I recently zoomed with Nick Stamoulacatos, Supervisor of Social Studies at Syracuse City School District and one of the writers on the article “Countering the Past of Least Resistance” in that latest Social Education. We talked about Syracuse City Schools inquiry initiative and the inquiry loop featured in the article. 

Can you give me a little background about Syracuse’s relationship with C3 teachers?

I began the relationship with C3 teachers in their early stages with the New York State Framework for Social Studies and creating the toolkit. And so we really played an important role with the kindergarten inquiries and we piloted the kindergarten inquiries in our school district.

And then overtime we then developed it in our school district. Right before, our district was really into the Reading Like a Historian content from Stanford University. We then began to adopt the Inquiry Design Model because it was a great marriage between the two.

And then we began a partnership here with some intense professional development. For 2 years we worked with the inquiry design model. 

What keeps you coming back?

It’s not perfect, you know what I mean? It’s important to have teachers and educators and leaders know that implementing the Inquiry Design Model is not easy and it takes time and effort. Also, it’s important to get teachers to own the inquiries themselves. What keeps us coming back, really, is the structure of it. Even if teachers don’t buy in right away, they can appreciate the structure of it. 

Are you talking about teacher agency? I know I have heard Dr. Kathy Swan say before that they wrote the blueprint to give lots of space for teachers. 

Yes! You take this and then make it your own to serve your students that are in front of you.

Why are you all interested in inquiry for your students?

We’re interested in getting kids engaged in social studies. Don’t get me wrong, we believe that traditional methods are important as well. We believe that actually looking at expository text is important to develop basic knowledge. But we can’t stop there. So they’ve developed a basic knowledge. Now what? 

We’re also finding that time is precious with the children that we have in front of us, and it’s important to get them engaged with addressing all aspects of social studies. You can do that through the Inquiry Design Model. You can address history, economics, sociology, you know all the facets of social studies. 

So thinking about this project in particular, what were some of the goals you had in mind?

Some of the major goals were to address history told from multiple perspectives and told through a culturally responsive lens. We don’t use that word lightly in the district. It has deep meaning, deep-rooted, meaning to it and it goes beyond race. We were looking for a comprehensive survey of modern American history, from Reconstruction to the present in which we could highlight this hard history.

That term, hard history, was coined by Teaching Tolerance and we thought, How can we take that philosophy, that ideology, and really apply it to the inquiry design model?

What have been some of the challenges your teachers have faced trying to implement this?

I mean really to be honest with you, the major challenge has been the pandemic. There’s been months where you’re completely present in school, and then there’s months where people are dropping like flies, including the teachers and the kids. So that causes major challenges and a huge disruption to this process.

But it is what it is and we’re just moving forward and trying to figure this out. We are going to be doing the Redlining inquiry this spring. Our teachers are taking it now and making it their own and thinking, How am I going to do this for my students? What scaffolds do I need to provide? And so, that’s what we’re diving into right now.

Nice! What other things have you all done?

The Reconstruction inquiry they love. They love the structure of that because it came at a perfect time, and it was extremely structured around examining the social, political, economic, cultural, geographic, and historical indicators.

But, we are thinking about next year. We have a summer coming up. We can, you know, take some rest, prep and regroup. Then, going into the next school year, we can think about implementing all of them.

We’re gonna begin in the summer, but we will roll it out, one month at a time. We intend to communicate and clearly articulate the purpose of each inquiry and provide the quality professional development that it deserves rather than just putting it out there. We could just put it all out there and say, well, this is the curriculum, follow it! But we really want to do this with fidelity.

What can we learn from Syracuse?

I think, first and foremost, that any social studies department in any other district should really ground themselves in a set of skills and strategies to use in social studies. Make those consistent, because if you have a consistent set of strategies and skills, then you can embed those strategies and skills into the inquiries.

Thinking about this loop, I hope others can be embolden to have courageous conversations about race, culture, and ethnicity. These inquiries are not something that you can dive into right away. They should be something that districts take the time to reflect and really focus on what is at the heart of these hard histories?

Thank you, Nick. It is exciting to see what inquiry looks like in the real world. Thank you for sharing the challenges of teaching hard histories and we look forward to hearing from teachers about the loop when they implement it next year!

Check out the Social Ed article here: Countering the Past of Least Resistance