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Westwood reworks social studies curriculum

They say you can’t rewrite history, but in Westwood the school department is reworking its entire social studies curriculum to comply with new state education standards. Teachers at every grade level worked over the summer to ensure the material they present this school year meets the new requirements.

“The greatest change is in the 8th grade,” said Westwood Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Allison Borchers. “U.S. history is now transitioning to a civics curriculum, with a real lens on helping kids to understand the role of citizenship and government.”

Teams from the elementary, middle school and high school all took aim at updating the curriculum at each level. These teams participated in a Democracy Lab run by Primary Source in Watertown, a nonprofit which offers professional and curriculum development to educators from grades K through 12. “They provided a four-day boot camp for our teachers where they rolled up their sleeves and worked on developing unit and lesson plans,” explained Borchers. “That work will be followed by online support during the school year from Primary Source. It also allows our staff to network with other teachers throughout the state.”

The middle school curriculum, particularly the 8th grade, will see the most noticeable changes. The focus will go from history to a true civics focus. “We find middle schoolers today are grappling with questions such as what their rights and responsibilities are as citizens,” said Borchers. “This change reflects their interest perfectly.”

Teacher Dan Peppercorn said he’s looking forward to integrating many of the Primary Source lessons into his 8th grade classes. “When looking at the Rights and Responsibilities unit, I like how Primary Source has a lesson that focuses on how young people have participated in political life and fought for change. Focusing on the activism of teens is meaningful for our 8th-graders,” said Peppercorn.

Another lesson includes analyzing the front page of liberal and conservative newspapers in order to gain a better understanding of the political spectrum.

The district has hired a new middle school social studies and English language arts department head. “We are very excited to have Marisa Olivo join our staff,” said Thurston Middle School Principal Michael Redmon. “Her job is to oversee a shift in the way work is being done and provide coaching for the teachers that are taking this on. She, along with our entire team, will think creatively on how to connect social studies and ELA (English language arts) when it’s appropriate.”

All of this preparation will help prepare 8th-graders for a new MCAS section on civics and social studies. While the exact rollout of this new component of MCAS testing hasn’t been announced yet, it will not be a traditional pencil and paper test. Rather, students will be required to create a portfolio which reflects the work they’ve done.

The heavy emphasis on civics, Borchers said, shows how educators are shifting the focus of social studies to help inform and engage young citizens. “We’re excited about the changes and very fortunate to work in a district where we have the opportunity to spend the time and have the resources to revamp our curriculum in a meaningful way, which will help ensure student success.”

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