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Anti-Oppressive Social Studies for Elementary School

The challenges of teaching uncomfortable narratives in class — and how educators can lean in
Conversation Bubbles on Chalkboard

Many elementary schools around the nation have little time or support to focus on social studies. It may explain why we see topics like Thanksgiving reduced to simple acts of gratitude or longstanding myths opposed to its more complex history.

University of Colorado Boulder Assistant Professor Noreen Naseem Rodríguez says the lack of social studies in elementary curriculum is "heartbreaking" and really necessary for democracy. But it's not about just teaching any social studies, it's about making an effort to teach an anti-oppressive social studies — or one that the full story about the nation and all its people, she adds.

“When we think about anti-oppressive social studies, we're really thinking about ways to bring those who have been marginalized for so long to the center, and to find ways to teach social studies so that every child in a classroom can see themselves reflected in who is a part of a community, who is a part of this nation's history. And it isn't just about the great things that have happened in this nation, but really engaging with some of that complexity in ways that are appropriate for young children,” she says. “We don't want to terrify them, we don't want to traumatize them, but making sure that students feel seen and that they have a sense of belonging no matter who they are, what their identities are. And that requires us to really throw out a lot of the stuff that's traditionally been used in classrooms.”

In this episode of the EdCast, Rodríguez shines the light on the current state of social studies in elementary schools and why it needs to change. She shares ideas about how educators can lean into teaching uncomfortable narratives and some of the challenges to doing this work. 


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez thinks the future of democracy needs a more anti-oppressive approach to social studies beginning in elementary school. Many elementary schools barely teach social studies she says. When they do, the lessons are often outdated and focus on a white dominant narrative. At the University of Colorado Boulder, she trains pre-service teachers and researches how to teach difficult histories to young children. Holidays can be an entry point for elementary educators. Consider Thanksgiving, but the emphasis seems to stay on gratitude or longstanding myths rather than the holiday's troubling past. I asked why elementary education seems to struggle with this.

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez
Noreen Naseem Rodríguez: The short answer is no child left behind. When that legislation was passed in 2001, what we saw across K-12, but particularly hard hit in elementary, is an emphasis on math, and language arts, and the steady decrease of science and social studies instruction. And it's gotten worse and worse and worse every few years to the point where, honestly, today, across the nation, it is quite common to not see science and or social studies on any daily schedule for an elementary classroom. You have principals that are straight up telling their teachers, "Oh, you don't have time to put social studies and science every day on your schedule. Don't do it." So the approach has been, okay, well when you're going to do social studies or science, like alternate, so maybe we'll do six weeks of science, six weeks of social studies. Maybe it'll be 30 minutes at the end of the week, or when we're doing these reading tests, these practice assessments and preparation for the big standardized tests at the end of the year, maybe the reading will be either science or social studies themed.

But even in those instances, it's not really focusing on science concepts or social studies concepts. It's about things like cause and effect, character development, things that are still very much focused on literacy. And so when students are getting any of those possible iterations, when they're getting social studies content, it's really decontextualized, they're often missing lots of background. Perhaps there's just one or two units per semester. And so everything is really disjointed. And if teachers aren't being required to teach it, then there's no accountability measure. So often times they just fall back on what they've always done. They do what's easy and familiar. And that's why in 2022, we still see people busting out the construction paper and having children trace their hands and write five things that they're grateful for.

There hasn't been a deep investment to actually do social studies better because people are barely even required to do social studies at all in those early grades. And when we think about the impact of social studies as the content area where we're really learning about who is a part of our community? What is our democracy meant to do? Who is a part of that? How has it changed over time? When we don't make space for those conversations and we're not requiring teachers to actually substantively engage with history at any point in a child's elementary career, of course they're just going to be recycling what they did when they were young.

Jill Anderson: Well, that answers so many questions for me because in full disclosure, I have an elementary age child. I can tell you she knows what math is, she knows what science is, what reading is, computers, art, music. And then I decided to ask her if she does social studies. And she had no idea what I was talking about. She didn't know what social studies was, which of course, I'm not just blaming the school because I'm responsible for this too. But I found that really interesting.

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez: I would use heartbreaking rather than interesting. That makes it, I think, even harder for our colleagues in secondary because they have these students who historically did come with some basic foundational knowledge when it came to history in particular, to basic map skills. And a lot of students are arriving in middle school with none of it, or what they have is very sparse, they don't really actually know what a compass rose is. Maybe they know the difference between a continent and a country, but it's all fuzzy because again, it's super disjointed, and they're not building on skills as they go up through those elementary grades.

Jill Anderson: And social studies encompasses a lot. So tell me, what is social studies?

