sealPurdue News

July 1998

Historical stories make social studies fun

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A Purdue University expert on citizenship education says a revolution is under way in how social studies is taught in American elementary schools.

"More and more teachers are starting to introduce students to the world around them with history-based children's literature," says Lynn Nelson, director of Purdue's James F. Ackerman Center for Democratic Citizenship. "Right now, most students do not receive any significant history instruction until the fourth grade, but children's literature that includes history can be used in other subjects such as reading and social studies to change that."

The traditional curriculum for elementary social studies is known as the "expanding horizons" method. It starts in the first grade with the student learning about himself. The next year the curriculum concentrates on the child's role in the family, and the year after that his membership in the local community. Typically, students are 9 or 10 years old before they begin to learn about state history and geography, and Nelson says that's too late.

"With good stories, we can start as early as kindergarten and get them excited about history and the world in which they live from the very beginning of their school experience," he says.

The Ackerman Center will focus on this integrated approach during a summer institute on Purdue's West Lafayette campus. Nineteen elementary and middle school teachers from across the nation and Latvia will spend July 15 to 18 exploring children's literature as a tool for social studies instruction. The annual seminar is designed to help teachers improve citizenship education in their schools.

This year's participants are from Calico Rock, Ariz.; Lafayette and West Lafayette, Ind.; Des Moines, Iowa; Olathe and Atchison, Kan.; Stillwater, Minn.; Kimball, Neb.; Henderson, Nev.; Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; Memphis, Tenn.; Richmond, Va.; and River Falls, Wis. Three teachers from Latvia, a former Soviet republic, also are attending to gather ideas for education reform in their country.

Nelson says children's literature is a natural for developing a citizenship education curriculum for younger students.

"Good stories afford an opportunity for kids to become intrigued and connected to the past," he explains. "They can provide conte0that's exciting for children. The result is in an understanding of our culture that they might not otherwise experience."

The center is partnering with Teachers Encouraging a Love for Literature, another Purdue-based organization, on this year's program. The seminar will include presentations from nationally recognized children's authors Milton Meltzer and Russell Freedman, who write books that are concerned with history and social issues.

After completing the institute, the teachers will have a custom-made program for their schools, plus a $250 grant to get them started. Participants will return to Purdue for four days in April to report on their projects and to work with Purdue education students.

The Ackerman Center in Purdue's School of Education was created in 1994 with a $2 million gift from James Ackerman, an Indianapolis cable television executive, and his wife, Lois.

In addition to summer institutes for teachers, the center sponsors workshops and civic education projects for teachers and students, develops curricula, and serves as a national resource center for citizenship-education materials.

CONTACT: Nelson, (765) 494-4744; e-mail,; web page,

Compiled by Sharon Bowker, (765) 494-2077; e-mail,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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