Over the years, I have heard about “teaching thematically” or focusing on a certain type of perspective when teaching content. Recently, I was a part of a conversation about teaching thematically: the results? Some teachers love thematic teaching, while others believe that it will damage students’ understanding of history. I do not believe teaching thematically endangers are youth, nor do I believe it leaves out important details. Teaching thematically can prove to students that there are different perspectives, in the past and present, and if we use certain themes to look at history, we may find important details that are missing from the common narrative.
Teaching thematically does present some challenges; how does an educator go about teaching all of the themes that can be found in history? Earlier in my career, I attempted to organize historical themes in a doc called Advanced Historical Themes and Concepts. Going through that document, social studies educators can see why teaching thematically is daunting.
Combining Thematic and Chronological History
There are some ways to make teaching thematically easier. The most common one is combining a thematic approach with a chronological one. For example, an American Revolution unit can follow a traditional timeline of people and events, but the examination of the impact can be done through the perspective of women.
Some questions that focus on women during the American Revolution could be; how did women interpret the birth of a new nation? What did the creation of the United States mean for women, according to their own thoughts? How did women participate in the rebellion? Since women were not allowed to officially enlist in the American military, how did they find ways to rebel? These are all questions that could create exciting new interpretations in history and give students a well rounded view of American history. Also, since students would learn from a common chronology, they will still be able to learn about causation.
Looking at history thematically gives students the opportunity to see uncommon points-of-view. These perspectives are not rare because they are unimportant; they go undiscussed because they do not fit the common narrative, which is focused on white, Christian, Anglosaxon men, who most likely had high standing in politics, business, or the military. If teachers are worried that students are not going to get the traditional lessons in history, do not worry, students get that teaching from just living in the United States.
Teaching One Theme All Year
History Day is a good example of teaching using a theme, but it replaces one extreme with another. Instead of teaching students several different types of themes, it focuses on one big theme each year. For example, during the 2018-2019 school year, the theme was “Triumph and Tragedy.” For the 2019-2020 school year, the themes will be “Breaking Barriers in History.” History Day projects must be completed, in part, based on the yearly theme.
The History Day organizers encourage teachers to make the theme a part of their weekly practices. Early in the month of September, I taught a lesson about Sojourner Truth and used the lesson to introduce the yearly theme of triumph and tragedy. Also, I would do short activities in the beginning of the year to help students build up their ideas about triumph and tragedy. In one activity, we created a sticky note display, one side being triumph, and the other tragedy. I asked the students to write down an example of both, from any time period they wanted, and place it in the display. That display stayed with the class the entire school year and many students would look over it while waiting for class to end, or as a source of inspiration.
Themes can also connect to historical interest. I wrote about that idea in an earlier article called The Importance of Historical Themes. In the article I described how themes could be used to guide selection of projects and help students build up their identity; the document I used is called Historical Theme Selection Lesson.
Is Background Knowledge A Problem When Teaching Thematically
The number one complaint about teaching thematically is students do not have the background knowledge to sufficiently connect causes and effects of an event. I think this argument hangs on the idea that students permanently know factual knowledge after they leave a traditional classroom. For example, 6th grade World History students know all of what they learned before the enter their 7th grade social studies class. The problem is students do not remember even half of what they memorized the year before, and they forget a majority of their content/recall knowledge because it simply does not stay with them. This is not the fault of the students or teacher, it is just how most human brains work. Before a teacher gets into the main idea of a new lesson, they should spend time giving students contextual information about the events, people, and places. This is called contextualization and History Forge has a Youtube Contextualization playlist. As long as I taught students context, I never found that my students struggled with making cause and effect connections.
An example of contextualization from History Forge’s Youtube account.
A personal example of not needing deep contextual information before I interpreted themes is when I pursued my Masters of Arts in History. My professors stressed upon the importance of the seminar class. I took seminars in Great Plains History, European History (which focused on the relationship between Germany and the Soviet Union), Military History, Historiography, and others. There were several classes I felt out of my depth because I knew little about the topic, especially the seminar about the American Great Plains. The professors told me, and my cohort, that seminars focus on teaching the methods of a historian, and the skills of a historian can transcend content and context. I quickly found I was able to work in contents I was unfamiliar with because my analysis skills carried over between courses.
How To Give Students Context
Whenever I teach any historical lesson, I always give my students background knowledge. These secondary sources often come from different texts, which gives the students an opportunity to see different perceptions of an event.
Instead of worrying about jumping around in the timeline, teachers can focus on ways to make continuity and chronology relevant in their classroom. Teachers can make timelines that students can edit; I have seen massive timelines that take up the entire class. An idea I just came up with is requiring students to create their own timeline of American history as a yearlong project. These students can create their own timeline of events, people, and information that they believe are important based on their analysis.