New Social Studies and Education Course Draws on Faculty, Inquiry and Central Park
In the final class of the semester, a boisterous class of Social Studies students, clearly enjoying their fellow classmates and the course, were asked to give their carefully planned presentations. The course, “Social Inquiry: NYC’s Central Park”, posed the essential question, how does society deal with the rise of modernity?
Students taking the course are not only lucky enough to study under all three illustrious faculty members, Professor and Department Chair William Gaudelli, Professor Christine Baron, and Professor Sandra Schmidt from the Program in Social Studies Education, but were also required to spend time in Central Park researching its various themes. The students were separated into four groups guided by a different theme to examine Central Park.
The first group, all of whom were male, loaded their Prezi presentation on the projector to a room of puzzled stares and scowls. Their title read, “Historic Men in Central Park”. The group initially set out to look at the statues erected of icons and historical figures throughout Central Park, but what they found was disconcerting. Most of the statues were of white men, others were of fictional characters and the rest were of animals. The only women depicted in the park were of fictional women, and all figures of African-American men were located technically outside of the park. This line of inquiry caused them to look into the practices of Central Park in determining how statues get approved.
A second group questioned whether Central Park caters to the needs of certain social classes while another group focused on tourism and Central Park, citing the media has a heavy hand in influencing the sites most frequented. The last group looked at public versus private Central Park and how people engage in intimate activities in public spaces.
The aim of the course was to engage students in inquiry, according to Prof. Gaudelli. “We were talking about both what makes us distinct in NYC and how we can engage activity together to focus on a core way of doing/thinking social studies, which is inquiry,” he said. Throughout the year, students are poised to understand how they can create curriculum that will not only be engaging and relevant, but meet state and district standards.
The three professors, whose scholarly research span from global citizen education to historical thinking using non-traditional texts to civic education and gender and queer theory, all decided it was important to teach the course together. “We decided as a group that we all needed to share in the teaching of the course to give our individual inflections as well as learning to teach together,” Prof. Gaudelli said.
After the final presentations, students then engaged in reflection and discussion with the three faculty members about social inquiry. Many students agreed that even as native New Yorkers, they were able to see the park in a new way. Others noted they now use inquiry for everyday life.
According to the syllabus, the three thematic strands used to study Central Park as a space of inquiry are industrialization-history, urbanization-space, and globalization-interdependence. Prof. Schmidt redirected student’s attention to picking up the three critical themes of the class, asking, “How can industrialization in a park change the question you ask as you prepare to teach topics like Westward Expansion?” The students explored this question and others the faculty proposed in their groups.
The yearlong course, which is here to stay, is not only unconventional in that all three faculty are involved, but that it spans two semesters. “We always planned it as a two semester course,” said Prof. Gaudelli. “The first semester to organize learning about central park as an object of inquiry, for us to model processes around thinking this way, and the second semester for them to engage in a collaborative study related to the same in regard to issues that surfaced in the first semester.”
Students in the course are all Master’s candidates in the Program in Social Studies who will spend the Spring semester in their student teaching placements.
At the close of the class, Prof. Schmidt said goodbye to students after asking them to brainstorm new ideas to refocus the lens of social analysis upon for next semester. As the time ticked ten minutes past the usual ending time, students lingered to talk about their upcoming projects. They will spend the next semester collaboratively inquiring about Central Park through the lens of their own newly formed questions.
In our next article we will follow up with students as they finish up their final projects and reflect on their student teaching experiences.
Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Office Assistant for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also a second year M.A. student in the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.