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Makeover Column IV: Engaging Students to Think Comparatively by Placing United States History in a "Real" World History Course

James A. Diskant, Ph.D.
John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science


    In my previous columns, I have argued that the creation of community should be at the center of any history class, that this central focus helps students understand political choices people make to meet their community-based needs, and that students need to consider the values people hold in order to understand both themselves and others better. While there are many ways to accomplish these three interconnected goals, I have come to believe that the best way to do so is in a truly comparative and thematic world history course, where students can begin to understand developments comparatively, as they would have happened. In this context, at introductory levels the history of the United States would no longer be taught in isolation, but rather in the context of the world.

    Recent scholarship supports this view of contextualizing United States history. Peter Stearns, for example, argued in "American Students and Global Issues" ( that the study and teaching of the United States must be systematically internationalized.  In addition, scholars like Bernard Bailyn in Atlantic History: Concept and Contours (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), Charles S. Maier in Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), and Thomas Bender in A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006) have argued that isolating the United States from its counterparts in the world does not help students understand how the world was in the past or how it is today. Bailyn, Maier, and Bender all make clear that a comparative perspective will help students understand developments as they happened in the past as well as their connections today.

    Most recently Carl Guarneri, in his new book, America in the World: United States History in Global Context (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2007) eloquently argues that by bringing U.S. History and World History together we help to "understand Americans' relation to other peoples – including connections and similarities as well as differences – and to trace their nation's evolving position on a globe dotted with other nations, a world that is shrinking dramatically today and has been for more than five centuries." (p. 3). In his view, teachers and students should investigate four overlapping stages: Age of Exploration and Contact, 1530s-1680s, Colonial Era, 1607-1783, Age of Nation-Building, 1776-1930s, and Age of Empire, 1880s-Present (pp. 7ff), each of which will allow us to understand world developments contextually and comparatively.

    While a few schools (for example Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School and Austin Preparatory School) have moved in this comparative direction over the past few years, the real work in making these changes can be challenging. Two years ago I presented to my department a variety of arguments to revamp the curriculum in these comparative directions, including making the courses more historically accurate, avoiding duplication, and challenging students. It took a year of discussion and debate to actually begin the changes. Finally, a few colleagues and I proposed to develop a 4 year sequence with the following five goals:

1.)   To meet the state's expectations of teaching both world and U.S. history at the middle school and high school levels. It combines ideas from the state- suggested pathways for both world and U.S. and at the same time avoids duplication.

2.)   To prepare students to do well on the U.S. history portion of the MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System] by teaching U.S. history contextually over a three year period.

3.)   To teach students to understand the connections in U.S. history to the rest of the world. After all, events in the U.S. do not happen in isolation and need to be understood in relationship to developments elsewhere.

4.)   To encourage increased collaboration among teachers.

5.)   To ally with one of the goals that we had articulated in our NEASC [New England Association of Schools and Colleges] self-study so as to encourage our students to become world citizens.  

     This year we have piloted the Grade 9 course; next year we will phase in Grade 10 and hopefully Grade 8. Grade 11 will be introduced in the fall of 2008. The full sequence would divide up the historical periods in the following manner:

Grade 8: 500 - 1450

Grade 9: 1450 – 1820 (the overview is attached)

Grade 10: 1820 - 1900

Grade 11: 1900 – Present

Grade 8 would remain a more or less traditional (if that word can be used for teaching world history!) world history course that would focus on the foundations. Grade 9 incorporates Guarneri's first two stages, along with the beginning of his third stage. Grade 10 looks at aspects of Guarneri's last two stages. Finally, Grade 11 will continue with those issues and go to the present.

    Overall the new course has been a great success. I am teaching 4 sections of it, and I am collaborating with 2 serious and thoughtful colleagues who are teaching the other 7 sections of it as well as a dynamic ELA teacher with whom we share all of the students in a cluster. Students naturally gravitate to context and comparison, particularly those whose parents come from outside the U.S. (the overwhelming majority of my students) or those who are curious about current developments. It is refreshing to be able to teach developments as they happened instead of saying: "That is not part of the course, wait until next year ." I have also loved having an opportunity to learn more about early American history. Given the parameters of the course, it is has also easily allowed group work, project work, as well as close reading of primary documents.

    As you can see from the attached overview (Addendum #1), we had to connect the course to the state and city standards, while; of course, the course actually does more than either set of standards! Still, doing that coordination helped us pace the course appropriately. Indeed, if current predictions are on target we will only be 2 weeks off by the end of this year, which is fine because the planning for the Grade 10 course had built in some review.

