As an effort to support our Social Studies School Service community of administrators and educators, we are now providing transcripts of our webinars. Below is the transcribed webinar of “Advocating for Social Studies: Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk,” which was hosted by Felicia Mensah and moderated by Jaime Filipow on January 11, 2023.
This webinar can be used to support social studies administrators at the district level and teachers advocate for high-quality curriculum and instruction in each classroom and better support students understanding of the world around them.
Jaime: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for this afternoon’s webinar, “Advocating for Social Studies: Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk.” We’re joined today by our presenter, Felicia Mensah, and I’m so excited she’s here. Felicia was born and raised in Bronx, New York. She attended the University of Vermont and obtained a Bachelor of Science in secondary education with a concentration in history and a minor in English.
She moved to Houston, Texas, in 2013, where she received a master’s in art of teaching in 2015. While working on her master’s, she began her career as an eighth-grade social studies teacher for the Houston Independent School District. After five years in the classroom, Felicia embarked on a new professional journey as a teacher development specialist for the same district. In addition to coaching teachers, Felicia also writes eighth-grade social studies curriculum for Houston ISD. As a curriculum writer, she consistently includes literacy and writing strategies that are research based in order to close the achievement gap. Her interests include reading, learning new tools to enhance her coaching skills, and engaging in professional development activities centered around formal and authentic writing in the social studies classroom. Felicia, we are so happy that you’re with us this afternoon, and please feel free to take it away.
Felicia: Thank you so much, Jamie, for introducing me. We’re going to go ahead and get started, but just to reiterate a couple of things that Jamie said about me. Yes, I received a master’s in the art of teaching at Rice University. That’s the reason why I actually moved to Houston, and I ended up just staying. I taught eighth-grade social studies for five years on different middle school campuses, and then I became a teacher development specialist for three years. And recently, almost a year ago now, I received a promotion to become a curriculum implementation manager for HISD. I’m also the social studies lead right now for the district, so I’m very proud of that recent accomplishment.
How do I begin a session where we talk about advocating for social studies? I thought that it would be best to start with storytelling. Every time that I facilitated PD, I always started with a story.
So I do want to start a little bit with how I got to Houston. You already know I came here as a grad student and I just stayed, but I started in HISD. I’ve been in Houston Independent School District since I started my career in education, and I was barely shy of a year moving to Texas before I started teaching. And from the moment of my teaching career, I’ve been an advocate, and I believe that being an advocate is very important.
When I was in the classroom, I advocated for my students as well as for social studies. I believe that implementing high-quality instruction in social studies would increase student achievement and set students on a path of success. Not many people have this thinking, but I never squandered an opportunity to voice my concerns or just have my voice be heard. I always knew that what I had to say was important because of the success that I had in the classroom, not just through me but through the students’ work, the work that they produced. I remained in the classroom for five years, and my scores reflected not only my hard work but also the hard work of my students and the high expectations that I set for my students, along with the high-quality curriculum that I implemented.
I went from teaching students to basically coaching teachers in implementing research-based strategies that will support student learning. Once I stepped out of the classroom, my influence kind of expanded. At first, my influence was only in my classroom and only on my campus, but when I became a coach for my district, my influence expanded to multiple campuses. One of my major challenges was trying to get the campus leadership buy-in. I knew that if I could have the support of the campus leadership, it would place me on the path of success for my teachers. I spent three years in that role before receiving this promotion and before entering into the role that I’m in right now.
As a manager now, and as the lead for social studies, my reach is even wider. It went from just several campuses to an entire district. As my influence expanded, so did some of my challenges, and these challenges are something that I currently face when I’m having conversations with not just campus leaders but district leaders in terms of speaking and being an advocate for social studies.
So that’s really my story, and I think sharing that story is very important when we talk about advocating for social studies, because I consistently do it on a daily basis.
