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.