Teaching a US History Survey with an Emphasis on Historical Themes

Following my reflection last week on the balance of content and skill building in the history classroom, I wanted to learn more about how content is organized and taught.

I wondered if there was a way to organize the content of a US survey to emphasize themes, over chronology. Covering such a broad chronological span with equal detail and quick pacing is an overwhelming task. Buying into the idea that a survey course needs to cover a set time span is a reflection of the view of History as bits of information. Although moving chronologically is logical and follows a model students are comfortable with, there is potential for a course to have strong themes throughout the course. An attention to recurring themes would potentially allow for a better understanding of historical thinking and continuity. Attention to themes and big ideas when teaching content in a history course can serve a dual purpose of exposing students to new and diverse knowledge, as well as allowing students to practice thinking like historians.

In my investigation of how this approach might actually play out in the classroom, I looked to the syllabus central at the History Matters page.

One survey in particular struck an interesting balance between teaching to cover content and acquainting students with recurring themes in US history. For example, one theme the instructor touched on early in the semester, and again later in the semester, was this concept of freedom in US history. The instructor brought this theme up to further reiterate the tension between freedom and slavery during the Civil War and Reconstruction. This approach provides students with an opportunity to think critically about the past.

The instructor of this course also made it a point to put an emphasis on writing in this class. Students were to keep a journal where they would answer broad thematic questions about the content in the textbook, or write an analysis of primary documents. Every Friday of the week was also set aside for small group discussion about the primary documents that every student was required to read for the class. In the written evaluations for this class, multiple students noted that these sessions were beneficial and enjoyable. These class sessions dedicated to primary sources allowed students to take the themes and content they had been exposed to during the week, and incorporate these resources into interpreting documents. With this approach students were able to actually interpret like historians.

Although this model worked well for this particular class set up, it is important to note that this class was a small class, where 23 students completed the course. The amount of writing that students did on their own was integral to their understanding of large themes, and their ability to interpret documents, and construct and communicate an argument. Would a similar model work in a larger survey lecture? It could, but would of course require some important adjustments that account for the feasibility of grading weekly writings and essay assignments from a large number of students. Once possible alternative would be to form groups of peers that assess each other’s writings and interpretations. This would allow for more collaborative learning in the history classroom, where students could practice with convincing their fellow classmates.

Asking students to answer broad questions, and encouraging students to interpret primary sources allows students to practice historian skills, and to understand historical content thematically. An attention to themes may be a difficult transition for students accustomed to learning history in a more traditional manner, therefore it is important to constantly encourage students to write and engage with their peers. Attention to content does not have to detract away from the building of skills, and may best equip students to interpret when it is taught thematically.

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