Social studies is often overlooked at the elementary level—especially with such a strong emphasis on math and reading with the looming pressure of state testing.
But not for teacher and Peekskill resident Julie Campbell, who was recently granted the "Outstanding Elementary Social Studies Teacher" award by the Westchester/Lower Hudson Valley Council.
Campbell, who's taught in Dobbs for eight years, has a passion for history, and she's always incorporated that appreciation of past events through storytelling and interactive activities.
"The fourth-grade curriculum focuses on New York history," Campbell explained. "So we start with people crossing the land-bridge from Russia to Alaska and how settlers moved south. Then we delve into Native American history—especially the Algonquin and Iroquois tribes. Then we move on to the European settlers, and finally the American Revolution through the Civil War."
But this stuff can be kind of dry for 9 year olds.
"I think it's in elementary school that you set the foundation for what history is," she said. "It's basically storytelling. I want the kids to begin to have a lifelong interest in past events, and learn to connect one event to the next."
Campbell said she can sometimes be "over the top with theatrical performances, impersonating important characters from history and reenacting events."
She said she likes to "show the multiple threads" intertwined in history—something some kids don't learn until high school or college, even—showing that nothing in history is black and white.
"So many of these kids have been raised playing video games in which their are clear villains and good guys, but it's not like that in history," she continued. "Everyone had a motive for how they acted. That's what I try to convey."
For instance, Campbell will point to one student and say "you're a loyalist [in the Revolution] and point to another and say 'you're a Patriot."
Then the kids have to think on their feet to describe the feelings and driving forces between each characters' actions.
She also utilizes technology to show images and video clips of what things looked like in the past.
"I like them to get a visual sense," she said. "That really brings it to life for kids this young."
Another strategy she's implemented is using the—already robust—curriculum to have fun teaching the kids history.
"I use the textbook to plan my own lessons, but I try not to be chained to it in class," she said.
Even more impressive is that the Sarah Lawrence alumna is able to harness her degree in Women's History and Labor History to help kids understand the perspectives of all the subjugated historical characters, like indentured servants, for example.
"It's funny, the kids always want to be the indentured servant or the poor peasant, rather than the owner of an enormous manor," she said. "I'm not entirely sure why that is."
Fourth-grade field trips to Ellis Island and Phillipsburg Manor have also help the kids connect the concepts to their true understanding of what was...rather than what is, she said.
"I want them to understand that July 4th isn't just about fireworks and picnics," she said. "Even if they don't memorize it, I want them to know what the Declaration of Independence was—and its significance in history. That's what makes Springhurst kids ready for middle school and beyond."
Campbell was nominated for the award by Principal Julia Drake. She will officially receive the it on May 23.