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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Developing World History Curriculum

A few weeks ago, FedUpMom left a comment on my post, Classroom Management 101. She was responding to my lamentation on the lack of curriculum in place for my world history class. She asked why I didn't just use a world history curriculum already out there. I thought it was an excellent question and wanted to take a post to respond.

Curriculum is definitely available for world history. My favorite free online world history curricula are World History for Us All and Bridging World History. Each provides a structure for teaching a topic as vast as "world history;" and a variety of narratives, readings, videos, PowerPoints, lessons, and assessments. Some other helpful sights include World History Matters and World History Sources. Additionally there are a number of offline curriculum materials that have been created to help teachers of world history. 

As much as each of these help the teacher of my subject matter, they often can't simply be taken and used without significant adaptation. There are a number of reasons for this.

Meeting the Needs of My Students

I teach in a school where many students are not on grade-level. I have a majority of students who read and write below grade level, a number of students on grade-level, and a handful of students who are above grade-level. Many of the lesson plans created for world history are created with students who have 10th-grade reading and writing skills. They also often assume a larger depth of historical knowledge than my students have.

Aligning My Course With My School's Larger Curriculum

Compartmentalizing learning into different classrooms and subject matters often denies our students a much richer, more meaningful education. If I think of my class without considering what else students are learning in school, what they have learned, and what they will learn in the coming years, their high school experience will not have been nearly as coherent as it could have been when they graduate. Coherence is one of the keys to making learning meaningful. It's important that students see connections and monitor their learning across classes and years.

Before I consider teaching my world history class, I need to consider what skills they learned in 9th-grade social studies (and what they've picked up in middle school). I need to know what skills the 11th and 12th-grade teachers need me to build on for students to be prepared for moving up. And I need to know what skills and content are being addressed in other 10th-grade classes. There is no one sequence for a school or school system to teach skills or content. While previously created curricula may provide some guidance and useful ideas, they weren't created with my school's curricular outline in mind.

Finding Passion and Relevance

Each teacher and group of students are unique. Because I generally believe teaching social studies skills is more important than making sure every student is intimately acquainted with a standardized litany of events, adjusting the content (i.e. the events/stories) taught in a world history to meet the interests of students and the teacher is an important part of making the class engaging. And, of course, teaching engaging lessons is a key part of getting students to learn.

Teaching Meaningful Narratives and Asking Good Essential Questions

When you plan a history unit, I think it's essential that you wrap the events you plan on teaching in a coherent narrative that has a beginning, middle and end; a cast of characters; and a setting. This does three powerful things. First, it allows your students to constantly draw connections between different events. This helps students learn to evaluate cause and effect relationships and provides them with a sense of chronology. Second, stories help us remember events. Third, narrative structures help students answer really rich essential questions.

A given unit (e.g. the Industrial Revolution, the First Global Age, Ancient River Civilizations) could have a number of different narratives. The Industrial Revolution, for example, could focus on how technology affects society. Alternatively, it could take a Marxist perspective and analyze societal power structures and the gap between rich and poor. It might also focus on capitalist economics: supply and demand; the power of capitalism. Or, it might look at developing political ideologies and their impact on liberal political revolutions. OR, it might compare economics and politics and find relationships among the two. In any case, you can't teach them all meaningfully in a single class. And for them to be meaningful, it helps to have students focusing on key questions that force them to think and rethink their understanding of the material. "What is the relationship between technology, wealth acquisition and liberalism?" was the essential question that I used with my Industrial Revolution unit last year.

Unless the teacher has spent time doing real thinking about the material and coming up with meaningful questions and narratives, it's unlikely the students will do the same when it's presented to them. History instruction is not about learning a list of dates and events, its about thinking long and hard about what humanity is by studying the way it's acted in the past. Simply taking a curriculum already available will lead students to the former. Spending real time thinking through narratives that can be told through powerful skills-instruction and then presenting it to students will lead them to the latter.

FedUpMom's point is still valid, though. As a new teacher in a new school, I can't really expect myself to have a great curriculum in my first semester. It will take time. I will use packaged curriculum from time to time the first year to fill in some gaps while I create instruction and assessments valuable/meaningful to both my students and me. For now it won't be amazing education, but it will occasionally do.

12 comments:

  1. You're very dedicated.

    I wonder, though, if there aren't many different schools that have roughly the same issue set that you have. What have you done that is significantly different from the "canned" curriculum? Is there a way that the canned curriculum could be modified as to be usable by more teachers? Could it be less of a take-it-or-leave-it and somehow be made more relevant to you without being specific to you?

