We welcomed Mrs. Kristen Mast, 7th and 12th grade social studies teacher at Avail Academy in Medina, Minnesota, to The Teacher’s Lounge to talk about all things social studies. Kristen earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Florida Gulf Coast University and she’s currently working on a PhD in educational and organizational leadership from Concordia St. Paul. She will be hosting a webinar with us on October 24, and we encourage you to join us for this as she digs deeper into the how and why of teaching social studies (get more information about this in the Curriculum Trak app). This is a shortened version of the conversation, but you can hear the full podcast at The Teacher’s Lounge.

Michael Arnold: Kristen, I have a love-hate relationship with social studies. I’ve always loved the study of social studies. And then in my first year teaching, I struggled to figure out how to teach social studies because I was given not just one textbook, but two very thick textbooks that I was supposed to “teach”. And how do you even start to wade through all of that? How would you tell a brand new teacher who’s struggling to carry a textbook how they’re going to distill all that information into their students’ heads?

Kristen Mast: Wow. I tell my students on the first day of class, “I’m not assigning you a textbook. We have textbooks here in the room but these are reference materials. It’s definitely not the way that you learn or interact with social studies by just reading a textbook.” I think that is one of the major challenges of teaching social studies: there is a lack of high quality social studies materials. To just buy a set of curriculum isn’t going to do it for you. A vast majority of social studies teachers are what we call cobblers, (and many teachers in other subject areas do this too), where we’re pulling from many different places to find things that are interactive for students.
So I would say, in response to someone who’s just starting, Be patient. It takes time to build that set of things that you have found that are just beautiful and golden for your students. There is a large community of social studies teachers out there who interact online and share materials with each other and a lot of excellent organizations that do that as well. There are many organizations just begging us to teach social studies well, and their materials are free.

Why Social Studies?

Michael Arnold: I think a lot of times it felt like social studies was the trivia class. We have to go and memorize all of this trivia. There are missed opportunities that I think a lot of students have when it comes to social studies teachers who struggle to get through that textbook.

What brought you to social studies? You’re currently teaching at Avail Academy. How long have you been teaching social studies there? And why do you enjoy teaching social studies so much?

Kristen Mast: I’ve always been interested, especially in history. I attended Calvin University for my undergrad and I majored in history. Many times people would ask me, what are you going to do with a degree in history? Are you going to teach? I was like, Definitely not. I don’t want to be a teacher. For my whole life, since I was in elementary school, my teachers always told me I should be a teacher. And I like not doing what people tell me to do.

But really the Lord made it clear through a lot of circumstances that this was my calling and I got into teaching in a backwards way. My husband and I moved to Florida and my husband was a teacher and they needed a PE teacher at the school. They asked if I would like to have a part time job teaching PE and I thought I don’t have any other things lined up at this point, so I’ll go ahead and teach PE. And I loved it. So then I went back to school at Florida Gulf Coast University and got my master’s in curriculum and instruction and got my teaching license.

And so I’ve taught pretty much any subject area you can name and any grade level you can name. But social studies is really my passion and I’m really happy to be here at Avail where that’s my specialty and social studies is my area of expertise. This is our fourth year at Avail.

It is a challenge to teach all of the spheres of social studies but it is incredibly enriching and just a really fun experience with students because I think if you are actually teaching all four spheres of social studies, every student will find something that they love and find interesting. The four spheres of social studies are history (which includes U. S. and World), economics (which includes micro and macro), geography (the themes of geography), and civics.

Michael Arnold: And you teach seventh through twelfth grade? And that’s not like you cycle through that year after year. You’re teaching all of those students every year.

Kristen Mast: I’m teaching all of those students every year. It’s fun because there’s so much variety in social studies that we’re not always doing history.

Michael Arnold: Well, it’s neat that you can offer that continuity from one grade to the next, as far as what’s covered and how you approach the social studies courses as well. That’s a great opportunity, but a lot of content.
You’re also pursuing a Ph. D. in educational leadership. What brought you to that? What brought that about for you?

Kristen Mast: I love to learn. That is my number one strength on the strengths finder test: being a learner. It’s always been a dream of mine to get a PhD. I never really thought that would happen. We have three kids, our oldest is eight, and our youngest is two and a half. So our household is busy.

