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Newly approved social studies standards emphasize multiple perspectives
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Newly approved social studies standards emphasize multiple perspectives

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Nebraska students will learn history, geography, civics and economics from multiple perspectives and in more depth under new social studies standards approved unanimously Friday by the Nebraska Board of Education.

To that end, they’ll be exposed to a more varied group of historical characters and events under the standards revised for the first time since 2012.

Examples of how to teach particular standards — guidance but not mandates for teachers — now include Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and the Tuskegee Airmen.

The Orphan Train and Santee Exile and Stonewall riots are included as examples of events students can study.

High school students must examine historical events from multiple perspectives and identify how differing experiences — such as religious, racial or ethnic groups, immigrants, women, LGBTQ individuals and Native American Nations — lead to the development of different perspectives. They examine how marginalized and underrepresented groups might understand historical events differently.

The Nebraska State Council for Social Studies wrote a letter supporting the revisions, saying one of the most notable changes is creating separate standards for the middle-school grades, rather than grouping the standards together for grades 6-8.

Separating them into different standards for each grade means the content being taught will be more consistent, making it easier for students moving from one district to another.

Former Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale also endorsed the revisions, commending the integration of different subjects and emphasis on civic engagement.

“I wholeheartedly support the 2019 social studies standards,” he said. “They meet current thinking and include new and exciting approaches that will instill a lifetime of civic involvement when students graduate.”

As secretary of state, Gale said he tried to promote civic engagement through student projects, but felt it required more than that.

Democracy requires that more people vote, and get involved as citizens beyond that, he said.

Seven years ago, when the Nebraska Department of Education revised its social studies standards for the first time in 20 years, it sparked heated debate over climate change, the concept of American exceptionalism and instilling patriotism in students.

Debates over the latter topics have continued in the Legislature, which passed a new civics bill, and at the Nebraska Board of Education when it tried to write a definition of civic readiness, a task it tabled.

The reaction to the latest revisions was more muted, although Native advocacy groups opposed the first draft of the standards, saying they didn’t adequately disprove misconceptions, touch on tribal life and culture or emphasize local tribes.

The educators pulled together to revise the standards took those suggestions into consideration, and reviewed the standards using a process from the Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center to ensure they didn’t reflect bias.

Marian Holstein, with the Nebraska Indian Education Association, said Friday the changes from the original draft are an “incredible improvement,” but said additional changes are still needed.

For instance, she said, Native American and tribal concepts could start in earlier grades and there could be more emphasis on land ownership before the reservation era.

In broad terms, the revision reduces the number of standards and strives to add more depth to them.

They include more examples, intended as guidance, though the state standards don’t tell schools how to teach the information, only what they must cover.

The standards also encourage the use of primary sources, inquiry, historical thinking, and gathering and analyzing data. They also focus more on personal finance.

Schools will begin to implement the new standards in the 2020-21 school year.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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