Sevastopol. Investments in schools and hospitals and the creation of the
world’s second longest bridge have all been started in the time since
re-annexation. The five-year anniversary of the re-annexation will be
approaching within the next few months (February 2019). This means that the
event will probably pick up speed in the media again and give students
background on current events that tie in to history.
the Crimea can be difficult because of the many shifts in leadership that occurred
over the past few centuries, however it is worth the effort to take on a
difficult task to challenge students to form their own opinions. I would love
to have a class and teach them about the rich history of a smaller part of a
much broader region because it’s something even most historians could overlook.
Teaching students about the Crimea gives them insight into a rich history,
geographical issues, culture, and aids in the development of their critical
Integration is still sought out and remains a goal of the educational system. Diversity is something that schools want because of its positive outcomes. New Jersey is one of the most diverse states but also one of the most segregated in the nation (Clark, 2018). So how is it possible that integration is not achieved? Matt Delmont’s book titled Why Busing Failed gives a general clue as to why integration hasn’t been achieved. Many may argue that busing failed, the argument has been made repeatedly, each time looking at different reasons, typically political. However, the first proponents of busing desired it because they believed it was their moral duty and that it would improve the condition of predominantly black schools. The opponents of integration through busing believe that it is not necessary and ineffective and as a result continue to uphold segregation.
To this day
opinions of busing are mixed. There are individuals who wished more would be
done about the situation; some think that there is unfinished business. Then
there are those that are happy that it got done away with in the 1990s
beginning with the Missouri v. Jenkins
case. The primary result of this case was that the court ruled that a unitary
education system had been achieved, therefore the state did not need to fund
programs that were typically used to achieve integration. The attitude shifted
due to “a lack of rising test scores” (Missouri
v. Jenkins, 2018). The test scores not increasing meant that the integrated
schools had done all that they could. This court decision would act as a domino
effect around the country Busing was the primary method of integration in the
past. It became nationally accepted in 1971 with the Supreme Court ruling that
districts do indeed have the right to bus students to different schools to
achieve racial integration. Despite that the decision, years later it became
acceptable to take away funding from busing and integration programs once
“unitary status” had been achieved. This is where busing began to be seen as a
failure. Delmont argues: “Anti bussers and politicians succeeded in stopping
full scale busing” (Cornish, 2016). Others were upset that busing
had been done away with because they thought it was a great cause. “Busing was
a major success” (Lang, Erdman, & Handley, 2016). a quote by Arthur
Griffin, a former superintendent of Charlotte schools in North Carolina. He said
in a documentary that he was one of the students that experienced integration
and that he was thankful for it. People like him are not rare cases. There are
as many people who speak fondly of busing as there are those who opposed it.
The truth is that the causes for failed busing are strongly linked to people’s
opinions. There are many opinions that will continue to be studied by
historians to provide different narratives as to why true integration failed.
“Society in general expected school desegregation to solve too many things”
research from busing and integration in the 1970s, this paper focuses on how in
the modern United States, specifically New Jersey, there are still examples of
segregation. It is common knowledge that the United States values equality,
especially in education. This means that there should be equal opportunity.
After all, in America if you work hard enough you can succeed. This belief
however was not always around. It became cemented into American society when
with a set of court decisions in the twentieth century. The most recognizable
decision is Brown v. Board of Education
of Topeka, KS. The decision most remembered for stating that schools cannot
be separate but equal.
The most memorable
piece of legislation when it comes to integration of the school system is Brown v. Board of Education, it was the
foundation of the values of education in America and the first proponent of
integration. Its importance cannot be denied when discussing reform to the schools.
It laid down the foundation for what would be motivation to improve all schools
(Wraga, 2006). The Supreme Court’s reasoning for ruling the way it did also
established a set of beliefs about the American education system that would
serve for the coming years as goals to be achieved and beliefs to live by. It
would take many years before the nation would collectively start working to end
segregation. After the civil rights act, and five more court cases, the
government issued an ultimatum due to the delay in desegregation plans. The
importance is that this could not have been possible without Brown v. Board of Education. The values
were summarized by a Princeton newspaper article written in the twilight of
busing, “It put forth a vision based on the highest principles and ideals this
nation had to offer. These aimed to create a better America, a better society,
by improving education for all children and by relieving both whites and blacks
of their senses of guilt and inferiority, respectively” (Adieh, 1993).
decision created values and from that point on the goals of
reformers would be drawn to not only change the school system, but society. We
first must look at the beginning of the movement towards school integration.
Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka; It is an argument in the
historiography that has been beaten on society over and over, but nonetheless
will forever hold importance in our nation, and especially in education. This
court decision was truly meaningful to society. It was just supposed to be
about reform, about education, but the court’s decision on the issue led to
values and implications that changed the nation. If the schools were not to be
segregated then why would anything have to be segregated? William G. Wraga wrote
a short excerpt titled The Heightened
Significance of Brown v. Board of Education in our Time. In this he argued
what most historians have been arguing for the sixty plus years since the
ruling; that Brown v. Board of Education was
more than just a school ruling. “By insisting that all students attend school
under the same roof, the high court affirmed both the importance of the concept
of equal educational opportunity and, implicitly, the unifying function of public
education in a Democracy” (Wraga, 2006). This was indeed the start of an
affirmation by the government of the value of equality in which education was
seen in many areas of the world throughout history to carry.
time between Brown v. Board of Education
and the court decision of Alexander v.
Holmes County Board of Education there were other decisions in the fifteen
year span. It wasn’t until the Alexander v. Holme’s decision that the
government called for immediate action (Lang, Erdman, & Handley, 2016). There
would be no more stalling. The Supreme
Court having to make decisions after Brown
proved that the latter was not enough to fix the segregation problem. The cases
had to be brought to court by people who were demanding their rights since the
court themselves can’t create cases. The opposition to integrated schools was
prevalent throughout the twentieth century.
opposed even by presidents, Nixon was a key example. “the integration of
schools, so that they will be racially balanced. This is a policy that requires
busing, and it is this policy that Mr. Nixon and the Republican platform oppose
when they oppose busing” (Bickel, 1972, p. 21). The Republican party gained a lot of support
because of their open disapproval of busing. This meant that there was a large
number of individuals out there that was not for having black and white
students go to school together. The reasons varied, but generally they believed
the government was wrong for imposing integration on the people. “Forced busing
is depriving 90% of the American people of their civil rights and its
unconstitutional” (Ruffra, 1974, p. 122).
Americans do not support busing or school reforms that involve integration to
this day. The source What Americans Think
about Their Schools is a compilation of research that was put together
through surveys. The survey would ask different Americans of various
backgrounds questions on what they thought about the school system and the
schools their children attended. What was found was that Americans generally
wanted change in education. Americans both care
about their schools and want them to improve. Though adults give the nation’s
public schools only mediocre grades—a plurality confer a “C”—they are willing
to invest more money in public education and they are reasonably confident that
doing so will improve student learning” (Howell, 2017). Everyone
seems to want the education system to improve, and are willing to pay to make
There is a
reform that is being proposed to improve the education of low income students.
Since typically low income students come from schools that are typically
minorities, the schools that are generally attended by a majority of white
students have higher incomes, thus better opportunities, and as a result better
education. An example of this is
Hopewell Valley Central High School which is ninety percent white as opposed to
Trenton Central High school which was majority black with a very small white
population. The reform calls for, “proposals to enable parents, especially
low-income parents, to exercise greater choice over their children’s education through
school vouchers, tax credits, charter schools, or home schooling” (New Jersey
Department of Education, 2017). These reforms are trying to be introduced with
the goal of creating equal opportunities for all students despite their
background. Reforms like this have the values of Brown v. Board of Education in mind.
It seems that a lot of Americans,
especially white Americans, still don’t want reforms that include the
government intermingling the races. This attitude is the same as it was when
busing first began in the 1990s. One argument against busing that many would
probably still agree with today, from a Kentucky organization in the 1970s to
oppose busing: “It is true, some districts are rich in
children, but poor with poverty, but because some of our children must suffer
from poverty–should we insist the rest suffer along with them?” (Ruffra, 1974,
p. 122). Integration and plans that involve the education system being
equitable. Are often seen as negative by White Americans, because they feel that
their children’s level of education should not be reduced to aid the education
of others. This has not changed, and is evident that it has not changed when
going back to look at the research data on what parents think about education
reform. “A plurality of the general public supports
choice initiatives. African Americans and Hispanics express more support for
school choice than do white Americans”. The fact that the African American and
Hispanic population are more willing to reform the system means that they are
not content with it. A majority of white Americans however want to keep things
the same. This means that they think their educational system should not be
tampered with as they are satisfied. “Few education reforms inspire as much
debate as do proposals to provide low-income families with vouchers that would
allow them to send their children to private schools” (Howell, 2017). This is
yet another example of a group of privileged individuals wanting to keep others
Since the early days where the
government proposed desegregation there had been individuals that were against
the idea. When there was no more legally mandated segregation but instead
segregation by the people, the idea of integration was introduced. Though
integration became enforced by law, many found ways to oppose it. “Forced busing has created an economic
segregation…Parents who could afford to have enrolled their c0hildren in
private schools to avoid crosstown busing, thereby segregating the
underprivileged from the more affluent” (Ruffra, 1972, p. 122). This then
becomes an issue that is beyond the power of the government. Private schools
are not illegal, but they’re existence harms the cause of integration. That is
one reason why New Jersey is still very segregated. Most of the schools in
America are as well, but there is one example of reintroduced busing in Boston
that might spark a movement to busing a second chance. “But while integration is still a process, METCO has made a big
difference in education. The most recent research of the program shows that
nearly 90 percent of METCO’s black and Latino students graduate from high
school on time, and they score higher on state achievement tests than their
peers in Boston Public Schools” (Cornish, 2016). The METCO program acts much in the same way
that busing did. It takes students away from schools in their neighborhood and
sends them to majority white schools in a different area. The program cites
success in improving the education of minority students and thus fulfilling the
values of educational equality of Brown
v. Board of Education. We are still nowhere near an equal educational state
but perhaps we can give integration a second chance and change that.