Common Social Studies Challenges
So today you will explore how one district advocates for high-quality instruction with social studies in the social studies class, and you will leave with an action plan. You can use it to move your work forward within your district or within your campus. To get us started, there’s going to be a couple of documents that will be dropped in the chat, and both documents are similar because they present a problem that we see when it comes to social studies and not just in the state that I’m in right now which is Texas but all over the country, right?
I want you to think about three questions: What points or ideas resonate with you? What squares your thinking? What idea is circling your head? You’re going to answer those questions on a padlet.
Note: At this point, the attendees took time to read and respond.
Can I have at least one person share out for each question? What points or ideas resonate with you?
Amanda: My name’s Amanda. I’m in Washington state, and I’m the social studies facilitator for my first year. And something that I’m really noticing as a 6–12 facilitator is just when students come in at sixth-grade level, they’re really not having a lot of background knowledge, and part of our Washington push is that we are talking about Native tribes in K–12. However, that’s not happening since there’s no social studies time. So they’re coming in with ancient civ and trying to understand the world, and they have no background context, and so they’re automatically disengaged. Or even at the high school level, they don’t have that U.S. history understanding. Like when you ask them who fought the Civil War, they have no clue. And that is a huge thing that every single person living in this country needs to know.
Felicia: Thank you, Amanda. Even though you are in Washington and I’m in Texas, it’s the same thing when I was in the classroom, and I will have students come to eighth grade, and something that they should have known when it comes to history, they don’t know.
I always used to treat my students as if they had no knowledge of history at all. But it’s sad because by the time they come to me, they’re thirteen, fourteen, and they have had no education around social studies. It’s really disheartening.
We’ll talk more about how we tackle and address these issues that we do face. Thank you, Amanda. I’m going to open the floor to anyone who would like to share any of their responses to any of the questions.
Karen: Hello, everyone, I’m Karen. I am here in metro Atlanta in Georgia. First of all, I am the elementary curriculum and instruction specialist for social studies. I support fourteen elementary schools on almost everything else. They are fourteen different islands except they are completely aligned to each other. And there’s a huge remediation block.
We have two hours for ELA instruction. We have ninety minutes for math. We have thirty minutes for recess, lunch, and specials and band. When people come in for 4-H or different community organizations come in, it’s during social studies. If the book fair comes, it’s during social studies. And so it makes my job very hard, trying to go in and talk to administrators about master scheduling and the importance of social studies instruction.
Usually what I do to even get their ear is like one of the comments I put on one of the points that resonates with me. If they had sixty lessons of literacy-rich social studies instruction, they scored 23 percent higher on reading assessments. And I hear it all the time: “Well, our administrator told us to just focus on ELA and math because that’s what’s tested. So we’ve been doing that, and nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse.” So if the plan is not working, maybe let’s try a new plan. Let’s try something different. And we have too much research that shows you that the very thing that you’re trying to help fix, which is our literacy issue, social studies can actually help. Our students do horrible on informational texts. We are the informational text experts. So it’s just a conundrum. I don’t know if people just don’t want to change or what, but I’m just so tired of saying we teach children; we don’t teach text.
Felicia: Thank you, Karen. Thank you for sharing that. Once again I completely agree. The challenges that we face in trying to get leaders and teachers to understand that you can increase literacy among students if we focus also on social studies! Because we are implementing high-quality instruction. We’re providing strategies, and we’re providing opportunities for students to read and analyze text. That’s also helping ELA. The marginalization of social studies—we know that it’s not just a problem in one state. It is a problem across the country. But I want to reset the focus on advocacy.
Advocating for Social Studies
We see this problem that we face as social studies educators or leaders, but how do we address the issue with solutions to ensure there’s an increase in student achievement? Here are some ways that leaders of HISD, including myself, have advocated for social studies. When I’m on a campus as district support—that’s what I’ve been over the last several years—I have encountered a problem where instruction has been shut down for things such as literacy or writing days. And when I see a campus shut down, I want to say, no, don’t do that. Don’t just shut down for a literacy day or a writing day. You can provide opportunities for literacy writing every single day. So here are the ways that I go about advocating when it comes to literacy and social studies.
