Methods for Social Studies
How Do I Keep My Ideals and Still Teach?

©Rich Gibson 2000  Renaissance Community Press

(If you are an educator reading this, and planning to loot the material here, good for you! All I ask in return, if you have time, is that you email me a tactic that you have developed so I can show it to my students, and, should you have time to remember, please cite this www page.)

Table of Contents

Imagine yourself as a literacy educator. Your task is to teach adults how to teach other people how to read. A young man, twentyish, comes to you and asks that you assist him in learning some methods of reading instruction.

You ask, "Why do you care if others can read?"

"Well, it seems like a good thing, to read you know, and I do need a job."

"Fair enough. A job is important. But why should it be this job? Why care if people can read?"

"Well, if people can read, they can learn."

"But what will they learn?"

"To get a job."

"So your job will be to teach people to read to get a job?"

"Yes, but there is more of course. They will be smarter. They will be able to understand and enjoy more."

"What will they understand and enjoy?"

"Well, like me. They will understand more, and enjoy more. They will be able to read newspapers and want ads and coupons to shop-and books."

"Ah, they will understand they need a job, and they will shop better?"

"Yes. Of course"

"Do they need to read to know that?"

"Yes, of course. Well, ah, no. Not really, most people can read enough to shop, but they need to read to get the job."

"Yes, probably. And when they get the job, what will they read?"

"Well, they'll probably read the instructions on how to do the work."

"Yes, quite true. Will that help them like the work, or understand why they must work, while some cannot find jobs, and others do not have to work at all, but just watch their interests rates?"

"What is up with that? This makes no difference right now. Your job is to teach me to teach other people to read. I need that now. I need you to show me how to do that."

You show him a stop sign and ask him to interpret that as best as he can.

"Well, that is a stop."

"Yes, and what else?"

"Nothing else, just a stop."

"But how does it relate to other things like that?"

"It doesn't except it is a sign; it is just a stop. When you see it, you stop."

"Ok, let's read this." You show him a train-crossing warning.

"Ah, well, that is a train. But this is not reading. Reading is reading print."

"Is this different from reading print."

"Yes, of course it is. Print is letters, this is pictures."

"Do other written languages look like pictures to you?"

"Sure, but so what? Look, I want to teach others how to read. Will you show me?"

"And what do the signs mean?"

He has that all right. "They all mean about traffic."

"Indeed. Now, what if you can read the sign, but no one else knows what it means?"

"Then nobody but me stops, it's a disaster. Wrecks everywhere. Wouldn't work."

"Yes. So, when a sign is understood by many people, it becomes a social force, enough to make people stop cars. That means the sign, and the idea, must be linked, and that with many people, before it really matters."

"I suppose, but that is not teaching me how to teach people how to read."

You show him a yin and yang sign that looks like this. 

"What is this?"

"I have no idea. It's got to do with martial arts. Is it Chinese? I don't read Chinese!"

"Can you guess?"

"Reading is not guessing. It is knowing. I have taken literacy classes and passed the tests for years. Why are you doing this to me? I want to teach literacy to people who cannot read. I can read."

"But you already guessed. You used your experience with martial arts representations to guess, and you're close."

"Well, I don't want to guess about other languages. I read in this language."

You give him a copy of the Declaration of Independence. "Tell me what this says about the tensions of democracy. Where do inalienable rights come from? "

He shies back, embarrassed. "I can't read that. It's too long, full of words I don't know. There are no pictures or other clues on it."

"But this is English. You said the picture was Chinese. Is it not also an English picture after all?"

He tries to read it.

"Besides, it does not say where inalienable rights come from. I cannot do that."

He's a little angry.

"But you want to teach other people how to read."

"Yes, certainly, just show me a few good tactics and I can do that."

"How can I show you reading tactics for others, when you yourself have trouble reading beyond recognizing a few symbols?"

"But I am good at recognizing those signs. I have a certificate saying that I spent a lot of time memorizing those signs, and now I just want to show others how to do that. People need me."

Soon, you come to understand that this young man really does not know how to read. What he has done is memorize some common symbols. Yet he wants to learn methods that will help him teach other people how to read.

What would you worry about here? What would you do? Surely it is important that other people learn how to read. He could probably teach them to read nearly as well as he reads. And his reasons for wanting to teach are reasonable, if not exactly mission-driven.

Perhaps you would consider that this young man might learn a few tricks, teaching methods about reading skills, tricks that many people figure out on their own, but he would be unable to use those tricks to go beyond where he is at the moment, in a very restricted world of interpreting a few signs, but unable to recognize meanings that are important to understanding the world, and, perhaps, even when to "Yield." What do you do?

