Thematic US History: Part IV – The Trenches?

I was so excited to launch into the first thematic unit of the year – American Immigration. I started with the essential question that will be the final question my students answer at the end of the unit. “What does the history of migration to the US tell us about the issue of immigration today?” The first step was to list the sub-questions we would need to answer in order to be able to tackle the big question. Then my students set out to begin to research the answers to the questions. One class immediately put the questions on an editable Google Doc. The other class decided to organize the sub-questions into four themes to research. So far, so good. Homework was to read one of two pair of chapters from their American Immigration book. The unit plan calls for the fifth class to be an EdCafe where students can organize discussion around the topics/questions of their own choosing. Then, in the sixth and final class of the unit, the students will write an in-class essay answering the essential question.

Today was the second day of the unit for both of my classes. It was also a Monday. I had a vision of students coming into class, breaking into groups based on what they read, discussing the main ideas from the homework reading as they related to the main question, making notes to share with the rest of the class, and then figuring out what they still needed to research. The reality did not live up to my vision. Several of the students were not prepared for class; groups had to be prodded to talk about the historical events rather than be satisfied with vague generalizations to the effect that people do not and have never liked change. Towards the end of class, I told them that I was really disappointed with the level of work in the room. After that, they did hunker down and focus more, but we are left with a lot of work to do next class. For my second section, I had the plan be more fluid with students discussing the homework reading or doing more research, as they saw fit. The key was simply to work on researching their themes about immigration. It went better.

I told both classes that they need to be prepared to discuss what they have learned about immigration next class, which is in two days. They will be divided into small groups at first, then we will come together for whole class discussion. After debriefing, we will formulate a plan for next steps based on what they still need to do in order to answer the main question well. I had in my mind that this process of inquiry-based learning would be intuitive, but it is not for all of them. I want them to come together as a learning community, realizing how much they can do and learn when they work together. I hope they will wrestle with ideas and challenge each other respectfully, bringing out the best in each other. I am confident that we will get much closer to that ideal than we are now. It is hard to break myself of the habit of looking for success and failure on a lesson by lesson basis. I will not know if this unit works until it is over. Struggle is part of learning, but it can be very frustrating to watch.

I started this post with the analogy of the trenches, meaning that we are now in the thick of thematic teaching, with no turning back. Beyond that, I hope that the trenches reference falls flat; trench warfare brought a lot of suffering and resulted in stalemate.

When I started the journey of documenting my shift to thematic teaching of US history, I promised myself I would not document only the great days when everything comes together but also the challenging ones like today.


4 thoughts on “Thematic US History: Part IV – The Trenches?

  1. Molly, this may have been your most useful post as a teaching tool yet. You are a true teacher of teachers as well as students. You do such a spectacular job holding up a mirror to your room, making it easy for me to recognize in your description various challenges I’ve encountered in my own classes. I love the way you shifted gears for your second group, and I love how you found a way, in both cases, to refocus your students for the days ahead. Your narrative brought to mind a couple things I have been wrestling with as I strive for more inquiry-driven plans. First, do you think any inquiry project is undermined at the start if we, the teachers, provide the “Essential Question” for the unit? If that question is not one that students initiate or that arises organically from discussion, why should we expect students to be motivated to prepare and probe? On the other hand, my experience shows students don’t always know what makes a productive question, making it hard to put that responsibility in their hands. The resistance you observed in your first group, slow out of the gate, also made me wonder about scaffolding, how much initial explanation and support students need before they feel ready and confident to push further on their own with any investigation or analysis. I find myself constantly trying to find that balance. I recall a discussion earlier this year with my students about textbook reading, and I was surprised to hear my students say they found textbook reading easier after they knew something about the topic. I always considered textbook reading as a reasonable, if not especially imaginative, place for students to start learning new material, a jumping off place for discussion. What they were telling me is they don’t necessarily feel confident in their ability to process that information independently, and so don’t necessarily have much to say or ask about it. You are surely familiar with this delicate dance–when to step in, when to step back–as you have written about it often. Still, I often imagine you dancing gracefully in your classroom space. What a gift to read this post today, when I found myself stumbling a bit, all “two left feet.” Thank you.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment, Lisa. You have gotten me thinking. In terms of providing the question, I think that they key is to have one that has some relevance to their lives and their world today. I could imagine a student generated question that not all students would buy into anyway. I let them create the sub-questions and choose which one of those to begin with. Today, one student asked why they were taking the time to share with each other – she thought it would be more efficient for everyone to just research everything on their own. I explained the point of the small group discussions – to allow students to process, test ideas, share information and cement their own understandings. She seemed to be okay with it, and the good conversations that occurred made a difference. We ended class by asking what they still needed to know, and they will focus the next class – the final research class of the unit – on what they still need to know to answer the essential question. Today was better. I think they just need some time and some pushing to get some traction. Then they start to know what it feels like to know information and be able to posit ideas they can support. I will write about the end of the unit, after the EdCafe and the in-class essay next week.

      • Thanks for your thoughtful observations, and I agree with John Padula: “don’t stop.” I could not agree more with you about the “key” being “questions relevant to their lives and world.” I wonder if that is one of the true advantages of your thematic structure, where history becomes a “usable past”–fodder for working on challenges in the present day, as is the case in your current project where students have been invited to reflect on past immigration policy, circumstances, experiences in relation to current policy, right? The default questions in a chronological course tend to cluster around “cause and effect”; while fascinating and complex in their own right, these questions encourage students to dig deeper into the past to find multiple explanations for a particular event, but do not necessarily lend to an obvious connection to the present. I look forward to learning from your class as it unfolds. In the meantime, any advice for formulating EQs in a chronological survey, ones that proved especially productive–and relevant–from your past classes?

  2. Molly: Had to respond to this amazing post! First, don’t stop – keep going!! I know you’re definitely on the right track with the inquiry approach and the way in which you are trying to draw out the learning from your students. I wanted to tie in something that Lisa Kapp said in her astute reply: she talked about finding the right balance. I wanted to use that image in a different context.

    You’re doing more than just inquiry-based learning – you’re trying to establish a paradigm shift. You are working toward putting the responsibility of learning in the hands of the students. Right now, they are used to (more or less) being told what to read, what to look for and what is expected in their responses. In effect, they are learning with the training wheels on. You have the audacity to ask them to learn with the training wheels off..! When that happens, there’s going to be falls, scrapes and fear. You’re probably headed there right now. They need to get their balance – they have been relying on those damn training wheels for too long.

    We’ve all been there (with real training wheels), so we know how scary/frustrating it can be.. but think of what it will be like for them – the control they’ll feel – when they get the hang of it…

    So, I say again: don’t stop – keep going!!

    If I could make one suggestion: try to take some pictures of the students at work every day. Take them, if you can, from the same places in the classroom. I bet you will see quite a change over the next few weeks.

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