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Social Studies in the Primary Classroom

By Naomi O'Brien


Social Studies or CRT?

The topic of social studies has been in the spotlight- and all for the wrong reasons. CRT, or Critical Race Theory, has also been trending and it has caused a number of problems. It has begun to have an impact on the bills being introduced dictating what educators should or shouldn’t talk about in the classroom when it comes to social studies.

In a time where it is evident that social studies matters and has an impact on society, we believe there is a right way to teach honest and inclusive history to all grade levels- but especially in elementary school.

We have heard that “CRT is being taught in schools and it’s dividing us as a nation.”

That simply isn’t true. CRT most certainly is not being taught in elementary classrooms. It’s college level work!

Let’s break down the difference between social studies lessons and Critical Race Theory.

What is Social Studies?

Social studies is a content area whose goal is helping students develop an understanding of the world around them. Through social studies, students can learn about places near and far, explore different cultures and people, learn about economics and civics, and discuss events from the past that impact the future.

My co-creator and I love to focus on what we call The Social Studies 5: Economics, Sociology, Civics, History, and Geography.

These posters are available in my free resource library!

All of this and more comes together over time to help mold students into informed citizens that will grow up to be contributing members of a diverse world. They will be better able to make decisions about issues that affect them and others as they live their lives.

What is CRT?

CRT is a 40 year old concept with the main ideas being that race is a social construct and racism is systemic.

“Here’s a helpful illustration to keep in mind in understanding this complex idea. In a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court school-assignment case on whether race could be a factor in maintaining diversity in K-12 schools, Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion famously concluded: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” But during oral arguments, then-justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “It’s very hard for me to see how you can have a racial objective but a nonracial means to get there.” -Education Week

Critical race theory is not a synonym for culturally relevant teaching, which emerged in the 1990s. This teaching approach seeks to affirm students’ ethnic and racial backgrounds and is intellectually rigorous. -Education Week

Much scholarship on CRT is written in academic language or published in journals not easily accessible to K-12 teachers.” -Education Week

Debates, discussions, and conversations like the one mentioned above from Education Week have led some people to believe that any social studies lesson about history, culture, or being culturally responsive are the same thing as CRT and have no place in the classroom.

We have heard from educators who have begun to feel as if their hands are tied and they don’t know what to teach. They don’t want to upset parents/caregivers or lose their jobs.

Even outside of the CRT discussion, we have heard from educators who want to teach social studies, but they don’t have access to engaging resources or lesson ideas.

Others have shared that they don’t feel comfortable or prepared to cover certain cultural or history lessons. They are afraid to say the wrong thing or don’t have time to prepare well researched lessons. We hear you. That used to be us until we started to put in the work, created resources, and began unpacking the impact amazing social studies lessons were having on our students.

As educators, who strive to be culturally responsive, we will continue to advocate for social studies in the classroom. Our debates and discussions were powerful and our students were always so engaged. We got to know our students culturally and make global connections with kindergarten and first grade students. It was POWERFUL!

What is Your Why?

In any line of work, it’s important to have a why. Why are you motivated to do what you do? Why are you motivated to keep going? Our why is simple: The impact of not teaching honest and inclusive social studies makes us feel hopeless. It makes us feel as if we’ve let “them” win. We want to make a difference in the world and empower students to do the same.

When white nationalist marchers gathered in Charlottesville, my co-creator and I were stuck on how young these men appeared. We thought about the classrooms they all sat in year after year, just a few years prior to this gathering.

Now, we know there are many more factors that got them to where they were that day, but we wonder about the social studies lessons they received or didn’t receive prior.

If we intentionally poured into our students K-12 and worked to produce culture-centered classrooms, how different might the entire country look and feel?

My co-creator and I chose to talk about culture, heritage months, and events around the world. In 2016 we intentionally made the choice to prioritize social studies in our classrooms, beyond just a few fun crafts when a holiday popped up. We took traditional lessons and got global by connecting them to different parts of the world. We took big concepts and ideas about how our government works, and turned them into age appropriate, interesting lessons, that our students looked forward to day after day.

We lay a foundation for every other important content area- social studies should be no exception.



Hi, I'm Naomi

I have been teaching elementary students for over 10 years. Effective reading instruction and accurate social studies at the primary level are huge passions of mine! 

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