Culbertson is one of 28 social studies teachers in 10 city high schools who are now testing the first part of a new world history curriculum that Philadelphia teachers themselves have been developing for two years. The teachers, more than 55 of them, are working under the aegis of the Philadelphia Alliance for Teaching Humanities in the Schools, a consortium of corporations, foundations, teachers and university professors known as PATHS.
The project is considered the most ambitious of its kind in the nation, one that not only seeks to make a more interesting and demanding course of study, but also challenges basic educational assumptions and confronts several simmering controversies head-on.
The authors of the new curriculum have waded into the debates on evolution vs. creationism and on whether American students are taught too much about Western culture and too little about the rest of the world. And rather than shying away from discussion of religion, as most public school courses and textbooks do, the new curriculum devotes an entire quarter-year to "The Rise of Religion" - using Islam as its prime example.
Unlike the traditional high school history courses it is replacing, this course does not limit itself to the memorization of facts, dates and names. Nor does it concentrate primarily on military, political and economic events - largely the domain of the male and the powerful.
"We're trying to say to kids that history is not a list of 10 people or 10 dates," said Culbertson, the social studies department head at Franklin who helped supervise the teachers' curriculum-writing efforts.
"We want them to see it as a way they can ask questions about how people lived, what they believed in and why they did what they did. We want to engage the kids in different ways, and not just make them passive receptors of information."
Students in the pilot classes will be exempt from taking the multiple- choice, citywide exam based on the current curriculum that is used to help determine their grades but which, Culbertson said, "simply measures the ability to memorize." Instead, teachers will be asked to devise different and more complex ways of evaluating student knowledge and progress.
By doing this, the project is likely to open a Pandora's box on the deficiencies of current student assessment and testing.
But what might be most important about the endeavor is the way it has energized teachers. It is unusual, especially in large school systems, for teachers to be given the responsibility to write curriculum themselves. Still rarer is the opportunity to work with college professors and other experts.
Most often, teachers are handed something and told to teach, leading to complaints that they are not treated like professionals. With this project, 90 percent of the teachers who signed up in the beginning are still with it.
"This project is not just about improving the world history curriculum, but about getting teachers excited and changing the ways schools do business," said Ellen Wylie, who directed the project for PATHS.
When Culbertson proffered the penny, his students were at first baffled, then mildly interested. After some prodding, they suggested that these people who would write "In God we trust" on their coins must be very religious. The bearded man etched on one side could be their God, and the building on the other his temple.
Culbertson beamed, his point made. Compiling information about ancient societies and civilizations from their archaeological remnants is often guesswork, he said, and conclusions could be wrong.
"One goal is to get students to think like historians," Culbertson said. The new curriculum, instead of marching inexorably from the dawn of time to the 20th century in nine months, is designed to be a two-year course, divided into "The Ancient World" and "The Modern World."
But before even starting on the facts and theories, students are invited to examine what history is, to explore how human beings have learned about those who lived before them and to see how modern findings are not foolproof and change over time.
"I try to make them inquirers," said Gloria Mitchell-Barnes, a teacher at Franklin Learning Center. "I want them to ask me questions about everything."
Each year-long course is divided into four themes. For "The Ancient World," the portion being tested by Culbertson and Barnes, the themes are ''The Beginnings of Humankind," "First Cities," "Empire" and ''Religion." Teachers are now at work preparing next year's course on modern history.
Since it is not a science course, the early humankind unit encourages teachers to read creation accounts from several cultures, including Genesis. In addition, they present an overview of the scientific explanations on the origins of the world.
The thematic approach was a way to organize the mind-boggling amount of information, but also to address another major problem - the concentration of most current textbooks and courses on Western civilization, with information about other cultures appended haphazardly and superficially. This curriculum depends on integration, what Wylie calls a truly worldwide approach.
From the start, the participants agreed that they should include religion as a theme. The decision to use Islam as the primary case study was made for several reasons, said Howard Spodek, a Temple professor who was the academic coordinator of the project.
"It would be hard to look at the development of human civilization without seeing religion as a motivating factor in people's lives," he said. "The choice of Islam was partly historical and partly cultural. Historically, Islam is probably the first to move over wide space territorially. It's the first that makes the assertion it should be a world religion."
Plus, he said, "it's not the religion of most students, and so can be studied more dispassionately."
A HOPELESS MESS
PATHS decided to take on this project after teachers complained in a yearly day of brainstorming in June 1987 that the world history curriculum was a hopeless mess. Most social studies teachers had never taken it in college themselves, they admitted, and they were intimidated by its scope and discouraged by its superficiality.
World history is also taught in the ninth grade, when students are on the cusp of adolescence and facing enormous outside pressures. In Philadelphia, ninth grade is when most students drop out. In 1987-88, 37 percent of ninth graders failed their social studies course, which for most meant world history.
"Exploring World History," the most common textbook used in Philadelphia - and elsewhere - is written at about a fourth- or fifth-grade level.
For instance, it contains one three-page chapter on Islam, and this is the
bulk of what it has to say about Muhammad:
"When he was about 40 years of age, Muhammad began to believe that he had been chosen by Allah to preach a new way of life. He took from the Jewish and Christian religions the belief that there was only one god. Muhammad taught that Moses and Jesus were prophets of the one god. However, he was the greatest prophet since he was born at a later time. There were many in Mecca who believed in Muhammad's teachings. There were others who would not accept the faith of Islam."
PATHS and the school district first brought a group of teachers together at the Sugarloaf conference center in January 1988.
"There was a lot of cynicism that this would never get off the ground," Culbertson said. But by the summer, teachers were taking overview courses given by Spodek and other professors from Temple and the University of Pennsylvania.
After the overview, teachers had a choice of more intensive study in one of the four themes. Last fall, they attended specialized seminars, again given by Penn and Temple professors. They wrote the curricula chapters in the winter and spring, often meeting in each others' homes and offices on weekends and after school.
Barnes worked with Cooke Middle School teacher Joan Arno on the "First Cities" unit.
"I'd go over to her house, she'd feed me lunch, and we'd write with books piled up on the table," she said. "We'd be talking, hashing things out, asking each other what's important here, what's the message. We talked a lot about kids, what's important to them and what they need."
Those who persisted from beginning to end received a $2,800 stipend for their work.
Barnes, who majored in sociology in college and said her own history preparation was limited, said she wanted to participate so she could brush up on her own knowledge.
"I saw it as a chance to not only refresh my own skills but create a teachable, workable and educationally feasible world history program," she said. "To not only study but participate in making something more meaningful for students - a teacher's got to grab that."
The curriculum is in a fat, white, loose-leaf binder - a testament to its existence as a work-in-progress. It has 48 units, some complete with several sample lessons, some with detailed bibliographies and teaching strategies. The penny is there, and one lesson suggests that students compare the layout of Philadelphia with early cities.
Each school gets a kit for hands-on instruction with 26 items, including the plaster cast of a skull, slides, a Koran, a book of creation myths, a stencil of Chinese characters and Egyptian hieroglyphics and a silk cocoon.
Several problems must still be worked out, the most important being how a two-year course can be accommodated in the high school curriculum. Now, students are only required to take three years of social studies, and the state mandates that one be world history, one American history and one a combination of political science and economics.
"The project will never be done," Culbertson said. "The process is what's important, not the project. As long as teachers are being teacher- researchers, as long as they're preparing to teach something and trying to figure out 'would kids learn more if I do it this way, and if not, why not,' that's what is important."