8th Grade World History

A couple of months ago I got a phone call from the 8th grade teacher at our local Waldorf school – she was exhausted (as most th grade Waldorf teachers are) and was there any way I could come and do a short two week mini main lesson with her class? We talked a bit about what they had been doing and what she thought they needed and what would take me the least amount of preparation (main lessons don’t just come tumbling off one’s sleeve at short notice!). We decided that what would be best was if I taught a main lesson in World Geography.
The block went brilliantly – the students were a great group – the quality of their listening and the level of their engagement spoke highly of their class teacher’s wonderful work with them as a group over the years. And they were just ripe for what I had to offer – their heads were full of thoughts of high school and though I have recently resigned from the slightly Waldorf inspired high school in town, they saw me as a High School teacher. And that’s pretty much what I brought them – high school content. I was very aware of their journey through the Waldorf curriculum – and through a large, sweeping look at world geography and history (with lots of politics and economics thrown in) I aimed to revisit places and events they had covered throughout the grades and help them see the connections on a world scale.
As a high school teacher, whether I am teaching history, social studies or literature, I tend to move very fast and to make grand sweeping narratives through my material. For the 8th grade, I took them on a journey which started with looking at the earth as a whole, as an integrated, living, cohesive unity. They had just had a main lesson on meteorology so they were familiar with the Earth’s weather patterns. We started with this and then looked at the expression of the Earth in terms of biomes and in terms of the formation of land masses and the relationship between land and water on a global scale.
We began with a Goethean exercise, looking at a map of the Earth (one without political boundaries), just describing what we saw. They described the land and the prevalence of water…. then they noticed that there was more land and less water in the Northern Hemisphere. After a bit they also noticed that there is a pattern across the globe of a massing in the north and a thinning down into peninsulas and/or islands to the south of each land mass. There is also usually an island off to the East of most land masses. Have a look at a world map yourself and have a look! We discussed whether there was indeed aa “right way up” for the map and was East really East or a Western notion (why then do the Japanese call their country the Land of the Rising Sun if the concepts East and West have no substance?!).
We then found the equator and looked at how there was a mirroring of ice at either pole and a wide band of tropical rain forest across the middle of the globe. We looked at savannahs and deciduous forests, at deserts and grasslands. I described each in detail – the plants, the animals, the weather. How did/do people live in these various biomes?
Over the course of the first week we gradually moved inward toward detail – from looking at the Earth as a whole, we moved into looking at continents and areas. We brought in human beings. How did/does geography effect human beings? We looked at the differences between hunter-gatherers and city dwellers. Why were the first great cities on plains? Why did the Nile as well as the Tigress and Euphrates become the birthing places of great civilizations? Why was the Mediterranean so important – then we came upon trade. How does geography effect trade – and what is trade anyway? We discussed what resources are and what was important to people long ago. We looked at the horse as a living form of technology – we jumped over to North America and discussed the fact that there were no horses here until the Spaniards came. How did the horse change the lives of the people here?
Back to Eurasia and back several thousand years – what great technological invention completely changed the way people lived? The wheel. We talked about wells and pulleys and chariots. We talked about how people living on plains could use chariots or ride on horseback whilst people in mountains or thick jungles would use the horse less. Where did various invaders come from? Then we went back and marvelled at the fact that the builders of the pyramids had no wheel. Neither did the Aztecs. The Romans had wheels. And they built straight roads. What is the effect on the land and on people when roads are straight as opposed to curving with the landscape?
We returned to the concept of resources. We looked at a modern political map and discussed resources and inventions. What great inventions followed the wheel? We talked about the printing press. What did it mean for people’s lives that they could easily communicate ideas through the written word? Is trade just about material resources? We looked at the spread of ideas – of the ideas of the Greeks that traveled with the Muslim world to Spain and was safe guarded and expanded there. And then was taken up again in Renaissance Europe. How did ideas get from one place to another? We looked at the spread of religion – at Christianity and Islam. We looked at Judaism – here was something different – what was different? What was the Diaspora – why did it happen? What was the effect on a people who could not own land (in Europe) or join certain  trades?
 What about China? We talked about the Silk Route, about the spread of Buddhism, about the contact between China and Europe. We jumped ahead and looked at Japan. Here is an island. Western contact came in the form of Jesuits and traders – then the Japanese rejected influence from the West and closed their doors for two hundred years! The students were amazed by this – what could that mean? What importance did that have for the Japanese people and their culture? And what wasthe significance of the fact that Japan is an island?
