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Managing a Course in World History: The Basics

Monty Armstrong


     I began to teach World History because I work in a school that is 65% non-white and was driven to find a means of teaching these students about where they came from, rather than a Eurocentric past that marginalized them. In the process, I learned that world history does more than offer an alternative to Eurocentrism or even illuminates the historical connections between all peoples and regions; it taught me how to put things into a larger framework, to think more comparatively and over a longer range of time.

     However, as it is said, "the devil is in the details" and the "details" are the day-to-day operation of the world history classroom, which include, but also transcend basic management issues. Some of the latter are worth noting before an assault on more direct classroom management techniques. The first is the expanding scholarship in the area of world history which forces an instructor to make choices about how much time to devote to conceptions (old and new) of world history and how to move that scholarship from the intellectual realm into the college, Advanced Placement and non-AP level classroom. Second, instructors have an obligation to construct reasonable college examinations and/or prepare AP students to score well on the AP test and/or prepare non-AP students to pass state standardized tests. As much as any instructor might like to take a semester to delve fully into Jerry Bentley's Old World Encounters (1993) or Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (rev. ed., 2005), instructors of world history must deal with student comprehension (the age and reading skills of our students) as well as those inevitable tests and their associated calendar deadlines. Finally, at all levels of instruction, teachers must adjust to meet the widely varying writing and analytical skills of their students.

     What follows are some basic ideas that may serve to assist in meeting these complex tasks through an easily digestible "nuts and bolts" approach to teaching world history which respects the very important issues of contending historiographies, new research, mandated tests and the skills levels of students, while offering the means to secure day to day survival.

The Calendar

As simple as it may seem, the calendar is a crucial item. Starting with the date of the end of term in May or the dates of the state tests and setting aside two to three weeks for review, instructors should work backward to the start of school. We all have our favorite topics and subjects but we must also all understand that there is a body of information to be covered and it's that which we must adhere. The bottom line is that there are no life preservers that can be thrown to a teacher drowning due to over-indulging in favored topics and there is nothing less professional than rushing though material as the end of term approaches.

     Life being what it is, there will be security scares, fire drills and snow days and adaptation will always be necessary, but staying on schedule is part of getting the job done. What this means is that a course in world history requires the constant revision of the schedule from year to year.

     Much of an instructor's schedule is devoted to testing. If you are teaching high school sophomores, you need, at the very least, a brief test at the end of each chapter with a larger test for each unit in the text. And if you are an AP teacher, a test covering each of the major AP World History periods is essential. Even AP students are capable of convincing themselves that they can get through the course without reading the text!

     Instructors also need to make space in their schedule for both document-based questions as well as essays. This includes setting aside the time for students to write them, but also the time for you to give both training and feedback to the students.

     How do you manage the above when trying to cover everything? You do not make such an attempt. A course in World History can be likened to a plane flight across a continent. Some times you land and get to talk to people. Sometimes you just land and take some pictures, and sometimes you just get to fly low and look out the window. Only when a teacher can occasionally fly low and look down without remorse as their favorite landscape shoots past have they truly become master of their classroom calendar.

Managing Classroom Visual Aids

Visual learning is so important that most journals, such as World History Connected, devote articles to both pedagogy and filmography. There are some great videos/DVDs out there; the question becomes how to best use them. I like to give my students a modified form of "Cornell" notes. The students split their paper into 1/3 on the left and 2/3s on the right. On the right hand side the students take what could be called "normal" notes. Basically "normal" notes would be "What does the video tell you?" The students then take the notes home and finish the left hand side. On the left they make note of their thoughts about and reactions to the video. They put in references to the text with pages numbers. I have my students highlight the page references in yellow. And they also include references to other videos they have seen in class, movies they have seen, books they have read and anything else that they can connect to the video. These are highlighted in blue. The colors are your choice; they simply make it easy to separate out the information when you are scoring their notes. The notes are then due the next class day. This not only re-enforces the students reading of the chapter, it also makes them consider the information in the video and in the chapter in a larger context.

     Now, I know what some readers may be thinking. "Students will sleep or do something else and copy the notes from their friends that afternoon." The answer is simple and it is the same method, in a sense, that I use for in-class essays and lecture notes. On a random basis I collect the video notes or lecture notes at the END of the period. I then read through very quickly and use either a marker or a rubber stamp to mark where their notes ended. I then hand them back the next day and have the student finish the second part of the assignment.

