High School History Curriculum Goals
The high school history department's mission calls for students to appreciate the historical and cultural influences that shape their individual identities, our national identity, and the cultures and countries that share our planet. We strive to teach our students to assess and interpret evidence, to understand change over time, to think logically and to express themselves clearly.
Our core values include openness to multiple perspectives and critical thinking. We strive to teach students to separate fact from opinion, to discern between different points of view, to challenge their own thinking and that of their peers, and to develop evidence-based opinions through study and the testing of ideas. Students are encouraged to understand, respect, and appreciate diverse perspectives and to reach their own conclusions based upon historical facts. We do not teach students that they should agree with every perspective they encounter in our classrooms. Instead, we encourage students to base their interpretations on evidence from the historical record.
Our core values stand firmly in opposition to discrimination and hateful rhetoric in any form, including but not limited to racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, antisemitism, and Islamophobia.
High School History Curriculum Description
Our curriculum includes learning goals and resources that are chosen by teachers and administrators in keeping with the Massachusetts State Frameworks.
History and Social Science State Framework
Since 1997, the Newton history departments have aligned the history curriculum with the Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework. Revised in 2003 and again in 2018, the Framework provides teachers with a list of content topics. It also emphasizes the skills of formulating questions, conducting research, evaluating sources, and synthesizing information. Standards for literacy in history and social science set expectations for analytical reading and logical writing and speaking, skills essential to political equality and civic engagement. At the middle and high school levels, standards for news and media literacy aim to help students become discerning readers of digital news and opinion.
The following principles guide Newton’s history curriculum development and are excerpted directly from the 2018 Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework:
An effective history and social science education
- teaches students about the legacy of democratic government.
- incorporates diverse perspectives and acknowledges that perceptions of events are affected by race, ethnicity, culture, religion, education, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and personal experience.
- teaches students to think historically
- builds students’ capacities for research, reasoning, making logical arguments, and thinking for themselves.
- improves reading comprehension by increasing students’ content knowledge.
- incorporates the study of current events and news/media literacy.
- teaches students about using data analysis and digital tools as research and presentation techniques in the social sciences.
develops social and emotional skills.
Working within the goals of the Frameworks, Newton high school history teachers and administrators create course outlines, which include a course overview, specific unit learning goals, a menu of unit questions, and links to useful sources. While our course outlines designate common learning goals, teachers work with administrators to make their own instructional decisions about specific lessons and assignments to meet those learning goals.
History courses in Newton rely on a range of historical primary sources, such as letters, articles, books, and visuals, to promote student understanding of the voices and perspectives of the past. Some primary source material, including historical and contemporary opinion pieces, are used to illustrate different points of view on controversial events and concepts. The Massachusetts State Frameworks mandates that students learn “the importance of context and historical point of view...and that participants in historical events can hold vastly different ideas about how those events unfolded.” The inclusion of these documents is not used to advocate for those perspectives or ideas; rather, the content of each document is used in class to encourage students to understand different points of view and to develop their own perspectives on key historical events.
Reading and video materials
Reading and video materials are other important parts of the curriculum. Course textbooks are chosen after a rigorous selection process involving teachers, students, and administrators. Supplemental reading and video materials are selected by teachers, working in collaboration with their colleagues and supervisors. Teachers use their professional expertise and judgment to select supplemental resources that help students to better understand the issue or topic at hand and to engage them more deeply in the learning.
In addition to rooting the curriculum in the Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Frameworks, Newton history teachers individually engage in professional development opportunities with respected academic institutions. In the past, Newton history teachers have attended professional development opportunities at the Choices program at Brown University, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, Primary Source in Watertown, and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. These professional development opportunities enrich the teachers’ understandings of complex events through lectures and workshops with other teachers. In attending professional development workshops, teachers seek to expose themselves to a wide range of recent historical scholarship; attendance at a particular workshop does not indicate that the teachers agree with the views presented or that they will incorporate those views into their lessons. Curriculum is still developed in accordance with NPS core values and the state curriculum frameworks.
Over the last several years, a few small but vocal groups of Newton residents and non-residents have accused the Newton high school history departments of promoting antisemitic and anti-Israel views in some history lessons and events. In some cases, documents used in lessons to share different points of view on issues have been mischaracterized as the official perspective of the Newton Public Schools. In September 2013, the Massachusetts Department of Education found that claims of an antisemitic and anti-Israel bias in the Newton history curriculum were baseless. Nonetheless, the accusations continued to resurface and, in 2018, critics began to target individual teachers. In doing so, these critics denigrated the hard work and professionalism of both our skilled faculty and dedicated students. The Newton history departments have resisted and will continue to resist attempts to censor and politicize the history curriculum.
