An independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, DC

History & Social Sciences

T he overarching purpose of the History Department is to prepare students to become knowledgeable and responsible citizens of their community, state, nation, and world through the study of past and current events. Three years of history, Early Civilizations and Global Contact (ninth grade), The Modern World (tenth grade), and United States History (eleventh grade), are required.

To see how a student progresses through history and the social sciences over the four years, please click here.

Early Civilizations and Global Contact

Early Civilizations and Global Contact is Potomac’s 9th grade required history course. The class is envisioned as a skill focused class with emphasis on the development of analytical and argumentative writing, critical reading and thinking, research skills, public speaking, and geographical competency. The fall semester focuses first on river valley civilizations including Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China, followed by the great classical civilizations of Europe, India, and China. The spring semester explores cultural contact through the study of the Rise of Islamic Empires, a comprehensive look at medieval Eurasian contact and exchange, and the resultant expansionary Europe following the scientific revolution and Reformation. The class culminates with a three week long research paper that pulls together the entire skillset of the freshman year.

The Modern World

Modern World History examines global events from 1780 to the present under the umbrella of the essential question, What is modern? Students will analyze from multiple perspectives the various revolutions that shook the Atlantic Basin at the end of the 18th century, industrialization, the growth and contraction of political and colonial empires, and war in the age of global interdependence. Reading over one hundred primary and secondary sources, students will come to understand that history is dependent on one’s point of view and open to continual reinterpretation. Visual art, period music and literature, political cartoons, guest speakers, debates, and simulations add texture and interest. Weekly student-led discussions of current events foster students’ ability to detect the fingerprints of the past on today’s global trends – and maybe predict the future themselves. Frequent short writing assignments aim to increase the concision, precision, and elegance of students' historical prose. A major research paper on a topic of the student's choosing from modern world history will serve a showcase for the research, analysis, and writing skills students have been developing throughout the year.

United States History

The study of United States history provides an opportunity to examine the cultural, political, social, intellectual and economic conflicts that have shaped our past and will continue to shape our future. Students will continuously reflect upon questions of identity and what it means to be an American. With this goal in mind, students will focus on important conflicts and matters of debate, examining the development of American identity and how it has been shaped by power and resistance. Through a survey of American history, students will encounter challenging questions, engage in meaningful conversations and look at our past from a variety of perspectives. Students will also have the opportunity to develop important skills such as critical thinking, persuasive writing, primary and secondary source analysis, academic research and active citizenship.

Advanced Placement United States History

AP U.S. History is designed to steward students toward becoming reflective, concerned, and competent citizens. While the content and themes of the College Board framework serve as the foundation for the course, we place great emphasis on individual growth and the ability to recognize a personal connection to history. Beginning with the 17th century clash of cultures between Native Americans, European immigrants, and African slaves and continuing through present-day political, cultural, economic, and social issues, AP U.S. History examines American history through multiple perspectives. The extensive use of primary sources aids in this approach to history. Students hone their historical thinking skills including cause and effect, contextualization, synthesis, and change over time, while also practice the articulation of ideas in written and spoken formats through a variety of assignments. To augment students' analytical writing skills, the course includes multiple forms of assessments including quizzes, tests, role-playing exercises, debates, research assignments, essays, and the presentation of current events for class discussion. The College Board's document-based essay question is emphasized in order to prepare students for the national AP exam.


Honors GPAC 10: Global Studies

GPAC 10 is divided into four areas of study; Global Economics, Global Politics, Culture and Citizenship and Issues Without Borders. Global Economics addresses the continuing legacy of colonialism, analyzes the practices of global financial markets, and explores our conceptions of nations as “developed” versus “developing.” Global Politics introduces students to the frameworks of global governance institutions such as the United Nations as well as theories of international relations such as realism, liberalism, and constructivism. Culture and Citizenship examines the clashes that occur within diverse communities, from diasporas of refugees fleeing political violence to immigrants bringing diverse practices and beliefs to different countries. Issues Without Borderslooks at global problems that cross political boundaries such as global health, population, urbanization, climate change, and food security.

