GRANT, S. G.; VanSLEDRIGHT, Bruce. Constructing a Powerful Approach to Teaching and Learning in Elementary Social Studies. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 304p. Resenha de: Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.3, p., 2004.
It is always problematic when an American social studies text, specifically one designed to be used by pre-service teachers, is reviewed through Canadian eyes. For the most part, my own professional past experience has demonstrated that the typical historical examples cited (Mayflower landing, American Revolution, Civil War, Civil Rights Movement, etc.) along with picturesque geographic features such as the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, and the Mississippi River Delta have little relevance for a would-be elementary teacher anywhere in Canada. Additionally, detailed chapters dealing with the American Constitution, government and legal systems as well as issues related to state rights, are foreign to the practical educational realities of anyone north of the forty-ninth parallel. If nothing else, the narrow and specific foci of many of the diverse provincial and territorial elementary social studies programs in Canada are themselves out of synch and offer no commonality, level playing field, or any sort of pan-Canadian national program upon which major pedagogical and curriculum notions can be examined. Therefore, it was with some reluctance that I agreed to tackle a review of Constructing a Powerful Approach to Teaching and Learning in Elementary Social Studies [abbreviated hereafter as CPA]. This hesitation is further heightened by the fact that I am, deep down, a closet Canadian nationalist; use Kirman (2002) as a required text in my own social studies methodology course with second year education students; and periodically refer to Wright (2001) for additional collaboration.
Unfortunately, as if I did not already have enough reticence, CPA is accompanied by a sixty-seven page Instructor’s Resource Manual (ISBN: 0-395-88788-7 supplement). This raises a whole new concern as I am always a tad insulted by those who feel that I am incapable of knowing, deciding, and discovering how to teach my own classes. The notion that I need an instructor’s manual is, in my mind’s eye, offensive. My memory harkens back to my beginning elementary teaching days when teacher’s manuals were all the rage; especially in the mathematics and science domains where the obvious assumption was made that I (as an elementary school teacher) was incapable of solving grade 4 to 6 problems and needed an answer key disguised as a teacher’s edition.
The following review, then, will treat the core text separately from the accompanying manual and will be divided into three sections: text, instructor’s resource manual and summary.
Text: CPA is specifically targeted at budding pre-service elementary teachers-in-training as well as newly minted elementary classroom practitioners. The authors clearly note in the opening sentence that they wrote this book because we were dissatisfied with the elementary social studies textbooks we reviewed for our courses (p. xi). They go on to state that the other books that they did review (unfortunately not listed) failed to capture the vibrancy and power we see in school classrooms where the subject of social studies is well taught (p. xi).
With tongue in cheek and based on my thirty-five years of dealing with elementary schools, I also would certainly like to see social studies well taught. My own professional experience suggests that social studies/sciences is not a discipline that most elementary teachers (and pupils) rank as important. Let us not forget that in the majority of provincial and territory educational jurisdictions in Canada, the social studies domain is not even a part of the prescribed elementary curriculum! Additionally, based on field reports from my third and fourth year teacher candidates, most of their classrooms eschew the teaching of social studies. Even though it can be argued that Quebec is the only province that includes social studies in some meaningful and integrated manner at every grade level from one through to six, curriculum space is always decided in favour of ‘the big three’, namely, English language arts, mathematics and French as a second language.
CPA is a tightly written volume! The book is focused, visually sparse (thank God!), and stays away from unnecessary tangents. In some ways, the text is a solid classroom pedagogical voyage as many of the more practical and concrete planning and organizational notions can easily be applied to other academic areas within the elementary curriculum. Centering Joseph Schwab’s common place concept, grounded in reliable research, and realistically placed within a total elementary curriculum environment, CPA provides a classroom blueprint for the neophyte teacher at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The strength of the volume is its philosophical grounding. This is not a low-level ‘idiot-proof’ kind of how-to workbook. There is no collection of ready to use on a Monday morning generic social studies lesson plans. There are no easily duplicated worksheets for a dreary Friday afternoon. Rather, this book forces the teacher to think of the place of his/her own educational philosophy and to ground social studies instruction within a much wider philosophical landscape. There is no question that this book was written for the professional educator, and is specifically designed to augment many separate orientations.
Instructor’s Resource Manual: Oh God, a t-shirt handout for a class slogan! While I would strongly recommend the text, I must express many misgivings related to this so-called instructor’s manual. Flimsily produced, its very structure screams ‘cheap’ and ‘of no importance’. I am unsure why publishers feel that course instructors are to be treated in such a manner, but if the manual is so important, make the product of paper that does not rip at a glance, use a cover that will endure more than a couple of openings, and try not to make the manual appear to be something that was produced in the 1970’s by a basement Gestetner and run-off as an after school program.
Instead of taking some of the exciting notions that are introduced in the text, the authors of the manual appear to have fallen back on the same old tired and misguided concepts that drove previous manual designers. The assumption is that the reader of the manual is slightly slow (in intelligence) and old (with dwindling eyesight); hence, large black print, lots of margin space, simple sentences, nothing controversial, and trite statements as guiding principles. For everything that is positive about the text, the reverse is true for the manual. While great care and energy was clearly put into the design and organization of the main volume this is evident in dealing with concepts such as the Treads Approach and Creating a Genuine Classroom Community the manual shows none of this enthusiasm and offers no additional insights. This reader can only assume that it was thrown together somewhat belatedly by an in-house staff that did not understand the concepts and originality of the textbook.
On the whole, Constructing a Powerful Approach to Teaching and Learning in Elementary Social Studies is a valuable volume. It is worth reading as its underlying philosophy is so appealing. Clearly, Grant and VanSledright have some understanding of the realities of the elementary practitioner and have grounded their particular social studies interests in a framework that would fit with many emerging trends. Further, the authors are to be congratulated for providing an overall structure that meets the student centered and individual accountable orientations that are being exhibited in many emerging curriculums. This book will appeal to classroom practitioners as well as those who instruct soon to be elementary teachers. The volume is grounded in time-tested research and not based on the limited experiences of a special group of teachers in a specific school with an abundance of resources. This is a professional book whose ideas and teaching strategies can be implemented by creative classroom practitioners.
Kirman, J. M. (2002). Elementary social studies: Creative classroom ideas, 3rd Ed.. Toronto, ON: Prentice Hall.
Wright, I. (2001). Elementary social studies: A practical approach to teaching and learning, 5th Ed. Toronto, ON: Prentice Hall.
Jon G. Bradley – Faculty of Education. McGill University. Montreal, Quebec.