Thematic US History Year 2: Deep Relevance

Last week was challenging. The national spotlight shone on my city as frustration and anger boiled over in Baltimore. I teach in an independent school; my students had varying degrees of separation from the unrest and turmoil. We struggled as educators, parents, citizens to grapple with the complexity of what had engulfed our city. This post is not about the events in Baltimore. It is not about a community outreach response. It is about using curriculum to deepen understanding. It is about the long haul.

Our spring unit in U.S. History has been Economics and Social Class. We traced the development of the U.S. economy through history and examined the impact of economics on social class. We had explored the question of whether or not we are in a new Gilded Age. Students thought about what they believed the role of government should be in the economy as we studied the Progressive Era and the New Deal. In looking at more recent history, we saw the decline in manufacturing in the seventies and talked about supply-side economics. The wealth gap was something we had been tracking. An online game showed students just how difficult it would be to live on minimum wage.

I planned to finish up the unit by having my students examine inequality in Baltimore, which was the focus of a yearlong series done by our local public radio station a few years ago called The Lines Between Us.” Then, Baltimore exploded. Kids came to class asking to talk about the riots. Normally, I would have said absolutely (and I did with my Modern World class). Instead, I told them by looking at inequality in Baltimore and trying to learn about the root causes of it, they would be in a better position to see what had gone wrong in our city than any recounting of most recent events would provide. They trusted me.

We listened to a podcast about the wealth gap that looked at the dilemmas faced by people who purchased houses in Baltimore in the sixties that did not gain value; many of those houses are impossible to sell. People who bought homes in the suburbs at the same time for the same price accumulated wealth while urban homeowners did not. Neighborhoods mentioned in the podcast were ones students had just seen on the news. For homework I had each student choose a different podcast to listen to and share with the class. We heard about education, jobs, housing, incarceration, among other things. Those were the very issues being discussed as root causes. They were captivated by the relevance to their lives.

I am convinced that by teaching thematically, we are better preparing the students to understand an important events in their world. I cannot imagine going back to a chronological approach.