Search form

Making Social Studies Work for At-Risk Kids


Joann Winkler, the 2004 National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) elementary school teacher of the year, has her at-risk kids running businesses, collecting for the needy, and giving national park "tours." Included: Activities for elementary school students.

Working with fifth grade students already considered at-risk of dropping out at Liberty Elementary School in Port Charlotte, Florida, teacher Joann Winkler strives to re-connect these children to school and show them how school relates to real life. She does this with projects such as running a business, raising money for the hungry, and organizing her class like a community.

Although she was named by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) the nation's top elementary school social studies teacher, Winkler teaches all subjects in a self-contained class that is part of the Program for Successful Learning.

Teaching is even more challenging now, because Liberty is sharing its building with students whose school was destroyed by Hurricane Charlie. Liberty students attend school from 6:45 a.m. until 11:45 a.m., and then the next school comes in. "So the emphasis now is on reading and math," Winkler told Education World. "Social studies and science content must be integrated into these areas as much as possible. I utilize the state mandated curriculum in my class, as my students must meet the same standards set for all fifth grade students."

Not that her enthusiasm for teaching has suffered. Winkler did say that the NCSS award was a nice surprise at a difficult time.

To mark Geography Awareness Week, Education World talked with Winkler about her goals for her students and the role of social studies in today's schools.

JoAnn Winkler

Education World: Who inspired you to be a teacher?

Joann Winkler: As a student, I did not particularly like school. I found it to be boring and unrelated to life in the real world. As a high school student, driver's education was my favorite class. Each day, my fellow drivers and I would attempt to persuade our teacher to let us drive "just a bit longer" so that we did not have to go to world history class. At one point, as I complained yet again about how boring and unimportant school was, he said to me, "If you think it is so bad, why don't you do something about it? Become a teacher." And that's what I did.

EW: What are some of your goals for your students?

Winkler: The school system's primary goal is for my students to be able to return to the traditional classroom and perform satisfactorily. It is essential, therefore, that they make more than a year's growth in reading and math so that their learning gaps can be bridged. To this end, a Title I reading teacher assists me with reading instruction.

"To me, social studies is the story of us: who we are, where we came from, why we came, why we do things as we do, and perhaps most importantly, the mistakes we have made and the lessons we have learned," says teacher JoAnn Winkler.

Personally, my number one goal for my students is to "re-enchant" them with school. I want my students to arrive each day asking the question, "What are we doing today?" and eager to learn all that they can. People are sometimes surprised when I tell them that I teach fifth grade dropout prevention students. "How can you tell, at such a young age, that a student may later dropout of high school?" You can! There are students, who have never felt the joy of learning, never experienced the success that earns them awards, and never been seen as "good" students. Clearly, these students must be embraced and welcomed back into a learning environment that helps them to realize success not only academically, but also socially and emotionally.

Another goal I have for my students is for them to make a connection between what they are taught and the real world. I am constantly striving to make this connection for them. Many of our daily classroom routines might be compared to those that take place in a real world business. For me, school is preparation for the real world and the connections need to be made as early as possible.

I also believe that I must teach my students to care... about themselves, each other, and their community. We affirm each other daily and find ways to help the less fortunate in our community. It is important to me that children learn the importance of giving back as well as their responsibilities as citizens to do so. When students leave my classroom, I want them to believe that they are "good enough," and that they can make a difference in their own life and the lives of others.

EW: What types of activities do you use to engage at-risk students?

Other NCSS Teachers of the Year 

Education World also congratulates the 2004 National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) middle school and secondary school teachers:

Brent E. Heath, a middle school teacher from Ontario, California, teaches seventh and eighth grade social studies and English at De Anza Middle School in Ontario. Heath stopped using a social studies textbook in his classroom more than ten years ago, and relies on primary source materials, historical fiction, and the humanities in his teaching.

The secondary school teachers are Sherry Mullins from Garland, Texas, and Patti Harrold, from Edmond, Oklahoma. Mullins teaches both pre-AP honors and regular world geography, as well as special studies, significant historical figures, and communication applications at North Garland High School. Harrold teaches AP European history, world history, and sign language at Edmond Memorial High School, where she is also the social studies department chair.


