Social Problems/Social Action Projects

In Elementary/Middle School Social Studies


Dr. Ava L. McCall


General Guidelines

Background Resources



General Guidelines


1. Develop a safe classroom environment for discussing sensitive social problems. Begin the school year with issues which are less controversial, then move to more challenging issues. Before engaging in large group discussions, help students gain more confidence in their ideas through writing or discussing in small groups. Work collaboratively with the students in developing class discussion guidelines such as: one person talks at a time; listen to the speaker; say what you feel even if you disagree with others; clarify the views of others when you disagree or when you are not clear what they said; use put-ups not put-downs; keep others' contributions during class discussions confidential; challenge yourself to take risks; pass when you prefer not to contribute. Model and practice following these guidelines before embarking on social problems discussions. Share your own experiences relative to social problems and invite students to share their experiences, but do not pressure them to divulge experiences which may be difficult to share in class. Remember to talk with students rather than at them.


2. Keep social problems as only a part of the total social studies curriculum. Children and young adolescents should not feel we are asking them to solve all of the world's problems. Focus on only one social problem at a time. Try to integrate the study of social problems with other parts of the curriculum such as reading, language arts, art, music, and mathematics.


3. Before beginning a social problem/social action project, develop support for the project among colleagues and administrators. If you need additional support, contact Educators for Social Responsibility, 23 Garden Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138; the staff of Rethinking Schools, 1001 East Keefe Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53212; or the Institute for Democracy in Education, College of Education, Ohio University, 313 McCracken Hall, Athens, Ohio 45701-2979.


4. Offer students some choice in the social problem you focus on. Choose a problem both you and your students are interested in, concerned about, and which they can address through a concrete social action project in the local community.


5. Be sensitive to students' backgrounds when selecting a social problem/social action project. If your students and their families are often victims of racism, sexism, poverty, AIDS, or violence, the social action project may focus on helping themselves in addition to helping others.


6. After selecting a social problem, use strategies such as semantic webs, Know, Want to Know, and Learned charts, or anticipation guides to elicit and assess students' prior knowledge and experiences.


7. Introduce literature which portrays the social problem. Balance using the text for reading for pleasure with reading for understanding the social problem. Provide different avenues for students to respond to the literature including class discussions, simulations, drama, creative writing, poetry, and journals. Journals are especially important for students who are more reluctant to share responses publicly, but who have strong reactions to the literature. Communicate to students that they may choose to keep parts of journals private, but if they write about a serious problem in their lives, you must share this with the school's guidance counselor. For older students, clarify that this mandatory reporting is a legal requirement, but you will first talk with them prior to making a report. Students can choose to fold over or paper clip pages of their journal together which they prefer to keep private.


8. Encourage students to empathize with the main characters in the literature selection, but to offer different responses to the text and diverse ways of viewing the social problem. In order to structure varied responses, you might create and assign diverse roles to students. If you offer your view of the text and social problem, solicit disagreements from the students with no grade penalties. Invite adult family members and other guest speakers who can bring out alternative views on the social problem. Teach students to use the "believing game" when they hear a guest speaker or first read the literature. Enter into the speaker's or author's reality, believe as she/he believes, put aside your own opinions, read and ask questions to seek understanding of her/his point of view. After the guest speaker has left and during a follow-up discussion of the text, teach students to use critical analysis or the "doubting game." Question the speaker's or author's truthfulness, the reasons she/he holds the views, and her/his real interests. Look for flaws in thinking and any weaknesses in texts or speech.


9. Help students realize that they can make a difference and do something about the social problem they have studied. When they work together to help solve a problem created by society, they are engaging in social action. First brainstorm possible solutions and make a class list. Ask the students to talk with their families and friends to explore other solutions and find out about other organizations within the community which are working on the same social problem. Through consensus decide on a social action project. The project should be concrete so students can see the results of their contribution. The project should be completed within a limited period of time to prevent students losing interest before they are finished. The project should be connected with the work of an organization already addressing the social problem in order to provide additional support to the students. The project should allow all students to make a contribution, but what each student does might be different. For older, more independent students, small groups may choose to work on different projects all related to the same social problem. All projects project should require students to learn more about the social problem and work together in order to accomplish the goals.


10. If the social action project is publicized, the emphasis should remain on solving the social problem rather than on the students who are engaged in the project.


11. Invite the participation of families throughout the project. Before initiating a social problem/social action project, inform families of your goals, the literature you plan to use, and the expected value for their children. If you believe certain families may be critical of the project, meet with them first to explain your goals and ask for their suggestions. Encourage families to examine the texts and share their questions and concerns. After the initial discussion of the social problem, send a letter to families explaining the main points of the discussion and invite the continuation of the discussion at home. Solicit adult family members' contributions as guest speakers or members of panel discussions to offer different views on the social problem. Invite families to offer ideas for social action projects and to participate in the social action project.


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Social problems/social action

Annotated bibliography list