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


Interest and Integrity

First, get their attention, and develop a why to learn. Then, keep your promises, be what you say you are. You may remember the Seuss story, the "Sneetches," about Sylvester McBean, the scamster who sold star- on and star-off patches to the Sneetches. If you do not remember the story, drop this and go read it. McBean was good at getting the Sneetches attention, and selling them a why to behave, but he was a dirtball, had no integrity, and finally the Sneetches figured him out. Kids are probably quicker than Sneetches in discovering whether or not you are authentic. They will test you until they decide they love you. Then they will forgive you. 

This is not a solely student-centered approach. This approach recognizes the intersection of student abilities and interests with the educators’, and with the resources of the community where they reside. 

It's About Time!

Time is a precious commodity in school, and someone else is always trying to steal yours. It is a social studies method to try to expand your available time-for yourself and for your individual kids. This means fighting for lower class size, against more bureaucratic paperwork, for aides and parental involvement to assist in the classroom. It also means fighting to have more time to reflect on what you're doing during the working day, and more time to pursue your own intellectual interests outside your teaching situation. That might include struggling for free university tuition, paid sabbatical leaves every five years, a shorter working day, longer vacations, and so on.

Inside the school, time is also a critical issue. How will the kids' time be consumed? How much free time will they have, considering that there is a direct link between freedom and discipline? How much time will you waste if you are not given a phone, a bathroom, a laboratory, and a computer/library available at all times to every kid in the class? Resolutions to all of that is a social studies method.

I Search Papers (also from Ken Macrorie)

Here is a link that over-explains Macrorie's idea that you start with something the student is interested in, and have the student research it.

The History Wars

Historians are deeply divided. Some of them see history as a product of great men (sic). Some historians see history as a struggle to reach God, the divine, and they will do a good deal of work trying to determine what God is telling them. Others see history as a struggle for consensus, especially in the US. That means that all of history is a high-point of the creation of general agreement. These people would focus on consensus builders, Lyndon Johnson before his presidency for example Others see history as the history of class struggle. These historians will focus on the working classes and their representatives, often communists. E.P. Thompson and W.E.B. Dubois were leaders in this school of history.

Kids can understand this. They can take up a school of history as their own and struggle for its outlook in discussions and debates about how things work, which always lead to questions about what is next-and what to do. All of history is an interpretation of the past, through a standpoint in the present, that is imbedded with a call for action in the future.

Class Council

Set up an internal class council to decide things that are important -and things that are not. "What shall we choose to learn? How shall we go about learning this? Who shall be in charge of distributing papers today? How shall we resolve disputes? What shall we take from our class to present to the rest of the school?"

Room Title

Other teachers love this, and so do some kids. If you do, do it. I don't. Have the kids decide the name of your classroom. I have seen everything from BattleBotKids to Utopia. What influence does a name have over what a thing, or a person, is?

Dub the Room

Other teachers love this, and so do some kids. If you do, do it. I don’t. Have the kids decide the name of your classroom. I have seen everything from BattleBotKids to Utopia. What influence does a name have over what a thing, or a person, is? Too often, I see rooms named the Deadly Mantis Hurricanes, and too infrequently, The Dancing Cuckoos. 

Power Symbol to the Speaker

This is a nice move when discussion is good and passions are high. Simply create a power symbol (probably something that is not threatening, not stick) that is the sign that the holder is the speaker, and the only speaker. The speaker, at the close of the comment, passes the symbol to someone else.

Undoing the Fear of Freedom

Even after a few months of kindergarten, many children have learned to be unfree, to fear freedom, to oppose the risks PF exploration and a struggle for meaning. Your task is therefore often at least two-fold, to undo this fear, and to point the way toward a more free way of doing things. How do we spot the fear of freedom? In little kids, we see children who are afraid to write because they have been taught that the only good writing is writing that is spelled correctly: a little first grade girl who will not write the word, “music,” which she wants to write about, and instead writes, “zoo,” because she knows how to spell it. In college students, we often hear, “Just tell me what to do and I will do it.”  Both students are quite sure they are doing the right thing because this is what they have been taught. It’s a slave mentality, a consciousness that is constructed, entirely, from the outside, usually from dominance, elites. 

With standardized curricula and tests, this fear is ratcheted up with external rewards and punishment. In Michigan, for example, the state test, the MEAP, is administered by the Treasury Department, and rewards are offered to kids who take it, financial punishment meted out to schools with low participation. The Detroit Free Press suggests that the way to prepare for the tests is to play “How to Become a Millionaire” with the kids.

So, with the double problem,  the fear of freedom, and the kids belief that this fear is really academic rigor, there is a good deal to be undone. Much of this little book is about how to do that. However, one pattern is clearly useful: to engage a particular subject that is routinely ignored, or falsified, a subject that has some interest to the kids, and take it apart. In my experience, this can begin nearly anywhere but the ignorance that is promoted about Vietnam, ( fascism, (  and methods of analysis 
( have  proved out well. In earlier grades, trickster tales (described below) are a nice place to begin. 

Beyond subject area entry points, it is key to maintain freedom of expression in the classroom, meaning the freedom to say nearly anything that does not demonstrate contempt for the people in the room, and to say that anything without fear of retribution (grades, etc.) In the absence of this freedom, and the trust it produces, the others all fall apart. They will not tell you they are not free unless they feel free to say it. If you don’t know about it, how will you deal with it? Your task is to change people, not to let your ego become so fragile that you cannot allow the routes ino their minds be exposed.  Specifically, it is one thing to allow a theoretical discussion about racism in a classroom to progress to the point where some students are expressing clearly racist views. It is another thing to allow those racist views to be directed to people in the room, to be used to destroy their freedom. You must know who in you class hold fearful (racist) ideas, yet you must not allow those ideas to go into effect. Teaching is not for the faint-hearted.

The Mute Flute

A Detroit teacher whipped this out when I visited her class, which was slowly dissolving into a heated but unproductive debate as everyone joined in. Rather than switch off the lights, or clap a Bo Diddley beat to which kids are expected to respond with a quick clap-clap, she mimed a silent flute, and as she moved around the room, not playing it but miming its sounds, the kids joined in, until the silence allowed more organized debates.

Political Cartoons

First bring some cartoons to class. Then let the kids make their own. Some of these become really delightful. A cartoon does not have to be just one page, but can become an entire book. See, for example the cartoon books of the "For Beginners," series, like "Marx for Beginners." Or, "The Incredible Rocky." Cartoons can be silent graphics too. See the IWW poster on my www page.  For examples of terrific work by kids, see the Zino Press book, Editorial Cartoons by Kids 1999 

Heroes Schmeroes Sez Me

Have your class make a list of heroes (or two lists; one of the most important people, the other of the most famous.) Then take count of how many men, how many women, how many people of color, how many people of the working class. Consider how quickly a hero can be wiped out, like Paul Robeson, one of the most famous people in the world in the 1940's. Or consider Joe Stalin and Fidel Castro, both once Time men of the Year. Consider the chances of becoming a hero on the landscape today, if you are born on a small Carribean island for example, or in west Africa. Would a person who worked in a iron foundry for thirty years, to put children through school, be a hero? Then unpack what values we use to decide who a hero is. Are these values that serve most people, or values imposed by dominance to prop up unjust rule? Why do we think we need heros? Is John Brown heroic? Ho Chi Minh? For me, the search for heroes is not terribly enlightening. I believe that what is heroic is the processes of knowledge that billions of people have sacrificed to discover over centuries. The notion of heroes, to me, suggests that some people are simply vastly better than the rest of us-and then we are appalled when we find out they are not: Jefferson raping his slave for example. Moreover, creating heroes usually obliterates people who are not in the immediate gaze of the powerful.

