New York History: Reaching Out to Social Studies Teachers

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Historical societies, history museums, and local government Historians often seek ways to expand the range of people they reach and serve. They might want to consider expanding their work of reaching out to and cooperating with school social studies teachers. We also need more opportunities for the state’s history community and its social studies community to dialog with each other.

Three potential starting points

1. The Education Department has issued a Social Studies Field Guide which explains some of the goals of social studies education.

2. New York State history is not covered as much as we might like in the current Social Studies Framework. But there are two places where it does receive coverage, and one other where New York is not covered but there still may be potential for more work by the state’s history community:

*The Grade 4 Framework is entitled “New York State and Local History and Government” though coverage of New York history tapers off after about the mid-19th century and local history really is not covered at all.

*The Grade 7/8 Framework is titled “History of the United States and New York State” but in fact it focuses on U.S. history, with New York receiving little attention.

*The Grade 11 Framework focuses on “United States History and Government.” New York is not represented here but, given the fact that New York is arguably the nation’s most historically significant state, with many national trends starting here or playing out here, there is potential for infusing New York examples.

3.. The Education Department has also published a Resource Toolkit which offers suggestions for teaching some historical topics, but they are mostly U.S. and not New York.

Potential points of connection

There are opportunities, particularly at the Grade 4 and 7/8 level, for integrating local, state, and national history, but it is up to historians and teachers to determine how best to do that. In fact, the preface to the Grade 7/8 Framework includes this short, but rather open-ended, suggestion:

“Teachers are encouraged to incorporate local features of state history in the course, such as the Dutch in the Hudson Valley, the Germans in the Schoharie Valley, the French in the Champlain Valley, Fort Niagara, the Brooklyn Naval Yard, the Seneca Falls Convention, Underground Railroad locations, war memorials, and other features in their community.”

There are at least five routes to connecting with teachers:

1. Emphasizing key themes that are included in the Social Studies Framework. For instance, in the area of diversity, it is useful to note that throughout its history, New York has always been one of the most diverse (often, the most diverse) state. Many important developments started here, e.g., the nation’s first state civil rights law, enacted in 1945.

2. Explaining the connections among local, state, and U.S. history. This helps students make connections with the communities where they live and what they see every day. It helps make history relevant by enabling them to make personal connections.

3. Using historical documents, which conveys history first-hand and also dovetails with other objectives of social studies such as critical analysis of source material.

4. Conveying history in the form of stories about interesting people and events. Local historians are particularly adept at this because they know local history so well. It is a proven way to engage young people.

5. Carefully planned student visits to historical societies, museums, historic sites, etc.

State Council for the Social Studies

Local historians might consider joining the New York State Council for the Social Studies which has expanded its work, launched a new website, and completed a very successful annual conference in Albany last month, attended by more than 500 teachers.

Historians might want to consider proposing sessions at the 2018 conference, which will be held next March, and once again in Albany.

The Council had a journal in the past but now it is publishing a new, expanded, online journal jointly with the New Jersey State Council for the Social Studies, Teaching Social Studies. Historians might consider approaching the editor, Mark Pearcy at Rider University, about writing an article for the journal.

I developed an article for the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of the journal on “Integrating New York History Into the Grade 4 and Grade 7-8 Social Studies Framework.” It includes advice for them to reach out to local historians and community history programs and highlights a number of program-based and online resources. Readers of this post might find it of interest. It is available online on pages 55-62 of the Winter/Spring issue of Teaching Social Studies.

Suggestions for teachers for getting started

I also made a presentation at a session at the Council’s Albany conference last month on integrating New York history and social studies. A number of teachers who attended were interested in drawing on state and local history to enrich their courses. In addition to the suggestions in the article referenced above, I offered these suggestions for teachers at the session:

*Follow news about New York history on the Office of State History website and the New York History blog.

*Ask students to write an essay on “What Does It Mean to be a New Yorker?” during New York State History Month (November).

* Encourage and work with students to enter the New York History Day competition.

* Encourage and work with students to enter the New York State Archives Student Research Award competition.

*Study the first State Constitution (1777) and current State Constitution (changed several times after 1777, rewritten in 1894, revised in 1938, amended many times since then) in the fall, a timely topic because voters will decide in November whether to hold another state constitutional convention to revise or replace the current document.

*Invite the officially designated local government historian from your community to do a presentation or presentations on a historical topic or topics, tying local, state, and U.S. history together.