Now, let us apply this conversation to the social studies: philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, archeology, economics, history, political science, and geography; practically the entire mix of the liberal arts and human experience.

Let me ask you some questions:

*What is the motive force of history?

*Do things change? How?

*Is the world constructed in your mind, a religious outlook, or is the world external to you, there whether your mind is in it or not?

*What is the role of social classes in history, especially the working class?

*In economics, is the key issue a matter of scarcity and choice, or is it the contradiction of the social nature of production confronting the individual ownership of the value created in production? Where does economic value come from?


*Where does racism come from and why is it still among us?

*How about sexism, or inequality in general?

*Why have government? What is the history of the rise of governments in human civilization? Who does government serve, the rich or the poor, or is it a neutral body standing outside questions of inequality?

*What is the role of sexuality as a question, not only of fear of disease, but as a question of pleasure and desire in a classroom?

* What is the background of the idea of inalienable rights? Self-evident truth?

Paulo Freire died in 1998. At the time of his death, he was the most famous educator on the planet. One of his guiding thoughts was: Reading the word is reading the world, and vice versa. There is a direct relationship between the two. The way you learn to read influences your vision of the world, and the way you see the world influences what you read and how you interpret it.

Answering the social studies inquiries above is the other side of the coin from reading the word. It is reading the world. Reading the word is bound up with philosophical questions (What is it to be rational?), economic questions (what is the reason for inequality?) and political questions (school reform without conducting economic and social reform around the school is like cleaning the air on one side of a screen door, as Jean Anyon has aptly said). Reading is linked to social justice. Enlarge and read this from the early 1900's. 

How do the words and the picture play with each other? What has changed since this poster was made for the Industrial Workers of the World long ago? Is anything fundamentally different?

Freire was clear that reading the word and the world eventually has to be related to the key social issues that confront everyone, especially inequality and authoritarianism.

Now let me take you back to our young man who could only read in fits and starts, who could read some words, but could not place them in context, and probably could not read many words well. He had memorized some word-facts, but could not put them to rational use. He was off to a fairly good start, and was reasonably motivated, but he had a lot to learn. Yet what he wanted to learn was simply some methods to use to teach others how to read. He did not want to be challenged about how he read words in the context of the world.

He was inspired to be a teacher, reasonably: he wanted a job. Since he could probably make more money elsewhere, he was at least somewhat concerned about other people, even if he did not make that clear. That is a lot to work with, a potentially fine student whose services are badly needed. But in order for him to become a real reading teacher, he is going to need to read the signs, and the world, better. One cannot be detached from the other. He may be frustrated by the process. But to turn him out as a teacher, ½ completed, is no favor to him or his future students. He could easily become frustrated and quit, as too many first-year teachers do. See

Such is the dilemma in methods classes in colleges of education. Many people arrive who are pretty good at reading the words, taking the tests, making it through the day to day life of most schools. Few of us are good at reading the world. Frequently, our methods of analyzing our surroundings are so much a part of us that we are not aware of what we are doing, and we become uncomfortable when those methods are exposed and challenged. It is frustrating to feel that you know substance, and desire methods, when your teacher disagrees.

As Saul Alinsky said, "A teacher's job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted."

Teaching methods are inseparably tied to the educator, her understanding of herself and her world, and her goals for change. Teachers change people. That is our job. At issue is: Toward what end? The methods you use will change people, as will the substance of what you teach them.

Methods are tactics. Substance is strategy. One cannot be without the other. But strategy fixes tactics, not the other way around, although tactics can reverberate back on strategy, cause it te be reevaluated, recreated. For the an extension on the difference, see the link to Sun Tzu's "Art of War"

Not too far below now are tactics that reflect, to one degree or another, the constructivist and critical kind of teaching that I think demonstrates an honest struggle for what is true in a classroom-our reason for being there. Critical teaching involves gaining and testing knowledge, the relationship of theory and practice, in a reasonably free, safe, atmosphere. Knowledge is not property. We all are working with and building on ideas developed by masses of people over centuries. (That is why it makes sense to allow students to do individual and collective work.)

In order to teach well, you need to know your kids, your community, yourself, and your outlook or paradigm. Your paradigm should be made clear to your students and opened to their criticism. Students need to know how and why you came to know something and why you have a passion for it, as much as they need to know the substance of your knowledge and your goals. Working that through thoroughly is a social studies method.

To make sense of what you are doing, you must critically evaluate what you think is important. What makes things tick?