Winkler: In choosing activities for my class, I am always looking for ways to integrate curriculum while addressing the different learning styles and modalities of my students. Some of the ways that I do this are through hands-on activities requiring students to partner with each other, a parent or a mentor.

I run my class as a mini-community. To begin with, a class government is created complete with elected class officers and a constitution. All students apply for, interview for, and are hired for a class job for which they receive a paycheck. With this check, they pay living expenses, such as desk rental, utilities, and taxes. Luxury items can be purchased at a class auction. A student-run banking system allows students to save money and to write checks for their purchases.

My students also run a class business, The Liberty Craftsmen, which manufactures, markets, and sells craft items. The startup funds for this business are acquired through a loan from The Student Free Enterprise Bank. The class must pay this loan back with interest before school closes for the year. Profits from the business are used for student expenses such as yearbooks, parties, and field trips. Additionally, the class purchases gifts for needy children at Christmas and donates money to our local Homeless Coalition.

Six years ago, I started a project with my class, Empty Bowls, which now has grown into a communitywide event. My class has partnered with a high school art class to create ceramic bowls. These bowls are donated each year for a dinner held at a local church where a simple meal of soup, bread, and water are served to community members for a $10 donation.

As students work to plan and host this event, they are participating in a classroom simulation that teaches them about homeless and hunger. At some point in the simulation, a student becomes "homeless," and the class must come up with strategies for helping him. This project, which started out in just my classroom raising $238, now has grown into an event that involves all of our district schools as well as community organizations. Last year, Empty Bowls raised more than $11,000 to help the less fortunate in our community.

Another project I enjoy doing with my class is called The Tour of America. This project requires students to mail a camera to a national park ranger asking him to photograph a state park or monument. The ranger returns the camera along with a photo log, brochures, and information about the site. Each student builds a model of the park or monument, writes a report, and creates a display board. Upon completion, students invite other classes, parents, and community members to "take the tour". Each student serves as a tour guide informing visitors about the history of their site.

EW: With so much time and attention lately devoted to math and reading instruction, social studies sometimes is squeezed out of the curriculum. Why do children need to study social studies, and how can busy teachers ensure it gets classroom time?

Winkler: To me, social studies is the story of us: who we are, where we came from, why we came, why we do things as we do, and perhaps most importantly, the mistakes we have made and the lessons we have learned. Social studies content is real world content. Students must understand what has gone on in the past to make informed decisions about their future. So many see social studies as just history and geography, but it is so much more. Economics, government, character education, all are essential aspects of social studies that shape students into responsible citizens who will make informed decisions. Memorizing isolated facts and dates is not social studies. Developing problem- solving skills, role playing, participating in simulations, studying current events, and practicing skills that will allow students to develop necessary skills and strategies for life... that is social studies!

I cannot believe the multitude of wonderful materials available for social studies teachers today! Perhaps, if these materials had been around when I attended school, I wouldn't have been skipping world history for driver's ed. There are countless trade books available that allow busy teachers to integrate social studies content while teaching reading skills. Publications such as Time for Kids are well received by students and teachers alike, and permit one to integrate content and reading skills also. For me, finding projects that teach large amounts of content in short amounts of time is key. The Tour of America project allowed me to do just this. By using the jig-sawing strategy, many major historical events could be covered in approximately nine weeks of time. Each student then had the responsibility of teaching the others with large increases in student learning being the outcome.

EW: How has the approach to teaching social studies changed since you began teaching?

Winkler: The teaching of social studies has changed dramatically. When I first started teaching, 30 years ago, we read the book, took notes, memorized the facts, and took the tests. Boring, for student and teacher. I do not remember looking for patterns, trends, or analyzing events. Today social studies has become an action-packed subject to teach. Teachers are finding ways to teach and utilizing materials that involve students in cooperative learning activities that require them to study material and then apply it to real life situations. In many cases, the book serves as a reference piece for the active hand-on learning that is taking place in our classrooms. Teaching social studies is all about teaching students the skills necessary for them to be successful citizens. This no longer can be done by simply reading a text. Students must get practice for the world that awaits them. This can be done through social studies instruction.

This e-interview with Joann Winkler is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2004 Education World