Teaching History at America’s #1 High School

“WE JUST DON’T TREAT THE KIDS like high school kids, we treat them like college kids, and they respond. That is one of the things that I think has helped the school to be successful over the last few years,” says Robert Uhelski, the head of the history department at the International Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. In 2003, Newsweek ranked the academy number one in the nation.[1] The secret to its success is a combination of high expectations set by both teachers and administrators, rigorous coursework, and sound teaching practices. In their history courses, students are challenged to explore and weigh evidence, to defend their ideas, and to create projects with real-life applications.

The International Academy participates in the diploma program of the International Baccalaureate Organization based in Geneva, Switzerland. Offering an internationally recognized course of study and diploma, the IBO, a non-profit foundation, was established to serve students who moved to different countries during the course of their education. Since 1968, IB programs have provided students with an international education while meeting national and state educational standards. Taught in English, Spanish or French, the IB curriculum is currently offered in 116 different countries at the primary, middle, and secondary levels. The diploma is recognized and held in high regard by over a thousand universities worldwide.

The International Academy is a four-year public school, a so-called “school of choice,” which draws students from thirteen districts in Oakland County. Its principal, Bert Okma, proposed founding the school in 1992. With advice on the use of materials and teacher training from the IBO regional office for North America, the Academy opened four years later on the site of a former elementary school. While it is a public school, over half of IB schools in the United States and other countries are private.

The International Academy offers its students the opportunity to earn both high school and IB diplomas. All teachers have been certified by the state of Michigan. Like other high schools, the Academy administers the standardized tests of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), but preparing students for the MEAP tests is not the focus of instruction. Nevertheless, the scores of the Academy’s students on the tests far exceed state averages. On the 2003 MEAP test in social studies, eighty-eight percent of them met or exceeded Michigan standards whereas just over twenty-five percent of students statewide did.[2] In its School Report Card, the Michigan Department of Education, considering factors such as student achievement and graduation rates, gave the Academy an ‘A.’

Student applicants to the International Academy are selected by lottery. They take non-binding math and foreign language placement tests and diagnostic tests. About eighty-eight percent of students enrolled go on to earn the IB diploma.[3] With a waiting list of 450 students, the Academy is now pursuing the possibility of opening a satellite campus.[4]

Teacher training and expertise, the extent to which course materials are interesting, and IB standards largely determine what is taught in history classes at the International Academy, according to Mr. Uhelski. In ninth-grade world studies, students learn to do research, discuss, and debate issues through a project-based curriculum. They plan mock trips to developing countries and consider ways to provide economic assistance to local peoples while respecting their cultures and traditions. A heavy emphasis is placed on reading and writing at all grade levels. Ninth graders write position papers on issues in current events, and their exams include essay questions.

When they face the document-based questions on the IB exam and historical research and writing in college, the Academy’s students and graduates are well-prepared because their work with primary sources began during their first year of high school. To earn the IB diploma, students must compose a 4,000-word essay based upon original research.

In keeping with its international orientation, the Academy offers a tenth-grade American studies course which includes Latin American and Canadian history. The course is taught around a central theme: the struggle for human rights. Student understanding is assessed in part through projects. Students are involved in Settler’s Diary and Civil War Database projects, for example. While they are enrolled in American studies, they also take a course in American literature.

While all courses starting with the ninth grade are taught with IB standards in mind, the actual IB history courses are offered to students in the eleventh and twelfth grades. These courses emphasize the twentieth century, particularly the first and second world wars. In addition to textbooks, students read a variety of materials, such as Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy and Anthony Wood’s The Russian Revolution. They learn how to do research in university libraries, examine secondary sources for bias, and develop theses. Uhelski and other history teachers at the Academy present them with maps and primary sources, including political cartoons and artifacts, to analyze and interpret. Creative projects, like the making of a 1920s newspaper using desktop publishing, continue to engage them. While they are studying World War II, the students do oral histories. At the end of their senior year, they take the IB exams in which they are asked to write essays on selected topics from twentieth-century world history and an essay using primary documents.

