Imagine a young woman in a large city in the United States today. Her name is Natalie and she is a waitress at a local restaurant in the evenings. During the day, Natalie is beginning to take courses at her local community college, which she is finding to be daunting. She makes about $350 a week, which helps her support her family.
Natalie is also thinking about becoming a first-time voter. Her community is considering a bond vote to refurbish the aging elementary schools. The debate in the media has been lively, with some people favoring the bond because it would improve education, and others opposed because of a fear of rising taxes.
Natalie has a son in second grade. She knows how important it is for him to get a good education, so she is trying hard to follow the issue. But Natalie has had a tough time reading the materials that both sides put out—she was never a very strong reader in school, and she’s not sure whom to believe. When she was in school, she remembers, she did some memorizing of dates and places, but she never learned much about difficult issues—so it’s hard for her to figure out this one. Her own family did not read newspapers, and her school never encouraged that, so the op-ed pieces are tough to follow. For Natalie, writing was nearly impossible—she didn’t know why paragraphs began and ended when they did, and she certainly could not do that kind of work on her own. Other people’s writing is a mystery to her.
So, registering to vote, and then voting thoughtfully—that seems like an overwhelming challenge.
The Natalies of the country are legion. They are living in a complex world of competing views on how to solve problems and address issues, issues that they know will have big effects on their lives and the lives of their children. To successfully and knowledgeably participate in their society, they need tools—tools of knowledge, tools of thoughtful reading and writing, tools of critical thinking. Many of “our Natalies” are coming out of high school woefully underprepared to participate in a democratic society.
This middle school world geography curriculum can make all the difference for the Natalies of the country. Unlike many earlier curricula, this world geography curriculum addresses the need for content knowledge, for increased and robust literacy, and for critical thinking. Looking through the lens of human rights, this sixth-grade yearlong world geography curriculum focuses on what David Perkins calls “lifeworthy learning.” It weaves together strong and relevant content knowledge, habits of mind for reading and writing carefully and thoughtfully, and key aspects of disciplinary thinking—all tools that students need to successfully participate in our modern American democracy.
How does the curriculum work?
The curriculum is built around an important central Essential Question: What are human rights, and why do they matter? The work for the year is designed to give students tools to think deeply about that question. It is designed to help students understand the rich complexity of geography—and to explore the connection between geography and the quest for human rights.
To do this, the curriculum is built around compelling and important content related toboth world geography and human rights. Each module focuses on a particular region of the world and explores a case study related to the quest for human rights. For example, in Module 1 students focus on global geography and the geography of Europe, and explore how the quest for human rights affects migration. They learn in depth about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They examine maps and charts to see different ways we have and do not have human rights in our world community. They explore the migration of refugees from Africa to Europe and the human rights that these refugees seek. Finally, they create a “community profile” of an immigrant to their own community. Other modules similarly tie together geography, human rights, and powerful thinking and literacy experiences. All of the reading that students do, all of the discussing, and all of the writing support and contribute to their understanding of the relationship between geography and the drive for human rights in the modern world in which they live—a key understanding for students to have to participate thoughtfully in that world.
An essential feature of learning about the geography content and human rights is the ability to apply literacy skills: being able to read and write about the content, carefully and thoughtfully. To learn the content, students need to read, including challenging text. They need to acquire new and rich vocabulary, and work with complex ideas and reasoning. They need to synthesize their ideas clearly and analytically and proficiently in writing and in discussion. Again, these skills and habits of mind are key to acquiring this particular content knowledge about human rights and world geography—and they are key to reading and writing about any social studies content. So, like the content knowledge itself, these fundamental literacy elements are important transferrable skills for students who will grow into adults who can effectively participate in a democracy.
At the same time that students are gaining these important content knowledge and literacy skills, they are becoming more proficient in “disciplinary thinking”—how to think like a geographer. This includes working with a variety of maps that communicate different types of geographic information. It includes asking the questions that geographers ponder, such as what affects the movement of people, goods, and ideas between places, and how people both affect and are affected by the physical environment. These habits of mind are key to understanding this particular content of human rights within the context of geography—they are also key to understanding any geographical content and its relationship to real events. Thus, these are important transferrable skills for students who need to participate effectively—as informed citizens—in our democracy.
This curriculum weaves together social studies content, literacy skills, and disciplinary thinking. Three sets of standards drove the design. See the Appendix for a much fuller explanation of these inter-relationships.
How is the curriculum organized?
The year is divided into four modules. Each module addresses the big question in some way: What are human rights, and why do they matter? Each module has three units, each of which has a discrete, specific instructional focus that supports the big idea of that module.
The Student Experience
What might it look like for Natalie over the course of a few weeks as she works toward this performance expectation?
Natalie will have read and worked with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so she will have a strong and accurate understanding of what these human rights are. She will have worked closely with the text A Life Like Mine to learn specifics about which human rights young people like herself, in various regions of the world, have succeeded in gaining, and which they are missing. Natalie will have learned to use maps and graphs as texts to learn more about the world, and will have closely read other texts about the push and pull factors in various places that drive people to seek greater human rights—so she knows a lot. With her classmates, Natalie will have discussed at length how the quest for human rights drives a great deal of human migration from one region of the world to another. She will have learned how to write a strong, focused paragraph that includes relevant evidence and clear analysis. Now, using all of this knowledge and these resources, notes, and ways of thinking, Natalie will write clearly and logically to explain how human rights have driven migration in a particular case—showing that she is able to transfer the connection between geography and human rights to a new and current context.
How will this curriculum benefit students?
Now, imagine a “new Natalie.” She still lives in a large urban community in the U.S. She still waitresses in the evenings to help support her family. But when she goes to her community college classes, she has a clear sense that she belongs there. She knows how to read texts like the ones she’s studying; she knows how to write a strong and thoughtful research essay. She knows how to make connections among big ideas. After all, Natalie has been doing all these things since middle school.
Natalie has a son in second grade, and his education is important to her. She wants for him what she experienced—a strong, supported, rich curriculum that takes his need to gain knowledge, to read and think and write, seriously.
With a bond vote coming up about whether or not to refurbish the aging elementary school her son attends, Natalie is ready to learn about the issue. She reads everything she can find about the pros and cons of the issue, and considers the various perspectives of the people in her community. Knowing that “human rights” in relation to place are both important and complex—and related to this issue in her own life—she thoughtfully weighs what she hears and reads.
Armed with her good education, Natalie registers to vote—confident that she will be able to make an informed choice.