Fairfield schools examining Social Studies efforts to better teach diversity
FAIRFIELD — After a student’s use of a racial slur on camera rocked the district two months ago, public schools are examining how students learn about diversity and social justice issues.
District administrators are looking at social studies curriculums, focused on ensuring contemporary connections to historical events are clear and that each class is a safe environment for discussions about tolerance and diversity, social studies curriculum leader Gregg Pugliese said. Ensuring historical understanding, he believes, can impact how students regard the world.
Social justice, tolerance and diversity in social studies curriculum
Sixth and seventh grades: The two-part World Regional Studies course has a theme of understanding and appreciating the world’s many diverse cultures.
Eighth grade: “America and the American Dream,” a U.S. history course, looks at American values through four themes, including cultural diversity and American identity and the struggle for freedom, equality and social justice.
Ninth and 10th grades: A two-year Global Studies program runs up to the Enlightenment for freshmen and from the Enlightenment to contemporary history for sophomores. The first year focuses on religion, while the second ends with a human rights unit that covers the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide and Syrian refugee crisis, among abuses.
11th grade: Building on the middle-school course, junior year U.S. History examines how various forms of equality have been defined over time. One topic of the class is evaluating the successes and failures of Reconstruction — the turbulent rebuilding period following the Civil War — and identifying still-lingering effects in contemporary America.
Elective: A sociology course, in its first year, examines stereotypes, race and gender relations and group identity. A humanities course addresses issues of human rights, inequality and discrimination.
“I think understanding the historical context increases the empathy because students can think of how it has impacted people in the past, and they can see the root of some of these slurs and stereotypes,” he said. “I have seen it create more empathy and understanding.”
A video of a Fairfield Ludlowe High School student using a racial slur directed at black students spread through the community in October. Another student took the Snapchat video during a soccer match against the district’s other high school, Fairfield Warde.
Administrators responded with discussions that week, and while the focus has been on an immediate school response, leadership is also looking long-term.
“I think making the connection to things that happened and things that have happened recently in our schools makes it all the more important to discuss,” Pugliese said.
Rather than one incident, Pugliese sees “alarming” national and international trends of growing intolerance. District administrators are aiming to make sure students are understanding those real-world trends in the scope of the past.
“The whole idea of tolerance has taken on more of a significant role this year, specifically,” Pugliese said.
An education expert agreed, identifying current events — both in a school’s own community and across the country — as essential in addressing social justice issues in social studies classes, showing racism and discrimination are not problems of the past.
“The whole idea of social studies really is about teaching citizenship and how to be an active and engaged citizen in a democracy,” said Christopher Martell, a clinical assistant professor at Boston University specializing in social studies education. “It’s perfectly suited for instances like this. It’s really why we need social studies to be a core part of our curriculum, starting in elementary school.”
He said children begin to develop their civic identities young, in kindergarten or as early as preschool. Fairfield has a social studies curriculum for each grade, starting in prekindergarten classes. But the recent assessment has focused on material for grade six and above.
Along with contemporary connections — possibly differing teacher to teacher — focus is on the perspectives, primary and secondary sources and case studies lessons include.
In the classroom, Martell, a social studies teacher for 11 years, encouraged highlighting individuals and groups through history that worked against oppression, rather than portraying victims. The emphasis can teach that engaged activists make change and that problems do not improve automatically with time, hopefully empowering students to act and create positive change.
It can inspire action, Martell said, “right now, in this period, giving the students good models of people in the past who worked against discrimination and oppression.”
Fairfield’s review began with several meetings between Interim Superintendent Stephen Tracy, leading the district when the video circulated, and Pugliese, who manages the sixth- through 12th-grade social studies curriculum. They identified the units and themes through each course that relate to issues of inequality and intolerance.
Pugliese also met with teachers in small groups to make sure relevant historical topics are being made “real world” with discussion in a safe classroom environment.
When administrators examined where issues of diversity, power and social justice fit into all subjects’ curriculums at Tracy’s request, social studies classes were a clear fit.
“It’s the most impactful and important part of a social studies class, really,” Pugliese said. “We’re not just teaching history, we’re teaching connections to the present, and civics too.”
Martell believes social studies classrooms alone are not the answer, that teaching contemporary issues and social justice topics should be a community effort in schools.
He said teachers in other subject areas should bring up issues of inequality as reinforcement: in the books read in English classes, the statistics examined in math classes, the concepts covered in biology classes.
“That idea shows the students that, well, it’s not just a social studies issue,” Martell said, “but we all should be thinking about this in all aspects of our life.”