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Inquiry and Integration Across the Curriculum: Global Citizenry

A major goal of social studies instruction is to create engaged citizens capable of making informed and reasoned decisions for the public good. More recently, the idea of global citizenry has come under discussion in classrooms across the county. This month we consider one example of active citizenship by focusing on the life of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai.

Dr. Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) is known for her extraordinary work as an environmentalist, political activist, and supporter of women’s rights. To achieve her environmental goals, she founded the Green Belt Movement, a campaign that expanded beyond her native Kenya to other African nations. Her extensive grassroots projects to combat deforestation earned her the name Mama Miti, or “the mother of trees.” As a member of the Kenya’s Parliament, she worked to promote voter registration and constitutional reform. Her efforts to support sustainable development, democracy, and peace earned her a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards emphasizes the use of compelling questions to promote inquiry. By drawing on the core disciplines of civics, economics, geography, and history, the framework helps educators introduce their students to the disciplinary perspectives needed to pursue inquiry in the social studies. Suggested performance indicators for each discipline guide us in shaping this approach. This framework also points to the many connections to Common Core State Standards in the language arts and literacy.

Inquiry and Integration

Topic/Essential Question: Why is Wangari Maathai considered a global citizen?
Grade Span:  Grade 3-4
Disciplinary Lens:
  • Civics: In order to act responsibly, citizens must learn the rules by which groups of people make decisions, govern themselves, and address public problems.
  • Economics: Economic decision-making involves making choices about how to use scarce resources to maximize the well-being of individuals and society.
  • History: An understanding of history requires an understanding the process of change and continuity over time.

Performance Standards:

The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards:

  • D2.Civ.6.3-5. Describe the ways in which people benefit from and are challenged by working together, including through government, workplaces, voluntary organizations, and families.
  • D2.Eco.1.3-5. Compare the benefits and costs of individual choices.
  • D2.Eco.2.3-5. Identify positive and negative incentives that influence decisions people make.
  • D2.His.3.305. Generate questions about individuals and groups who have shaped significant historical changes and continuities.

Common Core State Standards: (

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.3.1-4.1  Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.3.2-4.2  Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.2-4.2  Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.3.2-4.2 Determine the main ideas and supporting details of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Children’s Literature:

Books about Wangari Maathai

Johnson, J. C. (2010). Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace. Ill. by S. L. Sadler. New York: Lee & Low.
Napoli, D. J. (2010). Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya. Ill. By K.Nelson. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Nivola, C. A. (2008). Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Winter, J. (2008). Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa. Orlando: Harcourt.

Additional Books about Active Citizens

Hopkins, H. J. (2013). The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever. New York: Beach Lane Books.
Zalben, J. B. (2006). Paths to Peace: People Who Changed the World. New York: Dutton.

Teaching Ideas:

  • After reading aloud Wangari’s Trees of Peace and Seeds of Change, work with students to complete the chart below as they gather information about conditions in Wangari’s village. What was life in her village like before she left for the U.S? What was it like when she returned? What was it like after the women of her village implemented changes?

Conditions in Kenya

Before Wangari Left Kenya        When Wangari Returned                After implementing

                                                             to Kenya                                     changes  



  • Using the completed chart (above), have students write an explanation of how the people in Wangari’s village were able to make changes that benefitted everyone. Ask them to cite evidence from the books to support their ideas.
  • In Mama Miti the author makes this statement: “Wangari changed a country one tree at a time. She taught her people the ancient wisdom of peace with nature.” Read Mama Miti aloud and discuss the following questions: What information did Wangari share with the people in her village?  How did this information teach them to peacefully co-exist with nature? Make a chart providing this information.

    What Wangari Taught Her People                    Why this Knowledge is about Peace

                                                                                               With Nature


After completing the chart, discuss the benefits of maintaining peace with nature.

