Fusing the Humanities in the Middle School

"Tomoe Gozen: Bad-Butt Woman”

This title of a sixth grade history project gives me a good chuckle and a glowing sense of pride. As they study Japan in the Middle Ages, Ms. Dixon Bell’s history class spends a unit focusing on the rise of the warrior class and its impact on Japanese culture, culminating in an exploration of legendary female samurai Tomoe Gozen. Not only do they learn about this famous historical figure who has been immortalized in epics, stories, music, art, comic books, and pop culture in the centuries since, but our sixth graders also have the opportunity to creatively explore what life might have been like for this woman warrior after her famous battles and mysterious disappearance.
One of the benefits of having our fifth and sixth grade interdisciplinary humanities curriculum taught by the same teacher is the seamless way that students are able to incorporate elements of both history and English into both classes. For this unit, Ms. Dixon Bell has students design a digital storybook in which they create an illustrated narrative that picks up where Tomoe Gozen’s legend leaves off. By allowing students to imagine the future of the story’s heroine, they’re not only asked to incorporate their historical knowledge of Japanese culture, but also to draw upon the literary devices and creative writing strategies that they’ve been focusing on in English class.

Beyond the interdisciplinary benefits of this unit, it’s also not lost on Ellis students that Tomoe Gozen’s story is unique in the way that it features a woman protagonist excelling in a time when many women were not granted the same freedoms as men in much of the world. While women were allowed to be samurai in Japan, sixth graders had just finished learning about oppressive practices such as foot binding in China occurring at the same time. An upcoming unit in English class will focus on the plight of a young woman in 13th Century England as she navigates the pressures of arranged marriage and limited social mobility. Allowing students to explore varied experiences of women around the world throughout history helps create a more nuanced picture of what womanhood has looked like over time, both in terms of its struggles and its triumphs. Taking this global approach also helps students have a better understanding of what experiences are universal and which are unique to a particular culture or geographic region.

I sat in on Ms. Dixon Bell’s class as they delved into their study of Japan. As the students milled about the room in ever-rotating study groups, I was impressed with the way that they all collaborated so seamlessly, working together to find evidence to support their claims and asking insightful questions as they compared and contrasted cultural influences from Japan’s neighboring countries. As I observed the enthusiasm and determination of their historical exploration, one thing was very clear: Ellis students are a bunch of bad-butt women.