Maps, Charts, Timelines and Notebooks

One of things that have been discovered about maps is that unless you have a class in geography before the students get to you, they are woefully ignorant of the world and where things are. One thing with which I have had success is starting small and then building outward. Find a current map of your city and then see if you can locate one that is 30 years old. You might try the Chamber of Commerce or do some Internet digging. I found mine at city hall, but our city hall is small and right across the street. Put up the old image (or make copies and give to the students) and ask the students to find places, starting with where they live. Then put up or pass out the new image. What has changed, what is the same? Why? Then put up a map of the county, then the state, then the U.S., and finally the world. If you start with something familiar, you then go from there with greater success.

Map Handouts

I try to use maps as often as possible and in the same 11 x 17 format. Put the map on one side and the assignment on the back right and the title on the back left. And we all know that even seniors love to color, so let them color away. You can have them do any number of items. Think about: Trade routes, the expansion of religious traditions, language formation and migrations, world exploration, winds and their effect on travel and trade, the travels of famous people i.e. Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, etc., the expansion and collapse of empires and the overlapping of empires.

     There are two map exercises with which I have had particular success, both having to do directly with the backgrounds of the students. The first is one that I do in the first week of school. I give them a large map of the world and have them trace back their parents, grand parents, and so on, as far back as they can. They locate where each person came from and try to attach some dates. You can have them color the maps; they can attach pictures of their relatives, etc. This will also give you some insight into your students.

     The second I call the "Columbian Exchange Cookbook" and do after 1492. You have the students find a recipe (5+ ingredients) their culture and then have them trace back where the ingredients came from. They then discuss how those ingredients might have arrived in the country of the recipes origin. On the back of the sheet you put a world map and them trace what they think is the course of the ingredients. If it is possible, have them prepare the dishes and have a "Columbian Exchange Lunch."

     Both of these exercises exploit the value of starting with something the students know well and move out from there.


Because students learn in different ways, charts can be as or more effective as maps. I have had very good luck with charts both in group activities as well as single-student projects. I find charts especially helpful when done in groups with classes that are mixed in English proficiency. (90% of my students have parents who were not born in the US.)

     One of the places where I find charts useful is to connect textbook chapters to each other. Texts that are organized chronologically have usually deal with countries within time period but often make no connection to the same country in another time period. China, for example, might be covered in chapters 8, 15, and 27. It is very difficult for students to keep track of that information over the span of time. What if, when you finished chapter 27, you gave the students a chart and, working in groups, had them complete a chart that covered those three chapters? And you could also include the five Advanced Placement World History themes. Some of you might be saying, "What five themes?" The five themes were originally developed for AP World History but they also work very well as an organizing basis for any world history class.

1.   Interaction between humans and the environment    

•Demography and disease
•Patterns of settlement

2.   Development and interaction of cultures

•Belief systems, philosophies, and ideologies
•Science and technology
•The arts and architecture

3.   State-building, expansion, and conflict

•Political structures and forms of governance
•Nations and nationalism
•Revolts and revolutions
•Regional, trans-regional, and global structures and organizations

4.   Creation, expansion and interaction of economic systems

•Agricultural and pastoral production
•Trade and commerce
•Labor systems
•Capitalism and socialism

5.   Development and transformation of social structures

•Gender roles and relations
•Family and kinship
•Racial and ethnic constructions
•Social and economic classes

     You now have a chart with two to three chapters across the top and five columns down the left hand side. And if you want to students to go deeper, you could add another column that deals with comparisons and contrasts or the changes over time. (And if you have a hard time with the computer and charts, the answer is the same as it is for any tech question, "Ask the students.")

     You may be thinking that this is going to be a chart with very tiny spaces but there is a way around that and the method is simple. We have all done charts, but I add a different spin to it. I use 11x17 ledger paper copied with the chart running on the long axis. You work first on legal (8 ½ by 14) size for your original and then copy this to 11 x 17, usually 125% on most copiers. There are two advantages to this method. One is that the students have much more room to write. Second is that if you put holes in the left hand side and have them fold the chart until the right hand side just touches the holes, the chart fits nicely in their notebooks and they can easily fold it out. (I also use the same system with maps.) If you want to cut down on confusion, you can add a title on the back of the right hand side and that will appear on the front of the chart when it is folded over.