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez: It tends to be equated with just history, but truly there are some essential disciplines typically in elementary schools and state standards, you'll see standards that address social studies in terms of civics and government, history, geography, economics, and what some folks refer to as behavioral sciences. Some people call them social sciences. But that's thinking about things like as students would get older, psychology, sociology, anthropology. But recognizing that oftentimes those things are intertwined. So if we're thinking about something like redlining, that is both geography and economics. A lot of things in social studies are intimately related to science. So oftentimes there's overlap among those different disciplines, but it's way more than just history.

Jill Anderson: What is anti-oppressive social studies? How is that different from regular social studies?

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez: In social studies research, we often focus a lot on the dominant narratives. So that's the tale that we tell about our nation's development, who founded it, what our beliefs are, what we stand for, and what matters most. And that tends to fall along some very clear lines in terms of what's in the textbook, what's in the curriculum. It is the story of nation building from the perspective of white men in power who owned land, who had money, who made military decisions. We're learning about government leaders. And very rarely do we ever hear the stories of people who are working class, who are women, who are religious minorities, who are people of color, who are indigenous, who are immigrants, who didn't actually live out their dreams and discover tons of opportunity. It's very much this progressive narrative of American exceptionalism.
And so that leaves out the vast majority of people in this nation's history. And so when we think about anti-oppressive social studies, we're really thinking about ways to bring those who have been marginalized for so long to the center, and to find ways to teach social studies so that every child in a classroom can see themselves reflected in who is a part of a community, who is a part of this nation's history. And it isn't just about the great things that have happened in this nation, but really engaging with some of that complexity in ways that are appropriate for young children. We don't want to terrify them, we don't want to traumatize them, but making sure that students feel seen and that they have a sense of belonging no matter who they are, what their identities are. And that requires us to really throw out a lot of the stuff that's traditionally been used in classrooms.

Jill Anderson: What has been so difficult for elementary educators about this work in getting it into their classrooms?

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez: So there's a few things that have made it hard. The first piece is again, this lack of accountability because there's so much emphasis on accountability and language arts and math. So if no one's expecting you to teach stuff, then you can kind of do whatever you want and use whatever you want. But making that challenging is the fact that most folks who get licensure in elementary education don't have the strong content knowledge that a secondary social studies educator would have. Because in many cases, those are folks who have taken many courses in history, in geography, world history, who have specializations in very strong content versus elementary educators have to be able to do every single content area. And so in many teacher preparation programs, they might have one standalone social studies methods class that again, is covering all of these disciplines. And so you have folks who are teaching all of the things who may not necessarily have the strong content knowledge, or if they do, it's around that dominant narrative.

So you can't really teach what you don't know. And that's something that teachers tell me all the time. We want them to do better but how? And attached to that is you have folks who are graduating with these elementary education certifications who don't have strong content knowledge in the social studies, and there's almost no PD that they're mandated to take or that maybe even be offered in the first place in their districts or in their schools. And when I say PD, I mean professional development. So what supports are in service teachers getting to improve their skills when the focus, again is on math and language arts? Those are the areas in which teachers will be offered specific time to improve their skills and engage with the new curricula versus in social studies, they might get handed something, but never have opportunities to learn how to work through these new resources or think about other ways to talk about these topics.

That being said, children's literature is kind of my go-to when I work with in service teachers because it is so much more diverse now than it was 5, 10 years ago. And there's so many stories told by people whose identities, whose lives, whose experiences have long been marginalized, whether it's due to their sexuality, their gender, their religion, their ethnicity, their race. And so I think children's literature offers us a tremendous opportunity to bring in some of these stories. For example, my father is from Pakistan, and he was a toddler during the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. And so the story of Partition that he himself participated in is never something that I learned about in school. It was featured the show, Ms. Marvel. And then about a month ago, a picture book about the story of Partition came out, and that's the first picture book I've ever seen like that. Again, an amazing opportunity if you have South Asian American students in your classroom to have a book in front of them where they can see their family's story reflected in a really important way that is often completely omitted.

The emergence of books like this could be a wonderful tool for teachers, but are teachers given time and space to engage with these texts? Not necessarily. Oftentimes, are they driven personally by expanding their own knowledge? Are they really engaging deeply with social media or other resources to learn about these books? Because it's not necessarily the kind of stuff that's going to be part of your school curriculum or forefronted in your school library. There's a lot of challenges out there, but there is stuff if teachers are looking for it, and if districts are willing to commit to actually making sure that people have access to those things.

Jill Anderson: I think about just how we've been so divided and so polarized and it doesn't seem to be getting any better. And it feels like social studies, getting that into kids at such a young age would only benefit this in the long run. So tell me a little bit about why we need to be teaching kids social studies in elementary school?

