Thematic US History – Part I – Decisions, decisions…

Our US history team has set aside two days this summer to revamp our curriculum to move from a chronological approach to a thematic one. We had already chosen two books, American History: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Boyer and American Immigration: A Very Short Introduction by David Gerber. When we chose those books we had in mind beginning the course with a chronological overview for the first unit and Immigration for the second unit.

After a discussion of what we thought worked best last year, including student centered activities and more recent historical content, we set out to try to identify themes. It was a lengthy and important discussion. We considered Foreign Policy as a theme, broader than the topic of War, but then quickly realized that the Civil War would not fit with the other wars in that framework and that westward expansion was something we wanted to include. Using War as a theme also has its limitations. We settled on Manifest Destiny as our theme – first continental expansion, then abroad. Another challenge was whether to separate out something like slavery and segregation as a unit or integrate those pieces into all of other themes. There is a different message that comes from either choice. In the end, we decided that the story of African-Americans is so integral to all of the themes that we would weave it through, so that our students do not see it as a separate entity. We made the same decision about reform movements.

The conversation we had led us to the following conclusions, which I will state as tentative, since they are subject to further review and modification as we attempt to work through them in planning. After our introductory overview and Immigration unit, we will pause to have the students spend the second quarter doing their major research project for the year. They will submit the project at exam time, instead of a mid-term exam. Then, after winter break, we have three units left – Manifest Destiny (including expansion and foreign policy), Economics and Social Classes, and Balance of Power – State/Federal and Executive/Legislative/Judicial. I am not sure about the order of those units; we will tackle that when we meet again in August. The decision to place the research project early in the year had a lot to do with the lives of our juniors and the responsibilities of our faculty in the second semester. We also like the idea of creating expertise in our students early that they can share throughout the year.

Once we set the general terms for the course, we set about planning the first unit. While we are committed to thematic approach for the depth we can achieve, we also wanted to ground kids in the basic chronology, which we can then use all year. One goal of the first unit is to create a timeline in the classroom, which we can refer to and add to all year. We came up with a template approach to this first unit. The students will read a chapter from the Boyer book each night for homework. Then, in class, they will take turns in small groups leading discussion about what events to include on the timeline from that chapter. Other students will write their own understanding of the reading while the small group prepares to propose the events to include on the timeline. After discussion of the events and posting them onto the timeline, we may watch one of the ever-popular Crash Course videos on one of the topics of the day. We will encourage students to record questions they have from the reading and attempt to research the answers or learn from one another, along with asking us. We hope to develop good work habits and a sense of class community and student ownership in this first unit. We have made the conscious decision for the first few weeks to focus on a few things and try to do them well. Once we get into the thematic units, we will unleash our creative forces.

Even before we embark on this plan, we will begin to turn ownership of the learning over to the students. On the very first day of class, we will do an EdCafe style class about the summer reading, A Nation Rising by Kenneth C. Davis. We also plan to have students read and discuss an article on their brains and learning in the first few days of class.

While we have begun talking about the immigration unit, it is still in rough form. In that unit, we will be varying the lesson structure and working on some skills they will need for their research project. More on that unit and others later in the summer.

I am looking forward to teaching US history where I do not have to tell kids to trust me that eventually we will get to the history they are interested in. At the same time, I feel like this approach will really enable them to see historical roots of current issues as well as change and continuity over time. This is the first time I have been excited about teaching US history in years.


6 thoughts on “Thematic US History – Part I – Decisions, decisions…

  1. Could not be more excited to here how it all goes… I truly enjoyed teaching thematically for 4 years… could not do it any other way, now.

    • Thanks, Diana. Your work has inspired me. The possibilities are amazing. I am really looking forward to letting student questions and curiosity drive the learning more, without feeling guilty for “falling behind.” We have another day in August set aside to work as a team on the course. I am hoping we can develop a portfolio and standards for the course then. I appreciate your support. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  2. Curious to hear if you and your team do anything up front to help your students think about the nature of the discipline of history and the complicated process associated with constructing historical narratives/interpretations. Do you discuss the process of working and questioning sources, including the Boyer and Gerber texts? My team, including myself, generally do not. We just right into the content. I am trying to move away from that, just playing around with different approaches at this point.

    • Thanks for your comment, Joe. I think we build some of that into the previous two years of World History, but I think we could do more to talk about constructing narrative. We definitely look at selectivity of information and multiple perspectives, but probably more with primary than secondary sources. We do not use a textbook in our sophomore Modern World History, instead selecting readings from a wide variety of sources. I do think we can get carried away with content, as that is what the students draw our attention to. We do need to take care of content questions, but then tackle the issues you raise in your comment. I am really excited for the thematic approach this year because I think we will be able to do more analysis. We will be constructing a timeline based on the Boyle book, but we will be modifying it throughout the year.

  3. I feel like a dinosaur teaching a Western Civ course. So your school offers 9th and 10th graders World History I and II? I prefer that model and sequence to West Civ for a year and World for a year.

    • We do Great Civ in 9th grade and Modern World in 10th grade. It used to be Euro focused. There is still a lot of Euro but framed differently. Do Industrial Rev but also look at Japan & not just England. Do Am. & Fr. Revs. but also Haitian Revolution. Personally, I would love to do away with the survey courses and offer electives to our younger students the way we do with seniors. I have administrative support for that idea, but my department is not ready for it yet.

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