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Diana Laufenberg on Teaching History Thematically

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Apr 20 2011 Lithograph, U*S*A Bonds - Third Liberty Loan Campaign, 1917, J. C. Leyendecker
The Pitfalls of Chronology

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.

My rationale for this change was grounded in a number of gut-check teacher experiences but also in the writings of Sam Wineburg, Eric Foner, David Perkins, and James Loewen. America has never excelled at knowing its own past. As I watched the school days pass, I observed that students participated and engaged, but still did not meaningfully retain the information. Something had to give. I ditched chronological teaching.

In my classroom, each of the themes then becomes a shelf and as students understand the greater historical narrative they look for patterns and trends and flow over time.

The way that I choose to envision the problem for the average student of history involves papers, books, and bookshelves. We teach students history by giving them pieces of paper (facts) with no real understanding of how to connect or make meaning. These papers stack up, but the learner can never find anything because the information is without structure or organization. Our students need bookshelves before we can really expect them to put any of the information away. Once the bookshelves exist, they can then begin to shelve their information in a way that allows for understanding and recall. In my classroom, each of the themes then becomes a shelf and as students understand the greater historical narrative they look for patterns and trends and flow over time. This long look at history invites the student into the story. Also, it provides shelves on which they can then store historical knowledge as they move into adult life.

But What are the Themes?

The themes that I teach in American History are: American Identity, Political Participation, War, Business, Balance of Power, The American Dream, Environment, and Pivot Points. This is certainly not a comprehensive list or the "right" list, but it is the one that I settled on after much collaboration, discussion, and debate with a number of teachers. We work through two themes per quarter and have a project attached to the learning goals of each theme.

A Closer Look

One unit that gets better each time I teach it is the War unit. Many K-12 history students feel like history class is one long study of America at War, rather than of the rich narrative that accompanies the nation’s endeavors. My War unit asks students to define war. One would think that with the amount of conversation about war we foster in America that this would be an easy process. Let me assure you it is not.

I start by asking students to write their own definition, then work with a partner to get one definition between the two.

In the end they have a definition, but they also have a sense of the concept that I could not possibly instill in them in any other way.

After that, the partners join another partnership. We stop for a bit at this point and the students take their group definition and apply it to the American historical record. Each student is responsible for a section of years and applies their group's war definition to determine if America was at war that year. They then name the war and the place it occurred and report the death tolls. This is a bit time consuming, but I find that this process makes students reconsider the definition as well as thoroughly examine the historical record. We then return to the definition activity and repeat the consensus process until we get to a whole-class discussion.

The goal of the whole-class discussion is for the students to come to consensus on the definition of war. It takes all 65 minutes of class. I do not actively participate at all; I observe. This is about them and their ideas. The students sit in a circle and decide a process and go. Watching it unfold this year was like educational bliss: students asking really tough questions, listening hard to the answers, pushing back when they did not agree—but doing so respectfully, other students making sure each person’s voice was honored in the process. In the end they have a definition, but they also have a sense of the concept that I could not possibly instill in them in any other way. They did this. The creation of the definition was also the creation of their learning.

We then layer this theme over the previous themes and discuss connections and patterns and flow and trends that exist when we look at multiple themes at once. Then we move forward with another theme. By the end of the year they have seven shelves onto which to load their learning. The final unit has students choose a pivotal point in history and change the outcome. This final unit draws upon all the previous themes to craft a story that retells history.

Closer to the Goal
…in my 14 years of teaching, I have never felt more confident that my students are learning history in a way that allows them to learn beyond my classroom…

Thematic teaching may not be the answer to improve the responses for the Jaywalk All-Stars, but in my 14 years of teaching, I have never felt more confident that my students are learning history in a way that allows them to learn beyond my classroom, beyond the textbooks, and beyond the boredom that many of them attribute to history class. Our struggles as a nation require a populace that is engaged and informed. Our history classes need to be a place that establishes the framework that assists them in becoming the citizens we need them to be. I believe that thematic teaching moves us closer to that goal.

For more information 

For more ideas on teaching strategies that stretch beyond the conventional chronological, browse our Teaching Guides. In one example, high-school teacher Lori Shaller offers another way of interrupting and challenging students' understanding of history as monolithic narrative with the "Stop Action and Assess Alternatives" strategy.

