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.