EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Michael Martirone is out to improve the image of history class as both interesting and crucial to a student’s future as a citizen.
The social studies teacher at Egg Harbor Township High School and Atlantic County’s Teacher of the Year partnered with New Jersey Teacher of the Year Chelsea Collins, who teaches middle school English in Woodstown, Salem County, for a project to promote literacy and global education through social studies.
Students in Martirone’s Honors World Cultures Class will read one of two memoirs that relate to history and current events. The two books, chosen in consultation with English teacher Lauren Alexander, are “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” by Ishmael Beah, and “The Other Side of the Sky” by Farah Ahmedi with Tamin Ansary.
The first tells the story of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, Africa. The second tells of a young girl’s experience in war-torn Afghanistan and her escape first to Pakistan, then America.
“I wanted to promote history in a way that makes it come alive,” Martirone said Thursday as students received their books. U.S. History II teachers will let students pick their own book for a research project.
Martirone said social studies too often takes a back seat to other subjects. There is no required state test as there is in English and math. There is no national promotional campaign as there is for science, technology, engineering and math, often referred to as STEM.
But Martirone said social studies is a subject students will need throughout their lives.
“You may never need to do algebra again,” he said. “But if you plan to vote, if you pay taxes, you will use social studies.”
The results of the 2014 Nartional Assessment of Education Progress in social studies found only 18 percent of eighth-graders tested nationally were proficient in U.S. history. Only 27 percent were proficient in geography, and just 23 percent were proficient in civics. Only eighth-graders were tested that year due to budget cuts, so no results were available for fourth- and 12th-graders who are tested in math and language arts.
Martirone said he has given sections of the U.S. Citizenship test to students to make the point that they should know at least as much about their own government as foreigners who wish to become citizens.
On Thursday, Martirone and Collins worked in small groups with the students, Collins focusing on the story-telling aspects of the books, and Martirone talking with students about what they wanted to learn from them.
Maddie Shick, 15, said she had heard of the boy soldiers and chose Beah’s story so she could learn about it from someone who was there.
Students also watched a television interview with Beah and read articles about the issues. They wrote six-word summaries on the theme of their books that included: “The nightmare kids should not endure,” “The gun does not know age” and “Knowledge burns deeper than acid does.”
Martirone said he would like to see the state require a fourth year of social studies in high school because there is just so much more to teach today.
“We had to revamp our curriculum just so we could get to the modern day,” he said. “We barely hit the 9/11 attacks.”
He said students are interested in history and social studies if it is presented in a way they can relate to. Collaborating with English teachers is a way to add literature and promote literacy.
Collins, of Elmer in Salem County, worked at Harrah’s before getting a master’s in teaching and switching careers. She has been traveling the state and is impressed at the ways teachers are engaging their students in real-life and project-based learning.
Martirone said real-life stories give students a reason to be interested in what is happening around the world.
“We are increasing global awareness with primary sources,” he said.
“This is something we should start doing earlier in school,” Collins said. “Reading leads to better writing, and better citizenship.”