Social Studies Shows Students Strength in Crisis, Prepares Graduates For a Lifetime of Civic Engagement

Monday, June 01, 2020 | 09:58am

By Nick Darnell, State Board of Education Member for the First Congressional District

History is more than just facts and dates found in the dusty pages of old textbooks. It teaches us how events and decisions have shaped the world in which we live. Now, as the COVID-19 crisis continues to alter the way we live, learn, work, and play, Tennessee students are experiencing first-hand the events that will be recorded in future history textbooks.

When teaching middle school social studies, I used history to help students learn the importance of their voice and how to productively get involved in the issues they care about. Social studies shows how civics, geography, economics, and government work together to shape the society in which we live. 

A better understanding of how our government works can directly influence the impact an average citizen has on their local, state, and federal government. Understanding how our government works allows more people to participate, share their voice, and shape future policies. A strong foundation in social studies will prove essential as today’s students grow up in an ever-changing world.

Though the focus this year will be on national events and elections, governments closer to home often offer more opportunities in which to participate. When students write letters to elected officials, they are more likely to get individualized responses from local rather than national leaders. These responses show students that their voice matters in government, increasing their likelihood to vote and participate in the electoral process as adults.

A strong foundation in social studies education also helps students understand the importance of local communities and the ways in which they positively impact our neighborhoods and society. During times of crisis, like this ongoing pandemic, practicing good citizenship can help us get ourselves and our neighbors back on our feet as we make sacrifices on behalf of others. An understanding of history gives us a deeper appreciation of who we are and the struggles our forebears overcame to remind us that we can also persevere through the challenges we face. 

Though the civics assessment required for graduation has been temporarily waived, this year’s graduating class is learning first-hand the importance of civic participation and social studies as we live through our own history. 

Our students have been asked to sacrifice rites of passage like prom and in-person graduation celebrations and have risen to the occasion by finding new and creative ways to celebrate with virtual proms, drive-through graduations, and supporting their friends through social media. 

This generation can also find strength and meaning in these difficult times by looking to the past for inspiration and evidence that, eventually, we will emerge from these challenges stronger than ever before. 

Though this is an incredibly different year, we have great confidence in Tennessee’s students’ abilities to rise above challenges and become fully engaged and fully informed members of their communities. 


Mr. Nicholas Darnell, an assistant principal in Hamblen County, was first appointed to the Tennessee State Board of Education in 2018. Previously, Mr. Darnell taught American history and government for 13 years. In 2015, Mr. Darnell was chosen as the East Ridge Middle, Hamblen County, and the First TN Core Region middle school teacher of the year. The same year, he was selected by Gov. Haslam to serve on the first Governor’s Teacher Cabinet. Mr. Darnell previously served as a learning leader for Hamblen County by providing facilitation for Professional Learning Communities, leading professional development, and mentoring fellow teachers.

The Tennessee State Board of Education is a ten-member, governor-appointed and legislatively confirmed board charged under the law with rulemaking and policymaking for K-12 education. Through a close partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education, the Board maintains oversight in K-12 implementation and academic standards.