Thematic US History – Part II – Some Nuts and Bolts

Yesterday, I gathered with my US history team for the second time this summer to work on our switch from a chronological to thematic course. We had decided on the structure of the year, so we set down to work on some of the nuts and bolts.

We agreed that we want much of the work to be inquiry-driven, so we need to leave quite a bit of the planning open-ended for now.

We started by talking about how we can create a living syllabus for our students, which will include assignments, class recaps, notes and links for each class period, to be updated daily – one stop shopping for students who miss class or need to review. We debated using Wikispaces or Google Docs and settled on Google since it it something we have been using already to some extent. We also decided we want students to create e-portfolios this year but tabled the precise planning for a future meeting.

We decided then to spend some time looking for readings and resources that we might use for each theme – immigration, manifest destiny/foreign policy, economics and social classes, balance of power – and collect them on shared Google Docs. While we want to honor the interests and questions of the students, we also want to be able to point them to some quality sources. There will be times for them to find their own sources, but we also want to expose them to readings, sources, and sites that we know are useful. What we quickly realized is that resources are nearly all built on the chronological approach. We found ourselves picking out chapters and articles from sources. We had to look at the resources with a different eye, seeing what themes they might fit.

All was going very well, until the Internet went down. The solution seemed simple – we retreated to the many print sources we had available to us, but since we were unable to update the Google Doc, we had to resort to making notes in the sources.

Then, we started to talk, just talk, without one eye on the screen or the page. One colleague had the idea of having the students track their answers to the debatable questions throughout the year and reflect on them at the end. We decided that we would have students write their thoughts on index cards each time we came to an appropriate question, such as deciding whether the gilded age businessmen should be considered captains of industry or robber barons. Then, at the end of the year, each student will get his or her stack of note cards back to read through and reflect on their own values as reflected in their ideas. It is possible that they may disagree in May with what they wrote in October. We decided to go low tech with this, as we cannot be sure that students will have access to computers when we want to do the reflections.

This led us to a discussion of grading – would we grade the reflections, if we did, what would we be looking for. In short order we were listing standards we wanted our students to achieve in the course. I wrote them on the blackboard and took pictures with my iPad. In the last half hour of the day, we had gotten to the core of our work. The objectives we generated will ground us in our plans, our assessments, and our feedback to students and parents. I am attaching the images below. Please know that these are just our first draft. Thoughts and suggestions are welcomed, of course.

In the end, we felt really good about where we were with the course. We have met during past summers to work on the course, but when it was chronological we spent a lot of time looking at the calendar, allotting days to topics and units, and hashing out what was essential for us to cover and what we could omit. In the end, these conversations were exhausting and dissatisfying. We left our meetings lamenting the lack of time. This year we spent our time thinking about what we want our students to be able to do and how we can help them get there. We have fewer plans, but we are more grounded. The content will be there. It was nice not having to decide whether we could afford to spend more than three classes on the Civil War and still get to the Sixties.

For now, the planning is done. I will continue to write updates on our experience with the thematic approach through the school year.

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