Below, we have provided a list of questions raised by these criticisms. We hope our answers will provide useful information about the high school history curriculum and our approach to teaching controversial topics. As always, we encourage our families to reach out to their student’s teacher, department chair, or building administrator, with any questions or concerns.
Frequently Asked Questions
No, the history curriculum in the Newton Public Schools is not “biased.” It is a curriculum in which students learn factual historical information and develop an appreciation for the range of perspectives that exist on those topics. Teaching with objectivity, respect, and intellectual rigor, our faculty and administrators provide students with the skills to separate fact from opinion, challenge their own thinking, and develop opinions through the study and testing of ideas. As has always been our practice, we will continue to thoughtfully and respectfully follow the curriculum guidelines established by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
In Newton high school history classes, students read a wide range of primary and secondary sources representing multiple perspectives. All primary and secondary sources are written from a particular perspective, which by definition is bias. These historical documents serve to illustrate the experience of an individual or collective group or to demonstrate a way of thinking that influenced a historical time period or world event. The use of primary and secondary sources is always accompanied by rich and balanced classroom discussion to promote critical thinking regarding each source and perspective; teachers provide students with the historical context of the documents and ask the students to recognize the point of view, purpose, bias, and impact of the sources. Our faculty and administrators work to ensure that students learn to separate fact from opinion, and to discern between perspectives. Through thoughtful classroom experiences based on varied source material, inquiry and facilitated discussions, our aim is for students to challenge their own thinking and that of their peers and to develop opinions through the study and the testing of ideas. In exposing students to a wide variety of perspectives and ideas, we aspire to teach students not what to think but how to think.
No. Curriculum development and lesson planning decisions are not designed to advance any particular ideological, political, or religious viewpoint. High school history teachers follow departmental guidelines for how to approach lessons with students on current political and controversial topics.
Yes, the state frameworks require teachers to share diverse historical viewpoints with students. Within the history and social science framework, Guiding Principle 4 states, “By examining primary and secondary sources, students develop an appreciation for the importance of historical context and point of view. They learn that participants in historical events can often hold vastly different ideas about how those events unfolded...Because historians of different generations can have different perceptions, it is important that readings include a variety of opinions and historical interpretations.”
The Massachusetts History and Social Sciences Frameworks mandate that students learn about the history of the Middle East. Based on our mission, the Newton Public Schools believes that our students should develop an understanding of this region’s history and people with an appreciation for the range of complex perspectives. We believe that we should not avoid controversy, but rather work diligently to teach events and share various points of view with objectivity, respect, and intellectual rigor. At the high school level, this topic is typically covered in the 10th grade modern world history courses and in some senior electives.
In the past few years, students have initiated and organized outside speakers to come to explore the rich culture and complex issues that exist in the Middle East. While we have specific procedures regarding student initiated forums on controversial topics, we encourage our students to engage academically and extracurricularly in this and other topics in appropriate ways.
Our curricular goals are taken directly from the Massachusetts History and Social Sciences Framework. The frameworks on page 158 specify that high school history courses "explain the background for the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and subsequent military and political conflicts," and go on to identify 8 key areas of study related to this topic.
The purpose of lessons on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or on the larger, historical Arab-Israeli conflict, is not to tell students what to think about an enormously complicated topic or to advocate for any particular vision. Instead, the goal for teachers is to expose students to arguments that exist and are advocated for in the real world.
Objectivity can be difficult to define, much less achieve, as even content created with the intent of being completely objective will still reflect the perspective of the author(s). In order to reflect on the material used in our courses, we typically ask ourselves as well as students a series of questions:
- What material is presented and what material is left out?
- How much time is spent on one side vs. another?
- How many different voices are enough?
- What is the more essential vs. the less essential material to present?
- Which points of view are most instructive or revealing?
The way we navigate this challenge is not to vet material for neutrality, since all primary and secondary sources are written from a particular perspective. Rather, we look at materials as a starting point for discussion and exploration. Our students are taught to ask: Who created this material, and when? Why was this material or perspective chosen rather than a different one? What overt or subtle points of view might the creator be trying to communicate? How can this material be placed in the most useful context? What is fact and what is opinion?
Unfortunately, some have misunderstood the classroom use of some primary source material and opinion pieces to mean that we are actively promoting the content or point of view established in those documents. This is inaccurate.