  • In Seeds of Change, the author explains that big companies had one idea about how land could be used and Wangari and the Green Belt movement had another. Read the book aloud, and discuss these conflicting ideas. What are the benefits of following Wangari’s idea? The big companies? Which idea is best? Why?
  • After reading several of the books listed above, have students imagine they have the opportunity to interview Wangari Maathai. Have one student prepare to take Wangari’s role, while the rest of the students formulate  questions for her. After interviewing Wangari, also interview a woman from Wangari’s village, a man from Wangari’s village, the policeman who arrested Wangari, and the owner of a large company who sought land in Kenya. These interviews will assist students in seeing the various perspectives on Wangari’s Green Belt movement.
  • Have students work in pairs to write one-page plays. Using any of the books listed above, have students select an illustration that includes several people. For example, in Planting the Trees of Kenya one picture depicts Wangari speaking to children in a classroom as she explains how they can make their own tree nurseries. Imagine that the people in the illustration are talking to each other. Have students write a dialog that relates what they are saying. Students should practice reading their plays aloud, and then present them to the class.
  • Discuss how students can work together to benefit all. See if students can come up with a project that promotes citizenship and the well-being of everyone in the classroom.
  • Read The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins. In what ways is this story about Katherine Olivia Sessions, the woman who worked with volunteers to plant trees in San Diego, similar to and different than the story of Wangari Maathai? Make a Venn diagram comparing the work of these two women. Use the completed diagram as the basis of writing a comparison of Katherine Olivia Sessions and Wangari Maathai’s careers.
  • Paths to Peace: People Who Changed the World by Jane Breskin Zalben provides brief portraits of 16 people—including Wangari Maathai—whose work has had a lasting impact. Read selected portraits and discuss how each person profiled worked to make the world a better place. Have each student learn more about one of the individuals featured in the book and prepare a short presentation about why that person should be considered a global citizen. People featured in the book include Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Anwar Sadat.

Examining the life and work of Wangari Maathai through the disciplinary lenses of civics, economics and history helps students understand the meaning of citizenship. The C3 Standards zero in on the important goals of social studies, while the Common Core State Standards keep those goals related to informational literacy in sharp focus. When these standards are used together to plan curriculum, the result is a truly powerful, integrated approach to learning.

Next month, we explore middle school science.

Eds. Note: Other, recent topics explored in this column include: “Deconstructing Nonfiction,” “Talking about Nonfiction,” and “Inquiry and Nonfiction.”

‘Nation’s Report Card’ Shows Students’ Math, Reading Skills Slowly Improving

American students’ skill levels in mathematics and reading have risen marginally since 2011 in the fourth and eighth grades, according to the latest findings from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). However, The Nation’s Report Card: 2013 Mathematics and Reading, which was released publicly today, also shows that challenges to student success remain.

Although the nation’s eighth graders are technically performing at their highest levels ever in both the mathematics and reading categories, students’ gains in reading skills have not quite kept pace with their gains in mathematics during the same period, the report shows. Also, fourth-grade achievement in reading lags behind the gains that eighth graders have made in recent years, and achievement gaps in both subjects are still evident between certain racial/ethnic groups, and among specific states.

According to the report, fourth graders’ average reading scores in 2013 are flat since the previous assessment in 2011, but up about two points for eighth graders. The report also shows that, compared with 1992—the first year for which reading assessment scores are available—average US reading scores in 2013 are up about five points for fourth graders, higher than in all previous years except 2011, and up by about eight points for eighth graders to the highest level ever achieved in that grade.

Students’ mathematics scores in 2013 are up about one point each for both grades since the 2011 assessment. When compared with 1990—the first year for which mathematics assessment scores are available—average US scores have improved much more dramatically: by about 28 points for fourth graders and about 22 points for eighth graders, the highest levels ever achieved in both grades.

National, continuing assessment
The Nation’s Report Card, also known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), is a nationally representative and continuing assessment of US students; it is overseen by Jack Buckley, the NCES Commissioner, while its policies are set by the National Assessment Governing Board.

