Franklin Regional to ask, 'What's the big idea?'

Visitors can stroll past a multitude of orchids at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh during the Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show, which will run through Feb. 24, 2013.
Visitors can stroll past a multitude of orchids at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh during the Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show, which will run through Feb. 24, 2013.
Photo by Submitted photo | Paul G Wiegman
| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 9:46 p.m.

A proposed overhaul to Franklin Regional's social-studies curriculum would lessen the focus on memorization and encourage students to connect history to current events.

The school board is expected to vote in March on changes to the district's social studies curriculum that would affect every grade level in the district.

“We're hoping our courses flow together better and make more sense to the students,” said Tina Sauers, the social studies curriculum coordinator at the middle school.

Usually, a committee of Franklin Regional administrators and teachers reviews a subject curriculum every five or six years.

However, this would be the first update to social studies since 1999. Shelley Shaneyfelt, director of instructional services, said one of the main reasons for the deferment was the state's delay in developing “consistent standards” for the district to use.

For years, state officials have discussed implementing a social-studies standardized test. A civics and government Keystone Exam – one of a series of tests that will be required for graduation – is expected to be administered beginning in 2017 if state funding is available, Shaneyfelt said.

The proposed changes will begin at the elementary level. There, teachers want to make social studies more of a priority in the early-elementary grades, said Patty Thomas, a third-grade teacher at Sloan Elementary. Students in kindergarten to third grade don't have a dedicated social-studies class, she said.

The proposal would improve consistency in the curriculum, Thomas said, with common textbooks used at all buildings. Students would focus on “big ideas,” overarching topics identified through the new state standards that are being developed and implemented. The teachers recommend that, beginning in third grade, literacy and social-studies content be integrated so students are reading historical biographies that overlap with topics covered in social studies.

Teachers also want the curriculum to focus more strongly on reasoning and critical thinking through social studies.

“That's one area we need to work on, supporting literacy in our social studies classes,” Sauers said.

“We need to do a higher-level analysis, where we are emphasizing these big ideas.”

At the middle school level, students would see changes to the courses they are taking. Sixth-grade students would focus on world geography and culture. Currently, students don't study modern world geography until the 10th grade.

In seventh grade, students would cover ancient Greece through the Renaissance period. Currently, the curriculum gives a quick overview of events ranging from ancient civilizations through the 1870s, when European nations began conquering new lands. Colonization would be part of the eighth-grade course instead, which would cover American history through the Civil War.

At the high school, the freshman civics course would be eliminated. Currently, students take one semester each of civics and “American Studies.” Administrators and teachers have recommended creating a course called “Legacy of Western Thought,” which would incorporate both civics and Western civilization.

Roberta Chunko, a social studies teacher and curriculum coordinator at the high school, said high school teachers would focus on skill development rather than content memorization.

“We're not focusing on the spewing of facts and dates anymore but the connectiveness of historical dates and how they affect the lives of the students,” she said.

School board member Roberta Cook lauded the plan to teach students about the “interconnectiveness” of social studies with other topics.

“These positive changes have needed to be done for a long time,” Cook said.

“We need to start teaching children about ideas, not just events and dates.”

Not all board members agreed with the changes.

Kimberly Bondi said she worried that the proposed changes were pushing too hard for some students.

“I feel we're missing the mark somewhere. We're gearing things to those up here,” Bondi said while gesturing with a hand to indicate a high level of achievement, “when we have a lot of average students or those who struggle. I'm really not comfortable with that.”

The standards are being raised across the board, Superintendent Emery D'Arcangelo said.

Shaneyfelt agreed and said students have to meet higher standards set by the state.

“Our charge is to graduate every student college- and career-ready,” Shaneyfelt said. “We can not teach a course that does not meet that standard.”

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or dkurutz@tribweb.com.

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