Historical documents serve to illustrate the experience of an individual or collective group or to demonstrate a way of thinking that influenced a historical time period or world event. Some primary documents convey discriminatory and hateful rhetoric, such as the racism in a defense of American slavery or the antisemitism in Mein Kampf or the Hamas Charter. Sources that are recognized to contain racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic or other discriminatory ideas are presented with careful explanations about their historical origins and impact. Teachers strive to present all primary sources with rich and balanced classroom discussion to promote critical thought regarding each source and perspective. In each case, it is the discussion and critical thinking about documents that is the key to developing deeper learning for our students.
No. History teachers do not use the Arab World Studies Notebook. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, some teachers used some supplemental resources (articles) from the Arab World Studies Notebook. The Arab World Studies Notebook has not been used since 2013.
No. Newton Public School history teachers do not, nor have they ever, altered the Hamas Charter. As is common practice in high school history classrooms, and as is done with other lengthy historical documents, teachers do use abridged versions of primary documents. In the past, Newton South used an abridged version of the document, taken from the book The Middle East & Islamic World Reader. At Newton North, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America senior elective course uses the unabridged version of the charter, found here: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp.
Any time a history teacher uses a primary document, abridged or unabridged, they provide appropriate context and explanation for understanding that document. The goal is not to advocate the point of view of the document, but to understand the role that document has played in history. Related specifically to the teaching of the Hamas Charter, Newton history teachers present Hamas as a terrorist organization, which is in accordance with the opinion of the United States State Department.
Like any primary or secondary source, maps represent a certain historical point of view or interpretation. Teachers provide explanation and context on a broad range of viewpoints for these resources by teaching students to 1) be critical discerners of information presented as “fact,” 2) be aware of the different concerns shaping various points of view, 3) pay attention to the way choices of language, or even choices as to what is included or excluded, connote meaning and can be important contextual information.
In April 2019, the Newton Public School District was sued by a collection of individuals outside of Newton who did not have students in the school system. In August 2019, the plaintiffs voluntarily withdrew their suit against the district. The district views this as an acknowledgement on the plaintiffs’ part that their claims had no merit – a position the district has maintained all along in this matter.
Over the years, respected religious and community leaders have voiced support for our approach to educating students and concern about the nature and tone of these attacks. See the links below for more information:
- Boston Globe article, “State Affirms School Curriculum After Protests” (11/7/2013)
- Letter from Newton Religious Leaders, 12/8/2017 (2nd letter)
- Opinion Piece in Newton Tab , Former School Committee Chair Matt Hills, 12/18/2017
- Newton Interfaith Clergy Association Facebook Statement (see Posts section), 2/8/18
- Message from School Committee, 2/21/2018
- “Newton Teachers, Students Defend History Curriculum”, 11/28/2018
- Video of School Committee Public Hearing, 11/27/2018 (Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s speech starts at 3:01:35)
- “Letter of support signed by over 400 Newton North alumni,” 11/26/2018
- “Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller: ‘I categorically reject the allegation that Newton Public Schools’ curriculum is anti-Semitic’”, 12/4/2018
- Amicus Brief in response to the 2019 lawsuit; filed by Newton Teachers Association, Newton Interfaith Clergy Association, Families Organizing for Racial Justice, Massachusetts Teachers Association, American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and National Lawyers Guild MA Chapter.
We strongly encourage families to bring any questions about curriculum to their student’s teacher or department head. We welcome the opportunity to hear how students are experiencing the history curriculum. When considering any questions or concerns about the curriculum, our decisions are guided by our professional judgment along with the mission and values of the Newton Public Schools.
We will continue to work hard to support our students’ and faculty members’ efforts to engage our community around complex and challenging issues in a responsible, intellectual, and balanced way. As a part of a larger curriculum review based on new state standards for History and Social Sciences approved in June 2018, history departments across the state, including Newton, are currently reviewing their high school history curricula.
As has been outlined above, over the past several years, Newton Public Schools teachers have been have accused of promoting antisemitic, anti-Israel, and anti-Western views in lessons. As a result of the increasingly personal nature of these attacks, our faculty is concerned about teaching controversial topics given the harsh and unfair criticism they have received. Should these attacks continue to escalate, we believe it will jeopardize our ability to expose students to diverse opinions and to teach them about controversial issues that require open minds and critical thought. It is important for our students to explore controversial topics in a manner that encourages respectful, thoughtful and open dialogue.