I explained to the leaders that literacy strategies in the areas of writing, reading, listening, and speaking when incorporated in a social studies classroom will increase student achievement and scores. So we don’t necessarily have to isolate or just have one day where students are writing in every single class. No, if we provide opportunities for students to write every single day, then we don’t need to have a literacy day or we don’t need to have a writing day because every single day students are encountering literacy and writing.
I also explained that analyzing student work and students’ writing samples allows teachers to determine mastery. So we’re not just looking at multiple-choice questions. We’re looking at authentic writing, and we’re looking at formal writing. And these are the ways that we can look for student mastery of what is being taught instead of asking students to answer a multiple-choice question. And also this speaks to what Karen mentioned earlier about spending a lot more time. And we all see this every single day every single year, that time is mostly spent on spending classes for math and ELA. So I explained to teachers and campuses and district administrators that when we incorporate literacy in social studies, especially reading primary and secondary sources and writing, it will not just help students and social studies with comprehension, but it will really support ELA. And I know that’s something that we know, but we also need to consistently share that and show that. So yes, in advocating for social studies, one of the ways is also tying social studies into ELA. We can say, well, if we consistently incorporate literacy and writing in social studies, we are helping our counterparts in the ELA department.
You may notice that students are only practicing questions, state questions, multiple-choice questions, or the independent practice is a multiple-choice question after the teacher has lectured for about forty-five minutes. One of the things that we advocate is to plan with the teacher—especially now, right? It’s been like this for several years. Teachers are overwhelmed, educators are overwhelmed, and that’s understandable. There’s a lot of pressure on teachers to perform.
I’m a manager now, and I manage coaches. I have these conversations with the coach when they present a problem to me. The first thing is “How are you talking to your teachers? Are you telling your teachers that you will partner with them?” You know, when we’re working with the teachers, we’re not their praiser; we’re their coaches. We’re partnering with them, so we need to set aside time to plan with teachers and introduce best practices and not just show them or tell them best practices. We want to model what that looks like because a lot of the time, teachers may refer back to lecturing because maybe they don’t know how to show students how to write or how to complete and how to analyze the text. So we as leaders, we need to partner with our teachers, show our teachers, plan with them, and model with them. Another way is also facilitating professional development that is really aligned to the needs of our teachers.
During these professional development sessions, we want to engage teachers and strategies in areas such as literacy to impact student learning. And when it comes to professional development—and this will tie into student work—I always tell them that if you’re creating a session and it’s around best practices and strategies, bring student work, show student work, because teachers normally do not want to just be given something; they want to see if it works right.
One of the ways to see if it works is to produce that student work. So encourage teachers to allow time for students to write in class and provide feedback as well as analyzing student work samples.
And then back to what I said earlier, just to close out this part, is to model. Sometimes our teachers need to know what good and best practices look like with their students. And another strategy is when we’re looking at conversations with the central office, right? We talked about on the campus level with the teachers, but what about a larger level, and the larger level? When talking to central office personnel, you may encounter issues with securing resources such as high-quality instructional materials for social studies. And this part is really near and dear because this is what I face every single day as part of the new role that I have. So when we talk about securing high-quality instructional materials, this is how I advocate.
I’m making sure that when I’m speaking about the curriculum that we use, which is for HID, we have master courses that are available to our secondary teachers, six through twelve. And so when I’m talking about the master course, I bring proof that the master courses, these lessons that are created by curriculum, are aligned to our standards, and I show them. I leverage the support that we have. I leverage the coaches that support my team, and I let them know that this is the plan that I have implementing the curriculum. We have coaches that have also taught using this curriculum. I’ve taught using this curriculum, and these are instructional coaches who will also get to training so then they can lead the work when they go on to the campus.
