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Making History Interdisciplinary & Relevant: 6th Graders Connect History to Today
Kelly Wilson, Middle School History/Humanities Teacher

The sixth grade history curriculum begins with the study of Ancient Rome and ends with the Renaissance and the Reformation in Western Europe. The first year I started teaching this curriculum at Park Tudor, students would occasionally complain, “Why do we have to learn this? This is so boring.” I became very interested in how curriculum can lead to transformative learning experiences for students beyond school and chose to study this topic for my Master’s thesis. As a teacher-researcher, I was curious about what drives authentic learning, what leads to feelings of safety and security in school, and most of all what factors help students become meaningfully transformed by their learning. Over the past four years, it’s become clear to me that I have to find a way to make every unit I teach relevant to a sixth grader. I settled on a more thematic approach: Teaching the period through themes that are as prevalent today as they were back then. 

For example, one theme we study is about how society often discriminates against and marginalizes minorities. Students begin exploring the topic of marginalization through reading a play of The Diary of Anne Frank in English. This introduction allows sixth graders to gain a unique perspective, since Anne Frank was of a similar age to them during her persecution under the Nazi regime. Then in History class, they study how Jewish people were marginalized in the “media” of medieval times (paintings and writings). Sixth graders reflect on ways that assumptions can lead to stereotypes. Making connections across time helps students develop their historical literacy skills and their ability to identify patterns. As a result, history becomes more than a list of details or facts to be memorized. Rather, students come to see the discipline of history as both a way of thinking about the past and a way of understanding the present world in which they live.

I have the students conduct primary source analyses of images and adapted texts from the Middle Ages; they work as historians to learn about how Jews were portrayed and the kinds of policies that were enacted. By focusing on inquiry as a learning strategy, students develop the skills they need to be resourceful, life-long learners.

After learning about the history of stereotypes and marginalization in these two historical contexts (Nazi Germany and the Middle Ages), students watch clips from Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” Given the complexity of these challenging concepts for 11- and 12-year olds, I have the students participate in a discussion technique called a fishbowl discussion that allows them to share personal reflections and stories of their own experiences that relate to what they’ve heard. The fishbowl discussion structure involves an inner circle of students who engage in a discussion amongst themselves about the ideas at hand, and an outer circle of students who observe and listen carefully to the discussion. This structure helps students process what they’ve watched in the TED Talk among peers. The goal is for students to begin to understand how stereotypes arise from assumptions, or incomplete stories about a group of people.

After that, it’s time for students to apply what they have learned to today’s world. The rationale behind this approach is simple: If we want students to acquire enduring understandings, they must apply the material to their lives in a way that matters to them. Students choose a piece of modern media (a commercial, TV show, advertisement, etc.) and identify a stereotype being reinforced. They then consider the impact of that stereotype on contemporary society by presenting their analysis and reflection in any format of their choosing. Some decide to give oral presentations, while others opt to film short videos or create posters to analyze the media example and share what they have learned. Giving students options over how they want to creatively express what they’ve learned fosters motivation and engagement. Regardless of the format they choose, students work to creatively dismantle or disrupt the stereotype, either by writing a letter to the company who created the piece of media or by creating an alternative version of the media that avoids the spread of “a single story.” Because students must construct meaning based on what they observe in the world around them, their level of cognitive processing increases. Students don’t just take in information and reproduce it; they must understand concepts and apply them in an authentic situation.

This thematic approach makes the study of the Middle Ages relevant to students today. It also heightens their awareness and sensitivity to discrimination. I want them to become critical consumers of media, identifying how words, actions, and portrayals can lead to marginalization.