October 21, 2009

Trail of Tears (or, how I actually taught some social studies and attempted to make it meaningful)

Okay, I admit it.  I don't like social studies very much.  It's just not my thing.  Our text books suck, there's not enough time, it's not a tested area, blah blah blah.  I could go on forever.  My team has been teaching Native Americans in social studies, and I just can't see how learning all kinds of little things about different tribes is going to prepare them for the real world.  Especially since some of them can barely read.

Anyways, I finally made it a point to teach SOME social studies last week and this week (because I actually need to put a grade on the report cards!!), and decided that, since the curriculum is less than satisfactory, I'm going to teach about things that I think matter.  So, I decided to teach about the Trail of Tears.  I wish we could do a whole unit on it, but with the intense guidelines I have for teaching reading, there is just not enough time in the day.  A couple class periods would have to be enough.  Today, I sat my kids down on the rug and had them think about the area in which they live.  They, we talked about how it is different today from hundreds of years ago.  We discussed what the land was like, and of course, who lived here.

Then, I "remembered" a notice that "had been in my mailbox" at lunch.  I unrolled a scroll and read the students the District Relocation Act that stated that our district had the right to remove any class from its classroom to make space for "more important" students.  The kids were outraged--to my shock, many of them believed it!  We discussed fervently all the reasons why we should resist the proclamation, and some of the reasons why we should just do what it said.  After a few minutes of discussion, the time came when it was time for us to "relocate."  The kids were angry that they weren't allowed to bring their backpacks, books, or supplies.  We walked out to the sidewalk and sat down.  "This is our new classroom,"  I said.  Angry, frustrated cries filled the air.  The students couldn't believe that our principal would allow this.  Why were WE the class to be kicked out, and not the other fifth grades?  How could other students be more important than us?  What will we do if it rains tomorrow?  What will happen to all of our stuff????

When I brought the students back to the classroom, I told them it was all a simulation.  I still am shocked that they thought it was real!  5th graders constantly surprise me.  So often, I think they'll be too old for something, but really they're still just kids.  They love sitting on the carpet, listening to me read picture books, art projects, and the firecracker cheer.  They believe me when I say we are being removed from our classroom and will be having class outside. (I guess my proclamation looked official!)  But then again, I hear them discussing things that they are WAY too young for.  So you never can tell...

In any case, they definitely got it today.  When I read aloud "Samuel's Memory," a story of a child on the Trail of Tears, they sat in awe, and I could feel how distressed they were.  (Then of course, they say something like, "He got served!" at the end, and I have to give them a talk about respect for the seriousness of this...but you can't win 'em all!)  This activity reminded me the importance of social studies, but more importantly, the importance of relevent social studies.  My students aren't going to leave the classroom thinking about the shelter the Hopi tribe built.  But I know today they left thinking about the unfairness of the Trail of Tears.

In fact, as we were discussing Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act, one of my students raised his hand.  (I apologize, but this quote is just paraphrased--trust me, though, this was the general idea) "Miss Teacher, I don't mean this in a bad way, but, well, was Andrew Jackson white?  Because, I mean, sometimes people think they're better than people of other races."  (This student, by the way, is Hispanic, like many of my students.  My school is very diverse, with many different ethnicities represented).  This was one of those moments when I WISHED I knew the exact right thing to say.  Lightbulbs were going off around an imaginary sign in my brain that read "TEACHABLE MOMENT!!!!"  But...this wasn't one of the questions I'd anticipated.  The best I could do was, "Yes, he was.  And you're right.  Our country has a terrible history of discriminating against people of other races" (we had, afterall, been talking about Civil Rights that morning).  I went on to remind him that it wasn't just one group of people discriminating against the Cherokee, it was the majority of the country.  And I'm not sure if I answered his question correctly.  They don't teach that kind of thing in ed studies.  But...well, it reminded me that this kind of question and this kind of historical event are the ones that really matter to my kids.  They live that question.

So I'm glad that I made time for social studies today.  I am interested to see where we go tomorrow...

(PS- during this same lesson, I had a student tell me that Native Americans are extinct.  Then, when I corrected him, actually tried to fight me on it.  This wasn't a conversation I ever anticipated having...
"-Oh, that's why Native Americans are extinct.
-Actually, there are many still living in the United States.  You're right, many did die, but we still have...(gets cut off)
-No, they're extinct!
-No, actually...
-Are too!"
You can't make this stuff up.)


  1. Ask the student why he thinks Native Americans are extinct...

    You could get an interesting answer, but then maybe show him pictures or an article about Native Americans of today.

    Then...you can get into a whole lesson about not believing everything you hear, and the importance of finding out things yourself. =)

    You could even say that you starting thinking he was right last night, so you decided to find out for yourself.

    Just an idea...Keep up the amazing blogs!


    But as always, where is the time to do all this?!?


    Amy, this is why we teach :-)


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