Interior Masthead

students with Hilary Clinton in history class

The main focus of the history department is to guide students towards a better understanding of the complexities and challenges of our modern world, the richness and importance of its past, and the diverse peoples and traditions that have shaped it. The department emphasizes the skills of careful reading, respectful, focused listening, critical research and analysis, thoughtful writing and speaking, as well as professionalism. The History sequence also aims to help students experience the joy of discovery that comes with robust inquiry, and offers students a wide array of opportunities to challenge their thinking and assumptions by hearing multiple perspectives.


Lower School

Learning that connects to the outside world

Even young children have an awareness of the world around them. So we begin with the understandings and interests of children and feature lots of hands-on activities. Our lower school students have studied urban gardens, murals in Philadelphia, and inventors and inventions. We regularly visit Reading Terminal Market, JFK Plaza, Chinatown, Sister Cities Park, the Magic Garden, Schuylkill River Park (Taney) and other areas of interest to make classroom learning come alive. In third and fourth grade, students study American history and take advantage of our city setting to explore colonial America and the American Revolution. Classes visit the Constitution Center, Elfreth's Alley, the Franklin Court and other historical sites to directly experience "the power of place." Students view history through lenses of migration, class, status, wealth, education, access and power that serve to broaden their study to other time periods and to connect to contemporary society and culture.

Middle School

Dive deep into civics and culture

Fifth graders study American civics with an emphasis on understanding state and local government. Sixth graders closely examine ancient civilizations with an added emphasis on geography. Seventh graders study American History from the pre-colonial period to the end of the Civil War, complete with an in-depth study of their own family history. And eighth graders examine ancient civilizations, traveling all the way to New Mexico to conduct research.

Upper School

Global and modern history and politics in yearly courses and electives

History courses are required in ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades. The department offers semester electives in the senior year. Several of our courses present students with interdisciplinary experiences--particularly in art and music--as well as interdivisional activities. The core courses provide a foundation for understanding civilizations and their relationships to traditional cultures, as well as challenges faced in the modern world. Periods of history in China, Japan, Africa, Europe and India, for instance, are selected for exploration in the ninth and tenth grade years. In eleventh grade, students examine U.S. History with an emphasis on the 20th and 21st centuries. Electives like Geography: Location Philadelphia, the History of Muslim Civilization, Liberty & the Law, The Schuylkill River: A Biography, Introduction to Philosophy, and Comparative Government offer students a look into more specific topics in politics and the social sciences, including many that more deeply examine modern and local political and social issues. A major feature of the history program is the development of research and writing skills. The ninth-grade curriculum includes several research projects, including a research essay, and the presentation of a work of art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Students in tenth grade history write numerous historical arguments that challenge them to review, reflect on, and synthesize information from across multiple units to answer questions. In eleventh grade, students spend a full year researching and writing about a contemporary political issue for the Modern Issues Project and interview policymakers in Washington, D.C. as a component. These courses incorporate skills such as discovering and assessing primary and secondary sources, annotating readings, developing and outlining arguments, citing and paraphrasing sources, editing, creating web content, delivering oral presentations and more.


History Courses

History 9: The Medieval World

Throughout the year students use primary texts and a range of secondary sources to study the inhabited continents at periods within the years from 500 to 1500 C.E. Using the thematic lenses of government, religion, the arts, family and gender and commerce, the focus in recent years has included the Mesoamerican empires, medieval African kingdoms, the Tang dynasty of China, Islam, feudal Japan and aspects of medieval Europe and the Renaissance. During the year, students visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art five times, making connections between the Museum’s relevant collections and their studies. This culminates in a museum morning, where each student presents a work of art to classmates and parents. The ninth-grade skills sequence assumes students will apply both critical and creative thought to their work. Students' history skills in active reading and annotation, summarizing, outlining, oral presentation and a variety of writing types are developed through class lectures, discussions and a series of project-based activities.

History 10: Modern World History

Why is today’s world structured the way it is? Are our problems new? Are our solutions? This course will explore these fundamental questions as we examine major world transformations from multiple points of view. The course will begin with a unit that explores what the concept of world history means by looking at the earliest “world system” in the 13th century. From there, the course will examine major world events that shaped and re-shaped global patterns and systems into the world we have today. Topics, such as the Atlantic slave trade and the international civil rights movements of the long 1960s will be examined from multiple points of view, so as to study the ways global interactions produce both short and long term consequences for all parties involved. The course will end with units focusing on the economic, political, and environmental promises and challenges facing today’s world.