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez: I mean, I think at the heart of it's about democracy. We're preparing citizens to be active members, not just a part, but active members of our democracy. And I think some people believe the way to do that is by just promoting this kind of patriotism that falls into what we might refer to as jingoism, where you align yourself with whatever the country seems to want regardless of whether or not it's right, or aligns with your personal beliefs. That's not it though. We want people in our democracy to be able to engage with difference, to be able to disagree, and still come to a consensus about ways to move forward. We want people to be able to live among folks who are not just like them. That's the whole point of a pluralist democracy. And what we're setting them up with is not going to do that.

It's really interesting because these anti-CRT movements, these anti-trans movements, these anti-LGBTQ kind of forefronting examples of middle grades and young adult literature that people are pushing so hard to keep out of children's hands. All of that is really trying to recenter white, cisgender, heteronormative, Christian, well, specifically like evangelical, Protestant, Christian, English dominant beliefs. It's trying to go back to this dominant narrative of who we are as a nation because we've seen the power of offering young people other versions of what it can be or what it means to be an American, and it's a threat to those that are in power.

So why it's happening is very clear. But I think one good thing about the recent election results is that young people, Generation Z showed up and they made it clear what they want to happen. I think kids deserve to see themselves in what they learn at school. And if we continue to fall back on this dominant narrative, we're just alienating and isolating students who are not part of the dominant group. And if we think about who is in public schools today, it's over 50% students of color. And that's a threat to those in power who are not mostly people of color. And so it's a deeply political divide, but if we actually care about the health of our democracy, we have to do better.

Jill Anderson: Is it just a fear that they're so young that they just can't grasp it or it's too complicated to try to break some of this stuff down?

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez: I think that's a common excuse, but if we think about the experiences particularly, and I'm focusing a lot on ethno-racial identity, but when young Black and brown children first are called racial slurs, it's when they're three and four and five years old at the playground, in preschool. It's happening to very young children. And if it's happening to them, there's another young child that's perpetrating that harm. So clearly kids are exposed to harmful and traumatic things at a young age. So for us to just act like, "Oh, we don't say that, that's not nice." That's not addressing the root of the problem. We have to talk about why that's not okay. My undergraduates are student teaching right now, and so they're in first and fourth grade classrooms, the two students I'm thinking about in particular. And kids in those classrooms keep calling each other gay as an insult, and they're wondering what to do.

And the teachers that they work with who are in charge of these classrooms aren't modeling any type of intervention. So people will say, "Oh, it's not appropriate. Kids don't want to talk about sexuality. Kids don't need to be learning about these things." Kids hold those identities already. Kids question things about their own sexuality, their gender identification when they're very young. And it isn't about us telling them what's right and what's wrong. It's just giving them space to ask questions, and give them information and support them in feeling whole and like they belong. And to take away opportunities for those conversations is possibly more damaging than not. We don't expect everyone to handle those things perfectly and people will fumble and mess up. But to act as if kids aren't able to have those conversations is really saying a lot more about the adults being terrified of what might happen in terms of the power that they hold versus actually caring about kids having spaces to work through these things.

Jill Anderson: I was just looking at some survey, I think it was the Brookings Institute had released not too long ago, it was in the past month or two, and it was a poll that they did of Democrats and Republicans on civics and what kids should learn, various topics like LGBTQ, things like that. And it broke it down into age groups like elementary, middle school, high school, whatever. And what was really interesting about it to me was the fact that they all agreed these things should be taught in schools. But when you saw elementary school in particular, it was a huge drop off where most people, regardless of where they aligned politically, just didn't see a lot of these topics as appropriate for elementary age kids. I would be afraid as a teacher, I wouldn't want to deal with parents complaining and why are you talking about LGBTQ issues in a school?

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez: I've been teaching pre-service teachers in elementary teacher ed for I think over 10 years now. And every semester that's the thing they're most afraid of. It's this fear that parents will get mad, and will take a screenshot or a picture of whatever they've taught and send it to Breitbart, and then they're going to get doxxed and trolled and fired. But one of the things I always remind them is don't forget who you're doing this for. Yes, there's going to be parents and family members that are mad about what you're doing, but the example I always give is when I was a fifth grade teacher, I was teaching my students how to do three digit by two digit multiplication. And for students that can be super hard because they have to think about all these different place values. So you're multiplying the number and the ones digit for the top number, by the ones digit in the second number, and then you have to think about how you put all those separate amounts together and it's just overwhelming for a lot of them.

