I’ve been dreaming of thematically outlining U.S. history for some time. I have it down just about perfectly.

The theory is that by having each unit build on the previous units, students will have reinforced the basic timeline and major events, while better students can concentrate on the rest of the minutiae.

Politics will be taught as a mirror to economics — generally, the cause of wars and wars’ greatest lasting effect. Media history — including yellow journalism and that 1960 presidential debate — could fit before the unit on wars or afterward, depending on how much a teacher wants to stress the Spanish-American War.

Approaching history like this has a number of advantages, including from the “reinforce basic stuff” angle.

Moreover, it really impresses on students the longevity of some national issues.

Students only really consider slavery just before or during the Civil War, even though Monroe and even Fillmore patched up the Union in times of North v. South crisis on the slavery issue.

The way I remember my high school history classes, we first really learned about Jim Crow laws once a class hit the Civil Rights era, even though those laws had been on the books almost as long as the 13th Amendment.

By teaching this as a whole unit, students will understand rather than just hear that however likable Eisenhower was, he did very little on the civil rights question. Students should understand that racial issues didn’t just skip from Lincoln to Kennedy or, in Supreme Court decisions, from Plessy to Brown.

High-minded as that might seem, in the end my goal is to simply ensure that my students will not embarrass themselves during some Jay Walking — Conan Walking? — or one of those abominable surveys.

My students will forget Henry Clay and John Calhoun, but they will bloody sure remember when the Vietnam War was without feeble guessing.

For the moment, I teach government. However, as my goal is to teach AP U.S. History, this preparation will certainly come in handy.

I told my master teacher what I planned to do during Spring Break, and she was enthusiastically supportive.

Don’t forget to outline the next unit in government.

She’s more of a realist. I may be a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

Moral of the story? First things first, unless inspiration strikes.


  1. TeacherMom

    Hi,

    I am a career changer who is getting my secondary ed/social studies certification now. I was actually thinking about using this very same approach when I actually get in a classroom…until I started my field work and realized that standardized testing might put an end to this idea. How would you handle having to cover specific material for the standardized tests if you do the topical theme approach vs chronology? I guess if the state exams are at the end of the year, it would work. If not, then it might be a problem. Ditto for years where the first part of history is taught one year and the next year the kids pick up where they left off. For example, in NY, the kids take US history in 7th grade and cover up to reconstruction. Then in 8th grade, they pick up and cover until the current. They have a NYS test in May.

    I am curious if you have seen this done? I have yet to observe a teacher doing this but it makes so much more sense! Would you post your ideas for the different topical units?

  2. You are my new hero.

    I got unexpectedly assigned 11th grade US history last year, and I’ve been teaching it the way I’m supposed to: chronologically. (We do have a curriculum map and regular district tests to see if we’re following the curriculum map. The only time changing it has been allowed was when all the algebra teachers agreed that doing it that way didn’t work.) I tried to do a little reinsert of themes this year but it’s just not going well.

    The last two years have pretty much convinced me that most juniors aren’t going to get much out of US History taught like usual.

    Anyway, I guess I’m saying, if the inspiration strikes and you get to do it your way, I want to be along for the ride. If it goes well, maybe I can convince my principle to let me buck the curriculum map and try it myself.

  3. I have the rest of this week’s blogs typed out already, actually. It’s just a lot to read in one sitting, so I’ve broken it up.

    If I can figure out how to upload Word .doc files to WordPress, I’ll be sure to hit y’all up with the full schedule. I’ve even sorted them out by standard.

    TeacherMom: This is just an idea for me so far. Testing will muck it up, but only if there’s a progressive throughout-the-year kind of testing going on. If it’s all at the end, then you’re good as gold.

    In theory, California kids get early U.S. history in their 8th grade year and finish up “from Reconstruction to Martin Luther King, Jr.” their 11th grade year. Too bad they’ve forgotten it all by then.

    penelope: Let me know exactly what you need in a curriculum map and I’ll be happy to help.

  4. TeacherMom

    I’m looking forward to seeing the schedule! It seems like this comes down to a local level in terms of whether it can happen. It’s good to know that I am not the first person to come to the conclusion that theme units work better for history than strict chronology. Sometimes when you’re a newbie and you see that things are done another way, it’s hard to know if your idea is a good one or not.

  5. I figure I’ll wait until my third year before I re-invent the wheel. Then, I’m tenured.




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