Dave Powell

Education 306: Teaching Social Studies

Writing at the start of the new century, one social studies educator remarked, sadly, that he had contracted the “Twenty-First Century Social Studies Blues.” Indeed, something seems to have gone wrong with social studies: far from sitting at the heart of the curriculum as the subject most closely connected to the civic mission of public schools, social studies has become dislocated from this perch and increasingly marginalized in the minds of teachers and students, and in the minds of the public at large. As our society becomes increasingly focused on private spaces and personal gain the notion that children should go to school to learn how to become citizens seems almost as old-fashioned as powdered wigs and knee breeches—and it begs the question: what role can social education play in the renewal of our public spaces and political discourse? This course seeks to answer that question by providing both practical and philosophical tips for teaching social studies in ways that advance the public good. Click here to read the course syllabus (S19).


“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”


 “A society lacking leadership, as ours does, might even accept the guidance of teachers.”

GEORGE COUNTS, Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (1932)

Course Framework

What is social studies, and what does it take to teach it well? These are the central questions we’ll try to answer in this course, which is intended to blend theory and practice in ways that will strengthen your ability to teach students about the world we live in by equipping you with the tools you need to make it happen. There is nothing more practical than good theory, as a wise person once said, and we’ll spend a great deal of time exploring the philosophies upon which the school subject of social studies was created, upon which it sits now, and upon which it might rest as your own careers and lives unfold in the decades to come.

At the heart of social studies is a commitment to educating students for active, engaged, and intelligent citizenship. Social education may be more important now than it’s ever been, as the country is roiled by partisan bickering and as it careens from one end of the ideological continuum to the other in search of solutions to the common problems we all face. If there was a time when citizenship education mattered as much, it was in the 1830s and ‘40s, when Horace Mann crisscrossed the country trying to encourage local communities to create common schools. Mann’s goal was to save the Republic, as he saw it, as control of its political, cultural, and economic institutions passed from the founding generation to a new generation of leaders who had not been steeped in the civic duties of Republicanism that Whigs like Mann cherished. The common school system prevailed through the Civil War until another wave of technological and cultural change, accompanied by a wave of immigration, changed schools once again. The Progressive Era bequeathed us the subject we now know as social studies, and it is showing its age. Ideas about citizenship and civic duty that prevailed then are in need of renewal now. It’s up to us, as teachers, to consider what that renewal might look like.

Of course, social studies has been reformed several times since the start of the 20thcentury, just as schools have. But it has also snapped back to its durable forms: lecture-based, subject-oriented, teacher-centered, and, frankly, pretty boring. Our job here is to think about reconfiguring the subject in ways that will make it more vital, more engaging, and more meaningful, for students, for teachers, and for the public at large. To do that we’ll have to consider what it means to be a citizen in today’s complex and changing world, and we’ll have to think about how to connect our ideas about citizenship to subject matter content that will incite, provoke, inspire, and encourage students to participate in public life. We’ll address philosophical questions as well as practical ones. We’ll examine case studies of effective practice. Some of the answers we’re looking for will be easy to find; some won’t be apparent at all. 

One thing we will not do is write prescriptions for teaching practice. I have made a deliberate decision in this course to focus on helping you conceptualize the subject and the challenges of teaching as opposed to offering up a traditional “nuts and bolts” kind of methods course. Each of you will have to decide how to approach the challenge of teaching students about our society and culture, and I will place a great deal of responsibility on you to give the time and effort needed to establish the knowledge base and develop the skills you need to be effective educators. I can’t tell you how to teach any more than I can tell you how to be a better person; ultimately, the responsibility for becoming an effective professional teacher is yours. This does not mean that I won’t offer guidance and expertise to you as you wrestle with these ideas. It simply means that the responsibility for ensuring that you become an effective teacher lies with you, not me. Don’t expect to be told how to do things. Pay close attention to what we’re doing and you’ll realize that you have all the guidance you need.

Reading Assignments

Reading assignments can be reached by clicking the heading above this paragraph. You may want to create a bookmark for the reading folder in your favorite browser to make it easier to access. Password required.

Course Requirements

Response Papers & Midterm (30%)

You will turn in a total of three response papers this semester. Your individual due dates are noted on the calendar. Your response papers should begin with a vocabulary list defining any terms or phrases you came across in the reading that did not make sense to you. These may be difficult words that you could not define, but might also include the names of people or particular ideas or phrases that you had difficulty contextualizing. For example, you may come across a reference to Primo Levi and want to know more about him but have difficulty understanding how the reference to him fit into the chapter you read; look him up and include him in the list. You should bring your response paper to class on the day we discuss the resource you are responding to. Each initial response should be around two pages long, typed in a twelve-point font with one-inch margins all around. You should also include at least twoquestions raised by the reading at the end of your paper and be prepared to share them with the class. Finally, after the class discussion you should write an afterword detailing how your thinking about the resource changed (or didn’t) as a result of the class discussion. You could also choose to focus, in this afterword, on any tentative answers to your burning question that the discussion raised. Your afterword should be no fewer than twopages long, though it may go longer if necessary. Your final response paper (including the afterword) is due on the Wednesday following our class discussion. Around the midpoint of the semester you’ll also complete a midterm assessment. Additional details will be made available later as the midterm approaches.

Submit Response Papers (RP1 & RP2) (due dates vary)

Submit Hess & McAvoy Response (due Sunday, Feb 24)

Curriculum Project (40%)

The curriculum project is designed to be the course’s culminating experience—the one where you put it all together, content and pedagogy. It will consist of several parts completed over the course of the semester, including the syllabus, course plan, and rationale (10% of your total course grade), three instructional plans (10%), and the content analyst project (20%).

Submit Syllabus, Course Plan, and Rationale

Submit Instructional Plans

Submit Content Analysis Project

Field Work (20%)

If you are seeking certification in the Teacher Education Program, you have been assigned a school placement by the Department’s Field Placement Officer. Details about your placement will be shared with you very early in the semester. Note that a block of time has been reserved for you to make site visits on Friday mornings; please plan to be in touch with your cooperating teacher as soon as you learn the details of your placement so you can coordinate these visits. More information about completing your field requirements will be shared in class.

Discretionary Points (10%)

I reserve these points to be awarded at my discretion at the end of the term. These points are available to everyone, of course; the idea here is that I will decide how many points you earn after evaluating your work holistically and in the context of everything we have done this semester. Generally speaking, to earn all the points available you’ll need to impress me with your commitment, punctuality, engagement, thoughtfulness, and, not least of all, with the high quality of your work. 

Content Analysis Questionnaire

Click here to view the questionnaire. Fill it out once you have decided on a topic for your project.

Understanding by Design


Course Evaluation

Common Course Evaluation

On your mobile device go to https://mobile.gettysburg.edu, enter your Gettysburg credentials, and look for “Course Evaluations” under the “Academics” menu item.

Supplemental Course Evaluation

In addition to the common course evaluation, I’d also like to ask you to complete a supplemental evaluation to give me a fuller sense of your thoughts on the course. To complete that evaluation, please go to https://forms.gle/JPHkAMK4fzGwLj9s6.

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