So I said, "Okay, we're going to do this using colored pencils or markers." So do your homework using those tools so you can arrange them by place value and you're going to color code them. And the next day, one of my students hands me her homework and you can tell she does not feel good about something. And I looked on the back and her mom had written me the nastiest note. "How dare I allow students to use markers for math? Everyone knows that it should be done in pencil." People are going to get mad at you because they're mad about something. Oftentimes it has nothing to do with you as a teacher, but the people who want to get mad about something will find a thing to get mad about. But what I think is more important is who does this matter for? Whose lives are you changing by giving them these spaces? Whose sense of self are you improving by offering them these mirrors of their own experiences and cultures?

That's what's really important. And we have to have administrators and school board members that have our teachers backs because this is what the work is. This is what we have to do to make a strong democracy. People are going to be upset about it because it's threatening. It's about power and maintaining power. We just need teachers and districts to really double down and say, "We're going to do what's best for our students, and this is what we're committing to." And I think unfortunately, because everything has become super politicized, people act as if teaching for democracy is somehow controversial, but it shouldn't be.

Jill Anderson: So how do you do this work without getting fired?

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez: There are several things that I advise my pre-service teachers, and the first one is just make sure that you have a strong relationship with the families who students you have the privilege of spending every single day with. Make it clear that your goal is to share multiple perspectives and allow every student to both see themselves in what they're doing and learn about others. And you might mess up. And if you mess up, be open about that. Let your students know, bring in experts, bring in people who have more knowledge than you do. Also, you can't just Google something about another culture or about some historical event the night before and expect to teach it well, you've got to know your stuff. There's a certain responsibility that teachers have to make sure that if they're going to try to do this work, this anti-oppressive, more expansive approach to social studies that they know it well. And that may mean that you only add one or two really in-depth units each academic year as you start to build up your repertoire.

But when you have that strong knowledge about the content that you're teaching, if someone does try to argue about it in some way, you have ways to defend yourself. I encourage my pre-service teachers to use primary sources, so historical artifacts, and really just engage students in what's known as historical thinking, where they're making sense of what they see. It's not about the teacher pushing ideas down onto them. It's students interpreting these historical artifacts and using what is in those artifacts as evidence, having conversations about what they notice. That's not you indoctrinating kids. That's you pushing students to use various tools of the social studies to make sense of various things that have happened in our country's past or in the world. There's a lot of things that educators can and should be really strategic about, but also not teaching in ways that are drawn from what you're afraid of. This should be about taking the responsibility as an educator to help your students learn about the world around them and their place in it.

And if you're afraid that something's going to be controversial, how can you actually use that as a way to know more and to be able to defend what you're doing and why? And opening up as many perspectives as you can as long as those perspectives aren't dehumanizing. This idea that we have to uphold the side that thinks the Holocaust didn't occur, that's not the way to go. That's not the answer to act as if every single possible perspective is valid. But how can we offer students multiple perspectives in a humanizing way? Also thinking about maybe for first and second graders, we can't really talk about things related to desegregation of schools because we have to talk about white supremacy. And if you're not ready to have that conversation, that's okay. No one is requiring you to talk about that in first or second grade.

But those are choices that people make sometimes that are grounded in their lack of content knowledge. So I think really making sure that educators have a strong content knowledge before they engage in any of this work, that they have their administrator support, and that they have before doing any of this, really established a lot of trust and respect with the families of the students that they work with. I think those are some key components.

Jill Anderson: What does radical imagination have to do with this work?

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez: Particularly for younger teachers or newer teachers, they've grown up with this no child left behind standardized testing environment throughout their entire schooling experience. So they can't imagine things being any way other than how they've always experienced it. I asked my students a few weeks ago, my pre-service teachers to draw their dream classroom. And when I had to do a similar exercise when I was in my own teacher preparation program, I drew a tree in the middle of the classroom, there was a library at the top of the tree, there were springs and slides and just all kinds of awesome things. And when I asked my pre-service teachers to do that same activity, all of them drew a classroom. Not all of them. Most of them drew a classroom with four walls and desks, and maybe they had a cozy corner with some pillows and some flexible seating. But there seems to be a struggle for them to imagine things to be anyway, other than how they've experienced it and what they're seeing in the placements that they're assigned to.

And I think we really have to imagine things beyond what we know to be possible. Asking students what they want to do, how they might imagine a project can be one way to do that. Also, building toward the thing that you want rather than settling for the thing that you have. And oftentimes, teachers feel like they don't have a lot of agency and we're in a moment where they really don't. And it's unfortunate and it's awful, but that doesn't mean that we have to just kind of settle for that. What things could be changed in our current circumstances and what are some larger goals that we would need to mobilize to make possible? But if you're in a school setting, you're in a grade level team where you're surrounded by folks that don't want to actually imagine beyond their current circumstances or dream of a better curriculum, how can you find those supports and resources elsewhere?