*Invite a historian from a nearby college or university history department, New York State historic site, National Park Service historic site, or local historical society, to talk about their work or a specific topic e.g, “How Do We Really Know What Happened in History?”

*Arrange for a visit to the local library, historical society, or a state or federal historic site.

* Access and draw on the State Archives’ publications on teaching with historical records.

*Study the career of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), organizer of the famous Seneca Falls women’s rights convention in 1848 and a champion of women’s rights in New York and at the national level for the next 5 decades.

*Study the career of Jackie Robinson (1919-1972), the first black man to play in major league baseball, starting with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, an outstanding athlete, and also a major champion of civil rights.

*Build course units around one or more of the key events that should be commemorated in New York this year — e.g., the first State Constitution (1777), the end of slavery in New York State (1827), Erie Canal (1817), votes for women in New York State (1917), or U.S. entry into World War I (1917) — or some key local historical event.

*Arrange a visit to town hall, village hall, city hall, or the county court house to see and have an official (e.g., Clerk or Archivist) show and explain the origin and significance of early documents such as maps, deeds, or minutes of the governing board.

*Research the history of your school — when it was built, why it was built in this location, whether it has been expanded, and what preceded it, e.g., older (possibly historic) buildings or one-room schoolhouses.

*Research the historical significance of a historic building, historic site, or building on the National Register of Historic Places and why government policies protect historic buildings.

*Study the “Path Through History” website maintained by the “I Love New York” office of the New York Department of Economic Development. How do they select historic sites to be included on the website? What local or nearby sites are listed there, and why? What should you look for when visiting a historic site?

Of course, these are just a few possibilities.

Building broader connections

Going forward, it would be helpful to build stronger ties between the state’s social studies and history communities. Three possibilities:

1. Advocate more coverage of New York state and local history the next time the Social Studies Framework is revised.

2. Develop a website, blog, or other forum for social studies teachers and historians to interact. For instance, history programs could promote their holdings and services that are particularly relevant to teachers and students and post digital document packets. Teachers could post about how they are using and integrating these materials. There might also be possibilities for online collaboration. This might be a useful project for the State Education Department and the State Social Studies Council working in tandem.

3. Develop a broad, cooperative initiative involving teachers, historical programs, local Historians, history professors, and others. the California History-Social Science Project might be one possible model.

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at

8 thoughts on “New York History: Reaching Out to Social Studies Teachers

  1. Debi Duke

    Thanks, Bruce! Social studies teachers — please join Teaching the Hudson Valley for our annual summer institute, July 25-27, in Hyde Park, BUILDING COMMUNITY WITH PLACE-BASED LEARNING. Workshops and field experiences cover all grades. Topics include Strategies for Exploring Your Amazing Hometown, Service Learning at Historic Sites, Votes for Women!: Inspiring Student Community Involvement through the History of Women’s Rights, and much more. CTLE approved.

  2. Terry

    Please forward this email to all NYS educators in our public and private schools.
    Nice job, Bruce, and this needs to spread ‘like wildfire!’

  3. Casey Jakubowski

    Hi Bruce, et al. Capitol Area school development association is working closely with social studies teachers in creating local and state content. We have produced a series of webinars that you can access via your school. is the location for the website that will tell you how to get access.

  4. William Hosley

    All history is local. Local is the level that matter most! I’d go further and say that one of the reasons History has lost its grip on students and the public is because academic historians have put too much emphasis on political history – “great men, great events.” Maybe that’s changing and maybe I am wrong – but I personally didn’t totally engage with history until I discovered it was all around me and in 1001 small things forgotten – touchstones to different contexts and eras – thrilling, immediate, tactile and visual. When and where will the revolution begin – because we need one. Local history is also the gateway to civic attachment – a real and substantial contemporary human need.

    1. Christopher K. Philippo

      Participation in Government instructors (not necessarily the same as Social Studies instructors?) probably should be involved as well

      Regarding local history & civic attachment, that was in part the thought behind the creation of the NYS local historian program and what the office of the State Historian hoped to accomplish via the program in its early years.

