Teaching History Thematically

History is a series of events and causal relationships, stories and tragedies and successes, that when strung together weave narratives of peoples and places. To teach this has proven quite tricky throughout American education. Any history teacher watching Jay Leno and his random trivia questions cringes in horror at the utter lack of historical understanding in the greater American populace. However, one must ask, “If we teach history every year in school, why do the students retain so little of the information?”

This is the perfect time to invoke Einstein’s famous quote, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” After a number of years of teaching history chronologically, I made the curricular decision to shift to a thematic approach. I am privileged to work in schools that allow me the flexibility to make these types of classroom decisions.

Depending on the needs of the learning community, I can lead workshops varying in length.  The workshop includes:

  • Investigate the scholarship related to thematic teaching of history with the writing of Sam Wineburg, Eric Foner, David Perkins, and James Loewen.
  • Discuss the concerns related to this approach
  • Identify themes for investigation in each course
  • Craft essential questions related to each of the themes
  • Build an architecture of inquiry related to the investigation of the themes
  • Share examples of units, classroom practices, resources and ideas
  • Collaboratively build a unit of study
  • Discussion about the viability of interdisciplinary connections

2 thoughts on “Teaching History Thematically”

  1. Hi,
    I’m a senior in college studying secondary social studies and it’s looking like I will be teaching in an inner city position next year. I’ve read a little about thematic teaching before (I was assigned Grant and Gradwell’s Teaching History with Big Ideas for one of my classes) and I find the idea very appealing. I would love to try this and think it would be especially effective for inner city students rather than the traditional chronological approach, but it seems even more intimidating being that I’ll be a first year teacher. Do you have any advice on how to start building a thematic curriculum or how to gain administrative support for it? Or do you think this is something I would be better off trying once I have more experience (as in a few years) in the classroom? Any input you have would be greatly appreciated.

    • dlaufenberg said:

      The approach isn’t something that I think is contingent on experience. Administrative support and/or departmental understanding is something worth seeking. Depending on where you will be teaching, you may not have a ton of flexibility for choice. Luckily, I have taught in places that allowed me the flexibility. Things to consider… are you told to specifically teach in a different way (scripted curriculum, quarterly exams, district mandates, etc), will this make you an outcast in the department, do you feel like you have a firm grasp on how you would approach a yearlong curriculum.

      Suggestions if you don’t have a ton of flexibility: craft projects that are more thematic, use the final quarter of the year for a thematic unit, or open up dialogue with the department about options for a more thematic approach. I would love to know how this plays out as you start your first year. I would never go back to chronology, now that I see the difference with the students.

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