Jiwon Kim and Christine Grabowski Monmouth University
We live in one world. What we do affects others, and what others do affects us, now more than ever. To recognize that we are all members of a world community and that we all have responsibilities to each other is not romantic rhetoric, but modern economic and social reality (McNulty, Davies, and Maddoux, 2010). If our neighborhoods and nations are both affecting and being affected by the world, then our political consciousness must be world-minded (Merryfield and Duty, 2008). A sense of global mindedness or global awareness must also be promoted in elementary school, but many educators still find it challenging. The purpose of this article is to explore how we engage elementary students in learning global issues and to examine how introducing United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to the elementary classroom helps young students develop their interest and understanding of current issues in the world and become active citizens.
Citizenship Education and the United Nations
Sustainable Development Goals
globalization suggests that new forms of democratic citizenship and politics
are emerging (Andreotti, 2011; Davies, 2006; Gaudelli, 2016; Myers,
2006; Oxley & Morris, 2010; Parker, 2011; Schattle, 2008), and this demands
critical and active global citizenship education. As Myers
(2006) indicates, however, “while
a global perspective is often incorporated into the curriculum and courses, the
concept of global citizenship, suggesting a commitment and responsibility to
the global community based in human rights, is less coherent” (p. 389).
Citizenship is a
verb – learning about our nation and the world, thinking about dilemmas of
equality and equity, and acting on issues of collective concern (Boyle-Base and
Zevin, 2009). Therefore, Global citizenship relates to important concepts such
as awareness, responsibility, participation, cross-cultural empathy,
international mobility, and achievement (Schattle, 2008). From this perspective, global education
should be global citizenship education. Understanding and concern for such
issues should lead to action, and local, state, and global studies should be
used as a “springboard for deliberation, problem-solving, and community action”
(Boyle-Base, et al. 2011). Boyle-Base and Zevin (2009) propose a three-part
framework of citizenship: Young citizens of the world (and their teachers)
should be informed, reflective, and active. This model means (1) becoming
informed (about ideas, events, and issues); (2) thinking it through (presenting
fair and balanced views), and (3) taking action (teaching deliberation,
decision-making, and civic action) (Boyle-Base, et al., 2011).
We adopted this
model in order to engage elementary students in global issues, by introducing
the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) to an elementary
classroom. The Model United Nations is well known with many students
participating in this program, but few realize that the UN SDGs are designed to
educate our society and transform the world.
SDGs, officially known as ‘Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for
Sustainable Development’ is a set of 17 Global Goals around world issues. On
September 2015, countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In 2016, the Paris Agreement on
climate change entered into force, addressing the need to limit the rise of
global temperatures. Governments, businesses, and civil society together with
the United Nations, are mobilizing efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development
Agenda by 2030. Universal, inclusive and indivisible, the agenda calls for
action by all countries to improve the lives of people everywhere. Each goal
has specific targets to be achieved. The 17 goals are as follows:
The UN and UNESCO
explicitly support these goals and resources that are useful materials for
global citizenship education. While global citizenship is geared towards older
students, there are many ways that elementary school teachers can apply these
goals and resources within their classroom. For example, the World’s Largest
Lesson, which is a website created in partnership with UNICEF and UNESCO, introduces the
Sustainable Development Goals to children and young people everywhere and
unites them in action through various projects. If educators are planning an
assembly or a lesson to introduce the Global Goals, there are a lot of
resources listed on the website and educators can choose them based on the
specific goal (http://worldslargestlesson.globalgoals.org/). These resources include
training courses, activities, books, films, games, lesson plans for each grade
level, decorations and posters, as well as support for students’ action and
change project. Materials are available in English and nine other languages. Students
can share their work online and help create a map of the world, for instance,
that reflects why Goal 5, Gender Equality, is so relevant worldwide today.
Mrs. G, an
elementary school teacher leads a multi grade third and fourth grade class of
sixteen students. This unique style of teaching embodies project-based learning
with one to one Chromebooks for the students.
They are not seated at traditional desks; instead students are seated at
whiteboard tables with rolling chairs for flexible collaboration and learning.
Self-driven students who take initiative in their own learning, had become
integral parts of how this exciting project about the UN SDGs had grown and
The UN SDGs
lessons started out as requirement for the preservice teachers of Monmouth
University that were presented in the third and fourth grade classroom. As the
interest piqued in the classroom, Mrs. G decided to capitalize on students’
enthusiasm and design classroom activities to address the UN SDGs at their
developmental level. The goal was for the students to become more globally
aware about issues in the world, while honing their reading, writing, research,
and presentation skills. This unit project addressed multiple NCSS standards
and C3 Framework.
Table 1: Social
Studies Standards Addressed in This Unit Project
Social Studies Standards Addressed in This Unit Project
2. PEOPLE, PLACES, AND ENVIRONEMNTS
3. INDIVIDUAL DEVELOPMENT AND IDENTITY
4. INDIVIDUALS, GROUPS, AND INSTITUTIONS
5. POWER, AUTHORITY, AND GOVERNANCE
6. PRODUCTION, DISTRIBUTION, AND CONSUMPTION
7. GLOBAL CONNECTION
8. CIVIC IDEALS AND PRACTICES
D1.2.3-5. Identify disciplinary concepts and ideas associated with a compelling question that are open to different interpretations. D2.Civ.2.3-5. Explain how a democracy relies on people’s responsible participation, and draw implications for how individuals should participate. D2.Civ.6.3-5. Describe ways in which people benefit from and are challenged by working together, including through government, workplaces, voluntary organizations, and families. D2.Civ.7.3-5. Apply civic virtues and democratic principles in school settings. D2.Civ.10.3-5. Identify the beliefs, experiences, perspectives, and values that underlie their own and others’ points of view about civic issues. D2.Soc.3.9-12. Identify how social context influences individuals. D2.Soc.6.9-12. Identify the major components of culture. D2.Soc.7.9-12. Cite examples of how culture influences the individuals in it. D2.Soc.13.9-12. Identify characteristics of groups, as well as the effects groups have on individuals and society, and the effects of individuals and societies on groups. D2.Soc.16.9-12. Interpret the effects of inequality on groups and individuals. D2.Soc.18.9-12. Propose and evaluate alternative responses to inequality. D4.3.3-5. Present a summary of arguments and explanations to others outside the classroom using print and oral technologies (e.g., posters, essays, letters, debates, speeches, and reports) and digital technologies (e.g., Internet, social media, and digital documentary) D4.6.3-5. Draw on disciplinary concepts to explain the challenges people have faced and opportunities they have created, in addressing local, regional, and global problems at various times and places. D4.7.3-5.Explain different strategies and approaches students and others could take in working alone and together to address local, regional, and global problems, and predict possible results of their actions. D4.8.3-5. Use a range of deliberative and democratic procedures to make decisions about and act on civic problems in their classrooms and schools.
This was accomplished through a multifaceted project that
included learning about the UN Sustainable Development Goals through reading,
research, presenting a goal, and sharing. Additionally, there was discussing
information through a class blog, and leading and participating in service
projects. This project continued in the successive school year due to the
success and interest in the project.
Part I: Becoming Informed
While introducing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, one
challenge was to ensure that elementary students could understand these complex
concepts. In the beginning, students were introduced to two brief videos that
gave an overview of the UN Goals in terminology that was easier for them to
understand. Next, each of the sixteen students was assigned one of the goals to
research in depth. They were given a rubric with specific items that needed to
be included in their presentation. The students were required to include: the
name of the goal, the definition of the goal, why the goal is important, and
three interesting facts.
The next step was to research the goals to truly understand
the meaning, decide why it would be an important goal for citizens to be aware
of and potentially take action. The UN website offers articles, video clips,
facts and a plethora of additional information about the goals, but can be
difficult for elementary students at various reading levels. The
paraprofessional and teacher engaged individual conferences for each student to
ensure that there was an understanding of what the student was reading, as well
as recommendations of particular parts of the site to focus on for their
research. The seventeenth goal, which was not assigned to a student, was
completed together as a group. Using the classroom SMART board, Mrs. G led the
class in modeling how to find appropriate research, navigate the United Nations
website, and make decisions about information that was pertinent to present on
the visual document.
