Humanities Inquiry 

EQ: To what degree does environment predetermine success?

How does environment affect the development and expansion of a society / community?


My 7th grade class consists of 20-25 students. I teach two humanities blocks in the day, each block lasting 2 hours. This year, I have 4 students who struggle significantly below grade level. Three of them have IEPs; one does not. One of these three is also an English learner. The majority of my students are on grade level, with a few being advanced. My school essentially uses tracking, so one of my classes preforms at much higher reading and writing levels on average than the other.

We will complete this inquiry project in our fourth unit. During that unit, our ELA content is focused on argumentative writing and we will be reading “City of the Beasts” by Isabel Allende (diving into the genre of magical realism). Our school-wide thematic focus for this unit is justice and diversity.

For the social studies portion of our class, we will be focused on our Africa and Mesoamerica units — “7.4: Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the sub-Saharan civilizations of Ghana and Mali in Medieval Africa ” and “7.7: Students compare and contrast the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the Meso-American and Andean civilizations.”


Why are students doing this inquiry? Why is the topic important for them? What do you hope they will get out of it?

This inquiry will allow students to explore the diversity contained in Africa, breaking the single-story narratives that many students hold about Africa. It will expose students to issues of justice–both environmental and human–connecting our unit to our school-wide theme. Ghana and Mali have very different environmental attributes that in part contributed to the successes and failures of their civilizations, as does Meso-America, and which also resulted in different types of human interactions. Some of these environmental attributes increased human interactions and caused places to become centers of trade; others increased human conflict and contributed to colonialism; yet others caused societies to fall apart because of a lack of natural resources. All of these factors are important when considering the success of a society or community.

I think this topic is important because it breaks down the mythical narratives that we are all isolated communities, and that those who are successful are such because of their own inherent ability, while those civilizations that disappeared were somehow just “less.” In addition, this inquiry will create a bridge with our science class and cause students to consider the many ways that human life is shaped or influenced by environment, and vice-versa. I hope that exploring this topic causes students to think more critically about the world around them, and about the factors that contribute to success and power.


Student Resources


The Assignment

Part 1: Environment (day 1)

Define "environment" together. Brainstorm examples of environmental factors -- as many as we can think of. 

Students complete a quick write in response to this question: What environments are you most comfortable in? In your experience, what environmental factors have allowed you to be successful?

Part 2: Success (day 2)

Do a 4-corners activity to launch thinking about what it means to be successful as an individual. 

Do a 4-corners activity to continue thinking about what it means to be successful as a society. Allow students to debate this idea and "vote with their feet."

Students complete a quick write in response to this question: What environmental factors do you predict are positive for the success of a community? What environmental factors do you predict are negative?

Respond to the EQ: To what degree does environment predetermine success? Why or why not? Defend your answer. 

Part 3: Environmental Analysis - Mayans (day 3 - 6)

We will keep track of the environmental factors we come across with a word web, so that we are better able to track connections between environmental factors and impact. I will show a model of what this looks like (environmental factors of my life in San Diego). Students will get a blank piece of graph paper to make theirs on. They are invited to use sticky notes or pencil -- something they can erase, move, and change as needed. Each environmental factor should include a text citation/evidence. Whenever observed, add a note for how the Mayans responded to an environmental factor, how it impacted them, or how they impacted the environment. 

2. Source Analysis #1: Images (I do / We do) (day 3)

Students have images printed and laminated at their table groups, and I have them on the projector as well. We work through these together, making notes about environment on our word webs (evidence trackers) as we do so. We discuss the fact that we can not read Mayan glyphs, and so most of our primary sources will be artifacts that we need to make inferences based on. I will lead with my observations, adding to my word map (giant and posted on the board) as I verbalize what I see. I invite students to chime in through this as well.

Source #1: Mayan Empire

3. Source Analysis #2: Article (We do / You do) (day 3)

With their table group, students read and annotate this article. They may also add to their evidence tracker if they would like, but the focus should be on finding environmental factors in the article (even if they don't get added to the word web yet). 

After everyone has had a chance to read and annotate most or all of the article, I will take share outs. I will add these environmental factors to our large evidence tracker. 

At this point, I will ask students to make a first set of predictions about which environmental factors will help them be successful and which will not. They will make these predictions in their writing journals, where they can reference them later. 

4. Source Analysis #3: Article POV Comparison (You do) (day 4)

Analyze these two sources in your small group (practicing RI7.6, RI7.9*), using a graphic organizer as a support. After reading and analyzing in the graphic organizer to distinguish between the two author's points of view, students identify the factual environmental factors and add them to their evidence tracker. This time, be sure to also add notes about impact if you haven't already done so. These notes may reflect the conflict present in the article.

Write a reflection: Did changes in the environment influence the success or failure of the Mayan civilization? Why or why not? Provide text evidence to support your answer. 