I say that the key issues in life are three: (1) the social relations that rise from the need for labor and production, (2) the historical fight against superstition for coherent scientific knowledge, and (3) sexuality (reproduction) as a question of rebuilding humanity-and pleasure, desire, pain. These interrelated issues should set up the flow of a class. All else is incoherence. What do you say?

The substance of knowledge (that is, for example, "labor determines all value") over-determines the methods that are used to attain it. Translated: content usually is heavier than form. The substance of what people are to learn, though related to how they learn it, is the key factor that will decide how you choose to teach it.

Form, methods of instruction, are secondary to substance. It is possible, for example, to use constructivist methods to teach people fascist ideas. In fact that is what many fascist governments did.

Even so, as will be repeated, what people learn is deeply influenced by how they learn it. For example, phonics- based instruction is, in part, rooted in a part-to-whole world view, suggesting that by taking things piece by piece, one begins to grasp the whole. That is partially true. However, phonics instruction misses key issues. First, phonics and English have little in common. Children who learn from a straight phonics base learn things that don't make sense: fone/phone/thrown, etc. Secondly, children who learn from phonics- based methods learn that the way we decide the meaning of a text is a tedious process of sounding out parts of words. This is not how good readers read. Good readers contextualize, then infer, guess, charge ahead, come back and correct. Finally, in phonics the reason to read is simply de-coding, not the struggle for meaning.

People trained only in phonics hear that you learn to read because you are told to learn to read, and that the process is done like adding small widgets to larger widgets to make a big widget in a factory. In contrast, people who learn to read using constructivist methods make decisions about the why to read, and while they do use phonics among other decoding systems, they also learn that reading is also a process of predicting, skipping ahead, coming back, mending, an exploration. Phonics-based reading instruction, I believe, takes away the social agency of the reader, by stealing the notion of where we are going, only offering a chance to place your foot on painted feet along the way. This is not a good way to learn to walk, watching every step as if process of walking was solely made up of individual movements to take a step, rather than going somewhere. 

Phonics-based instruction focuses on disconnections, the small sounds that letters are supposed to represent (but often don’t), rather than the connections of the language, literacy, and the meanings that can be constructed. The phonetic approach centers on the most superficial appearances of the structure of language and literacy, ignoring its social context. This is a mechanical process which denies the creativity involved in language and literacy development. Language and literacy are developed by exposure, not training. Language and literacy are grown, not ordered.  Sounding out words, when taken apart from constructing meaning, is a frustrating exercise which frequently causes students to hate reading. There appears to be a parallel relationship to music education. Children exposed early on to music seem to develop connections for music appreciation over a lifetime, and it appears that there is a connection between relating to music and language acquisition–connections deepening connections.  Children denied exposure seem to fail to develop this deepened appreciation. 

Developmental neurobiology (which arches over the falsely polar oppositions posed by nature/nurture debates) demonstrates that complex language (unique to humans) is developed over time, through use and exposure, in meaningful activity that integrates theory and practice. This is analogously clear in the nervous system, where the circuitry is not just set at birth, but develops connections in relation to exposure and responses to testing. Sensory deprivation causes synapses not to connect, to remain undeveloped. 

In language learning, and print literacy, what is key is exposure to texts, and opportunities to act on them in ways that are historic that matter. 

If the metaphors became too mixed here, for expansions see

There is a parallel to the social studies. Most social studies education is piece-work, disjointed, incoherent, at odds with itself. We do the US from year zero to 1865, then 1865 to anytime before Vietnam, and no more. Much social studies education is taken out of context, a series of dates to be memorized, and the students discover that history is something alien to them. It is done with the assumption, uncriticized, that this is good for you. Most social studies classes are taught in dull lecture formats, with frequent quizzes dividing the knowledge. Once the test is over, the reason for remembering what was on it vanishes. Social studies is only rarely a place where students decide what they want to know, and how they want to learn it-and try to learn what their own interests are. In my experience, it is the odd social studies class that takes up the discipline as a question that has meaning, that counts.

Social studies classes become boring, alien, annoying, depressing, for many reasons: stupid textbooks designed to control what is learned, to create official knowledge; teachers who give in to the daily drag of the institutions they work in (endless streams of bureaucratic forms, etc.), students who have come to believe, from previous experience, that school and important knowledge have little in common. The methods we use to reach through these barriers partially determine whether we survive in an atmosphere that can, at first, be difficult.

Methods, then, are indeed important. Methods are invariably part of a greater whole, a totality, that is made up of the instructor's viewpoint (including his/her political views), the community and its resources, and an estimate of the learner-all aimed at some goal. All methods flow from your standpoint and your principles about the why's and how's of learning, and cannot be taken separately from the content that you are teaching. If you believe you have no viewpoint, perhaps that is because your outlook has become so much a part of you that you do not notice it. Or, perhaps your outlook is so much tied to the dominant outlook, it seems natural. For example, in all-white schools, many white teachers believe there is no problem of racism around them, since there are no people of color. That, of course, is a position about racism, a political view.

