Accurate, Age-Appropriate and Sensitive: Reconsidering How to Teach the Utah Studies Fourth Grade Social Studies Core

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Social Studies Research and Practice






Emerald Publishing Limited

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Purpose Using integrated, constructivist and inquiry-based curricular experiences to expand student understanding of historical thinking and exposure to Native perspectives on Utah history, this paper aims to analyze the thinking and practice of teaching the Utah fourth grade social studies curriculum. As a team of researchers, teachers and administrators, the authors brought differing perspectives and experience to this shared project of curriculum design. The understanding was enhanced as the authors reflected on authors' own practitioner research and worked together as Native and non-Native community partners to revise the ways one group of fourth grade students experienced the curriculum, with plans to continue improving the thinking and implementation on an ongoing basis. While significant barriers to elementary social studies education exist in the current era of high-stakes testing, curriculum narrowing and continuing narratives of colonization in both the broad national context and our own localized context, the authors found that social studies curriculum can be a space for decolonization and growth for students and teachers alike when carefully planned, constructed and implemented. Design/methodology/approach This article represents an effort by a team of teachers, administrators and researchers: D, a councilman and historian dedicated to sharing the history of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation; S, an eleventh-year teacher, teaching fourth grade at Mary Bethune Elementary School (MBES); E, the director of experiential learning and technology at MBES; L, the MBES vice principal and EL, a faculty member in the adjacent college of education. Working in these complementary roles, each authors recognized an opportunity to build a more robust set of curricular experiences for teaching the state standards for fourth grade social studies, with particular attention to a more inclusive set of narratives of Utah's history at the authors' shared site, Mary Bethune Elementary School, a K-6 public charter school that operates in partnership with the College of Education in a growing college town (population 51,000) in the Intermountain west. The complexity of Utah history embedded within the landscape that surrounds MBES has not always been a fully developed part of our fourth grade curriculum. Recognizing this, the authors came together to develop a more robust age-appropriate curricular experience for students that highlights the complexity of the individual and cultural narratives. In addition to smaller segments of classroom instruction devoted to the Utah Core fourth grade standards (Utah Education Network, 2019) that focus particularly on the history of Utah, the authors focused the curriculum improvement efforts on four specific lengthy spans of instruction. Findings These fourth-grade students read, contextualized and interpreted the primary source documents they encountered as historians; they both appreciated and challenged the authors' perspectives. It is our belief that students are more likely to continue to think like historians as they operate as “critical consumers” (Moore and Clark, 2004, p. 22) of other historical narratives. This ability to think and act with attention to multiple viewpoints and perspectives, power and counter stories develops more empathetic humans. While the authors prize the ability of students to succeed in intellectually rigorous tasks and learn content material, in the end this trait is the most important goal for teaching students history. Research limitations/implications The authors recognize operating within primarily non-Native spaces and discourses about social studies; with curricular efforts, there are a variety of ways the authors could do harm. Along the way, the authors recognized places for future improvement, critically examining the authors' work. As the authors look to future planning, there are several issues identified as the next spaces that the authors wish to focus on improving the Utah Studies curriculum experience of fourth graders at MBES. This is an area for further exploration. Practical implications This precise set of primary sources, field experiences and assessments will not be the right fit for other classrooms with differences in resources, space and time. The authors hope it will serve as an example of how teachers can create curriculum that addresses the failings of status quo social studies instruction with regard to Indigenous peoples. The students were not the only beneficiaries of change from this curriculum development and implementation; as a team the authors also benefited. The experience solidified our self-perception as decision makers for our classroom. The authors' ability to extend past the packaged curriculum of textbooks and worksheets made it easily available to engage students as historical inquirers into the multiple perspectives and complex contexts of decolonizing-counter narratives built the authors' confidence that such work can be successful across the curriculum. Social implications The authors believe this is a more potent antidote to the colonizing-Eurocentric narratives of history that they will undoubtedly be exposed to in other spaces and times than simply teaching them a singular history from an Indigenous perspective; if students are able to contextualize, interpret, and question the accounts they encounter, they will be more likely to “challenge dominant historical and cultural narratives that are endemic in society” (Stoddard et al., 2014, p. 35). This too can make them more thoughtful consumers of today's news, whether that news is about Navajo voting rights in southeastern Utah or oil and gas development in South Dakota. Originality/value Working against the colonizing narratives present in media, textbooks and local folklore is necessary if the authors are to undermine the invisibility of Native experiences in most social studies curriculum (Journell, 2009) and the stereotyping and discrimination that Native American students experience as a result (Stowe, 2017, p. 243). This detailed look at how the authors developed and implemented standards-based curriculum with that intent adds to the “little research [that] exists on teacher-created curricula and discourse” (Masta and Rosa, p. 148).

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