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.


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