It’s Just Facts and Dates, Right?

It’s just facts and dates, right?

What does it mean to be literate in social studies? Is the answer just facts and dates? I think that there is still a stigma when it comes to social studies. That stigma is that social studies is just a collection of facts and dates, but social studies goes much deeper than just facts and dates. Being literate in social studies means being able to analyze information, check validity, identify bias, use perspective taking skills, problem solve, and construct arguments. Being literate in social studies means much more than just being able to recall facts and dates.

Backwards planning has been a common theme in every class we have taken, and it has changed my thought process when I am looking at curriculum and planning. What do we want our students to be able to do? What is the desired outcome? The goal is to get them to analyze information, check validity, identify bias, use perspective taking skills, problem solve, and construct arguments. How do we know they can do these tasks? We need to determine acceptable evidence. Using primary sources is a terrific way to assess whether students can complete these tasks. The last thing we need to do is to plan the instruction.

(Shanahan and Shanahan, 2008)

In the Shanahan and Shanahan document they provide the image above. Discipline literacy is the intended outcome we want student to receive, but they will have to climb through the other literacies to get there. By the times students get to middle school, they have a basic understanding of reading and writing. The base of the pyramid consists of basic literacy, these skills consist of transferable skills for one discipline to the next. “these skills include basic decoding skills, understanding of various print and literacy conventions… Most children master these kinds of basic reading skills and convention during primary grades.” (Shanahan and Shanahan, 2008, p. 43–44) They will take these basic skills and apply them in multiple disciplines, but as they climb each pyramid some skills will become more discipline specific.

One of the things I really like about being placed in the 8th grade, is students have been building on their intermediate literacies since 6th grade. South Carolina history really builds upon, and goes into more depth, about what students learned in 7th grade. So the students are familiar with some of the terms and people that we will be mentioning and discussing. That allows for us to better focus on building those discipline literacy skills.

Ways that we can get to the top of the pyramid with literacy skills in social studies is by engaging with inquiry and working with primary sources. The part of this program that I have really enjoyed is the emphasis to create better teachers; our professors have wanted us to move away from what Paulo Freire termed banking model of education. Students are not banks where we can deposit knowledge, that method promotes rote memorization. (Provenzo, 2006)Students only remember the information for a brief time usually only enough for the test. After the test the information is discarded. When using inquiry-based questions students are learning the content and some of the soft skills that can be transferred from unit two units or even subject to subject. When asking good questions, it forces the students to grapple with some complex ideas.


By using primary documents in the classroom, we can really build middle school students literacy skills in the social studies discipline. To get to the top of the pyramid will take a lot of scaffolding, modeling, and the use of gradual release. My goal as a future social studies teacher is to get students to be able to analyze information, check validity, identify bias, use perspective taking skills, problem solve, and construct arguments. In chapter 7 of Plaut, he discussed how Gerardo Munoz challenges his student. In one lesson Munoz looks at journal entries from Christopher Columbus to help the students form their own opinion about him. (2009) One of Munoz’s goals to teaching is to challenge the students, “They think they want easy work, but ultimately they want to be challenged.” (Plaut, 2009, p. 98) I think that using primary sources in the classroom can provide that challenging opportunity for students, but it could be too much without scaffolding. Primary sources, especially old primary sources, are difficult to analyze. I think gradual release of responsibility would work great when teaching students how to work with a primary document.

(Frey and Fisher, 2011)

The image above is a breakdown of how gradual release of responsibility works. Ultimately the responsibility is transfer to the student from the teacher, but not necessarily in a top to bottom order. I think that I would start in the “we do it” part first. The class and I would look at a primary source and start to analyze, check validity, identify bias, and look at the perspective first. I know that the student will struggle with this, and I would switch to “I do it”. I would show them how I would break down a primary source. Then we would do another primary source together, and eventually move to “you do it together”. We would spend a few days building on their skills before we move to “you do it alone”. This would take a significant amount of time, but I think that it is well worth it. By the end of the year they should have reached the goal to be able to analyze information, check validity, identify bias, use perspective taking skills, problem solve, and construct arguments. By reaching that goal they are working towards and reaching discipline literacy in social studies.


Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (Ed.). (2006). Critical Issues in Education: An Anthology of Readings. Thousands Oaks, CA.: Sage Publications.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching Disci[linary Literay to Adolescents: Rethinking Content Area Literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59. Retrieved October 26, 2017.

Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2011, May). Formative Assessment Action Plan. Retrieved October 25, 2017, from

A, M. (n.d.). Critical Pedagogy in the Classroom. Retrieved October 25, 2017, from

Plaut, S. (2009). The RIght to Literacy in Secondary Schools: Creating a Culture of Thinking. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

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