To further develop their reading and research skills, Mrs. G
used Newsela, a large database of current events articles that are written at
specific Lexile levels. Articles that related to the UN Goals were assigned to
the students. They decided which articles to read to assist in gaining more
knowledge and understanding of their specific goal. This platform worked well,
because it is tailored to the student’s independent reading level, which aids
in comprehension of the material. Some students worked with partners to help
mitigate difficulties in reading articles and participated in discussions
together, in order to better understand the topic of study. Individual
conferences with partners and the teacher or paraprofessional were essential in
supporting the students in tackling very advanced concepts. Goal 9- Industry, Innovation, and
Infrastructure was an especially challenging concept for a young elementary
student and required a good deal of discussion with the teacher to ensure
understanding of a complicated topic.
Reading informational text in social studies is the perfect
way to enhance learning. However, when the vocabulary and content was above
level for many of the students involved in the project, the teacher and
paraprofessional met individually to read with students to ensure comprehension
of the literature regarding the goals on the UN website. This one on one time
was helpful in making sure the elementary school students understood their
goal, and were equipped with the knowledge to become experts and explain it to
Part II: Thinking It Through
Sharing and Discussing Information about the Goals
Next the students created a visual product to communicate
the required information about their goal using what they have learned through
reading and researching their assigned goal. The students created posters in
the first year when the project was implemented, and in the next year they used
Google Slides to present information about the goal. The expectations on the
rubric were the same for both the poster and the digital presentation.
Table 2: UN SDGs Google Slides Rubric
Please include the following
on your slide:
Name of goal
Definition of goal
3 Interesting facts
UN SDGs Google Slides Rubric
Name & Definition
The correct name and an accurate definition is present
The name or definition may be correct
The name and definition are not correct
A clear and accurate explanation of why the goal is important in the world
Attempts to write an explanation of why the goal is important in the word. May have some ideas that are correct
Does not include why it is important or it does not make sense
3 Interesting Facts
3 appropriate facts about the topic are present
3 facts that are not relevant or just 2 facts are present
Did not include three facts
Design of Slide
The pictures and design are related to and represent the goal. Is well organized
The pictures make an attempt to represent the goal. Shows some organization
The design does not relate to the goal, is disorganized
The students reflected upon their presentations and
completed the rubric self-assessing their work. The expectation was to either
draw or find photos that represented the theme of the goal. When making
posters, the required information was verbally presented in a recording that
eventually was combined with other students using the DoInk app. They used the
green screen to record and uploaded the recordings to the app to create a
video. The other option was to use a shared Google Slides presentation where each
student created one slide to represent their goal and provided the required
Each student took a turn presenting their visual poster or
Google Slide to explain and teach the class about their specific goal. They
utilized speaking and listening skills to effectively communicate the
information that they researched and engaged in question and answers from their
classmates. Mrs. G could also further assess their learning by observing how
well they could answer questions about their assigned goal.
through Blog Session
Next, the students participated in blog sessions to further
discuss the goals, their thoughts and opinions.
The blog is an effective tool and another way of assessing the students’
critical thinking skills, knowledge of content, and how they communicate.
Google Classroom has a feature to “Create a Question” that allows students to
respond to each other. These questions were posed to the sessions:
List your goal and write an
interesting fact that you learned about your goal.
Explain something that surprised you
about the goals. Why did it surprise you?
What can you do to help achieve the
The explanation of something surprising from the students
was enlightening in providing a student perspective at their developmental
level. The following is a sample entry with responses:
1. My goal is
Quality Education. One interesting fact about my goal is more than half of
children that have not enrolled in school live in sub Saharan-Africa.
surprising I learned from this lesson is that, Goal 16 Peace, Justice, and
Institutions is that people all over the world do not have the freedom of
speech for their rights. I feel that is devastating to live under rules that
are hardly even thought about just made a law. They live under circumstances
that are very sad, and that is very careless of people.
3. To help these
goals we need to supply things that are needed. Americans can provide books all
over the world for Quality Education, We can provide vaccines to needed, we can
give food and vitamins needed to people in need.
Student “C”: Also, for every 100 boys enrolled in school
in Sub-Saharan Africa, there’s only 74 girls!
Student “A”: Where
is Saharan-Africa? What is it?
Student “J”: Who tells them that they can’t go to school
and why don’t they?
Student “O”: Saharan is basically all the countries of
Africa except the three at the top.
Student “O”: They can’t’ go to school because some people
(dictators, presidents, kings or queens) think that school is a waste of time.
They rather kids go and work the fields and harvest crops
Student “J”: Thanks for the answer
Student “S”: It is very sad that people don’t get to go
to school, but at the same time it might be fun to not go to school for a
couple of days but never going to school would be hard. But everybody needs
Student “C”: It’s not fun. The reason they avoid school
is to make the kids do work. And they have to work on the fields, harvesting,
growing, and taking care of crops ALL DAY, until night!
Student “E”: How many
school houses are in Africa?
Student “O”: Would it really be fun not to be able to
read, write, and say the right words in a sentence? What would you do if you
couldn’t read or anything? Would you ask your mom to teach you? What if you
don’t have a mom? Put yourself in other people’s shoes.
Student “C”: It wouldn’t be fun at all not to be able to
read or write. If we couldn’t read or write, we couldn’t blog now!
Reading the responses of
the students allowed Mrs. G to capture a conversation that the students might
have in a group discussion in the classroom. It was determined that
Student “O” understood that students in Africa and other parts of the world do
not have the same opportunity for education that children in the United States
are afforded. The student expressed empathy for children who cannot
attend school, and Student “C” even responds stating that they would not be
able to blog if they did not have an education.
When the students blogged, there was silence in the classroom because
they were all actively engaged using the technology in a meaningful manner.
Mrs. G expected the students to answer the three questions and then
thoughtfully responded to at least five students in the class with comments and
insight. She accessed all of this and could comment on Google Classroom to
leave feedback for students. The use of
technology like Google Classroom allowed the class activity to become more
student-focused. By assigning students different UN goals, the students were
able to take ownership of their own topic and became the class expert who is
accountable for discussion on the goal. This enabled the teachers to see the
student’s ability to comprehend the UN goals as well as to apply that knowledge
gained to form a discussion with their fellow peers. This deliberation process
helped students think about higher-order thinking questions beyond immediately
noticeable facts. Students sometimes left with some simplistic and
self-oriented/US-centric views of the world. Therefore, it was important for
Mrs. G. to capture a troubled conversation and follow up as a group discussion
in the classroom.
Part III: Taking Action
Leading and Participating in Service
Each year of
implementation of this project has led to the students taking action to address
the UN SDGs. In the first year, the class was saddened and upset to see the
prevalence of poverty and hunger in the world. Through a class discussion, they
decided to take action and have a food drive to support a local food pantry.
Mrs. G led a discussion on local organizations that helped the poor, and
ultimately the students decided to support St. Vincent de Paul Pantry at a
church that some students attend. They gathered information from the church
bulletin, organized a collection based on the pantry’s needs, created flyers
and made announcements daily to the school promoting the food drive and giving
the school community facts about hunger and poverty. The students used Google
Sheets to collect data and provided updates to the school community about the
number of items collected. The young learners took ownership of the whole
project and completed it to its final steps of packing the donations and
sending thank you notes to the St. Vincent de Paul members for their service to
the poor. The class felt proud of themselves for spearheading this project that
would align with the UN SDGs.
In the following school
year, the service project that the class decided to organize was related to
recycling and saving the environment. The students collected plastic film to be
sent to the Trex Company, which uses recycled materials to make composite
lumber. Many schools compete against each other to recycle the most plastic
film and Mrs. G’s multi grade class took a leadership role with this contest.
The students created a Google Slides presentation, developed flyers to be sent
home with students in the school, and visited all of the classes in the school
to explain what can be recycled, where the collection bins were placed and all
of the details about the project. They weighed and packaged the plastic, as
well as recording the data for the competition. The students were proud of
their contribution to the UN SDGs and helping the environment.
Service projects such as these were a
wonderful way for students to feel empowered as elementary students. It started with one student stating in class,
“People are hungry, we have to do something to help!” Through this experience,
they realized that their small contribution to helping the poor and hungry, or
recycling to help the environment were ways that they could join people all
over the world to obtain the UN SDGs. They were able to recognize their power
as citizens of a global community. It was important to reflect and determine if
there was a lasting impression made by studying the UN Goals.
Results: Impact of the Project on the Students
Mrs. G polled her
students with Google Forms at the end of the school year to assess the impact
that this project had on the students. There were seven questions ranging from
how important are the goals to written responses about how they can be global
citizens. One student wrote, “The food drive helps the people that are starving
and have no money so they get food that is donated from other people. Then they
can have food to fill their stomachs.” Another
student commented, “Doing Trex made us global citizens because we helped by
recycling. So the world won’t be filled with plastic. Also because we can reuse
it.” Some even commented about the
Marker Recycling Program that was underway in the school, or about the garden
at their school. They were applying the knowledge that they had gained from the
project and analyzing how activities conducted by other organizations relate to
the UN SDGs.
By exposing the
elementary students to the UN SDGs, they were given an awareness of the world
around them, beyond their community, state, and country. While engaged in this
project, most of the students were shocked to hear some of the statistics.
Student “S” wrote in her blog post that some people in the world live on $1.25
a day and it elicited quite a discussion. One response from Student “G” was
that “People in North Korea and most of Africa live a daily life of poverty.”
