Several years ago, I attended a session at the annual National Council for the Social Studies conference in Washington, D.C. in which a history department from a high school near Chicago discussed how they transitioned from a traditional chronological approach to the study of U.S. history to a thematic approach. Each theme connected history to a hot topic in current events.
Immediately intrigued, I thought, this could be the solution to a motivation problem I was having with my students, who constantly asked, "Why do we need to know this stuff?" The session presenters even shared their curriculum and resources with those of us in attendance and they even used the same textbook I did, Holt-McDougall's The Americans. Surely this was a sign that I should change my approach to teaching American history.
After the session, I found myself in the ladies' room, where I overhead some teachers lamenting that the thematic approach sounded good, but would probably not help their students to pass the state testing at the end of the year. "It's another sign," I thought. As a teacher at a private Catholic high school, I had some academic freedom to write my own curriculum and choose my own textbooks; my students were not required to take state assessments at the end of the year. The teachers I overheard may not be able to adopt a thematic approach, but I could!
The following school year, I partnered with a new teacher in our school, Mr. Matthew Loban, and together we planned a thematic approach to teaching American History, borrowing heavily from the resources shared in that first NCSS session I attended. Since then, we have made some adaptations for our school - for instance, we will teach some Catholic social teaching related to the themes that we teach - and for changes in current events. Our students have responded well to the thematic approach and now find the study of history to be more relevant to their every day lives.
The thematic approach boasts some distinct advantages over the traditional, chronological approach to the study of American history. In addition to making it easier to relate the events of the past to the issues our society still reckons with today, teaching thematically allows us to examine periods in history that we often failed to cover in a survey course. When we used the chronological approach, we never seemed to have time to get passed World War II at the latest. Humans never stop making history and so the course content was ever increasing, while the instructional time allocated to American history in the school day remained stagnant. Didn't our students need to know about contemporary history? Of course they did, but there never seemed to be enough days in the school year to cover contemporary history.
Teaching thematically also allowed us to concentrate more on teaching historical thinking skills, including researching and analyzing primary and secondary sources. Throughout their lives, new issues will arise, motivating our students to explore the historical patterns and factors that have brought society to a particular place and time. Our students will need historical reading and thinking skills to tackle these issues as they arrive in order form educated opinions and policy options.
The thematic approach also presents some challenges that the chronological approach does not. Because we study just one theme in each unit and how it has evolved over time, our students are not exposed to some of the cause-and-effect relationships between events and patterns in history that are evident when these events are studied in chronological order. One way that I try to overcome this challenge with my classes is a year-long timeline project. As we complete each thematic units, students add the most significant events to an interactive timeline they design themselves using Tiki-Toki.com, As we revisit the same time periods during other theme units, students can begin to see the relationships between events throughout history.
Another challenge of the thematic approach is that because the themes are covered in such depth, the breadth of historical topics is limited. There are many historical events that are not covered at all. But is this really any different than the chronological approach, in which whole periods of history are never reached? With the thematic approach, at least students are motivated to learn how history has impacted the issues they contend with in modern times and practice the skills needed to expand their study of history throughout their lives in the wake of new issues and problems.
After several years, I can say adopting a thematic approach in my American history classroom has motivated my students and prepared them for responsible citizenship in ways I never imagined. In our classes, we have explored a number of themes related to current issues by asking our students to consider the following essential questions:
- Should America welcome all who wish to come?
- When is it acceptable to rebel against your government?
- Should we ever attempt to restrain technology?
- Should the government help those who cannot help themselves?
- Should accommodations be made for groups that have been oppressed in the past?
- When is it morally acceptable to use force against another nation?
- What makes an event historically significant, rather than simply newsworthy?