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A new University of Wyoming College of Education faculty member, a nationally renowned author and educators interested in building student interest in civic engagement are working to expand statewide educational opportunities grounded in social studies.
Mark Helmsing, the college’s new social studies specialist, joined the UW Department of Secondary Education faculty in fall 2014. While the Project Citizen project (www.civiced.org/programs/project-citizen) long has been part of the social studies education curriculum, Helmsing was less familiar with the initiative on arrival in Wyoming.
A search for more information about Project Citizen programs in Wyoming led him to Dick Kean, Wyoming’s state coordinator. Their conversations led to an opportunity to bring author, political commentator and speaker Larry Gerston to campus. His keynote talk, “Citizenship, Policy Making and Project Citizen,” provided the centerpiece for a two-day event that drew educators and administrators -- and even home-school and UW students -- from Wyoming, Colorado and New York.
“Wyoming Project Citizen: Teaching Public Policy Through Student Engagement” provided opportunities for participants to learn more about Project Citizen and explore ways to incorporate it into their social studies programs. Casper teacher Dawn Strand facilitated an extended exploration of the latter.
“Two-thirds of Saturday was Dawn going over Project Citizen,” Helmsing says, “having teachers look over the project, brainstorming how they could use it in their schools.”
Beyond the chance to extend Project Citizen’s reach in the state, the event provided Helmsing with an opportunity to open doors with Wyoming’s social studies educators.
“The other third (of that day’s schedule) was a chance for me to introduce myself as the new faculty member in social studies and to have a chance to have an open forum on needs and goals that the teachers identify for social studies in Wyoming,” Helmsing says.
What he found in those discussions was strong interest in enhancing social studies programs and individual classes, particularly within the context of new Wyoming curriculum standards.
“I’m excited to help teachers explore the possibilities for those standards and then teach to them in the methods class so that our students are getting familiar with them,” he says.
Helmsing also found strong interest in exploring new avenues for embedding other standards into social studies classes.
“The teachers are eager to learn how to integrate more literacy topics in social studies and help their students with reading and writing, which is a good direction for social studies to take,” he says.
As Helmsing moves forward in his work with UW social studies education majors, introducing his students to innovative ways to embed literacy into lesson plans will be a high priority. Already, he has found ways to incorporate the vast range of archival resources available at UW’s American Heritage Center into the social studies education curriculum.
“The American Heritage Center has been really helpful in getting our social studies methods students hands-on experiences with primary documents, so they can work on their reading and writing teaching skills,” he says. “We spent a couple of weeks in the fall methods II class, digging through these Pearl Harbor files and figuring out how can you present a richer unit on Pearl Harbor with their high school and middle school students, using these primary sources.”
Encouraging students to make the most of the riches surrounding them also is part of Helmsing’s instructional agenda.
“Wyoming is a great laboratory for doing social studies,” he says. “This state has everything. It has unique geography. It’s a great laboratory for history, because we had so many historical junctures occur here, whether it was the Transcontinental Railroad, westward expansion, Heart Mountain, you name it. Our students come with really deep, firsthand experience with history, because it’s in their backyard.”
As Helmsing looks toward the centennial of social studies as a discipline in 2016, he also hopes to support educators interested in returning to its roots: civic engagement.
“We think of voting as the ultimate act of civic duty, but there’s actually a lot of different ways for young people to be involved in their communities as citizens,” he says. “That’s really important for teachers, for them to go back to their students and say, ‘It’s more than just voting. It’s more than just picking up trash as a volunteer.’ There are lots of ways to get involved.”