Your standpoint and viewpoint may shift from time to time, but you should be aware that it is extraordinarily unlikely that you will escape from the class you will born in, although you may move around a lot within the boundaries of that class (making $45,000 rather than $22,000 is a big difference, but it is all within the working class). Your outlook will also be profoundly influenced by your sex/gender, by your ethnic or caste background, your religion (if you have one) and your views about nationality. All these factors are interrelated, but the dominant factor, the one which fixes the course of the others, is class.

Teachers often see themselves in the middle of the struggle of social classes, pulled in different ways. Most teachers, around 90%, are white, and soon those white teachers will be working in a society that is made up of people who are, mostly, people of color (or categorized so). This is an apartheid condition. It would be easy for communities to see teachers as missionaries for the privileged, teaching their ideology and habits to people who have nothing to gain from that. It is also a problem for many teachers who enter communities that are not what they saw in their home areas, where they grew up.

The solutions to this will require major overhauls of the entire educational system-a project that is worth engaging. For example, the teacher unions would have to recognize that it is more important to have an integrated work force than a credentialed one-and open up the profession to educators of color. That is not going to happen soon. While it is surely worth the fight within the unions, it remains that many preservice educators need a guide to the question: What do I do right now?

The answer to that question is not simple, but this simplicity will be offered up anyway: Take the side of the kids. If you find yourself saying one day: "My kids are no good. Their parents are no good. They are not prepared. They are sleepy, bored, needy, hungry, without resources and time." Catch yourself. Remember why that is, why the kids appear to be like that. Consider inequality and racism. Then remember that your kids know a lot, perhaps not what you know, and perhaps they do not learn like you learned, but they are often surviving on unfriendly turf. Take the side of the kids. Most of the kids are part of the working class-and so are you.

If there are no books, go get some books. Don't blame the kids and their parents. Act. Go to the supermarket, the home repair store and tell them you are a teacher in a school that does not have enough books and insist that they help out you and your kids. Start a book drive. Involve others, including the kids. Margaret Haley, an early founder of both teachers' unions, the NEA and the AFT, led the first fights for "Books, Supplies, Lower Class Size!" She was not above organizing kid-pickets of companies that fought for tax breaks, then made demands on the schools. She rearranged the tax system in some states, winning the argument that corporations should pay for schools out of taxes. That is a method of social studies. It takes the side of the kids.

If the union wants to take a small wage increase in exchange for raising the cap on class size from 25 to 29, take the side of the kids. Say, "no, my class must have a cap on its size, and 25 is already too many. My kids cannot learn if they cannot get some personal attention. I will not take a small bribe in exchange for selling out my kids. If I do that, my kids' parents will rightly see me as a mercenary. If I am going to have to choose sides in this, I choose the side of the kids because, in the long haul my power is not rooted in a few dollars bribe, but in my ties with parents and kids and other school workers." That is a social study method.

Taking the side of the kids is not just being nice, not being a missionary. It is an act of reasonable solidarity. In the long run, the old adage, An Injury to One goes before An Injury to All, applies to kids and teachers. The teacher who allows his kids to be sold out, will soon be sold himself. That is a social study method.

Your standpoint and viewpoint (the mix of what you objectively are with what you think you are) has a lot to do with how you choose what to teach and how. For example, many history standards now address the organization of the unions in the US. However, even the best of them suggest that the only reason the workers won unions was because some member of the elite, like Roosevelt, supported unionization before it even began. This notion comes from a specific outlook, a world view that says only important leaders have decisive roles in history. This outlook is also stamped with the brand of class. It is a partisan, biased, idea. It is not true. Working people won unions in the streets first, then in the courts and in the legislature. While the support of some elites helped, it was hardly the impetus for the struggle. The key point is: Every idea is rooted in a given social class and reflects its needs and history. In turn, every idea also recreates or challenges the class nature of society.

Your standpoint and your viewpoint also are inscribed with the social class you are in and the class you think you are in. The closer you come to matching one with the other, the more your life and teaching will make sense. It is a mistake, clearly, to think there are no classes, and no class struggle, in the US, or between US elites and people of other countries.

Inequality in the US is obvious, and steadily rising. Doubters, see this link:

Surely one task of social studies would be to examine inequality, and to wonder what to do about it. I say inequality rises from the fact that the overwhelming majority of people must sell their labor in order to live, and that labor is purchased by a few people who own the factories, the means of production, who reap the benefits from the work of the majority, but do not pay them the full value of their labor. What do you say?

