Thematic US History: The Socioeconomic Lens

This is the time of year when a team meeting produces a sense of urgency and panic – we will never get where we want to in the curriculum with so little time left. Yet, in our US history team meeting, there was more of a sense of sadness than panic. There is so much more we want to do, but we feel like we will end in a good place. To me, this is the evidence that thematic teaching has freed us from the content trap, where we never get far enough chronologically, and we end the year in the sprint of superficiality to say we covered the material and provided exposure.

We are in the middle of the unit on Economics and Social Class, and although we are having the students learn the economic developments in chronological manner, it feels like a fresh view on what many students think is the “same thing we have been learning since elementary school.” By focusing on economics, we have been able to take the time to discuss the relevance of the history to today. When we looked at the Gilded Age, we spent half of each class looking at contemporary wealth gap and industrial issues and the other half studying the late 19th century. One of my classes discussed whether minimum wage should be raised, and so I had them do the online game Spent on http.playspent.org. The other class got to talking about the 1%, so we looked at the Giving Pledge spearheaded by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. This approach made differentiation natural and easy.

In assessing the students’ understanding in this unit, I am having them do a series of writing assignments. After reading about the actions taken by the government during the Progressive Era, I had students write about what they thought the role of the government should be in regulating business and the economy using the context of the Gilded Age/Progressive Era. Now we are studying the Great Depression and the New Deal. I will then have the students respond to the same prompt but this time add actions taken under FDR in the thirties. Next, we will look at the post-World War II economic boom and then the decline of manufacturing and shift to a service economy in more recent times. The plan is for the students to respond again to the same prompt, with the whole of US history to draw upon.

What students are seeing is that the economy is connected to so many things. We find ourselves drawn into politics and foreign policy as well as the social issues, including Civil Rights. While I plan to do course evaluations next week, I will not know the overall verdict until the end of the year. What I do know is that students are talking to me more about issues, and more students are participating in class discussions. Some have even come up to tell me how much they are enjoying learning US history this way.

What if…

What if students chose problems – real world or philosophical to work on instead of courses?

What if each student assembled the team of teachers best suited to help him or her tackle the problem?

What if teachers spent their days meeting with and guiding students and planning was based on student need and not a set curriculum?

What if kids saw school as a lab in which to work on problems and issues that have relevance in the world rather than as something to endure along the way to the “real world”?

What if school connected to the real world rather than tried to imitate the real world as a way to prepare students?

Collaboration 2.0: Adding Student Voice

Our Modern World History and US History courses are taught by collaborative teams. Four years ago we shifted from an autonomous teaching model where everyone did his or her own thing based on common content centered around a textbook to a team approach where everyone worked together to craft the curriculum. Team meetings became important planning times. We even shifted to a single Moodle page for all teachers as a way to streamline things. We shared ideas and resources but more importantly we crafted common plans we all agreed to implement. The goal was to provide students in the same course with the same experience. Every student would have the same background and skill work entering the next grade, no matter the teacher. As department chair, I spent a fair amount of energy getting and keeping everyone on the same page, despite the fact that everyone was committed to it. In many ways, it was collaboration at its best – working together with everyone’s ideas to craft a single product, the curriculum. Google Drive has helped us share and plan together anytime.

A funny thing is happening now that we are shifting to more modern content and a more thematic structure in both courses. We are moving past collaboration to a situation where we are more responsive to the students in the classroom. For example, in US history, we are in the Economics and Social Class unit. All four teachers are using the same set of readings from one of our e-books. We are all proceeding in the same direction. But each class is taking a slightly different path. Even my two sections have looked at a few different issues because I was responding to the interests of the class, based on the current events articles they chose to discuss. Both of my classes watched a video on the Homestead Strike, but in the portion of the class that focused on current issues, one class did an online game seeing if they could survive on minimum wage while the other explored the work of Warren Buffett and the Gates to create a club of billionaires committed to giving at least half of their wealth to charity. At our last team meeting, we spent a little time just catching up to see where everyone was and share what had been going on in our classrooms. It turns out we are still heading in the same direction, but on different paths that do cross quite often.

As we have committed to more student voice and choice in our classes, we are recalibrating the balance. We still have Google Drive to share our activities, ideas, lessons, assessments. We still meet once a week to talk about what we are doing and what we need to do, especially in terms of skill building and assessment. We informally meet in our classrooms, offices and at lunch sharing the anecdotal version of our classes and bouncing ideas off of one another. But we are trying to listen to our students, to follow their interests in wading through the vast content they could be learning. By tying their interests to essential questions and context, we are helping students construct their understanding of history, rather than memorizing our understanding. We are moving from a situation where the goal was for every student to have a common experience toward a situation where the goal is for every student to have a meaningful experience.

This move to a less collaborative curriculum is not a swing back to the earlier, more autonomous classroom.  We are including our students in the choices we make on a daily basis, along with our colleagues, and our own experience. The end result should be a broader and richer collaborative network.

Thematic US History: wrapping up foreign policy

After two months of the foreign policy unit, we wrapped up the unit with a class roundtable discussion about foreign policy. The idea was to revisit the essential questions we had identified at the beginning of the unit and try to address them with the knowledge and understanding students had gained in the course of the unit. The challenge was in coming to closure when during the last half of the unit, students had been working on individual or small group projects. One reason the unit took so long was the extent of the projects students presented at the end in order to teach one another. Many students used at least half of a seventy minute class period to do their presentations and answer the questions that followed.

The roundtable discussions went very differently in my two classes. One class had really embraced the question and answer period at the end of each project developing many great conversations during the presentation phase. The other class tended to be more passive while viewing presentations, asking a few questions but rarely pushing the conversation forward. My expectations for the first class that had been so obviously engaged in the presentations were high. I imagined we would have this great wrap-up conversation pulling all of the threads together and really debating US foreign policy. For the other class, I was hopeful but unsure. I was concerned that after just a few minutes we would all be staring at one another.

Both classes defied my expectations. The first class got hung up on discussing the CIA, to the point that it became unfruitful. While it was an interesting concept, there is only so far to go with the thread of the CIA acting as a terrorist or rogue organization. We quickly hit the limits of what we know with students branching into speculation. Some members of the class became frustrated at this narrow focus. I tried a few times to turn the conversation in a different direction, but I was also trying to let the students control the conversation. It was their roundtable. In the end, it was just too narrow a conversation to be satisfactory. One student came to talk to me about his concerns and we agreed to continue the conversation next class, with a broader focus and the express purpose of talking about things other than the CIA. That second class discussion was more directed by me, but it was more balanced. In the end, I guess it all worked – the students got to direct a conversation, and I got them to consider many of the aspects of foreign policy. Ideally that would have happened in one class, but at least it happened.

The other class took a more balanced, broad approach from the beginning, and despite the fact that it was the last period of the day, had a really good conversation. I acted as scribe, as I have come to do more often, and the students did the vast majority of the talking. They talked about the effectiveness of containment as a policy.  Students also analyzed current events – Syria and Ukraine through their understanding of US actions in the past and current national interests. We ended up discussing what they believe the US role in the world should be. Interestingly enough, that is where we began the unit – with the documentary The World Without US. 

Now, those foreign policy considerations are resurfacing in the Economics and Social Class unit we have begun. The students are also bringing back their work on immigration from an earlier unit. With the thematic approach, I am finding we can be a little more eclectic within the theme, but that each theme is adding another layer to the student understanding.