The Lost Subject

In high school, my English class partnered with our U.S. history teacher to do a huge project on World War II. I distinctly remember my gregarious English teacher presenting this project with even more enthusiasm than normal. I also distinctly remember my classmates and I rolling our eyes at her effusive presentation of the “cross-subject” project. Now, as a teacher, not only do I understand her energy, but I applaud her efforts.

If nothing else, the fact that I remember this project is a testament to its power. I think this is due to the sheer extent of the project: we researched for weeks in two separate classes, visited a nursing home to speak with individuals who lived during the war, and presented our projects to outsiders. The amount of work involved allowed the project to be fairly immersive. On top of this, I think there was something unique about the study that overlapped two usually distinct subjects.

Given the structure of schools in our country, even Montessori schools, these types of projects are extremely hard to pull off. This is true at all levels — I have had plenty of conversations with higher education colleagues about the dearth of cross-functional work and classes available to students. I remember the frustration I felt in my public school days from being pulled away from one subject and shoved into another whether my brain was ready for it or not. And now I see this everyday in our classroom. Collectively, as educators, we treat every subject like its own distinct thing, despite the fact that they are deeply interconnected.

This separation has stuck out to me particularly with social studies this year. It seems commonplace in elementary schools to focus primarily on math and reading, and my school is no exception. In my class, which seems to take a bit longer than their peers to complete its work, we never seem to have enough time for social studies. We do a little bit of map work every morning, but otherwise we’re lucky if we work on social studies once a week. As much as I disliked the subject for most of my own education, and as much as I never imagined that I would mourn its absence in our curriculum, I’ve come to see this limited focus as a real loss.

First, social studies provides a unique opportunity for students to learn empathy. As they learn about other people and places, they are better able to understand the feelings of both their peers and people they haven’t met. Second, when we do find time for it, social studies is fairly boring. The students read a section of the textbook, answer some workbook questions, and then forget about it. I understand that detailed, engaging social studies lessons may be just one thing too many in the lives of an overextended teacher. But I think we are missing opportunities to tie social studies into the rest of the day to make it infinitely more interesting without much extra work.

What if, acknowledging that social studies seems to be a “lost subject” of elementary school, that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the core curriculum, we worked to incorporate social studies concepts in a very intentional way? We could read stories set in new places or simply examine the place and people in each story alongside the content. This would increase understanding of both the story and the social studies related to it. Maybe some of our math lessons could calculate the distance between places, like where we are and wherever a given story takes place. We could practice multiplication and division by calculating populations. Some of our writing assignments could focus on social studies concepts, like we did one morning this week. My class wrote a fiction piece about whether they would participate in 1848’s Gold Rush. This is a great example of how to overlap the two subjects, but I think it could be strengthened by sharing the explicit connection between the subjects so the students could associate the positive experience of writing their story with something other than reading.

Hardly anything we do in the real world is divided into discrete chunks like the subjects in school, so why not work to integrate all the subjects in more concrete ways throughout the educational process? If nothing else, maybe we could recover one or two of our “lost subjects.”