The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Discussing Differences

I love teaching social studies. Okay, so I love teaching everything, but I really do have a love for teaching social studies. I remember a lengthy conversation in one of my college courses about what social studies actually entails. To me, it is all about learning to understand why the things of the past happened and how they have impacted the present. In other words, social studies is exactly what the name means: the study of social issues.

Our current social studies unit is on early European exploration. The students are all researching different explorers to learn the who, what, where, when, why, and how of early exploration. Each student has a different explorer and we came up with a list of eleven questions to guide their research. They have three weeks to work on them, but we will be setting aside time each day to work on the research side of the project. Today I had the students working in small groups to learn about some of the peoples discovered by European explorers, specifically, the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas.

There were some conflicts that came up as the groups worked, as some group members started saying unkind things to other people. I stopped the work so that we could work on some classroom resolution skills. One of the things I brought up was how often unkind things are said and done for no other reason than that people are different. I related this to what the students had just read about in terms of how Spanish conquistadors responded to the native peoples they met in Central and South America. A lot of the students picked up on this and started discussing examples of how one group attacked another because they were different. Some of these were one native group attacking another group. Other examples were of the invading Europeans attacking the natives or the natives attacking the Europeans. But all of the conflicts were based on the same foundational reason: someone was different and had something that someone else wanted.

Now, clearly, students in my class are not reacting with anywhere close to the level of aggression that existed in the 16th, 17th, or 18th Centuries. But I wanted them to think about what had happened in the past when people treated others in unkind ways because of differences. More importantly, though, I wanted them to think about ways to stop the cycle of unkindness and disrespect. I shared a quote (paraphrased from the movie Australia) that is becoming one of my personal mantras: Just because that’s the way things have always been doesn’t mean that’s the way things should be! We can learn from the mistakes of the past. Our differences shouldn’t divide us; they should bring us together as we grow to appreciate the rich variety of life!


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