I’ve been teaching U.S. History to the 7th grade since 2015 and from the very beginning I’ve loved the challenge of this task. The class covers the period from colonial settlement to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and I’ve adapted lessons and activities from the material I used to to teach this period to college students and 11th and 12th graders.
People often find that news surprising; the fact that I can use variations from lessons first developed for college students. I think this only surprises people who don’t know 7th graders. For all their bluster and sass, the 12 and 13 year olds who make up my classes are intellectually engaged and honest; they want to be taken seriously and serious ideas ensure that is exactly what happens. There are some ideas that confound them (transcendentalism, for one, but I kinda feel the same way on that front) but they are open-minded and wide-eyed, with a willingness to take risks in the world of ideas. Because I teach Middle School and needn’t adhere to an AP curriculum or a college catalog, we have time to get into the weeds of complicated ideas and really think them over.
Unlike older teens, they have yet to develop much distrust in adults. There is some bluster but not far underneath is a genuine desire for adult approval. They are often moody and emotional (I joke that 7th graders have two speeds: thrilling excitement and miserable despair) but in class they expect me to manage our time and they follow my lead. When I tell them we are historians together, they believe it and act accordingly.
Each year, I have the pleasure of seeing these young men and women as they make discoveries about our national history and how it plays out in today’s world. This year, my students are creating an historical trading card for a person in 18th or 19th century history. The list of eligible people is diverse, as befits the diversity of my school. One of my students is studying the life of Nat Turner. As part of his research, he learned that as a grown man, Turner was owned by a 9 month old baby. He came to me doubting this fact and asked if it could be true.
“Yes,” I said, “and that is the utter irrationality of slavery in a nutshell.” The student in question knew that slavery was wrong; knew that it was inhumane and rooted in racism. But this discovery drove the point home in a way I had yet to manage. And that it was his discovery means a splendid thing: he will remember it for the whole of his life. There is a power in this sort of learning and it is my daily blessing to be a part of it.