Thematic US History: Year 2 – Fabulous February Foreign Policy

imageI hate February. I always have. There is a malaise that lingers in the air. This year I decided to ask my US history classes, “How can we make February awesome in history class?” My two classes approached this question differently, and so they are on two different paths. In a thematic class, it doesn’t matter. Both classes are more engaged than they would have been otherwise, although there is not much common to what they have done, except the theme of the unit – Foreign Policy.

Each class came up with a list of things including bringing food to class and having a Monday Funny (a humrorous short video clip on a Monday to brighten the mood – a tactic used by a beloved science teacher). In terms of approach and content, one class, my D block, decided they wanted to look at the Cold War from three perspectives – American, Soviet, and Chinese. They self-selected into those groups. We generated a list of topics to look at, and they began researching those perspectives. That took two classes. Then we began the discussion. It has been interesting to see what they have been able to uncover. One early takeway was the difference in the way WWII impacted the reality and the thinking of the Soviet Union and the US. My role was to fill in gaps and to draw out the key points students were making for larger discussion.

The other class, B block, had trouble coming up with a common topic or approach. They asked me what D block had decided and then recoiled at the thought of debating the Cold War. They defaulted to letting me put forth some plans. So in B block, we spent a day on the wars of expansion in the 19th century. Students could choose to work on researching and creating a short five slide, one minute presentation on either the question of “Was the Mexican-American War justified? And what did Texas have to do with it?” or “Was US government policy toward Native Americans genocide, ethnic cleansing, or something else?” They self-selected their groups and got to work. Since they are creating Ignite-style presentations for their individual project in this unit, the short slide-show was good practice. After that, we spent the next two days working on a timeline of events leading up to WWII, placing the events on a spectrum based on whether they moved the world closer to war or closer to peace. This set of plans worked for this class, but I think the fact that I asked them what they wanted to do and showed willingess to accomodate them made a difference. They were my plans, but student approved.

We began this Foreign Policy unit by looking at the case study of US-Cuba relations, which was in the news at the time. Tracing that relationship from the late 19th century until today enabled us to examine a variety of different scenarios and all of the tools in the US Foreign Policy toolkit. We then spent a few days looking at the history of US use of economic sanctions. Students wrote about when they think that economic sanctions are a good idea. So, there was a common base with both classes before we diverged.

All of these choices were made possible by a thematic approach. I could use a topic in the news to examine US Foreign Policy historically. I could capitalize on student interest to allow them to design part of the unit. I could choose topics and activities of interest to the students. There are definitely gaps in coverage, but I think that there are always gaps in learning. Just because we cover does not mean anyone learns it.

I think the best part of this thematic approach is that when I ask my students how to make February awesome in history class next year, I will be able to honor their answers, too. Next year’s Foreign Policy unit may be quite different depending on current events and current students.

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