Thematic History: Current issues – weaving rather than leaving.

It happened again. My newsfeed has coincided with my curriculum. I opened Facebook this afternoon to see a story from NPR today about a new book detailing how New Deal policies created segregation. In class today, we looked at the question of legacy of the New Deal. Tomorrow I’ll share the NPR podcast to take our discussion deeper. Earlier in our economic and social class unit, we read a review of “Evicted,” which just won the Pulitzer Prize. Students are reading a chapter from a book about housing segregation in Baltimore tonight for homework.

In our foreign policy unit this winter, we framed our learning around the debate about nationalism vs globalism. We were able to use history as a guide to help us understand current policies.

The immigration unit was timed to begin just after Thanksgiving, so we started by looking at immigration today, and the question of the wall. We could look at history for patterns with immigration policy and opinion.

With a chronological approach, jumping around to talk about current events feels like leaving the curriculum. With themes, it is much easier to weave the threads together.

I have joked that my final exam will be a single prompt – “It’s complicated. Discuss.” If I did, I think my students would knock it out of the park.


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.

Thematic US History – Syllabi and Materials

From the number of Google searches bringing people to my blog and the number of people who have reached out to me, it seemed the right time to gather some of my materials and put them into a folder to share. There is a lot of interest in shifting from a chronological to a thematic approach in US history. There are certainly many ways to do this (which is a large part of the appeal), and I would love to engage in dialogue about other ideas people making this shift might have. The beauty of a thematic approach is that it is flexible; no two years need be alike. In fact, I find that there is some variation with the different teachers, and even with different sections taught by the same teacher, even though we all follow the same course outline.

Here is the link to my folder – Thematic US History. Please be in touch with any questions or comments.

Thematic US History: Year 3 – DPLA as Research Playground

In the fall, we will embark on our third year of doing US history thematically. One of the main drivers for us to adopt this approach is the amount of time we spend having the students do a research paper on a topic of their choice. We have moved this project to the beginning of the year, just after our introductory overview unit.

As we have the past two years, we will spend the first few weeks of the course making our way through American History: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Boyer. The reading of that book is accompanied by discussions about which trends and events are significant in each period of time. We have constructed a timeline in the classroom based on those conversations. This year, I am hoping to frame the conversation around what my students think every American ought to know (that’s another post I need to write). As we read those chapters and discuss some events, students will be getting ideas about what they might be interested in researching for their paper.

Once students select their topics for the research paper, inevitably I fight students to get them beyond Googling their topic and reading the websites that surface on the first page. Some simply refuse to do anything else, and their work generally ends up being superficial and descriptive. This year, I am taking a different approach. I plan on constructing a series of lessons in the introductory unit that get students to work with and explore a variety of resources available to them so that they at least see the possibilities. I also want them to have a variety of experiences; I hope that each student experiences serious frustration at some point but also moments of discovery and insight.

One lesson will be centered around the Digital Public Library of America. DPLA is an enormous and eclectic database, with arms that reach into a wide number of collections across the US. It is the perfect playground for research. I will have students choose an event from US history to research in the DPLA. They will sift, refine, and then curate resources. I hope that they get taken down unexpected paths with resources they never imagined existed. In the end, I don’t care where they arrive. Some will no doubt stay focused and curate a group of resources that they could use to research their topic. Others will get sucked into one resource and spend their time reading it, or trying to find out more about it. Others will jump around, not really focusing on any one thing and feeling a sense of panic or inadequacy as time in class winds down. All of those experiences are legitimate research experiences. No matter how they spend their time, they will all end with a reflection on their own process, conveyed to me either in written or oral form. Here is the assignment.

The only way to really learn how to do research well is by doing it yourself and by doing it a lot. The greatest gift I can give my students is the keys to the digital car, enough time to drive around, and then listen to them as they tell me about their journeys.

Thematic US History Year 2: The Class Before Spring Break

imageimageimageimageimageThe class on the last day before Spring Break is a planning challenge. A test keeps students working until the end. Videos mean a teacher does not have to try to engage students who are so ready to begin break they cannot focus; they can be left alone and ignored. Games can be fun but seem to give students a reason to take the activity less seriously. Today, I decided to have my US history classes, in the midst of a unit on Economics and Social Class, investigate the following questions: Are we in a new Gilded Age? If so, should we be worried about it?

At first glance and after a quick Google search, those questions appear simple: yes, and yes. Done. But I told my students that they needed to understand the economic dynamics more deeply and know the implications for social class. I have two US history sections, so we are doing a “Tag – you’re it” model. My first class began the inquiry and posted their notes and printed diagrams/charts around the room. My next section will come in, read the notes, look at and digest the data, and then see how they can go further to expand and deepen the inquiry. I will save the notes over the break. Then, each section will have one more class to contribute to the notes. Finally, I will have them write their answers to my original questions.image

I told the students that I didn’t want them buried in their devices silently doing research. It was to be an interactive class where students would find information, ask questions, discuss, and write notes for others to see. At first, they were a little skeptical that I was asking them to put forth such an effort on the Friday that break is starting. But once we got started, it worked really well. There were informal conversations about income, wealth, how people spend their money, cost of college, and economic trends. My boards are full of notes and charts. Students got up, sat down, moved in and out of conversations, wrote notes and posted data. The atmosphere was relaxed, and students were thoughtful. The second class engaged with the notes from the first, added questions and information. They became engaged with the question of minimum wage, in particular, playing an online game where you have to live on minimum wage.

What sold this lesson plan on a day when students have a strong tendency to be tired and easily distracted was the relevance and important they saw in it. They hear the headlines and the sound bites, but they want to understand the issues. A thematic history class has opened up more opportunties like this. We are simultaenously learning about the economy of the late 19th century and today. Students are very interested in the way the economy works and doesn’t work, as well as how it has changed over time. They have learned US history before but not through this particular lens.

Thematic US History: End of Year Reflections

Having taught an inquiry-based, thematic US history course with quite a bit of student choice presented us with a challenge when it came to crafting a final exam. Since our senior electives do not generally have exams, this would be the last history exam our students would take before college. We did not have a mid year exam, with a research paper due instead. How do you create an exam that provides students an opportunity to show what they know when there is not a common body of knowledge they learned?

We knew it had to involve lots of choice and some broad questions. Our foreign policy unit was based largely on individual research, so each student had different expertise on that topic. They learned from one another but not to the degree that I felt comfortable basing mandatory questions on student presentations. The economics unit  was more  straightforward since we did mostly common work. We decided on a format that included a choice of statements for students to provide evidence to support/refute, a document analysis section, and an essay. Here is the Review Sheet .

Grading the exams was a little unsettling – not because the students did poorly but because they brought such different perspectives and examples to the same questions. I  actually wish they could have read what their classmates wrote. I was impressed by most and blown away by some. Many students used examples from their research papers and projects, as well as the course readings.

Feedback from students was positive in my course evaluations. Students learned research skills. They learned how to create their own paths of learning. They also learned some specific content about American History, including the role of government in the economy throughout the twentieth century.

When I debriefed with my classes on the last day they confirmed what I suspected – they liked the freedom to learn what they wanted part of the time, but they also liked having a body of shared work to analyze, discuss, debate. It is a balance. This year I think we leaned too heavily to the side of student choice a bit. Next year, we may swing back to more common topics.

What I did not feel, for the first time ever in teaching US history, was the press to get further in the curriculum. Present had mingled with past all year long, and we knew from the beginning that some of our favorite topics might get passed over. I do believe that we had more important, relevant and meaningful discussions this year. I can’t imagine going back to a straight chronological US history course.

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.