Empowering Students to Become Historical Interpreters: Inside Look at NYS Social Studies Landscape

A quiet revolution has been underway for the last few years in the teaching of social studies in New York State. It will soon impact every school, but most directly high schools, where the pathway to graduation for most students includes two social studies exams. This shift is driven by related developments: a revised NYS Social Studies Framework, which sets forth new and rigorous expectations for teachers and students at all grade levels, and the recently released NYS Social Studies Toolkit, which provides resources to help teachers implement the Framework. Further, in 2018, the Regents will implement  a new Global History and Geography Regents Exam that will more robustly assess students’ understanding of the Framework. Shortly thereafter, a new U.S. History exam will follow. 

To help support all of these developments, New Visions is updating our Global History and U.S. History curriculum, which is freely available online, to match the changing landscape. We’re also looking to highlight the critical items that teachers and administrators need to know to better help support their students. As part of this commitment, we recently sat down with Greg Ahlquist, a New York State social studies teacher who has been part of the State Social Studies leadership team driving these changes, to get his thoughts and recommendations. 

Q: You have been heavily involved in the changes in the NYS Social Studies Framework and assessment over the last few years. Can you give our readers a sense of your past and current roles in these efforts?

Greg: I see a big part of my role as a bridge to the field. Since 2012, I’ve worked with the State Content Advisory Panel and Social Studies leadership team to draft ideas for the Framework. I’ve also helped in the development of resources for the Toolkit. This past year, I’ve been on the team focused on building the new Global History exam.

NYS K-12 Social Studies Introduction: Framework, Curriculum, Assessment from EngageNY on Vimeo.

Q:  What suggestions do you have to help teachers with unpacking the content in the Framework?

Greg: The foundational piece is the Framework, which identifies the content, skills, and Social Studies Practices that students need in Social Studies. It’s critically important that districts and teachers take the time to unpack what the content is and the what the Social Studies Practices mean instructionally.

For grades K-9, the Framework is different from previous social studies scope and sequence documents, especially regarding what must be covered. There are about ten key ideas at every grade level and those key ideas are supported by Conceptual Understandings, which are then supported by Content Specifications.

Districts will have to make some content decisions. For example, if particular Content Specifications help teachers and students to master specific Conceptual Understandings, then teachers should absolutely use them. But maybe only one or two Content Specifications are relevant in your local context. For grades 10 and 11, however, the content standards should be followed more closely to ensure students possess the skills and knowledge necessary for the applicable Regents Exams.

Q: How has the Toolkit helped you personally in your own teaching and do you have examples of items that you found particularly invaluable for your students?

Greg:  The NYS Social Studies Toolkit  (also available at c3teachers.org) that was released in the Summer of 2015 provides teachers with resources and guidance for implementing the Framework through “inquiries.” An inquiry is larger than a lesson plan but smaller than a unit. The Toolkit includes a set of six inquiries for each course from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Each of the inquiries is based on the Conceptual Understandings and Content Specifications in the Framework.

The Toolkit is simply a set of resources that the Department has provided. The Toolkit is a helpful resource because it puts sources and a curricular frame in the hands of teachers, but it ultimately refers back to and draws its focus from the Framework. We have set the goal in my district’s middle schools and high schools to try and implement one inquiry from the Toolkit this year. Implementing the inquiry does not mean necessarily following everything line-by-line. Implementation of that one inquiry has looked very different depending on the teacher and students.

With the Toolkit, it’s impossible to build a one-size-fits all solution, so there are deliberate gaps. One of things that has been most exciting for me is to see how those gaps have been filled by the expertise of local teachers.

One of my favorite ways of using the Toolkit is to just use the sources from supporting questions and then develop my own questions for my students based on their specific needs. For example, one of my colleagues and I shared a source with students from the Toolkit inquiry on the Industrial Revolution, but developed custom questions, asking them to “Make three to five observations on this source,” as well as “What can we learn from this timeframe just based on the source?”

There is such a variety of ways to utilize and adapt these resources, either through the questions or modifying the questions, or in the example I just gave, stripping it down and reusing some of the sources in an instructional context that makes sense for particular students. It’s the flexibility, it’s the adaptability, and it’s the principles from the Toolkit that have been most helpful and have supported great teaching. The resource is a means to support the great teaching that is already happening in New York classrooms.

Q: What other suggestions do you have for teachers in using the inquiries?

Greg: It’s important foundationally that we understand that an inquiry is larger than a lesson plan and will likely take more than one day, but is smaller than a unit. There are just six inquiries at each grade level. It doesn’t come close to covering and addressing all of the key ideas that will naturally be part of an entire school year. I think it’s really important to understand not only what it is, but also what it isn’t. These inquiries are built upon the premise that the best people to use and adapt them are the local teachers that work with students directly.

I’ll tell one story to illustrate this point. I was working with two teachers from different schools in the same school district who were piloting a particular inquiry in their classrooms. After piloting it, one teacher informed me that he really loved it as it resonated with his students, while the other teacher had very mixed results in her classroom. Here are two teachers teaching the same grade in the same district that had vastly different experiences with the same resource. Teachers and leaders will have to make decisions at the district level, but also in the classroom to make it work for your kids. That’s just the nature of teaching. It’s really important to understand that the Toolkit is not comprehensive and certainly not scripted; they are open-source resources designed to be adapted.

Q: Global Studies teachers right now feel trapped between two goals; they must prepare their students for the current exam while shifting their instruction towards the new Framework and new exam.  What suggestions do you have to help teachers prepare students for the current exam while continuing to gear up for the 2018 exam release?

