DSSEP Home Page Something Has to Give or Does It?
Bonnie Meszaros, Associate Director
Delaware Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship
University of Delaware

Another faculty meeting.  Another discussion on standards.  Another presentation of student scores on the state reading and writing assessment.  Another reminder to sign up  for one more fifth-grade Smithsonian kit training and to block off time for a workshop on the new math curriculum.  At last, the faculty meeting wraps up, but not before the principal asks everyone to think about the topic of the next meeting—Ways to address the social studies standards.  She must be kidding!  There aren’t enough hours in the day to teach everything.  Something has to give, or does it?

Elementary teachers across the state are faced with the daunting task of figuring out how to fit social studies into an already overcrowded curriculum.  How much time is left each day after teaching language arts and math?  What meaningful social studies can be covered if only thirty minutes per day are devoted to social studies?  Is there a way to weave social studies into other content areas in a meaningful way?    There just never seems to be enough time to teach all that needs to be taught.

Children’s literature is one way to combine reading and language arts skills with the teaching of social studies.  The ideas that follow highlight a few books and activities that can be used at grades 4 and 5 to begin meshing economics and language arts with the teaching of United States history.  At these grade levels, teaching all the social studies standards and the district social studies curriculum is impossible through language arts and children’s literature alone.  However, the use of children’s literature serves as a vehicle for weaving social studies across the curriculum, helping students make linkages between disciplines; it provides a context for learning, enriching the curriculum, and alleviating the time crunch that teachers are under for larger blocks of time for the social studies.

The Printer’s Apprentice by Stephen Krensky (1995) describes the adventures of a young man who works as an apprentice to a Philadelphia printer in 1734.  This ties in well with economic Standard Three that asks students to identify different ways goods and services have been produced in different times and places.   After reading the book, ask students to compare how newspapers were produced in the 1700s with the process used today.   Provide students with a portion of Jonah Walker’s diary that can be found in Teaching Activities for Delaware History (1995).  Jonah was an apprentice in 1800 to Mr. James Pyle, a cooper in Brandywine Village.   Have students compare and contrast the life of Gus in the story to that of Jonah Walker.  The Printer’s Apprentice and Jonah Walker’s diary also provides the opportunity to analyze the costs and benefits of being an apprentice and of taking on an apprentice.   Students can also write a paragraph* comparing learning by going to school to learning by being an apprentice.  Additional books that focus on problems with serving an apprenticeship include What’s the Big Idea Ben Franklin? by Jean Fritz (1976) and A Head Full of Notions by Andy Russell Bowen (1997).  These books include discussions on why Ben Franklin and Robert Fulton were dissatisfied with their apprenticeships and chose to run away.

Immigrant Kids by Russell Freedman (1995) uses photographs and quotes from children to tell the story of immigrant kids at work, play, school, and home.  It ties in well with Economic Standard One.   After reading the chapter “At Work,” tell students that labor laws existed that regulated the amount and kind of work children could do.  Yet, those laws were ignored by employers and parents who were considered law abiding individuals.  Pose the question: Why might parents and employers break the laws and allow young children to work?   Then, provide students with a list of regulations for child labor today.    Ask students to compare and contrast the working conditions, length of workday, and legal work age of children, using a Venn diagram. 

Assign students the task of interviewing a worker between the ages of 14 and 17 using the following questions.  How old are you?  What type of work do you do?  Do you operate any machinery?  If so, what type?  How many hours do you work each week?  What time do you get off work in the evening?  Are you able to complete your homework? In what ways does the job you have now prepare you for your future?  Instruct each student to write a report* that addresses the following topics: (1) how child labor laws affect the number of hours and the kind of work he/she is allowed to do; (2) how the job contributes to the worker’s  human capital; and (3) whether or not, in the student’s opinion, the worker’s job complies with child labor laws. 

Additional books that focus on children and work are Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade against Child Labor by Russell Freedman (1994) and Monkey Island by Paula Fox (1991).

The Industrial Revolution offers many examples of inventions and new technology that increased productivity and affected both consumers and producers (Economic Standards One and Three).  Eli Whitney by Judith Alter (1990) brings out the costs and benefits of the invention of the cotton gin.  This is an opportunity for students to learn to analyze both sides of an issue or problem.  Ask students to explain how the cotton gin affected consumers, producers, plantation owners, and slavery. 

Foster’s War by Carolyn Reeder (1998) tells the story of a young boy and his family who lived in California during World War II.  The book is rich with examples for teaching economics, geography, civics, and history.  The discussion of rationing coupons is a perfect example to discuss how government actions can create shortages (Economic Standard One) and examine the advantages and disadvantages of different ways of distributing or allocating goods  (Economic Standard Three).  Ask students to identify what might have been a better allocation strategy and to explain their answer.

In The Boys’ War, author Jim Murphy (1990) uses first hand accounts of soldiers who describe the difficulties of getting food and other supplies.  Often, they purchased items from sutlers.  Sutlers were not an official part of the military, but they were permitted to trail after troops and sell things like food and personal items.  They sold these goods at two to three times the original price.  Ask students to explain why sutlers might charge so much and why soldiers might pay what appeared to be such outrageous prices (Economic Standard One).

Through trade books, such as the one mentioned in this article, teachers can integrate social studies across their curriculums.  The use of trade books enriches the curriculum, helps children make links between disciplines, provides a context for learning the standards, and lessens the amount of time required specifically for social studies.

*Editor’s Note: As described in this article, students are using what they know (i.e., write a paragraph) to show what they learned (i.e., child labor laws).

It is possible to link English language arts Standard One with the writing suggested in this article by teaching students how to write for the purposes (i.e., to inform) in the form (i.e., a paragraph, a report) suggested.  Explicit teaching is required to help students write well. 


  • Alter, J. (1990). Eli Whitney.  New York: F. Watts.
  • Bowen, A.R. (1997). A Head Full of Notions: A Story about Robert Fulton. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books.
  • Fox, P. (1991).  Monkey Island.  New York: Orchard Books. 
  • Freedman, R. (1995).  Immigrant Kids.  New York: Puffin Books.
  • Freedman, R. (1994).  Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade against Child Labor. New York: Clarion Books.
  • Fritz, J. (1976).  What’s the Big Idea Ben Franklin?  New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan.
  • Krensky, S. (1995).  The Printer’s Apprentice.  New York: Delacorte Press.
  • Meszaros, B. & Funk, G. (1995).  Teaching Activities for Delaware History. University of Delaware: Center for Economic Education.
  • Murphy, J. (1990).  The Boys War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk about the Civil War.  New York: Clarion Books.
  • Reeder, C. (1998).  Foster’s War.  New York: Scholastic Inc.

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