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Teaching with Historic Places: The Place of "Place" in the
History/Social Studies Methods Course


US Capitol Building

United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.,
Photo Courtesy of Beth Boland




In teacher preparation institutions across the country, teacher educators in history/social studies are charged with preparing the next generation of teachers to open the world to their pupils through history and the social sciences. This is no small task, in part because this curriculum area has suffered from contentious “culture wars” and a long-time reputation as the most boring subject area in the school curriculum. On the other hand, these circumstances offer tremendous opportunities to energize history/social studies education generally and history/social studies methods courses in particular.  And powerful resources in seizing these opportunities are historic places.

Think of historic places and one might think of grand houses Americans revere. Monticello comes to mind. And that would be true. But historic places are more than “the great houses.” Historic places are districts within a city (Piano Row in Boston), landscapes (Central Park in New York City), and prison camps (Andersonville in Georgia). They are the town square in one’s hometown and the Little Bighorn in Montana. They are the local train station and Union Station in St. Louis. They are Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and the Old Granary Burial Ground in Boston and the old cemetery in your own town. Each has a story to tell; each serves as a primary document in the service of inquiry; each comprises a multi-disciplinary resource to understand a time, and a place, and a group of people.

One might best think about historic places as case studies in history and the social sciences. Historic places are multi-faceted. Viewed from one vantage point, place serves as the stage on which a historical narrative unfolds. Place also serves as a physical link to the past, reinforcing the reality of the past. I suppose this explains why, on my first visit to Rome, I experienced the irresistible urge to touch the Coliseum, and why so many travelers who encounter historic places experience that same urge.  In this way, place connects us physically and emotionally to the vibrant reality of life in the same place but at a different time (could there be a better “hook” for learning than this?). Take another vantage point, and place serves as a three-dimensional primary document in historical inquiry. Shift ones view again, and place illuminates the interdisciplinary nature of the human story – the interplay of history and the social sciences (and literature and science and mathematics and the arts) in sketching a life and a time. All of these facets ought to be revealed to future teachers in a way that they can use in their classrooms, and this is the challenge of the history/social science methods course.

Methods, the Social Sciences, and Historic Places

The academic disciplines of the social sciences are the touchstones of the social studies.1 The usual listing includes geography, economics, political science, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. History is frequently cross-categorized among both the social sciences and the humanities. Historic places offer an opportunity to illustrate key social science concepts, within and across disciplines.

Consider geography, whose themes include location, places, relationships within place, movement, and region. One would be hard-pressed to imagine a more natural connection between a social science and historic places. Why was St. Louis settled where it was? What is its location in relation to human movement patterns? Consider economics, which is concerned with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. What was the economic basis of St. Louis as a hub of train transportation? Why was Union Station built in such a grand style? What does the ornamentation and scale of Union Station tell us about the economic aspirations of the time? Consider sociology. How do you explain the existence of a men’s waiting area and a women’s waiting area at the time Union Station was built? Consider political science and another historic place – the U.S. Capitol Building. What would move Thomas Jefferson to refer to [the approved design for] the Capitol as “worthy of the first temple dedicated to the sovereignty of the people” with its distinctive architecture based on the Roman Pantheon?2 What political traditions was Jefferson drawing upon of which the Capitol would make an unmistakable statement?
In short, historic places – buildings, districts, and landscapes – can serve as the locus for study by pre-service teachers to demonstrate how significant concepts in the social sciences can be made accessible to their pupils.

Methods, History, and Historic Places

The vigorous debate about the teaching and learning of history in the K-12 classroom3 is reflected as well in the preparation of future teachers in American teacher education programs. The result is considerable diversity in how history/social studies methods courses treat the teaching and learning of history. Certainly, voluntary national standards for history, state standards (some with high-stakes testing attached), and changes in licensure/certification requirements have caught the attention of history/social studies methods professors. However, professors of university-based history/social studies methods course, whether elementary or secondary, retain their traditional prerogative of academic freedom to make independent judgments about the nature and purposes of history in the schools and the proper preparation of future teachers of history. In the midst of this diversity, however, the power of place in teaching history can find an effective home.

History Education as Battleground4

There has been of late a drive to promote what is called “traditional American history” in the schools, reflected most clearly in the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching American History grant program. The Department of Education defines “traditional American history” as including “the significant issues, episodes, and turning points in the history of the United States. It includes how the words and deeds of individuals have determined the course of our Nation and how the principles of freedom and democracy articulated in the founding documents of this Nation have shaped America's struggles and achievements and its social, political, and legal institutions and relations.” At its heart is an interest in providing school children with a common base of knowledge and shared narratives that foster allegiance to central principles of democracy that are essential to American citizenship – the “unum” in “e pluribus unum. In contrast is a view of history and history education that emphasizes an American story that embraces not only political and military history but also social history that is more inclusive of diverse groups in America – the “pluribus” in the “e pluribus unum.”

