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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Help Me Out On This One

I’m Puzzled

My older son is in second grade in a good local public school. He is getting strong Language Arts training — he can identify parts of speech with far more ease than I can — and a fine Chicago Everyday Math program. But his classroom has no — and I mean zero — social studies content and only a smattering of science. Now why is that? And — here is where you can help me — how typical is this? In the "why" column I have heard it said that the pressure of NCLB testing in third grade makes first and second grade teachers emphasize language arts and math. Is that true? Is there less content than there used to be? I know the theory that a child’s interests in the world should begin with himself, his family, home, neighborhood. So Social Studies might blur into activities that I don’t recognize as content. But, tell me, how universal is this terrible imbalance?

Two days ago, CNN had that videoclip of the first-ever showing of King Tut’s mummy: It was a bit grim, I grant you. But how many seven year old boys would love to see it, and swing from that into a unitl on mummification, King Tut, etc. And there is plenty of vocabulary any good teacher could derive from such a lesson. Kids, second graders, boys, like learning about Egypt, and dead kings, why deprive them of that and insist they only study language separate from content? Why confine their school focus to the local — what could possibly be as interesting as a mummy? 

So, please, explain the (il)logic of what we teach second graders, tell me what is going on around the country, help me to understand why we are not stimulating the curiousity of young people instead of stiffling it?


  1. I saw huge emphasis on language arts and math in my son’s 2nd grade class last year. (Also in a good public school in an NYC suburb.) I also saw my boy gradually lose interest in school until the class began to study Japan toward the last quarter of the year. They made and decorated kimonos, they painted kamishibai pictures and presented a folk tale in that style, wrote and illustrated their own haiku. The children loved it.

    However, the kids did get a “color in the map” worksheet with one of the nearby countries (to Japan) labeled “USSR,” meaning that it was a what? 16 year old worksheet? (I crossed it out and wrote “Russia,” and explained to my son why I did that.)

    Last year was the final year in our district for the 2nd graders to study Japan. I don’t know if a unit on another country has replaced it or what.

    The third-grade teacher had to drop several wildly creative projects due to the demands of testing. The third-graders used to create their own inventions, for heaven’s sakes. Now they get to do test prep.

    We are stifling curiosity. You’re right.

  2. My daughter is in 3rd grade at a Catholic school in Queens. She is bombarded with DBQs, and short historical stories on handouts. While I LOVE it, she does not see its connection and relevance to her Social Studies unit. By the way, this is all in preparation for the 4th and 5th grade State Test in Social Studies. On a side note, you are right about the Mummy sparking interest, since that was the one conversation (last night-over dinner) my kids wanted to share. Ironically, as you point out, it too, was not a topic discussed in class.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Susan’s story is heartbreakingly familiar; Amy’s reminds me of what Dr. Myra Zarnowski of Queens College says — the Social Studies test looms for kids who previously had all fiction, so there is a horrible crunch.
    Anyone see today’s headline — the new planet that has been discovered? I told fifth graders about it this morning. Which is a better way to get kids to read, King Tut and a new planet, or a worksheet that has no content?

  4. Nadine K. says:

    Curiosity, individualism, creativity, and even quirkiness have been stripped from the elementary equation. If it doesn’t get a 4 on the state tests (this is the NY state scoring) it’s wrong. Just this week my son’s teacher told him his correct answer to a math problem was wrong because his method didn’t “consider his audience”- the teacher grading the state test. This is 4th grade. Here I am, encouraging him to “think outside the box”.. . Did you know that if students read an article on the state social studies test about, lets say King Tut, and then answer the questions using their own “personal knowledge” and not completely draw on the written work provided, they are marked wrong? Our principal told us this – – that it’s difficult for children to distinguish between their own personal experiences and what’s on the test. So, learning about these things in real life will confuse them at test time basically…. give them too much to think about. That’s my opinion. And we wonder why these kids are overly anxious and twitchy…. they are stifled and repressed.

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    arrgghhhh! Nadine’s post is astonishing. The goal of education — especially in the modern world – must to encourage thinking, thinking, thinking. And what could she possibly have meant — consider the audience — you mean, don’t be too smart?

  6. Marc, I echo the ARGGHHHH reaction. But here’s my dilemma – more troubling. My poor daughter had a test today on Native American tribes and how they lived. Two obligatory words on her study guide were history and technology. Remember, this is a test about the Native Americans. So last night, while studying, my daughter argued with me, incessantly, as to the pronunciation of the Anasazi Indians; her teacher calls the tribe, A-NAH-Zee. Come now….
    Needless to say, my daughter is not at all like Nadine’s son – in his own right, truly passionate about history. But I do see a baby spark when it comes to her arguments and debate skills. This, I would like to transfer into a “blaze for history.” I am sorry to say I see my daughter, now in the 3rd grade, with the interest but not the passion for history. Her reaction, when I say, let’s look over your social studies, is identical to that of me saying, it’s time for bed. Marc, any suggestions for a frustrated mother, and lover (myself) of history?

  7. Becky at Farm School says:

    There isn’t much in the way of social studies, or history and geography in my retro world, in the provincial public school system before 4th grade. And then it follows the path you outlined, outward from the child, to the family, community, etc. — a self-centered approach which I think does our kids a great disservice, both in assuming that they can’t possibly be interested in or understand such things as ancient Egypt, and in teaching them to measure other people against themselves and other cultures and histories against their own. How can you understand America (and its place in the world) without first understanding ancient Greece and ancient Rome (and the connections between the two), England (and the connections between Rome and England), and so on…. But I don’t have to tell you that, Marc.

    When our daughter was in first grade, she’d come home begging for stories about the Greek myths, ancient Egypt, the oceans and continents. It made for very long evenings, and this lack in the curriculum plus the considerable afterschooling in our days made us pull her out partway through the year to home school. We’re still all it, happily.

    And we find language arts and math in history, geography, and science — as well as in literature. Last year I turned Jennifer Armstrong’s story contest for her “American Story” into a writing assignment for my kids, which they loved. Then again, I don’t have to teach to a test.

  8. Becky at Farm School says:

    A suggestion for Amy — at least at home, ditch the textbooks for good historical fiction and nonfiction from your library, including picture books (Leonard Everett Fisher has a wonderful, out of print book specifically on the Anasazi) and folk tales from the particular culture. And read aloud to her, too, so you can answer questions and expand on thoughts; at Amazon I see there’s even an Anasazi coloring book, which she could color while you read aloud to her (Dover and Bellerophon have oodles of historical and science coloring books which can be used for lots of subjects).

    See if you can find some good documentaries on DVD (National Geographic, IMAX, etc.), and maybe do some crafts and activities. My kids and I just discovered Nomad Press’s “Build It Yourself” series (such as “Great Colonial America Projects You Can Build Yourself”!); we also like the Chicago Review Press project books, such as “More Than Moccasins: A Kid’s Activity Guide to Traditional North American Indian Life”.

  9. Amy Bowllan says:

    Thank you so much for your suggestions. I have so many parents in my boat who will benefit from your lead. Thank you!