New York Global History Curriculum Revision

New York is currently accepting feedback on proposed revisions to its Global History curriculum.  More information is here.  Below is my submission:

How does your school or district currently organize the two-year Global History and Geography course?

Thematically

If your school uses a chronological framework, where do you end the first unit of study?

N/A

Which of the three options presented to the Board of Regents do you prefer? (Please understand that the new courses will be based on the new frameworks and the Common Core, and the specific content may differ from what is currently taught regardless of how the courses are organized and where the two year course is divided.)  

Thematic Approach

I have taught Global for a number of years at all grade levels in New York City.  I taught the conventional 9th-10th grade Global sequence.  The past four years, I taught one semester Global review courses for seniors still needing the exam.  One year, for a variety of complicated reasons, I taught the entire two-year sequence to 11th graders.  Regardless of those situation, one thing remained common: to satisfy the state curriculum and prepare my students for the Regents exam (where my students’ pass rates have, on average, exceeded the city average by 20 points, culminating with a 100% pass rate last year amongst my seniors who already failed the exam 4-6 times), my students learned a huge amount of shallow and superficial knowledge about way too many topics.  My challenge, then, was to arrange the curriculum in some way that allowed for my students to gain greater understandings about the world and how it works despite the massive pressure for coverage.  To do this, I arranged my curriculum thematically, as it was the only way to work in the higher level thinking skills necessary for college, career, and most importantly, citizenship.

For example, I typically started with a unit on Geography centered around the question, “Is Geography Destiny?”  This unit took us from the Neolithic Revolution to River Valley Civilizations to the Green Revolution, with stops to look at Terrace Farming in China and South America, the West African Gold-Salt Trade, the Irish Potato Famine, and the Columbian Exchange.  Students learned the content they needed, but more importantly, they practiced making connections and judgements which allowed them to apply the lessons learned to the increasing geographic challenges our world faces, and deeply engage with questions of geographic determinism.  As we learned the surface level information, students also read excerpts from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel to better understand how geographical advantages thousands of years ago still affect lives today.  This unit anticipated the shifts demanded by the Common Core for students to engage with complex texts and rich academic vocabulary at rigorous levels of thought.

Many argue that a certain continuity is lost without a linear progression through history. While this argument carries significant weight in an American History course, which is a number of concurrent stories, the vast majority of Global History denies any such ordering.  The world was simply not particularly connected for most of Global History, with regional developments rarely extending to different parts of the world.  I see an argument for a chronological approach for the past two hundred years, but before that it only serves to confuse students trying to sort insanely large amounts of information.

To satisfy the demands of the Common Core, the Global Regents curriculum would best be arranged thematically.  With that said, it is exponentially more important that the curriculum be streamlined to emphasize more depth of knowledge, even at the expense of some content.  If students are to be reading complex informational texts at the 9-10 level, they will need time to learn how to do so, and this is truly impossible if one teaches everything currently in the state curriculum.  Rather than the state making what, in the end, would have to be largely arbitrary decisions about what to keep and what to eliminate, I would like to propose the curriculum be based on a menu of options within each theme.  Much as English teachers can choose from a range of outstanding, engaging, and enriching literature, schools should have the same freedom to do so with history. This would allow for teachers to privilege higher level thinking, reading rich informational texts, and to teach students the reading and research skills demanded by the Common Core.   The Regents Exam in Global History could easily allow for this by eliminating the multiple choice section, and adding a second Thematic Essay.

Do you currently or have you taught the Global History and Geography?

Yes

How many years have you taught Global History and Geography?

6-10 years

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2 thoughts on “New York Global History Curriculum Revision

  1. Can civilians yet post public comments? I admittedly only skimmed the memo (I think I’d read it before), but didn’t see any easy way to give comments either there on the Engage web site.

    I am intrigued by the thematic approach to much of what IMX is the 9th grade content. How to organize this vast amount of material seems to be about as settled a question as how best to organize grades 6-9.* I will be watching the Global developments with great interest.

    * e.g., separate 7-8, 6-8, or 7-9; combined K-8 or 6-12 . . .

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  2. A wonderfully thought-provoking post! We have a 2-year world history curriculum at my school, and we have had some discussions about how to frame so much material. I also prefer the thematic approach for three reasons. First, it allows for depth instead of breadth because it does not have as one of its goals the attempt to cover so much. Second, one of the most important skills we teach is critical reading, and I find thematic essays to be more effective at giving multiple interpretations, which allows us to dissect arguments and examine what it really means to make and support an argument. Third, I also like lessons that give ‘snapshots’ of the world; for example, we had a unit called “The Well-Educated Man”, in which we explored what it meant to be a member of the literate elite in Medieval West Africa, China, and Paris (it was based on a chapter in the book “Discovering the Global Past”). This facilitated wonderful discussions of comparison and gave us a chance to analyze our own education system, and to consider how they all reflect and shape values and habits of mind. Lastly, while I understand the argument that a chronological approach ensures students gain an appreciation for the long duree, and the thematic approach creates a lot of gaps in chronological knowledge, I also think that the thematic approach helps give students a real chance to engage with interesting, relevant material that would give them a sense of curiosity for the rest of their lives to discover what they don’t yet know. Thanks for sharing!

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