The class discussion was facilitated by the teacher to assist in explaining
different cultures, religions, governments and such in terms that were on the
developmental level of the children, including censoring material that would
not be appropriate for discussion at their age. Students were more interested
and empathetic towards the issues that were associated with their age group children,
such as not going to school, than other issues, like living with little money
and resources. Also, their understanding of those problems and causes were
sometimes limited. This confirms that the blog session is a good tool to
promote students’ learning, to assess their understanding, and to inform
teachers what they need for the next instruction.
These UN SDGs are global
objectives that are being addressed by corporations, governments and even
students. By teaching the children as
young as elementary school, they are being provided with information, facts and
statistics that reach beyond “their world”.
One young lady wrote a very impactful statement, “We can make our world
a better place to be by making these small donations and commitments, but in
reality, that can make a lifetime difference.” Empowering young children to
believe that they can have an impact will cultivate adults and forward thinking
The project can be easily adaptable for multiple grade
levels to provide elementary school students a creative and interesting way to
learn about global issues and give them a lens into other countries and ways of
life. Any classroom with Internet access and devices to utilize Google
Classroom or other online program such as Otus, Kiddom, or Edmoto can apply the
principles of this multifaceted project.
The three-part framework: (1)
becoming informed (about ideas, events, issues); (2) thinking it through
(presenting fair and balanced views); and (3) taking action (teaching
deliberation, decision-making, and civic action) effectively engaged elementary
students in learning global issues. The UN SDGs were a good source and tool in
carrying out this model.
While there are few studies and practices of teaching the United
Nations and global issues in elementary level, this classroom practice provides
a good example of how it can be successfully done and build young learners’
global awareness and active citizenship. ELA, science, math, and the arts can
be integrated in addition to Social Studies as well as the skills of reading,
interpreting, and presenting can be taught in this unit project learning.
Because it deals with subject matter that is of immediate interest and bridges
school learning with life outside school, it is highly motivating to critically
think and take action. It provides elementary school students with information
that they have not been exposed to and helps them build a knowledge base for
understanding current and future problems.
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Mark Helmsing and Andrew Vardas-Doane George Mason University, Fairfax VA
Although the period in human history we call the medieval period ended around the year 1500 CE, we are surrounded by medievalism in our lives today. For most history and social studies educators, a claim such as this does not make sense. We accept the end of the medieval period with the Renaissance, ushering in what we teach our students as the early modern period in our human history. Historians and educators position the medieval period, as a “middle” period used to demarcate Western history, occurs after the end of ancient history and before the period in which we currently live (Arnold, 2008). And yet, as we explain in this paper, medievalism—the icons, images, tropes, and representations of how humans think of that time period—permeates our lives today. Learning to understand medievalism in relation to the broadly defined medieval period and from the specific construct of the European Middle Ages enables our students to develop a sharper sense of periodization and significance within their broader historical thinking.
Because of the elision between fact
and fiction, reality and fantasy, history and social studies educators should
take seriously the need to point out medievalism with their students and strive
to make more visible and explicit the historical inspiration for such
representations. In the first half of this article we provide some ways of thinking
about medievalism. In the second half of this article we take these aspects of
historical thinking related to medievalism and examine how they work in a
popular video game and film franchise, Assassin’s
Creed, a form of medieval world building that is popular amongst
adolescents and young adults (Gilbert, 2017; Hammar, 2017). Our aim with this
article to encourage educators to consider some implications for history and
social studies educators related to the intersections of popular culture and
medievalism as history education.
Medievalism for Historical Thinking
To assume that the medieval is
irrelevant or antiquated, or to discount how medievalism effects our
contemporary thought and shapes so many images and ideas in popular culture, is
to neglect the significance of properly understanding and accounting for
historical periodization (Cole & Smith, 2010). One may think that
historical periodization is cut-and-dry as a commonplace of historical thinking.
Say “medieval” and we think of courtly love, knights in shining armor, kings
and queens residing in large castles (often with moats and drawbridges). My
(Author 1) thinking about medievalism as an issue worthy of considering in
relation to historical thinking occurred in early 2017 when I spent a semester
away from my university duties teaching 7th graders. The topic of
the HBO television series Game of Thrones
came up in conversation one day and a student remarked that he thought “it
must have been awful living back then.” It took me a few seconds to realize
that he was engaging in two aspects of historical thinking. First, he assumed
that the time period in which the Game of
Thrones world is set was a long time ago, ostensibly linking it to the history
of the Middle Ages. Secondly, and more importantly (or pressingly, depending on
how you look at it), the student was conflating the imaginary fantasy world of Game of Thrones—and entirely fictional
world and text—with ‘actually existing’ medieval history from real life. When I
pressed him on the matter he said that of course he knew the dragons and White
Walkers were not real, but that he assumed what he saw on the television series
was what life was like “back then, with all of the kings and stuff.” This
conversation set me about to think about what it is we may need to be more
explicit about in our curriculum and pedagogy to help students not only to
separate fact from fiction, works of fantasy from works of history, but also to
help our students be more perspicacious and attentive to when, how, and why
aspects of medievalism appear to us throughout art, literature, music, film,
theater, and popular culture at large. In this section we offer some reasons
for why history and social studies educators should investigate (both
professionally for their own historical thinking and with their students)
aspects of medievalism and the medieval world.
Encountering Medievalism in Popular Culture
need to help our students see that we engage with medievalism when we consume
media about actually existing persons and events from the medieval period, as
in Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a
feature film about the Crusades in the 12th century, or in Pippin (1972/2013), a Broadway musical
about the eldest son of Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th
centuries. Yet we also engage with medievalism when we consume media that is
speculative fiction and fantasies using icons, images, tropes, and
representations of the medieval world, as in Game of Thrones, a massively popular book and television series
about feudal royal houses warring with each other, or in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), only the latest of several
feature films inspired by the Arthurian legends of Camelot, the Round Table,
and the Lady in the Lake.
and our students engage with medievalism when we encounter phrases, concepts,
and iconographies that remain embedded in Western thought long after the end of
the medieval period. For example, when teaching about torture that occurred in
the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, we
may describe documented examples of torture as “medieval” in their barbarity,
despite the fact that much of what we think of as medieval torture did not
actually exist until the Tudor period that began with the end of medievalism in
the 1500s (Matthews, 2015). To use another example, our notions of chivalry,
courtship, and courtly love are concepts that took on distinctive forms as part
of a complex code of rules and conduct in the medieval period (Emery & Utz,
2017). These concepts remain in our thought today, as evidenced by news
headlines such as “Chivalry isn’t dead” (Fuller-Hall, 2018) and “Stanford
professor puts desire in a medieval context” (Marian, 2013). Educators can
select some medieval phrases, concepts, and iconographies for students to
identify in our current social and political discourse, helping students map
these concepts back to the actually existing historical medieval world. For
example, in their edited volume Medievalism:
Key Critical Terms, Emery and Utz (2017) survey the significance of terms
such as feast, gothic, heresy, humor, love, purity, and troubadour, connecting
how these concepts existed within the medieval world and how they have
maintained their medieval legacy in our contemporary cultures. In investigating
these and other concepts of the medieval, students are able to examine the
continuity and change of the history of medieval thought in our world. In some
cases, regrettably, medieval concepts, ideas, and iconography are taken up to
promote repellant nationalist, racist, and supremacist beliefs, such as the
adoption of the Templar Knights and runes with Norse warrior mythology and
other medieval marks used to signify racial purity by white supremacists
(Devega, 2017; Livingstone, 2017; Weill, 2018). Such uses and abuses should
also be interrogated and critiqued in history and social studies education,
ranging from how we describe something as violent or regressive as being
“medieval” to invoking language and associations to the Crusades as Holy Wars
with jihads and ISIS/ISIL.
educators and students should realize we place ourselves within contemporary
medieval worlds that we often visit in the present, such as medieval fairs and
Renaissance fairs or “Ren Fests,” which are anachronistic for many reasons,
least of which is that they visually blur and blend the High Middle Ages with
Elizabethan England and the European Renaissance. I (Author 1) studied the
history of the Middle Ages as a sixth-grade student in a project-based social
studies unit where I and my fellow classmates created and hosted a “medieval
faire” for the entire school (my contribution was learning to walk on stilts
and recite ballads and folk poems). A popular choice for some high school
history and/or British literature classes, Renaissance fairs allow visitors to
dress in robes, boots, and bodices and converse with strolling troubadours and
jolly court jesters. When I (Author 1) taught high school social studies and English
courses, I chaperoned a number of field trips to such fairs, often cringing at
what I perceived as historically inaccurate cross-periodizations of Elizabethan
England, medieval France, and 17th century swashbuckling seafarers
and pirates. Nonetheless, watching students marvel at medieval blacksmiths and
singing troubadours may make up for the lack of precise periodization.
We also consume medievalism when we
cheer on jousting knights while feasting on drumsticks and drinking frothy ales
at one of the Medieval Times Dinner and TournamentÒ locations throughout Canada
and the United States, notable for their scripted performance’s references to
the medieval worlds of the Iberian Peninsula in the characters of King Don
Carlos, Princes Catalina, and Lord Ulrich. These and other examples of medieval
worldbuilding at public events and themed amusement parks offer ample
opportunities for educators to have their students challenge the accuracy,
veracity, and legibility of medieval representations in these spaces, calling
upon students to think critically (and historically) about how such places and
spaces evoke and ‘use’ medievalism.
