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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Crisis in Social Studies

Hi world, I’m Marc Aronson, I write the Consider the Source column for SLJ. As an author and editor of books for younger readers, I thought I knew something about nonfiction and the schools. But I was wrong. There truly is a crisis around social studies in elementary schools. It is, as the cliche goes, a perfect storm. As a rule, teachers in the lower grades are not well prepared in social studies content. Schools, with NCLB on the brain, are putting their energy into English and math skills.Then, as Dr. Myra Zarnowski, chair of the Elementary and Early Childhood Education department at Queens College, explained it to me, kids reach fourth grade. Having had a steady diet of stories and worksheets, they are now hit with textbooks. The kids are bored, the teachers are poorly prepared, the schools are concerned with impending test scores. Worst of all, no one is quite sure what social studies should be, what function it serves at all.

So the one place every young person in America meets nonfiction — in school — is the one place where social studies is the neglected, abused stepchild. That is the definition of a crisis. At least if, like me, you love history. 

Have I gotten this right? Let me know.



  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Here are some of the problems I continue to encounter:
    1. The curriculum presented to teachers is enormous. In fourth grade, for example, the curriculum spans the explorers who came to NY to immigration in the 1900s. Granted that the focus is NY, but when you attempt to bring order to this, it is a huge task.
    2. The challenge of providing reading material and other resources to fit these topics is great. First, we all need to know what is good to read and examine for the vast range of abilities within our classrooms. Second, we need the money to purchase this material. I have not seen any great outpouring of nonfiction trade books to help with this.
    3. We need to find the time to align our curriculum with the appropriate literature and the appropriate hands-on activities children would benefit from doing.Teachers need to know that reading and writing history is a literacy activity. In fact, they should know that it is a specialized form of literacy that requires instruction and practice. So, the enduring question is, How can we fit this in to a curriculum that seems to be locked in to mandated periods of math and reading when social studies is often not considered part of this mix?

    In spite of these challenges, there is great interest among teachers and principals I have spoken with to put more social studies into the elementary school classroom. Anastasia Schneider, Principal of PS/IS 499 in Queens; Susan Scherer, Principal of PS 24 in Queens; Meredith Deckler, Principal of PS 219 in Queens; and Anthony Lombardo, Principal of PS 49 in Queens, are all in agreement here. They have all taken steps to purchase trade books to enhance the teaching of social studies. Most important, they and their staffs are grappling with the challenge of what really engaging instruction in social studies would look like. Stay tuned as we continue our work in Queens to kindle a passion for social studies.

  2. Monica Edinger says:

    Marc, great to see this blog! (Myra, hi!)

    It is so unfortunate that social studies and history are not, as Myra notes, “considered part of the mix.” I attribute this to an approach to literacy education that focuses on craft over content. While I respect this, I do think there are many kids who would engage just as well (if not more so) if the focus was on content.

    An example of a craft unit (one I used to do) would be preparing kids to write memoirs by first having them read and consider a whole bunch of published ones —- fictionalized, autobiographies, picture books, graphic novels, etc from every sort of time and place. The focus would be on the form not on a specific aspect of history or even thinking about history.

    This is very different from, say, my most recent unit with my fourth grade. After having spent quite a bit of time looking at historical fiction (related to an early immigration unit) the kids prepared to write their own. But instead of giving them a bunch of works of all sorts (along the likes of the above-described memoir unit), I immersed them in one particular historical situation— that of the Pilgrims. After weeks of study the kids began writing at which point we did also look at craft. But it was the story, the real amazing story, that engaged them. In other words, content.

    I just wish those working so hard to support children in their literacy development would consider that building a unit around a particular content, looking at in depth, can provide the same sort of outcomes that a craft unit also provides.

  3. Annie Donwerth Chikamatsu says:

    I’m glad to see you’re blogging, Marc. As a former intensive English reading instructor preparing non-native readers for university academia in the 1980s, I am particularly interested in this post and your comments, Myra and Monica. I taught reading in content units, mainly social studies. I’ve been out of the field for a while, but when I left the trend in ESL materials was content based. I’m writing now and am interested in writing nonfiction for children (not ESL). I look forward to keeping up with your blog and learning about the field.