I have to admit I go back and

I have to admit I go back and forth on this. I currently teach a thematic class, and am now wishing we had more chronology. I think students lose something valuable when they don't get the "sense of history" which comes from seeing themselves and their society as part of a long historical story. Ideally, of course, we'd do both: themes and chronology, analysis and narrative. How do you do it? Do you go through the history, emphasizing the themes as you go? Or do you organize the syllabus around themes, presenting the relevant history?

We investigate two themes a

We investigate two themes a quarter... and usually start with a week or so of building background. We don't ignore the chronology... but rather look at the chronology as a piece worth investigating in and of itself. Chronology isn't important because 1 follows 2, but because there is a flow of trend and pattern over time that becomes known as we look at the big picture of chronology.

Often, 'we' investigate one aspect of the theme together to start the unit and then the second half of the unit is spent with the students doing independent or creative work around the theme... in a way that is not very scripted.

Feel free to email me at dlaufenberg at gmail if you have more questions, love to chat about this!

Diana Laufenberg

Hi there, I am in my 6th year

Hi there, I am in my 6th year of teaching, but my first year at this school and with US History as a course. This is the first year our district is teaching all of US History in one year (previously it was pre-Columbus to 1877 and 1877 to present). My colleagues who have been teaching for years are struggling with the change, and I am struggling with the class in general. They don't believe things should be cut, but this is forcing a pace that seems unrealistic at best and damaging at worst. I have three preps and am frustrated that I do not have the time required to plan/prepare a good, interesting, challenging survey course. What advice would you give me? And why aren't there materials out there, even whole year curriculums, so that teachers like me who are new to teaching the subject can begin to do what you and your colleagues do? Sometimes it feels like I am re-inventing a wheel that someone else has probably created, and better at that.

Thank you so much, I have enjoyed reading your article and hope to be able to teach thematically like this someday! I owe it to my students to do so.

I am trying to be as

I am trying to be as transparent as possible this year with documenting day by day activities in my classes - http://laufenberg.wordpress.com/2011/09/17/the-201112-school-year/ You can see the list of the units here - http://laufenberg.wordpress.com/curricular-units/ I am attempting to build a googlesite for each of the units that shows off the plan, the rubrics, activities, student examples of work such as this - https://sites.google.com/a/scienceleadership.org/american-identity-unit/

In my opinion, there aren't a ton of materials because it isn't wise to try and teach 'all' of American history in a year. My solution is a thematic approach without a focus on checklists of facts and dates, but large overarching concepts. Please feel free to email me with more questions or follow up - dlaufenberg@gmail dot com

Good luck,

Diana, thank you so much for

Diana, thank you so much for both your transparency as well as taking the time to respond! I may be contacting you in the future. :)

I teach an integrated

I teach an integrated English/US History course in a project based learning environment. My co-facilitator and I have taken on teaching thematically this year and are about to launch a project with the theme of war. We've used your resources in the past quite successfully but were sad to see that nothing had been posted for the theme of war. Is there anyway those could be shared or we could get a hold of you and pick your brain? We have loved using themes this year and really want to do this final project justice!

Thanks for stopping by... My

Thanks for stopping by... My resources for the War unit are found here - https://docs.google.com/document/d/1GbbCGwYNVnZtfTI-ddqyOXXh_SgaRoDncBct...

The big ideas that I go after are the definition of war and then followed up by what constitutes a 'just war'. Please let me know if you have any follow up questions! You can find me at http://laufenberg.wordpress.com

Diana this is all very

Diana this is all very interesting. I am trying to convince the other teachers in my department that we need to look at how we teach US history because the retention is not very high. We have come down to two options: teaching backwards or thematic teaching. I like what you have put together and I think it engages the studets to a higher degree. I was wondering if you have the day to day activities for the rest of the units as well. Being that we havent taught this way before, it would be more convincing to them if I had more of a concrete plan. This is a great resource and I am so grateful I have found it!

One thing we have tried at

One thing we have tried at our school is teaching the most current unit first, a unit we call The World Today, 1988- present.WE used to teach chronologically but backwards. I am very interested in learning the thematic approach.

Thank you so much for sharing

Thank you so much for sharing your unit plans. I was introduced to your site in my Social Education course at the University of Houston. I am excited to teach American history now!

While chronology helps

While chronology helps students visualize & organize topical themes, our thematic approach focuses on the olde history acronym "SPRITE" (social, political, religious, intellectual, technological, and economic [with "environmental" added, beginning at the Industrial Rev]). Makes for numerous project-driven scenarios!

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