On the heels of inequality comes authoritarianism, the tendency to seek to control what people know and do. Elites, in an inequitable society, do not want inequality noticed, and most surely they do not want people pointing at its source. Authoritarian teaching can succeed in getting people to decide that the struggle to know is boring and unimportant, and subsequently to act against their own best interests. Overcoming the alienation of children who already believe that learning has nothing to offer them is a key challenge to teachers. We must reasonably show that is not true-and what is. Perhaps this example will demonstrate that critical knowledge is a matter of life and death.

US history is often taught as if the war in Vietnam (a) never happened, or, (b) that it was the result of a series of mistakes; it was a fluke. The war in Vietnam is presented as a tragedy for people in the US and we are urged to mourn the casualties memorialized at the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC. This may be a common outlook, but it is a political one, rooted in class and national interests.

It was US working class youth, disproportionately black, who fought in died in Vietnam, nearly 60,000 of them. It was a working class war. Working class youth from the US were sent to fight working class youth in Vietnam. However, the former were invaders, the latter defending their homeland and their rights to struggle for a better life. The US forces represented a tiny minority in Vietnam and the US who stood to gain from the war, and who refused to hold elections as they knew Ho Chi Minh would win. The National Liberation Forces stood on the side of the masses of Vietnamese people. The war was no mistake, but part and parcel of 80 years of US foreign policy, imperialism. Where are the millions of Vietnamese who lost their lives fighting Japanese, French, and US imperialism represented? Where is their wall?

The working class US youth who went to Vietnam had nothing to gain from being there. But they went, often, because they did not understand the situation they were about to be in, and they did not have the analytical tools to discover whether they should go or not. Nor did many of them have the resources to refuse to go, as many upper middle class white youth did. They were products of school systems which led them to believe that they could trust their government, when all of history suggested a critical outlook. They trusted their officers who told them that spraying Agent Orange from helicopters would not hurt them. When they arrived in Vietnam, they were surprised to discover that nearly the entire country was the enemy. No rescue mission, they learned too late that this was an invasion.

Over time the US troops began to learn that they were engaged in a lie. They began to refuse to fight, even to shoot their officers. They began to mutiny. But it took 60,000 US working class lives, and probably 2 or 3 million Vietnamese deaths, before the country got out of Vietnam.

See this link:

To teach people in ways that lead them to believe that they cannot comprehend their situations, and could not act on the effectively even if they did, is to set people up to go to Vietnam. This stripping away of citizen agency, of analysis and action, often begins in early elementary school.

We need to teach in ways that students can understand that they themselves are historians and history. Everyone is an author and agent of social change. In the words of Harry Hoey, former headmaster of Cranbrook school who picked up a globe, leaned out from a pulpit looking over a crowd of young students, looked at the globe and said, "Gentlemen, this is ours, and during your time at Cranbrook we will learn how we make it act."

Every minute of good teaching is involved with taking sides. You need to know whose side you are on, both in the tensions between social classes in our country, and in the contradictions between children, tests, and standardized curricula. As a worker, and as a professional in the sense that you will succeed only if you are willing to make sacrifices for kids. You need to choose just whose interests and outlook you will align yourself with, elites-- or the vast majority of people who work and produce all value.

Taking sides is not an abstraction. For example, a high-stakes standardized test immediately sets up an educator as a person potentially on the other side. The test decides whose side you will be on. If the child fails, you may not only get a bad rating, you may be laid off or lose your job. The pressure on the child is sometimes as simple as this, a quote from a Detroit middle-school teacher, "Pass this test or you will go to jail." In Detroit, that could be true.

But learning, at its best, does not pit a teacher against a student. If you go to a good martial arts dojo, the sifu is not going to give you tests designed to demonstrate what you cannot do, and then make you do it a lot. You would probably get discouraged, quit coming, decide not to learn. Instead, the sifu is going to discover what you are good at, and work with your strengths, discovering ways to unveil his/her system or art to you as you progress. The sifu is taking your side, right from the beginning. This is not something you have to prove, but respect due you as a human being.

Standardized high-stakes exams are designed to split you and your student, to replace the mind of the teacher with the mind of a test writer, or curricula standardizer. The test and the curricula are alien to your classroom, are designed to serve partisan interests which may not coincide with your interests or your kids' (most measure only parental income and race), and will only serve to deepen racial and class segregation. That is not in the interest of most teachers or the kids we serve.

Even so, you may have to teach to some of these tests, until you can maneuver to gather power to do otherwise. Most of the tactics I describe below probably can be used to prepare kids for tests. They can also be used to demonstrate to parents that the tests measure nothing important but race and class.