Greg: This is such a critical question, one that ninth, tenth and eleventh grade teachers are seriously wrestling with. My first piece of advice really does not lie with content because we need to keep teaching the same content, but to focus and think instructionally about the Practices, those key skills that are outlined in the Framework. The shift that I’m trying to make, and that I’m encouraging other teachers to make, is to make the skill work, such as making comparisons and identifying causation, more explicit with students. In planning upcoming units, it’s critical that teachers ask themselves the question, “What are the Social Studies Practices that are the most important in this unit?” If we can make strategic choices in what we teach, we can be more more explicit with students about skills, and shift our instruction in the right way.

The second piece of advice is to continue to leverage maps, primary sources, secondary sources, graphs, and charts. We can use sources to spark curiosity and to create arguments but we can also use them to build knowledge. I am trying to reinvent my instructional and assessment practice around sources so that students can be the interpreters of the evidence.

Q: What advice do you have for administrators and instructional coaches in how they support teachers with the implementation of the Framework and upcoming exam changes?

Greg:  As a general principle, administrators, such as superintendents who oversee the K-12 process, should prioritize the instruction of social studies at the elementary level. I think it’s our responsibility to think systemically, to think vertically, so that we’re thinking holistically about our entire K-12 system. Administrators should examine what is or isn’t happening at the elementary level and then advocate for the necessary changes to ensure students have the core skills and knowledge necessary once they enter middle and high school. Administrators should also not overlook the great things that are happening in elementary classrooms and the conversation about elementary Social Studies instruction has to be done in such a way that is strategic and provides reasonable, manageable micro-steps for elementary teachers who have courageously navigated a sea of change in their instructional practice recently.

Administrators also have to be willing to encourage teachers to take risks and make mistakes. It’s that kind of security that an administrator can provide that can set the right context, especially if it's something new for a group of teachers. We’re all going to learn and grow, so let’s do it in a supportive, collaborative, and positive context.

Q: The new Framework and Regents Exam emphasize the importance of using historical thinking skills. This might be a big mindset shift for both teachers and students as to what it means to study history. How would you recommend supporting both teachers and students in shifting their mindset?

Greg:  Anytime that we have anything that we might view as a shift in our district, we want to do at least two things. First, we want to honor the great work that is being done. We want to find and locate in our local context the kind of work we’d like to see and then we want to shine a bright spotlight on it. We often want to jump to an immediate solution and do something new, but in reality there may be in our local context people who are doing amazing things. We just need to showcase and empower those folks to become leaders.

Second, let’s put teachers in the position of learners. One of the best ways to teach it is to anticipate what students will experience. Have teachers who are wrestling with these shifts do whatever we want students to do. Then ask the question as a debriefing process, “What are the implications here? How do you unpack it? What did you do to complete that task?” We need to think strategically about what we need to do as teachers to support students as learners. Let’s have teachers enter as learners, and then we can take manageable, reasonable steps in a local context, setting collaborative goals that we’re all going to try and then come back and debrief how it went.

Q: What additional supports exist in the Framework or Toolkit for special education or English as New Language (ENL) students? How do you adapt materials based on specific student needs?

Greg: In my use of the Toolkit, I have realized that I need to make adaptations and changes for all different types of learners. There are suggestions for ENL classrooms and special education teachers in the instructional commentary of the Toolkit. The confidence I have is that teachers know how to adapt the resources. The adaptation I make for one class may need a very different set of adaptations in another class. It’s that principle that makes universal adaptations almost impossible in this kind of a Statewide resource.

Let me illustrate this point with an example. When I team-taught one inquiry with three different eighth grade teachers in my district, every time we taught the inquiry, each team adapted the sources differently. In one case, we used an extended reading from Andrew Carnegie on wealth and when we sat down to plan the lesson, we thought kids would struggle with the passage so we shortened it to two paragraphs. What we realized after we were done teaching is that there were some kids who really struggled with those two paragraphs and needed one-on-one support. I worked with some students sentence-by-sentence who needed that structure and support. There were other groups of students who didn’t need that type of support and flew through those paragraphs and were ready for more. In the future, we would probably keep the full text intact with the idea that we would point kids to the two paragraphs that are most essential, but if they have more time, then they should read the additional paragraphs.

Q: What excites you most about these changes in the exam and the broader NYS social studies community?

Greg: My greatest confidence and excitement stem from the possibility that the great teaching that is already happening in social studies classrooms can be enhanced, celebrated, and built upon. I’m excited when I hear teachers say, “I get to work with more sources and I have an opportunity to dig deeper and focus on specific skills.”

One of my challenges in reflecting on my own teaching practice is that I love history, but in the past, too often my teaching had devolved into this kind of continuous narrative of information. I had not left enough space for kids to own the information and be the interpreters of that information. I think one of the great shifts and opportunities that’s provided by all this work is the opportunity to hit the pause button and to reflect on what we’ve done in the past and potentially do some things differently. For me that will translate to empowering students so they become the interpreters. They become the ones that are making the conclusions and the observations. They become the ones that get to press the boundaries of what they know. So this new Framework, these new resources, and this new exam, seem to be an opportunity for us to retool and rethink what we have done in social studies.

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More About Greg Ahlquist 

Greg Ahlquist is a social studies teacher at Webster Thomas High School in the Webster Central School District in New York. He has taught a variety of courses and is part of the NY State Education Department team in social studies. In 2013, he was named NYS Teacher of the Year and currently works in a hybrid role combining teaching, leadership, and work with both teachers and the State Education Department. He is also a member of the Social Studies Content Advisory Panel and chairs the subcommittee on the new Global History and Geography Regents Exam.
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