And with my husband and me both working full time, I thought, Maybe someday, it’s a dream. But we had a conversation about a year ago, about how we’re always saying we’re going to wait, like maybe there’ll be a better year or a better time. But if we keep saying that, we’re going to be waiting forever, so we might as well pursue the dream.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m pursuing the dream. And I love it. I love school. I’m so excited to write my dissertation. We have a cohort model at Concordia and our cohort is just very supportive of each other. It’s very teamwork oriented, which I love.

And I’m just trusting the Lord through this process. I don’t have a clear picture of where this goes after I’m done with the program. I have ideas of maybe where it goes, but I know He has a plan for what that looks like and I’m excited to see what it is.

TFT Approach

Michael Arnold: That’s really inspiring. Just jump in and do it while you have a chance, right? Don’t wait. And Avail Academy is also a Teaching for Transformation school. And I don’t think that’s unfamiliar to The Teacher’s Lounge audience. So tell us a little bit about the journey there at Avail and how that’s impacted you and maybe even what opportunities it’s brought to social studies instruction.

Kristen Mast: I am 99 percent certain that Avail was one of the very first adopters of TfT when it came out. And it is at the core of everything that we do. It is one of the number one things that brought my husband and me here to Avail as we were very excited about being at a TfT school that was very intentional about integrating faith and learning. In social studies, Justice Seeking is the through line that we emphasize the most, I would say. Of course, there are others like Community Building. Those are probably the two that I utilize most frequently. But it does drive everything that we do. Always bringing kids back to the storyboard we have on the wall.

Right now in economics, we’re thinking about, Can you allocate resources ethically? And we’re building those thoughts as we go. And we’re tying that back into through lines from TfT. Or our ninth graders are considering, How is every culture as well as my story, part of God’s larger story? How do we see all these stories weaving together? So it just leads to really rich discussions and students wrestling with difficult questions that I think lead to the lifelong learning of things that they’ll continue to apply to their daily life once they’ve graduated from high school.

Michael Arnold: I love the through lines. I love the deep hope that teachers are encouraged to adopt for each of the courses that they teach. How do you approach it? And do you mind sharing your deep hope?

Kristen Mast: I would say there is a particular struggle or tension when you’re teaching in upper grades with deep hopes and storylines: do I just have one overarching deep hope and storyline for all of my classes, or do each of my classes have their own separate storyline and deep hope. And so I don’t have a hard and fast rule for myself. Sometimes there are classes that share a storyline and a deep hope. Sometimes they all have separate ones. An example of one would be 10th grade U.S. History. Our storyline is Live the Story. In 7th grade, they also have U.S. History, and their storyline is See the Story. I want them to see where this country has come from, and in 10th grade, we’re stepping into more of a thematic approach of looking at U.S. History, and I want them to live into the story.

So my deep hope for both of those classes is that they can see their place in the timeline of history, and they can step into that place because they’re the next people to make decisions in this country, to make decisions in the world. And I want them to have the whole story before they step into it.

Pitfalls or Missed Opportunities

Michael Arnold: I think that is a great segue into talking more philosophically about social studies and how it’s taught. You mentioned at the top about how it’s not just trivia, we’re not just memorizing static facts that happened, but it’s a story. What other pitfalls or missed opportunities do you see in the general instruction of social studies as you have dug into it?

Kristen Mast: Just to comment on the trivia aspect: I think of the trivia, like the names of people and the dates and the places, as the grammar of social studies, in that if you’re not using proper grammar in what you write, people have a hard time taking you seriously. So if you are sharing thoughts on patterns you’ve seen in history, but you’re not including the correct dates or the names of the people, people might have a hard time taking your argument seriously.

But that is not what social studies is about. It’d be like saying we’re doing math so that you can do your taxes when you grow up, or we’re learning how to read so that you can read the questions on the census or you can answer SAT questions. There’s so much more.

But I think other pitfalls can be injecting your own political stance into what you teach. That is a great passion of mine, to make it impossible for my students to tell where I actually stand politically. I don’t want them to know. They guess often and we’ve talked about it many times. So at this point, I think we have an understanding that I want them to be free to explore what they think and not feel like they have to give me what I want to hear. I want them to have the opportunity to explore these issues freely.

