Sunday, September 7, 2008

Teaching history

A colleague asked about a curriculum for Jewish history in grade 7. Here’s what I wrote:

I think that the most important thing is for any history that you teach to mesh with what the students learn in secular school, which varies from state to state. If it doesn’t connect with the general history that they’re learning it will be much harder to teach and the students will retain less.

Several years ago at CAJE, Prof. Paula Hyman argued that American history was the best way to introduce Jewish history. That has been my experience in New England and New York, where we've found it productive to teach Jewish history in America in the fifth grade. Here in New York, it connects very well with the state history curriculum since it begins in 1654 in New Amsterdam.

However, when I worked in Los Angeles, I found that it didn’t connect as well, because students there learned the history of the United States from a California point of view, starting with the Spanish missions, not Jamestown and the Pilgrims.

Anyway, for the seventh grade, we’ve had good results using The Atlas of Great Jewish Communities by Sondra Leiman (URJ Press - we also use Leiman’s American Jewish history book in the fifth grade). Most of our students get an introduction to world history in the sixth grade in public school. Although Leiman’s book is arguably a history text, its approach is more generally social studies, emphasizing the lives of the people in each community, the leaders who are remembered (it’s exceptionally good in representation of women) and, where applicable, the texts from those communities that we still study.

Our schedule also calls for 7th-graders to study tefillah and religious living on the weekday. On Sunday, the world Jewish history/social studies component is about 1/3 of the total work (students attend for 3 hours on Sundays).