Then we whizzed over to another island, to Britain. First we discussed what exactly “Great Britain” is and when that title came about – we got a bit side tracked discussing Ireland (here’s another island) and then got back to England/Great Britain. We talked about how a heavily wooded island (“oh, you mean Sherwood Forest!”) came to be a much less wooded island in part because of the need for wood to build….. ships! What was the after-effect of the Armada? One piece was that Britain became the dominant naval power of the world. Before launching into a discussion of colonialism and imperialism, we side stepped to consider the fact that the Chinese had at one time had the greatest naval fleet at one point with enormously sophisticated ships which dwarfed the European ships both in size and technological sophistication. But…. the Emperor commanded that the Celestial Empire had no need of exploring the rest of the world – and the ships were destroyed.
Back to Britain. We picked up on threads from the Spanish and Portuguese explores – what were they looking for? Gold and souls. We talked about their impact on the “New World”  (and what did this term mean – New to whom?). We considered how ideas were not the only thing that people spread as they traveled across the globe. We spent time discussing disease – went back and looked at the Plague in Europe and how it contributed to the end of feudalism and thus the end of the concept that people were chattel which could be acquired along with land. That of course led into a discussion about slavery and about the differences between slavery in the New World and in the Old. Back to our land theme, I shared with them the story of the cotton gin and how slavery might just have died out if Eli Whitney hadn’t made this invent
ion. This bowled them over! And that dovetailed neatly into a discussion of the beginnings of modern globalisation and capitalism – the cotton was grown by the slaves here in the “New World”, taken to Britain to be spun into cloth by the workers in the mills (and I gave them a picture of what the mills were like – and again, with this theme of the relationship to land, talked about the enclosures and how agricultural practices changed and how one effect was to drive people off the land – and into the mills and coal mines) and then often shipped back to be sold to Americans! And picking up again on the land and resources – what was now needed? What great invention came about? The steam engine – and that needed coal and it needed iron and steel. And Britain had all these things plus easy access to trade routes via water. Enter the birth of the Industrial Revolution.
And thus we came full circle, back to our original picture of the Earth as a whole. We knew that the environment is a whole – if factories in the US Midwest pollute the air then the forests in Canada will suffer. We saw that trade was international – we spent some time talking about China and why everything in Walmart is made there. We dipped into economic theories – mobile workforces and capital, free markets, state intervention, labor theory of value.  Many of the students’ parents are organic farmers – why all the fuss about eating local food? And then we had to look at Fair Trade issues, too…. and what are the shortcomings in a global capitalist economy? We looked at industries like fishing in the North sea – how do Canada, Iceland, the UK and Denmark come to agreements about fishing rights? How are the fish effected? What are the economic, social and ecological consequences? What happens when a people’s way of life is dependent on something like fishing?
Well…. that’s only a glimpse at what we covered. And the students loved it – poised on the threshold of a new stage of life, they were so eager to step into the world and try to understand some of these concepts. I took great care to try to emphasize that while there was a lot of destruction and horror in this picture that we had looked at together, that the point now is that people have the capacity to not be agents of destruction on the earth but to be co creators in positive growth and change. One worried student shared that she knew that some people thought the earth would be better off without human beings. We talked about this – most of the students thought that somehow this wasn’t right, that human beings were a part of the order of life, though their capacities were obviously different from that of the natural world. I was relieved to hear them affirm this.
Because it was such a short block, I required very little homework. They had one 2 -3 page paper to write. I wanted them to examine the positive and negative effects people had had in specific geographical places and what the relevance of the geography was to what took place as well as the political and social implications. They chose from the Panama Canal; the Suez Canal; the Boll Weevil and Cotton in the US South; Lake Baikal in Russia; and the Dust Bowl in the US. Most of them wrote very good papers which showed that they understood that geography, the environment, politics and social life are all connected.
I hope you enjoy reading this – I certainly enjoyed sharing it with the students! In class, of course, I  paused often to make sure they were with me as we galloped across the stage of world history and across the globe itself! I tend to see my teaching as weaving – I move strongly forward with a theme – then double back and pick up any loose ends. Then I return again and again in subsequent days to look once again at what we talked about – but with students of this age, not to just recapitulate, but to deepen and to explore from another angle.

Posted on March 18, 2008 in 8th Grade, Older Children, Waldorf Curriculum

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