NH experts offer framework for social studies teachers

  • Portraits of President Franklin Pierce and Daniel Webster are seen in the Discovering New Hampshire exhibit at the New Hampshire Historical Society's historic Park Street building in Concord on Thursday, July 13, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Concord Monitor
Published: 7/11/2022 9:18:59 PM
Modified: 7/11/2022 9:18:44 PM

When Plymouth State Professor Kelsie Eckert teaches curriculum planning to students preparing to be educators, her advice for those preparing to be math teachers is always different from those preparing to be social studies teachers.

“For the math students, I literally said ‘go over to the Common Core’s website and they have modules for every single lesson you will ever need to teach,’ ” Eckert said. “ ‘Social studies students: are you ready to reinvent the wheel? Here we go.’ ”

Eckert, the coordinator of social studies education at Plymouth State, taught at Moultonborough Academy for eight years, and won New Hampshire History Teacher of the Year twice. She knows just how challenging it can be for new social studies teachers in the state, where there is little guidance for curriculum and lesson planning.

“It’s bizarre how little support there is for social studies teachers and this does not exist in any other subject,” Eckert said.

Eckert wears another hat as a board member of the NH Council for the Social Studies, which released a new set of guidelines last month in partnership with the New Hampshire Historical Society that they hope will offer some framework to school districts on what a good social studies curriculum should look like.

The guidelines offer eight key principles for a strong social studies curriculum, such as including diverse perspectives while simultaneously promoting a shared heritage, and teaching with a “spiral” approach that offers increasing depth and complexity as the students progress.

“We’re trying to support schools with guidance and leadership they haven’t been getting from the state,” said Elizabeth Dubrulle, director of education and public programs at the New Hampshire Historical Society.

New Hampshire’s only social studies curriculum framework is from 2006, despite a state law requiring the standards for social studies — and other subjects — to be updated every 10 years.

The state’s Department of Education was in the process of updating the social studies standards when the pandemic hit in March 2020, according to the department, but the project was put on hold and has not been reinitiated.

New Hampshire teachers and historians say the 2006 standards, the only reference document that exists, leaves much to be desired. For one thing, Eckert said, many notable events have happened since 2006. For example, she said, the way war is waged between nations has fundamentally changed. And the Supreme Court’s recognition of same-sex marriage in 2015 expanded the definition of civil rights.

But there has also been a major research-backed shift in the way social studies is taught, Eckert said, toward an inquiry-based model not reflected in the state’s 2006 standards. In inquiry-based teaching, educators pose questions and scenarios, and students learn to use the skills they need to find their own answers to the types of problems that historians and political scientists examine.

One of the Historical Society and Social Studies Council’s new guidelines recommends that social studies employ instructional practices that teach students to form their own conclusions.

“There’s a lot of growing evidence that students learn when they’re empowered to be the ones solving the problems,” Eckert said.

The “spiral” approach recommended in the guidelines has students revisiting topics over the years in increasing detail.

“Social studies shouldn’t be taught in isolation. In fourth grade we teach New Hampshire history, but it shouldn’t be the only time they learn about New Hampshire history,” said Ruby Hill, a social studies teacher at Kearsarge Regional High School who also worked to create the new guidelines.

Another guideline recommends that social studies curriculums have common themes that produce narrative arcs for students. For example, Dubrulle said, simply reading a story about Martin Luther King as part of an English class doesn’t count as incorporating social studies.

“These kids need a framework, a chronological framework to make sense of all of this,” Dubrulle said. “It’s like if you teach chemistry and don’t teach the periodic table of elements. What you have is a mess of stories that don’t relate to one another. That’s what kids are missing by not having a formal social studies program.”

Another guideline recommends that social studies educators be trained professionals prepared to facilitate the learning of complex topics. Eckert said tight budgets and a hiring shortage means many schools ask other teachers to pitch in and teach social studies lessons, instead of hiring a full-time social studies teacher.

Dubrulle believes social studies education has been neglected for decades, both nationally and in New Hampshire, since the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act led school districts to prioritize English Language Arts and math due to annual testing requirements.

In fact, Dubrulle said, many New Hampshire school districts don’t offer social studies education before eighth grade, which she attributes to a lack of an enforcement mechanism. There is currently no annual statewide testing requirement for social studies in New Hampshire.

Hill said it’s more important than ever to have some official guidance for teaching social studies, since the state’s “Freedom from Discrimination in Education” law went into effect in 2021, restricting how public school teachers can teach about racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination in the classroom.

“How do we protect ourselves from lawsuits teaching what used to be okay and maybe doesn’t have any slant, but could be perceived to have a slant?” Hill said.

Some local experts around the state have taken on their own curriculum development projects. The New Hampshire Historical Society launched Moose on the Loose, an upper elementary New Hampshire social studies curriculum, in 2019. The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire partnered with the University of New Hampshire and local teachers to create lessons plans about Black history in the Granite State. Eckert is currently working on building a website with seniors in the Plymouth State education program that compiles inquiry-based activities for different social studies topics and makes them available to teachers.

Dubrulle hopes that the Historical Society and Social Studies Council’s new guidelines be the reference document school districts need to begin making substantial changes to rebuild their social studies programs.

“We understand how this happened, but we need to fix these problems if we’re going to do anything about social studies in schools,” Dubrulle said.

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