A Philadelphia History Course Melds Two Reforms

By Robert Rothman — May 17, 1989 6 min read

When 9th graders in 10 Philadelphia high schools enter their world-history classes next fall, they will become part of an unusual experiment that links two key strains of the nationwide school-reform effort.

The curriculum the students will follow--a two-year, rather than the traditional one-year, course--permits more time for the subject, involves active, hands-on learning, and provides a global perspective on events.

And the decisions about what the course will do and be were shaped by teachers. More than a third of the city’s 150 world-history teachers have been involved in designing it.

That combination of attributes “represents a departure from what’s going on around the country,” according to Carol A. Parssinen, director of the Philadelphia Alliance for Teaching Humanities in Schools (paths), a nonprofit group that directed the curriculum project.

“Teachers are writing it, not curriculum specialists,” she says. “And this is the history of the whole world, not just the history of Western Europe and America with some add-ons.”

“I don’t know of any other project that does that,” she adds.

Conducted in conjunction with Temple University, the project also represents an unusual type of alliance between the district and a local university. In addition to producing the school curriculum, Ms. Parssinen says, the project has developed a new history-education course for Temple students that could in turn bolster the training of future teachers.

“It’s not just the riches of the university being brought in and shared with school people,” Ms. Parssinen contends. “In this case, the wisdom of people in the schools will be shared by students doing undergraduate work in the university.”

An Interconnected World

The curriculum project, according to Philadelphia school officials, grew out of concerns expressed by teachers at a 1986 citywide “instructional-review day.”

“When they met to discuss how things were going,” recalls Joseph Jacovino, a curriculum specialist in the district’s division of social studies, “social-studies teachers overwhelmingly indicated that the world-history course is impossible to teach.”

Superintendent of Schools Constance E. Clayton “was struck by the similarity” of the comments, he adds.

Ms. Clayton approached the paths group, which had earlier helped the district develop a writing program, and asked its leaders to create a new world-history curriculum.

Paths is part of the Collaboratives for Humanities and Arts Teaching, a Rockefeller Foundation-created network of curriculum-reform efforts in nine cities and two states.

With the aid of $300,000 in grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust, paths and Philadelphia officials formed a team of teachers, curriculum specialists, and scholars to fashion a broad outline for what the new program should include.

The group agreed to establish a two-year course that would:

Consider the world as a whole through comparative study, rather than study civilizations separately;

Offer a clear sense of chronology while introducing tools for studying history;

Integrate the study of geography into each unit.

That type of integrated approach is essential if the course is to help students understand the modern world, argues Howard Spodek, professor of history and urban studies at Temple.

“We are training people to live in a world that is interconnected,” he says. “If kids can understand what empires are, they can understand how empires form in the modern world as well.”

“History should be taught in terms of what processes of the past help us understand the present,” he adds.

Last spring, the planning group invited 32 teachers and four curriculum specialists to participate in a course presenting an overview of the history, geography, literature, architecture, and archeology of the ancient world, the first year of the proposed two-year sequence. The participants heard lectures from leading local scholars and met with historians and archeologists at local museums.

Following the overview course, 34 of the 36 participants also attended seminars on particular topics of interest, such as the growth of cities, the expansion of monotheistic religions, and the emergence of empires.

Beginning last fall, members of each of the seminar groups met regularly to create a draft curriculum for a one-year course on the ancient world, which will be implemented next fall in 10 high schools. By 1991, the course is expected to be implemented in all 35 high schools.

A similar process is under way to develop the second-year course, which will cover the modern world.

‘Rekindled Our Love of History’

Teachers involved in the project say it will result in a better curriculum and better instruction.

“Teachers have a good grasp of where children are coming from,” says Patricia Jiggetts-Jones, who teaches at Lincoln High School. “We are in a better position to pinpoint types of activities that might work.”

For example, she notes, teachers recommended using maps to show students that early civilizations tended to form along the same longitudinal lines. “They get the idea8that climate had something to do with the development of civilization,” she points out.

In addition, notes Karen Kreider, a teacher at Central High School, teachers proposed that the course place more emphasis on writing to ensure that students understand historical events.

“We teach that Constantine helped spread Christianity by converting to Christianity,” she notes. “But what if he hadn’t had a dream about a cross?”

“Kids can write about that question,” she adds, “and get more out of it than if they memorize the date that Constantine became a Christian.”

Ms. Kreider adds that the teachers’ involvement in the curriculum-development project will also improve their classroom practice. The lectures, seminars, and discussions with professional historians, she says, “have re-inspired us.”

“After teaching the 9th grade for years, and using the textbook with its enormous wealth of factual material,” the Central teacher says, “we lose sight of what history is.”

“This project has rekindled our love of history,” she adds. “That’s essential to relate to students. History is not a set of dead facts. It’s important for us to show how exciting it can be.”

Not a ‘Hard Sell’

Over the next few years, district officials and teachers in the project expect to develop new materials and tests to match the curriculum.

The materials will supplement textbooks that are frequently out of date and inadequate for the new course’s interdisciplinary approach, according to Mr. Jacovino of the district’s social-studies division.

“We’re not throwing the textbook out,” he says. “But the textbook is a resource--one of many.”

The additional materials could include primary sources as well as artifacts. “We’re hoping for a hands-on approach,” Mr. Jacovino explains. “If kids have the ability to manipulate materials, they have a totally different look at how history works.”

Similarly, the new tests may measure students’ ability to use such materials, rather than to answer multiple-choice questions.

The new curriculum will also require substantial teacher training, notes Mr. Spodek of Temple.

“This is not the way most college courses are structured,” he points out. “It’s more difficult to teach. Most of us were not trained to do that.”

But Mr. Jacovino responds that many teachers have already received training through their involvement in the project. About 55 of the 150 world-history teachers in the city have been participants so far, he notes, and another 35 or 40 will have a hand in the second phase.

“We are involving a significant number of teachers of world history in Philadelphia,” he says. “It won’t be too much of a hard sell.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 1989 edition of Education Week as A Philadelphia History Course Melds Two Reforms