The social studies curriculum I’ve been teaching my first graders is awful. It’s all over the place – we talked briefly about map skills, continents and oceans, then moved on to the Revolutionary War, then American monuments, and then onto good citizenship. And this was all covered in September-December. Since Christmas break, we’ve covered money, long ago vs. today, and now we’re talking about customs in other countries. We whiz through each topic so quickly, the kids have no hope of really understanding much at all.
Seriously, they barely understand the idea of what a “country” is, and I teach kids who’ve actually visited other countries – imagine what it’s like for a kid who’s never left the state!
It’s also a well-known and commonly bemoaned fact that American high school graduates know precious little about geography and American and world history. Our lack of basic knowledge in these areas has become a punchline.
I propose an entirely new curriculum (with a few exceptions). I’m fully aware that this is just a pipe dream, and that there are other ways to organize a history curriculum. I’m just putting my ideas out there, because that’s what people do on the Internet.
Here I attempt a curriculum arc that makes sense, with each year building on the knowledge gained previously, hopefully going slowly enough that students actually understand and remember what they’ve learned so they can deepen their understanding as they get older and more capable of critical thinking.
There is also a slight emphasis on American history, which I feel is appropriate for American students. (Likewise I would expect other countries to emphasize their own histories in school.) In world history courses, the emphasis should be on civilizations/countries that most impacted the world stage as it is today (and will likely be in the future), as the point of studying history is to better understand the present.
This new curriculum would have an emphasis on context. Events do not happen in a vacuum, and each important person we learn about in history was an actual person, with feelings, flaws, and obligations.
I would also tie in cross-curricular studies in art, music, and literature. In English each year students would read literature relevant to the time period they’re studying in history. This way, literature and history could contextualize each other for greater understanding. The literature list is not meant to represent everything in the English curriculum, just the tie-ins to history.
You might think some of my literature tie-ins are too advanced for the students and too hard to read. But if students don’t learn to read them in school, where will they learn? Facebook?
Some of my literature selections represent strong ideologies, which you may or may not agree with. I certainly do not agree with some of them. But ignoring influential ideas does not serve our students. Students need to learn about the prevailing ideologies of various eras, contextualizing them, and allowing them to think critically about important ideas in order to come to their own conclusions. Furthermore, how can you say you disagree with someone else’s point of view if you don’t actually know what their point of view is?
Without further ado, my new history K-12 curriculum (oh yeah, with 4 years of history in high school instead of just 2):
Kindergarten – Community (community building and community helpers, good citizenship), American symbols and monuments (eagle, Washington monument, etc.), city vs. country. (Basically the same as it is now, but a bit more rigorous: Kinder and 1st grade kind of mashed together.)
1st – Map Skills, Physical and Political Geography – Geographical features like mountains, islands, etc., including how they were made, how they affect the weather, and how people adapt to different geography/climates. Distinctions such as county, state, country, and continent. Country names, capitals, and flags, as well as identifying them on a map.
2nd – American History – Colonial period (including Native Americans) and the Revolutionary War.
Literature: Meet George Washington by Joan Heilbroner.
3rd – Post Revolutionary War – American history through the Modern era.
4th – State History – Basically what we have now. In California, that means the Native American tribes of this state, explorers, the Spanish and the Mission system, and the Gold Rush. (There’s probably more after that, but I don’t think teachers actually get to any of it!)
Literature: a novel about the California Gold Rush and one about the Chinese workers coming through Angel Island and working on the railroads.
5th – Ancient World History – Fertile Crescent, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Mongols, Chinese and Japanese dynasties, Mayans, Aztecs, Mali, etc. (Don’t be offended if I left our your favorite ancient civilization – I didn’t leave anyone out on purpose!) World Religions: Paganism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. (Yeah, it’s controversial, but it’s important. I promise it’s possible to have a perfectly civil conversation about religion if you really try.)
Literature: Selected stories from various mythologies (age-appropriate stories, obviously), with some personalization to select stories to represent the cultures of students in the class. Definitely include some Greek, African, Native American, and Indian stories, selections from Arabian Nights, and Cinderella stories from around the world. Students compare and contrast the stories from different countries, and analyze what the stories tell about the cultures. (Yes, 5th graders can do that.)
6th – Middle Ages, Renaissance, Age of Exploration – Context is everything. If students understand the Fall of Rome and the subsequent Middle Ages, they’ll understand the importance of the Renaissance a lot better.
Literature: Selected stories from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (modern translation), The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle…and other stuff (suggestions?)
7th – Modern World History – Industrialization, WWI, WWII, demise of the Ottoman Empire, formation of current nations, EU, political philosophies, world geography. Throw in some fun stuff like the history of the Olympics.
Literature: Selections from On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin…any other suggestions?
8th – American History – Pre-colonial to Modern – Yup. All of it.
Literature: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
9th – World History Pt. 1 – Ancient through Renaissance – Review and deepening.
Literature: Odyssey, blank verse translation by Robert Fagles, other selections from Greek philosophy/history/drama (suggestions?), Beowulf translation by Seamus Heaney.
10th – World History Pt. 2 – Industrial through the Present – Review and deepening.
Literature: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, selections from Edmund Burke, Montesquieu, and John Locke, selections from The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.
11th – American History Pt. 1 – Colonial and Revolutionary periods
Literature: The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, selections from The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers.
12th – American History Pt. 2 – Industrial through the present – It’s really important to get to contemporary history. Until I got to college, all I knew about Watergate was that it had to do with Nixon and it was bad.
Literature: Selections from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, selections from John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman.
What do you think should be included in a history curriculum? What literature should be read? You’ll note that in multiple places I asked for suggestions. Certainly I haven’t read everything that probably should be part of a good curriculum, and I’m always looking for a recommendation for a good book to read. Leave your thoughts in the comments below!