Finally, medievalism and fantasy as a genre
for fiction and popular culture is fully entangled. The many dragons, elves,
and giants in the fantasy franchise Dungeons & DragonsÒ have no existing evidence
in historical fact, but the bards, monks, and paladins of the fantasy
role-playing game are based on actually existing classes of people in the
medieval period. Indeed, paladins, (with a name that derives from Palantine, a Latin word for servant)
were high-ranking warriors in Charlemagne’s court (Freeman, 2017). The paladins
did not, however, roll multi-sided dice when engaged in battle to the best of
historians’ knowledge. Because representations of fire-breathing dragons often
appear in literature and other mass media in landscapes occupied with castles,
villages, dense forests, and feudal farms and fields. In the following section,
we investigate the play of the medieval in one example: Assassin’s Creed.
a global gaming market of $70.6 billion in 2012 to a soaring $121.7 in 2017,
the market for games and gamers is climbing at an exponential rate. Projections
for 2021 peak at over $180 billion dollars spent worldwide. Of the games
produced and developed, many carry a medieval theme that draws millions of
players each year. One game, Assassin’s
Creed serves as an example of how our students may confront medievalism in
their everyday lives. Operating as a medieval historical and science fiction
twist on real-world events, Assassin’s
Creed has sparked a franchise that as of September 2016 has sold over 100
million copies (Makuch, 2016). The latest of ten installments, Assassin’s Creed: Origins ranked as the
eighth bestselling game of 2017. Therefore, based upon these numbers and our
anecdotal experience of having middle and high school students express their
fandom for the video games series and its film adaptation, we use it as an
example of popular culture primed for some historical thinking about
of Assassin’s Creed
2007, the first Assassin’s Creed game
features a character, Desmond Miles, who is kidnapped by Absergo Industries.
This multinational corporate conglomerate forces Desmond to use a device called
an animus to (re)live the memories of his ancestors through memories stored in
his genes. He is thrown back in time to the twelfth century following the Third
Crusade to Masyaf Castle (an actual medieval castle in present-day Syria) where
he must live out the life of his ancestor who belongs to the Assassin Order.
The plot revolves around a historical conflict between the Assassins and the
Knights Templar, suggesting that students actively confront historical markers
and significance about the Knights Templar, the Crusades, and Holy Wars in
medieval Europe and what we now identify as the Middle East. In the video game,
the goal of the Templars is to create world peace by subjugating the human race
who they believe are incapable of ruling themselves without barbarism. The
assassins fight against this stripping of free will and believe in the progression
of new ideas and individuality. As a character in the game, the player
progresses the storyline of his forefather, learning more about the history of
the world and the conflict between the two factions (IGN, 2012).
As the player continues through the
game, Desmond finds out Absergo Industries is the modern face of the Knights
Templar who are attempting to have Desmond lead them to ancient objects of
power called Pieces of Eden. These artifacts were created by a primeval race of
Homo sapiens divinus, a highly
advanced humanoid species. This race, termed the Isu, genetically modified the
homo genus species in order to create a force of slave-labor. Using the Pieces
of Eden, devices interacting with neurotransmitters in the minds of humans,
they controlled humans until Adam and Eve escaped and began humanity as it is
known today. The epic battle between the Templars and Assassin Order
exists as a repercussion to the fall of the Isu and the eventual use of Pieces
of Eden by humans against humans. The Templars, believing freedom leads to
chaos, hope to use the artifacts to eliminate autonomy. The Assassins exist to
prevent that dream from becoming a reality (Assassin’s Creed Wiki, 2018).
the Knights Templar in Assassin’s Creed
Using the Assassin’s Creed plotline as a teaching tool for exploring
medievalism encourages teachers and students to enact a critical media literacy
with existing historical thinking skills and approaches. Throughout the
gameplay, many deaths of actually existing historical figures are changed to
assassinations to keep in with the themed narrative of the storyline.
Acknowledging this plot device as an adaptation of history helps students
identify historical errors, but also to be alert to when popular culture gets
the history of the Middle Ages right and when it gets it wrong. Shifting
students’ historical perspectives to view a real military order, the Knights
Templar, portrayed as a power-hungry collection of world dominating fanatics
can confuse and inspire conspiracy where no evidence is evident. The disbanding
of the Knights Templars in 1312 at the behest of Pope Clement V marks the end
of their historical timeline, despite, however, their continued presence in
(questionable) usage amongst contemporary subgroups and populations as
mentioned earlier in this article. This, unsurprisingly, takes on what we deem
to be a concerningly problematic stance within the video game. The
assassinations necessary to complete the game are made out to be necessary
evils in order to protect the human race from the Templars. The historical
record from the Middle Ages informs us that the real ‘assassins’ were a small
Muslim Shiite sect, the Nizari Ismailis. Known as heretics by both Sunnis and
Shiites, this group’s origin can be traced to immediately preceding the First
Crusade during the crisis of the Fatamid Caliphate (Liebel, 2009).
History in Assassin’s Creed
Almost all the historical content
in the movie is a complete fabrication. Claims that major players in history
such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mahatma Gandhi, and Genghis
Khan used Pieces of Eden to further their agendas can leave players questioning
their understanding of historical reality. There are, however, two accurate
representations that can be used in the social studies classroom to help
further students’ understanding of medieval times and see medievalism in
First, as mentioned previously,
students can learn about the real Masyaf Castle. This castle exists in partial
ruin and is in modern day Syria near the Mediterranean Sea. It served as a base
of operations of sorts for a guild of assassins identified as the Nizari
Ismailis during and following the Third Crusade (1189-1192 CE). The game’s
developers worked tirelessly to make their depictions of main cities
(Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus) as accurate as possible. Ubisoft hired a team
of historians to advise on their gameplay and narrativization to make sure the
layout and worldbuilding appear historically suitable. Using the game as an
exploration and inquiry tool would be an application of critical media literacy
for exploring medievalism in popular culture.
Standing alone without an educator
to intervene in offering some historical contextualization, Assassin’s Creed is, unsurprisingly, a
weak classroom resource for history and social studies educators. As an example
of medievalism for our students in the 21st century, it offers much
to consider, deconstruct, and critique. We argue the game can be used as a
springboard for students interested in history resulting from their engagement
in the game’s fictitious portrayals of historical events through elements of
historical fantasy and fiction. We urge educators to be cautious in discounting
the game’s appeal to student, suggesting instead that educators become more
alert to which aspects of medievalism appeal to our students and to find out
how and why. Expanding upon this foundation and using the inaccurate storyline
as a method for introducing historical accuracies could be exciting for
students. With ten games set in time periods ranging from Ptolemaic Egypt to
the American and French Revolutions to the Industrial Revolution and the
Russian Revolution, a curriculum created around something akin to “The Truth
Behind the Assassin’s Creed Histories”
could be an engaging and productive avenue for educators. The curriculum would
have the added benefit of exploring historically accurate renditions of cities
such as London, Venice, Florence, Alexandria, Memphis, Jerusalem, Spain,
Istanbul, and Paris.
In closing, we offer a final
thought from medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. The idea of the medieval and its
immortal memorialization and representation across our cultural, political, and
experiential encounters in everyday life can cultivate in students the idea
that the medieval is “alluringly strange” and also “discomfortingly familiar”
(Cohen, 2000, p. 3). It is something we hope will keep our students’ interests
in the past alive.
Arnold, J.H. (2008). What
is medieval history? Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.
Greer Burroughs, Marissa Bellino, Morgan Johnston, Catarina Ribeira, Marci Chanin, Briana Cash, and Ellen Cahill The College of New Jersey, Ewing NJ Bradford School, Montclair NJ Edison Township School District, Edison NJ
The topic of immigration, who has a right to come to this country and who has a right to stay, has been at the heart of heated and emotional debates across the United States. In the summer of 2018 images and stories of children separated from their families at the southern border filled news and social media outlets. At the same time, the murder of a 20-year old woman in Iowa by an undocumented immigrant, led to calls for tighter border controls and for the governor of the state to proclaim that she was, “angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community,” (Klein & Smith, 2018). In recent years the nation has witnessed a series of executive orders to limit immigration from many majority Muslim nations, cuts to the numbers of refugees the U.S. will accept, a series of court challenges to these policies, increased arrests by ICE (Bialik, 2018) and outrage and protests from supporters on all sides of these issues. It is within this context that young children across the U.S. are developing a sense of what it means to be an “American”. A primary purpose of public education is to prepare individuals to be responsible citizens in this pluralistic, democratic nation, therefore schools should not shy away from addressing these issues.
controversial issues may seem daunting, or even out
of place in elementary school. However, the National Council of Social
Studies (NCSS) theme of Power, Authority and Governance, calls on educators to
teach children about the functions of government, legitimate use of political
power, how individual rights are protected and the conflicts that may arise
when advancing fundamental principles and values in a constitutional democracy.
The standards state that “through the study of the
dynamic relationships between individual rights and responsibilities, the needs
of social groups, and concepts of a just society, learners become more
effective problem-solvers and decision-makers when addressing the persistent
issues and social problems encountered in public life” (National Council
for the Social Studies, 2010). Despite this charge,
many elementary school educators avoid topics that can be deemed too political
or upsetting to younger audiences (Zimmerman & Robertson, 2017). This stance
turns a blind eye to the reality that these events touch the lives of
children in many ways. Some children have experienced separation from family
members or have fears members of their family or community will face
deportation. Many children are exposed to unsettling images in the media or
hear discussions among adults that may be laced with anger and fear. Avoiding
controversial societal issues is, in part, to deny children’s awareness of
their surroundings and can limit opportunities to
help children make sense of difficult topics (Passe, 2008). Addressing these
topics can be a vehicle to teach valuable concepts and skills of democratic
citizenship (Harwood & Hahn, 1990; Parker, 2006).
