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Social Studies, Literacy, and Social Justice in the Common Core Classroom: A Guide for Teachers

reviewed by Timothy Lintner - February 07, 2014

coverTitle: Social Studies, Literacy, and Social Justice in the Common Core Classroom: A Guide for Teachers
Author(s): Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807754080, Pages: 168, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

For those outside of social studies education (e.g., parents, pundits, and often the students we teach), there is this persistent question of definition and utility: “What is social studies and why is it important?” One thing is for sure: social studies writ large suffers from an acute case of identity crisis. We in the field quickly counter such confusion by declaring that social studies promotes critical thinking through participatory engagement that ultimately leads to civic awareness and action. At its essence, social studies promotes the raising of hands—or voices—and taking a stand.

But how can teachers develop participatory, activity-based social studies in an era of reduced instructional minutes, high-stakes testing, and Common Core standards? Though there are presently no Common Core standards for social studies per se, there are history/social studies standards embedded within the English Language Arts standards currently in use. Given this, many educators are searching for ways to integrate Common Core literacy standards in and with social studies in K-12 classrooms.

Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath’s relatively thin but potent book links the teaching of social studies with Common Core literacy standards in an effort to promote responsive, reflective, and critical student thought and action. Specifically, Agarwal-Rangnath advocates the teaching of and for social justice in the social studies classroom. Though contextual and often misunderstood, Agarwal-Rangnath defines such teaching as “a deliberate and intentional effort to know and understand students, manipulate curricular constraints, maintain high expectations for all students, and engage students in a critical pathway of learning” (2013, p. 4). In promoting social justice, she encourages teachers to integrate multiple historical perspectives into the social studies classroom, particularly those systemically marginalized or omitted from texts. She concurrently asks students to connect incidences of struggle and resistance in the global historical record to both their own lives and to the contemporary lives and experiences of others. Agarwal-Rangnath argues that a social justice pedagogy not only increases student engagement both inside and outside of the classroom, but supports the underpinnings of sound social studies theory and practice as well.

At its core, this book is intended for teachers who are looking for ways to incorporate Common Core literacy standards into their social studies classrooms. The book contains six chapters, each constructed around a central conceptual theme premised on tangible manifestations of sound social studies design and delivery. From Inspiring Wonder to Application to Facilitating Change, each chapter provides a theoretical and pedagogical springboard for creating standards-based learning opportunities grounded in social justice.

Each chapter includes specific literacy-based instructional strategies teachers can use to create engaging social studies learning opportunities for all students. Strategies include read alouds, literature circles, simulations, and letter and narrative writing. Agarwal-Rangnath also illustrates how simulations, guest speakers, visual literacy, field trips, and the performance arts can support literacy-based social studies instruction. Such strategies are simply sound social studies design. Agarwal-Rangnath does have her finger on the pulse of what good social studies is. Her ideas reflect current best practice in social studies education: an integrated approach that illuminates and enhances the civic participation of all students.

Laced throughout the book are examples of how K-12 teachers currently integrate Common Core literacy standards and social studies instruction premised on social justice ideals. For example, Agarwal-Rangnath relays how Sarah, a third-grade teacher, uses photographs of Ohlone elders to engage her students in a unit on Native Americans. Or how Jean, a fifth-grade teacher in San Francisco, uses a simulation to have her students “experience” the Trail of Tears. These teacher-to-teacher examples not only reinforce the concepts presented in the book, but provide accessible strategies teachers can readily implement within their own social studies classrooms.

Over and above providing rich and varied examples of sound, integrated social studies strategies and activities, virtually every strategy is correlated to an accompanying Common Core literacy standard. With social studies teachers struggling to connect these new standards to classroom practice, teachers will find this particular feature beneficial.  

Though providing linked Common Core literacy standards to key social studies strategies and activities will undoubtedly assist teachers, the same may not necessarily be said for the social justice ideology in which they are framed. In the field of social studies education, there is often a disconnect between theory and practice. As social studies educators, we challenge teachers to approach content from a critical perspective. We encourage the inclusion of marginalized narratives and overlooked contributions. Critical social studies is best practice. Yet, out of disinterest or a lack of content knowledge, there is, unfortunately, limited critical (i.e., social justice) social studies taking place in K-12 classrooms. Teachers seem more interested in addressing the standards—both state-level and Common Core—than assuring those standards are taught from a critical framework. At the end of the day, standards often trump strategies. Though Agarwal-Rangnath rightfully pushes teachers towards a critical representation of social studies content, for many, this ideological and practical shift towards a social justice pedagogy may be a bit too daunting to undertake.  

Though some teachers may not appreciate nor take advantage of the social justice perspective embedded in the strategies available to them, this book is, nonetheless, on the cutting edge of current research and practice within the field of social studies education. Scholarship has just recently delved into the relationship between social studies and the Common Core. There are scant resources that provide teachers with accessible, hands-on, classroom-based strategies that link the two together. This book will seamlessly fill the void. Appealing to both inservice and preservice teachers alike, the power and promise of this book rests in its utility to fuse Common Core literacy standards with social studies content, and to do so under the theoretical construct of social justice. Agarwal-Rangnath allows us to be responsive to the standards and, in doing so, be responsible for creating an engaging, critical, and participatory social studies classroom in which all students are encouraged to explore and to question.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 07, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17408, Date Accessed: 10/25/2021 12:05:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Timothy Lintner
    University of South Carolina, Aiken
    E-mail Author
    TIMOTHY LINTNER is Professor of Social Studies education at the University of South Carolina Aiken. His area of interest is the intersection between social studies and special education. His most recent publications can be found in the Ohio Social Studies Review, Social Studies Research and Practice, and Information Age Publishing. Dr. Lintner just completed a book (co-authored with Dr. Darren Minarik) titled Social Studies and Exceptional Learners for the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). He is presently researching pre-service special education majors teaching of social studies in inclusive classrooms as well as examining the perceptions and practices of general educators in teaching social studies to students with learning disabilities.
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