Most of these measures allow for multi-sensory learning, connecting different fields of knowledge. Like all teachers, I have borrowed and adopted many strategies from others, and made up some of my own. My hope here is not that you will duplicate these designs but use them as clues to how you can make yours, based on your estimates of yourself, your kids, and your community. There are infinite engaging methods. At issue is: does this method really reflect the principles you stand for, and how you believe people learn?

While you are in our class, or once you have completed a course of study with me and earned an "A;" you have climbed the mountain. At that point, I have probably learned more from you than vice versa. So, I am your resource. I owe you. If you have questions about teaching, or anything else, email me. If I am on the planet, I will try to help, or find people who can.

In sum: these factors set up methods:

*You and your passions, your methods of learning, your standpoint, and your goals, all of which is political. Know yourself

*Your understanding of your kids, based on being on their side. Know the kids.

*Your analysis of your community, the parents, the board, etc. Know the community.

*Your paradigm which is commonly understood by the students, and open to their criticism. Know your outlook. Let it be understood, and criticized.


Remember, it is better to be kind than clever.

Journals and Active Literacy: Reading the Word is Reading the World

Every kid should read, be read to, and write every day, and record their thoughts, whatever they may be, in a brief journal exercise at the end of the day. Every word read, and every method used to teach reading, is stamped with the brand of social justice or injustice. Nothing stands outside the rise of inequality and authoritarianism. Active Journaling is good for every class. 


Fight Racism Everyday

Racism is the Achilles heel of knowledge, and the best interests of the working class. The contributions of black people in history went largely unnoticed (except for a few scholars like Dubios) until the city uprisings of the 1960's. The working class, the sole class with a stake in getting at the truth about racism, is carefully divided, and sectors of it are poisoned with racist and nationalist views. So pervasive that it usually goes unnoticed (most teachers in the US rarely consider that they are working in apartheid conditions), so thoroughly imbued into the social system that uprisings do not occur when it is announced year after year that people of color live about a decade less than white folks, the moment to moment presence of racism pollutes all of education. Every educator should begin every day with the thought, "What will I do to unveil and subvert racism today?" That can be taken up by actions ranging from desegregating the teachers' lounge, to kids' lunchrooms, to integrating the playground (free time does not mean free to be racists) to taking apart the racism that lies behind most geography lessons. Your course of action will be fixed by how you analyze racism, where it comes from and who it serves. See this link for a good overview of the two key outlooks about racism: http://www./approach.htm

Being an anti-racist is not necessarily being a multi-culturalist. The right wing of that movement wrongly believes that culture, not class, is the key denominator to understand the movement of social change. But there is no such thing as a culture that stands above or outside the question of class. There is no black culture, no white culture, no Irish culture. There is working class black culture, ruling class Irish culture, and rich white culture. Rich people in Thailand have more in common with rich people in the US than they do with poor people in Thailand-and they know it. We should too.

The right-wing of multi-culturalism (there is a left), breeds nationalism and guilt. If culture is the key issue, its greatest expression is in the nation, the geographical expression of cultural unity. Nationalism has continuing appeal, but has no basis in rationality. If culture it the central issue in life, then the way to overcome cultural domination is to urge people in elite cultures to cut it out, to be guilty about what they have done; and to suggest that all people of a given culture, usually a nation or some sense of race, should stick together.

Neither move makes sense. Guilt is not a very good motivator for social action. Nor is the analysis correct. Not all black people share a common culture, nor do all Hispanics. All white people do not gain from racism. Some white people do. Most white supremacists have reason to think differently, if nothing else in that their own wages are depressed when the working class of color is held back or massively unemployed-or in jail. While there are privileges attached to whiteness, and while the very idea of whiteness is irrational, the way to change whitened minds is to demonstrate reasons for solidarity, not to attack them-unless they are engaged in supremacist violence.

A Safe and Respectful Place of Learning

Your classroom is yours to create. At the door should be a threshold where people understand that they are crossing into a special loving area where it is safe to explore, make mistakes, say things that are unpopular, and where everyone will be treated with respect. Those who least deserve the love just mentioned, are likely to be the ones who need it most. A real community will take responsibility for addressing those, inside and out, who seek to demolish it.

Make Friends

School workers who have a base among parents and community people are educators who can gather enough power to act as they choose in school. The question of whether or not you have any academic freedom to teach as you think best, or to raise controversial issues (all of social studies, after all, is about conflict), is settled by reason, by law, and most of all by having some power. Educator power can be set up two ways. You can bow deeply to your bosses and try to make alliances with local elites. Or you can build close personal and professional ties with parents, students, and community people. The latter is the more reliable path. The rich have allies; poor and working people have friends.

