Social studies changes include kindergarten lessons about Christmas

Georgia school board members unanimously approved changes Thursday they said were overdue to how social studies is taught in public school, despite a teacher organization’s objections to one of the changes: teaching kindergarten students about Christmas.

The board agreed to add Christmas, along with all nine other federal holidays, to the curriculum because it wants students to learn about America’s holidays. The Georgia Council for the Social Studies, an advocacy group for social studies and history teachers, said they generally like the new standards, but worry about what educators will teach children that young about Christmas because it’s a religious holiday to many and a secular day to others.

The council raised its concerns earlier this year and at a public hearing Thursday.

“How do you teach that so (kindergarten students) understand it?,” Eddie Bennett, a retired social studies teacher and the council’s executive director, said in a telephone interview. The group’s president-elect was one of two speakers at a public hearing during Thursday’s board meeting.

Christmas is the only religious holiday among the federal holidays.

Another aspect of social studies, how history is taught, has been a politically charged topic in recent years. Many conservatives in Georgia and across the nation complained about changes made in 2014 to the Advanced Placement U.S. History course taught in high school, saying it was “radically revisionist” and downplayed American accomplishments. The College Board, which administers the course, made adjustments last summer in response to the criticism.

Georgia’s social studies standards revision process began more than a year ago, and its approval was delayed in March after questions concerning other proposed changes.

“We will never have complete consensus,” Shaun Owen, the state’s social studies program manager, told board members Thursday about the new standards. “We have looked at these standards over and over again.”

The social studies group noted the state’s 1.7 million public school students begin learning about Christmas by middle school, when they learn about the world’s most prominent religions. Bennett said it’s easier to teach middle school students about Christmas because they’re better prepared to learn topics with more depth.

Nationally, public school students begin learning about religion either in middle school or high school. Linda K. Wertheimer, author of the book “Faith Ed, Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance,” said educators must tread carefully teaching elementary school students about Christmas. Educators can teach students about religion, but they cannot proselytize or advocate one religion over another.

“Are they teaching about Christmas or are they preaching about Christmas?,” she asked. “You can teach about something but don’t celebrate it. School is not the place to celebrate Christmas.”

State education department officials will give school districts some guidance on teaching about Christmas and the other holidays. Districts, schools and teachers will determine how that standard is taught, officials said.

The standards, expected to take effect by the 2017-18 school year, were changed primarily to give educators better guidance about what to teach since history is such a complex topic. Many teachers, board members noted, don’t have enough time to teach the entire curriculum.

Board members lamented it’s been eight years since the last revision to the social studies standards.

“I can assure you it won’t be eight years before we review this again,” said Superintendent Richard Woods, a former social studies teacher who took office in 2015. “We have to get in a more timely routine.”

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Staff writer Rose French contributed to this article