Thematic US History: Notes to Self

With just about five weeks left of classes, a sense of panic started setting in. How would I be able to provide the students time to complete the Urbanization project they started, and still finish the chronological overview of the economic development of the US taking into account social class along the way. I am in the Gilded Age, where I hoped to stay for a few days, but then I realized that might mean condensing the Great Depression and the New Deal more than I would like. And forget talking about the Reagan Revolution. Yikes!

While five weeks may seem like a long time, with our block schedule, the class meetings are limited. There is not enough time. I know it. So – what to do about it.

One of the main reasons we switched to a thematic approach was to avoid the pressures of coverage that inevitably occur in a chronological approach. We make no promises about covering everything; in fact, it is clear to our students that we are selective in our approach. The point is not to have students hear or read as much as possible about US history. It is to help them understand important events and underlying issues in US society that have historical roots. We live in an extraordinarily complex era, and helping students to make sense of it matters deeply.

When I was in school, it was not important to see events from multiple perspectives. There was one narrative. This has never been the reality, except in a classroom. I never really learned the local perspective on events; I certainly never considered that people in other parts of the country lived a very different experience, except in broad brush terms. There is so much I never thought about.

So – the helpful reminders –

  • I can’t cover everything, and that’s actually by design.
  • I should focus on the aspects of history that students know less about, rather than only walking the same old ground.
  • Events and episodes that illustrate larger trends with a compelling story are worth making time for.
  • Students can take more history courses and read more history books. My job is not to teach them everything but to equip them with the tools they need to analyze, evaluate, think about history.
  • Equipping students with the knowledge they need to make sense of their world today needs to be a priority.
  • There are limits to rational human activity – nothing is gained by pushing the students too far. We all need time to think and process.
  • The end of the year may be more fruitful if I slow down, rather than give in to the urge to speed up. We are all tired.

The reality is that I can’t know for sure how effective my teaching is. I take student feedback, read about teaching and learning, talk with my colleagues, and give it my best. Education is really a work in progress, which makes sense since all of us, students and teachers, are works in progress.

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