Topical Organization

Determining the organization by which standards for grades K-4 would be presented involved something of a dilemma, given the variety of curriculum approaches teachers can adopt in developing engaging historical studies for children. In addressing this problem in 1988, the Bradley Commission on History in Schools identified three curricular options for grades K-4:

  1. A “here-there-then” approach: This approach first centers instruction in each of these grades in the child’s immediate present and then each year reaches out in space and back in time to enlarge children’s breadth of geographic and historical understandings to distant places and times long ago. From kindergarten onward, this model introduces children to peoples and cultures throughout the world, and to historical times as distant as the earliest human memories, contained in myths, legends, and heroic tales, which are part of the cultural heritage of the world.
  2. A modification of the “expanding environments” approach to social studies: This approach includes, each year, rich studies in history and literature that connect with grade 1 studies of the family, grade 2 studies of the neighborhood, grade 3 studies of the community, and grade 4 studies of the state, but that expand and deepen these studies far beyond their traditional emphasis on the “here and now.” Thus, this modified model compares family, community, and state today with family life long ago, and with the people and events of earlier times in the historical development of their community and state. Fully expanded, this model also compares family and community life in the United States with life in the many cultures from which our increasingly diverse population has come, and with the historical experiences and traditions that are part of those cultures.
  3. A “literature-centered” approach: This approach focuses instruction each year on compelling selections of literature appropriate for children from many historical periods, and then expands those studies to explore more deeply the historical times they bring to life. This pattern is, essentially, a child’s version of the humanities-centered “Great Books” approach to curriculum-making, with literature used to take children into adventurous and deeply engaging excursions through a variety of historical eras and cultures.

In developing standards for history in grades K-4, the Curriculum Task Force sought an organizational structure flexible enough to support improved programs in history under any of these curriculum approaches, rather than assuming a single national curriculum for the schools. The topics believed to meet this need and under which the eight standards in history have been organized are as follows:

Topic 1: Living and Working Together in Families and Communities, Now and Long Ago

Topic 2: The History of Students’ Own State or Region

Topic 3: The History of the United States: Democratic Principles and Values and the Peoples from Many Cultures Who Contributed to Its Cultural, Economic, and Political Heritage

Topic 4: The History of Peoples of Many Cultures around the World

Although organized geographically from “near to far,” these topics reach far beyond the traditional content of the “expanding environments” curriculum model for grades K-4 by including at all grade levels studies of the nation and the world, and of the ancient as well as more recent past. How teachers draw upon these standards and how they sequence their programs of instruction should be determined by the particular curriculum approach they have adopted. For example:

  1. Teachers adopting the “here-there-then” model of curriculum-making will find standards that connect the child’s present world with the long-ago past and with distant cultures at every grade level, K-2 as well as 3-4. Thus, teachers of grades K-2 are not limited to comparative studies of family and community life (Topic 1). They may also select standards from Topics 2-4 that deepen young children’s understanding of people, ordinary and extraordinary, who have contributed to the betterment of others’ lives in their state, nation, and the world at various times in history; and they can engage children in analyses of compelling stories of individual heroism and epic events from ancient times until today by adopting standards from Topics 2-4, as well.
  2. Teachers adopting the modified “expanding environments” approach will find Topics 1 and 2 easily incorporated in their present curriculum and find in Topics 3 and 4 rich opportunities for expanding children’s understandings beyond the immediate “here and now.”
  3. Teachers adopting the “literature-centered” approach to history will find throughout the standards rich inclusions of literature and of associated historical studies of the era or context in which the literary selections were developed. Visiting museums and “living history” sites to observe the clothing, houses, furnishings, tools, and other artifacts referenced in a particular selection of historical fiction or biography; observing the geographic site in which historic events in the story occurred; comparing the characters and descriptions in the story and its illustrations with diaries, documents, photos, and other records of the time to judge the historical authenticity of the work; placing events in their chronological and geographic place on time lines and maps; reenacting episodes in the story through dramatizations; and writing their own narrative accounts are all examples of student achievement of standards on which teachers choosing a literature-centered approach to history can draw.

The standards, in short, define outcomes of instruction. They assume no one curriculum design. Teachers must be free to enter these standards and use them appropriately to meet the interests and instructional needs of the students they are teaching.