Building Blocks of the Modern World

“Can’t we learn about the world today?”

“Yes, you should, but I also think you ought to know about the changes in the world that made today’s world possible.”

If only everyone could double up on history each year, maybe we could come close to an ideal understanding of history. Then again, maybe not. I do it for a living, and I am still not there yet.

Building Blocks of the Modern World or Understanding the Modern World – This is how I am envisioning updating our History of the Modern World class. A few weeks ago I was talking with a student about the history curriculum, and he was lamenting that there is no core course in our curriculum that teaches them about their world today.

Our 9th grade course is Great Civilizations, which deals mainly with the ancient world. Then students take History of the Modern World which begins with the Renaissance and then moves through World War I. Juniors then study US and the World, a course that focused on the US in the 19th century and the US in a global context in the 20th century before we revised the curriculum last summer. I have been blogging about how we have updated the US and the World course, moving from a chronological to a thematic approach. I will continue to report out on how that is going through the year. But this post is about making over a world history course.

I have been reflecting on that conversation with the student. Then, I was talking with a colleague yesterday. She had heard a news story tracing the production of a single t-shirt. This began a conversation about our Commodities Project, where students trace the history of a commodity through time. We shared some great ideas of how we can update that project to make it more fresh and contemporary, including having students look at the origins of final products rather than commodities. We talked about how we could look at contemporary as well as historical products, a cup of Starbucks coffee compared to a cup of coffee in a Viennese coffee house in the 19th century. Students could trace the product from coffee plants to cafe table.

Then, it hit me. We can begin with the contemporary issue and then look back to critical formative moments in history that explain it. Globalization issues today can take us back to the Columbian Exchange and the origins of the global trade network. Democratic revolutions today can take us back to the Enlightenment and the Atlantic Revolutions. Industrial and environmental issues today parallel 18th and 19th century industrialization. We would not feel the need to connect everything and cover everything. Instead we would be giving students a grounding in current issues and enough of the background to know historical precedents and foundations. It gets us away from the need to cover everything. Every year, we feel guilty about what we leave out and at some point veer off in a few too many directions in an attempt to draw too many connections. World history is not neat, not clear, not linear. It is a complex web of interlinked stories. Telling all of them is never really an option. We need to be selective. Why not select the ones that have the most relevance for students today? This type of curriculum also allows us to make room for any emerging issues; it is nimble and dynamic.

I am excited to share this with my teaching team. Maybe we can even field test a unit at some point in the second semester. I wonder if anyone else is taking a similar approach to modern world history. I would love to hear about it.

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2 thoughts on “Building Blocks of the Modern World

    • I am hoping it ends up being exciting and meaningful. We will no doubt give up some coverage, but I think we can create more meaning for the students. They may retain more even if we do less, simply because they can make the contemporary connections. I am not thinking it will be trying to connect all of the dots with any particular issue, but rather take a contemporary issue and then look at important episodes/eras in the development. There is still much to be worked out. This may be the focus of many blog posts next year the way that the revamping of our US course is this year.

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