In this article, we share
lessons designed and implemented by a team of educators to address forced
migration, asylum seeking, national borders and concepts of power and freedom
with children in grades 2-4. Through the collaborative work, members of the
team experienced shifts in their understandings of what should and ultimately
could be taught to young learners. This evolutionary process, the lessons and
what was learned from teaching the lessons to young learners, will be shared.
Where We Started
team is comprised of three practicing teachers, two preservice teachers, and
two education professors. The impetus for the project was a service learning
trip most members of the team took to Lesvos, Greece in the summer of 2017. The
island has been at the center of a migration crisis with millions of people
fleeing war, human rights violations and economic hardships in their homelands.
During the height of the crisis in November 2015, the United Nations Human
Rights Commission reported that 379,000 individuals had already arrived on the
island and an estimated 3,300 more were arriving each day, (UNHRC, November
2015). Along with the human toll of accommodating a massive influx of people,
huge amounts of debris in the form of rubber dinghies, wrecked boats, personal
items, plastic bottles and an estimated 600,000 life jackets washed-up or were
left on the shores of the island. Organizations and individuals around the
world responded by providing aid.
goals of the trip were to study the interconnection between the ecological and
social crises, while working with nonprofit organizations and people directly
impacted. This involved learning with locals about environmentally sustainable
practices, cleaning the beaches and providing aid for refugees. An additional
goal was to advance education for sustainability by creating lessons for
elementary children to teach about the impact of humans on the environment in
the midst of a human and global crisis. Supporting the students in shifting
their orientation towards a more social and eco justice orientation was an
important objective of the entire experience.
the preservice teachers focused on the environmental side of the crisis and
discussed possible lessons dealing with the negative impact of plastic on
marine life, or the benefits of upcycling. One afternoon the group sorted
clothing donations and prepared backpacks for children who had just arrived by
boat on the island. That night one student noted in her journal that, “Getting
adequate basics, clothes that fit, clean drinking water and food, was a reality
for the refugees”. The team also interacted daily with volunteers who had been
on the front lines of the crisis and heard first-hand accounts from people
forced to flee their homelands. From these experiences, the human dimension
became real. One journal entry captured this shift in perspective when the
preservice teacher wrote “What makes a refugee? These people were just born in
the wrong place, [it’s] all about the luck of where you are born…I am
redefining human rights”. With this new perspective, what to teach about the
crisis also began to shift away from just the environmental issues to the human
“Freedom is like a bird, a bird doesn’t get told what to do” - Second grader
order to support the preservice teachers in the lesson plan part of the
project, we invited in-service teachers as collaborators. In teams of two,
lesson ideas were shared and refined. Drawing on their experience in Greece and
the knowledge of the classroom teachers, the preservice teachers were able to
work through some of their anxieties and conceptions of what young children
could handle. As one student expressed,
“I don’t believe second graders can understand the concept of the refugee
crisis.” The 2nd-grade teacher working with the student agreed and offered
freedom as a concept that could be addressed and brought to the level of the
children. From there the ideas came quickly and the two decided to begin the
lesson with a children’s book. They choose the book Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs (2016). The book tells the story of a
young girl and her family who are forced to leave their home due to civil war.
The illustrations in the book show the family’s plight as they take only the
belongings they can carry and flee on foot to find safety in Europe.
The second-grade team
determined that once students understood the idea of being forced to leave
one’s home, they wanted the children to relate borders and barriers to the
concepts of freedom of movement. They
decided to use a simple simulation to help students connect to the idea. In
both classes where this lesson was taught, the teachers divided the students
into two groups and explained that the class was going to play a game. The
in-service teacher brought her class outside and one group was told they could
play on the playground for ten minutes, while the other would be required to
stand in a small section of the blacktop. After ten minutes, the groups would
switch. When the preservice teacher taught the lesson she began by asking the
class to list classroom privileges they enjoyed and narrowed the list to two
favorites; flexible seating choices and drawing on the whiteboard. The preservice teacher then explained that
one group could exercise these privileges for ten minutes while the other group
needed to remain quietly in their seats.
In both classrooms, the idea that this was a game and that the groups
would switch was repeatedly emphasized. After the lesson, the students were
given opportunities to reflect on their experience and offer their own
definitions of what freedom was.
During the activity, both
teachers noted very strong reactions among the students. In a focus group, the
second-grade teacher described her students as being, “distressed and outraged even though they knew they would
get their turn [to play on the playground]”. In both classrooms students
reflected on how they felt during the activity and the notion of fairness was
applied to the experience by the students.
One child expressed dismay she had lost privileges even though she had
been behaving well. This provided the teacher with the opportunity to explain
that loss of freedom wasn’t related to one’s behavior and she reminded them how
the family in the story didn’t do something bad to cause the loss of their
Another team designed a
lesson involving a web-based, simulation activity in which students made
choices for a woman escaping domestic violence in Nicaragua and seeking asylum
in the United States. The simulation, The
Walls We Don’t See (Public Radio International, 2017), follows multiple,
true stories, of people leaving their homes as a result of violence, war,
economic, or environmental degradation. Through the simulation, the students
are asked to make decisions that impact the experience and ultimately granting
or denial to the individual seeking asylum.
In preparation for the
activity, students brainstormed a list of items they would take with them if
they were forced to leave their homes. This prompted a discussion of how the
children would feel if they were separated from their personal belongings, a
favorite teddy bear or their favorite pair of shoes. In both a third and fourth
grade class implementing this lesson, new vocabulary was introduced to students
prior to the simulation. Students were encouraged to use the new vocabulary
(ie. detention center, coyote, border control) in their discussions about the
outcomes of the simulation. The students were highly engaged in the simulation
activity and as a class, were very concerned with the outcomes of their choices
for Maria (the woman in the simulation). After the simulation concluded, the
children wrote letters to Maria sharing about a time when they also had to make
a difficult decision.
I think taking from the idea of freedom, that was so big and so complex, breaking it down and doing a simple activity where some kids were able to play and some didn’t, Preservice teacher
all four classrooms, the children expressed common themes as a result of the
lessons. Their ability to make connections between a global crisis and their
lives was one big learning outcome. One child shared about his own family’s
experience immigrating from Turkey and that he knew parts of his country were
dangerous. Another boy shared about his father’s detainment when entering the U.S. from India.
One fourth grader even informed the class that she knew many people were trying
to gain entrance to the U.S. because she watched a TV show called, 90-Day Fiancé, where contestants seek to
obtain visas by becoming engaged to a U.S. citizen.
In a fourth-grade
classroom, the preservice teacher who went to Lesvos showed pictures of beach
debris and refugee camps. When the image of a child’s shoe left behind on a
beach came on the screen the students were stunned and asked, “This happened to
children?” She described this as a moment when the student’s interest shifted
and they could connect more to the stories. The in-service teachers were both
able to make curricular connections to immigration, diversity, and culture and
one had previously had a parent speak to the class about fleeing Cuba. This
helped the children make connections between the woman’s story and the story of
Maria from the simulation activity.
The students also made
emotional connections with the refugees. One second grade student exclaimed “I felt like I was
invisible, I kept thinking they couldn’t even see me!” Similarly, another child
stated, “I felt like I wasn’t a part of the class anymore.” Making these
connections helped the children develop empathy. One teacher asked the students
based on what they experienced, would they do anything differently if the game
was played again. Some of the students suggested they could help others who
were denied freedom (i.e., couldn’t exercise class privileges), not feel so
excluded by sitting next to them while drawing. In another instance, when a
young boy learned
that many of the refugees sought to build new lives in Germany, he explained
that his mother often traveled there for work and asked if she could volunteer
to help the refugees. Several third-grade students were so moved by the online
simulation that during their recess they conceived of a plan for a hotel to
house and aid refugees. After recess, they presented their teacher with a slide
show outlining features the hotel would offer such as service in an
individual’s home language to help them in their transition. These
examples also demonstrate an emerging sense of civic responsibility, which is a
primary goal of social studies education.