So that’s how I also leverage the district support and increase teacher capacity. You may want to establish a program for teachers to increase their content knowledge as well as pedagogy. So by building a community of learning among adults, it will impact student achievement. And I can speak on this, too, because when I first started off as a teacher, I was literally the only eighth-grade teacher on campus as a first-year teacher, and I did not have a community. I had to search for the community, and I joined programs—the teacher leader core program that now I’m spearheading in my district. And so I went from being a teacher in the program to now leading the program and supporting our next teacher leaders to build their capacity.
So in summary, these are the ways that we advocate for social studies: Have a plan, and also your plan should also have data to back it up, and also always connect your work to something larger. Something larger is student work and the achievement of students as well. You always want to connect your work to your district goals. Make sure that when you’re speaking about your work, your work is also aligned with the goals of your district or your campus, and also be ready to have fierce conversations. And let me tell you, those fierce conversations will literally have me walking out of a high school or middle school frustrated but ready to go back the next day to fight the good fight. It’s daunting at times, but we know that at the end of the day we are fighting for something big: ensuring that all our students write and all our students that we support are getting high-quality instruction, especially when it comes to social studies.
I’ve done a lot of talking, but I felt like this part was just crucial to provide ways to advocate in different scenarios, whether you are on campus, whether you’re a district support, whether you are a teacher—whichever role, you can still advocate for social studies.
Example of an action plan, supplied by the Houston Independent School District
Addressing Social-Studies-Related Challenges
I want you all now to reflect on social-studies-related challenges that you are currently facing, and I want you to take about a minute or two to think about at least one problem that you may have, and then I want you to type it in the chat, and we’ll go over some.
Jaime: One comment in the chat so far, it’s from Daniel, and he says, “One challenge I face is finding resources to support social studies curriculum.”
We have another one. Rachel said, “Getting underprepared students because social studies was not taught in elementary/middle school like it should have been and trying to fill in all the knowledge gaps so they can be successful in my class.”
And moving forward. Karen: “One challenge: many of my first-year teachers teach science and social studies only, but all support is geared towards ELA and math.”
And then Brett: “Yes, finding resources for new state standards. Colorado just passed new standards without any fanfare that supports and addresses a broad range of social equity, and I’m not finding a lot of support from a resource standpoint, so preparedness of students, resources, support geared towards ELA time.”
Those are some of the challenges.
Felicia: In the beginning I stated that we do have challenges and we do have problems, but even as leaders and teachers, when we have a problem, we also have ourselves. We may have to create a solution to address some of the challenges that we do face. So you just shared some, or if you haven’t, you probably have some in your mind, and that’s great. So this is the challenge that you’re facing, whether it is not having resources or not having the time or students coming to you with little to no knowledge of content.
So as a social studies leader educator, we’re going to spend some time to create an action plan, and we’ll start the action plan now, and you can always finish the action plan after this session. But before we begin, I want to show you an exemplar of an action plan that I created. And this action plan is actually a challenge that I’m facing, which is limited support for social studies in my district. So I’ve created an action plan. Take about three minutes to review my action plan, and I want you to point out three things that you notice and why it is important to have a plan.
Note: Time for participants to review the plan.
Jaime: Karen put in the chat that the theory-of-action statement is a powerful step, and I completely agree. I wanted to point out that it starts out with the problem of practice. So the challenges that some of you face on a day-to-day basis—and something that I used to face—that challenge can become your problem with practice, and then you can develop your entire action plan based off one of those challenges.
So I think it’s interesting to think about it either at a classroom campus or district level. How are we going to approach this challenge? And then coming up with a plan to approach it.
Felicia: Now that you have looked at an exemplar, let’s go ahead and take about five minutes to start your action plan, and then we’ll come back and do some reflection before we close out. So take five minutes, start thinking about your problem with practice, and then just start filling it out, and then you can finish it after this session.
Note: Five-minute work time.
I just want to do a quick debrief before we continue. Will anyone like to share at least one thing that they jotted down?