Testing for the NAEP periodically covers mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, and US history. In 2014, it will also include Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL). The assessments are administered uniformly using the same sets of test booklets across the nation. Grades 4 and 8 are chosen for the math and reading assessments “because they represent critical junctures in academic achievement,” according to the governing board.

The 2013 NAEP was given to more than 377,000 fourth graders and 342,000 eighth graders in public and private schools in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and US Department of Defense schools. It quantifies student performance in two ways, through scale scores and achievement levels of “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced.” The standards for these levels—concerning what students should know and be able to do for each subject and each grade—are set by the governing board.

Slow gains in reading
In the reading category, today’s NAEP shows the percentage of the nation’s fourth-grade students performing at or above the level of “proficient” in 2013 at 35 percent, compared with 34 percent in 2011 and 28 percent in 1992. At the same time, 36 percent of eighth graders are at or above the level of “proficient” in 2013, compared with 33 percent in 2011 and 29 percent in 1992.

In comparison, the percentage of students still below the “basic” level of achievement is lower in 2013 for both the fourth and eighth grades than it has ever been: at 32 and 22 percent, respectively, compared with 33 and 24 percent in 2011, and 38 and 31 percent in 1992.

Other positive findings since 2011 include higher eighth-grade reading scores for most racial/ethnic groups overall (including black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students as their scores rose alongside those of white students); higher scores for eighth graders at all five of the percentile levels by two or three points; and at least 15 states achieving a level of “proficient” in reading that’s higher than the national average for both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, Commissioner Buckley notes. He adds, “We see a very interesting story in grade eight reading.”

And even though these year-on-year gains are “modest,” as David P. Driscoll, chair of the governing board, puts it, he also notes that “some states have notable improvements, and over time all of these improvements add up to higher achievement overall.”

For example, California’s eighth-grade reading scores in 2013 are up seven points from 2011, and the state has narrowed the gap in reading achievement between its white and Hispanic students in the eighth grade. At the same time, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York have each narrowed this same white/Hispanic achievement gap for their fourth-grade students.

Unfortunately, when it comes to fourth graders’ reading scores when broken out by racial/ethnic demographic, the only average that has risen since 2011 has been for white students, the NAEP shows—although the white/black achievement gap has narrowed since 1992.

Only five states/jurisdictions (the Department of Defense schools, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Tennessee, and Washington) show gains in both their fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores in 2013 compared with 2011, while nine states currently show gains in only their eighth-grade scores, and reading scores in three states (Massachusetts, Montana, and North Dakota) actually were lower in 2013 than in 2011 for fourth-grade students. In Oklahoma, meanwhile, scores were lower for both grades.

Math achievement builds
Mathematics proficiency is growing much more steadily, building on previous years’ significant gains, the NAEP reveals. About 42 percent of the nation’s fourth-grade students are performing at or above the level of “proficient” in 2013, compared with 41 percent in 2011 and only 13 percent in 1990, a huge increase over time. For eighth graders, 36 percent of students in 2013 are at or above the level of “proficient,” compared with 34 percent in 2011 and 15 percent in 1990.

The percentages of students still below the “basic” level of achievement in mathematics has hit new lows this year: 17 percent for fourth graders and 26 percent for eighth graders, compared with 18 and 27 percent in 2011 and a whopping 50 and 48 percent in 1990.

“Today’s results give me hope, as more students are performing at or above the ‘proficient’ level—which tells me that they are demonstrating competency over challenging subject matter when it comes to math and reading,’ Driscoll says.

Other math highlights of the NAEP: students in 16 states/jurisdictions have achieved higher mathematics scores in 2013 compared with 2011 levels; math scores of the nation’s Hispanic students have improved for both the fourth and eighth grades; fourth-grade math scores in Tennessee and the District of Columbia rose seven points each; New Jersey and Rhode Island both narrowed the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students for both grade levels in math; and Maine narrowed the gap in achievement between black and white students in fourth-grade mathematics.

