History: History Curriculum

The goal of the history curriculum is to cultivate a genuine, informed and critical enthusiasm for the world through history. We want to ensure that students come to an understanding of how cultures have changed over time and learn how to express themselves both in prose and discussion.

The History Department has seven course years—fourth through tenth grades—in which to familiarize students with five millennia of history. Our objective in fourth grade history is to nurture our students’ curiosity about the world and our place in it. Using maps, books and other resources, students begin to understand some of the dynamic changes that occurred when people from different parts of the world came into contact with one another.

The fifth grade course is United States history: from the origins of our nation to the end of the millennium. We use a narrative style text as the basis of the course. We emphasize chronological development and cause and effect relationships, and we help students to learn new study habits, especially note-taking and critical reading. By the end of this year students should be able to evaluate and record important historical dates from lectures or texts and to analyze the information critically. The course tends to leave fifth graders with a sense of some problems and personalities in American history, and an array of interesting and important facts and arguments within a chronological context.

Sixth grade history entails the study of the earliest human societies. We begin by examining the prehistoric transitions of early human hunting and gathering societies to herding and early settled agricultural societies before moving to urban civilizations, which we study in particular detail. We spend most of our time examining the political, social, economic, technological, artistic and religious structures of ancient civilizations. Our study of specific civilizations covers, in varying proportion, Sumer, Egypt, India, China, and Greece. Students write short historical fictions, essays and dialogues based upon close reading of primary sources including the Epic of Gilgamesh and The Descent of Inanna, the Iliad, the Odyssey and Antigone.

Seventh grade history is a topic-driven study of various civilizations that begins with an in-depth study of Rome and ends with the transitional period of the late 15th century. In addition to the textbook, we read numerous primary sources to explore contrasting perspectives on the events covered by our travels. The rise and fall of Rome, the spread of Christianity, the rise of Islam and its spread across Asia and North Africa, and the evolution of feudal Europe are all examined. We draw parallels and make connections between the European and Mediterranean societies and their counterparts in other parts of the world, in particular China, Japan, India, and Persia. We discuss, debate, and act things out to bring the material to life and to connect it to issues today. Above all, the course stresses writing in a variety of forms, from in-class essays and historical fiction to formal analytical papers, in order to strengthen skills and develop the themes at the heart of this course.

Eighth grade history aims to cover various social, political, and economic aspects of the Early Modern Era. We emphasize non-western cultures to introduce students to aspects of the world that expand their knowledge from the Far East to the West. The class deals with an array of topics which may include the Mali Empire of West Africa, the Ming Dynasty of China, the Gunpowder Empires of the Middle East, Aztec and Incan culture in the Americas prior to European colonization, the Black Death, the European Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution. The course introduces students to the historical shifts in power and the impact of technology on these shifts. We also examine the process of European exploration during this time period, focusing on the voyages to the Americas and the development of the Atlantic slave trade. The course ultimately broadens students’ understanding of power and nation-building and examines a variety of Asian, African, Mesoamerican, European, and Middle Eastern primary sources in this period. In addition to regular writing assignments, students also spend time building their research skills. This culminates in a formal term paper, written in conjunction with the English Department, in the second semester.

Ninth grade history is concerned with key cultural processes that historians associate with the making of the modern world. It tells the story of major events, ideas, and movements that have given shape to the modern world community as it exists today. It asks analytical questions of global significance: how did the different regions of the world come into contact so that almost every part of the world today is tied into global political, economic, and social systems, and intellectual, religious, artistic and technological exchanges? Why are some regions of the world more powerful than others, both politically and economically? The course provides a framework to support further, more specific studies in grades ten through twelve.

Tenth grade history examines the origins and development of the United States from a variety of perspectives including race, class, and gender, providing students opportunities for in-depth investigations of key moments and themes in U.S. history. In their final year before entering into the elective program, students continue to hone their skills as critical thinkers, readers and writers with a greater emphasis on historiography.

By their junior year students are prepared for our most rigorous offerings and they are invited to bring these skills to an elective of their choice. The junior/senior elective offerings are wide and varied, reflecting the passions and expertise of the faculty. In all cases, they challenge students with college-level readings, an emphasis on analyzing primary documents, and opportunities for original research. Students also consider the role of historiography in the construction of arguments and narratives. Courses range from sophisticated or thematic reviews of material covered in previous grades (The United States Since 1945, African American History, World War One, History of New York) to introductory courses in interdisciplinary topics (Socioeconomics and Race in Medicine, The Medieval Mind) and non-western surveys (The Cold War and Vietnam in Asia). In addition, high school students may decide to pursue topics of their own choosing through the Independent History Research program. Working with mentors from the department, the students in this program dig deeply into particular historical issues over the course of the school year, create scholarly research papers, and present their work at an annual symposium.

Following this path of study, students leave Saint Ann’s with a powerful analytical toolbox to be used in the highest forms of critical engagement with history: parsing and interpreting contradictory ideas and evidence; developing and presenting original arguments; identifying gaps in explanations assumed to be definitive; finding ruptures and silences in traditional narratives; giving voice to the non-celebrated and rendering human the old hero-gods. Armed with these tools, which are honed in the context of historical study, students become empowered as citizens, locally and globally. For we believe in a usable past, which is not to say that we teach the past so that its examples can be understood as easy equivalences to contemporary events or keys to the present. Instead, by learning to recognize patterns and discrepancies in a range of historical contexts, and to understand the push-and-pull of social structures and individuals in the process of social change, students develop the ability to use history not in the service of ideology, but “to think with”—that is, to read between the lines of rhetoric, to illuminate contradictions in policy, to expose the pretenses of power, to make better sense of the world. What they do with this knowledge is, of course, up to them.