The students in April Garcez’s 9th grade World History class settled into their seats in Strub Room 201, with Ms. Garcez at her desk, ready to explore the topic of the day: the Islamic world in the 1300s. They all watched a short video on the precious commodities of the time which were abundant in many parts of Africa in that era. The second video was on the Islamic scholar Ibn Battuta, who cataloged his decades of extensive travel through this terrain, providing a rare in-depth portrait of the people and places of that time. The students were attentive, took notes and asked questions. Then after reviewing a small selection of Ibn Battuta’s writing, the students were asked to come into groups of four, and spend 12 minutes identifying elements of the Muslim empire that Ibn Battuta’s account brought to life.
The groups shared their responses in a popcorn-style exercise afterwards. “They valued hospitality!" shouted one group. ”There was fairness in trade,” said another. Yet another chimed in with a slightly longer response, “They mostly promoted peace…because the Quran really promoted…being a good person and always caring for others.” The topics in this discussion were not totally unfamiliar to these students, but these historical accounts were making their knowledge of the world wider, broader and deeper. And unbeknownst to this class, this specific activity was relatively new to the World History I curriculum.
Upon the retirement of one of Mayfield’s beloved teachers last year, Ms. Garcez and her colleague Julie Brehove thoroughly went through the course material they would be inheriting, looking for areas for potential growth. Firstly, they decided they wanted to create a class that highlighted more voices. Ms. Garcez said the hope was to “get diverse primary sources available to students so they can hear different voices.” And secondly, they wanted to use the course material to focus on “critical thinking” and “analytical writing skills,” whenever possible.
Once these 9th graders were exposed to these tools of critical inquiry, they quickly found confidence in the practice. Discussing topics brought up in Ibn Battuta’s account, Mia Palafox ’26 remarked she was “surprised” at “the wealth of Africa that came from gold and salt trade.” Madelyn Hammer ‘26 said one of her “favorite parts” was learning about the “gorgeous art” created by Muslim artists, which specifically didn’t represent human beings “because they felt it to be disrespectful.” Ms. Garcez noted the progress her students had already made, and picking up on details like these had made class conversations more stimulating and strengthened their writing as well.
All of these abilities that the 9th graders were picking up would easily translate into other courses as well. In English, it would be analytic writing and deconstructing arguments. In Theology, it would help with understanding about ecumenical experience and ties between different religious groups. And obviously, this history class was also giving a foundation for students to excel in future Honors and AP courses across the board.
Only in the second semester of their freshmen year, the students seem to appreciate this academic challenge. Evangeline Bicos '26 said, “I found that the nongraded discussions opened my mind to many things I never considered. And Mia Palafox said, “I have seen many changes in my writing. Ms. Garcez has helped me become a much stronger and confident writer.”
When Ms. Garcez moved over to the white board, the second part of the class somewhat resembled a math lesson. She was assigning a 5-paragraph writing assignment, and since this was new terrain for most of the students, she used the board to help them understand the template. The topic was: “What does Ibn Battuta's travels reveal about the Islamic world in the 1300s?” She gave an overview of what a 5-paragraph assignment could look like, from topic sentence to concluding paragraph. It included numbers 1 through 5 for each paragraph, leaving variables under each number, identified as “x” or “y” or “z.” She gave students a wide berth of what they might want to discuss, but also gave them a working formula to populate as they wished, reminding them all to “use good CDs” (concrete details) throughout.
Ms Garcez has an immense amount of faith in these students, equipping them with tools to craft complex narratives in their own words, and help them build the muscle of “deconstructing arguments with a historical lens.” She knows it’s important for students to “know the historical context behind people's assumptions and prejudgments of things,” both as an academic strength and a life skill.
The critical thinking from these students was on full display in the last minutes of class. As Ms. Garcez continued at the board, the question of “tone” came up amongst the students. The most recent primary sources that were analyzed by the class had been texts from Pope Urban and Ibn Battuta. The students were well aware that these documents were simply historical records, neither could be representative of an entire faith tradition or another. And as primary sources, they were also necessarily subjective. But students analyzed the “tone” between both documents because they knew it implied authority and indicated implicit value. And through the tone of firsthand accounts, students were given glimpses of bygone ages, people and places—an activity which challenged some of their own preconceptions.
At this point in their careers at Mayfield, these students already knew that Christianity, Islam and Judaism were the top three monotheistic religions in the world, and that they shared many sacred texts and common figures. But to this generation of students, largely born in the US and entirely after 9/11—they were given an intricate and rich vision of Islam, full of splendor—from the voice of a Muslim scholar in the 1300s who lived it. For many, this afforded new frames of reference. These students were encountering history in a way that helped sharpen their skills as both sophisticated and empathetic thinkers.
When it comes to 9th graders, Ms. Garcez focuses on good preparation as a rule. “I find satisfaction in preparing them well to be successful in their upcoming courses…how to meet with teachers, how to organize themselves to meet deadlines, things like that.” And Ms. Garcez expressed how immensely grateful that Mayfield was able to give “these fundamentals even at the freshman level.”