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Relevancy, current events, and best practice

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One of the longest conversations we had while working to rewrite our state standards was the one focused on relevancy. As in, how can we encourage teachers and students to make connections between past and present. We knew that engaging kids in the content is key. That hooking students into wanting to solve problems is vital to long-term retention and application.

We finally settled on using language centered around “contemporary issues.” It was a great conversation and one that all social studies teachers need to constantly think about.

But I recently ran across an article over at the Middle Web Future of History site that does a great job of explaining what it really can look like when we make social studies relevant and work to connect it to the lives of our students.

Written by Lauren S. Brown of US History Ideas for Teachers, the article suggests that we “don’t always need to ‘relate’ to something in order to understand or appreciate it.” And that when we try too hard in order to connect past events to the lives oteach-history-as-biggerf our students, we run the risk of “oversimplifying” history.

The idea of making history and social studies “relevant” in order to help students apply overarching themes of the past to the present is a good one. Lauren highlights events such as the Holocaust, World War II Japanese Internment, and the Civil Rights movement, not simply to have kids memorize content but to help them focus on the timeless theme of justice.

So even though many of our students can not make direct connections to those three events in their own lives, they do understand the concept of fairness:

. . . there is nothing that grabs the interest of an adolescent more than justice and the perception that something is unfair.

Adolescents are constantly being told what to do by adults at the same time they’re beginning to feel more independent and capable – and developing opinions of their own. It makes sense that questions about justice or the lack of it would be issues that grab their attention.

We ask students to learn more about the people, places, and ideas of those events to better understand current issues such as immigration and white privilege.

Lauren suggests that it’s all about making connections and uses four ideas from Sarah Cooper’s book, Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9 to illustrate her point:

  • examine different points of view,
  • find patterns in the past,
  • connect the past to the present, and
  • evaluate ethics.

Head over to Lauren’s article to get the full meal deal. As most of us step aside for fall break, her ideas and suggestions about finding ways to help kids make connections are good food for thought.

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