I underestimated their intelligence and their ability to do something like this. I was nervous that they weren’t going to make connections to the story…. they took it much further than I anticipated. Preservice teacher
“If you’re telling the truth, not putting a spin on it, you’re okay. This is reality, I’m not telling them anything that isn’t true.” 2nd Grade Teacher
of the teachers, both in-service and preservice, learned something from
creating and teaching the lessons. One of the largest “ah-ha” moments for the
preservice teachers was a better understanding of the capacity young learners
have for engaging in a social justice-oriented dialogue. The preservice
teachers struggled with trusting that young people would be able to actively
participate and make connections to topics about freedom and immigration. By
working alongside more veteran teachers, they recognized how significant these
kinds of lessons are for children, and that to be a social justice educator,
truth and discomfort may go hand in hand.
also became clearer to all participants, how infrequently these kinds of
dialogues occur in elementary classrooms. When discussing why this is the case,
the reflections ranged from doubting the developmental capacity children have
to engage in difficult discussions, to the time and curricular demands of
teaching in the current high stakes, standardized testing school culture. Fear
of reprisals by administrators and parents was also a common reason shared for
why these topics aren’t taught more often. The veteran teachers were able to
offer the preservice and novice teacher with models of teaching for social justice
and inspiration. The idea that truth should always be taught became a
significant theme for all of the teachers.
final, more practical point was that opportunities to link global issues with
an elementary school social studies curriculum do exist. Immigration is a
common topic covered, as are colonization and civil rights. The veteran
teachers described connections they helped the children make between the
refugees fleeing the middle east and the Native Americans who were displaced by
European colonists. By incorporating concepts of justice and human rights, the
teachers are helping the children critically assess past and current policies
and to begin to form their own beliefs on the kind of society they want to live
about issues of immigration and freedom are not topics that should remain
invisible in our classrooms. The comments made by the children clearly
illustrate that they have background knowledge of these issues, even negative
aspects such as detainment and that not everyone who desires to come to the
U.S. can. The children were also able to feel empathy for those who were denied
freedom or faced difficult struggles. In the current political context,
developing both the critical thinking skills to question the diverse contexts
with which people migrate, as well as the empathy to connect to the experience
of others, are valuable pursuits for teachers. Children can understand the
ideas of justice and are capable of making personal connections to these
of freedom, security in one’s family, home and favorite belongings, are
accessible to young audiences. The teachers experiences demonstrate
there are opportunities in elementary social studies to push the boundaries of
traditional topics and teach lessons that deal with important global and social
Julie A. Taylor, Danielle DeFauw, Glovetta Williams, and Matthew Hundley University of Michigan-Dearborn Douglass Academy for Young Men, Detroit MI
technologies are proliferating, yet their use in authentic writing and social
studies education has not been explored fully.
The Smithsonian Digitization Office increasingly offers digital assets,
including life masks and sculptures, to educators and students as
downloads. Visitors may view objects
multi-dimensionally and in high resolution online. In 2014, Barack Obama became the first United
States president to sit for a 3D portrait.
He was scanned by imaging specialists from the Smithsonian and the
University of Southern California (Fawcett, 2014). Inspired by these developments, this
action-research study examines the use of technologies to create realistic, 3D
student avatars in writing projects. Avatar is a Sanskrit word that means the
physical embodiment of a deity (Ballin, Lawson, Lumkin, & Osborne, 2002;
Graber & Graber, 2011). In its most
common usage today, the term refers to virtual representations of users of
interfaces (Blais & Ippolito, 2006; Graber & Graber, 2011; Liao,
2008). The graphical illustrations may
be two- or three-dimensional (Berdic, Dragan, Mihic, & Anisic, 2017).
The theoretical framework
of this study is rooted in deeper learning, a constructivist approach to
teaching and learning in which the cultivation of transferable skills, critical
thinking, and creativity are emphasized (Bellanca, 2015; Martinez &
McGrath, 2014; Zhao, 2015). Through deeper
learning, students develop academic mindsets as they engage in relevant
projects. In this study, the authors’
research questions were a) would the
creation of realistic avatars, based on 3D scans, increase levels of student
interest? If so, why?; b) How does three
dimensionality enrich the learning experience?; c) Would students perceive the
inclusion of personal avatars with writing assignments as enhancements to
communication? If so, why?; and d) What are students’ views of avatar
technologies in the social studies?
With its emphasis on the expression of
students’ views of social and political issues and autobiographical writing,
the project supported civics standards in the College, Career, and Civic (C3) Life Framework for Social Studies State
Standards, namely on the application of civic virtues and democratic
principles when working with others and the evaluation of social and political
systems (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013). Standards in history education were also
addressed; students considered scanned, three-dimensional artifacts as historic
evidence. Additionally, the project
addressed Common Core State Standards for English language arts (ELA). Students were afforded opportunities to write,
integrate visual literacy components, listen and speak collaboratively, and
develop visual literacy skills using different media (National
Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State
School Officers, 2010). Concerted efforts to connect social studies
and ELA support secondary students’ instructional needs (Kern & Bean,
The School and the Students
students, who participated in this action-research project as part of an
enrichment program, attended an all-male school in Detroit, Michigan. With emphases on alternative and special
education, the Title I, public school serves middle and high school
students. All 18 high school students,
who participated in the IRB-approved study in 2018, were African American. Each year since 2012, students have studied
different social, historical, and cultural topics. They have also explored emerging
The Avatar Project
Inspired by the creation of a 3D portrait of
President Barack Obama by the Smithsonian’s Digitization Office, the authors
acquired a 3D printer, and they invited the developer of a scanning app for the
iPhone and the chief executive officer of TRNIO, Jan-Michael Tressler, to share
his knowledge of 3D technologies at the school.
In preparation for a two-day workshop by Tressler, the students
considered current applications of 3D technologies. They also viewed and discussed the
Smithsonian’s video, The President, in 3D,
on the creation of Obama’s portrait.
This project provided
students an opportunity to develop digital literacies in an environment that fostered
motivation (Kern & Bean, 2018).
Advancing students’ writing skills was a key objective; students created
hybrid texts to narrate and inform through writing as well as 3D images (Bintz
& Ciecierski, 2017). Asked to
imagine that their avatars would be displayed in a national museum, the
students reflected on current social, political, and economic issues, and they
considered what they wanted to tell the public.
On Google Slides or Google Sites, each student wrote an autobiographical
statement to accompany his avatar in which he responded to the following
questions: a) What is your first name?;
b) How old are you?; c) In what grade are you?; d) What is your favorite
subject in high school?; e) How do you spend your free time?; f) Of what are
you the most proud?; g) Who has had the biggest influence on your life? Why?; h) What current political, social,
and/or economic issues concern you the most?
Explain; i) What issues in the local community concern you the most?; j)
What does your future hold?; and k)
What else would you like to tell people?
the workshop, Tressler engaged students in an exploration of 3D technologies in
an interactive format. He showed images
of scanned objects and people as well as design features. Tressler taught the students how to download
and use the TRNIO scanning app. With
parental permission, they used iPhones to scan one another in order to generate
avatars. Each young student had the
option of adding facial expressions. To
protect the students’ privacy, all files were deleted from the TRNIO
server. No avatars were published on the
Tressler engaged in
spontaneous discussions with students about the use of avatars in video games
and films. He spoke about developments
in avatar technologies that are forthcoming.
In the near future, realistic avatars, generated rapidly with handheld
devices, will speak and emote. Users
will choose appropriate environments for their avatars, including historic
settings. Students will engage in
virtual travels in time and space.
The authors worked with
student volunteers to demonstrate 3D printing by an Ultimaker II. Because the digitization of the Lincoln Life
Mask had inspired the staff at the Smithsonian to approach Obama about a 3D
portrait, a STL file of the Lincoln Life Mask was downloaded and printed using
PLA filament, which is nontoxic and biodegradable. At the time of the project, the 3D file of
Obama had not been released to the public.
Action research is a
participative, systematic approach to understanding the process of learning
(Efron & Ravid, 2013; Mertler, 2014).
Because mixed-methods approaches to research offer insights into
multi-faceted questions, they were adopted by the researchers (Teddlie &
Tashakkori, 2009). Mixed methods
strengthen inferences and cull diverse views (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011;
Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2009).
Jennifer Greene (2007) wrote, “…a mixed methods study seeks broader, deeper,
and more comprehensive social understandings by using methods that tap into
different facets or dimensions of the same complex phenomenon…results from the
different methods serve to elaborate, enhance, deepen, and broaden the overall
interpretations and inferences from the study” (p. 101).
researchers created an eight-item survey, with an embedded design, for
distribution in hard copy upon completion of the project. The survey included four Likert-scale
items. The students indicated the degree
to which they agreed or disagreed with these statements: a) Creating a realistic avatar increased my interest; b) Including an
avatar with my statement made the communication more powerful; c) I would like
to use realistic avatars in my social studies classes; and d) Avatar technologies should be explored
in schools. After each item, the
students were asked to explain their responses.
The survey had two
fixed-choice questions to assess students’ familiarity with video games and
avatars: a) Do you play video games?
and b)Before this project, had you ever seen avatars in video games or
movies? The students had the option
of responding “yes” or “no.” The final
two items on the survey were open ended.
To gain understanding of the participants’ views of 3D-printed portraits
and avatars, they were asked to write responses to these questions: What do you think about having 3D printed
portraits of yourself and others in museums, homes, and other places? and What additional comments about avatars
and/or 3D printing do you have?
Fifteen of the 18
(83.33%) students completed the optional and anonymous surveys. For the calculation of percentages, the
authors manually entered the data into the cloud-based site, Survey
Monkey. They prepared graphs with the
graphing tool of the National Center for Education Statistics. In addition to reading the students’ comments
multiple times, the researchers repeatedly reviewed the students’
On avatar technologies,
they conducted a semi-structured interview with Tressler. This action-research project was
noncommercial and autonomous; it was not sponsored by TRNIO.
The students recognized the impact of having
strong likenesses with their written communication. They had the option of adding some facial
expressions to their avatars. Over 86%
of the students strongly agreed (60%) or agreed (26.67%) that including avatars
with their statements had made the communication more powerful. Two students (13.33%) disagreed. The following comments were representative:
With 3D scanning,
faithful and compelling portraits can be rendered. The strongest finding in this study was that
all students either strongly agreed (66.67%) or agreed (33.33%) that creating a
realistic avatar had increased their interest.