Another pitfall is using teacher-centered instructional strategies. Unfortunately, because there is a lack of high quality curriculum materials, and because there is a lack of funding being given to professional development for social studies, or even time allocated to social studies instruction, we’re just not utilizing best practices in social studies. A vast majority of social studies teachers are using lectures to teach students, and that does not (A) lead to deeper learning, or (B) lead to high student engagement. And again, there are so many tools out there that once you find them and are aware of what they are, it just makes that process so much easier to be able to use more of those student-centered practices.

Michael Arnold: What would be a student-centered practice?

Kristen Mast: One of those major instructional strategies that would be student centered in social studies is the inquiry design model. And I think we hear a lot about inquiry when we talk about science, or at least that’s where my mind went the first time I learned about inquiry.

What does that look like in social studies? I think the inquiry design model welcomes students into doing the work of a historian. Or, it doesn’t have to just apply to history. It can apply to any of the spheres of social studies, right? Like in economics, we might wonder what caused the Great Depression. And there’s no clear answer to that question, but we can look at many different sources and the students can draw their own conclusions based on the evidence and what they think. But that’s the students sifting through the graphs and the charts and the documents and the photographs and learning how to decode them, learning to look for bias and take out what they find helpful.

Michael Arnold: I’d like to invite our audience to just picture a classroom where the instructional strategy is lecture. Sit, listen, and take notes. Compare that mental image with inquiry-based learning and digging into primary sources or eyewitness accounts and trying to answer a question based on what the people who were present were saying at the time. What a total difference in the posture of the student and the energy in the room, right?

Kristen Mast: Yeah, and they’re curious to know. I think that’s a challenge right now in social studies, but it’s also an advantage in some ways that social studies has become so controversial in our public sphere. That makes it tricky as a social studies teacher to gain trust from parents. But the students are really interested to know.

Michael Arnold: You can think of a lot of other topics too, where it’s so easy for us to judge the sins of our forefathers in light of our current thinking, in our current culture and trying to get into their thinking and it’s not always black and white. There are a lot of nuances to the decisions that were made by anybody in history, so getting into that thought process can be so valuable when it comes to faith formation and biblical integration, but also just the formation of the student as a person and as a thinker.

The Gray Side

Kristen Mast: For sure, I like to bring students to the gray area where we usually like to simplify things into black and white. But I want them to see both sides, to listen to both, and then they enter into this gray area of, I’m not sure anymore. And when they’re in that place, I tell them that’s exactly where I want them to be. I want them to be wondering, and I want them to be wrestling, because that means they truly listened, and now they’re really able to start sorting through this issue in its entirety instead of just simplifying one point of view to say they think this and that’s wrong. Why is it that they think that?

I know one of the things you want to talk about is why it’s important for Christian schools to teach social studies and to teach it well. I think it’s because we have such an opportunity to graduate students who are ready to enter into those conversations in our current culture in a way that brings peace, in a way that can bring unity and consensus instead of division. And I feel like we’re stuck in division at this point.

If you’re feeling discouraged by the current state of the United States right now in many different ways, or even globally, if you’re feeling discouraged by things on the news, I would just really encourage you with the things that I hear students saying in the classroom like, We want to do better and we want to be able to really listen to people and then seek solutions.

Michael Arnold: What role would the absolute truth play in the discussion of social studies? We could say this is wrong, this is right, but there’s still some gray area around that. So how do you facilitate that without being opinionated or personalizing it?

Kristen Mast: I think of two different things when you’re asking that question. That is a specific thing that we wrestle with all year in eighth grade. Their storyline is Testify to Truth. And their big thing in eighth grade is they do history day projects, which is just a giant inquiry that they get to pursue on their own. And we guide them through that process. We watch a PBS documentary to kick off History Day: Look at what these professional historians do. But at the end of the day, did they find Truth? And what is that? And so they’ve sorted through and tried to come up with definitions of what Truth is. It’s just a whole year of exploration of what that means.

Part of that process is always asking, Does that match with what we see in Scripture? Does this match with Truth? Do I feel good as a Christian with what I am saying here? Students do that very thoroughly for themselves. They have discussions with each other about that.

