An Independent School • Grades 5-12

Middle School History: Imperfect heroes

November 2015

This more complex view begins in earnest in 7th grade, where “the American dream” is the theme of U.S. history.

“We’ve been approaching history through the lens of inclusion and exclusion and who has access to the American dream,” says Middle School history teacher Merissa Reed. “By telling the story of how America has become a more inclusive place over time, we’ve been able to introduce people who have been game changers.”

The teachers look to highlight ordinary people who stood up for what was right, often against the common views of the times. This encourages students to hone their own sense of justice and courage.

Middle School history teacher Merissa Reed gives feedback to Emma E. ’20 as the class works on video reports focusing on individuals who took action in the civil rights movement. Says Emma of what she learned: “If you really believe in something you should fight for it.”

In analyzing game changers, “We distinguish the concept of heroism from immaculate perfection: Individuals can do extraordinary things but that doesn’t make them immaculate individuals,” says Reed, who created the curriculum with Ted Chen, fellow 7th-grade history teacher and now assistant Middle School director.

Reed gives an example: “We talk about Abraham Lincoln. He’s often immortalized and idealized, but the actuality is, he wanted to keep the union together and didn’t promote ideas about equality amongst people. It’s more complex.

“I don’t go into anything too seedy with anyone, but we talk about the fact that people are human. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a perfect human being. We talk about how the FBI used illegal wiretapping to try to catch him in extramarital affairs. We also talk about how the role of the media shifted — to be more invasive into the lives of politicians.” Assignments are chosen with an eye to developing empathy and seeing others’ points of view, which promote critical thinking. There are extremes — Hitler comes to mind — but usually larger-than-life figures in history are neither pure demon nor hero and are products of their times. For instance, one of the class’s research and essay-writing assignments, “Columbus, hero or heel?,” typically leaves most students able to admire the explorer’s adventurous risk-taking while also seeing that he exploited and dehumanized Native Americans.

Sophia C. ’20 researches the role of the presidents in the civil rights era. Getting a more realistic picture of leaders’ weaknesses and strengths was “really important for us to learn,” she says.

This new curriculum, which has evolved over the past several years, represents a significant restructuring from what formerly was a more typical survey course. One factor that influenced the changes made by Reed and Chen is that more scholarship undertaken over the past 20 years has made available diverse voices from history. Also, students today have been routinely exposed to greater media exposure of leaders’ foibles and “clay feet.”

Rather than discouraging students, a more realistic view “makes heroism more attainable for them,” says Reed, “because there’s less pressure to be perfect.

“The less we portray people in a simplistic, overidealized way, the more it empowers our students to be the change.”

Here are a few windows into ways that 7th-grade U.S. history teachers Merissa Reed and Ted Chen share their concept of heroism:


LESSON: “Often in history there are people whose voices are in the minority who prove to be the beacon of justice,” Reed says. “We try to examine, ‘what is your responsibility to listen to what minority voices are saying?’”

EXAMPLE: The U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in the 1944 Korematsu v. United States case that upheld the legality of ordering Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. “The three minority voices said this is racist and wrong and a violation of constitutional rights,” Reed says. “Those were heroes. Forty years later the rest of America kind of caught up.”


LESSON: Says Chen: “We strive to make the concepts of activism and change more accessible to students by focusing on how change has been enacted by ordinary people and breaking down the belief that one has to be already heroic to make the world a better place. We hope that this will empower students to really cultivate the mindset of being a global citizen.” Reed likes to quote Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

EXAMPLE: Citizens who worked for everything from better sanitation in the 19th-century progressive movement to civil rights. Reed’s students in their final video projects about the era of the civil rights movement chose figures that included Betty Friedan, Cesar Chavez, the Little Rock Nine, and the freedom riders.


LESSON: Standing up for what’s right is not without risk and “we try to show models who risked great things,” Reed says.

EXAMPLE: Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and influential abolitionist who risked his life to rescue others. “His actions were heroic."