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Teaching the Middle Ages to K-12

al idrisi map sicily

Teaching the Middle Ages to K-12: Sites of Encounter in the Medieval World: The History Blueprint Approach

Danielle Trynoski reports on a series of presentations given at the annual Medieval Academy of America/Medieval Association of the Pacific conference, University of California Los Angeles, April 10-12, 2014

Teaching the Middle Ages to K-12

This report covers two sessions with multiple speakers from the MAA-MAP 2014 conference. These sessions were offered on Saturday morning and afternoon and focused on the California History-Social Science Project. This collaborative effort between California universities and K-12 educators aims to create engaging lesson plans for classrooms which address the Common Core standards and show students how to approach history with a global perspective, not just memorize unrelated dates, names, and facts. These lesson plans, titled the History Blueprint, are created around sites of encounters and teach skills in geography, literacy, vocabulary, source analysis, critical thinking, and creating an argument supported by evidence. These lesson plans also encourage students to consider cultural perspectives, the spectrum of belief structures, stereotypes, and their own place in a global environment.

The first session was from 10:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m. The presentations were opened by Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz of UCLA, who is a major promoter for the collaboration between university faculty and other educators. Professor Ruiz outlined the beginnings of the collaboration in 2005, when the American Historical Association held a seminar to consider methodologies for teaching world history with a focus on sites of encounter. To the surprise of the AHA, K-12 educators were the majority of the attendees and called for an internationally relevant curriculum. This pushed the focus of the seminar towards a teaching approach for K-12 educators and lesson plans for their use. The approach was to be driven by student access to primary sources and materials, and to support a more challenging, engaging history curriculum in California. Professor Ruiz immediately saw validity of including the Middle Ages in a project with a focus on global connections, and the current collaboration between California universities and school educators was formed under the California Subject Matter Project ( Funding was obtained, allowing the employment of graduate students and K-12 educators to research material and translate it into age-appropriate lesson plans.

After Professor Ruiz’s introduction, Professor Mary Miller, Co-Director of the UCLA History-Geography Project, took the podium to explain additional details of the current state of the CHSSP and the History Blueprint as it relates to the Middle Ages curriculum. She explained that the state curriculum teaches the Middle Ages in the seventh grade (ages 11-12). The goals of the project are not just to improve our approach to teaching history, but to give students a more thorough understanding of a historian’s job and to “feed the pipeline.” By this, she was referring to the idea that students who succeed under a more rigorous curriculum are better prepared for success in college and more likely to apply and enroll. If they pursue studies in history, then they come with a greater understanding of how to not just study, but analyze the subject.

Seven universities in California are supporting the development and implementation of the History Blueprint lessons. These include University of California (UC) Berkeley, Davis (the project’s headquarters), Irvine, and Los Angeles; and California State University (CSU) Dominguez-Hills, Fresno, and Long Beach. The faculty at these locations is connected to test sites in their local area, and work with the history teachers at these K-12 schools with the History Blueprint plans. Faculty and graduate students help foster understanding of the subject matter in the lessons and support the development of the teachers as needed.

Professor Miller spoke in praise of the Common Core standards, which “fight against the marginalization of history in the face of tested subjects such as English and Math.” The History Blueprint lessons align closely with Common Core goals in their emphasis on critical thinking and the ability of students to make connections. She acknowledged their many funding sources including the Haas Fund and the British Council, and pointed to the previous achievements of the project in the completion of lesson units on the Cold War and the American Civil War. She then addressed the focus question for the unit on the Middle Ages: ‘How did sites of encounter change the medieval world?’ The project collaborators addressed this question through three main themes and six main sites.

The themes were Commonalities and Networks: Conflict and Cooperation, Janet Abu-Lughod’s map of the World System of the Thirteenth Century, and Maritime Technology and Transport Systems. The six main locations correspond to different lessons in the unit, with each site having several activities to make up its lesson plan. The locations are Norman Sicily, Cairo, Mali, Majorca, Calicut, and Quanzhou (China). Professor Miller addressed the tricky nature of using primary sources with seventh grade students, but related these sources to tangible objects and locations. The lesson plans aim to give students access to advanced material, support their analysis of the material, and urge them to create their own conclusions based on their analysis of the evidence.

Professor Miller then introduced Shomara Gooden, a teacher at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Lynwood, California. Ms. Gooden spoke about her classroom context and how the History Blueprint approach fit that context. She also presented selections from the lesson plans for Sicily. She spoke about the various learning levels present in her class, and how the unit lesson plans allow for a spectrum of learning styles and speeds. She can tailor the materials to give more students a chance for success and engagement with the activities. She addressed the nature of other Social Studies curriculum programs to be divided into either a Regional Approach or a Western Civilization Chronological approach, but the History Blueprint offered an integrated method. These units don’t allow for isolation but demand connections within and between the units.