Four full years of social studies and a foreign language are required of all students at the International Academy. In addition to history, students study microeconomics, philosophy, and government. On average, they spend about three hours doing homework every day. “We are very into the subjects. The teachers come to classrooms with enthusiasm,” explained Emily Levine, a student at the International Academy.

Teachers at the Academy receive ongoing support and training from the IBO through workshops and an online curriculum center. Online conferences on various topics of interest to educators, such as concepts of communities, are offered to them free of charge. They are involved in Model United Nations, Global Trade Mission, Investment, and Diversity clubs which give their students the opportunity to put the concepts which they are learning in class into practice. The International Baccalaureate program encourages civic responsibility by requiring all students to complete 150 hours of community service. Students volunteer for Building with Books, Habitat for Humanity, local food banks, and animal shelters.

The academy’s student body is diverse. Oakland County has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents in Michigan, and an estimated fifty-three percent of IA students have at least one parent who was born in another country. Not all students at the school come from wealthy backgrounds, but since there is an established correlation between student achievement and household income, the fact that Oakland County is one of the wealthiest in the nation may, along with instructional strategies and goal setting, contribute to the students’ success. According to the 2000 Census, the median household income in Oakland County was $61,907.[5] The facilities of the International Academy are noticeably modest, however. While there is a computer lab, most social studies classrooms have only one or two computers.

With their global perspective and foreign language requirements, International Baccalaureate schools are on the cutting edge of multicultural education. Students are encouraged to adopt an international perspective and think comparatively. The history department’s emphasis on writing at the International Academy is clearly a vital factor in student achievement. Students are learning and mastering forms of writing which are particular to history as a discipline. The work of the IA teachers shows that high expectations and good teaching of a well-structured and varied curriculum produce results.


1.Ê Jay Mathews, “The 100 Best High Schools in America,” Newsweek (2 June 2003): 48–54. The academy’s number-one ranking was established by dividing the number of students taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams by the number of graduating seniors.

2.Ê Wisely, John, “MEAP scores fall in 3 R’s,” The Detroit News (6 November 2003): 1. .

3.Ê Vandenabeele, Janet, “International Academy works to prove its worth,” The Detroit News (28 March 2003) 3. .

4.Ê Mask, Teresa, “Bloomfield Hills school plans another campus,” Detroit Free Press (3 March 2004): 1. .

5.Ê U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census 2000.

Appendix I

© 2003 International Academy
1020 East Square Lake Road • Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304
Phone 248.341.5900 • Fax 248.341.5959

This history class is a quest for self-understanding; for in our study of past people and events, we can achieve greater understanding of ourselves and our world. This course covers the history of the Americas from colonization to 1900 with particular emphasis on the United States and its antecedents in other parts of the world. Although we will survey history chronologically, we will also view it through the prism of the aspects of culture as well as through the central theme: the struggle for rights. Frequently, we will tie the past to the present to add relevancy and perspective.

Text: America: Pathways to the Present (Prentice-Hall, 1998)
Length of Class: One year (42 weeks)
Grade Taught: 10th Grade

Candidates will be expected to:

Explore and solve problems in American History
Think critically
Work cooperatively with others
Communicate ideas clearly
Be actively involved in the learning process
Build on prior learning as topics are spiraled
Unit I: Exploration and Colonization
This unit will focus on exploration and colonization of the Americas by the European powers, colonial institutions, and native cultures. Students will be expected to compare and contrast colonization by European powers, improve their note taking skills, conduct primary source analysis, and improve test taking skills. Assessments include: unit test, chapter worksheets, and a Settlers Diary Project.

This unit is approximately three weeks.

Unit II: Revolutionary Period
This unit focuses on determining the causes, course, and effects of the American Revolution. Students demonstrate the following skills: DBQ Test skills, document analysis, cause and effect analysis skills. Assessments include: unit test, chapter worksheets, Core Values Project

This unit is approximately six weeks.

