In previous posts, I have written about various components of the New York State History Community including the county historians, the county historical societies, and the municipal historians. I would like to take this opportunity to address another and highly relevant area, the teachers, beginning with the councils for social studies.
In New York there is statewide organization called the New York State Council for the Social Studies. Membership is open to teachers, supervisors, curriculum directors and people who are otherwise concerned with social studies education. This is a pretty broad definition and does include professors who teach social studies education in graduate schools.
Its primary activity is an annual conference which rotates throughout the state. The cycle is primarily in lower New York at the Rye Town Hilton in Westchester, in Saratoga Springs (the name of the conference center changes but the location remains the same), and upstate which means Rochester and sometimes Buffalo. The conference is never held in Long Island, New York City, the Southern Tier, the North Country or the Champlain Valley. This year it will be in Saratoga from March 22-24. This represents a shift from the traditional Thursday-Friday focus to Friday-Saturday. Typically historic organizations are permitted one day of free displays in the lobby near the entrance to the paying vendors.
The theme this year is “Crossroads of Change: The Common Core in Social Studies.” The topic refers to the very curriculum change reported on in a previous post where I asked about getting the history community involved in this process. I will provide an update on what has occurred in a future blog. The conference schedule, available at via pdf. The schedule lists a plenary address and a workshop by Larry Paska, NYSED, who is the Coordinator of Curriculum and Instruction and the lead person on the project. There are various related sessions scheduled throughout the conference on the Common Core Curriculum. The final schedule has not yet been posted as of this writing. This conference provides on opportunity for history organizations to learn what is going on, to meet with the people responsible for the new curriculum, and to meet with teachers.
The state conference is hurting bad. Over the past few years attendance has dropped dramatically. The weekday conference has been regarded as bit of perk for teachers where they get to leave their often rural school where they may be the only social studies teacher and to met with colleagues, see new technologies, and share classroom experiences and ideas – just as happens in many such conferences. Money is an issue. Besides the registration fee and travel expense (even when teachers carpool and double or triple-up) there is the cost of the substitute teacher while the teacher is away. Cancelling participation is an easy cash savings to the bottom line for a school district just as eliminating field trips to historic sites is. The result has been a financial bloodbath that has compromised the health of the organization. The shift to more sessions on Saturday where no substitute teacher is required may reflect this reality.
In addition to the state organization, there are 13 regional councils listed on the NYSCSS website. Two show no president or website so the presumption is they are inactive (or the information is not up to date). One is listed for Rockland but in practice it has merged with the Westchester/Putnam one. Of the remaining ten district councils, two have no websites. The situation among the councils varies and I will not provide a detailed rundown. Some general observations are in order:
1. The Capital District Council for the Social Studies (CDCSS) includes Albany, Columbia, Fulton, Greene, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, Washington, and Warren. It does not have a regional conference and does have a newsletter which it switched from paper to online access for members a few years ago. At a recent Board meeting, the CDCSS voted not to re-affiliate with the NYSCSS for the 2011-2012 school year citing the financial difficulties of the state organization plus a litany of affronts which the organization feels if has experienced from the state organization. While individual teachers from the Capital District certainly are able to attend the state conference which is being held in the Capital District this March, the regional social studies council is not supporting it. The door is left open for a re-evaluation in 2012-2013 presumably dependent on changes in the state organization.
2. The Mid-Hudson Social Studies Council (MHSSC) covers Orange, Ulster, and Dutchess County. It’s primary activity is an annual one-day conference held on Election Day at a local high school in Orange County and not at a conference center. This saves on the costs of the conference and the costs to the schools. According to the message on its Facebook site: “Based on the unlikelihood of local district support for our conference, we decided we would not have a conference this year . Please stay tuned for upcoming events.”
3. The Westchester Council for the Social Studies (WCSS) on the NYSCSS website technically is the Westchester-Lower Hudson Council for the Social Studies (W/LHCSS). It hosts an annual well-attended conference in December at a hotel in White Plains with invited plenary speakers. In effect, it is a one-day version of the state conference. This year, at my initiative, there were two sessions on teaching local history which included presentations by historic organizations, independent scholars, teachers, and storytellers. In addition historical organizations were invited to attend for free. The response from the historical community was very disappointing.
Other organizations also run teacher programs. NYSHA hosts an annual conference in October in Cooperstown. The National Park Service runs the Teaching Hudson Valley Program in July at Hyde Park. Since the focuses are primarily American History in the former and ecological with some history in the latter but with no global, government, or economics sessions, technically they do not qualify as a social studies conference. The New York State Middle School Association holds an annual October conference normally at a middleschool /high school which includes social studies along with the other middle school topics.
The councils often are in trouble. Teachers have to choose to join, which costs money. Even in good times, membership only was a small portion of the social studies teacher population. Retired teachers often are key to the operations of the councils since they have more time than the active teachers in doing the grunt work needed to run a conference. Getting young blood often is very difficult. Some areas of New York are not served with annual meetings of any kind for the teachers. These problems may seem familiar to people in history organizations. They also apply to the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies and the Northeast Regional Conference for the Social Studies.
While I support statewide meetings, there is a desperate need for smaller scale local meetings that reach out across different organizations. One-day local events that bring together public historians, teachers, historic sites, professors of education and history be it a county conference or social studies conference are needed. Waiting for the infamous “they” to solve our problems isn’t going to work. This is a time for grassroots action at the county level leading to the regional level leading to the state level. State organizations acting in isolation from each other shortchanges us all. We cooperate or we die.
Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences and the more effective use of New York State Heritage Weekend and the Ramble.