November 27, 2017 by

A Civics Curriculum Where Past and Present Meet

As the political rhetoric in our country grows increasingly acrimonious and incidents of hate-based violence surge, we must guide our students to consider other perspectives with open-hearted curiosity instead of reflexive opposition. Now more than ever, our students must have the tools to evaluate other people’s ideas thoughtfully and deliberately.

How do we do this? Fourth grade educators from two project-based schools in my district of Cambridge, Massachusetts, found a place to start last year. My colleagues and I developed a year-long story about how different people experienced the United States from the 1830s through the 1930s, a period of profound scientific and technological change. We used case studies to focus on different perspectives of the century, including mill workers in Massachusetts, enslaved African Americans in the South, European pioneers moving westward, Chinese immigrants working on the transcontinental railroad, and indigenous people from different regions of the country. As we traveled across time, we also developed students’ background knowledge about earth systems and energy by considering the technology of the century, like the water wheel,

which harnessed kinetic energy from rivers to power new mills, and Morse Code, which conveyed messages long before iPhones or Instagram.

The curriculum integrated science, social studies, and English Language arts standards in a narrative that was highly engaging for kids, mirrored the cultural diversity of our community, and pushed students to wrestle with complex questions about our world.

When we began working on the project in the spring of 2016, we did not yet know how tumultuous the upcoming year would be. But as the 2016-2017 school year unfolded, our curriculum gave us a language with which to engage children in discussions of current events. We were able to explore the Black Lives Matter movement in the historical context of racial oppression that students now understood more fully. We could talk about the Dakota Access Pipeline in the context of the past dispossession of indigenous people. When the immigration ban was first announced, with immediate implications for students in our classrooms, we had the context of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to consider historical antecedents to the new policy. Being deeply grounded in our country’s history allowed us to face the present. To learn more about our work with the curriculum, read my article in the November 2017 issue of Educational Leadership.

I am part of a classroom that loops from 3rd to 4th grade. After a particularly rewarding year of teaching and learning in our 4th grade classes, my grade-level colleague and I returned to 3rd grade eager to apply the lessons we learned to another year’s curriculum. We’ve recognized that our prior curriculum privileged the experiences of white settlers, so this fall, we’re exploring ways to improve the “story” of people in Massachusetts from 1620–1776. Our goal is to provide equally rich representation of the history of indigenous people in our region. To strengthen my own background knowledge, I participated in a Gilder Lehrman history institute this summer focused on Native American history. I’ve also connected with a former student who is now the Mattakeeset Tribal delegate to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and asked him to speak to our 3rd graders about current issues. We know that we still have a lot to learn and that we risk making mistakes along the way, but we’re committed to ongoing reflection to improve our work year after year. After all, it’s up to us to help children understand an unbelievably varied and complex world and to show them the beauty, possibility, and hope inherent in that world.

Karen Engels ( is a 3rd and 4th grade teacher at the Graham and Parks School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.