Unit III: Revolutions in the Americas
This unit will study the revolts in the Spanish, French, and Portuguese American possessions. The effects of the revolts on Latin America will be analyzed. Students will be expected to compare and contrast the revolts, and conduct source analysis. Assessments include: unit test, chapter worksheets, Revolutions in the Americas Comparison Project.

This unit is approximately four weeks.

Unit IV: Early US Republic
This unit focuses on the formation of the US government, Supreme Court cases, rise of political parties, War of 1812, Jacksonian America.
Students will be expected to conduct analysis of Supreme Court cases. Assessments include: unit test, chapter worksheets, Supreme Court Case Project.

This unit is approximately four weeks.

Unit V: Slavery in the Americas
This unit compares the institution of slavery, slave trade, slave revolts, abolition of slavery, in different countries. Assessments include: unit test, chapter worksheets, Comparison of Slavery in the Americas Project.

This unit is approximately six weeks.

Unit VI: Civil War and Reconstruction
Students will study both the states rights and abolition movements, the causes, course, and impact of the Civil War. The unit will conclude with a study of Reconstruction and its impact. Students will be improving their data analysis and DBQ testing skills. Assessments include: unit test, chapter worksheets, and a Civil War Database Project.

This unit is approximately eight weeks.

Unit VII: Westward Expansion and Immigration
Students will study Manifest Destiny, Westward expansion, subjugation of native tribes, expansion of the US. This unit will conclude with the causes, courses, and effects of immigration on the US. Assessments include: unit test, chapter worksheets, Immigration Project.

This unit is approximately four weeks.

Unit VIII: Progressive Era
This unit focuses on the Progressive movement. Its successes and failures, and impact of the early civil rights and suffrage movements. Students will be expected to write a research paper. Assessments include: unit test, chapter worksheets, practice internal assessment.

This unit is approximately four weeks.

— Assessment —

The assessment for this class consists primarily of tests, essays, worksheets and homework. Homework is checked daily. There is a cumulative exam at the end of both semesters.

Appendix II

© 2003 International Academy
1020 East Square Lake Road • Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304
Phone 248.341.5900 • Fax 248.341.5959

This course is designed to give an overview of the government in the United States and the world. The course will give the student the background to prepare them for the Social Studies MEAP Test, and to become active United States and world citizens. Students will study the foundations, role, and organization of not only the United States Government, but also, other countries in comparison. This class is one semester long.

Candidates will be expected to:

Know and use United States Government concepts and principles
Read and interpret a given problem in appropriate legal terms
Organize and present information
Know and use appropriate notation and terminology
Formulate a logical argument and communicate it clearly
Select and use appropriate presentation techniques
Demonstrate an understanding in the practical applications of government
Analyze current events in the media
Compare development of U.S. government with other nations in the world
— Semester One —

Unit I: Constitution and Foundations of Government
Students will begin with a study of the foundation of government from a natural law perspective using the ideas of Hobbes and Locke. A historical approach will be taken with the foundation of the United States government with a special focus on primary source analysis with the ever-important documents of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights. Students will demonstrate how the principles embodied in these documents still play an important role in our lives through analysis of current news events. Students will complete a project that compares core democratic values of the United States with China. A unit test will be given to students that is modeled after the MEAP.

The length of this unit is approximately six weeks.

Unit II: Branches of Government and Political Ideology
Students will be introduced to basic concepts and role of political parties as a way to better understand the dynamics of the three branches of government. Students will study the organization, powers, checks and balances etc. of the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches. Students will be assessed by a unit test, chapter worksheets, and a mock congress activity. They will also be expected to analyze and debate domestic and foreign policy issues. Also, students will strengthen their understanding of United States democracy through a cross-cultural comparison of countries with parliamentary systems.

The length of this unit is approximately eight weeks.

Unit III: Election and campaigns
Students will continue their study of the role of political parties and the historical foundations of the party system. The unit will introduce them to the election process, the role of interest groups, and factors that influence voters. Students will be expected to compare and contrast political parties through an understanding of the party platform. They will also evaluate the role of the media in politics in the United States. (The scope and sequence of this unit may vary depending on national elections)

Unit IV: State and Local Government
Students will study the basic concepts of state and local government, historical foundations of local control, and types of state and local governments. They will be expected to compare and contrast different types of state and local governments. Students will research the structure of their local government.