As was the Smithsonian’s 3D Obama portrait, the students’ avatars were
based on data.
I really think the avatar
is cool because it’s a mixture of science and history.
Realistic avatars show
how people feel.
The avatar increased my
interest because my creative skills came out.
It made it more powerful
because it was like I was actually there saying everything.
(The avatar) added a lot of extra information.
People will think it’s
The majority of the students (73.33%)
indicated that they would like to use realistic avatars in their social studies
classes. Sixty percent strongly agreed,
13.33% agreed, 20% were neutral, and 6.67% disagreed. They commented on how avatars draw attention,
bring things to life, and serve as strong visuals. With the statement, “Avatar technologies
should be explored in schools,” 93.33% strongly agreed (53.33%) or agreed
(40%). One student (6.67%) was
neutral. Students wrote the following
It’s an interesting, fun
way to learn.
It would make kids more
involved and interested.
…kids would learn better.
Media consumption by children and teens in the
United States has been steadily increasing due to the ubiquity of mobile
devices (Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010; Katz, Felix, & Gubernick,
2014). Over 93% of the students, who
participated in this action-research study, indicated that they played video
games. Eighty percent had seen avatars
in video games or movies before the project.
Self-reports by adolescents suggest that playing strategic video games
may improve problem-solving skills (Adachi & Willoughby, 2013). Virtual spaces are integral to the lives of
teens and young adults today. In the
manifesto, We, the Web Kids, Polish
writer, Piotr Czerski (2012), wrote, “The Internet to us is not something
external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer
intertwined with the physical environment.
We do not use the Internet; we live on the Internet and along it” (para.
transferred Barack Obama’s portrait to the National Portrait Gallery, where it
was placed on display. On the survey,
the students wrote about the prospect of having printed, 3D portraits of
themselves and others in museums, homes, and other places. They expressed an interest in viewing such
portraits, and they commented on the value of having a legacy. When asked to share comments about the avatar
project, students used adjectives such as “fun,” “cool,” “great,”
“interesting,” “fantastic,” and “rich.”
One young man stated that he would be interested in the development of
3D technologies as a career. During the
project, other students conveyed similar goals verbally to the authors.
On Google Slides and
Google Sites, the students wrote autobiographical statements to accompany
avatars. They communicated concerns
about social, economic, and political issues.
Global warming, pollution, and racism were the dominant issues. “We create factories, cars, and plastics that
pollute the earth. I think that if we
keep doing what we’re currently doing, we might make the earth unsafe for
future generations,” stated a student.
Writing around the time
of President Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-Un of North Korea, the students also
expressed worry about the potential outbreak of war. “The current political issue that scares me
the most is the issue with us and North Korea,” wrote one student. Of local community issues, crime and
littering were primary. “The issue in
the local community that concerns me the most is the crime rate because it
moves people out of the neighborhood, which brings down the population,” wrote
one young man. “I want the crime to go
down in my city so that we don’t have to be worried…when we are outside,”
When asked about the
future, the students described aspirations such as attending college, becoming
entrepreneurs, entering skilled trades, and starting families. In response to the prompt, “What else would
you like to tell people?”, the majority of students offered forward-looking and
encouraging messages. “I would like to
tell people to spread positivity and help us create a better community,” wrote
one young man. “What I want to tell
people is that you should take your education seriously because it is the best
way to become successful later in your life,” stated another. “I would like to tell people to keep strong,”
wrote a third.
In video games and films
and as icons on social media sites and blogs, avatars are pervasive. Because they exist in artificial space, they
challenge notions of embodiment (Leaver, 2012).
Self-avatars increase users’ sense of presence in virtual environments
(Wolfendale, 2007). Although they may
intentionally alter phenotypic characteristics (Graber & Graber, 2011;
Villani, Gatti, Triberti, Confalonieri, & Riva, 2016) when designing
avatars, people often integrate aspects of their identities (Carruth &
Hill, 2015). Businesses, libraries, and
universities have piloted programs in virtual worlds, such as Second Life,
though the platform does not lend itself for use by K-12 students presently
(Mon, 2012; Schultz, 2010). With
templates, users of Second Life customize avatars, cultivate social
relationships, own land, and engage in business transactions (Schechtman,
2012). With over 600,000 regular users,
Second Life offers avatar-mediated communication (Koda, Ishida, Rehm, &
André, 2009). Often imaginative, avatars
in Second Life may be viewed as a form of new media art (Liao, 2008).
With facial expressions
and gestures, empathic avatars, referred to as animated pedagogical agents,
have been used in computer-aided learning programs to motivate students to
continue working (Chen, Lee, Wang, Chao, Li, & Lee, 2012). In affective computing or artificial
emotional intelligence, computer scientists and cognitive psychologists study
the recognition and simulation of emotions by computers and devices. Interpretations of the facial expressions of
avatars vary by culture (Koda, Ishida, Rehm, & André, 2009). Affective computing has implications for
education, neuroscience, medicine, and other fields (Calvo, D’Mello, Gratch,
& Kappas, 2015; Powell, Garner, Tonks, & Lee, 2017).
of people and artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian, the National
Gallery of Art, and other institutions advance historical knowledge. Internationally, 3D imaging is being used to capture
threatened objects and sites; the Institute for Digital Archaeology is
currently collaborating with UNESCO.
Evaluating sources and using evidence is the critical third dimension of
the inquiry arc in the social studies (National Council for the Social Studies,
2013). Lévesque (2008), wrote, “The
intellectual ability to collect, process, analyze, and cross-reference evidence
is crucial to an informed citizenry” (p. 115).
What is unique about the TRNIO app is
its nearly instantaneous generation of three-dimensional, realistic likenesses
with handheld devices. In a
photogrammetric process, between 10 and 70 pictures of each subject are
taken. The pictures are then digitally
meshed together. Blender and SketchUp
Make software can be used to model 3D images; both are user-friendly and
free. It should be noted that the TRNIO
app is still under development. Several
scans had to be redone during the project.
In his interview, Tressler stated that TRNIO is currently developing a
web-based platform for classroom use.
Because 3D scanning
renders images of high fidelity, a 3D video file offers a record of the subject
at a particular point in time. The use
of realistic avatars is in alignment with goals for the study of history as
students consider people in time and space (Drake & Nelson, 2005). In creating realistic avatars, the students,
who participated in the project, left “traces” of themselves (Seixas &
Morton, 2013, pp. 50-51). When they
critiqued real, contemporary issues, they engaged in democratic education
(Beyer, 1996). In their statements, the
students took identificatory and analytical stances as they weighed the history
of the present (Barton & Levstik, 2004).
As embodiments of people within virtual environments, avatars enhance
expression. Lifelike representations may
increase the persuasiveness and effectiveness of communication (Schultz,
2010). With high degrees of
representational fidelity, the avatars afford authenticity, increase ways of
knowing, and amplify individuals’ voices.
The majority of the students in the study felt that the inclusion of the
avatars had made their statements more powerful. The likenesses offered vitality, realism, and
agency. They enhanced performative
Projects that respect
students’ voices increase their interest in exploring content (Hidi &
Renninger, 2006). Writers use voice to
speak to and connect emotionally with audiences (Fletcher, 2006). Writers are
motivated to write to authentic audiences, which may be themselves (Murray,
1982) or authentic or fictionalized readers (Ede & Lunsford, 1984; Ong,
1975; Steinbeck, 1975). Expanding the audience beyond the
classroom increases the authenticity of a task (Duke,
Purcell-Gates, Hall, & Tower, 2006) and creates more interest (Hidi &
Harackiewicz, 2000). In the avatar project, students created
authentic, hybrid texts as they communicated through writing and
three-dimensional representations (Bintz & Ciecierski, 2017).
Inquiry design and technological exploration
are pedagogically synergistic (Magana, 2017).
Students are motivated to use technology and to create media (Unrath
& Mudd, 2011.
To support learning, openness to new literacies (Kern & Bean, 2018;
Kist, 2012), including screen-based texts, is vital. Reflecting on today’s youth, Unrath and Mudd
(2011) stated, “[They] are increasingly multi-modal, alternatively literate and
technologically driven. Their world
demands the ability to think critically, create and re-create, and combine and
recombine multiple sources to produce something new” (p. 10).
As 3D technologies
develop, avatars and 3D prints will combine representational fidelity with
customization. TRNIO is currently working
with artists on garments and hairstyles for avatars. Other software developers are designing
sketch interfaces to enable users to draw personalized garments on avatars (Yu,
Qin, Sun, & Wright, 2012). In the
future, students will be able to place their avatars in diverse, including
historic, digital settings. Such visual
landscapes will offer “imaginative entry” into the past (Levstik & Barton,
2001, p. 78). Potentially, avatars could
be used to increase students’ telepresence in virtual, educational
exploration of 3D technologies engages students in deeper learning while
advancing educational objectives in the social studies and English language
arts. Three-dimensional images are
records of people and objects at specific points in time. The realism of scanned portraits increases
agency and credibility. Students
perceive the inclusion of personal avatars with written statements as
enhancements to communication. Though
still in the early stages of development, technologies for the creation of
realistic avatars in classroom settings are promising. This study suggests that 3D technologies have
the potential to build upon and generate students’ interests and skills.
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