So there's a phenomenal conference called Free Minds Free People that has folks that are deeply engaged in justice work, in and outside of classrooms with young people, with communities. Those are the kinds of spaces where you really can nurture that radical imagination. That's what we're urging folks to do. If you don't find those communities and inspiring partners, thought partners where you are, we have the internet at our fingertips, those people are out there. How can you connect with folks who will inspire you to dream beyond whatever you feel confined by at the moment? Keep that imagination alive. We want to encourage kids to do that too. But why can't we as adults also dream big and imagine things in better and bigger ways?

Jill Anderson: For educators listening, is there some sort of low-hanging fruit, some entry point to consider?

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez: I would encourage them to take one of two paths. What are you really into? I feel like many of us had a moment or two or a few when we were in school where we found out about a person, or a profession, or a historical event that we just thought was awesome. For myself, I remember when I learned about the lost colony of Roanoke, I was fascinated by it. And so if you know that you had these experiences where particular things are super interesting to you, but you don't have the content knowledge, that could be a great way to start. Do a deep dive on a thing that already interests you. So that's one path you can take.

Another path is what do your students care about? What is something that they've been asking about that isn't in your provided curriculum, but you could Google, you could find some local organizations, you could find some local leaders who do have that expertise and might have resources to offer you and your students? When I was a fourth grade teacher in Texas, we did this [inaudible 00:24:46] history curriculum project where we tried to tell the story of Texas history, not from the perspectives of the white settlers, but from the [inaudible 00:24:55] who had lived there for generations when it was Mexico, when it was its own nation, when it became part of the United States.

And so when you just think about stories that have often not been present, how can we find those stories? What experts are around us that could help us learn? That can be another way where the onus isn't entirely on the teacher, but it's about finding people who can help you and your students learn more about this thing that they care about. And if you do that, your students are obviously going to be invested because it's a question that's coming from them, and you can rely on other people for that content expertise. And so you're learning alongside your students, which is a great way to model inquiry.

Jill Anderson: This is the last question about families and caregivers. Is there something that they should be doing, knowing that this subject is lacking a little bit presumably in most young children's classrooms?

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez: We have to advocate for it because if we don't push for it, then more than likely most schools are going to maintain that status quo. I have an eight year old, or no, she's nine. She'd be mad if I got her age wrong. I have a nine year old, and she recently read a graphic novel by the fabulous award-winning author, Christina Soontornvat. And she comes up to me, and this is in the evening. She goes, "Mommy, three things about this book. One, she looks like me. Two, she's Asian American like me. Three, she grew up in Texas like me." That wasn't a book that her teacher had given her to read. It's a book that I bought her. But if your child is given a book like that by their teacher where they see themselves or they're excited to talk about it, please tell the teacher how much you appreciate that. And if your child is bored by the books that they're seeing, try to be an advocate.

I have mixed feelings about when I go to my own children's classrooms because when I walk into one of those spaces and I see a classroom library like one that I saw in Iowa where it's basket after basket of books that are labeled by genre, and then there's one basket labeled multicultural, and that's where all the books that have any main characters of color are all lumped together. That breaks my heart. I had to say something when I saw that. And when I mentioned it to my daughter's teacher, you could tell she was kind of wrestling with it in her head, and she asked me some follow up questions later. I ended up inviting her to a speaking engagement featuring acclaimed Native children's literature expert, Debbie Reese. She went and Debbie was talking about Little House on the Prairie, which is one of the book baskets that she had in that library.

So the fact that I said something to my daughter's teacher about a concern that I had regarding the curriculum that was being provided, and the books that they were being exposed to, and that she was willing to learn about it, really showed me that she was listening to me as a parent. And I think families and communities need to have that kind of engagement where when we see a space for improvement, we can offer that in a way that's gentle, but also firm because we want this for our children, and it's important.

But also when teachers are doing stuff where our young people see themselves reflected, where we see our cultures reflected in ways that are meaningful and well done and not superficial and fluffy, we tell those teachers, "Thank you. This is really important. I'm so glad that you're doing this for my child. I wish more people were doing that." And then maybe even tell admin too. Don't just stop at thanking the teacher for that good work, but letting admin know how important that is. I think we really need to be better at advocating for that and making sure that when it happens, we're recognizing it and letting both teachers and admin know how important that is.

Jill Anderson: Noreen Naseem Rodríguez is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is the co-author of Social Studies for a Better World: An Anti-Oppressive Approach for Elementary Educators. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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