Timelines are useful because, like locations, years are tough to keep track of. Given the scope of what teachers of world history have to cover, many students lose track of not only when things happen, but how those events appear in relation to other events. You can use the same 11x17 format for time lines as well as charts. You give your students a chart with 3-4 time lines, using one for each chapter in a unit. This will give them the chance to see how events relate to each other. You can also give them a chart with 3-4 time lines (200 to 500 years long) and have them work with just one country or area.


Because organization is sometimes survival, notebooks can be very useful. World history is so vast and texts, again, often operate is very different orders, one of the things that you can do to help students is to have them be organized. My students each have a notebook specifically for world history and it is broken into sections. For my class those sections are tests, lecture notes, charts, maps, video notes, quizzes, and miscellaneous. If you have the students keep the work in each section in date order, review will be easier as will being able to locate a particular item. The notebooks are collected on a regular basis and checked for order and completeness

The Spoken Word: Lectures, Anthems, Songs and Poetry

Current pedagogy aside, lecture is sometimes the best way to deliver information. My lecture notes are set up much like my video notes. Their notepaper is split into 1/3 and 2/3s. On the right, "what did I say?" On the left, their thoughts, connections to other chapters, videos, etc. I usually collect their notes on a random basis rather than after each chapter. This makes for less to read and the students still know you are checking on them. I also use the same method as for video notes using one of a rather strange collection of rubber stamps that I have.

National Anthems

I have each student pick four national anthems. The first has to be the one that they most closely identify with and they have to tell why. (Bear in mind that in some cases this could be a negative item.) They then have to pick three others and research them. My list includes: Who wrote it? What is the historical background?            Did it replace anything and, if so, why? If you like to have the students do presentations. Have them bring in a recording or DVD of one of the anthems and give a brief presentation.

Using Music and Poetry as a Memory Aid

Although I would like to give credit to the original author of the "Dynasty Song," I fear that information is lost in the mists of time. It is set to the tune of "Fere Jacques," it goes like this:

Shang, Zhou, Chin, Han

Shang, Zhou, Chin, Han

Sui, Tang, Song

Sui, Tang, Song

Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic

Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic

Mao Zedong

Deng Xiaoping

     If you search YouTube, you will find a number of renditions of varying quality and you can have your students record their own. You can also have your students try to create other sorts of mnemonic songs, bearing in mind that some will be great and others will be less so.

     You can also try poetry because it also works as well as music. Just think about how we keep track of the number of days in each month. Again, the idea is to have the students create and share their poems.

Essay Writing

If your students are going to be better writers, they have to practice. If they are going to be better writers, they need feedback. In order to give them feedback, someone (guess who?) has to read the essays. In the category of time consuming tasks, this stands alone. There are some simple things that you can do to not only build student writing skills, but also speed up the grading process.

     Of course, the first step is "Where do I find essay questions?" This is the easy part as you can consult other teachers, exploit AP test question banks (and these even have the answers and scoring rubrics!), text ancillaries, or you just make up your own. There is, however, a dark side to this process: a teacher should ever use, let alone design, a question not reflecting course content. That this happens is often due to the press of work, but it undermines student trust, and without that experts suggest half the battle is already lost.

     The next step after choosing an essay question is using/developing scoring rubrics and there are many to be found. They can be generic from your district office. They can be the ones created by your department. You can borrow them from AP Tests. Thing that you should bear in mind about rubrics is that they stay the same throughout the school year. To constantly be changing rubrics is self-defeating. You can increase your expectations, but keep the same rubric. The other advantage using the same rubric is that as you "internalize" it, scoring goes faster and faster.

     The final next step is scoring. You are going to use much the same method that you used with their video and lecture notes but for a much different reason. After you give them an essay you collect the essays and run through quickly and put your stamp or a marker line where they stopped writing. The students then take the essays home (either that day or the next depending on how quick you are) and type them exactly as written. Reading and scoring typed double spaced essays is much easier.

Last but not least

Keep trying new material; do not drop it because it does not work the first time. Tweak it and see what happens on the second try.

Monty Armstrong teaches at Cerritos High School in Cerritos, California. He is a long-time leader in the development, student assessment and training in Advanced Placement World History. He is co-author of the annual Princeton Review publication, Cracking the AP World History Exam. He can be contacted at



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