What is the purpose of Social Studies? If we reflect back on what class was like when we were in school, we might assume the purpose was to memorize as many facts about history as possible. However, our experiences have led us astray from the true purpose of this interdisciplinary course. Here in Alberta, the program rationale (2005) states that Social Studies has  “at its heart the concepts of citizenship and identity” and that it “promotes a sense of belonging and acceptance in students as they engage in active and responsible citizenship at the local, community, provincial, national and global level.” In many ways, Social Studies is the most important subject in school as it aims to teach students how to live and thrive in a democracy.

When did we lose sight of the real purpose of Social Studies? What would it look like to bring it to life in the classroom?

Jodi Garagan and Katy Funtasz both work at Calgary Academy, a special education school in Alberta, Canada. Last year, they set out to bring the true purpose of Social Studies to life by collaborating on a project that asked students the essential question, “How can we empower our voices to evoke change in a democracy?

The Inspiration

Early on in the school year, Jodi joined a grade 6 team meeting and noticed a frustration shared by all the teachers in the group; their students were not enjoying Social Studies. As generalists, elementary teachers have a unique perspective into the student perception of all courses and Social Studies consistently came out on the bottom. For Katy especially, this was a huge motivation to try something different. She wanted her students to share her passion for this interdisciplinary subject. She wondered, “How are we going to, as educators, instill citizenship into our students? How are we going to leave them going into the world better than when they came to us?”

She wondered how to bring the true purpose of Social Studies back to life.

A Humanities Approach

The first step in designing the project was to determine which learning outcomes they wanted to focus on. It quickly became apparent that the English Language Arts outcomes were a means to create more active engagement with the Social Studies content. By pulling outcomes from both courses, the planning team embraced a Humanities mindset.

The goal for the project began to take shape. From the Social Studies lens, students would learn about the structure and function of local, provincial, and national government while recognizing how individuals and governments interact to bring about change (6.1.1, 6.1.2, 6.1.3). From the ELA lens, students would write a business letter to an elected representative about a current issue at the local, provincial or national level (4.1, 4.2, 4.3). Basically, content became the vehicle to develop the competencies of active citizenship and communication.

With clarity on the learning outcomes, the team could now explore how to design an engaging experience for their students.

Student Choice on Current Issues

Using the project-based learning (PBL) framework as their guide, it became imperative to ensure students were given voice and choice, a proven way to amplify student engagement. Also drawing from the PBL framework, Jodi, Katy and the grade 6 team decided to use current events as a means to increase the authenticity of the project. After scouring the headlines, the team landed on these four current events:

Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw – For the first time in a decade, the city of Calgary was looking for public input into this bylaw, particularly as it relates to citizens’ right to own livestock in an urban setting.

Renaming of Langevin School – A group of elementary students was asking the Calgary Board of Education to rename Langevin school as it was named after Hector Louis-Langevin, a father of confederation who was considered to be the architect of the Indigenous residential school system.

K-6 Draft Curriculum – Perhaps the hottest headline of the day, Alberta Education had just released a draft version of a new curriculum for K-6 students in Alberta to an outcry from teachers and parents alike particularly in response to the Social Studies curriculum that over-emphasizes “core knowledge” at the expense of 21st-century skills and developmentally inappropriate topics like Gengis Khan for grade 2 students.

Quality of Water on Indigenous Reserves – In 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau expressed a commitment to remove all boil-water advisories from First Nations’ reserves in Canada, and yet, 60 still remained in effect as of November 2020. An auditors review of this issue revealed that the Canadian government is constrained by an outdated funding policy.

Students were introduced to all four topics through a jigsaw protocol before finally deciding on the issue they wanted to learn more about. To deepen their understanding, students researched the issue before engaging in a visible thinking routine called “Circle of Viewpoints” to build empathy with multiple perspectives on the issue. Students’ imaginations were ignited as one explored boil-water advisories from the perspective of a flash wound, while another looked at curriculum reform through the eyes of their parents.

Engaging an Authentic Audience

Once students had demonstrated a deep understanding of their issues, as well as their opinion on the matter, they were ready to write to their elected representatives and use their voices to enact change. They carefully crafted their language through multiple revisions, but then their teachers had one more trick up their sleeves to support the students in engaging their honorable audience even more. Drawing on her past experience designing a digital storytelling unit for a junior high Language Arts class, Jodi suggested that the students bring their letters to life through a multi-modal presentation that includes their voices reading the letter over a slideshow of images and an instrumental track. The recipients of these letters would be invited to view the digital stories through a QR code.

To share their letters and digital stories with an even wider audience, the students also participated in a (socially distanced) celebration of learning where their parents and peers were invited to do a “gallery walk” of their letters, using the QR codes to view the digital stories on their own devices. Post-its were provided for the guests to leave feedback for the students and many expressed that they had never heard of these issues and felt compelled to explore them further themselves.

Now, not only were students driving change by writing to elected officials, but also by sparking learning and awareness in their own community.

Re-affirmed and Unexpected Learnings

As an instructional coach in a special education context, Jodi has always believed that when we set high expectations for all students it compels us, as educators, to ensure the support is in place to ensure every student meets those expectations. Also, that engagement thrives when students are given voice and choice. This project affirmed those things as every single student made the sunny afternoon walk to the mailbox to send their letters and each experienced a passion for their issue that extended beyond the confines of the project. In fact, as the neverending news cycle continued to offer new information about these issues, students would continue to engage actively with these stories and want to discuss them both in class and over the dinner table.

For Katy, an unexpected challenge of the project presented her with one of the most significant learnings about the outcomes she was exploring with her students. Since she had been intentional about ensuring her students explored all sides of the issues, some of them landed on opinions that stood in stark contrast to her own. Teachers often get accused of inserting their own biases into their instruction, but this is rarely the case. Instead, Katy honored their perspectives and instead focused on how they might express those opinions as an engaged and responsible citizen.

“The takeaway for me was that we were successful in teaching them how to have a controversial opinion, but still be kind, respectful, empathetic, and evidence-based.”

As of yet, no students have heard back from the officials they wrote to. However, their newfound passion for Social Studies lives on.


Significant Quotes:

“How are we going to, as educators, instill citizenship in our students? How are we going to leave them going into the world better than when they came to us?”

Katy Funtasz

“I think it’s the most important subject in school as it’s truly teaching our students how to live, and how to be citizens, and how to not just survive, but thrive in a democracy.”

Jodi Garagan