One good way to build a base is to make home calls before school begins. Clearly, this is more possible for elementary teachers who have, total, smaller classes. However, even a scattering of visits can help. Take the time to make appointments (you should be able to easily do eight visits a day) and go learn from the people you hope to serve. They will remember that you did this, perhaps in a time when you need a little forgiveness-as we always do. 

Yes, Inclusion Means Them Too

The beginning point of social studies methods education has to be with who is there and who is not, whose presence is valued and whose is dismissed. An important method for teaching for democracy and citizenship is to conduct a classroom that is democratic and inclusive. One makes no sense without the other. AP classes are not inclusive. They are exclusive, undemocratic. Having labeled kids shuffled into other rooms or schools is just as exclusive, more so in fact. It is a social studies method to get them back into your classroom. Norm Kunc is a guiding light in the effort to show that All means ALL:

Unity that makes Sense, and Disunity that makes Sense

School systems reflect and recreate the division of labor in society. The division of labor, which splits mental and manual labor, rises out of the contradiction between the social nature of production, and its private ownership. For an extensive discussion, see

In school, that which should be united is often divided. That which should be divided is often united. For example, while the social studies do indeed formally seek to unite many academic disciplines, like philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, archeology, history, economics, civics, geography, (not astrology, sorry),. etc., it remains that most social studies is taught through a lens of history that denies the primacy of class struggle, a division that is really an erasure. Schools do teach the ABC's, if that means Anything But Class. Economics is taught as if the issue to the discipline is only the tension of scarcity and choice, but the question of where value comes from (labor) and the social relations that rise from struggles over value, the key question in economics for the last 200 years, is erased. So, on the one hand, we have everyone pledging allegiance in the morning, but we rarely address the internal and external struggles that have gone on under the flag-the ones that have been guided by class. 
In school, more to the point, we separate academic disciplines like literacy, history, mathematics, etc., as if they had little to do with each other. We also separate mind and body, and in most schools we focus most of our work on the visual sense, the sense that focuses on appearances, often superficialities. A social studies method is to recognize that brain research says that people learn by making connections, and often playfully seeing them occur.

Here is a short poem that may make sense of the logic in this: 

Life travels upward in spirals. 
Those who take pains to search the shadows
of the past below us, then, can better judge the 
tiny arc up which they climb, 
more surely guess the dim 
curves of the future above them.
For example, it helps to know that the same tactics that the US employed in its revolution were employed when Napoleon invaded Russia, when Hitler invaded the USSR, and when the US invaded Vietnam. Failure to recognize the potential in flight and guerrilla war on friendly terrain cost Cornwallis, Napoleon, and Westmoreland a great deal. When we learn that by using not just our minds, but our bodies, and our emotions, and perhaps our good-humored sense of irony, we learn it will.

The debate between those in the US who believe that property rights are foundational and inalienable rights, and those who contend that inalienable rights are rights people are born with, not purchased, goes back to this 1774 comment from Cartwright, "A right of being represented, every man owes to God, who gave him freedom, but many a man owes his wealth to the devil. It ought, in this case, to give him a rope, rather than a representative."

An important social studies method is to understand that nothing comes from nothing.

Study Deep

It is better to do an entire semester getting to know the Greeks very well than to spend the same semester trying to cover the history of the middle-ages, everywhere. This little list of methods is written in the hope that you will apply them to deep study. But it is understood that to survive in a test-mania atmosphere, you might have to do otherwise from time to time. Alfred North Whitehead had some interesting things to say about this many years ago.   


Reading is balancing, therapeutical, serendipitous. Reading lets us know where and who we are, what we can become, how others live and  have overcome. Reading is lucky, as anyone who has stumbled on the key piece of research in the wrong stack in a library will tell you. Reading can be liberatory, or it can be encapsulating. Many slaves, contrary to myth, were taught to read. 

You are reading against time. You will never read all there is to read. Read whenever you can. The rule: always bring a book. Read it when you can.  Don’t read junk. Get control of your time and your life and learn to read critically, memorably, not necessarily memorizing (though there is nothing inherently wrong with that) but engaging the text with all you factors. Challenge yourself with print, and let your students do the same.

There is great value in the Canon–and every literate culture has produced one. Only the thinnest forms of multiculturalism suggest that there is no canon, that any text is as good as the next. Certainly, texts have been pressed out of existence by power. It is possible to find them. Look. Meanwhile, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Baldwin, Hegel, Milton, Blake, Homer, Marx, Dickens, Melville, Lukacs, Conrad, even Kipling; all are worth your candle. So is Ngugi, Traven, Sun Tzu, and those but a blink away from accepted lists. 

