Who am I? Who are we? How are we connected to each other? How do our interactions and values shape our social systems? How do our actions affect our natural and our human-made environment? How does our past shape the present and influence the future?
At every age, children are curious to expand their sense of self and their sense of belonging. Plymouth Meeting Friends School nurtures a natural drive to find community, helping children broaden their understanding of place and influence in expanding circles: our class, our school, our country, our continent, our world. Becoming passionate and compassionate global citizens occurs when students experience how small actions lead to big impact. In this Quaker school, children gain the perspective that “that of God in everyone” does not imply that people should be the same, but that understanding and celebrating our similarities and differences is invaluable.
Younger students are developing awareness of themselves in relation to a group, balancing their words and emotions with those of their classmates and teachers. As children grow, their focus broadens increasingly to encompass functions and structures of groups, and their interconnectedness with the environment, resources, and more. With expert teacher facilitation, PMFS students grow to be open-minded researchers and thinkers who incorporate context, causation, perspective, reflection, responsibility, and bias into their considerations.
The world itself is multi-layered and complex. Therefore, the study of societies, social movements and current and historical events as a stand-alone subject is not sufficient. Grade-based themes—as well as student-initiated queries—provide the framework for inquiry, concepts, skills and integrated learning. In this environment, students become a community of learners, develop problem-solving skills, and become agents of change. The Fifth Grade Mexican Exchange Program, in which students stretch themselves both as traveler and as empathetic host, is the most visible example of students learning through observation and experience, in the process increasing risk-taking skills and broadening perspective. However PMFS students at all ages develop skills and attitudes to make change, learning that “social justice” means envisioning and creating a more just and peaceful world.
“Global education at its heart is teaching students how to be compassionate members of our world community.” -Sixth Grade Teacher Varley Paul
Thematic social studies units allow Kindergartners to expand their knowledge of the world while exploring themes they are interested in. Beginning of year units provide students opportunities to make connections between themselves, their home, school, and the world around them. As the year progresses, teachers follow student interest in creating emergent units, where inquisitiveness, reflection, creativity, and excitement are fostered. This process of inquiry and “finding out more” are the seeds of research and investigation, as well as lifelong curiosity.
Topics have varied from family traditions and religions to jazz, space, inventors, and dancers. Kindergarten social studies units also provide the framework for explicit language arts instruction and skills. Many Kindergartners have become so enamored of a topic that they have even given themselves “homework” to learn more about a particular subject!
First Graders are engaged and eager learners. It is easy to harness and expand their curiosity with the current year’s theme of Family, Community, & Connecting Communities. Students work together to create a classroom atmosphere of safety and respect and, within that community, embark on an exploration of the world: What is our place? Where and how do I/we have an impact?
Discussion, idea sharing, story creation, and engaging projects deepen First Graders reflections. First Graders begin the year with a self-study, as they speak about themselves, draw self-portraits and complete name studies, before advancing to families; they describe their own family as well as read books about different kinds of families. This primes students for investigations into and discussions about where people live. Homes of all kinds make a community, and First Graders are invited to consider the role of community. What are the goals of a community? How can a community helps its members and others too? Students begin to examine actions they can take in their classroom, school, and other communities. They join Cornell University’s FeederWatch program in the Winter, for example, to take care of their natural community, as they not only feed birds outside their classroom but also record data for scientists to study North American bird abundance and distribution. Throughout, social studies is integrated with other areas of the curriculum—math counting skills within the FeederWatch program, speaking skills within self-study, listening skills within family studies, to name a few examples—creating a rich learning environment for First Graders.
The current year’s theme in Second Grade social studies, People of the World: Perspective and Journeys, informs much of their classroom activities, guided by the essential questions: What is equality? Is equal really fair? Combining the exploration of freedoms within the U.S. with learning about others throughout the world, the class begins its journey by looking at slavery and the flight to freedom, then travels around the world to see how children live, discovering shared customs through light and holidays. Following the celebration of the Winter Olympics, the class returns to the United States to discuss the difficulties of Japanese-American internment camps and the historical and ongoing struggle for civil rights. Finally, they consider immigration and the reasons for and plight of refugees around the world. Each unit begins with shared literature and visitors, and students guide discussions with their questions and interests. Second Graders explore maps to find countries/continents of interest and to notice how connected the world is. Students write about their own lives and experiences, learn about others around the world and imagine what it might be like to live in those countries. Through focusing on people from around the world, children also recognize how their own own similarities and differences enrich each other and the classroom community. Finally, service projects emerge from these studies; the class has supported displaced communities by supporting Narenj Tree as well as made soup for those in need nearby.