al idrisi map sicily

To begin the unit on Norman Sicily, Ms. Gooden surveyed her class for prior knowledge of two phrases, ‘medieval’ and ‘sites of encounter.’ For ‘medieval,’ her students drew or described kings, knights, princesses, castles, and horses. She shared one humorous interpretation for ‘sites of encounter’ as the place “where you see a ghost.” She praised the first lesson in the unit, the political states of the world in 1279 and the major religions of geographic regions in 1400, for its consideration of Afro-Eurasia and its emphasis on students’ knowledge of geography. Students had to evaluate the usefulness of the T-O Map and the map of al-Idrisi (for images and more information on these, click here). She expressed her surprise and pleasure when the discussion about these two images expanded into a discussion on maps, blank spaces, the shape of land forms, and spatial depictions in general. She shared some other elements of the unit including how to do a ‘close reading’ of a primary source, Geoffrey Malattera’s description of Count Roger, helping students understand its main messages using carefully worded ‘scaffolding’ prompt questions. A question from the audience was raised about students who were reading below the seventh grade level, and how to address that. Ms. Gooden answered that she would never send this activity home, but always work with it in class, as an entire group or in small groups in the classroom to build the foundation and confidence of students. Professor Ruiz chimed in that college professors tend to take it for granted that first-year university students know how to read and analyze a primary source. While he admitted that sometimes that skill needs to be taught to freshmen students, he thinks that the battle needs to be fought in K-12 education in addition to being an important part of lower level college history courses. Ms. Gooden then moved on to the next lesson, Trade and Conflict, in which students created and compared maps showing product origins, product trade routes, locations of conflicts, and the primary religion within regions. The unit also contained lessons which analyzed objects (Roger’s Coronation Mantle), the credibility of sources (Ibn Jubayr’s comments on Sicily and Roger’s management), and a concluding lesson which asked students to create an argument using materials discussed in the unit activities. Ms. Gooden stressed again the integrated nature of the unit, and that it encouraged students to evaluate cross-cultural convergence in their own community.

There was a lunch break, and then the afternoon session from 2:00 p.m.-3:30 p.m. offered part two of these presentations. Professor Shennan Hutton of the University of California Davis introduced Professor Laura Mitchell of the University of California Irvine, who presented “Academic Collaboration in Reframing Teaching about the Medieval World.” She opened her talk with the question, “what’s the leading edge?” She asked how we should engage young students, since most research in the academic world is far removed from a K-12 context. She stated that as professional historians, we have an obligation to curate and create the history learning process. Her mandate was to find a way to connect to a wider public in research initiatives, and calls for more opportunities for academic faculty to engage in K-12 education. She thanked those who “opened the door” by drawing attention to the issue when at the height of their respective careers, and gave a hearty nod to Professor Ruiz, an acclaimed professor in Spanish and Portuguese Studies and an advocate for K-12 collaboration. She challenged the audience by asking why medieval studies wasn’t a global concept, and illustrated this challenge with a spatial survey of the MAA-MAP conference topics. After a survey of the paper topics offered in the conference program, she created a map showing the rough location of the research focus. Nearly all of the papers focused on western Europe, with a very small number in northern Africa, Iceland, and eastern Europe. It was a sobering look at how the conference attendees defined ‘medieval’ in a geographic context.

She spoke about her experience teaching World History, and the possibility of creating a human-centric narrative with knowledge formed from a collaborative analysis. Her past observations had seen curriculum which focused on specific civilizations rather than points of convergence. She emphasized the need for a curriculum with global coverage with connections, comparisons, and broad thematic discussions. Professor Mitchell then considered vocabulary and asked about the dates for the medieval period. One audience member gave the generally accepted answer of 500-1500, based on the end of the Roman Empire and the Age of Exploration. In response, Professor Mitchell asked about an event which marked the end of the period. Was it not, in fact, a different beginning? The start dates for the medieval period are based on primarily political events set in the Mediterranean arena, but the accepted end dates are based on global events related to different themes. From this discussion, she moved to the question of how to define a medieval ‘something.’ We considered an illuminated prayer psalter, a Chinese travel narrative, and a Buddhist temple. Chronologically, they are medieval, but can we fit them into our generally accepted definition of medieval materials? Professor Mitchell concluded by introducing the Indian Ocean as a historical region similar to the Mediterranean, with active trade networks acknowledged by the European communities.

Professor Hutton took the podium for a short presentation on the History Blueprint’s newly launched Interactive Map, and showed the audience some of the features of the map and the project’s website (For interactive map, click here: For the project’s website, click here: The map can be integrated into classroom lessons, or allow students to practice their computer skills by exploring the map in a computer lab. Professor Hutton then introduced Michelle Delgado, a seventh grade teacher at Edward Harris Jr. Middle School in Elk Grove, California with 19 years of teaching experience. Ms. Delgado discussed her enthusiasm for the project and again praised its fit with the Common Core standards. She introduced the recently completed unit on Calicut, and presented some of the unit activities. This unit started with an introduction of spices, an analysis of recipes in Middle English and Old English, medicinal uses of spices and herbs, wealth, status, and understanding the context for actions and decisions. The second part of the lesson focused on geography with students tasked to create a map of monsoon patterns and trade winds in the Indian Ocean. This activity connected to the Interactive Map, which has the ability to display this information. Students had to consider the effects of monsoons and the possibility that travelers and traders would be confined to certain geographic regions for extended periods of time. Other unit activities included ‘close readings’ of primary sources, comparisons of architectural styles around the Indian Ocean, and analysis of multiple sources for their credibility and value. Her conclusion reaffirmed her belief in the History Blueprint project and her hope for its valuable application in classrooms across the country.

These sessions were inspiring and thought-provoking. As an attendee with a keen interest in how to translate academic knowledge to more publicly accessible formats and make history engaging, I found this project to be a valuable and productive collaboration. I congratulate the History Blueprint team on their accomplishments, and look forward to their future contributions to a modern history curriculum. ~ Danielle Trynoski

 See also Get Interactive: Teach the Middle Ages for Ages 5 to 25 by Danielle Trynoski

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