This unit requires approximately one week.

Unit IV: Civil Liberties and Civil Rights
The Unit will use the concept of federalism to strengthen the understanding of civil liberties and civil rights. Students will be introduced to the basic concepts of civil liberties through the further study of the Bill of Rights. The historical background of the civil rights movement will be provided from a national perspective. Once established, local connections such as housing segregation in Detroit and the race riots of 1967 will be made. Students will be required to interpret political cartoons. They will be assessed by a unit test, chapter worksheets, a mock court case and a Civil Rights project.

The length of this unit is approximately three weeks.

— Assessment —

Grades are earned based on the following approximate percentages.

Tests and quizzes 20%
Projects 20%
News Journals 20%
Cross Cultural Analysis 15%
Homework & lass work 15%
Final Exam 10%

Appendix III

© 2002 International Academy
1020 East Square Lake Road • Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304
Phone 248.341.5900 • Fax 248.341.5959

The IB History program at the International Academy spans the 11th and 12th grades, and covers primarily 20th Century World History through 1995, with a concentration on the Americas. There is no distinction between material covered by HL and SL students, except during the review period at the end of 12th grade. Following is a detailed breakdown of the individual units, including content, major assessments, and skills. Due to the nature of the program, skills that are introduced in one unit continue to be emphasized for the balance of IB History, especially as regards IB preparation. The exact material covered and assessments may vary depending on instructor’s choice and time available.

Candidates will be expected to:

Explore and solve complex world issues
Think critically
Work cooperatively with others
Communicate ideas clearly
See the connections among different branches of humanities
Become actively involved in the learning process
Discern meaning with historical topics
Build on prior learning as topics spiral
— 11th Grade —

Unit I: World War I Era
19th Century European History (“Concert of Europe 1815–1914”), Causes of WWI in Europe, U.S. Isolationism and Involvement in WWI, Canada in WWI, Course of WWI, Technology and Tactics, the Home Front in U.S. and Canada, The Versailles Treaty and Consequences, Legacy of WWI, Comparison of Democracy/Capitalism with Socialism/Communism, The Russian Revolution and the New Soviet State.
Students will do map interpretation, comparison/contrast, interpretation/creation of political cartoons, primary source document analysis, secondary source analysis (historiography, analysis of source credibility/bias, historical schools of thought), practicing IB Document Based Questions (DBQ).
Students will be assessed by Causes of WWI Political Cartoon, Causes of WWI Source Analysis Project, WWI Authors Comparison Paper, Practice DBQs on Causes of WWI and Russian Revolution/Civil War, WWI Unit Test.

Supplemental Readings:
Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Touchstone, 1994.
Martel, Gordon. Origins of the First World War. New York: Longman, 1996.
Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: Ballantine, 1994.
Wood, Anthony. The Russian Revolution. New York: Longman, 1996.

This unit is approximately twelve weeks.

Unit II: IB Internal Assessment
Students research and write a 1500 word IB research paper on an approved 20th Century World History topic. Papers are internally assessed by IB History teachers, sample papers are submitted to IB for review in early March of senior year. Juniors failing to submit the paper in good order by late May of junior year will not receive credit for the 11th Grade IA History course and will not receive IB History credit.
Skills: Understanding IB Internal Assessment guidelines/scoring, developing the research question, developing/narrowing the thesis, MLA format, avoiding plagiarism, bibliography and note cards, research techniques, historical journals, using university libraries, historiography, source analysis, peer editing, revision.

This unit is approximately on and off for 12 weeks (starts early November after WWI Test, shares time with Unit 3, First Draft due late November, Interim Draft (optional for most students) due early January, Final Draft due late January.

