A Social Studies Course for Social Studies’ Sake

Excerpt from “Rebooting Social Studies” by Greg Milo, adapted for The Devil Strip

Remember that high school history class you used as an opportunity to catch up on the sleep you missed because you were recording a mixtape for that love interest you met while dancing to Color Me Bad’s “I Wanna Sex You Up?”

Geesh, was that class a drag or what? All that copying from the dry textbook with the cover that a student years earlier had scratched the Twisted Sister logo.

That course still exists for today’s students. Not much has changed in the social studies standards.

Sure, our wonderful teachers battle the drab traditions of reading and regurgitation as a means to motivate the students by introducing more active projects. But how far are they willing or able to go to upset traditional social studies?

Given the data (and the students’ future), education should be much more active and mobile and self-led, not restricted to our traditional early bird school mornings that throw class after class at students, as the poor kids move from room to room, sitting and sitting, stressing and stressing.

What can we do in the short term in Akron to help energize our social studies courses for the benefit of our students and city?

How can we allow the students to interact with their history? How can we allow the students some choice and autonomy with their history? How can we help our students become experts in history? How can we make it so that the students can touch, see, and smell their history? How can we excite our students to stick around and contribute to Akron?

Akron history.

We spend a lot of time in school teaching students history of far off lands and eras. Students feel disconnected from these worlds. There’s a lack of relevance. “How does this apply to me,” students ask their brains. “It doesn’t,” the brains answer back.

A study of the students’ immediate world would serve them better. There’s history wherever we go. Why not start with the self and then move to the abstract beyond? If students see a connection between their daily commute to school and the content being discussed in class, there will be more buy-in. If students realize a bridge between the school world and their real life, they won’t feel so distant from the content. If students feel their background and neighborhood is important, then they’ll have an interest and maybe even participate.

Local history is powerful. Local culture is powerful. The students can’t help but feel a connection to the content.

If we focus on the skills instead of the content, which seems more useful in the 21st century, it doesn’t matter what the history is. No doubt, the history and culture from city to city will be different, but to think that one city has a richer past than another is totally off the mark. Not too mention, there are many different ways to examine a single place.

Let’s consider an example of what a course on local history would look like for Akron.

The course could be a semester course, where the goal for the students is specifically to engage. Engage with the community. Engage the brain. Engage responsibility.

The first quarter could focus primarily on the history of Akron, sprinkling current event discussions throughout. For instance, a study of Akron’s canal-linked origin could be topped off with challenging students to design a more pedestrian-friendly city, starting with Main Street—an extremely wide road due to the canal that once ran down the middle.

The second quarter could focus more on current events and current questions the city is grappling with. There’s no loss of challenges for students to problem solve: the opiate crisis, vacant lots, poverty, what to do with the leftovers of Route 59.

Most cities don’t have a textbook, but there are plenty of sources to pull from, everything from local authors to newspapers to the library’s historical documents to pamphlets printed by historic sites or historical societies.

And where the documents lack, tap into the genius of historians. The best part about studying a hometown is the easy access and willingness of guest speakers. Use the local experts as the textbook. They’re a textbook that can take questions in real time! Without technology! No out-of-date stock photo images!

It takes a little work on the front end to meet with local experts in order to figure out how they could fit into the class, but think about how rich it would be to bring an expert in each week. Together, the teacher and the local experts could build the curriculum, bridging the sometimes disappointing gap between education and the real world.

Teach the students collaboration, not by telling them, but by engaging with the community. Break through those walls that make education seem separate from the outside world. What the students learn in class should prepare them for that outside world, not hide them or protect them from it.

A course on Akron could invite experts on the native Seneca populations and the use of the Cuyahoga River. The next speaker could talk about the canal system that would bring the city to life. Another speaker could talk about the oats and marble industries of the 1800s. The next speaker could talk about how the city became the Rubber Capital of the world. The final speaker on history could talk about the modern struggles of a “Rust Belt” city.

If speakers can’t be found for every unit, gather supplementary readings for the students. The Special Collections at the Main Branch Library, or the Summit County Historical Society, or UA’s Bierce Library are all happy to collaborate. Utilize those community resources!

Ask students to venture out into the community to observe their surroundings, old buildings and historic markers, for example. Have the students take pictures. Post the pictures on social media. Post the pictures on a student website where they collect all of their findings. Build a collection of pictures and student reflections. Organize an end-of-semester presentation at the school, where the students teach an audience of the community about their hometown, using references from experts and the pictures.

The second quarter would examine the culture of the city, including neighborhoods, music and entertainment, arts, religion and highlighted attractions. In the same quarter, the class would cover the current state of the city’s responsibilities, such as education, public safety, neighborhoods, health, police and fire, law and whatever else you’d like to include.

Require students to spend ten minutes with each guest, interviewing them while on camera. The footage could be used for a class project, as well as for next year’s class as a resource. And with each speaker, build an activity that asks the students to put the expert’s presentations into action.

If someone talks to the class about what to do with abandoned houses or old buildings, challenge your class to develop plans. Ask students to research what other cities have done with abandoned houses and old buildings that have succeeded (or failed). Ask students to identify articles that address the topic, either locally or in another similar city (in the case of Akron, another Rust Belt city).

Use a community approach to social studies to introduce students to entrepreneurs in the city who turned their passion into a successful business.

For instance, a student in love with fashion could check out NOTO. Of course, the student could read Emile Zola’s The Ladies Paradise as a supplementary resource, but a teacher could also bring the experience to life by allowing the student to pick the brain of the local (living) business owner, learning not only what it took to open the shop, but also the strategies in bringing in customers. Every inventor in the 1800s had to do the same or risk not making the history books.

There’s a tech nerd in the class? That student could reach out to the entrepreneur who grew up tinkering with guitar effects pedals, such as EarthQuaker. Maybe the student isn’t a lover of music. If that’s the case, then the student could connect with UA’s strong biomimicry program.

What awesome business niche do students have simmering in their brain? All they need is the right inspiration to see their entrepreneurial spirit come to life.

Have a little fun with “on-site assignments.” Organize several walking tours of your city. Hold them after school. Any student who wants to participate can join you, fulfilling one of their on-site requirements. Walking tours allow teachers to take learning beyond the classroom. The learning experience becomes real. Students get to see the history first hand, even touch the history. Teachers can show how the past merges with the present by identifying where buildings once were or how older buildings stand next to newer, underscoring the importance of city planning.

A social studies course that allows the students to examine their surroundings, first, shows students how to engage in their community, and second, allows students to practice their civic skills first hand.


Greg Milo has worked to educate the Akron community since 2003. He currently collaborates with the Knight Foundation to build Common Threads Akron community conversations and Akron2Akron walks. Before that, he worked in minor league baseball, chronicled in his book “Sweaty Mascots Start Greasefires.” Milo is a Creative Community Fellow, where he’s spend a week locked up in a Vermont cabin with Chris Horn. He is also highlighted on the cover of the Downtown Akron Partnership magazine handing First Energy’s Chris Eck a cup of Akron Coffee Roasters coffee.