History 11: U.S. History and Politics

This course surveys key eras in U.S. history from the 1750s through today. Throughout the year, students examine from different points of view the political, economic and cultural forces that have shaped people’s perspectives on American history. Each unit is built around selected primary sources and historical commentaries that draw from the Gilder Lehrman collection as well as our school library’s many databases, such as the New York Times Historic Collection to the JSTOR database of academic journals. In a wide variety of activities in and out of class, students work closely with these sources and become familiar with different academic approaches to studying history. Students complete a full-year research project on a modern American political issue of their choosing, which incorporates a two-day trip to Washington, D.C., for research and interviews with public officials and researchers at think tanks.

Twelfth Grade History Electives

First Semester
Geography: Location Philadelphia

Geography influences how we understand and experience the world. In this course, students will take a general look at the physical properties of Earth’s surface, where and why these features are the way they are, and how human actions both change and are shaped by the physical environment. Using Philadelphia as a lens through which to study a specific place, students will walk the City, pore over the Free Library’s collection of historic maps and develop a thorough understanding of their own environment.

History of Muslim Civilization

This course will serve as an introduction to, and survey of, the religious, literary, artistic and scientific traditions that constituted Islamic civilization from the 7th century CE until the 19th Century and the contemporary tensions and transformations which have emerged in the modern era. Course goals include familiarity with the broad outline of Islamic history from Arabia in late antiquity to the modern period, familiarity with the beliefs, practices, sacred literature and community of Islam, in-depth knowledge of how the Qur’an and Islamic tradition (hadith) work to shape Muslim views on a variety of topics, and greater commitment to thinking clearly about important human beliefs and the texts that embody them. We will also work to improve global awareness through examining primary sources and through critical analysis of preconceived notions about unfamiliar cultures and contemporary issues such as jihad, progressive Islam, feminism, and human rights. We will meet these goals through classroom readings and discussions, readings from Qur’an and hadith, projects with oral components designed to sharpen Qur’an reading skills or introduce us to specific issues in Islamic history, and a structured research project and presentation.

Comparative Government

This course will introduce students to the concepts and methods used in comparing the world’s political systems. Students will study three countries—United Kingdom, Brazil and Russia—learning about topics including their economic and belief systems, political institutions, and historical and modern policy issues. Throughout the course, students will be continuously comparing the countries across these content areas, as well as considering the impact of broader factors such as globalization. Among other assignments and activities, students will conduct individual research projects for each country, write policy recommendations, engage in debates and report on breaking news.

Second Semester

The Schuylkill River: A Biography

Taking a multidisciplinary approach, students in this course will study the people, places, and events that have unfolded in and along the Schuylkill River. The course will focus on some of the historical, environmental and cultural influences of this water source that wends its way from Tuscarora Lake and Minersville north of Reading, PA to the confluence of the Delaware River at the southern tip of the City of Philadelphia. Using Beth Kephart’s book Flow as the text, students will walk along, write about, experiment in and float on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, learning to tell their own stories about the river at our back door.

Introduction to Philosophy

This course is designed as an introduction to the Western philosophical tradition. Philosophy, here, is characterized as a fundamental inquiry into the assumptions or presuppositions of any subject. In this course, students will learn how to inquire into complex problems and begin to formulate their own philosophy. They will also learn effective methods of inquiry, analysis, and criticism. In this class, we will also meet a number of important philosophers, from the ancient Greeks to modern thinkers. During the term, students will have the opportunity to examine views on several core philosophical topics: the existence of God, the possibility of knowledge, morality, and the legitimacy of government. Along the way, we will read and discuss philosophical texts, in order to analyze their arguments and evaluate their answers to the questions of the course, see how philosophical concepts can help one to understand practical dilemmas, and express ideas through arguments--both verbal and written--which demonstrate the reasons for holding those beliefs.

Liberty and the Law

This course provides an introduction to the American legal system, covering constitutional law and the appeals process, as well as criminal and civil law. Students explore the foundational concepts, procedures and principles in our common law system, as well as the history of our legal institutions and civil liberties. In doing so, students also consider broad questions about the role of law in society, the interaction between the different branches and levels of government, and the relationship between people and their governments. Students examine many sources, including the Constitution, case law at the state and federal levels, journal articles, films, editorials, and more. Participation in seminar-style discussions, debates, presentations (oral and visual), and writing are major components of the course, and students will also take part in several field trips around Philadelphia to visit courtrooms and talk with judges, lawyers, and other professionals in the field.

Contact Us

Brian Kors

History & Religious Studies Department Chair, Upper School History