GILFORD — When eighth grade social studies teacher Rob Meyers thinks about teaching history, he likes themes over chronology. Last year he joined forces with like-minded seventh grade teacher Andrea Damato and the two developed a thematic approach that studies topics and promotes individual research.
After a year of working with former Principal Sydney Leggett, they presented their idea to the School Board and were given permission to go forward.
"It helps students because it makes a constant thread," said Meyers, who said the core subjects taught in seventh and eighth grade are still the same, it's the approach that is different.
All students will still take take "You and the Constitution". The difference is students will explore what the U.S. Constitution is, what it created and, most importantly to Meyers, why it is important to them. With the assistance of their teachers, they will research a theme from the Constitution and use primary and secondary sources to research and complete oral and written presentations.
The second mandatory class is "Where in the world am I ... and why am I here?" — or world geography. Basics of geography including globes, maps and photographs will be used to solve geographic problems. Assignments could involve human migrations and settlements and the economics that have led to cooperation and conflict among people. Again, source documents and individual research will be used to create written and oral presentations.
While thematic teaching is new to Gilford, other schools in the U.S. and the United Kingdom are taking the approach to getting students involved in and excited about their own education.
According to Bruce Lesh, the author of "Making Historical Thinking a Natural Act", a department head, teacher and writer of history teaching books from Maryland, "every major measure of students' historical understanding since 1917 has demonstrated that students do not retain, understand, or enjoy their school experiences with history."
"... A growing body of research indicates that students can evaluate various historical sources, apply them to the development of an evidence-based historical interpretation, and articulate their interpretations in a variety of formats," Lesh continued, saying that "when taught to pose questions about evidence, causality, chronology, change and continuity over time and other 'categories of historical inquiry,' students become powerful creators of history rather than consumers of a predetermined historical narrative."
With the modified block scheduling at Gilford Middle School and three trimesters per school year, Principal Peter Sawyer said yesterday that each student will take the two mandatory classes as well as National History Day that must be taken during the second trimester. NHD gives students an opportunity to research, create and present a project related to the NHD annual theme. Students get an opportunity to present their projects at Plymouth State University in the spring with the possibility or presenting their work at the national contest at the University of Maryland.
With the three core classes come three choices of seven different themes, the first being "Oh Say Can You See" or one of two themes about conflict and compromise resolution. This class focuses on the War of 1812, the Mexican American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War and how they contributed to making the U.S. a unified regional power with a strong federal government.
The second of the conflict and compromise offerings is "Lafayette, We are Here" or the exploration of the end of U.S. isolationism, World War I and World War II. Students will research this theme using source documents like film, art, photographs and develop oral and written presentations.
This is one of Sawyer's favorite offerings because as a history minor in college he said that today's world, and specifically the continued conflicts in the Middle East and Asia, can only be understood by someone with a solid understanding of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles and World War II.
In "Rights and Responsibilities in America," students will study Reconstruction, the U.S. westward expansion, work place reform, civil rights and equal rights.
Economics and finance are now part of the curriculum with two offerings: "So YOU Want to be a Millionaire" and "I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore".
While both seminars address basic economics theories like supply and demand, free markets, and capitalism, the first has student research concentrate on the creation and development of a business plan. Meyers said he anticipates getting local business people to come to the class and evaluate some of the student projects. The class also focuses on the stock market and the business cycle.
The second one gives students a seminar on capitalism through the eyes of the Great Depression. The course will use source documents and literature from the 1920s through to the start of World War II to satisfy their course work.
The final two options are some of Meyers' favorites because they incorporate art teacher Aaron Witham and music teacher Paul Warnick.
"Music and History: 99 Red Balloons" will introduce students to the post World War II era though our current culture. Student will have opportunities to listen to and research some of the music from the 1950s through today and part of their assignment includes playing an instrument, writing or producing a song, and for those who wish, giving a performance. this will be co-taught with Warnick.
Meyer said the idea is based on the Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start the Fire" that recounts all the historical and cultural happenings since Joel's birth in 1949 and begins with the lyrics:
"Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe."
"I'd like to see them put their own lyrics to the song," saying most of the students were born in 2002 and 2003 so the 9/11 attacks and other current events that affected each of them can be researched.
The last offering is "Art and History: the Political Cartoon and Propaganda," which will be co-taught by Witham. He said students will examine political cartoons, propaganda posters and videos from World War I and World War II to see how they affected world views, value systems, artistic expression and public opinion. Again, students will do research based on the course material.
Aside from the three mandatory classes, not all of the others will be taught each trimester. Sawyer said the classes with the most interest will be taught first. He said he is just beginning to review student class requests so doesn't know exactly which of the theme classes will be taught during the first trimester.
"My goal is to change the way students look at social studies classes," Meyers said, adding that doing their research, using source documents and creating and presenting projects gets the students invested in their own education.
"We want to make it relevant to their own lives," he said.