Scores for fourth graders in mathematics continue to increase as well,” says Commissioner Buckley. “We also see score increases in both grades and both subjects in three states/jurisdictions—the Department of Defense schools, the District of Columbia, and Tennessee.”

Common Core, credited
Notably, all eight states that had implemented the Common Core State Standards prior to this year’s NAEP show improvement in at least math or reading and none showed declines, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan points out this morning in a prepared statement about the report.

“Given the rapid and comprehensive changes that America’s educators are implementing in classrooms across the nation, it is to their credit that we are seeing the strongest performance in the history of the NAEP,” Duncan says. “Our national progress makes me optimistic that local leaders and educators are showing the way to raising standards and driving innovation in the next few years.”

Duncan adds, “It is encouraging to see progress in tough economic times, when so many states and local communities have struggled with significant cuts to their education budgets.”

To examine the data further, stakeholders can visit the NAEP’s new interactive web reporting format, which allows one to examine student performance based on selected demographic characteristics—such as race/ethnicity, gender, or students’ eligibility for the National School Lunch Program—and even view what questions students must answer to be deemed ‘proficient’ in a subject.

The online version of the report and its related graphics also offers site visitors a look at how each state is performing, a tool to compare states to each other, and instructional videos to help make the data “even more accessible and usable than in the past,” Buckley says.

Buckley notes, “This is the first of several reports we will be releasing in the coming months. We also assessed mathematics and reading in 21 large urban districts around the country and those results will be released later this year. In addition, we assessed mathematics and reading at grade 12 in 2013, both nationally and in a pilot program at the state level involving 13 states.” Those results are due in 2014.

The Gateway Drug | Consider the Source

One of the big questions for nonfiction lovers was posed by Jonathan Hunt a couple of years ago. He suggested that the “Harry Potter” series had opened up fantasy for generations of readers. What kind of book, he asked, would be the “gateway drug” for nonfiction readers? What could/should we offer lovers of those discrete weird-and-wacky fact books as a next step in their reading growth? How can we lead them from record- and list-filled books to inquiry, questioning, and critical reading? Jonathan proposed the Steve Sheinkin model of “reads like a novel” pace and engagement as one answer. I spent my day today with teachers at the Literacy for All conference in Providence, RI, and polled them. An answer emerged that held real promise. Let me know what you think.

One 8th grade teacher suggested turning kids loose on researching their own local “Weird But True!” (National Geographic) set of facts and records. Another brought up articles in magazines such as Popular Science, which describe how some interesting object or mechanism is constructed. And today, at a staff development conference in New Jersey, a teacher mentioned how popular the football cookbooks are with elementary school-age boys. She asked why there aren’t baseball, basketball, and soccer cookbooks. I answered, “let’s have our students write them.” As I thought about these exchanges and what they suggested, I saw the answer: making, doing, creating. If, as younger readers, these students gathered stats and facts, a logical extension might be to put information into action by generating something. That something could be building robots, geocaching, producing a public service announcement tackling some social ill, or researching and reporting on a local ecological issue–anything, really. I think this idea holds real promise. Minds that had been actively  accumulating can be set loose on instructions, then plans, then competition.

As kids create we might offer them biographies of inventors, survivalists, adventurers–people who have impacted the communities and the world they live in. Action paired with models is made doubly relevant because it matches students’ current challenges and interests.

I like this version of the “gateway drug” because it does not build a nonfiction reading sequence on patterns drawn from fiction. Of course, page-turning narrative nonfiction has a lot to offer. But that is one option for one set of readers. The information accumulation-to-creation passage begins to explore nonfiction with readers on their own terms. I can easily see how students accustomed to figuring out how to do something would begin to question how someone else has solved a problem. And that is the step “up” to inquiry that waits on the other side of the gate.


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