The Academy’s History curriculum is designed to inspire students’ curiosity about the past while introducing them to a set of skills that will be critical for their academic futures. Our program is a World History course that students take over their three years in the Upper School, with sixth-graders studying ancient civilizations, seventh-graders focusing on medieval times, and eighth-graders covering the sixteenth through the twentieth century. Following the school’s overall mission to pursue rigorous academic work in a fun and supportive environment, we explore history through a series of student-centered activities, lively discussions, and thought-provoking writing projects.
Students at the Academy read primary sources almost exclusively, with reading lists that include ancient epics; canonical works of history, philosophy, and politics; sacred texts from the major world religions; and documentary sources from every part of the world. These materials engage students in a way no textbook ever could, because reading about real people, in their own words, captivates kids’ imaginations. Motivated to discover the secrets of the past, Academy students are usually eager to grapple with whatever reading challenges these texts present. They’re likewise enthusiastic about comprehending the archaic cultural practices or ethical and social issues we encounter in our readings. The Academy’s small class sizes and 3-year curriculum allow me to dedicate as much time as students need to master our materials. The end result is that students develop quite advanced reading skills as they progress through the Upper School History program, but they do so fairly naturally. Their focus is on the narrative drama in the stories—Rama’s rescue of his beloved Sita in The Ramayana, gallant knights risking life and limb in The Song of Roland, or the Allies’ march to victory in World War II—not on the fact that they are reading something usually reserved for the high school or college level.
Socratic inquiry is at the heart of the Academy’s History courses, and on any given day, History students can be found sharing their point of view about major world events, and passionately critiquing or defending the choices made by key figures in history. We challenge ourselves to think deeply and critically about our subject and, in the process, students learn to articulate their opinions confidently, respectfully, and persuasively. They also learn to listen to each other, to pose good questions, and to work together as a group.
At the end of each unit of study, students undertake an academic writing project. This allows students to refine their understanding still further and provides an excellent outlet for their growing analytical skills and ever-expanding vocabularies. Sixth-graders start by learning to compose “I-shaped” paragraphs with evidence from their primary sources. As students progress through the program, they learn to write full, 5-paragraph essays about a variety of topics, using both their primary source material and the class reference library. Having taught academic writing for many years at the high school and university level, I have developed a curriculum that breaks down the writing process into a set of short and simple exercises. Academy students, therefore, learn to write fairly sophisticated essays, one small step at a time, with lots of opportunity for revision and growth. And, instead of asking students to do the bulk of the work on their own, as a homework assignment, we dedicate a fair amount of class time to each project. Holding collaborative “writing workshops” at school allows students to help each other, to share ideas, and to get as much one-on-one instruction as they need.
Textbooks have a place in our curriculum, but not the role they play in the typical middle-school classroom. We maintain a library of reference materials (historical maps, encyclopedias, and peer-reviewed, university textbooks), and students use these as well as online sources. These materials help them situate our primary sources within a given place and time. Students learn how to make timelines, how to define key events in a historical period, how to identify authoritative sources, and how to develop an argument based on facts. As such, The Academy’s History curriculum promotes twenty-first-century research skills as part and parcel of a classical education.