In 2011, I started a new job teaching US History at a private independent school in Columbia, MO. My previous teaching experience had been in New York City public schools, which I loved, but which came with some limitations on how I could design my social studies curriculum.
With the freedom to start fresh, I decided two things: I wanted to teach thematically, rather than chronologically; and I wanted to use primary source documents instead of a textbook as my main resource. I'd had enough of the boring march through history that pained students, and I was tired of the dry, heavy textbooks that concealed the fascinating debates around historical truth.
My doctoral work had convinced me that thematic, document-based social studies teaching was the way to go, but when I searched for a textbook with this approach, I couldn't find one. So I pieced together a curriculum designed around essential questions that have recurred throughout US history (e.g., "In what situations should the US intervene in world events?" and "What does equality mean?"), and I gathered source documents for each theme. Then I linked each theme to a current issue (e.g., the fight against ISIL; the debate around same-sex marriage) and created an end-of-each-unit "summit" in which students took on the role of historical figures and debated about history and about the present.
I wanted to include not only presidents like Washington, Jefferson, and Reagan, but also those who had criticized the government, like Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez, and Malcolm X. I wanted students to consider the solutions that historical figures had proposed to the toughest issues our country has faced, and to begin staking out their own positions, informed by history. I wanted to bring politics into the classroom and model civil discussion instead of denying that our polarized political climate affects teenagers. I called it the "Big Questions, Many Answers" approach.
It was kind of a mess at first, but my students helped me make it better. Their enthusiasm and brilliant ideas helped me refine the syllabus, and after several years, I thought it was in good shape.
At that time, I was preparing to take a year off from teaching to have my second child. I wondered if other teachers would be interested in using the resources I'd gathered. I hoped that I'd found an approach that could work for students like the ones I'd taught in the Bronx (mostly Black and Latino, on free and reduced lunch) AND for the ones I'd taught in Missouri (mostly white, middle class, and many from conservative and rural backgrounds)--maybe it was even an approach that could give them a common political vocabulary and the skills to narrow the distance between them.
Several people encouraged me to publish the curriculum I'd developed: one was social studies teacher trainer Diana Laufenberg, and the other was history teaching guru Sam Wineburg, who founded the Stanford History Education Group. Both of them gave me great feedback and helped me think through how I could make the curriculum most useful to teachers.
So I sent a proposal for a textbook to Teachers College Press. Three long years later, Teaching US History Thematically: Document-Based Lessons for the Secondary Classroom is ready for pre-order (with a 20% discount when you use the code TCP2017 at checkout)!
In this blog, I would like to share ideas with readers: insights I gain from presenting on this teaching method at conferences like National Council for Social Studies and the American Historical Association; feedback from teachers who use this textbook; and thematic units that did not fit into the book (for instance, on checks and balances between the three branches of government, and on the role of religion in politics). I may even go back and interview former students who were the captive audience for my trial-and-error process of developing the curriculum to see if they've suffered any longterm trauma or untoward interest in history.