Third Graders deepen their global awareness in social studies through a family heritage unit, a project studying ocean animals, and a study of “People Who Made a Difference”. Through these units, Third Graders are introduced to systematic research skills, as they learn to inquire, read to find answers, and then report on what they have learned. Students approach diverse non-fiction resources from atlases to biographies during the year, to find facts and make connections. Students incorporate these concepts as they undertake their first formal research projects in Third Grade and integrate findings in fun and engaging projects. Third Graders connect personally when they investigate a country or region of their heritage, a unit which includes not only personal interviews but also creation of a “Global Passport” where students summarize the information they’ve learned. Students demonstrate learning about an ocean animal of choice with arts-integrated fictional stories infused with factual information about the animal. And Third Graders present information on an influential person in a published report. Many class trips throughout the year focus on water and animals in the watershed, such as excursions to the Norristown Farm Park, the Belmont Water Treatment Plant, and the Fairmount Water Works, as well as the culminating 3-day trip to Chincoteague Bay Field Station in Wallops Island, Virginia.
The study of U.S. History is central to most aspects of the Fourth Grade classroom. From daily reflections on current events, to creating vivid connections to the past through our historic surroundings, history is ever present. Fourth Grade studies start with an in-depth look into the life and culture of the Colonial U.S. and extend through the achievements and turmoil of the mid-20th century. Along the way, the students complete several extensive research projects, which involve both written reports and an oral presentation; the topics are complemented by project-based examination of culture (for example, the creation of a topographical map showing the person to chicken ratio in Wisconsin during the States Project or crafting a skit to celebrate notable figures in the U.S. Revolutionary time period). Throughout the year the class takes advantage of nearby historical sites in Philadelphia and Valley Forge for field trips and culminates their study in a four-day trip to Washington, D.C.
Fifth Grade reminds children that exploration of the world is an adventure. Through discussion, in-class and long-term research projects, field trips, and readings, students learn about the world with a geographical focus on North America, and how we need to care for the earth and its peoples. From geography studies—beginning with U.S. cities and expanding to provinces of Canada and states of Mexico—to interdisciplinary work on the rainforest and Mexican history and culture, Fifth Grade uses the lens of justice to approach social studies. Research projects provide students opportunities not only to dig into one subject in depth (What is a city?) but also to actively contemplate the context and greater relevance of particular issues (Why are biodiversity and the Rainforest vital?). Service empowers students to take action to effect change; for example, the Fifth Grade class holds a bake and craft sale to raise money for purchasing protected land in the Rainforest. Units are complemented by cross-curricular ties, such as a forest study in science and a study of Mexican murals in art. During their two-week stay in Cuernavaca, Mexico, half of the Fifth Grade Mexican Exchange Program, studies come to life for the students as they reflect on issues including migration and global justice.
World Cultures is the focus of social studies in Sixth Grade, investigating what it means to be human in today’s world. Initial geographical studies—learning the location of all countries in the world—lead into a year-long examination of the definition of ‘culture’ in the broadest sense. As they explore cultures of the world, Sixth Graders are challenged to understand the relationships between geography, day-to-day life, history, economics, religion, and worldviews and their impact on societies. Literature, discussion and debate, country and other research projects, videos, museum studies, and experiential trips are only part of the integrated learning that shapes student growth. A robust speaker series rounds out students’ experience, as questioning the contrasts between ‘surface’ culture elements like food and festivals and ‘deep’ culture elements such as assumptions, roles, notions of time or leadership, and attitudes, lead Sixth Graders to greater cultural and self awareness. Studying chronology, ancient through 20th Century history, and an emphasis on 21st century world events, further prepares students to recognize patterns and become confident agents of change as world citizens.