      “’To sum up what has been said to this point, may we not say in the words of one local historian that
      “‘The study of Local History will, inevitably, produce four results in a community:
      “1 Promote civic pride and interest;
      “2 Provide individuality for the community;
      “3 Provide incentives for civic effort, sacrifice and benevolence;
      “4 Lay a sure foundation for true patriotism”
      “Anniversary of Battle of Johnstown Observed with Banquet at Hotel; One Hundred and Fifty Are Present; Address by Hon. Peter Nelson, Assistant State Historian, Speaks on ‘Local History and New York State;’ Judge Carroll Presides.” Morning Herald [Gloversville, NY]. October 26, 1929: 12 cols 1-4.

      Peter Nelson seems to have quoted the above list from: Wynkoop, Asa. “Local History and the Library.” New York Libraries 8(7). May 1923. 202.;view=1up;seq=470 which in turn refers to: “Local History and the Library.” New York Libraries 8(5). November 1922. 131.;view=1up;seq=399

      Whether the idea is entirely sound is difficult to say, as it’s never really been given a chance to be tested. So often local historians aren’t appointed at all, or are appointed but aren’t paid or even supported, etc.

  5. Kyle Jenks

    Mr. Dearstyne,
    Great to see this positive feedback from so many people. You have struck a nerve that sings like a guitarist string!
    As they say in my favorite Bond movie, the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale,
    “I am all in.”
    My thrust is adding quality First Person Interpreters to the menu of educational methodology which has its academic roots in Process Drama, aka Applied Theater and Educational Theater.
    All reading this may be heartened to know that I have met a woman with a noble cause. She is working on creating an online resource as a one stop shop for teachers and museum professionals to find interpreters that cut the mustard by demonstrating the highest level of commitment to scholarly research and performance acumen to cast as accurate a portrayal as possible.
    Anyone interested in staying apprised of this development is welcome to contact me
    Thank you for your thorough and persuasive message.
    Kind regards,
    Kyle Jenks

    I am working

  6. Christopher K. Philippo

    My K-12 education was in schools in New York: Bell Top Elementary in North Greenbush, Rensselaer County; Glenmont Elementary, Bethlehem Central Middle and High Schools in Bethlehem, Albany County. I have no recollection of any teacher mentioning there was a New York State Constitution, much less studying any version of it.

    Have the Regents done their job with respect to New York Education Law section 802? In part:

    “2. The regents shall prescribe courses of instruction in the history, meaning, significance and effect of the provisions of the constitution of the United States, the amendments thereto, the declaration of independence, the constitution of the state of New York and the amendments thereto, to be maintained and followed in all of the schools of the state.  The boards of education and trustees of the several cities and school districts of the state shall require instruction to be given in such courses, by the teachers employed in the schools therein.  All pupils attending such schools, in the eighth and higher grades, shall attend upon such instruction.

    “Similar courses of instruction shall be prescribed and maintained in private schools in the state, and all pupils in such schools in grades or classes corresponding to the instruction in the eighth and higher grades of the public schools shall attend upon such courses.  If such courses are not so established and maintained in a private school, attendance upon instruction in such school shall not be deemed substantially equivalent to instruction given to pupils in the public schools of the city or district in which such pupils reside.

    “3. The regents shall determine the subjects to be included in such courses of instruction in patriotism, citizenship, and human rights issues, with particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of genocide, slavery (including the freedom trail and underground railroad), the Holocaust, and the mass starvation in Ireland from 1845 to 1850, and in the history, meaning, significance and effect of the provisions of the constitution of the United States, the amendments thereto, the declaration of independence, the constitution of the state of New York and the amendments thereto, and the period of instruction in each of the grades in such subjects.  They shall adopt rules providing for attendance upon such instruction and for such other matters as are required for carrying into effect the objects and purposes of this section.  The commissioner shall be responsible for the enforcement of such section and shall cause to be inspected and supervise the instruction to be given in such subjects.  The commissioner may, in his discretion, cause all or a portion of the public school money to be apportioned to a district or city to be withheld for failure of the school authorities of such district or city to provide instruction in such courses and to compel attendance upon such instruction, as herein prescribed, and for a non-compliance with the rules of the regents adopted as herein provided.

    “4. The regents shall designate a week during each year and prescribe a uniform course of exercises in the public schools of the state suitable for pupils of various ages to instill into the minds of such pupils the purpose, meaning and importance of the bill of rights articles in the federal and state constitutions.  Such exercises shall be in addition to any prescribed courses of study in the schools.”

    If local history isn’t somehow part of the NY Regents exams, it’s unlikely to get that much attention in curriculums. Has there ever been a question about the state constitution? Seemingly not in recent years:

    Google search:
    “state constitution”


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