Students tackle challenging texts across all four units. They research current events in different regions of the world, engage in a debate on genocide in Rwanda, build an advertising and awareness campaign around a global issue of their choice, and write a substantial research paper as well. Sample texts include Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights; June Johnston, ed. Global Issues, Local Arguments (Pearson); Samantha Power, Bystanders to Genocide; selections from Thucydides, Thomas Hobbes, J.S. Mill and Immanuel Kant, and multiple essays and articles from Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, The National Review, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and scholarly journals in the field.

Honors GPAC 11: Research

In GPAC 11, students spend the semester identifying an area of interest within global studies and creating a problem-driven research project. After an intensive introduction to research methods and writing, students spend the bulk of the fall semester putting together a detailed outline of their global issue and the results of their research. At that point, students may choose either to write a substantial research paper or take their research “off the page” and create a podcast, TED style talk, web page, or other representation designed to raise awareness of their chosen issue.


A number of year- and semester-long elective courses are offered to 11th and 12th grade students. Elective offerings may vary from year to year, but the following represents a sample of the courses likely to be available.

Advanced Humanities Seminar: Critiquing American Icons

What were the iconic images of the 1950s and 60s? What myths do we associate with these icons? How did these images circulate among the US public? In what ways did citizens challenge, uphold and reshape iconography of the time? In this interdisciplinary course, students will approach these questions by examining a range of cultural and historical texts to understand how Americans have interrogated and critiqued some of the country’s most popular icons and ideas. In particular, we will investigate the way these interrogations coalesced in the new social movements of the 1960s—the “countercultures” of that decade: student activism, the classical civil rights movement, women’s liberation, gay rights, the anti-war movement, and others. 

Advanced Placement Comparative Government

This course is designed to introduce the fundamental concepts and skills utilized by political scientists as they study political intuitions, processes, and outcomes. It examines the diversity of political life and discusses political and economic changes in China, Britain, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria and Russia. Students engage in careful comparison of political systems and gain knowledge about the institutions and policies countries have used to address problems in the 20th and 21st centuries. Students also develop critical thinking and public speaking by analyzing a variety of texts, taking multiple-choice tests, and engaging in debates and current events discussions. They further refine their analytical and writing skills when answering short-answer and conceptual-analysis questions. Examples of questions addressed during practice tests include: What is a function of the head of state in a parliamentary system? Why are some countries stable democracies and not others? Why do many democracies have prime ministers instead of presidents? What is political legitimacy? To meet the objectives of the College Board, we will focus on the following topics of analysis in each country case study: 1) Introduction to Comparative Politics; 2) Sovereignty, Authority, and Power; 3) Political Institutions; 4) Citizens, Society, and the State; 4) Political and Economic Change; and 5) Public Policy.

Advanced Placement Microeconomics

For students who are prepared for the rigors of a college-level course, this class is a survey in the introductory topics of microeconomic analysis. Students will explore the behavior of firms, households, and governments as they interact to create a modern economy. Topics covered include cost-benefit analysis, marginal analysis, market organization, the theory of the firm, consumer choice, market failures, and input markets. An important goal of the course is to develop the basic skills used in economic decision-making. Students will be assessed weekly in quizzes that mirror the format of the Advanced Placement Microeconomics exam.

Advanced Placement Macroeconomics

What role did the macroeconomy play in the 2016 election? What are the consequences of increasing or decreasing taxation rates? How does one create a diversified financial portfolio? How has our world changed from the Industrial to Digital Revolutions? These are but a few of the relevant questions that we will explore during AP Macroeconomics. Students who enroll in this college-level experience will learn theoretical macroeconomics, analyze historical economic developments, and integrate within this framework an understanding of real world personal financial skill. One of the most relevant and practical courses a student can take in high school, this course seeks to equip students with an understanding of core economic principles and real world financial skills, and to synthesize major themes from several Upper School history courses.