    We started off the year with one my favorite activities: a hands-on activity on trade (with thanks to my colleague and friend Lori Shaller for the details!) to show the persistence of barter economies. An overview of religion also allows students to compare and contrast 3 major religions (activities from the Jean and Don Johnson). The focus of Unit Two allowed us to investigate the changes to this cooperative system and the new problems, as well as to finally shatter any remaining assumptions that students have about Cristoforo Colombo (whom many Americans continue to refer to the anglicized version of his name, which is strange, given that of the many languages he spoke, English was not one of them!).

     The curriculum continually encourages students to think comparatively and contextually. The three centerpieces of Unit Three were 1) the superb activity on the interaction of the Kongolese and the Portuguese that the NCHS put together: Kongo: A Kingdom Divided by Ernest L. O'Rourk and Eileen E. Wood (NCHS, 2000, which students found fascinating, as do I; 2) materials on the witch craze, and 3) an inner-outer seminar on the Chinese government position on protectionism (as opposed to isolationism). While the course moves in a more American/United States direction by January in Unit IV to investigate the particularities of the creation of the United States for 3 months, it does so in a context of the developments of the world. Further, the research paper topic (see Addendum II) is an opportunity for students to continue to look at developments contextually and comparatively. Now -- in Unit V -- we are looking at French and Haitian developments, and students immediately see the connections between the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. One student even wondered aloud if the French writers plagiarized the other two documents. We will conclude the course by comparing developments in the world by the beginning of the 19th century.

    The two biggest challenges of this new course are pacing and materials. Since it uses a different periodization than typical world history courses, it has necessitated creative adaptation and collaboration. Both have fortunately worked. Until the school will acquire new texts – which I have been promised for next year – we have been forced to use a mixture of world and U.S. history books. But, of course, I have spent much of time (as I have always done) at the copy machines creating more interesting packets for my students!

    I am looking forward to working on the design for Grade 10 this summer, as well as any feedback this column will generate to make this course, and the series of courses, more and more genuinely a "real" world history course. After starting my academic career focusing on the national history of Germany more than 20 years ago and investigating a community within Germany for my doctoral dissertation, it is wonderful to teach students about the similarities and differences of the communities that people create or are forced to create in the past and in the present. Isn't that, after all, what world history should be all about?

Biographical Note: James A. Diskant, Ph.D., teaches at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury (Boston), Massachusetts, and was a Program Associate at the former World History Center at Northeastern University in Boston, from 1999 until it closed in 2003. He continues to keep the Center's ideas alive through teaching, facilitating workshops, and participating in a Book Group, and hopes that the Center will find a new home in the Greater Boston area in the near future. He can be reached at



Addendum I:

World and United States History I, 1450-1820

Grade 9: Course Overview and Pacing Guide

    In addition to investigating the development of world communities, belief systems, state building, development of technology, and globalization of exchange and contact, an underlying theme of the course will be the creation of the United States in the 18th century, its similarities and differences with other nation-states in Africa, Asia, and Europe in the early 19th century and finally its development and increased significance on the world stage. It will use central themes in United States and world history as organizing principles: creation of communities, development of states and/or empires, evolution of belief systems, constitutional development and theory, expansion of technology, and globalization of exchange and contact. We will choose cases from different regions of the world so as to illustrate a particular theme in different historical periods to demonstrate connections, comparisons, and conflicts in the world. In each case we seek to understand events from multiple perspectives by using primary and secondary source materials.

This course corresponds to the following standards:

State standards: WH I.29 – I.38;

     WH II.1 - 4;

     U.S. I.2 – I.21; as well as

BPS standards:    U.S.: I.16-31 &

                              WH. II 17-19

Unit One: Beliefs and Trade in the World by the 14th Century: Term 1: 2 weeks

  •       World Geography, 14th Century (mental mapping) 1/2
  •       Review of Spread of Universal Religions: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam 1/2
  •       Cross-cultural Encounters:  Comparison and Contrasts 1

1.     African Kingdoms and Trading Systems:

2.     India, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean Trading System

3.     China and the Silk Road

Unit Two: Encounters and Beginning of Shifting of Economic Power from East to West, 1400-1600: Term 1: 7 weeks

  •       Mesoamerican Societies and Trading Networks (7) 1
  •       European Renaissance 1
  •       European Exploration and "Discovery" of the Americas (16.1) 2
  •       Developments in the Indian Ocean: Chinese and Islamic Protectionism (18) 1
  •       Beginnings of Atlantic Slave Trade (16.2) 1
  •       The Creation of a Multi-cultural World in the Americas: A Look at Slave Economies and Local Industries 1

Unit Three: Global Consequences of the Triangular Trading System of Africa, the Americas, and Europe & Protectionism in Asia, 1600-1750: Term II: 6 weeks

  •       World Geography 1600 C.E.
  •       State Building in Europe: English Civil War and Glorious Revolution;

