Common Core for History-No Fear!

Originally posted on March 1, 2012 by Shennan Hutton

Since the mid-1990s, young snowboarders have often worn tee-shirts bearing the lifestyle clothing brand name No Fear. The slogan expressed the enthusiasm (and perhaps recklessness) with which they tackled the physically challenging aspects of their sport. Contemplating teaching the new Common Core State Standards in History and social science classes is a little like standing atop a thin piece of fiberglass and gazing down a steep snow-covered slope. The Common Core Reading and Writing Standards for Literacy in History-Social Studies are challenging, even more so because they emphasize skills that haven’t been required or emphasized since the beginning of standardized testing in the 1990s. Many, if not most, of our students struggle with reading. Given the financial situation of our schools, we know that there will be little money for books, materials, and professional development. This is a steep, steep slope indeed.

But I say – nay, I shout – NO FEAR!

At the risk of being overly dramatic, let me express my enthusiasm for implementing new Common Core State Standards in history and social science classes. I think the Common Core Reading and Writing Standards for Literacy in History-Social Studies might give us history teachers not only what we need but what we want as well. Let me tell you why.

The Common Core standards for our subject (Common Core p61) emphasize thinking skills, primary sources, evidence, analysis, point of view or perspective, and argument. These are not merely, or even primarily, English / Language Arts skills. They are closely related to historical inquiry, a process of helping students to do history or act as historians. Under pressure to cover the content standards and raise student test scores, history teachers have had little time to devote to historical inquiry. Now when we take the time to have students analyze a primary source, we can say that we are teaching the Common Core Reading Standards for Literacy in History-Social Studies RH1, RH2, RH4, RH8, and RH9. We can proudly write the standards on the board for our principals and the whole world to see. We can teach history in a more exciting, engaging, and thoughtful way.

Eventually the standardized tests that dominate our planning and efforts will be revised to include the Common Core standards. This means that the history tests will not only test memorization of historical content but also mastery of historical thinking skills. We will no longer be measured solely by how much information we can get our students to memorize. Even though it is quite tricky to measure historical thinking skills on standardized tests, a number of groups, including the History Project, are working on writing these new assessments. 

Few of us truly believe that history is about memorization of facts to be regurgitated on a multiple-choice exam. We know that history textbooks aren’t very interesting, and lecture isn’t a very effective method of instruction. However, stepping away from the tried-and-true plateau of telling students the facts to venture down the steep slope of the Common Core standards and historical inquiry is daunting. That’s why I say, No Fear!

You may protest that there are no materials to teach the Common Core in history, and in truth, there are very few. You may not know how to teach historical inquiry, or primary source analysis, or writing in an effective manner to students who struggle to read basic texts. But, No Fear, we at the History Project know how to do these things. While we aren’t perfect and have much to learn, we have a huge body of lessons created by teachers which align directly with the Common Core standards. We know how to use primary sources with 4th graders and English Learners, as well as with college-bound teenagers. We have literacy strategies which can help students understand a text and guide them to the important historical understandings at the same time. We have scaffolds that cover every aspect of the analysis process to completion of an argumentative essay. We can provide your snowboard and teach you how to board down this steep slope.

No Fear!