Stand and Deliver! Promises I have to keep regarding my new History course

History is as essential to human society as memory is to an individual.  It provides a framework within which we can explore and debate complex issues such as identity, morality, and reality. Examining the historical precursors to the modern world also provides a reference point for speculating about what is possible in the future. History is concerned with the entire range of human activities so it is a super-subject, a meta-subject, if you like, that embraces many other disciplines. It requires the rigor of a scientist, the persistence of a detective, and also the imagination of a novelist. So we are excited to share with you the details of our new Grade 8 History course!

Thus began my “Back to School Night” speech delivered to a theater full of Grade 8 parents one evening last month. Part quote/part paraphrase from Deakin University course materialsthat I had stumbled across from my old M.Ed. program, I guess I was in a fairly evangelical state of mind to be using such grand language!

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Certainly, I am finding a whole new excitement in my teaching this year. After seven years of teaching Humanities, a combination of Language Arts and Social Studies, the school administration decided to decouple these subjects and overhaul our K-12 Social Studies curriculum, so I put my hand up to develop the new Grade 8 course and get back to my first love: history.

Actually, I wasn’t really looking for a change,  but once our principal announced the new approach to these subjects, I suddenly felt that proverbial seven-year-itch and I knew I couldn’t stand another year of doing the same thing – another year of an intricately woven but therefore tightly-packed curriculum, a course that was increasingly unwieldy under the weight of our efforts to meet Language Arts standards as well as Social Studies standards (as well as general community expectations – exactly when are you teaching traditional grammar and Shakespeare? And how well are the students performing in those standardized tests?) as well as the sundry IT/IL goals we knew we should get around to…

But now I have a blank page on which to balance competing interests about what curriculum pieces, exactly, we should “uncover” (as opposed to “cover”)  in Grade 8 History. Our administrators have given us the content “headings” – ours will be an Ancient and Classical History course following the rise and decline of six great civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, and Rome. (This will serve as a foundational course for the two Grade 9 History options: History of Asia and AP World History). And I have been partnered with my wonderful colleague and good friend, Chris Fox, who is also sharing the Jeff Utecht COETAIL journey with me!

So, it’s back to the beginning with curriculum development. And, now that we have no excuses, it’s “back to the future” in terms of our priorities for teaching and learning. We know we simply have to infuse 21st century skills into our classroom practices.  And just last week with the BTSN presentation that Chris and I delivered, we know we have made a promise to the parents about the kind of critical thinking their children will practice as apprentice historians.

Again, we stated it in grand terms:

 As students progress through each civilization, they will be challenged to understand how different societies influenced and adapted to their environment, and how they developed tools, technology, and infrastructure to meet their needs. Students will learn about trade, competition, and conflict over resources. In addition, they will examine the evolution of belief systems and government systems which shaped the lives of individuals and drove creative expression and historical accomplishments. Combining a chronological and comparative approach, students will explore the interplay of all these factors in explaining the rise and fall of entire cultures and civilizations, and their enduring impact on the present day.

Using “Understanding by Design” and “Teaching for Understanding” principles espoused by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and underpinning our school’s approach to curriculum writing, Chris and I have identified a common set of essential questions and understandings that will enable a comparative approach to our study of civilizations, even as we take them up in chronological order. We know, however, that this is just one of many design elements we need to employ in our course to develop the higher-order skills our students will need in their unknowable future of miscellaneous opportunity in an increasingly complex, demanding and competitive 21st century. As the Partnership for 21st Century Skills national  organization advocates, for our students to compete in the global  economy, their education needs to fuse the traditionally tested core subjects (the “three Rs”) with the “four Cs” (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation).

 Check out this short, animated film about the “3Rs + 4Cs” approach:

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What it really means to embrace the 4Cs is elaborated upon in P21’s one-stop-shop for 21st century skills-related information, resources and community tools: Route 21. For one thing, the The 21st century Route 21 ideas challenge us to focus on the final statement I made to the parents – that we would connect this ancient history to the present day. More specifically, we need to make sure that our history course promotes understanding of academic content at much higher levels by weaving 21st century interdisciplinary themes through it – literacies like :  Global Awareness, Financial, Economic, Business and Entrepreneurial Literacy, Civic Literacy, Health Literacy, and Environmental Literacy.

Clearly, literacy is the buzz-word! Perhaps the most important aspect, however, is encouraging students to “buy into” the idea that this history course is not just about amassing the right GPA to be able to advance to a higher level option in the next grade level, but that the historical literacy they are developing is, itself, the goal.

We want students to realize that learning to “think like a historian” will provide them with a highly valuable and desirable skill-set to be competitive in their near and distant futures.

Once again, we sought to make this clear to parents when we canvassed the following history classroom practices:

  • Analyzing primary and secondary sources
    • which sets students up to be information detectives, sifting through evidence to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction, to identify perspective, exaggeration, and bias, and to evaluate the reliability of information sources
  • Analyzing cause and effect
    • connecting the dots between historical events and individual people, as well as the interplay of broader factors such as geography, economy, politics, religion, science and technology.
  • Practicing problem-solving and decision-making
    •  … particularly through…
  • Engaging in simulations and debates
    • ….and various role-playing activities that take students back to critical turning points in history, and which help to build understanding and empathy for people from other times, cultures and viewpoints
  • Advancing their research and information literacy skills …

…but that will the be the focus of the next blog. Meanwhile – phew! – we already have our hands full with all these promises and obligations about our new history course. That blank page on which to develop this year’s curriculum doesn’t seem so empty anymore!