A second dichotomy is the view of history as fixed narrative to be transmitted to successive generations versus the concept of history as open to reinterpretation and the object of ongoing, active investigation. For the former, the goal of teacher education in history is to prepare teachers to transmit the American narrative to future generations. For the latter, the goal of teacher education in history is to equip successive generation to construct their own narratives of the past and to be wary of others’ narratives – in short, to “do history.”

One may reasonably argue that there is value in all of the perspectives above. The question is what to emphasize at what time in the education of young people. Walter Parker makes a reasonable argument for both when he says:

The key to teaching history to children is to head in two directions, not one. Like the two wings of an airplane, these two work together nicely and neither works alone. In one direction, children are exposed to historical narratives that others have constructed; in the other, children are helped to construct their own narratives. Put in the simplest way, one is absorbing history, and the other is doing history. One is comprehending a historical account; the other is creating a historical account. The first is reading history; the other is writing history. The first is listening to stories; the second is telling stories. In the first, the student is the recipient; in the second, the student is the author.5
Infusing "Place" in a Social Studies Methods Course

As a social studies methods professor for elementary teachers (but as one who has taught secondary methods as well), I see numerous opportunities to use historic places to advance the goals of my course. Indeed, one could envision “place” as an organizing theme around which the goals of a social studies methods course might be organized. But a proper starting point, I think, is to consider “the social studies methods course” as a general idea and to proceed carefully from there.

Is there such a thing as a “typical” social studies methods course? Probably not, for two main reasons. First, how social studies methods are taught depends greatly on the target teaching level: elementary, middle, or high school. Second, in the spirit of academic freedom, university methods professors march to their own drummers (subject to licensure/certification requirements imposed by the particular states in which they teach). So even within grade levels, there is a fair amount of variation across course syllabi.

Nonetheless, it might be useful to present a “sample” sequence of class sessions for an imaginary social studies methods course in order to illustrate some of the opportunities the capitalize on place to advance the goals of preservice social studies teacher education. The sample comprises 15, 3-hour class sessions, for a total of 45 contact hours.

Sample Class Sessions for Social Studies Methods Course

General Topic

Use of Place

Session One
What is/are Social Studies? Definitions, Purposes, and Scope

Maintaining and transmitting a cultural heritage through preservation and study of historic places

Session Two
Content core: History and the Social Sciences
National Standards

Historic places referenced in national and state standards across the disciplines and social studies themes.


Session Three
Methods of Teaching Social Studies Concepts and Skills

Concrete concepts that have specific physical referents/exemplars in the built environment can be used (such as “temple,” “school,” “park”).  

Session Four
History and Historical Inquiry: Central Concepts and Skills

Places as 3-dimensional primary documents. Places foster empathetic understanding of and connections to the past.  

Session Five
Historical Field Study: Applying Historical Inquiry to the Local Community

Provides experience in using place as document, and acquaints methods students with local historical resources.  

Session Six
Civics/Government: Central Concepts and Skills

How civic values and institutions are reflected in the physical spaces in which civic deliberation and governance are conducted.  

Session Seven
Public Policy and Social Justice: Applied Civics/Government

Historic preservation as local public policy, community engagement. Historic places that were the settings for social justice movements.  

Session Eight
Geography: Central Concepts and Skills

Historic places as case studies in which the key concepts and six “essential elements” of geography interact.6  

Session Nine
Why Place Matters: Applied Geography

A selected historic place can be used as a case study for the interplay of geographic themes and elements.

Session Ten
Economics: Central Concepts and Skills

Places as cases studies of work life, industrial change, and commerce.

Session Eleven
Personal and National Decision Making: Applied Economics

Places as reflections of changing technology and the vagaries of the free market. The rise and fall of industries as revealed in historic places.

Session Twelve
Life is Complex: Social Studies as Interdisciplinary Study
Opportunity to use a specific historic place to demonstrate how evidence from history and the social sciences (and the humanities) are brought together to create a more complete picture of a time, a place, a person, or a group.

Session Thirteen
Globalism and Multiculturalism

Historic places of significance to diverse cultures can come into play.

Session Fourteen
Information Technology and Social Studies Education

Using technology to research historic places.

Session Fifteen
Assessment in Social Studies Education

A variety of assessment techniques applied to the study of historic places.

Prepared by Charles S. White, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, School of Education
Boston University
Boston, MA

1 Gross, R.E., & Dynneson.T. (Eds.). (1991). Social science perspectives on citizenship education. New York: Teachers College Press.

2 Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Virginia, to Benjamin Latrobe, 1812.

3 Nash, Gary B., Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn. History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1997. Also Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?

4 One of the best summaries of the opposing sides in the “traditional” versus “revisionist” debate is History, Democracy, and Citizenship: The Debate over History’s Role in Teaching Citizenship and Patriotism. A report commissioned by the Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians.

5 Parker, Walter C. (2005). Social Studies in Elementary Education, 12th ed. Columbus, OH: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall, p.115.

6 The six "essential elements" include: "World in Spatial Terms," "Places and Regions," "Physical Systems," "Human Systems," Environment and Society," and "Uses of Geography."



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