The new Social Studies curriculum implemented by the school district of New Haven has set a bold standard for humanities instruction in the city. While usually the unveiling of a new curriculum in an urban district involves a rigidly-paced scripted set of lessons, fortunately, the new curriculum retains ample latitude for teacher creativity, while ensuring that all of our students receive baseline exposure to a common set of standards. With this in mind, I have set out to design a unit plan that will complement the new curriculum and help engage students in a meaningful way. Through this unit, I intend to help augment my students' understanding of geography by using Google Earth and primary sources written by the great explorers Ibn Battuta and Christopher Columbus.
I teach 8th grade Social Studies at Fair Haven K-8 to approximately 100 students each year. One of the unfortunate realities of urban education is that many of our students lack the fundamental skills necessary to perform higher-order tasks required of them in middle school. The city of New Haven has done much to redress achievement issues pertaining to Mathematics and Language Arts, but unfortunately, this increased focus on basic skills in elementary school rarely leaves time for elementary students to explore Social Studies in depth. As a result, I find that many of my 8th grade students arrive at my door with little to no geographic awareness, are confused about the difference between a state and a country, and have little understanding of the world outside of their small city. Thus, the purpose of my unit is twofold: to give students the fundamental geography skills they so-often lack, and to expose them to a world beyond our shores so that they might better understand our place in history.
My unit, "The Expansion of Maps and Minds Before 1500," addresses the idea of how different civilizations understood their own role in the world as their knowledge of its size and geography expanded. Our perception of the world around us influences how we interact with others, and this unit will focus on drawing connections between my middle school students' expanding cognizance of
world with that of those explorers who were driven by their desire to learn about the world around them. By introducing new geographic areas through the eyes of the explorers who first encountered them, I have an excellent opportunity to engage my students in geography in a meaningful way and to develop their text-to-self and text-to-world writing connection skills. Furthermore, as this unit would be introduced at the beginning of the first marking period in either 7th or 8th grade, it would serve as a wonderful opportunity to engage and captivate my students' interest in Social Studies early in the school year. I often find students' interest in the subject tend to lie towards more contemporary history rather than ancient, and by developing a thought-provoking unit on this material, I could more easily "hook" them on the idea of Social Studies.
During the unit, the students will read primary and secondary source accounts of early explorers Ibn Battuta (who traveled over much of the Middle East, Asia and Africa from 1325 to 1354) and Christopher Columbus (who first traveled to North America in 1492). They will read the explorers' observations, and analyze their opinions about the societies that they visited. Then, using the same primary sources, the students will use the free computer software "Google Earth" to trace the routes of those explorers and make short movies of the routes that they used so that they may glean a clearer understanding of the geography of the region visited by their explorer. Students will then be instructed to research those locations today and to write a brief overview of those places' local cultures in the modern world so that they may compare it against the world encountered by their explorer. The unit will conclude with a series of student group presentations on their discoveries, and a test that evaluates the class's understanding of the geography presented by their classmates.
The unit will not only develop students' content-based understanding of geography and cultures, but also will address reading comprehension and fundamental historiographic skills. Before beginning their research, students will also receive instruction on basic historiography, as working with different sources provides an invaluable opportunity to expose them to the art of good history. They will be taught about primary and secondary sources and be exposed to them not only through the reproduced and edited versions they will use for their project, but also through a field trip to the Yale University Beineke Library. Once the students have learned to differentiate between primary and secondary evidence, they will be instructed in the art of historical questioning, and learn why it is important that we understand the quality of our sources, and how inquiries into their nature are essential to writing and supporting a good historical understanding.
By beginning the academic year with a series of lessons designed to help students take ownership of the history they are preparing to study, this unit will undoubtedly prepare them for the rigors of the other topics they will study throughout the year. But, more importantly, it will help them begin a dialogue about what constitutes
history, and how this affects our understanding of the world. Much like the maps and interpretations provided by the explorers were imperfect, so is our perception of the world today and our place in it. It is with this idea that I hope my students will proceed through the rest of the year, so that they will learn to be tolerant of alternative approaches to history, and skeptical of conventional interpretations; both marks of great young historiographers.