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.