As I write this blog post, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has led to eight days of protests across the United States as demonstrators demand police reform as well as justice for Mr. Floyd. Scrolling through my social media accounts during the last week, I’ve seen hundreds of posts from school librarians and other educators sharing lists of books about anti-racism, accounts of discrimination from People of Color, messages encouraging all Americans to examine and reflect on their own biases and calls for action.
I’m encouraged because this may be the beginning of long-overdue reform. I know school librarians have been and will continue to be advocates for necessary changes in their schools and communities. We make meaningful efforts to address inequity and to promote anti-racism every day. Not only do we purchase #ownvoices books and titles addressing anti-racism for our collections, we also display those books, we promote them, and we share them with both students and faculty. We perform diversity audits on our collections and use the results to make those collections more diverse. We create spaces in which all students feel safe, seen, and valued. We design displays that reflect the diversity of our schools, our communities, our states, our country, and our world. We serve on school and district committees so that we can advocate for changes that will chip away at systemic racism and inequity.
One of the changes we need to advocate for in our school districts is a greater emphasis on high-quality social studies education that focuses on cultural diversity, change over time, and developing critical thinking skills. Over the past two decades, the amount of time students spend on social studies has decreased, especially at the elementary level. The high-stakes testing in reading and math mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 resulted in social studies being pushed to the back burner in many school systems. For example, a 2011 study showed that third-grade students in the U.S. spend less than ten percent of instructional time engaged in social studies. The same study showed that eighth-grade students spend significantly more time learning language arts and math than they do social studies (Stearns 2019).
With or without mandated testing, language arts and math are important subjects, but social studies is equally important. Social studies promotes civic literacy, which is critical to the health of a democracy. Sadly, evidence of a lack of civic literacy in the United States is easy to find. For example, a “2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government” (Shapiro and Brown 2018). The results of the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that American eighth-graders scored lower in history and geography than they did in 2014. Civics scores, which were already unimpressive, remained about the same (Downey 2020). In light of statistics like these, it’s not surprising that voting levels in the United States continue to be lower than those in other democracies (McCarthy 2018).
The Need for Greater Civic Literacy
A stronger emphasis on K-12 social studies could improve civic literacy over time. The National Council for the Social Studies states that the “primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world” (n.d.). In a democratic society such as ours, we need active citizens to demand that our country live up to its stated ideals of equality and justice. The current protests and demonstrations over the death of George Floyd are a crucial first step in raising awareness about systemic racism in our society.
The next steps require concerned citizens to be active in the political arena. As former President Barack Obama points out, “if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform” (2020). As educators, we have to ensure that we are preparing our students to take the actions that will bring about meaningful change. That’s where high-quality social studies programs come in. Effective citizens need a thorough understanding of our nation’s history and the events that have led us to this point. The fact that portions of our history are shameful is no excuse to shy away from them because we must learn from them. Effective citizens also need to understand the three branches of government and how each one works. They need to know our federalist system assigns certain responsibilities to the national government and others to state and local governments. By understanding these features of our government, effective citizens can bring their concerns to the governmental entity with the power to address those concerns.
Steps School Librarians Can Take to Support Social Studies
There are many ways librarians can support and advocate for social studies in their schools and districts. Here are some ideas:
- Work with teachers to identify texts that can bring history and civics to life. These texts can be nonfiction picture books, literary nonfiction titles for older readers, or primary sources that illustrate the impact of historical events. (Tom Bober’s blog posts and Maureen Schlosser’s blog posts are great sources for discovering picture books. See Melissa Stewart’s “The 5 Types of Nonfiction” for more about literary nonfiction. As I’ve shared before, the Library of Congress has amazing primary sources for educators.) Ideally, many of these texts will include the voices of underrepresented groups in history and in civic life.
- Collaborate with teachers to create lessons that link the past to the present. Students often don’t see the relevance of history to their lives. Create a lesson that allows students to compare the current coronavirus pandemic to the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918 or one that compares the goals and struggles of late 19th-century labor unions to the goals and struggles of today’s labor unions.
- Teach information literacy lessons that highlight the importance of civic literacy. Effective citizens are informed citizens. Provide opportunities for students to evaluate campaign ads, research ballot initiatives, and compare media coverage on political issues. AllSides is an outstanding resource for showing students media coverage from across the political spectrum.
- Share online social studies resources with teachers. There are many excellent online resources that can help make social studies more engaging and relevant. Two of my favorites are iCivics and Teaching Tolerance. The National Council for the Social Studies has an extensive list of free resources you can look through to find materials that might fit the needs of your students and teachers.
- Create opportunities for students to learn about local government. Social studies curricula often emphasize federal and state governments over local government, yet many of the decisions that affect citizens are made at the local level. So, help students learn more about how their local government works by inviting a local official to your library to talk to students about how their city or county government works. Or partner with a teacher to plan a field trip to take students to city hall to meet the mayor, members of the town council, or the city manager.
- Volunteer to serve on a district curriculum committee. The actions we take in our buildings are vital, but district committees determine what gets taught in our schools and what doesn’t. Because we work with all teachers, we see the big picture in ways other educators don’t. Use that knowledge to encourage district decision makers to allocate more resources to social studies.
As school librarians, we are leaders in our schools and in our districts. If we take the time and make the effort to support social studies education, our colleagues will notice. And, when they notice, the message about the importance of social studies will be clear.
As we work to support social studies in our schools, we will also continue to be active in the movement to end systemic racism in the United States. Because our system of government is designed for incremental change rather than swift, sweeping change, dismantling the many structural barriers in our society that contribute to systemic racism will take time. As school librarians, we must be committed to this cause and we must be prepared for a long haul. Devoting some of our efforts to advocating for high-quality K-12 social studies is an investment that may produce future generations of active, effective citizens who will safeguard today’s progress as they continue the work of bending the long arc of history toward justice.
Downey, Maureen. 2020. “Eighth Grade NAEP Scores: Don’t Know Much about History or Geography.” Getting Schooled Blog (Apr. 23). www.ajc.com/blog/get-schooled/eighth-grade-naep-scores-don-know-much-about-history-geography/Xuma4eI2UbBmu5bwZEexbI/ (accessed June 4, 2020).
McCarthy, Niall. 2018. “U.S. Trails Most Other Developed Nations in Voter Turnout.” Forbes (Nov. 6). www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2018/11/06/u-s-trails-most-other-developed-nations-in-voter-turnout-infographic/#1e03b771d04e (accessed June 4, 2020).
National Council for the Social Studies. n.d. “National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: Executive Summary.” www.socialstudies.org/standards/execsummary#:~:text=The%20primary%20purpose%20social,society%20in%20an%20interdependent%20world (accessed June 4, 2020).
Obama, Barack. 2020. “How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change.” Medium (June 1). medium.com/@BarackObama/how-to-make-this-moment-the-turning-point-for-real-change-9fa209806067 (accessed June 3, 2020).
Shapiro, Sarah, and Catherine Brown. 2018. “A Look at Education Civics in the United States.” American Educator 42 (2): 10-13. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1182087.
Stearns, Samantha. 2019. “‘What Changed’ in Social Studies Education.” Perspectives on History (July 30). www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/summer-2019/what-changed-in-social-studies-education (accessed June 4, 2020).
Author: Margaret Sullivan
Margaret Sullivan is a librarian at Rockwood Summit High School and also serves as the Lead Librarian for the Rockwood School District. A past president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, Margaret’s professional interests include advocacy, teacher collaboration, professional development, equity, and YA literature. You can connect with her on Twitter @mm_sullivan.