Teaching History Through Biography in Grade 8

Grade 8 recently completed a three-week block on Modern History. Class teacher Laurence Jaquet began the block with an exploration of the modern history of African-Americans, starting with the Civil War and culminating with the Obama presidency. She then jumped back and looked at colonialism and its political and economic impact. She completed the course with a conversation about the different political systems that came about in the 20th century, with a particular focus on the Russian and Chinese Revolutions and World War I and World War II.

Following Waldorf curriculum indications, the class was taught primarily through the use of biographies. The use of biographies begins strongly in the 2nd grade when one of the curriculum focuses is the stories of wise and holy people. This teaching method continues throughout the grade school as both legendary and historical people are brought to life during the Main Lesson.

Biographies are used in this way because they provide a human element to history. Instead of relying solely on dates and sequences of events, the use of biography allows for different perspectives from real people. For example, while discussing the Civil War, Mrs. Jaquet told the stories of three different people – President Lincoln, Clara Barton, and Harriet Tubman—and asked the students to write a letter “home” from the perspective of a soldier from the North or South.

This exercise in perspective is nourishing for the students, for they can be inspired by the actions and transformations of others.  Mrs. Jaquet emphasizes that “It’s extremely important that through all of the biographies there is an element of hope and that the strength of the human spirit is portrayed.  I try to present biographies of individuals who have made a difference in a positive way, or at least were attempting to.”

Although history is explored primarily through biographies, the experience of facts, time, and ideas is important.  For example, the use of biographies allows the students to penetrate time deeply—instead of merely remembering a list of dates, the students are encouraged to get a sense of the time and context.  They ask, who was alive at the same time—when did these people live, how long ago was that?  Are there stories that their grandparents or parents can tell?

After an exploration of the Civil War, the 8th grade studied the biographies of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and President Barack Obama.  Colonialism was illustrated through the biography of Mohandas Gandhi; Lenin’s biography helped illustrate the Russian Revolution; Rudolf Steiner and the founding of the first Waldorf School in 1919 even served to address the conditions in Europe between the World Wars; and Irena Sender, a Polish woman who saved thousands of Jewish children, helped illustrate the Holocaust and World War II.  Finally, the Chinese Revolution was explored through the biographies of Mao Zedong and Tenzin Gyatzo, the 14th Dalai Lama. 

By eighth grade, students in Modern History are being asked to grapple with some of the most pressing and trying questions of our generation. Because teaching through biography brings history alive, they are able to begin to understand the perspective and nuance that is required beyond the facts and dates.
Seraph White with Laurence Jaquet