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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 1, September 2006

Social Studies 11—Back to names and dates

by Stephanie Tarr

Since I came to BC as a Social Studies and English teacher in 2002, I have been crossing my fingers and wishing for the opportunity to teach Social Studies 11. In my opinion, this was a course to beat all courses. It spans the 20th century, introducing Canadian politics, and looking closely at key elements of global geography and globalization. I couldn’t wait to sit down with students so that we could sink our teeth into a great meal of issues and controversy and they could examine their own potential for involvement in this complex web of history-in-the-making. Social Studies 11 stood out for me as a critical opportunity for teachers and students to discuss and engage in social responsibility and critical thinking, presumably desired outcomes of public education. The primary focus of the course, it seemed to me, could be the promotion of active citizenship.

This year, I was finally given my chance. I was hired to teach (among other things) a Social Studies 10/11 split class at a tiny rural school and was given a class of 13 students, with nine in Grade 11 and two students on modified programs. Not many high school teachers teach split classes and this year was my first opportunity. This was the first obstacle, and I could see it coming well ahead. I prepared well and luckily had support staff to assist with my program.

The shock was not teaching the split class, although this has of course proved challenging in itself. The real shock was the Grade 11 Social Studies program. This is the first year that Social Studies 11 students are required to write a provincial exam and I dutifully printed off a copy of the sample at my first opportunity. It blew me away. The exam clearly requires a detailed factual understanding of the entire course textbook (we use Cranny and Moles’ Counterpoints). It is a very good textbook and suits the course well, but due to time constraints we had to march full speed ahead right through the book’s 18 chapters in order to cover all the material within the semester.

As a professional, I am angry because my hopes for lively and engaging debate of the issues, critical thinking, simulation activities, research, document study and video analysis have been largely forfeited in the interests of time and the requirements of the standardized test.

For all the talk about social responsibility in our schools today, one message has been clearly presented to me by way of this exam. Our priority in this province is not really to promote active citizenship or social responsibility. We are taking a key means to this end and turning it into something else entirely, a scanty look at history and the politics of justice that amounts to names and dates on a two-dimensional test. I worry for my students and the young people who leave BC’s public schools to enter a world filled with media hype and propaganda. Have we done enough to equip them to participate in this globalized world? Have they had enough time to develop critical thinking skills while at school? What kinds of decisions will they make in our communities in the future as a result?

Stephanie Tarr teaches at Sk’il’ Mountain Community School, Shalalth, BC.

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