It’s the first month of sixth grade. If you’re waiting with baited breath, you’re not alone: it can be a nerve-wracking time. Sixth grade typically means a new and larger school building; several teachers, and new responsibilities like homework planners and lockers.
Once they've adjusted to these initial hurdles, however, sixth graders have a myriad of exciting times ahead. Their minds and bodies are growing bigger and more powerful by the week, for one thing. And they're expanding their most basic ideas of the world: who they are, where they fit, and what kinds of people they dream of becoming. Social studies curriculum returns to these questions again and again; it’s no wonder that for many kids, this class can be a highlight of the day.
So what topics will actually be covered? Exact answers still vary somewhat by state; for a comprehensive list, you should consult your state standards, available on the website for your state’s department of education. In addition, remember: private schools are not required to comply with state frameworks, although many of them do. Whichever type of school your child attends, don’t hesitate to ask for the school’s curriculum list to be sure what’s in store.
As a general rule, however, these are common themes across states:
Topic: Although there are a few exceptions, the most common sixth grade topic in public schools is the Ancient World or Cradle of Civilizations, a year-long study of the roots of Western and non-Western civilizations. If your school follows this course of study, expect to start with geography, climate, and major landmarks of the globe, and then to focus on specific peoples. Expect to hear about ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia; Ancient Hebrews; Greece and Rome; and, frequently, India and China. These subjects lend themselves to hands-on learning and discovery; in a good teacher’s hands, they are riveting for kids.
Thinking Skills: Given these scholarly topics, you may be tempted to expect your child to come home reciting stacks of encyclopedic facts. Beware! While it’s great for kids to know important names, dates, and places, it’s even more important that they practice linking, sequencing, and interpreting them. You can provide excellent help just by talking: what are primary and secondary sources; how do we know that something is historically “true”? What caused democracy to thrive in Athens? How do ancient leaders and money systems compare and contrast with ours today? Prepare to be impressed by what kids may say ... and do be concerned if they can’t talk about these issues at all. Check with their teacher; just because it’s middle school doesn’t mean you should stop being in touch.
Study Skills: As their curriculum becomes both broader and deeper, teachers understand that good study skills can make all the difference. Go ahead and ask to see your child’s planner and assignment pages. Social studies homework commonly means reading and writing, periodic projects, and studying for tests. Don’t expect that your child will naturally know how to read a middle school textbook, let alone manage the multiple stages of a project deadline. If your kid asks for help, take it as a compliment, and offer to walk through the assignment in a supportive, nonjudgmental way. Research shows that in the first semester of sixth grade, students’ grades often take a dip—but they recover by the second half of the year, as kids hit their stride. You can expect that the whole journey will be happier if kids trust that you’re behind them all the way.
Of course, you can expect some nights when everyone will be ready to throw pencils in the air and notebooks on the floor. But sixth grade is also a time when kids are full of hope and idealism; it’s the right time for learning about a broader world in space and time. As the National Council for Social Studies has said in its position paper on curriculum, these are no more and no less than “issues of significance to humanity.” Their goal? “To help students develop a deeper understanding of how to know, how to apply what they know, and how to participate in building a future.”