Unit III: 1920s and 1930s in the Americas and the World
Content: 1920s Cultural/Historical Trends, Causes of 1920s Economic Boom, U.S. and Canada in the 1920s, Global Cooperation, Prosperity and Peace (Locarno Period), symptoms of coming economic downturn (Causes of Great Depression), Effects/Conditions of Great Depression, Tackling the Great Depression (Differing Political/Economic Philosophies: Hoover vs. FDR/New Deal), the Great Depression in the U.S. and Canada, the Great Depression in the World, Recovery from the Great Depression.
Skills: Desktop Publishing, source analysis, analyzing differing historical interpretations, primary source evaluation, oral history techniques.
Assessments: 1920s Newspaper Project, FDR Political Cartoon Analysis, Great Depression/WWII Oral History Project, U.S. vs. Canada in the Great Depression Paper Great Depression/New Deal Unit Test.

This unit is approximately 12–16 weeks, in conjunction with IB Internal Assessment.

Unit IV: Unit 4: Rise and Rule of One-Party States in Europe and the Holocaust, 1919–1953
Interwar Crisis: Modernization, Hallmarks of One-Party States, Comparative Political Systems: Democracy/Capitalism, Fascism, Socialism/Communism, Italy: Mussolini’s Rise to Power, Germany: Hitler’s Rise to Power, The Nazi State (primary emphasis: role of propaganda), USSR: Russian Revolution/Civil War Review, Stalin’s Rise to Power, Stalin in Power 1928–53: Five Year Plans, Collectivization, the Great Terror, Stalin’s Foreign Policy, Post-WWII USSR Domestic to 1953.
Skills: Preparing IB quality essay responses, interpretation of primary sources and propaganda, evaluations of varying historical interpretations.
Assessments: Third Reich Propaganda Evaluation (postcards, Triumph of the Will film), Political Cartoon: Rise of One-Party States, Holocaust Memorial Center visit, Stalin in Power Documents Analysis, sample IB essays and DBQs.

Supplemental Reading:
Kissinger. Diplomacy.
McCauley, Martin. Stalin and Stalinism. New York: Longman, 1995.
Overy, Richard. The Inter-War Crisis 1919–1939. New York: Longman, 1998.

This unit is approximately 8–12 weeks, to end of junior year. USSR portion may occur at beginning of senior year.

— 12th Grade —

Unit I: Causes of World War II
Background History of China and Japan to 1919, Causes of WWII in Asia: role of immigration laws, Versailles Treaty, post-WWI naval agreements, Japanese domestic scene in the 1920s and 1930s, Japanese aggression in the 1930s (Manchuria, China), U.S. trade policy regarding Japan, immediate causes of WWII in Asia, Causes of WWII in Europe: failure of League of Nations, the Versailles Treaty system and the “Spirit of Locarno”, role of Great Powers, U.S. isolationism, Nazi and Italian aggression, underlying and immediate causes of WWII in Europe.
Skills: Evaluation of varying historical interpretations, document analysis, analysis and creation of maps, graphs and charts, understanding historical chronology.
Assessments: IB DBQs, Causes of WWII Time Line Project, Pre-WWII Resource Analysis, Unit Test.

Supplemental Reading:
Kissinger. Diplomacy.
Overy, Richard. Causes of the Second World War. New York: Longman, 1998.

This unit is approximately eight to twelve weeks

Unit II: World War II
Content: Early war U.S. isolationism, course of World War II in Europe/ Asia, Home Front in major participating nations (concentration on U.S./Canada), role of trade/natural resources in WWII, role of technology in WWII (concentration on air war), diplomacy in WWII, effects/legacy of WWII.
Skills: Primary source analysis, research and presentation (written and oral), comparison.
Assessments: Home Front Comparison, WWII Artifacts Analysis, Unit Test.

This unit is approximately six weeks.

Unit III: The Cold War
Cold War Theories/Schools of Thought/Phases, Origins of the Cold War, Early Cold War: Truman Doctrine/Containment, Marshall Plan, Berlin Blockade/Airlift, Korean War, Arms Race, Peaceful Coexistence, Cold War in the Developing World, Berlin Crisis 1961, Castro/Cuba, Détente, Arms Agreements, Reagan, Gorbachev and the end of the Cold War.
Skills: Practice IB Assessments (DBQs and Paper 2 essay questions), geographical recognition/understanding, research and presentation, primary and secondary source analysis.
Assessments: Cold War/Decolonization in the Developing World Project, Unit Test and class activities using actual DBQs and essay questions from previous IB tests.