Ho Chi Minh

Photo or Video Essays

There are many kinds of literacies. Some kids who do not read or write well can be engaged by the possibilities of video/photo essays, which require the same skills. A video map of the geography of the playground described below might be very interesting.

The Art (Music, Dance, Film, etc.) Detective

This is fun. Grab a piece of art, say, something by Hieronymous Bosch, like the Garden of Earthly Delight (click on image for larger view). Have the kids investigate the work in detective fashion. What society would have created this? What would work be like in this society? What about literature? What era does this fit into? Why? What are the clues that you are using as evidence? What kind of medication would be prescribed for Bosch today? 

Art is never separate from its social context, although some artists do seem to be able to vault forward in time, signaling what is to come, often in foreboding terms. See the passage in Bosch above.

Grow Stuff and Eat It

Lifetime radical Grace Boggs of Detroit has been instrumental in creating a project called Detroit Summer, an effort to unite education workers with students, community people, parents, grand-parents, nursing home captives–the entire community, in a struggle to not simply collectively grow gardens in the midst of urban collapse, but to create the educational community that grows along with the vegetables. Detroit summer addresses a myriad of social problems, positively, by investigating the sciences of city farming, and uniting a community that has been divided by age, race, ability/disability. The gardening brings together theory and practice, nature and labor, and people who have been segmented, to their own detriment. For example, seniors in the community meet and lead youth, who the seniors often feared. Youth learn to take the space in their communities, and use it creatively. And everyone shares the produce, thus meeting the old teachers maxim: when in doubt–feed em.

Mrs Sutfin’s Immortal Class

In a state that can go unnamed, one Henrietta Sutfin came to teach a second-grade class in early November. The 43 kids had already gone through three teachers, each of them a burnout. The last I had heard, the kids were refusing to read and no one had time to go see if they could. I came to know Mrs Sutfin early in her career, when she was well over fifty. She was a grandmom, returned to teaching after raising more kids than I can remember. I was her grievance representative. She never lost.

Mrs Sutfin greeted her small mob on her first day with a sense of cheer, joy, and firmness that comes with having dealt with dozens of great child tragedies and curiosities, and challenges. She took pictures of the kids and when I came to her classroom, she had a poster of the children in several poses. The two I remember, “We can be silly!,” with the children’s faces contorted in an endless variety of parental horrors, and, “We can be serious,” with every child peering steadily into a book. 

I was visiting Mrs Sutfin that day just to say “Hi,” to a new colleague. As I walked down the hall toward her room, another teacher began to pass me by, going in the other direction, trailed by her classroom of probably 35 fourth graders, all in a neat line, each just more than an arm’s length behind the next, all with both hands clasped behind their heads. She led the line, then stepped aside as the group was about to pass me, and whispered proudly, “Takes a month to get ‘em like this!” As she turned toward me, away from the kids, one little girl, the third in the line, burst out of position and began to dance, not march, down the hall. Every other child remained in line, hands behind heads. By the time the teacher turned back to her minions, the little girl was back in line, uncaught.

Mrs Sutfin was reprimanded later in the day–for allowing her class to go to lunch without forming a good line, without being sure that the children could not touch each other. She called me and I stopped back the following day, just around lunchtime. 

Mrs Sutfin’s kids were marching, well, high-stepping, down the hall, in near-perfect line, each child with the fingers on each hand clasping one of their own ears, and pulling. Every kid had a tongue out, and every kid was in full glory of making their most ever-so-wicked face. In a day, Mrs Sutfin’s gang became a class. No one ever tried to discipline her again. They started to read. 

Antennas Up! The Author's Chair

Henry Miller, not a kids' author, was once asked how he wrote. "I just put up my antenna and I write what comes through." Many writers talk about similar experiences. Every kid is an author. Every kid is an audience. Ann Henry, a longtime Detroit educator, put that all together and came up with an Author's Chair, one higher than all the rest, from which the child writers could declaim. She told her fifth graders Miller's story, but as I remember it she changed his name. When it came time for a reading, the shout went, "Antennas up!" Then quiet settled in as the author proudly set out on her writing, in full voice.


Ken Macrorie, in his book Twenty Teachers, lists 45 characteristics of people, enablers, who teach well (p.231). Here I will paraphrase  XXX that stood out for me. Enablers....
1. Get people doing good work that counts for them and the people they care about.
2. Work along with the learners, and make their work public.
3. Aim high.
4. Don’t tediously lecture or give conventional tests, but set up dialogues that link experience and theory, practice and research, understanding that learning can build on failures as well as success.
5. Build on imaginative work through storytelling.
6. Urge people to become creators of their own research, responsibly, so the become finders as well as receivers in seeing the connections, the relationships, of (for example) emotion and reason, the particular and the general, playfulness and planning, the individual and the group. 
7. Are never cruel, yet rarely praise excessively, while they offer time to complete the work through polishing, reflection, and reexamination. 
8. Link classroom practice with the world outside.
9. Create communities where peers can profit from and build on the work of peers, using grades, if at all, in ways that least interfere with the intrinsic desire to learn.
10. Never deny learners their lives, and let them go when the time has come. 

I have always found the kindness that forms the skeleton of Macrorie’s work to be valuable. I hope you will find time to review his books. 

The Real Map and Standpoint

What should a map really look like. There are several maps which seek to reestablish how we see the world, some by demonstrating the true size of nations, others showing the topography without boundaries, others showing the entire world in a triptych. Have the kids make a map, but suggest that their view point is a small island in the southern hemisphere. Which way will be up?

Newspapers or Newscasts about an Area of Study

My favorite of this is a "Coal Miners Journal" done by a teacher in the Copper Country in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The kid-written paper reported on every imaginable aspect of life there in the 1890's. Women wrote their stories, men wrote of the mines and their work.

