Social studies curriculums vary greatly from school to school, but most middle-school teachers offer students a more detailed look at American history and a strong introduction to world history, as well as classes in civics, geography, economics, and current events. In previous grades, history topics were broad. Now they get more specific. Students will be expected to learn individual names, locations, and the chronology of events. They'll be asked to analyze the cause of effect of national and international events and trace the development of government and laws. They'll also sharpen their research skills and learn that there can be more than one interpretation of a historical event.
In addition to history, students might get a separate class in U.S. government or civics, where they take a close look at the Constitution and examine the principles of American democracy. Geography, too, becomes more rigorous, moving beyond map reading to recognizing the ways in which geography effects the development of cultures. Students may learn about language and religions, natural resources and industries, and be required to ask questions and make connections about why things are located where they are. "There's a lot of human geography that comes into play in middle school," says Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck, social studies specialist and assistant director for policy, standards, and instruction at the Council for Basic Education. "Children will study how geography impacts a culture and its traditions."
Current events also play a part in social studies, and students should be encouraged to read newspapers and discuss and analyze national and global goings-on in class. "It's the job of middle-school teachers to tune kids into their world and their community and to help them develop a sense that life is more than just them and their immediate family and peer group," says Winchester, Virginia, teacher Laura Robb. "Life is going on all over the world, and there are issues they can get involved in."
Your child's school may offer exploratory or elective courses such as a French or Spanish, photography, woodworking, chorus, band, dance, creative writing, or journalism. Some schools offer them in the fifth or sixth grade as a way for students to sample the curriculum and get a feel for what they'd like to take in grades seven and eight. All these classes are important in that they allow students opportunities to test their talents, explore their interests, and express their ideas, feelings and creativity. They also make mandated curriculum more palatable. "Electives are very positive because they offer children choices, which makes them feel they have control over their lives," says Winchester, Virginia, teach and author Laura Robb.