Special Women in My Life: Strategies for Writing Women into the Social Studies Curriculum

Article excerpt

Women have always been a part of history, but our society has not always recognized their contributions. (1) History textbooks, for example, largely portray women as passive bystanders in the world's events, with fewer than n percent of textbook images and references devoted to specific women. (2) A U.S. Congressional Resolution designated March as Women's History Month, noting that women helped found the nation in "countless recorded and unrecorded ways," contribute and have contributed to the nation through "critical economic, cultural and social roles," provide the majority of the nation's "volunteer labor force, have been particularly important in the establishment of early charitable, philanthropic and cultural institutions," and served as "early leaders in the forefront of every major progressive social change movement."

In spite of their significant contributions to United States history, women consistently are overlooked and undervalued in K-6 social studies textbooks and instructional resources. Family stories and community-based interviews provide a meaningful way to offset this deficit and bring women into the social studies curriculum. This article shares the rationale, planning strategies, and lessons from 2nd and 5th grade teachers' classrooms for implementing a women's history project using local input and resources.

Rationale for Women's History

The National Council for the Social Studies' fourth curriculum theme, Individual Development and Identity, points out that young students benefit from learning about how individual "family, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and institutional affiliations contribute to personal identity" and "influence perception, attitudes, values, and beliefs." (3) A thoughtfully planned local women's history project can document the experiences of a representative sample of women in students' own families or local communities. Projects that explore the experiences of recent immigrant or refugee women living in urban and rural areas, for example, are valuable because their contributions are absent from textbooks. Contributions of women who serve as caregivers of children, elders, or other adult family members with special needs often are overlooked.

Supplementing textbook content with family or community history projects motivates student learning by personalizing history and helping students see that they are a part of history. (4) In fact, young children learn historical content better when instruction focuses on students' own lives and the lives of their family members. (5) So, stories and experiences of families in the community represent legitimate sources of knowledge. (6) More important for children's learning is their intuitive sense of the past, which tends to be of a very personal nature. Children are most interested in themselves and their families, so students' ethnic and cultural backgrounds can provide fertile starting points for making personal connections with new social studies learning. (7) When teachers use strategies and plan lessons that build on prior knowledge by incorporating the child's own cultural learning and experiences, children are empowered. When children become participants in the history-gathering process, their thinking and reasoning skills improve, their academic achievement increases, their sense of self-worth is enhanced, and their curiosity is piqued. And if in the process, teachers portray history as experience instead of simply facts, children learn to value the personal aspects of history--an attitude that may help increase their abilities to make sense of the world around them. (8)

Barton and Levstik remind us that "all of us ... start with our own diverse social histories--the story of who we are as interpreted through the experiences of daily living, family stories, pictures and artifacts." (9) When teachers build on what children know, involve them in active investigations, and address historically accurate content, young students develop meaningful historical understanding. …

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