Beginning Wherever and Webbing

All things are interrelated, including all historical events. It really doesn't matter where you begin, so you may as well begin at the point of the student's interest, your interest, or the interest you create in the students. For example, you could start a history web with the Tyson Bites the Ear Fight in 1997. All of history came to that point and met itself. The fighters, two young black men, earning millions in exchange for a punchy future, squared off in a ring. On the floor of the ring is written, "Gold." The audience is truly multi-cultural, as the rich are these days. On one arm, Tyson has a tattoo of Mao. On the other arm, Arthur Ashe. Tyson claims to be a Muslim. His opponent is a devoted Christian. The ring referee is a real Nevada judge, who now has his own TV show. The state is represented in the ring by white sheriffs who invade the ring after Tyson is disqualified. Tyson, already a convicted felon, hits a cop, but nothing happens. Ah, the power of money. An auto worker who did much less than that in October 2000  in Detroit, is dead, shot by the Detroit Police when he did not hear them order him to drop a rake he was using to clean his yard. He was deaf.  An auto worker who did much less than that in October 2000 in Detroit, is dead. The sole representation of a woman in the ring is a bathing suited round-number carrier who, in the midst of a near riot in the ring as the fight ends, walks through the crowd with her number held high-and the crowd parts like the Red Sea. A web into all of history could start with the video of this fight, or any other moment that captures your attention.

Webbing is easy. Start with a central issue that offers interest and motivation. This can be drawn with a central circle with many spokes. Then allow students to pick related subjects which may reveal something new or interesting about the initial issue. In the Tyson fight case for example, someone might do a biography of Arthur Ashe. Someone else might do Mao, etc. Arrange for regular research reports so students can keep their eyes on the commonality of knowledge as it develops. 

Quicky Theater

Tell the kids that they are going to do a quicky (guerrilla) theater presentation. They have three to five minutes to get a few key points across. Say they want to go to a shopping center to urge people to boycott smoking, but they know the center will remove them very quickly. They need to discover a way to get attention fast, to make their point graphic, to use their bodies to get the point across, etc. See the book on the IWW, "Rebel Voices, an Anthology," for some good examples. Skip Chilcoate has also done important work on this. See the indexes of the magazine, "Social Education, " linked to the National Council of the Social Studies on my www page.

Dialectical Scientific Evidence

Social studies research is partisan. Some authors will insist the will of God is the determining force in social movements. Hence, faith is good evidence for them. Others say that things change in precise, lock step fashion, one piece of history leading to the next, in mechanized fashion. Still others say that nothing really changes. For me, history is a spiral, perhaps crossing back over itself from time to time, but never reproducing anything quite the way it was before. Things do change, but change is complex. You need to know where you stand on this debate. Here is a little chart that may help:

Play APBA, Make History

APBA is not an acronym. It is the sole name of a statistically accurate baseball game. It uses data from real ballclubs throughout history, real players, etc. It can be played with dice, or online-at a price. Old games like this are all over garage sales, not hard to find. Sports are a good way into the social studies. Consider the Black Sox scandals as a study of injustice. Kennesaw Mountain Landis, once the commissioner of baseball, was deeply involved in politics and, as a judge, oversaw the first major anti-trust suit against Rockefeller's Standard Oil (Rockefeller was so boring, Landis could not pay attention). Jim Bouton's, "Ball Four," nearly inverted the baseball world. Ty Cobb was a despicable racist. Sadaharu Oh may have been Japan's greatest players and wrote one of the greatest books on the game. Here is a link to an unsung hero, Curt Flood: Satchel Paige kept the faith alive despite incredible oppression. Hank Greenburg was a great player, and a great man. Keeping data on an APBA season may be the only way you will find to involve some kids in recording history. Why not? One good way in: the book, "Baseball Saved Us." You can look it up.

Taking it Personally

Have kids write about a historical event from the eyes of a person, who they choose, who is there; a diary from a southern soldier about to go on Picket's Charge at Gettysburg for example. This is what I see in front of me. This is what I feel. This is why I am here and am about to go do what I must do. This is what I am holding, wearing, etc. This is my fear, and my quandary.

Mentoring the Mentors

Link with another teacher, or do multi-grade work, in which older kids buddy through the year with younger kids, or kids who have other skills. The internet expands this possibility, sharing books, ideas, etc. It takes not long at all for kids to learn that one good way to deepen knowledge is to teach.

Move from the Cover to the Book

Social studies is not a collection of facts or events, but a process of research that involves many different disciplines, each of which sheds varying kinds of light on similar events. Research in the social studies, and in science, is an effort to move from appearance to essence, from superficial understandings to deeper knowledge. Most of that movement is produced by an interaction of theory and practice, rebounding back on and recreating one another. In many US classrooms, the focus is on appearance. The devotion to superficiality is caused, partly, by a factory model of schooling which resists work in depth, concentrates on quantity rather than quality.

Let us take the study of flags for example. In many classrooms, flags are used unquestioningly, addressed as facts, not problems; fixed objects with no contentious history, not multi-dimensional symbols that mean very different things to different people. Take the US flag. Early elementary kids chant at it, hands placed for some reason on their hearts, or, in the case of the Scouts (a problem too), in full salute. Many little kids have no idea what they are hooting, as Matt Grogan has humorously shown in his wonderful cartoon book, School is Hell. "I pled a jean-size to the flag of de Un-seated fates of Demonica..." In other classrooms (a phenomena growing thankfully more rare) kids memorize flags and stick little pipe-cleaner flag symbols into world maps.

Consider otherwise. Here is the US flag. Now, part of this class will be young black men about to be drafted to go to Vietnam in 1966. Here is what Muhammad Ali said you should do. Another part of this class will be a Vietnamese woman, in Hanoi, in the same era. Another group will be Richard Nixon, planning a comeback, and yet another can be Henry Kissinger. Will they all be seeing the same flag? Now, ask the students to look up the flag of the National Liberation Front.

The move from appearance to essence recognizes that book covers, appearances, are important, but insists that there is more inside to be seen and known.  This interplay is also rooted in the idea that you will be sufficiently open, humble,  to change you mind if your theory and practice contradict one another. 

The History of Me-and Grandma

The best video I have seen, bar none, is an eight year old girl interviewing her grandmother about her trip from Germany to the US in 1939. Why did you leave Grandma? What does that word mean? Was it hard for you to leave your friends? Could you bring your favorite things with you? How did you go? I have a map; can you show me? As Linda Levstik shows in great detail in her fine book, Doing History, family interviews like this show kids their spot in the historical frame, and demonstrate that everyone makes history. The videos, if your community has the resources for them, become priceless family treasures-not a bad move for a teacher. Be aware that there will be kids who cannot do this. Grandma may have been a Nazi, Dad may be dealing amphetamines. So, offer alternatives. Interview someone, maybe a family person, but someone. The bus driver may be just as interesting.

Hunter Scott and the Sinking of the Indianapolis 

Study deep. That’s the ticket. Here’s a story. Hunter Scott was a sixth grade kid living in Pensacola, Florida.  In 1985 he watched the film, “Jaws,” with his father. In the movie, you may remember, the grizzled shark-killer captain reminisces about his experience on the battleship Indianapolis in WWII in early 1945. The captain describes the sinking of his ship and four days of terror in the waters as survivors, under persistent shark attack, struggled to stay afloat. Hundreds of men died. 

Scott, having been assigned a history project, asked his father if the story was true. His father said he thought it was. So Scott placed a small ad in a local Navy paper, seeking to interview survivors of the Indianapolis tragedy. 

