Guest Writer: Julie Letofsky

Julie Letofsky has taught young children in Arizona public schools for 33 years. She writes often about the amazing things that occur as she works with children to become readers, writers, problem solvers, and decent people. She is a three-time National Board Certified Teacher, Early Childhood/Generalist.

I love teaching social studies. Much of the content is brand new to the kindergarten children I teach, and I love watching faces light up with new knowledge and skills.  It’s not exactly easy. Some young children have trouble finding their way to the school bathroom, but in geography we explore maps and globes to develop a sense of relative and absolute location, to identify landforms and bodies of water, and to build an understanding of our place in the world. (And we draw maps of the school so they can find that bathroom.) Some young children think last week was a long time ago, but in history, we construct a timeline to understand the relationship of significant events over time. As the adding machine tape stretches across the room, the children compare their tiny piece of the timeline to my bigger piece, and they can see exactly how long ago it was when the Pilgrims came. (They also stop asking me if George Washington went to my school. They can see it was unlikely!)

Some young children think the teacher is the boss, but in civics, we learn about the responsibility we have to make and follow rules and to participate in classroom events with integrity and perseverance. We vote to choose the snack of the day or the end-of-day story. (They are not always happy about the results. I hope they’ll learn that voting and “losing” is better than not having a say at all, something I’ve had to learn as a voting citizen.) Some young children still get money from the tooth fairy, but in economics, we learn about jobs and workers and the decisions people have to make to earn, save, and spend money. Social studies in kindergarten are not easy, but it is rich and challenging and fun.

Every year, I plan a huge unit of study of the United States.  We start with Constitution Day lessons in September. As I teach them the story and significance of this beautiful document, we examine primary source photos of the Constitution and paintings of the Founding Fathers. I show them photos of my trip to James Madison’s home, Montpelier. I tear up every year when I teach them the beautiful words of the preamble; I can’t help it. (And then I laugh when I hear a child say they find “tranquility” on the playground or that cheese and crackers are a “perfect union” at snack time. Yes, they really do learn the vocabulary!) We draw a giant paper tree to understand the three branches of government, gluing little pictures of the White House, the Supreme Court Building, and the Capitol Building. The photos flip up so they can add photos of the president, the justices, and the congress in session.

At age five or six, they can tell you that the Constitution describes the “rules of our country” and they all have a sense of its “specialness.” We recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day, learning what all the big words mean. We learn how to fold a flag and how to hold it high. We learn the story of Fort McHenry, acting out what Francis Scott Key saw before he wrote his Star-Spangled Banner poem. (I always use a page from The Flag We Love, by Pam Munoz.)  Then we learn to sing this National Anthem; nothing is sweeter than watching little children sing their hearts out to this song once they know the words! Yes, I tear up again.

Through the fall, we explore American history, learning about exploration, Native Americans, the Pilgrims, and the Thanksgiving holiday traditions of our families. I learned about these topics as a child, but now we dig deeper. We don’t make craft stick Columbus boats as I did; instead, we read Jane Yolen’s beautiful book, Encounter, to understand Columbus’ arrival from the native Taino people’s perspective. We don’t make little Pilgrim hats as I did; instead, we compare the food, clothing, shelter, and daily life of Wampanoag families and Pilgrim families. Some children learn for the first time that not all families celebrate the same way they do, and in fact, some families celebrate completely different holidays.

I’m always moved at how accepting children are of these differences. They are not afraid or threatened; they think it’s cool to learn about people with different beliefs from their own. I get to introduce Veterans’ Day to the children. It’s not easy explaining war, but they understand honoring those who have served our country. When active duty and retired military women and men visit to share their stories of serving, the lessons stick.

In January and February, we study maps of the USA, locating Arizona and Washington DC and states our friends have visited. (I don’t want my students to end up failing a Jimmy Kimmel map quiz!) We take virtual tours of the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and Washington DC memorials and monuments, then sketch pictures and write reports. We talk about how all Americans learn these things, uniting us in a shared history. I get to teach the children about Martin Luther King. We read about his life and I have to explain some unexplainable parts of our country’s history. Young children know the difference between nice and not nice, between right and wrong, and, inevitably, someone will ask why people did those stupid things. They have no problem understanding King’s messages of fairness and peaceful action.

We watch grainy black and white segments of “I Have a Dream” and, every year, the children watch spellbound at King’s voice and presence. (Yes, I tear up again.) I get to tell the stories of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. I dig out an ancient poster showing how we honor these presidents on our money, with monuments, and by naming cities and schools after them. We identify the characteristics of leaders and imagine what we’d do as president. (Every year, when we look at another poster of all the presidents, a child will ask, “Where are all the ladies?” And then I get to explain that!) Phoenix celebrates Caesar Chavez Day in March, so I teach the children about this humble native Arizonan and Dolores Huerta, his partner in fighting for rights of farmworkers. (They are always impressed when I tell them I got to hear Chavez speak once – “Teacher, you saw a great American!”) 

Every year, at the end of many months of study, we put on a USA show for our families. We practice, practice, practice so we can present all we’ve learned about famous Americans, symbols, holidays, and traditions. We share our drawings and read our reports. We sing The Star-Spangled Banner, This is My Country, and God Bless America. (Each year, amongst an audience of parents and grandparents, I’m not the only one tearing up. The patriotism envelopes us all.) 

Why did I want to tell you all this? Last weekend I heard the president of the United States announce that “children are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it weren’t heroes but villains.” This is the same president who – in embarrassing displays of ignorance of American history – commented on Fredrick Douglass as if he was still alive; had never heard of Juneteenth; thought Canadians burned down the White House in 1812; said Andrew Jackson could have stopped the Civil War when he died 16 years before it started; and most frighteningly, thinks Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution lets him do whatever he wants. Just as he is wrong with each of these ridiculous errors, he is wrong about what we teach children about our country.

I’ve listened to lies and blathering nonsense for too long and, yes, I’m taking this latest dangerous insult personally. I love teaching social studies and my young students love learning. They explore the details of our country’s history and examine different perspectives. At ages five and six, they are learning to love their country, as I do, in all its greatness and without ignoring its flaws. My little students are on the path to being informed, engaged American citizens. That’s the truth. The president is free to announce it.

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