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Use the Standards to Teach Skills in Elementary School!

The elementary perspective regarding the Common Core State Standards and teaching history is unique, because there are no specific Common Core Standards for social studies content at the elementary level. Instead these standards are addressed, rather vaguely, in the Reading and Writing standards. Because there is no specific, prescribed content for American History teaching at the elementary level, it is difficult to interpret the intent of the CCSS regarding this particular subject area.

it is difficult to interpret the intent of the CCSS regarding [American History teaching at the elementary level].

Traditionally the role of elementary education is to meet the foundational educational needs of students. They must gain the skills base for reading, writing, and math in order to expound their knowledge base. The idea of what is attainable and the efficiency of instructional approaches appropriate for this age has long been in dispute. However, elementary education is designed so content knowledge is acquired through skills-based instruction. The fact that the Common Core Standards are internationally benchmarked, and the elementary reading and writing standards contain provisions for analyzing historical documents provides a degree of structure that most educators at the elementary level will find advantageous. The existing 6th-grade Common Core history content standards can also be utilized to determine the foundational knowledge necessary for students to acquire by the end of 5th grade.

In the state of Colorado where I teach 5th grade, the state standard for social studies includes teaching American History (1491 to Revolutionary War). Following the provisions outlined in the Common Core Standards, primary sources are ideal materials for enhancing content knowledge, meeting language arts requirements, and encouraging an investigative instructional approach that also supports teaching 21st-century Learning skills. Because this approach is not a strict memorization of facts and dates, it also encourages the rigor and relevance so extensively promoted in current educational trends. I recently taught a unit on Christopher Columbus beginning with the essential question of whether or not we should continue to honor and celebrate this explorer. Utilizing both primary and secondary documents, students were able to analyze text and write an opinion essay supported by this documentation. The end result was not only an in-depth understanding of Christopher Columbus, but also the realization that history is perspective-based, and that historical stories change as more or revised documentation becomes accessible.

Quality education is about balance, and when teaching children we must give them the opportunity to stretch their understanding, challenging them to analyze, experiment, and make mistakes, while at the same time maintaining age-appropriate parameters. I appreciate that the CCSS is a fluid document, investigative by design–empowering students and encouraging higher order thinking. I believe that the standardized testing movement born from No Child Left Behind (NCLB), although well intentioned, has unwittingly resulted in such a narrow instructional focus as to mimic a factory assembly line regarding grade-level knowledge. In my view, the Common Core Standards maintain this balance while encouraging a broader base for instructional methodology than NCLB provides.