The Importance of Historical Themes

Historians and social studies teachers know that history is complex and can never truly be understood. The past is complicated for several reasons, one of which are the multiple perspectives of people in the past and present. Unfortunately, many teachers only show students one perspective, that of their textbook. The textbook is a useful tool in a social studies classroom because it provides a busy teacher with lessons and guidance, but it is prone to overuse. A textbook can be dangerous because it possesses an authoritarian, seemingly omniscient perspective of authors who never introduce themselves or their methods of inquiry. Students take the textbook’s never ending line of paragraphs as unquestionable facts, and many teachers do not push their students to question how textbook authors arrived at their conclusions.

It is important for students to understand that we cannot fully comprehend the past, and that there exists several perspectives, both in the past and in the present. Some teachers pride themselves on using multiple primary sources to provide varying perspectives within the past, yet they still overlook modern viewpoints. The past is complicated, in part, due to the ways in which people of today look at their past. For example, the years from 2015-2019, I witnessed and heard more arguments over the meaning of Confederate memorials in the United States. Before 2015, there was always some contention about Confederate statues and places of dedication, but it was more local, and was not such a central issue that my middle school students would have talked about it. The questions that surrounded the Confederate memorial dilemma was over their relevance, the memories (painful/patriotic) that they were connected to, and how they were used to remember history.

The arguments my students, and the national media, were having consisted of several different ways to look back on the past. The Confederate memorial argument I outlined earlier consists of military, political, social, geographic, and racial perspectives; a more knowledgeable person would undoubtedly find even more point-of-view. Students possess these perspectives, and when confronted with historical arguments, they will find their solutions through the lens of their upbringing, economic situation, interests, and more. Instead of only giving students the author’s perspective of a textbook, I recommend showing them the existence of multiple perspectives.

Over the last three years, I taught a lesson called Historical Theme Selection Lesson. During the lesson, I outlined the general perspectives in American History, but they can easily be transferred to other fields of social studies. I began the lesson by listing the different perspectives and gave a few examples; the list contains examples for each perspective. I found it difficult to mention them all in one class period without simply listing them off. As I went through the list, I did my best to give examples, connect perspectives to modern issues, and recommend books and articles. For example, I described how gender identity was becoming more relevant in modern debates and how women’s issues, homosexuality, and sexual identiy had a rich history to be explored. If students wished, they were welcome to select topics and explore this perspective.

The original document had four boxes for students to fill-in, with guided prompts such as; “Write down historical people or groups that you want to study.” All of this information went into students portfolios, which I would later ask them to call upon when making decisions about their  National History Day project and other assignments. Overall, students were expected to find perspectives that interested them, and find ways to incorporate it into their learning. After students selected perspectives that interested them, I wish I had more resources for students to go to, especially a list of questions and themes that connected to their perspective of choice.

Final Thoughts

Some teachers may believe that my 8th grade students were too young to understand different historical perspectives; I disagree. The students always proved to me that they understood the idea that there were multiple ways to look back on the past. More importantly to me, they were excited to study American history from a perspective that excited them. 


If you would like to see how I map these lessons and others, feel free to look at the Research Part I: How to “Do History”; Finding Student Strengths, Interests, and Desires; Understanding Historical Themes and Concepts. This curriculum map covers my first weeks and sets the stage for the big National History Day project and skill based learning that I teach.

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