Creative and innovative approaches in teaching required material chronologically without sacrificing in-depth analysis and critical thinking skills.
For teachers of American History, the task of covering all the material from the period of “discovery of the new world” to contemporary events is daunting and nearly impossible. In most cases, the curriculum is dictated by mandated state standards and courses of study that attempt to touch on key events and concepts detailed in 30 to 35 chapters of text.
The inclination and temptation to spend more time on favorite eras is checked by performance evaluations that gauge how well state requirements are addressed and how standardized test scores validate those requirements. Innovative strategies, however, might satisfy overall state standards as well as allow a greater degree of classroom freedom in terms of teaching key material.
Teaching American History using a Thematic Approach
Thematic treatments can still be chronological in order to be effective. For example, a semester theme focusing on expansion can analyze and correlate the following chronological events:
- Colonial expansion up to the Mississippi
- Beginning of the Westward Movement
- Manifest Destiny
- Expansionism in Foreign Affairs – 19th Century
- Global expansion through the World Wars
- Cold War military and economic expansion
Other thematic approaches might cover the following areas:
- The Move toward Democratic Ideals and Civil Rights
- Using Court Cases to Teach U.S. History
- American Innovations, Industrialism, and the Urban Nation
Mini Sections that Focus on Mico Historical Events
Another creative and chronological focus develops key or watershed movements in American History as a core focus from which ancillary topics are extrapolated. In this approach, the core focus becomes the center of study as well as the primary learning outcome.
If the core focus is “British tax policies after 1763 directly caused the American Independence Movement,” ancillary proofs can be taken from several actual events, determined by their ultimate impact on the core focus:
- The Stamp Act
- The Quartering Act
- The Declaratory Act
- The Boston Tea Party and subsequent Coercive Acts
- Lexington and Concord
Rather than spending an inordinate amount of time on the 1763 Proclamation Line, the Townshend Acts, the Boston Massacre, and the Sons of Liberty, more pivotal events tell the story quickly without sacrificing content.
Begin American History at 1800
In North Carolina, the Revolutionary War and the birth of the nation is part of the sophomore-level civics course, enabling teachers of juniors to begin studies in the 19th century and thereby have a better opportunity to meet state standards that require covering up to and including the 21st Century.
Inevitably, however, significant problems exist:
- Juniors have difficulty recalling curricula details from one semester to the next if interrupted by long summer breaks
- Transfer students from out-of-state districts may have never been taught the earlier material
- Even the best attempts of honest coverage results in “snap-shot” lesson plans that conform to a detailed history text.
Teaching American History from Selected Documents
This approach has many advantages. Using selected documents still maintains a chronological approach and it introduces students to primary source documents. Original source documents take studying and analysis to a higher level of critical thinking.
The singular negative in this approach rests with a teacher or instructor not fluent enough in the discipline to provide background information when needed or to make necessary connections between those documents that highlight similar themes. These point to a teacher enslaved by a publisher’s wrap-around-teacher edition of the text and the endless power point presentations that offer slightly more than a generic treatment of the material.
Worst Case Scenario
The worst case is usually walking into an American History class in March and finding that the American Civil War has just ended. Students in such classes never hear about World War I and never reach Vietnam under President Johnson. Such situations are found more in non-public schools where state standards are either not applied or vastly tweaked to satisfy the interests of individual teachers.
The Call for History Accountability
Since 2000, American elections have become more volatile and divisive within society. During the 2008 presidential election, young voters were enticed by Barack Obama’s message of change and voted in great numbers. Voting, however, correlates to knowledge of American History that is at the very least passable.
Unless educators develop innovative ways to teach the full gamut of American History in a meaningful way, employing strategies to ensure realistic student outcomes, standardization and “bubble-sheet” exams will continue to demonstrate that many American high school graduates know very little about their own history.