Teachers face a dual decision about reading. What is worth the time? Should I not read the books my kids read, and read them first?

Read first as an adult. Such is your state now. When possible, read for the children. Most educators tilt the wrong way on this. Loving the kids, they read for the kids. The common knock on elementary teachers is that they come to think like their children they face–often true. Read as an adult, first. Seek adult conversations; perhaps an after-school adult book club, on the days when the fitness class is off. 

Let the kids see you read your books, as they read theirs. They know their interests and skills are not yours. Let them see you struggle with text. 

(I encountered, recently, a new reading myth: Five Fingers and Out. That myth was propagated by a fine elementary reading teacher who suggested to her students that if they encounter a book with more than five words they do not understand on a given page, they should put the text back on the shelf and try another. Nonsense. The “why” to do this, if it is powerful, will overcome this finger-cuffing. In reading Marx, or critical theory,  most US citizens would never get through, as they encounter words like epistemological, ontological, hermeneutic, semiotics, and, phenomenological—gad don’t put down this book.) 

Fight for your library, in the school and in the community. The last bastion of proof of the common struggle for what is true, a social system of free books from each to all, the libraries have suffered under stealth attack for twenty years. Many city libraries are closed more than open, unable to make major purchases, but they fill with an allotment of gleaming computers. Today, as I write under the reign of George W. Bush, the first president to boast that he has not read a book since college and that he didn’t read many then, teachers form the most potentially powerful defenders of print on paper in the US. Such is your challenge.    

Don't Forget the Working Class, the Force of Modern History

Most school curricula simply wipe away the vast majority of people in society, the workers. This inherently demeans the lives of most students, whose parents are set up as being meaningless appendages to the course of history. It was the working class that civilized life in the 20th century US, winning key reforms like the forty-hour work week, child labor laws, social security, and rights to form unions, bargain, and strike. So, consider the workers, always. There is a wonderful book of theory and methods that can help you teach about workers: The Power in Their Hands, by Bill Bigelow. See this for a very brief outline of labor history:

The working class is frequently denigrated in every aspect of social life, when that life is dominated by inequality. For example, most of what is fashionable, a concept that shifts over time, is designed to demonstrate that the fashion-plate has nothing to do with manual labor.

And don't forget the real Mayday:

Product Analysis 

One of the educators I admire most, for a sense of patience, irony, and kindness, is Doug Selwyn of Washington state. Doug suggests that each person in his class pick a product, and do a thorough examination of it: What company made this? How? Who owns the company? How did this person(s) come to own it? Where is it, mostly? Who were the workers? What were they paid? What were their working conditions? What were the processes of the work? What are the profits? What percentage of the total value of the product does the worker get? Can the workers buy the products they make? What is the ration of one workers’ pay to a CEO’s pay? What is the impact on the consumer or the environment? How is the product advertised or promoted? How does that relate to how it was made in the first place? One of Doug’s students started with his diamond engagement ring, which led to South Africa, which led to DeBeers, Inc., and that led to....

For an extensions of this notion, see Lewis Corey (aka Louis Fraina) Of Meat and Man, or James Lieber, Rats in the Grain, Archer-Daniels Midland.

Fabulous Realities (from Ken Macrorie)

Fabulous realities come from Henry David Thoreau's thought: "Shams and delusions are esteemed for the soundest truth, while reality is fabulous." These are short, incisive moments of irony, weirdness, paradox, that open up a wider view, even though they themselves may be restrictive or even just silly. Here are a couple: The docent at the Simon Wiesenthal Holocaust Memorial Center in LA said this in her introductory remarks, "You will love this museum. You don't have to make any choices. Just follow the lights and the people in front of you and you will be done very quickly. It's my favorite way to do this. They thought of everything for us."

Or this: The Puppy Motel in Del Mar California charges nearly as much per day as the daily expenditure for a child in the San Diego school system. Or: Chrysler Corporation, which led the howls to "Buy American!" not long ago, sold itself to the German Daimler Corporation, a major builder of German fascism, as soon as Chrysler became profitable. Executives took millions from the deal.

One last: When the head of US Steel demanded and won massive concessions from his workers, saying that only concessions could save the business and jobs; he then used the savings to buy a Canadian liquor company. Confronted by reporters, he said, "Look, I am not in business to make steel. I am in business to make money." Some Fabulous Realities are written in pithy Haiku format. Others are just simple sentences. You might have a Fabulous Reality of the Day, just to perk things up.

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