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  2. abellia: To a degree I think it could be created, but it would still not be able to take into account each school's curricular design (unless, of course, you made all schools follow the same curricular design in all content areas - which I don't think would be appropriate). If such a curriculum exists, it could probably make for good instruction. But I don't think excellent instruction can happen unless the teacher is intimately acquainted with the material and essential questions in a way that only really comes about when the teacher is the creator of those things.

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  3. James: I think you may overstate a bit. It is easy to fall in to a "not invented here" mentality, which end up discounting much of the good work of others. "Intimately acquainted", I buy, but I'm not sure that one has to be the creator in order to make instruction meaningful and interesting.

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  4. I tend to agree with what James has written in his post and in his comment. I believe that the material that I work through myself in the process of creating it tends to be better for my kids because I have thought about it a ton before I get to the actual teaching. Yes, I could use canned curriculum, but I think it doesn't go as well the first time around.

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  5. Thanks for responding to my question!

    I like your point that history should be presented as a narrative. I've seen the alternatives, which do nothing for my daughter -- either history is seen as a long list of factoids, or it's all discussion with very little content.

    Certain aspects of history are always intriguing -- unsolved mysteries and errors, for instance. I'd like to see a class called "Great Blunders of History" where you could discuss mistakes made by leaders, or by historians.

    Hang on -- this is turning into a post for my own blog!

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  6. Hi Mr. Boutin

    Welcome back to Seattle! One point I did not see you mention (and I wonder if it is relevant) is the State Social Studies Standards. As a math teacher, I have state standards for Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 that I need to make sure I follow. Are there such documents for Social Studies? If there are, are they useful? The state rewrote the math standards a couple of years ago and I found them to be a big improvement over the previous set.

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  7. There are state standards around social studies, and they are somewhat useful. I suspect given the nature of the subject matter, they're a little more malleable than the math standards, however.

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  8. the hard part of teaching is teaching the 3/4 and the 1/4 at the same time. one group needs worksheets and constant monitoring. the other needs intense reading and discussion and note-taking. you teach one way to one group and you lose that group (and they proceed to make it hard to teach or learn). so you teach the other group and you do a disservice to the discussion/reading etc. group.

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  9. I'm a first year World History teacher (third year working in education at some level) and I get the feeling you do sometimes. It's a bit hard, but I'm grateful that at the school I'm at, the support is amazing.

    However, I've noticed a tendency in WH curriculums lately: they've become a lot conceptual and thematic. While I understand the goal, I think it sort of does a disservice to our students occasionally. It definitely doesn't spiral nicely into a collegiate environment, where concepts are derived from a large collection of content knowledge, rather than from the concept down.

    There's also the neat tension between the role of Europe. I know in my experience and in seeing the AP World History test, it's emphasis on the non-Western world is commendable. But again, as much as it bothers me a lot of the times, if we aren't giving them a well-rounded western civilization education, how much does that disadvantage them at the collegiate level? In Texas, I'm already seeing a tension between the STAAR test and the AP World curriculum, with the STAAR test focusing a lot more on Europe and the West than the AP World curriculum.

    I know this might seem lightyears away from your concerns on differentiation - believe me, I feel it sometimes.

    Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts. :)

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  10. fernyreyes: Interesting thought on concepts.

    Sounds like the question is: how do we teach them? Should we tell students about concepts and then show them why our understanding of them is valid by giving them lots of evidence to support them? Or, should we allow them to create concepts on their own after providing them with the history?

    Is that what you're getting at?

    If so, I think it's a great question - one that I haven't spent much time thinking about. It seems like it'd be ideal to give them the history and ask them to develop concepts of their own. That seems very meaningful. However, on the other hand, I'm not sure there's enough time in a single high school course to provide students with enough material for them to flesh out some of the really big concepts. Thoughts?

    In terms of Europe, I don't know all THAT much about the AP World History test as I've never taught the course and haven't looked at one of the exams in a few years. But I do think Europe is clearly a very divisive issue in the treatment of a subject like World History. I teach a lot of Europe because I think its impacts are relevant and easy for students to identify with. However, I think a great World History class can be done with or without a strong emphasis on the continent. Thoughts?

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  11. Yeah, the question is a complicated one. I wrote a blog post today that is sort of connected to the conflict. Part of it is that I feel we have to give students these facts, as well as conceptual understandings, because the facts serve as tokens they can exchange within a dominant power structure, where, particularly at the collegiate environment, they trade in the currency of factual knowledge of many of the events and effects of the events.

    Anyway, yeah, I'll be talking a little bit more about this over where I blog, as I'm designing some new units that sort of have to walk this tightrope. The role of Europe looms over much of our history and it seems that we have to teach it, because, as you said it, its impacts are really relevant, particularly in shaping how the world looks like today.

    All of this seems to come to the point of what is the purpose of World History?

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