Science and history units at Peachtown follow a three- to four-year rotation, with variations for contemporary and special topics, much in the way small colleges offer courses in alternating semesters. Units are taught in alternating five- to seven-week blocks, a format that allows our multi-age classrooms to function without grade-dictated limitations. History and science serve as the springboard for our integrated studies in all areas. For example, the study of the Revolutionary War period included early American art and crafts, music of the time, historical fiction and, in French class, the French Revolution. We even ground grain, grew our own sourdough cultures and baked delicious bread.
Ancient cultures are regular features in the curriculum rotation, but we select the specific area of study based upon how well it meshes with the other topics for the year. This year, we chose Ancient Greece to sandwich in between colonial America and the antebellum and Civil War eras. These three separate units and the way they connect in such clear and often contemporary ways underscores the critical importance of a rich history curriculum. It is a challenge for adolescents to keep their dates, wars and presidents straight, but the common recurring connections across millennia and cultures provide the perfect format to revisit the momentous moments in history and relate them to contemporary issues.
As we studied the fight for American independence and the writing of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, we connected the struggle for consensus among the Founding Fathers with today’s hot-button constitutional issues. Jumping across a 2,000-year divide, the Athenian democracy gave us an opportunity to look again at our earliest political roots and offers another example of a democracy that embraced only white men. The Trail of Tears offers a timeless example of the price of expansion, greed, class and race distinctions, which result in cruel displacement and genocide. Andrew Jackson was a populist president who shifted the paradigm of leadership in his century like Donald Trump has today. And how ironic that tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which served as an important exemplar for the writers of the Constitution, were driven out by the Sullivan Campaign before the Constitution was ever written. This year’s study has truly developed a context in which students can better understand our current racial, political and social environment.
The passage of time sometimes seems great, and at other times very small. Four hundred years since the first slaves came to the mainland American colonies seems endless in the struggle for racial equality. On the other hand, my cousins’ great-grandfather fought at Gettysburg with a regiment from Clyde. He walked home to Scipio from a Confederate prison after the Civil War, weighing just 86 pounds when he completed his journey. I knew his daughter well when I was a young girl. This makes me feel old, but also closer to lives that were intimately touched by this turning point in history.
Peachtown Elementary was named after the native Cayuga settlement as a reminder that we are our collective history. The study of civics is critically necessary for a population to intelligently govern themselves. But more than just civics, history traces the actions of people, their politics, motivations, outcomes and legacies, from which we have so much to learn.
Today, a smaller percentage of college students are majoring in history. The loss is tangible. In a Washington Post article, Max Boot quotes a survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that found that more respondents knew that Michael Jackson wrote “Beat It” than what the Bill of Rights was, and a full third could not place the Revolutionary War in the correct century. If the general population cannot identify simple facts, they surely aren’t aware of the repeating patterns and important lessons of history. Nor would they recognize what a crumbling democracy or a fascist state looks like. History, like all the humanities, is about building a frame of reference upon which we can understand who we are and the consequences of our actions. We must learn from our mistakes and ensure that history remains an important topic of study from the earliest grades throughout our lives. “Groundhog Day” is a good movie, but a poor motto to live by.