Thematic US History: Part III – Build the Context

“I want to learn more about the experience of Native Americans and how Manifest Destiny and the Removal Act affected them?”

“I wonder what smaller, less studied events happened that led to major events ie the Civil War”

“How is Manifest Destiny a reflection of human desire?”

“Why did Washington’s vision of an undivided nation die so quickly?”

“Why are/were there only two powerful parties?”

“What effect did Reconstruction have on the civil rights movement?”

“I wonder how American art and literature changed from the Civil War era to the Industrialized era?”

“I wonder about the pursuit of equality (gender, race, etc) over time.”

“I wonder what was happening here in Baltimore during the Gilded Age.”

These are some of the responses from my students when I asked them what they wanted to learn more about now that we are halfway through our chronological overview of US history.

Although we are teaching a thematic US history course this year, we decided to begin with a chronological overview. We chose to use Paul Boyer’s American History: A Very Short Introduction for the first unit of the course. In nine classes, we will have taken the kids from the colonial era to present day. The book is small, with nine chapters that are fifteen pages long each. We are having the students identify key themes and events from each chapter, and we are crafting a timeline that will anchor the rest of the course.

Students have recognized the significance of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Spanish-American War, both of which they feel have been absent from their previous courses in American History. They are beginning to identify topics they want to investigate further when we dive more deeply into our themes. But they are also able to see the change and continuity over time. In four more class periods we will be chronologically at the present.

Then, we will begin our first theme – American Immigration. Students are identifying times, episodes and laws they want to investigate when we get there in about a week and a half.

While I am committed to inquiry and to thematic teaching, I think the time we are taking to build a basic chronology will make thematic teaching and learning even more powerful.


5 thoughts on “Thematic US History: Part III – Build the Context

    • Thanks for your comment, David. In my five years here as department chair we have redone our tenth grade and now eleventh grade courses. We field tested one thematic unit last year on immigration and it went well. We also have students doing research papers. Having them see the full sweep of the chronology first will enable them to have a broader idea of what they might want to choose for a topic. I really like the Boyer book. He incorporates so much in a clear narrative. There are things missing, but he touches on a lot of themes and many events to go with them. We are forever reviewing curriculum. Let me know if you want to talk sometime.

  1. I now know how the readers who followed Dickens and Sherlock Holmes felt – I can’t wait for the next installment!
    I believe you hit upon the key point that has always troubled me when I get into a conversation about thematic teaching. Students don’t seem to have a framework around which to wrap these themes. By investing the time up front to provide that chronology, I think they will have something to anchor their deeper inquiry. I’ve already ordered my copy of Boyer’s book – it might be what I was looking for..!
    Have you thought about having them create some sort of timeline to capture these key points? I’m envisioning hanging these up on the wall to keep these points fresh in their minds and ordered in time. Just a thought. Can’t wait for Part IV..!

    • Wow. Thank you. I, too, worried about kids losing a chronology which helps with the key question of continuity and change. Boyer offered a solution. I think the work is masterful, and it is inexpensive. The kids are doing a good job with it, and I think they really appreciate what he is able to do. Great minds think alike! We have a giant timeline running around the room. Much of our work with Boyer has been to select which events we want to put on the timeline. It will stay up for the year, and we will add to it, I am sure. I appreciate you taking the time to read, comment, and help push my thinking. It is what I hope for when I blog.

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