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.

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