He got one response from a survivor who not only described the horror, but who told Scot that the captain of the ship had been unjustly court-martialed for the tragedy. The allegation of the court martial, the only one of its kind after the war, included testimony from the captain of the Japanese sub, who reported that the Indianapolis had not been zig-zagging. The captain was blamed for everything.

Then began Scot’s pursuit of the truth. After several months of work, Scot reached many other survivors who all told the same story. In time, Scot learned that the captain had been scape-goated by a sizeable group of admirals and commodores. They had not directed a zig-zag course and, more, they were trying to protect the fact that Allied Forces had broken the Japanese codes. In fact, moreover, the captain had been zig-zagging, but as dense darkness fell, he chose to order a straight course, suggesting to the men on watch that they return to a jagged course when it became light. Around midnight, clouds suddenly cleared and the watchmen on the submarines spotted the Indianapolis and sunk it–in twelve minutes. 

But Scot found there was a deeper story still. The Indy had been delivering parts to the atomic bomb. When the ship was sunk, perhaps in order to maintain secrecy, the naval bosses knowingly turned their backs, as if the ship did not exist, and sent no rescue. The only reason the survivors were found was by sheer chance, a passing reconnaissance plane. 900 men were alive when the ship went down. Only around 300 were picked up.

The captain, wrongly convicted, was deluged with blaming letters from survivors’ families. He committed suicide, leaving a note, “I should have gone down with the ship.”

Scot pursued his action-research over years. Eventually he was able to gain congressional hearings which exonerated the captain. Scot was made an honorary survivor. Study deep. What you do counts

Here is a good link:


This combines math, research, language arts, all of the social studies, and surveys are sometimes very interesting. The National Student Research Center, online, has a great deal of material about this.

Nazi Hunters

Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, made his reputation tracking down Nazi war criminals, among them Adolph Eichman. Wiesenthal was initially marganalized, seen as a crank, as were many people like him who sought to expose the war criminals in their midst. Wiesenthal later built a fine reputation, based on solid action-research. He now hosts the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance near Los Angeles. Thousands of Nazi war criminals entered the US and the West after World War 2 (see "Blowback" by Christopher Simpson). Some of them were caught and deported by the US Office of Special Investigations. Others were not.

Tracking them can be interesting. Werner Von Braun, the leader of the US space program was one of them. Long dead, his history is worth a critique. So is the history of the fascist Romanian, Valerian Trifa, deported for being a fascist, after living for years as a bishop of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Even today, his followers are trying to wipe his slate clean. See:

The former head of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, was a wanted Nazi war criminal. Interpol, the international police organization, was founded by old Nazi’s. 

A young girl in Germany, in the late 1980's, decided to make her high school project a research into what her villagers had done during WW2. She believed their stories, that they had done nothing to help the Nazis, and that fascism was imposed on them from above. Her teacher urged her forward. The town's people called her, soon, "The Nasty Girl." A film was made about her travails. Now she lives in the US, driven out of her homeland. Similar work has been done in the US. For example, in Royal Oak, Michigan, a Catholic Church called the Shrine of the Little Flower, a towering edifice of the crucifixion, was built with money donated to the immensely popular, but fascist, Radio Priest, Father Charles Coughlin. "What did you do in the war, Daddy?" is sometimes a dangerous question.

Similar questions can apply to the US Civil Rights movement. “What did your hometown newspaper have to say about Rosa Parks the day after she sparked the bus boycott?” or the US invasion of Vietnam, “What did your paper say about bombing Hanoi, or Cambodia, or the Pentagon papers?”

Of course, one has to know who and what to look for, and to move judiciously to avoid a witch hunt, but such is history.

Paper Dolls to Theaters

Kids create paper dolls, or entire theater sets, to reflect the lives of characters of the times they study. Consider that they might do not only the fashion setters, but working people too.

Visit the VA Hospital

One way to contribute to the community, to demonstrate to students the results of war, and to start up what can be lifetime friendships is to take a class to the VA hospital nearby. There usually is one. The vets are usually pleased to meet visitors who come with appointments, and who have a plan. As with any out-of-school activity, this takes preparation. What kinds of questions would your students want to ask? How will you defeat voyeurism? Can some lasting connections be made? How are the vets being treated? Would you want to make this kind of sacrifice? 

Power and Geography in the Classroom

Until you have made a deal with the custodian, it is a good bet that every day you come to teach the chairs in your room will be in neat rows. Everyday you will need to think about the power of the institution in all of its normalcy, and wonder if you want to continue to swim upstream. Every day you and your kids should answer: Yes. It is not the swimming that is so hard. That just proves you are all alive. It is the remembering to swim that is hard, remembering that your vision is different.

Sitting in groups, where all can look at all, sets up power relationships that are at odds with traditional transmission teaching methods (I know, you don't, listen to me, read the textbook, because it is on the test). A collective geography demonstrates in concrete ways that power in your room is shared, not necessarily equally, but more democratically. It allows people to use their bodies to move around, to enter areas of the room that might offer space for class plays or a map area or a quiet reading area. Rather than a factory, where workers' knowledge is always under attack, the critical classroom is set up to test ideas in theory and practice-as individuals and as a group.

What Goes on Inside Your Brain?

Ask the kids if they have ever had a two sided conversation in their minds. "Well, if I do this, this will happen. But if you do, then other things will happen too." Most kids have. Ask them to write the inner dialogue of someone they are studying.

The Lewis and Carol Journal

Hey, wait! That was Clark, not Carol! Yes, but what if it was Carol, instead? What if women went along? Speculative retakes on history can always be interesting. What if Hitler had not perseverated at Stalingrad? What if Washington decided to be King, or if Custer had had the sense to get lost before the Little Big Horn, and run for president, or if the Communist Party USA had decided not to build the CIO? More interesting to me is to look in history to discover how Sacajawea has been treated over time. Each to his own. Flights into fantasy are not necessarily diversions.

After Dinner Conversations

Have the kids study a character in depth, and prepare to join other students in a role play of an after dinner conversation. These need not be from the same historical era. Wouldn't it be cool to see Einstein meet Tom Paine, Roseau, Mao, and Bakunin?

Plunk Your Magic Twanger, Froggie!

You may not remember the immortal Ghouldini of Parma, Ohio who introduced late-night monster movies on obscure tv channels. Your loss. The Ghoul, a tasteless reprobate wearing a fright-wig and sun-glasses with only one glass, was plagued by a plastic frog that would leap out from behind him and mock him from time to time (plunking his magic twanger) during the show. Froggie screaming, "Hi ya, Kids, Hi ya, Hi ya, Hi ya!" and exposing the Ghouldini as a fool. Invariably, at show's end, Froggie found himself being blown up by a cherry bomb in a toilet bowl-a sad end to a great Frog.

This is not something you should do with children. (And, actually the Ghoul stole the bit from a 50's tv serial). But the vaudeville routine can work well in classes. There are many vaudeville pieces that can be sources of inspiration, like the Abbott and Costello bit, "Who's On First?" available in video stores everywhere.