Advanced Placement US Government & Politics

This course helps students develop an in-depth understanding of government and politics in the United States. Students hone critical thinking and writing by examining readings from political scientists and taking practice tests on multiple-choice and short-answer questions. They also sharpen public speaking and presentation skills by participating in debates and current events discussions. In investigating the framework and institutions of American government, students assess both theory and reality, contrasting how institutions and the political process actually work with how they are supposed to work. Students completing this class will be able to: analyze relevant theories and concepts; interpret data presented in charts, tables and other formats; describe the development of individual rights and liberties; discuss the organization and activities of major political institutions; and explain patterns of political processes and behavior. We will focus on the following units of study to meet the objectives of the College Board: 1) Constitutional Underpinnings of the US Government; 2) Civil Liberties and Civil Rights; 3) Three Branches of Government and the Federal Bureaucracy; 4) Public Opinion, Political Parties, Interest Groups and Voting; and 5) Public Policy.

Honors Art History

Ancient drawings, deep in caves, startle us with their beauty and sophistication. Deeply human instincts to create and to communicate with symbols are alive in us today. The history of art is the history of expressive responses to great mysteries and great events. By studying art history, students learn to observe mindfully, to see relationships between works from different places and times and to express their thoughts coherently in speech and writing. This course examines art in many forms, with an emphasis on painting, sculpture and architecture in the Western tradition, traced from the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin to Western Europe and America. The journey covers 30,000 years and thousands of miles, yet we recognize the motivations and gestures of earlier artists appearing in the most recent contemporary expressions. In various works, and even in the same work, art may function as an aesthetic expression, a reference to an earlier tradition, a reinforcement of power and a social commentary. Symbols are usually layered and complex. Consideration of artworks takes place through daily examination and discussion of slide images, weekly readings in our text, periodic museum visits and hands-on studio experiences. Assessment takes the form of weekly quizzes, short essays at home and in class and occasional, cumulative tests. This course is not specifically an A.P. course but, with extra preparation, students may elect to take the A.P. Art History Exam. This full-year course is open to seniors (and to juniors with permission of the Art Department). This course can satisfy either a History requirement or an Art requirement.

Contemporary Conflicts in Middle East

This course explores the relationship between narrative, representation, history, and conflict in the Greater Middle East. By considering and engaging with the stories that people in conflict situations tell about themselves and others, we can go beyond the binary, and broaden our understanding of the history, conflicts, and profound complexity of the region since the emergence of Islam. The course begins with a survey of Islam and Islamic history through its golden age, before moving to examine the serious ramifications of the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution following World War 1. Afterward, the course will shift to consider several political conflicts, and the multitude of ways those conflicts are narrated and represented; these conflicts potentially include: the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, or the Rise of ISIS. To those ends, assessments may include quizzes, discussions and presentations, and both analytical and creative writing assignments, including book and film reflections. The class culminates with students researching and constructing a Multi-Perspective Narrative Account that thoughtfully explores a political conflict event in the Middle East. Students should emerge from the course with greater awareness of the history and prominent political conflicts in the region, as well as with greater appreciation for the representation of narrative and its political implications in conflict zones.

Economics, Business and Finance

This one-semester course introduces students to key microeconomic and macroeconomic concepts, basic business principles, and the workings of financial markets and institutions. We start by examining markets for goods and services and consumer behavior, and then focus on how businesses make decisions in different market structures. We also look at how Government interventions affect both consumers and businesses. We then broaden our view to the whole economy, focusing on understanding the causes of business cycles and the behavior of macroeconomic aggregates such as GDP, inflation, and unemployment. We analyze financial markets and institutions to understand interest rates and we examine various financial instruments (including stocks, bonds, and derivatives), the role of the Federal Reserve, and fiscal and monetary policy. To understand the global economy, we study patterns of trade, protectionist policies, exchange rates, and flows of money across countries. While analytical thinking is important in Economics, this class focuses less on mathematical problem-solving and more on discussion of current events and policy issues.