RI7.6: Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author distinguishes his or her position from that of others.

RI7.9: Analyze how two or more authors writing about the same topic share their presentations of key information by emphasizing different evidence or advancing different interpretations of facts. 

5. Accomplishments of the Mayan Empire (day 5)

With your table group, explore these informational texts about the Mayan Empire. Add any environmental factors we missed to your word web. Track their achievements and/or failures in a graphic organizer or in your writing journal. You may divide the texts between members of your group. Share what you find with your peers. 

After sharing what you found with your table group and taking notes, reflect on these questions in a graphic organizer (page 3). You may complete this independently or with your peers.

Environmental Analysis: Achievements and Losses

6. EQ Response: Mayan Empire (day 6)

Independently write a reflection (typed or handwritten) in response to these questions. Be sure to respond in detail, including multiple pieces of evidence from multiple sources to back your claims. Explain your evidence and how it supports your claims clearly. Students have 30 minutes to write a thoughtful response. 

Once all students have written their responses, divide into groups made up of students from each table group. Students share their reflections with each other. 

Part 4: Environmental Analysis - Mali vs Ghana (day 7 - 12)

1. Source Analysis: Ghana or Mali (day 7-9)

Half of the students in each class will focus on Mali, the other half on Ghana. They will receive a set of sources to analyze in the same way we analyzed documents and sources pertaining to the Mayan Empire. Students should make a word web about environmental factors based on these sources, record the achievements/successes as well as the losses/failures of each empire/kingdom, and answer analysis questions along the way. Students will have 3 days to complete this initial analysis. 

2. Collaboration (day 10)

After completing their word webs and analysis, students will meet with a group of peers who studied the same civilization (Mali or Ghana). In these groups, they will share what they found about environmental factors, successes, and failures.

After sharing and taking notes, students will reflect on these questions in a graphic organizer (page 3). They may complete this independently or with their peers.

3. EQ Response: [Mali / Ghana] Empire (day 10)

Independently write a reflection (typed or handwritten) in response to these questions. Be sure to respond in detail, including multiple pieces of evidence from multiple sources to back your claims. Explain your evidence and how it supports your claims clearly. Students have 30 minutes to write a thoughtful response. 

4. Synthesize (day 10-11)

Students will create a slideshow presentation of what they learned, independently or with a partner.

5. Reteach (day 12)

Students will share what they learned with a small group using the slideshow presentation the completed the previous day. Small groups will consist of students who studied Ghana and students who studied Mali. 

They will take notes on their peers presentations using a graphic organizer that allows them to track evidence of environmental factors, the successes/failures of each society, and the things that contributed to those successes/failures.

Environmental Analysis: Achievements and Losses

Part 5: Final essay reflection (day 12)

Students will have one hour to write an in-class essay in response to the EQ - to what degree does environment predetermine success? They will use what they learned and cite text evidence from their own sources as well as possibly their peers. Their argument and defense should take into consideration all three empires discussed -- Mayan, Mali, and Ghana. They can choose to build on any analysis and reflection they already completed in this unit to create their argument. 

Students who need additional support can receive extra time on their essay, as well as use of a graphic organizer for planning. 


Assessing Student Learning through the Project

Students written reflections in response to the EQ before after each unit of study provide an opportunity for me to assess their understanding of the material. These reflections require students to draw on what they learned in each section and cite text evidence. They build toward the final assessment - the in-class essay. They also provide a wonderful opportunity for me to assess how a student's thinking is changing and evolving in response to each part of the inquiry. The first EQ reflection (completed prior to our inquiry) and the final in-class essay will be especially useful in determining the effectiveness of this inquiry.

Monitoring Student Learning of the Material throughout the Inquiry

Graphic organizers, discussions, written reflections, and student presentations are woven throughout the inquiry intentionally to help me monitor student learning of the material. The graphic organizers are especially helpful for quickly seeing what sorts of connections and inferences they are making based on the sources they are analyzing.

Evidence that it's going well

What are some things that you might see or hear students doing that will let you know this is going or has went well? 

Evidence that it isn't going well

What would students be doing/saying if things weren’t going as you envisioned? 

My Hopes for Students in this Project

I hope that students discover that, while environment can influence and impact success, it does not predetermine success or failure. My hope is that students will see the complexity with which civilizations function and survive, and that they will come to define success as more than survival at a large scale. I also hope that students will notice the ways in which human interaction both positively and negatively impacts other people groups and the surrounding environment. 

Both parts of the world we are studying in this unit have limited primary sources and written documentation from life prior to the arrival of Europeans. This is due, in part, to the destruction of records. I hope that this assignment causes students to begin to break away from narratives they may be consciously or unconsciously familiar with and see the genius of these people groups, to redefine success. I hope this assignment sets them up for a more critical analysis of the impact of colonization and interactions of various people groups.