Spotlight on Curriculum: History

Alex Dillon, History Coordinator Grades 9-12

As both a history teacher and an advisor, I hear about curriculum from a variety of perspectives. Recently, during parent conferences, I got a valuable and reassuring insight into what my tenth grade advisees were experiencing in their history classes. Nearly all mentioned the joy they had in putting together the research paper for their History of the Americas class. (Yes, joy - from doing a research paper!) Their project was on the issue of whether Columbus Day should continue to be celebrated as it currently is. This project, a more sophisticated exploration of a topic Grace sixth graders now debate on Parent Visiting Day, required them to do research on the causes, nature and effects of Columbus’s voyages to the Caribbean. They read articles on topics ranging from the contribution of Columbus’s voyages to global geographical knowledge, the honing of navigation techniques, trans-hemispheric trade, the slave trade, and ultimately European colonialism and massive population displacement in the Americas. The students did intensive source analysis and interpretation and produced carefully argued written expositions. The project had immediate, real-world significance considering our society’s current reconsideration of its commemorations.

Hearing the satisfaction that my advisees took in completing their topics, and reading their teachers’ praise for the results, reminded me of how important it is that we History teachers make history meaningful for students. Many adults, when looking back on their primary and secondary school history educations, complain of being turned off of the subject by being compelled to memorize dry, overwhelming lists of names and dates. But why on earth should history be experienced this way – as a closed set of canonical facts to be imbibed for its own sake – if studying history holds the key to enduring understandings about the human experience, if it gives students a shared conceptual vocabulary to understand and address the issues and dilemmas of our time, and if it serves as a vast knowledge base to hone essential reasoning and communication skills?

The History Department believes strongly that the relevance of history should be palpable to students. Everything that is taught is taught for a reason, and students should understand those reasons. In Early Childhood, social studies awareness begins with the concept of community, as students are taught to think of communities as ever widening circles, starting with their own class peers, their families, and the school itselfThe next step is learning about the surrounding community, with visits to local businesses and institutions. This serves as a foundation for the Lower School curriculum, in which awareness of the surrounding world is expanded by study of the geography of the seven continents. Students use and make their own maps – not just as busy work, but as a means to create a visual representation that proves what maps can tell us about places how people live in them.

The commitment to broad, enduring understandings continues in the second grade, as students study the U.S. geography through the Lewis and Clark expedition, not simply to imbibe a hagiographic narrative of two famous explorers and their guide, Sacagawea, but to explore an encounter between two cultures and the different motivations, life-ways, and knowledge bases of European-descended Americans and the Native Americans they encountered.

The fourth grade begins the study of ancient civilizations, and the societies studied, though seemingly far-flung from our own in time and space, are made palpably relevant for students, as well as productive of analytical skills. Ancient China, for example, is a starting point to introduce the lenses through which we look at societies, such as religion, government, communications, technology. Ancient Rome is partly a study of (among other themes) the rise and fall of empires. The geography curriculum in the sixth grade introduces students not only to the fundamental skills of map reading and vocabulary of geographical description, but also the human-geography concepts (push and pull factors, surplus and scarcity, etc.) that influence human migration to the present day.

One of the most valuable things a history student can learn is the diversity of the world we live in. Yet knowledge of diversity alone is not enough: students should understand how people of different origins carry different perspectives with them, and that these perspectives inform their choices and preferences. Thus, students begin the Middle School in fifth grade by studying post-classical Afro-Eurasia (including the Islamic empires, African kingdoms, the Mongols, Christendom, and early-modern nation-states), which includes a research paper and multicultural timeline of the years 400-1400 that explore how and why cultural preferences and philosophical values diverge in different civilizations.

As part of the History Department's commitment to exposing students to “unheard voices,” opportunities abound throughout the curriculum for students to explore the experiences of what historians call the subaltern in history: those who have historically been marginalized from power and privilege and thus figure less prominently in traditional historical narratives. Seventh graders enrich their knowledge of the years leading up to the Civil War by reading Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography and Luzena Stanley Wilson’s account of her journey to California in 1849. Eleventh and twelfth grade students take electives in topics ranging from Traditional Peoples of the World (a course focusing on the world’s remaining small-scale, non-state societies) to Gender in History, to the Vietnam War (which includes background on the origins of both the American Cold War global commitment and the fierce Vietnamese post-colonial nationalism), to the African Diaspora in the twentieth century.

At every level of the curriculum, Grace students get skills empowerment through choice-driven, inquiry-based work. Sixth grade American history students delve into two-month-long research and writing topics, though which each student becomes the class’s resident “expert” on his or her own topic. Students in eleventh and twelfth grade U.S. Government and Politics wrote technically challenging legal briefs defending proposed amendments to the Constitution. Many courses at the middle and high school level culminate in research-based, thesis-driven essays, building on skills that students have developed throughout their years of study at Grace. At the end of each semester, Project-Exhibition Day at the High School becomes a forum for the History Department's commitment to enabling students to express themselves through multiple modalities, as students create gallery walks, propose public policy, and participate in seminar panels on their research. This regular public presentation of historical work even further enhances the students' sense of the relevance of their inquiry.

What history should we study, and why do we study it? These questions preoccupy all thoughtful history teachers, not to mention professional historians. The answers tend to evolve as society's current values and dilemmas change. One thing that will remain constant, though, is the History Department's insistence that every unit of historical study help students develop real-world reasoning and communication tools, and enable them to form deep, relevant, and enduring understandings of the world we live in.