That’s how I deal with that part. Some of it gets sticky if scriptures can be interpreted different ways, but do you think this would be something that’s God-honoring? Does it fit with the character of God and would He be pleased with something like this? That’s always part of our process as we’re analyzing what we actually think about difficult issues.

Michael Arnold: We set up that lecture model as one extreme. You know, there are lots of teacher-centered strategies. I think lecture is probably the poster child for that and I’m going to have you unpack the inquiry design model here in just a second, but it sounds like you’re handing over a lot of power and control and trust to your students in this learning process.

Kristen Mast: Yes, but it’s very structured, at least the way I do it. I have built a lot of structure into how they go through all the steps of that process. We don’t do this with every single topic in history or every single topic in civics. But there’s usually some sort of overarching large question that we’re wrestling with and sometimes we hone in on a particular issue. I’m guiding those discussions as we go along. There are rubrics with how we’re assessing debates and discussions so that we’re doing it in a way where we’re offering things that have evidence. We’re offering questions and thoughts that are respectful of the people around us.

Inquiry Design Model

Michael Arnold: Tell us about the inquiry design model. What would be a high level view of it?

Kristen Mast: The inquiry design model has been around for a while. It’s something that’s a big part of the National Council for Social Studies that they have built into their standards and into their frameworks for what they suggest as best practices in teaching social studies. The heart of inquiry design is that students are engaging with a large question that has ambiguous answers.

Then students are given, or they find for themselves, resources that can help them answer that question. I usually do that where students are working in small groups and discussing the evidence as they go along. But eventually they’re building their way to have a response to that larger inquiry question.

Michael Arnold: This large question could be maybe thought of as an essential question in some ways.

Kristen Mast: Yes, very similar. I mentioned earlier, “What caused the Great Depression?” is an essential question that we explore. Another one I just did with 10th grade is where we were discussing the Columbian Exchange. Is sharing between two different cultures always a good thing? We started that with the Columbian Exchange, and we’ll continue as we discuss it with the transatlantic slave trade. But those are examples of what those big questions might be and then the students get to sort through the resources to come to a final response and conclusion.

Michael Arnold: And I go back again to the value of that approach, which is that we’re teaching students how to think about not just the history in front of us, but all of history. It doesn’t matter what they might come up against. They’ve learned a process to think through it as opposed to figuring out, as many of us had to, how to memorize a big box of data that we had to spit out on the next test.

Kristen Mast: Yeah, and I think it’s also useful if you think of, in your day-to-day life, how much information is given to you. How do you take an issue that you’re wondering about and find an answer to your question? Like, a question might be, why did the Supreme Court just overturn Roe v. Wade? What’s happening here? And then the students are equipped to be able to generate those questions and find a variety of resources from multiple perspectives to help them answer this question.

So I think that doesn’t just serve them when they’re taking social studies, but it serves them as they go out and they’re going to have to do this in their normal daily life.

Michael Arnold: This is what it means to be human, right? You have to process the stories around you, past, present and future, in light of truth. So that’s the inquiry design model. I think this is really valuable to think about. This has been very insightful.

Thank you, Kristen, for joining us today and for sharing your insights and your examples, your stories. We’re looking forward to future opportunities as well. Let me give you the last word before we part ways. If you could tell social studies teachers anything, if you could address them directly around the country, what would you tell them? What advice would you give them as they stand in front of their class?

Kristen Mast: I think if you’re an elementary teacher, I would just really encourage you to make some space for social studies. And I know that that is a challenge in elementary grades. But I would really encourage you to at least make some space once a week for social studies, and I think you will be surprised at how engaged students will be with the material.

I’d also just really encourage anyone who teaches social studies to allow students space to explore history or civics or geography or economics. Let them explore the things that are difficult. Let them explore the things that are gray.

Last, don’t be afraid to step into relevant issues. Obviously that’s something that has to be walked carefully, but I think it’s worth it because our students are the next decision-makers. So if we can’t talk about it in a Christian space, how much more difficult is it going to be for them to be able to go out into the broader culture and talk about these things? Make space for students to talk about things that are difficult but relevant.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Kristen Mast is the Social Studies and Language Arts teacher at Avail Academy. She earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Florida Gulf Coast University and she’s currently working on a PhD in educational and organizational leadership from Concordia St. Paul.