Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (HCLAS) and School of Education (SOE) alum April Francis (BA ’03, MA ’07, Advanced Certificate ’15), who teaches at the Lawrence Road Middle School in Hempstead, N.Y., is leading the charge toward social studies education reform. Francis was a member of the New York State Toolkit’s Teacher Collaborative Council, a select group of 42 K-12 teachers chosen from nearly 400 applicants who were charged with developing a new approach to teaching and learning social studies.
The new “inquiry-based” approach moves away from the traditional teaching of historical facts, and emphasizes critical thinking.
Unlike traditional lesson plans and thematic units, inquiries are not a step-by-step road map for teachers to follow when teaching a particular topic. Inquiries set a curricular and instructional course for teachers to consider in light of the New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework, which is designed to prepare students for college, careers and civic life. Teachers are responsible for tapping into their own professional expertise and knowledge surrounding particular topics to help to make the content more relatable for students.
For her part, Francis reviewed and piloted the New York State Social Studies Toolkit, which includes 84 inquiries — six for each grade from K-11 and 12 for grade 12 (six each for economics and participation in government). Each of the inquiries features a blueprint and a short description of how a teacher might teach the inquiry.
Francis recently caught the attention of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). In her feature interview in NCSS’s flagship journal, Social Education, she described how she works to create an engaging classroom by teaching her seventh graders the Uncle Tom’s Cabin inquiry, which uses Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel to give students an opportunity to explore how words affect public opinion.
“To get students to dig into the text, I framed their reading with the compelling question, ‘Can Words Lead to War?’” Francis said in the interview. “As a real-life example of the power of words, I mentioned social media, and asked if someone posted something on a social media site that was negative or positive—what effect would that have on them?”
When asked how inquiry-based teaching prepares students for civic life, she replied, “Today’s society is based on argumentation and compromise, and people having a voice. It’s about having a say and then ultimately making decisions. I think that inquiries like those in the New York State Toolkit give students the tools to learn to be the change agents of the future. As a historian and a social studies teacher, I want my students to be active citizens. There are things in our society that need to improve, and I want the students to see in themselves that they can make that change just like the people we’ve been learning about. I want them to know that they can be that Martin Luther King or they can be César Chávez.”
And asked whether teaching using the Inquiry Design Model promotes a noisy classroom, Francis replied, “Yes … but a noisy engaged classroom is very different from just a noisy classroom. In an engaged classroom, the noise will include students sharing their knowledge, using accountable talk, and discussing their opinions on the topic at hand. It will be ‘educational noise,’ so to speak!”
“April Francis is an outstanding Hofstra alumna,” said Dr. Alan Singer, Director, Secondary Education Social Studies, Teacher Education Programs. “Not only is she a scholar as well as a teacher, but she continues to serve as a mentor to students in the teacher education program.”