Entrepreneurship and Innovation

The Potomac Entrepreneurship and Innovation course is a hybrid, inquiry-based class that incorporates online, face-to-face, and experiential learning, students will collaborate with teachers and peers to identify the key skills of a successful entrepreneur, learn from actual entrepreneurs who are developing their own ventures, research commonalities among successful ventures and innovations, and assess their own skills and talents as potential entrepreneurs. Students will also be exposed to fundamentals of design thinking, project management, financial modeling, prototyping, and marketing. Along the way, students will document their work in a frequently-updated blog, present their research in a variety of online and face-to-face contexts, and develop their writing skills as they conduct interviews, develop pitches, generate business plans, and produce business case analyses. Ultimately, in conjunction with the expectations of the Senior Project, students will model Potomac’s core values of courage, humility, integrity, perseverance, and respect to identify a need in their local or global community and discover, design, and execute an entrepreneurial project or innovation to meet that need.

Exploring World Religions

Exploring World Religions is a semester survey of five major world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We will start by exploring the topic of religion generally, as a central human activity—something that human beings have been doing for a very long time—before delving into the specifics of these five traditions. Religious beliefs have powerfully shaped history, politics, art, and literature throughout the ages and continue to do so today. Our focus will be on these five traditions as they have evolved over time, including some attention to how they are practiced today and how they have affected international relations as well as public policy debates here in the USA. Assessments may include essays, short journal responses, quizzes/tests, group and individual class presentations, and a mini-research project.

Twentieth-Century Music History

Twentieth-century Music History chronicles the progression of musical style from Debussy’s rejection of classical procedures to the polystylism of Corigliano, Schnittke and Zappa. Representative composers and pieces will be introduced through class discussion, score examination, directed listening and the viewing of video performances. Principal topics include Impressionism, Primitivism, Futurism, Expressionism and Atonality, Neo-Classicism, Neo-Romanticism, New Objectivity, Serialism, popular music (jazz, rock, fusion, Broadway, film music), electronic- and computer-generated music, Aleatorism, Minimalism, Post-Modernism and the New Simplicity. Students will note the changing attitudes to sound, harmony, melody, rhythm, form and texture while gaining a broader understanding of music’s role in contemporary society. Assessments include chapter quizzes and a final research paper on a prominent twentieth-century composer.

US Foreign Policy

This course will provide a focused exploration into the dynamics of and complexities surrounding American foreign policy in the 21st century. The primary goal is for students to better understand what foreign policy is (and isn't), who the major actors are domestically and abroad, what influences policy, and what effects U.S. policy has globally. Careful attention will be paid to analyzing strategic decision making processes, grounded in the historical context of U.S. foreign policy (particularly post-WWII), as well as elucidating the modern challenges presented by contemporary media and political environments. Students will demonstrate understanding through formal analytical writing, debate, creative expressive projects, and the semester culminates with a two-week long foreign policy simulation.

Violence and Nonviolence

Violence and Nonviolence explores the phenomenon of violence in contemporary society and possible responses. The later stages of the course will focus on the nonviolent principles and strategies of Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the life and thought of Malcolm X. As much as possible we will deal with the actual words of these historical figures and our reactions to them. Several questions will frame our inquiry: How do we define violence? nonviolence? justice? war? peace? How can we account for the origins of violence in human behavior? Is all violence wrong? Is it possible or even desirable to rid ourselves of all violent behavior and violent tendencies? Why have some famous (& not so famous) people chosen a nonviolent lifestyle or nonviolent tactics to achieve their goals? Assessments may include short papers, journal responses, quizzes/tests, leading group discussions, and a brief research project/biography.

Why Are Poor Countries Poor?

This course introduces students to the problems and opportunities that today’s poor countries face in their quest to improve standards of living. After studying several theories of economic growth and development, we discuss poverty and inequality, saving and financial markets, population growth and rural-urban migration, health care and education, agriculture, international trade, foreign borrowing, and foreign aid. We examine historical and geographical factors that may help us understand poverty and we learn about the recent research on the role of institutions in development. We also look at hands-on, small-scale programs (including microcredit and microinsurance) and the extent to which insights gained from village-level randomized controlled trials may be scaled up to help address poverty at the national level. Throughout the course we combine study of theories with analysis of case studies drawn from the experience of Asian, Latin American, and African economies.