Teaching World History to Seventh Graders: Breaking Away from a Civilizational Approach

Article excerpt

The title of the course I teach is "Medieval World History". The course title has been a constant source of confusion for my class throughout the ten years I have been teaching seventh graders. Every September I manage to disappoint scores of new students when I explain them that we will not be spending the whole year dressing up as knights and building castles.

I usually begin on the first day by explaining that Medieval is just another way of saying Middle Ages. I then give the students the Latin derivation of the word. Invariably, the discussion prompts one student to ask the question, which I think is very reasonable: "What are the Middle Ages in the middle of?" That question usually lands us in Europe as we set about sandwiching our year of study between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance. By the end of the class, the best, but far from perfect, conclusion to our discussion usually ends up being something like the following: We will be studying events from around the world, framed by a European timetable.

The course curriculum, which is written at the district level, based on the state framework, divides our content into eleven sections, or "units". These units are organized around the California History-Social Science Standards. For example, we have units called China in the Middle Ages, Medieval Japan, and Sub-Saharan Civilizations in Medieval Africa. The civilizations are generally presented as distinct units. These units are numbered, but there is no requirement to teach them in that sequence. Many of my colleagues change the order each year. In my view, there is no logical order in which to teach them. I have experimented with several different permutations. Most teachers I know are guided by their textbook. However, different textbooks present the units in different order.

Allow me to use my own class as a case study. During the time that I have taught this course, my district has used three different textbooks. Across The Centuries (Houghton Mifflin), Medieval Times to Today (Prentice Hall), and World History: Medieval and Early Modern Times (McDougal Littell). I have also used History Alive (Teachers Curriculum Institute). None of these books present the material in the same order. While all of the textbooks begin and end in Europe, they do not follow the same sequence. For example, Medieval Times moves from studying Africa to Mesoamerica and then moves from there to China. My current textbook, Medieval and Early Modern Times, moves from feudal Europe to Mesoamerica and then back to Europe again for the Renaissance. When I used Across the Centuries we would finish our study of the Renaissance before heading across the Atlantic with the European explorers to discover the New World. Of course, when we got there we would have to jump back in time to encounter the Olmec. History Alive, which is not our official textbook, unlike all of the others, begins with the development of feudalism in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Most teachers I have spoken to consider this problem as some kind of occupational hazard that comes with teaching seventh graders, and most have developed their own way of dealing with it. One consequence of trying to teach World History as a succession of units however, regardless of the order the units are placed in, is the constant straggle to make students consider what was happening in one part of the world around the same time as the events they happen to be studying occur in another part of the world. Of course, teachers try their best. Using parallel timelines is one way of locating events in relation to others, but by studying world history in separate units, it is virtually impossible to see how some events are related to others , or to examine whether one event in one part of the world could have possible led to another event somewhere else.

Finding World History for Us All

What attracted me to the World History For Us AU (WHFUA) project was the chance to break away from the usual "units" of study, and the possibility of teaching my class in a thematic and even chronological way. …