Foundations of History for Freshmen

Posted on 01.29.2012


I’ll come to the quick point: it would be really neat to design an introductory history class that all freshmen take before they embark on their own journey through the different history classes offered in high school. It would be a foundations of history course; something that would provide them with skills, prior knowledge and a new understanding of what history could be.

This course would provide high schoolers with general prior knowledge and basic skills they can apply to their future history courses that they can continue to use. It can be about content, it can be about types of histories/fields in history, it can be about skills for understanding history, it can be geography, it can be about the process of history and it can be fun. Here are some of the enduring understandings of the course (in no particular order):

The devil is in the details Students explore that details are important to piecing together history and understanding an event.  Often times history is about identifying which details are important to understanding a problem.

I wonder if a project could be constructed where students have to construct a story through analyzing a variety of details.  This idea is still percolating, but I am envisioning students have deep collaborative discussions on which details and events are important to solving a problem.  The take away here is understanding that it’s the small details that make a story, that help us understand a point or argument about an event or idea.

Why should history be studied? The classic example is that history is repeated and we should learn from history.  Come on folks, can’t we do better than this?  History is about the stories that make us who we are; it’s about shared and individual identities; it’s about learning the truth. I am still not sure where to go with this and what kinds of content and skills come along with this sort of question but I think it’s worth asking and exploring with students.  As freshmen, students are really still developing a sense of self (hell, even adults should be doing this!).  I like the idea of asking them what in their lives is relevant to history.  Perhaps the lesson here is “cause and effect”??  Still need to work this one out…

Where can we look for proof? I really want to do a unit on archeology.  History isn’t just found in books, it can be oral, it can be physical, it can be discovered!

I already do a unit on oral histories and personal histories; I think this could be adapted for this purpose.  Students would conduct interviews about what makes up their histories and decide on a story worth studying in their past.  Throughout the project students can be exposed to shared and individual histories and how environmental factors (natural and cultural) have influenced these stories.

How cool would it be to take students on a dig!?! We don’t need to go far; maybe just our own back yard.  After all, money sure is tight in the Philadelphia School District.

It’s all in the timing A glaring fact is that students need to have an understanding of time and the passage of time.  I’d like students to create a virtual timeline of some sort that represents the passing of eras and change.  Not sure the best way to teach this yet but it must be in a foundations course for history.  This will provide students with prior knowledge while also giving them a sense of how long (or short) change and history takes place.

Ultimately, I’d like students to start off with a blank timeline and continue to fill it in as the year progresses.  Depending on the technology of the school, the student could make a digital timeline (apple has an app for that… no really, it does!  Easy Timeline looks sweet!) and keep updating it.  The point is to help students understand the passage of time as they look at different historical examples throughout the year.  So, this unit doesn’t necessarily have to be a discrete amount of time during the school year.  It can be ongoing.

It’s a big world out there a sense of space, place and general geography would be great for students to have.  I cannot count how many times I hear teachers lament that their students do not know where places are.

Sure, maybe we could do a few map tests, but it goes deeper than simple understanding of physical location; there is a whole slew of other demographic location information students can gleam.  I am picturing a huge jigsaw project where students study the history behind a region of the world in expert groups and share out what they learned about a whole set of demographic markers and periods to their learning teams where they then construct a map and make additional connections using their different locations throughout the world.  I can imagine the EQ being something along the lines of: are there certain places you would like to go?

Money and Power In the Philadelphia School District students have to take a political science/economics course and it would be neat for them to have a preview of what that can look like ahead of time.  I’m not shooting for the moon here, just maybe a taste of how money and power is used throughout history.

The more I write the more different topics come to me and different ways to organize this course.  I think the real purpose behind this entry is not to design the course but to ask the question: what should students be exposed to before they delve into specific topic in their history classes?   History can be fun, especially when people are given the right tools to engage with it.  Lets keep the conversation going on how that can be accomplished!

Posted in: curriculum