What does inquiry in social studies look like in a kindergarten classroom? We were joined by Katie Spies (Teacher & Inquiry Advocate, Talbot County Public Schools), Natacha Scott (Director of Educator Engagement at iCivics) and Jillian Corr (Learning Experience Architect, inquirED) to get serious about social studies in the younger grades, looking at examples of high-quality instruction and classroom-tested strategies that build early learners' social studies knowledge and skills.
Classroom Spotlight: Kindergarten at Easton Elementary
Katie Spies, Talbot County Public Schools Teacher of the Year, has a powerful answer to those that say there's not enough time for social studies in K-2 classrooms: "We start our day with social studies – and teach it all day long." In Spies' Kindergarten classroom, ELA, math, science, and social-emotional learning are all folded into social studies. "Social studies can be the umbrella for your day" Spies shared, "students can make so many more connections when all their learning is integrated like that."
Essential Learning = Social Studies
Spies uses Inquiry Journeys, inquirED's elementary social studies curriculum, which connects social studies learning to the need of K-2 students to understand their school and community. "As Kindergarten students, you have to spend time getting to know your building and your classroom: the physical spaces," Spies said. The Navigating School unit of Inquiry Journeys helps students map out the physical spaces of their classroom and identify the important places in the school. They make a 3D map of their classroom, which Spies lays out on the floor with blocks. Students then set about navigating Spies through this map blindfolded!
Spies also creates a unit-long display with students to help them visualize their learning and the important physical spaces of the school. "In the middle, we've put a picture of our school building," she shared, "and after brainstorming the important places in the school, we took pictures of them, and labeled them."
Beyond the physical spaces of their classroom and building, Spies also uses Inquiry Journeys to help students understand the people that are there to support them as they grow. In the Navigating School unit, students make a list of all the helpers in the school and then choose helpers to interview. "My students chose that we would interview our principal," Spies shared, "she visited our classroom, and students asked questions they had brainstormed and voted on."
Building Disciplinary Knowledge and Skills
According to Jillian Corr, Learning Experience Architect at inquirED and one of the co-authors of the Navigating School unit, Spies is engaged in building deep social studies fundamentals with students. "There's a tremendous amount of disciplinary work that's being done here, and Katie's pushed it even further." Corr listed spatial reasoning, the development of geographic concepts, questioning, and sourcing information as just a few central social studies concepts and skills that students are learning in Spies' Kindergarten class. According to Corr, "It's the kind of work that primes students for deeper social studies learning in the future."
Corr pointed out as well that there is dual meaning to "Navigating School" for the students in Spies' class. "They're also looking at the norms in different spaces, and why they might differ in the gym from the library, from the lunch room to the playground," she shared. Exploring those norms and how they change is the foundation of understanding rules and laws. "When students start to ask how the choices that they make have impacts beyond themselves," Corr said, "they are really starting to build a democratic awareness."
The Roadmap to Inquiry
Natacha Scott, Director of Educator Engagement at iCivics, was one of the task force members that supported the creation of the K-5 portion of the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap. As the task force worked with educators to provide guidance for excellence in history and civics instruction, alignment across grade levels was of critical importance. "The questions and explorations in K-2 are really important," Scott shared, "they establish a strong foundation for the rigorous content that we want to see in middle school and high school."
Connected Learning Across Grades
Scott described how one of the central themes of the Roadmap, Civic Participation, develops over the K-5 experience. "Think about how K-2 students are learning about members of their community," she shared, "their school community, their class, their family – and then later on we can talk about the challenges and the opportunities for pluralism and diversity and unity within the United States."
Resources for Instruction
While the EAD Roadmap is not a curriculum, it does bring together a variety of resources to give classroom teachers practical ways to put the Roadmap into action. Scott shared some of these lessons and resources with content from the National Endowment for the Humanities, KidCitzen, and the Iowa Historical Society.
Social studies can connect to the essential understanding students need in K-2 classrooms.
K-2 students can engage in the disciplinary work of social scientists.
Other subjects (math, ELA, etc.) can be easily integrated into social studies.
When K-2 students engage in social studies, they are building the important foundations for later social studies learning.
Educating for American Democracy
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inquirED was founded by teachers with the mission of bringing inquiry-based social studies to every classroom. Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum, is used in schools and districts across the country to help students develop deep social studies content knowledge and build the inquiry skills that are essential for a thriving democracy.
Natacha Scott is the Director of Educator Engagement at iCivics. Before joining iCivics, she worked with Boston Public Schools for 14 years beginning her journey as a third-grade teacher, then as a curriculum writer and instructional coach, and finally as K-12 Director of History and Social Studies. She served as a Steering Committee member and Educator Workshop Lead for the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap project. She is also a part-time lecturer at Northeastern University, facilitating a course on history and social studies pedagogy.
Jillian Corr a Learning Experience Architect at inquirED. She has worked in education for over 25 years. She’s served as a curriculum director, instructional coach, and classroom teacher in international baccalaureate, bilingual, special education, and early childhood classrooms. In addition, Jillian has managed and consulted on curriculum development initiatives for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Education.com. She has a BA in American Studies and Spanish Literature and an MS in Elementary Education. Jillian joined the inquirED team in 2019.
Katherine Spies is the Teacher of the Year for Talbot County Public Schools. It is her 18th year teaching kindergarten. She is the team leader for the largest elementary school in the state, and a mentor teacher for the primary grades. Spies is part of TCPS Kindergarten Curriculum team and an Inquiry Advocate for her school. She enjoys arranging many opportunities for field trips and guest speakers throughout the year to bring meaning to students’ learning. She has her master’s equivalency from Gratz College and BA in Early Childhood Education from the University of Maryland.
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