Supplemental Readings:
Kissinger. Diplomacy.
McCauley, Martin. Origins of the Cold War 1941–1949. New York: Longman, 1996.
McCauley, Martin. Russia, America and the Cold War 1949–1991. New York: Longman, 1998.

This unit is approximately eight weeks.

Unit IV: China in the 20th Century
Review of Chinese History to 1900, Chinese Revolution of 1911, Sun Yat-Sen, Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists, Rise of CCP and the Long March, Effects of Japanese Aggression in WWII Era, Chinese Civil War 1946–1949, Communist Takeover and Early Years in Power 1949–57, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution 1957–1976, China After Mao 1976-date, Sino-Soviet Relations, Sino-American Relations and Détente.
Skills: Research, DBQ writing, primary and secondary source analysis, practice IB assessments, geographical recognition/understanding.
Assessments: Thematic Document Based Question (DBQ: student-created) on 20th Century Chinese history, practice IB assessments, Unit Test.

Supplemental Reading:
Mackerras, Colin. China in Transformation 1900–1949. New York: Longman, 1998.

This unit is approximately six weeks.

Unit V: America in the Postwar World
McCarthyism, Post-WWII U.S. Domestic (Presidents Truman-Clinton: major cultural/historical trends, Vietnam War, Counterculture and the Anti-War Movement, Civil Rights Movement, Nixon and Watergate, Reagan and the New Conservatism), major post-WWII world events: Suez Crisis, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Iranian Revolution and aftermath, others as time permits.
Skills: Research, comparison writing, primary and secondary source analysis, IB test preparation.
Assessments: Post-WWII Presidential Comparison Essay, practice IB essay questions (Paper 3), Unit Test.
Before IB testing, a review period is set aside, permitting mock testing situations and discussion/reflection. Review materials are provided by teachers and created by students. Formal review sessions are also held by IB History teachers in the days/weeks before testing.

This unit is approximately four weeks.

— IB Assessment —

Higher Level (HL)
External Assessment 80%

Written Papers
Paper 1 20%
Paper 2 25%
Paper 3 35%
Internal Assessment 20%

Standard Level (SL)
External Assessment 75%

Written Papers

Paper 1 30%
Paper 2 45%
Internal Assessment 25%
Paper 1 (HL/SL)
A document-based paper set on prescribed subjects drawn from 20th century world history topics. Students are given 1 hour to complete this examination, held at the end of their senior year. Students must choose a document/question set from one of the following three areas:

The USSR under Stalin, 1924 to 1941
The emergence and development of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), 1946–1964
The Cold War, 1960 to 1979
Paper 2 (HL/SL)
An essay examination based on the IB’s 20th century world history topics. The examination paper will comprise 30 questions, five on each of the six 20th century world history topics. Students receive 1 hour 30 minutes for this examination, held at the end of their senior year. Two questions to be answered, each chosen from a different topic:

Causes, practices and effects of war
Nationalist and independence movements, decolonization and challenges facing new states
The rise and the rule of single-party states
Peace and cooperation: international organizations and multiparty states
The Cold War
The state and its relationship with religion and with minorities
The International Academy’s IB History program places primary focus on Topics 1, 3 and 5

Paper 3 (HL only)
Essay examination on the History of the Americas from colonization to 1995. The examination paper comprises 25 questions, of which three must be answered using essay format. Students receive 2 hours 30 minutes for this examination, held at the end of their senior year.

Internal Assessment (HL/SL)
Internally assessed, externally moderated 1500 word research paper on an approved 20th- century world history topic. Research and writing process for this paper spans November–January time period during students’ junior year. Sample papers are submitted to IB for moderation in March of students’ senior year.