Social history is:

  • the study of the lives of groups of ordinary people, the people that are not the elite, wealthy, or politically powerful.
  • the study of trends that occur over time that shape everyday life and society

Primary sources used for the study of social history include written documents and official records, images, and everyday objects such as toys, tombstones, or household furnishings.

Why incorporate social history in the middle and high school classroom?

  1. History becomes more relevant to students because they are studying issues related to their own daily lives.  Students learn the historical background for everyday experiences.
  2. Students develop an analytical perspective to examine their own lives and culture.
  3. Aligns with current standards and instructional approaches including

More Resources:

American Social History Project

Wearing Three Pairs of Glasses: Social History and Cultural Responsive TeachingWearing Three Pairs of Glasses: Social History and Cultural Responsive Teaching

Blog post from Connected by National Council of the Social Studies

References to lenses as unique ways of seeing the world are increasingly common, especially in pedagogical texts that describe culturally responsive teaching.  Incorporating social history themes in the classroom is an excellent way to introduce new ways of seeing the world through three sets of culturally responses lenses, or glasses.

The first pair of glasses refer to how students originally see the world through their own cultural framework. This framework is formed by students’ experiences within their own family, culture, and community. The second set of glasses help students “see” similarities and differences between their own experiences and those of other individuals, families, cultures, communities, and nations. Students are asked to analyze why, when, and how differences occur and consider the implications in economic, political, and social situations.

A culturally response approach using social history adds a third set of lenses – social history glasses. Students explore how daily routines in the past were responses to historical realities and cultural expectations for men, women, and children; just as modern differences are a product of unique circumstances and cultures. Historical concepts are measured again the present. Discussion and critical analysis takes place on three levels; students compare and contrast human experiences in the past, in modern culture, and their own lives.

Consider these three different pairs of glasses using a social history theme such as vacationing – first in students’ own lives, second in modern popular culture, and finally in the past. Essential questions such as How do ethnicity, race, sex, or social class impact vacation choices today? In the past? serve to focus inquiry on key issues.

First, students examine their own experiences. Teachers often start the school year by asking students about their summer vacations.  Advice about how, when, where, and what to do on a vacation is a popular media topic that suggests everyone takes a vacation. But a recent poll found that 43% of Americans don’t plan to take a vacation this summer. Why? The cost and inability to take time off work are key reasons. Many working Americans in do not receive paid time off for holidays or vacations.

Second, students analyze how the media portrays vacations, vacation policies in the workplace, and government regulations related to vacation time. Do all Americans get guaranteed paid vacation time? How is the modern American experience of vacationing the same or different from other cultures and nations?

Finally, students explore vacationing in the past. Time off from work for leisure is relatively new in human history. For most of human history, only the wealthiest could take time away from daily routines or afford to travel for leisure.  Students can explore how technological and economic changes in the late 19th century enabled a growing number of Americans to take annual vacations. Middle class employees began to earn enough to pay the expenses for a short vacation and some employers began to make least one or two weeks of paid or unpaid vacation a standard practice. Vacationing was a sign that one had achieved middle class status but it was still a luxury not typically available working-class Americans. Even as vacations became more common, many were excluded because of sex, race, ethnicity, or social class.

Consider asking your students to investigate social history themes through “three pairs of glasses.”

About the header image: Panoramic postcard of the plaza and esplanade of Lakeside Park, Denver, Colorado. 1908.
Library of Congress