Thematic US History:New Year’s Resolution

Just before Winter Break we completed the third unit in our US history course, the research paper, so coming back from break has meant new year and new theme. We are starting to look at US foreign policy.

Faced with launching the unit during the first period Monday morning, I started thinking about it over last weekend. I knew that I wanted to start by having the students generate questions they had, preferably essential questions, and events/episodes they wanted to learn more about. After that, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. After deciding I wanted to have them exposed to different views on foreign policy, I was overwhelmed thinking about it. The challenge of not doing a straight chronological approach is that it opens up everything as fair game. After spinning my wheels for a while, I put out the call on Twitter. In response I received several ideas and links, which enabled me to put together a collection of primary sources for the students. We examined statements from Truman, JFK, Reagan and Obama. Then I had the students rate them on the scale of 1-10, with 1 being isolationist and 10 being interventionist. This prompted a good, if brief, discussion about why they rated the statements the way they did. They began thinking about the US role in the world.

Next, I took another suggestion I got from my PLN – to show The World Without US, a documentary on Netflix which examines potential consequences of the US pulling back from military involvement in the world. The reading following that is an article titled “Operation Diplomacy” arguing that we need to put more efforts into diplomacy with our involvement having become largely military. I am looking forward to that discussion next class!

So far, so good. The problem surfaced when the teaching team met to try to plan out the rest of the unit. We really struggled. After several false starts, we defaulted back to a chronological approach, beginning with the 19th century. Unable to plan quickly, we were prepared to forfeit the freedom a thematic approach affords. We were ready to end the meeting agreeing to contribute ideas to a Google Doc, assuming we would come up with some. The problem was an uneasiness and distinct lack of excitement on our part. We already envisioned kids zoning out, not doing homework, and engaging for the few parts they were interested in.

Just before the end of the meeting, a colleague threw an idea out that maybe some kids might want to opt out of the chronological overview and do independent research. Now, we were beginning to get somewhere. We talked later in the day to work through some possibilities. What we ended up with is a “Pick Your Path” approach.

There will be three options for students. They can join a chronological, structured overview that will be more teacher directed, although with some individual work required. Or, they can choose an episode and dive into it deeply. In that case, the teacher would be checking in, but the students would be directing their own learning and assigning their own work. The third option is to look at a few episodes comparatively, looking for patterns or contrast. They would be directing their own learning, but they would be able to work with a partner or in a group of three. In order to share their learning and ideas, I foresee a few EdCafe classes sprinkled in – maybe one on historical content and another on the big questions.

I will roll this out on Friday morning, and I have no idea how many kids will choose each option. I am hoping that choice will lead to greater engagement and stronger understanding. I do know that it did not feel genuine to ask students what questions they have and what they want to learn about and then ignore that  information or shoehorn it all into a single narrative.

What I am certain about is that opening the curriculum up challenges me to stay with it, honor the freedom, and deal with the discomfort. It is all too easy to put a new label on something without really changing it much at all. Under pressure, we can all default to what is familiar, even when we know it is not the best option.

A student asked if I had any New Year’s resolutions. At the time, I could not think of any. He said he just makes changes when he wants to. I think that is a pretty good approach. I do think that I have one, though. I resolve to try my best not to default back to methods I no longer believe to be effective, even when that means working through my discomfort and taking some risks.





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