Absolutism in France 1 & 1/2

  •       Impact of Triangular Trading System in Africa; the Case of the Portuguese in Kongo 1
  •       Impact of Triangular Trading System in America, Role of British in West Indies and North America 2
  •       Reformation in the Christian Church, Social and Cultural Tensions, and  the Witch Craze in Europe and North America 1/2
  •       Continued Stability in China and the Development of a Protectionist Government  1/2
  •       Islam and Muslim State Building in Central Asia 1/2

Unit Four: Background to Independence Movements in the Americas and in Europe, 1600-1750: Term III: 7 weeks

  •       India and English colonization 1/2
  •       Conflicts over resources in Colonial America 2
  •       Political Conflicts: the Emergence of an Ideology of Independence in North and South America 2
  •       The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment and Its Effects in Europe and the America Independence Movements 2

Unit Five: Revolutions in the Americas and Europe; Instability in western Africa; & Stability in Asia, 1750 – 1830: Terms III, IV, & V: 15 weeks

  •       Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution 2
  •       U.S. Constitution: Articles of Confederation, Bill of Rights, and the "Great" Compromise 5
  •       Revolution in France 1 & 1/2
  •       Independence and Revolution in St. Dominigue and the Emergence of Haiti,  Revolutions in South America: Separation from Spain 1/2
  •       Napoleon Bonaparte and European Restoration: Congress of Vienna 1/2
  •       African Kingdoms: Political Corruption; Migration Patterns 1/2
  •       Stability in Asian Empires: China and in the Ottoman Empire 1
  •       U.S. Federal Era; the Emergence of the New Nation, War of 1812 4

Addendum II:

World and U.S. History I

Dr. Diskant

Research Paper

Due Friday, May 18, 2007

    This year all history students are required to write a research paper. It is an opportunity for you to work on research, analytical, and writing skills. While the finished product for ninth graders is due on May 18th, earlier deadlines in Term 4 will need to be met to get full credit, as well as to give you time to work on the skills necessary to do this work and to hand a finished product of which you can be proud. We will spend time in class on how to do research, how to develop a thesis, and how to organize an essay.

    In order to look at the relationship between the new ideas for change that came out of the Enlightenment and that were expressed in the American Revolution of the 1770's and developments in other countries or colonies in Asia, Central and South America, Europe, or western Africa, you will do a research project that addresses the key question below. The paper will be worth 30% of Term 5's Grade (equivalent to a Test and a Project Grade).

I. Key Question:

"From 1780-1820, what effect, if any, did the ideas of the American Declaration of Independence, have in [insert the name of your chosen colony or country]?"

II. Components of the Project:

  •       Paper: 5 Pages (typed, double-spaced, size 12 font, New Roman or similar standard font) with a title page and a bibliography, submitted through  electronically (see below for instructions) and a paper copy
  •       Oral Presentation: a 2-3 minute overview of your answer to the above question with the class.

III. Approach:

    First, choose a country or colony. Please take your time locating a place that interests you, since you will be spending a month becoming an expert on it. You may choose any place in the 4 regions mentioned above with the exception of France and St. Dominigue (today Haiti), since we will be studying these situations in class. Remember: only one place per person in each of my classes so it is in your interest to seek my approval as soon as possible, but no later than the date listed on the reverse side.

    Second, do library research to investigate your country. The intention of the project is for you to take a trip to a library and do research there. You need to use at least 3 sources – one of which must be a book and only one of which may be from an improved list from the Internet. Internet sources can be quite good – I will hand out a list of acceptable web sites, but they tend to be less reliable than books. However, Internet sources may lead you to useful books and periodicals. If you use more than 1 Internet source and something other than from the approved list, you will not receive any credit for the entire project.


    In addition to handing in a paper copy, you will also turn in an electronic copy over the Internet using the website Some of you may already have a "Turnitin account, but those of you who do not will need to register. In order to do this, you will need an email account. If you do have an email account, you will need to get one. There are several free options, such a gmail, yahoo, and hotmail. I recommend gmail, as you can access it at school. Once you have an email address, go to, click on "New Users: in the top right of the screen and follow the directions. When it asks for your class ID# enter the following code, based on what period you have my class:

Period 1:   1850795

Period 2:   1850797 

Period 3:   1850798 

Period 6:   1850799 

The password for all of my classes is "revolution". Once your account is created, you will be able to submit your paper via this website. The purpose of the website is to protect against plagiarism. The website will automatically be able to tell if any parts of your paper were copied or lifted from another source.

V. Due Dates:

  •       Registration in Monday, March 26
  •       Choice of Country or Colony: Wednesday, March 28
  •       List of Possible Sources: Monday, April 9
  •       Draft of the Paper's Thesis: Friday, April 13
  •       Working Outline: Monday, April 23
  •       Rough Draft for Peer Review: Friday, May 4
  •       Oral Presentation: Week of May 14
  •       Final Product: Friday, May 18

We will spend time in class how to do each of these steps properly. 


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