Setting up a Ghoul-Froggie bit, say, with a politician giving a speech about family values, can be plenty of fun. Think of William Clinton giving spiritual guidance to the Surgeon General he fired. Well, of course do not think about the substance of that interchange, but the form. It's the form that's the thing. Think of Froggie tormenting, say, Dan Quayle. You get the drift, right? Who gets to be Froggie?

Circle of Responders

Everyone needs a response to writing and research. No one wants to be kicked about for doing it. So, set up a circle of responders, perhaps a group of four, who share readings of each others' research work. One rule: note two good things for every criticism.

How Come That’s Funny?

You can start anywhere and go everywhere. For example, take a look at an old Harold Lloyd comedy. Is it still funny? How about an old Buster Keaton, a Charlie Chaplin, a Laurel and Hardy, an Abbott and Costello, then a Martin and Lewis? Then try a Beavis and Butthead, if you can get away with it, or a South Park. How come this stuff is funny, if it is? Has humor changed over the years? How? Why? What is the social context of Chaplin’s humor, or Lloyd’s? Is there a relationship between economic conditions and culture, or what is the cultural milieu of South Park? For me, it doesn’t undo fun to unravel it. For some it is. You choose. 

Every Trial is a Big Trial

It may be that the arena where citizens can use the widest range of real democratic rights (and conflict) in the US now is the court system. The Southern Poverty Law Center has used the courts to bankrupt the Klan. What many people see as jury nullification in the O.J. Simpson trial caused a national furor. The fact that two million people are now in US jails, the highest per capita in the industrialized world, and the fact that most of those people are poor and had dubious representation, would seem to indicate that questions of inequality penetrate the courts. Felons for life are sometimes bicycle thieves, while Michael Milken, who bilked retirees of millions, served a few days and is now a stock advisor.

There is an infinite variety of trials to investigate, possibly even reenact-and plenty of film and paper archives too. You might want to look at the trial of the Wirtz, Commander of Andersonville, a southern prison camp, at the end of the Civil War. Or the Nuremberg trials which used his conviction as a basis for charging Nazi war criminals with crimes against humanity at the end of WW2. You could look at the Florida trials of the El Salvadoran Generals, charged with abetting the torture and murder of nuns in their country during a US funded anti-communist operation, in November 2000, among the first so charged under an international law. Investigate the tragic trial of Joe Hill, an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, who was hanged after a trial in Utah in which the judge refused to allow him to fire his lawyer, who was pleading Joe guilty. Hill got the death sentence, but not before he wrote to a pal, "Scatter my ashes everywhere but Utah. I wouldn't want to be caught dead here."

Every trial is a big trial to those involved. Go look at the local court system in action. Be sure to see Small Claims Court, too. Or, if you get a ticket, take the kids. You could set up a system of redress for your classroom too; but beware, kids can be harsh. The abused tend to abuse.

Marionette Plays

This works well in encouraging cooperative group work. It sweeps across language arts, social studies, and encourages kids to see how stories work, in many ways. You can do this with shadow figures, using the light from an overhead projector, or with puppets the kids make themselves. Kids who pay attention to detail, or learn to, can do a lot with this.

Follow the Money

Civics is often taught as if it took place in a fairyland, where economics never stands at odds with politics, where exploitation has nothing to do with democracy, or imperialism has no connection to missionaries and the Peace Corps. Investigating what is going on in fairyland, from the school board to the state legislature, is often a fruitful classroom activity. Follow the money. get the contributions lists, the travel reports, the Rolodexes and the daily calendars and the announcements for future meetings. Looking for cross-pollination of corporate positions, one fellow (sic) will often sit on many-and the school board too. Make the natural unnatural. For example, remember that the reason there are bicameral legislatures is because the propertied feared democracy, at the earliest days of the US revolution.

Hey, What’s That Noise?

Taking away one of the senses is an interesting way to break, and create, enchantment. Take a tape recorder to a dairy farm, to a school, to a Kmart, to a social services office, a doctors’s office or hospital, a restaurant kitchen, a coffee shop, and make some tapes. Play them for the kids, and let them write a story about what they have heard. 

History of Fairlyland

Nope, Snow White is not safe from critique. 'Jack Zipes has transformed research on fairy tales from the superficial discussions of suitability and violence to the linguistic roots and socialization function of the tales. According to Zipes, fairy tales "serve a meaningful social function not just for compensation but for revelation: the worlds projected by the best of our fairy tales reveal the gaps between truth and falsehood in our immediate society."After Zipes, no one can view a Disney rendition with equanimity again.'

Have kids rewrite the tales, as they have been written by shifting social relations over time.

Story Ladders and Story Boards

By the second or third grade (never underestimate them) many kids can build a story ladder or story board. The latter are simply drawings of the key sequences in a reading. In advertising, a story board is usually one very large board, broken into smaller squares. In each square, a key part of the story is drawn, with related narrative or dialogue. Story ladders can be drawn, remarkably, like ladders, showing at each step, the title and author, the key characters, the setting, the situation, the problem and conflict, the resolution, and the reader's criticism.

Farmer Duck, the Story, the Book, the Plan, the Big Book

If you are unfamiliar with the kids’ book, Farmer Duck, go now to the library and read it. Then come back. Ready? So, you have read the Duck, what some call the Communist Manifesto for kids. Now, how might we expand on that, or any kids story, in a classroom? Well, to demonstrate the many relationships of stories, history, storytelling, and student agency; try this:

First, tell your kids the story of Farmer Duck, that hero of all animaldom who had nothing to lose but their Lazy Old Farmer. Let the story flow, as it comes to you, from your memory of reading the book. Throw your self, your body, into it–and your voice and eyes and arms and legs. Then, have the kids discuss the story. What was this about anyway?

Now, take the book and read it to the kids, with all the expressiveness your denied stage-stardom can whomp up. Let the kids discuss this reading, noting that there are likely some differences with what you did in your storytelling. Now, show the kids the stroke of genius you prepared late last night, over that nasty cold cup of coffee: the print part of a big book (for older kids, just give them the blank pages of the big book). The print can be at the bottom of the pages of the big book, with probably 2/3 of the page blank, but lined if you can get it.

Ask the kids if they would like to make their own book, and illustrate it. The print part is already done, but there is a lot of work still to be done. There are illustrations for example, and choosing which way things will point, who will be represented, and how? If you can, get several groups of kids to work on different pages of the book. This will require that they at some point gather as a planning group and prepare the entire thing.

This will take some time, and struggle, but it makes a great video tape if you can detach enough time to do that as well. 

Critique Tyranny

The celebrations of patriotism in most classrooms are witless. Nevertheless, most social studies educators gesture to the American Revolution as a source of inspiration. Unfortunately, under the lead of groups like the National Council for the Social Studies, the history of the bloody uprising against the King is muted by present-day calls to obey the law (part of the MCSS’ “core democratic values” in Michigan) and to promote the national interest. Lost in all of that is the critique of tyranny that was the ideological base motivating masses of people who risked their lives and homes to kill the British. (It is worthwhile to note that nearly the entire body of African-American leaders of NCSS quit the group in 1997, when, in a national meeting, the executive director of NCSS said, “This organization is not going to be diverted by trivial questions about racism and sexism when we have critical business to conduct.”)

