June 11, 2011
In recent years, shifting priorities have narrowed the role of social studies in certain learning contexts. Since the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), one of its unintended consequences was the omission of social studies from its accountability system, resulting in the narrowing of instruction in underperforming elementary schools (Leming , Ellington , & Porter, 2003) . According to the National Council for the Social Studies, there has been a "a steady reduction in the amount of time spent in the teaching of social studies, with the most profound decline noticed in the elementary grades. In addition, anecdotal information indicates that many American children are receiving little or no formal education in the core social studies disciplines: civics , economics , geography, and history" (NCSS Position Paper, May 2007). As an instructor in a social justice-oriented teacher preparation program, this phenomenon significantly impacted my elementary social studies methods course. Asking my pre-service teachers to conduct field-based social studies assignments with their culturally and linguistically diverse English learners (CLDELs) often resulted in responses such as "My Cooperating Teacher tells me it is illegal to teach social studies," or "The principal told my Cooperating Teacher to only teach language arts and math, not social studies." My response was to tell my students to resist as these are very students who will benefit greatly from social studies as it is the curriculum that informs our future leaders about democratic principles, civics, and ways to be a change agent in our local communities and government.
Ironically, around the same time that NCLB was enacted, California voters passed Senate Bill 1984 establishing March 31 st as César Chávez Day of Service and Learning . Provisions of the bill were added to California Education Code Sections 37220-37223, advocating for K- 12 public school teachers in California to teach about the life and work of César Chávez. Two of those policies were as follows:
California Education Code 37220.5. The State Board of Education shall adopt a model curriculum guide to be available for use by public schools for exercises related to César Chávez Day.
California Education Code 37220.6. (a) There is hereby created the César Chávez Day of Service and Learning program to promote service to the communities of California in honor of the life and work of César Chávez.
The César Chávez Foundation worked in conjunction with the California Department of Education to support the development of César Chávez Model Curriculum, a compilation of resources and standards-based civics and service learning social studies lessons designed for K- 12 students.
As a result of this timely legislation and educational policies, I urged our school partners to set aside time for my pre-service teachers to implement lessons about a leader whose story would resonate for many of the students. In some instances it worked, but far too often, my students would still meet resistance in their field placements. But that would not deter me, as the inclusion of César Chávez in my own social studies curriculum was not a new phenomenon for me. I had been teaching about this hero's principles, values, and contributions since the 1990s when I was a 6th grade bilingual teacher in a poor rural school. My young students were primarily from migrant farmworker families and many considered César Chávez to be their role model. One memorable activity occurred in 1991 , after I had taught a unit about César Chávez to my 6th graders and the dangerous effects of pesticides to field workers and their children. My students wrote letters to César, both in English and Spanish, persuading him to advocate against pesticides as they were causing the farmworkers and their children to become ill. We mailed our letters to César but sadly, he had weakened from his fast and passed away in April 1993. …