This unit was developed for sixth grade social studies students in Memphis public schools. The content and teaching activities suggested in these ten lesson plans explore themes of identity and community, while helping students and teachers build a productive, safe learning environment. They are especially appropriate for use in middle school classrooms, of any subject, at the beginning of the school year.
Why teach about identity and community?
Why begin a sixth grade social studies course with an exploration of identity and community? The answer to this question may seem obvious. First, identity and community are central themes in the minds of young adolescents. As your students begin a year in a new school (or at least in a different classroom), many wonder about who they want to be in this new space and what it means to be part of a group. The lives of early adolescents are centered around peer groups and mutual relationships. The Facing History curriculum has been developed to support and challenge students who are beginning to see themselves as unique individuals with a desire to belong.
By beginning the year with themes that resonate with students’ moral and social development— themes such as identity, membership, and belonging—teachers engage students not only in studying themselves but also in studying peoples of the past. Facing History teachers have found that students have a deeper understanding of particular historical moments when these moments are connected to universal themes that resonate with students’ lives. Questions such as “What does it mean to be a member of a community?” and “How does our perspective shape the way we view others?” are as applicable to analyzing the social world of young adolescents as they are to understanding civilizations throughout world history. The ancient Chinese, Greeks, and Mayans were concerned about belonging to a family, tribe, or nation just as students today care about their membership in certain cliques or groups. When students create a class contract in Lesson 10, they participate in a process that preoccupied emerging civilizations thousands of years ago—the process of establishing norms and laws.
Encouraging students to think critically about issues of identity and community is not only an effective way to engage them in the study of world history; it also provides a way to build a class culture that supports learning. The activities in this unit have been developed to promote a sense of community because students are best able to share ideas, take risks, and help each other when they feel a sense of belonging and safety in the classroom. The first several lessons provide meaningful ways for students to introduce themselves to their peers. The process of learning about their classmates can break down stereotypes and help build relationships. For example, students who may have assumed they did not have anything in common with their peers may learn that they share an interest in the same music or that they have been through a similar experience. The second half of the unit focuses on what it means to be part of a community. Through discussing various examples of inclusion and exclusion, students develop an understanding of belonging that they can apply to their own relationships within the classroom.
For more than thirty years, Facing History has supported teachers in developing a respectful classroom climate where students feel comfortable sharing ideas and taking risks. It is through open dialogue and thoughtful engagement with peers that students develop a sense of what it means to participate in a democratic society. In this way, the lessons in this unit not only support their development as students of social studies but also support their growth as citizens and community members.
How to Use this Unit
The 10 lessons in this unit are divided into 2 sections: the Introduction and the Lesson Plan.
The Introduction includes the following sections:
- Overview: This section provides a rationale and description of the lesson and explains how the lesson content connects to the study of world history.
- Learning goals: The activities and suggested assignments have been designed to help students master specific learning goals. The lessons also promote students’ learning in other areas such as reading, oral expression, and critical thinking.
- Materials: Following each lesson, we have included materials needed to implement the lessons, such as graphic organizers, texts, or images. Other suggested materials, such as Dr. Seuss’s story “The Sneetches,” can be borrowed from Facing History’s library. The short book The Bear That Wasn’t, by Frank Tashlin, is the central text of Lesson 3.
The Lesson Plan includes five sections:
- Warm-up: The warm-up activity prepares students to access the material in the lesson by activating prior knowledge, introducing an important vocabulary word, or providing an opportunity for personal connection to the themes in the lesson.
- Main activity: The main activity is typically built around a specific text or hands-on project. It introduces students to new concepts and ideas and provides a structure for students to work with this material so they can make it their own.
- Follow-through: To deepen students’ understanding and encourage retention of the material, the follow-through activity often requires students to apply the material explored in the main activity to a new situation. Students might be asked to connect the material to their own lives, synthesize concepts from different lessons, or develop their own opinions about the content of the lesson.
- Homework: Suggested assignments can be used to evaluate learning goals or prepare students for the next lesson.
- Curriculum connections: In the body of each lesson, we have included curriculum connections—ideas about how you can use the lesson’s content or teaching strategy throughout the school year to help students better understand world history.
These lessons have been designed to be implemented in a 50-minute class period. Depending on your own classroom context (e.g., how many students you have, the skill level of your students, and your students’ interests) lessons may take more or less time. If you are concerned about running out of time, you can shorten the warm-up activity or assign the follow-through activity for homework. This unit could easily engage students for several weeks if you implement the optional extension activities included in most lessons.
We strongly recommend that students keep a journal during this unit. The journal is a place where students can answer questions during class and at home. Students can also keep a list of important terms in their journals. By keeping their ideas in one place, students are better able to make connections between lessons and take stock of how their own understanding has developed.