Aristotle, who believe that elites alone deserved the benefits of democracy, still  addressed tyranny as a person,"responsible to no-one and who governs all alike with a view to his own advantage and not of his subjects, and therefore against their will. No free man can endure such a government." (From the Politics.) Aristotle’s early complaint, and its contradictions, still linger. 

The critique of tyranny begins, at the same time, in two places: criticism of religious tyranny (absolute rule often girded by violence-- frequently a velvet glove over an iron fist) and criticism of the denial of property rights. In revolutionary US society, the critique of property was aimed at the monarchy–but spilled over into complaints about human rights as well, like the right to not be kidnaped and forced into the monarch’s navy. 

On the one hand, people have consistently asked of their world, “Isn’t there more than this?” and responded to themselves that whatever more there might be must be in another world. Then an apostolic few offered to interpret just how to get to that other world, for a fee, and set up nearly impassible (often expensive) hurdles to make it. Along came critics, like Hegel, who analyzed in depth the alienation of people from nirvana, the ways people are set apart from not only the ways to understand and struggle toward god, but from god him/herself. Hegel looked very carefully at the processes that history demonstrated, in his view, that moved people closer and closet to god, stripping the power of the priests. He was examining, not only the reality of God, for him, but the ways history moves systematically to bring people closer to God.

On the other hand, people have also objected, in revolutionary ways, to the material oppression that rises from inequality, rooted in unjust property “rights,” (usually more precisely inheritance rights.) Marx was a scholar of religion who applied the religious critique of alienated being to the material world. He was able, then, to take Hegel’s analytical scheme called dialectics (the study of change) and apply it to the material world. This did more than turn Hegel upside down, it really was more like turning a balloon inside out. For Marx, then, was able to ask, “Why are we separated, alienated, estranged, from the central activity of our lives:work? Why do people have less and less control over the processes of our labor, nearly no control over the products we make, and the more we do this, the more we enrich the few people who profit from this great scam.” In brief, Marx was yelling, “Fraud!” at both the Pope and the Rockefellers. Bertell Ollman has a nice short explanation of this:

The dual approaches to criticizing tyranny influenced the great American revolutionaries, from Thomas Paine to Tom Jefferson, and all in between. It was Jefferson, remember, who was calling for the Tree of Liberty to be regularly cultivated with the blood of tyrants. To make the revolution, it was vital to motivate masses of peasant farmers with rhetoric about equality and democracy, much of it heartfelt, even if it came from slave-owners. (When one considers property rights a key component of equality, one can rather easily believe that slaves, who are property, should have no democratic rights).  However, when voting rights or democracy (not the same thing) have confronted property rights in the US, democracy usually lost. That is the reason for bi-cameral legislatures, the electoral college, and elaborate voter registration procedures. The history of the Voting Rights Act ( is a history of this struggle. It is a telling fact that democratic rights do not exist, for the most part, at work.

An interplay of property rights and democracy is illustrated by Henry David Thoreau’s comment, “Political democracy is said to be the arena on which the battle of freedom is to be fought; but it surely cannot be freedom in a merely political sense that is meant. Even if we grant that the American has freed himself from the political tyrant, he is still the slave of an economic and moral tyrant.” 

Now, how can all of this apply to a student in a US school in the new 21st century? Rather than take this up as a distant historical memory that applies to no one but people with flintlocks, perhaps we can address the problem as a problem. and to bring all of the illuminating parts of the social studies (history, geography, economics, political science, psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc.) to bear on it, each offering an new insight. For example, to see that there are answers in history that deal with real questions in school today, examine the relationship of the King to the Colonist and the Principal and the Student Government. (For a fine history of the property/democracy struggle in the US, see Staughton Lynd’s Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, and Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution.) 

We can use the tools of psychology to answer the question: “Why is it that so many people do not notice injustice, and are willing to promote it?” (Consider working class Nazis). Economics, the study of the creation and ownership of value (a key struggle of democracy, humanness and property), can assist in discovering not only where value comes from, but also why it is that so few possess so much of it. Political science can address the problem: “Why have government? Where does it come from? Is the government neutral, or a weapon of those who hold power/property?”

Double Dog Dare Ya
Unasked Classroom Questions

Here are some starter questions that few teachers are willing to ask in serious ways.

  • What is it to be free?
  • Are we free? Are we free at work, at school, at play? If we are not free: What would we need to know, and how would we need to know it, in order to be free?
  • Are there people among us who appear to be much more free than others? If so, what is it that makes them different? What do they have in common, worldwide?
  • Who is less free? What elements do they have in common?
  • Is freedom achieved through isolation, or friendly connections with other people?
  • If we are not free, in part because we are isolated from each other, often in ways that we do not see (the normalcy of segregated schooling), then what might we do to be more free?

These questions rise from the Critique of Tyranny. This critique has been applied to every society, ever since the first food surpluses made inequality possible, and it became possible to make an argument that separation from others might be a good thing--in contrast to early societies where those who behaved the most collectively survived longest and best. The critique was the interrogation of domination that, in ideas, forged the US revolution. It is absent from most social studies textbooks.

The Critique of Tyranny leads to a question that can be asked of any society, to judge it: How does this society treat the majority of its citizens, invariably the workers, or slaves, i.e., the common citizens, over time? This reasonable question sweeps aside the notion that poisons conservative forms of postmodernism, which insist that there really is no rational way to judge any society, that one society or social movement or idea might be as good as the next, that all is mere viewpoint and, at the end of the day, maybe Mussolini was not such a bad guy after all.

Are teachers willing to ask these questions to students in their classrooms, not of abstract distant societies, but of their condition inside school? My experience is that most teachers are not willing to seriously pose the issue, in fear of lack of control.

Psychiatrist Robert Kaye says students in the world's classrooms are not free, using a metaphor that suggests that compulsory attendance laws make them "incarcerated." This would be a good place to start. Are we here because we want to be here?

Indeed, many teachers will insist that they live in a free society. But they will also agree that they cannot probe the question of freedom in school, or really speak their minds. The Bill of Rights, for example, stops at the door of most work places.

Here are some questions that students can work out themselves to, perhaps, better understand the foundation of most societies throughout history: The Master-Slave Metaphor.

In A Master-Slave Relationship:
  • What does the Master want?
  • What does the Slave want?
  • What must the Master do?
  • What must the Slaves do?
  • How do Masters Rule?
  • How do Slaves resist?
  • What does the Master want the Slaves to know?
  • What does the Slaves want the Master to know?
  • What does the master want the slaves to believe?
  • What does the slave want the master to believe?
  • Is truth the same for the Master as it is for the Slaves?
  • Who has the greater interest in the more profound truths?
  • What mediates the relationship of the Master and the Slaves-both in theory and practice?
  • What elements within this relationship, as it exists, provide clues to how the relationship might be changed?
  • How will the slaves get from what is, to what they think ought to be, without relying on magic?
  • What will the Masters do in response to the struggles of the slaves?
  • Is it possible to end the relationship of Masters and Slaves, or are people trapped within this forever?
  • If people are not trapped in the Master-Slave relationship permanently, and if they should actually overcome it, what will preserve their common freedom?


