JAMES DELISLE STATES "social studies is only 'social' when we get involved with other people." He further explains, "States and regions mean very little unless we learn about the individuals who inhabit them, and nothing feels better than thanking or comforting a stranger." (1) The social studies curriculum for sixth graders involves learning about countries of the world; however, reading about locations, physical features, products, governments, and even lifestyles does not involve students personally unless they are able to reach beyond descriptions to become acquainted with people.
Today, following the tsunami disaster in South Asia, many opportunities exist for U.S. students to get involved with other people and to provide comfort. Yet years before this tragedy, such an opportunity presented itself for one sixth grade class when the island of Antigua, 1200 miles southeast of Miami, suffered invasive damage from Hurricane Georges in 1998. Food, clothing, and medical supplies were rushed to Antigua from international agencies, but no school supplies were shipped to the devastated schools. Ill equipped to begin with, the schools had lost everything except for their damaged structures and a few chalkboards, desks and chairs. The Press-Republican in Plattsburgh, New York, learned of the dilemma and contacted newspapers throughout the nation to ask if school classes would volunteer to "adopt" a class in Antigua. Daniel, a student teacher at the time in Provo, Utah, and one of the authors of this article, learned of the appeal and seized the opportunity to make social studies real and personal for his sixth grade class.
Outsiders might feel that the students in Daniel's class had little to give. At their school, 78 percent of the children are on free or reduced-price lunch, and 14 percent are legally homeless. Many are the children of migrant workers or are from other families new to the United States; 78 percent speak languages other than English in their homes, and a few years ago the school's turnover rate was more than 100 percent. Yet, despite such discouraging statistics, Daniel knew that by combining social studies with service his students could use the knowledge and skills they gained in school to help students whose struggles were greater than their own. He also knew his students would gain a new perspective on their relationship with less fortunate students as fellow citizens in a global community.
Ultimately students in the class were to do research reports on countries and cultures. To make the production of these reports a meaningful experience, students would need (1) to learn how to find information, and (2) to view that information as personally significant. Introducing the project to help Antigua gave Daniel a context for promoting both the skills and the motivation. He began by telling the class about the needs of the students in Antigua and explaining ways the class could help. He and the cooperating teacher were very enthusiastic; the students were interested and agreeable but not as excited in the beginning. As residents of the poverty district of a middle-class suburban community, many of the students viewed themselves as victims; helping other victims was a concept that did not come naturally for them.
Daniel introduced research methods by using the methods to learn about Antigua. He conducted research on the internet and on the Encarta encyclopedia program to learn about the history, geography and culture of the island. He prepared graphs that compared life in Antigua with life in the United States, including money, wages, education, climate, transportation, and more. During the next two social studies periods he presented the results of his research, along with some information he had received by e-mail from Antigua. As he shared the information, the students began to think about the lives led by the children of the island. They became enthusiastic, asking many questions and brainstorming with Daniel on ways they could find out even more. …