Karen: I changed the wording in step three, and I’m still trying to figure out how I want to state my problem. I do like this process because it is good to help me think, to get to those root causes of what it is. I’d actually like to see a little bit of change. I know I can’t go for the big change all at once, but to get me on the right road.
Felicia: Absolutely. Thank you so much for sharing. And this is a template, so you can adjust however you need. Whatever needs that you have, that needs to be met, because even though we share a lot of the same challenges, it may differ from state to state or even district to district. So thank you so much for sharing, and this is just a starting point.
You can always go back and refine, and you can take the time because even having this plan or creating a plan would allow you to really think about the root causes and really think about how to address these issues that we are all facing. So I thank you for sharing.
Just in thinking about next steps, I want to share this quote as we start to close out: “Leadership is the capacity to transform vision into reality.” I thoroughly believe that we do have a vision of what we want social studies to look like in a perfect world. Social studies will be a main content because we know as social studies educators and leaders how important social studies is in preparing our students for success in the world. And we can say it till we’re blue in the face, but not a lot of people see that. But we do.
So how do we turn our vision into reality or into a reality that we know? Even if we take little steps every day, we can reach that reality. So that leads me to my question: What three action steps will you commit to doing immediately to get you closer to reaching your goal? Because of time, I just want you to put in at least one action step that you would implement or you will commit to immediately think about. Let’s just think about it a minute since we have two minutes left. You can just start putting in the chat whatever comes to your mind.
Jaime: Nothing yet, Felicia, but I would say an immediate next step would be to keep working on the action plan template that you provided, right? Like you said, it’s going to continue to be revised.
Felicia: Yes, that is true. That should be our immediate next step. We started our action plan, and we should take some time to finish out our action plan.
So we do have a minute left, and I want you to think more about these questions. Are there a few comments, Jaime?
Jaime: Yes, one second. “So I wanted to start a dialogue with the administration.” Yes, for sure. “And then create the action plan shared with administration and then discuss social studies K–5 to support social.” Great, narrow down the problem with practice.
Felicia: So great. Thank you all for responding. So just to close out, how has this enhanced your knowledge today? How will this translate to the classroom? And we already started thinking about this when we started thinking about next steps, right? And how have your opinions about this topic changed today? Have any of your opinions been challenged? If you have any last lingering thoughts that you want to put in the chat or any responses to any of the three questions, feel free to do so.
Jaime: Brett said he loves the template and he’s going to start using it today.
Felicia: Thank you. And if you have any questions also, I’ll also use this time to answer any questions.
Jaime: Confirmed thinking by Rachel. And then a lot of people are excited about the action plan and the infographics, the marginalization of social studies.
Felicia: Reading the article, I actually pulled it from a larger study, and I put it in the document. So if you’re interested, I think it is a powerful read if you want to dig further in. And even though there’s an emphasis on Texas, it still applies to all of us really.
Jaime: OK, so thank you, Felicia. Any final words for us?
Felicia: I want to thank you all for attending and participating. It’s always a good feeling to present and also to be amongst like-minded individuals, having conversations with you all and seeing your responses. It gets me energized, to continue the good fight when it comes to advocating for social studies. So thank you all so much for attending and participating and sharing your challenges as well.
Jaime: Thank you, Felicia. I want to personally thank you for joining us. And yes, thank you to all of our participants, and hopefully this energized all of us to, as you said, go back tomorrow and fight the good fight.
Before we wrap up for the afternoon or evening, I want to take a moment to share information about our next webinar. It’ll be on February 9. It’s going to be a book talk. One of the authors from the book Civil Discourse: Classroom Conversations for Stronger Communities will be joining us. Her name is Nichelle Pinkney, and it’s a nontraditional book talk. So if you haven’t read the book, don’t worry about it. You can still come and learn about civil discourse and creating those communities in your social studies classrooms. With that, I hope everyone has a fabulous evening, and we hope to see you around.
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Transcription has been edited for clarity and length by the team at Social Studies School Service. Watch the full webinar here.