On Tyranny, by Leo Strauss (the classic in the field)

History and Science for Boys and Girls, by William Montgomery Brown (early success of friendly connections, written in 1931)

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel

Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx (and all of the rest of Marx's work)

Alienation by Bertell Ollman (why we are estranged from one another and how we might reason our way out).

The Politics of Obedience, the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, Etienne De La Boetie

On Mussolini as a Kinder, Gentler, Fascist, see the New York Times, 9/28/02 A17


Form can impact how people feel about content. So can familiarity. The British felt they had to call their new tank squads "cavalry." Four-squares is a game kids play in California. Here, it is something else. Four-squares are just a piece of paper folded so it has four sections, fold in half, then fold again. Instead of asking the kids to write three paragraphs on whatever, ask them to make a book, a four-square, and in one section write their name and topic heading, what they did or analyzed on the second, what they ascertained on the third, and how they savor that on the fourth. It's a diversion, artificial, but it seems to offset, "Do we gotta to do this?"


This is a tactic that creates a small group within the whole, a small group on display. Circle a relatively small group of students with the remainder of the class. Leave an open chair or two. The interior group is tasked to engage a discussion about a given topic, while observers can move in and out of the smaller group by briefly occupying the vacant chair(s). Another way to do this is to have the class, in small groups, raise questions and take positions about a controversial issue, and then send delegates into the interior group for a discussion. 

The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

Steve Biko, the South African activist who was murdered by the apartheid regime while he was in custody, said that. The next paragraph is from David Barsamian, a historian. 

He’s quite accurate. Most oppression succeeds because its legitimacy is internalized. That’s true of the most extreme cases. Take, say, slavery. It wasn’t easy to revolt if you were a slave, by any means. But if you look over the history of slavery, it was in some sense just recognized as just
the way things are. Well do the best we can under this regime. Another example, also contemporary (its estimated that there are some 26 million slaves in the world), is women’s rights. There the oppression is extensively internalized and accepted as legitimate and proper. Its still true today, but its been true throughout history. That’s true in case after case. Take working people. At one time in the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, a hundred a fifty years ago, working for wage labor was considered not very different from chattel slavery. That was not an unusual position. That was the slogan of the Republican Party, the banner under which Northern workers went to fight in the Civil War. Were against chattel slavery and wage slavery. Free people do not rent themselves to others. Maybe you’re forced to do it temporarily, but that’s only on the way to becoming a free person, a free man, to put it in the rhetoric of the day. You become a free man when you’re not compelled to take orders from others. That’s an Enlightenment ideal. Incidentally, this was not coming from European radicalism. There were workers in Lowell, Mass., a couple of miles from where we are. You could even read editorials in the New York Times saying this around that time. It took a long time to drive into people's heads the idea that it is legitimate to rent yourself. Now thats unfortunately pretty much accepted. So that’s internalizing oppression. Anyone who thinks its legitimate to be a  wage laborer is internalizing oppression in a way which would have seemed intolerable to people in the mills, lets say, a hundred and fifty years ago. So that’s again internalizing oppression, and its an achievement.

What might that have to do with teaching, the struggle over what people know and how they come to know it? 

Rewriting Textbooks

If you lack the power to throw out the textbook, rewrite it with the kids. Let assigned groups of kids review particular sections of the text, review what is said, and how it is said, and apply good question to what is going on (see questions for criticism on my www page). Then let the groups report out, and rewrite the book.

Culture Jammin’

An appreciative “Thanks,” to Bill Boyer for this one, in sincere hope that he gets tenure. Culture jammin’ inverts, turns inside-out,  cultural artifacts like Joe Camel ads, or Coke ads, or your choice from the deluge that is poured upon children in school. For example, take any kids magazine and give students the opportunity to hold it up to ridicule by creating their own counter-advertisements which they may be able to post around the school–even for a moment. One group of students focused on how Joe Camel might look with skin cancer, and did some art work to accompany their effort. The called him “Joe Chemo.”Another group did some poster- ads for the cafeteria food, which you can imagine. Yet another examined the relationship of Coke (which had a contract with their school) and tooth decay, and did some graphic counter-advertising about that. The possibilities for extensions are limitless. 
Informational Picketing
This is less risky than it sounds, but it is wise to know your community. Informational picketing can be in favor or something, or against it. "Clean the wetlands,"or, "Don't die, don't smoke," etc. Show the kids how to make a placard or picket sign, assuming the background research is done, etc.

Sham Interviews

Kids seem to love this, especially the precocious pre-Barbara Walters set. Kids then need to do background research on their characters, and to create great questions to make the interview go forward. See also, the CBS Edward R. Murrow series, "You Are There." This was one of the most popular TV news programs in history. Murrow's commentary eventually was key to the ruin of fascist Senator Joe McCarthy. Take a look at his work as a guide superior to Walters'.

Reification is Forgetting

Reification is turning a human construction into an uncriticized icon, allowing what seems to be normal to limit investigation–and then allowing that normalcy to become oppressive.  A high-point of reification might be a plastic Jesus, a human construction which not only locates a better world in death, but offers strict rules of normalcy in life. But here are two better examples: 

As I write here in San Diego, California is in the midst of a series of power blackouts that have stretched across the state for two weeks. Predictions are that the outages will continue for a year–in the richest state of the richest country in the history of the world. Mainstream press reports limit the exploration of this crisis. On the one hand, they fail to investigate where it is energy-power  comes from (the combination of all the inter-related process of the natural world; water power for example) and on the other hand, they ignore the interconnection of natural forces  with labor and technology (the Hoover damn and publicly funded research) going back hundreds of years.  Normalcy, then, eliminates the idea that electricity is the product of natural forces that it makes no more sense to privately own than air, and eliminates the history of labor and struggle that rationally cannot be possessed by a few. It is “normal” that electricity should be owned. Normalcy forgets. A teacher’s task is to assist others in remembering, and to create the wonder that goes along with knowing that somebody wants things forgotten–or gains from forgetting. There are plenty of history texts that explain the background of the crisis, beginning with Carey McWilliam’s classics. They don’t turn up in the San Diego Times Union. 

Consider the grocery store in an urban area. How come it looks like that–a huge parking lot with a building set far back from the street and sidewalks–hundreds of square yards of space that could be profitable simply lost to auto storage? The answer is in history, a history I thank my friend Paul for helping me to re-see.

Grocery stores are, like all businesses, there to make a profit. The struggle over their profits has been intense. Consumers want lower costs and sometimes shop competitively. Suppliers want their piece. The work-force in a grocery store has some advantages in controlling their work place: the employer cannot completely leave, go to the third world, although the employer can go to the suburbs. The routes into and out of the grocery store can be somewhat controlled by workers if, for example, unity can be built between the Teamsters who deliver goods, and the Food Workers who work in the store. This explains why, in California and Michigan for example, grocery workers remain unionized in an era of union collapse, and why, where the unions have resisted, they are fairly well-paid.

But why the geography of the modern grocery store with that huge parking lot? Well, of course there is our society’s reification of the automobile, which became the normal mode of transportation in only the last fifty years. But there is a deeper reason. The parking lot does not have to be where it is. It could be behind the store, with the storefront on the street. But it could not be there if the employer wanted to be sure to be able to control entrances and egresses, on the chance of employee picketing, informational or otherwise. The reason for the geography of the grocery store is an intersecting history of the struggle of workers, bosses, and modern transportation, a history that needs to be noticed, and remembered.

Now, why does your school look like that? 

We Gotta Get Outa This Place

There is no particular reason to be trapped in a school. Teachers have bargained all kinds of long-term moves elsewhere. For example, you might be able to turn a problem of school overcrowding into a good thing: suggest that your classroom be moved to a local museum for the year. Spending a year wandering around a museum with some reasonable guidance ratchets up kids vocabulary, world view, sense of history, and their literary skills. You could also move to a library, using their community rooms, or to a gym. A year out of ‘school’ can create a better kind of schooling. See the records of the Schools in The Park program in San Diego. 


This is an art. The way to people's minds is through stories. Much of Christian organizing is based on this thesis. Storytelling should involve the soul and the head, as does everything, but more obviously so. Have the kids story board (chart out) a story they choose, or one they make up. Invite a storyteller to class as a model (they are all over the place). Work on volume, eye contact, etc. Show' em the pictures!

Mock Legislative Hearings

Legislative hearings can demonstrate all the powers of interest groups, not just a debate between senators, and should reflect not only the power of debate, but of the conflicting relationship between those who have the people and those who have the money. While mock is meant here to mean "play," parodies are always good. They require both a sound understanding of the point to be made, and humor. People will not laugh hard, though, unless they agree with the politics.

Duration Lines

Start with the kids lives. Let them construct the time lines of their lives, and make a length-chart of them. That means not only selecting important events, but deciding how much space those events will be allocated. Go home and discover ten things that happened to you since you were born-and when they happened. Then work with them to chart those events.

Fly Me to the Moon 

Most nine-year-olds probably know more about astronomy than I do. Even so, there is no better way to show how the basics of geography work than by setting up the entire universe in your classroom. You can do the beginnings with just a few kids–and a little space after you clear away some desks.  Have one child be the sun, full of pulsating energy (do not pick the child who is already full of pulsating energy). Another kid is the earth, spinning and rotating around the sun. Another kid is the moon....and before you know it–space travel, longitude and latitude, and the transformation of the dinosaurs. Use you imagination. 

Surveying for Surveillance

This is like counter-spy vs spy. Children are under constant surveillance, more so in the US in the 21st century than ever before. The cameras, organized supervised games, metal detectors, stop-and-freeze-when-I-blow-the-whistle routines, daily reports, etc., are now part of normalcy. So, part of the job of social studies is to expose and unravel what is normal, and then wonder if it is. Have the kids take a look at who is watching them, when, how, and why. Wonder, do we really need to be so noticed, seen, heard, recorded? A geographical map of child surveillance can prove interesting. You peek at me. I peek at you. Surprise. Peek-a-boo. 
"I ain't the worlds best writer nor the worlds best speller,
But when I believe in something I'm the loudest yeller."
                                                  --Woody Guthrie (1950)
Blues shouting, chants-and-response, gospel choirs, Good Golly Miss Molly, folk singing, John Coltrane; all are signals of the unity of the mind and body, of sound and silence, of the affective and cognitive. And all have substance in political economy (what is the reason we now have color-coded radio stations and rating charts?), in the study of domination and the arts of resistance ("Follow the Drinking Gourd"), and the tenor of the times. No study of the twenties without jazz, no study of the sixties without the outrage of Little Richard, and one goes right to the other.

Consider the politics of, "This Land is Your Land, this Land is My Land," by Woodie Guthrie and ask if that is better than the current national anthem (there was a congressional debate about it). Songs have always been concerned with history and society, and reflected/recreated what they portray. Take for example the song, "Bread and Roses," This brilliant, moving, powerful song came out of the strike of women textile workers in Lawrence Mass, the first major strike in US history that was won. An investigation of the Bread and Roses strike, which leads to song writing, play writing, little newspapers, etc., could be a momentous class event. Here is a song:

Solidarity Forever
Written by Ralph Chaplin, Jan. 1915
Tune: "John Brown's Body"

When the Union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run, 
There can be no power greater any-where beneath the sun; 
But what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one? 
But the Union makes us strong! 
Sol-i-dar-i-ty for-e-ver, 
Sol-i-dar-i-ty for-e-ver 
For the Union makes us strong. 
Verse 2: 
Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite, 
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might? 
Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight? 
For the Union makes us strong. (CHORUS)
Verse 3: 
It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade; 
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid; 
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made; 
But the Union makes us strong. (CHORUS
Verse 4: 
All the world that's owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone. 
We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone. 
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own. 
While the Union makes us strong. (CHORUS
Verse 5: 
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn, 
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn. 
We can break their haughty power; gain our freedom when we learn 
That the Union makes us strong. (CHORUS
Verse 6: 
In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold; 
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold. 
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old 
For the Union makes us strong. (CHORUS)

Here is the Little Red Songbook:

Here is a song from eighty years later by Rage Against the Machine: 

War Within a Breath 

Every official that come in 
Cripples us leaves us maimed 
Silent and tamed 
And with our flesh and bones 
He builds his homes 
Southern fist 
Rise through tha jungle mist 
Clenched to smash power so cancerous 
Black flag and a red star 
A rising sun loomin over Los Angeles 
Yes for Raza livin in La La 
Like Gaza on to tha dawn Intifada 
Reach for the lessons tha masked pass on 
Seize tha metropolis 
Its you its built on 
Everything can change on new years day 
Everything can change on a new years day 
Everything can change on a new years day 
Everything changed on a new years day 
War within a breath 
Its land or death 
War within a breath 
Its land or death 
War within a breath 
Its land or death 
War within a breath 
Its land 
Their existence is a crime 
Their seat, their robe, their tie 
Their land deeds 
Their hired guns 
Theyre tha crime 
Shots heard underground round the rapture
Worlds eye captured 
At last is a Mexican pasture 
Tha masked screaming land or deathWithin a breath 
A war from the depth of time 
Shot four puppet governors in a line 
Shook all tha world bankers 
Who think they can rhyme 
Shot the landlords who knew it was mine 
Yes it's a war from the depth of time 
And everything can change on a new years day 
Everything can change on a new years day 
Everything can change on a new years day 
Everything can change on a new years day 
Wearin the masked scream 
War within a breath 
Its land or death 
War within a breath 
Its land or death 
War within a breath 
Its land or death 
War within a breath 
Its land or death 
Its land or death (whispered)
Cmon, cmon, yes, yes, yes 
Its war within a breath 
Its land or death 
War within a breath 
Its land or death 
War within a breath
Its land or death 
War within a breath 
Its land or death

Methods for Social Studies PAGE 1

Methods for Social Studies PAGE 3

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