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Noodling New Classes

I've been mulling over two new class ideas for the last several months. By writing about them here, I hope to create a "must do" sort of feeling for myself. One class would be American history based; the other class is a world civics class. So, here goes...

Thematic American history: I've had such an amazing experience this year teaching world history thematically that it seems logical to apply this technique to another subject. I'm pondering whether to make this sequential, with themes within time periods; or maybe make it non-sequential, emphasizing how the themes pop up in different ways over time. Option one works more like a traditional American history class, with the themes as a lens. Option two is more about learning about themes in history, through the window of American history. As I'm developing my list of themes, I'm looking at the work of far more experienced historians than I, and also using

my own observations made while studying and teaching American history for several years. Potential themes include:

  • What does it mean to be an "American?" - while this seems like an easy question, the answer has actually changed over time, which tells us a lot about what Americans value and what is going on in the country.

  • What role does (or should) religion play in America? - for a country whose founders adamantly chose to avoid religion in our founding documents, belief structures have played a significant role during many periods of our history.

  • What role does America play in the world? - Washington warned us to avoid foreign entanglements, and yet we were entangled from the beginning. While the level of entanglement has varied, it has almost always been there.

  • Does technology help or hurt democracy? - One would think that inventions like the telegraph, all the way to the internet, should help create an educated and informed citizenry. Right?

  • What role should immigrants play in America? - We welcome them, we don't. Wash, rinse, repeat. And yet immigrants have shaped the America we are today. Why, and when, have our feelings about newcomers shifted?

  • What is the role of government in our democracy? - The founders argued about this. We still argue about this. Our democracy is hard work, and opinions about the role of government have shaped everything from the Gilded Age, to the Progressive Era, to the Red Scare.

  • What does popular culture tell us about America? - Whether Civil War soldiers are singing insulting songs on the battlefield, or Elvis is gyrating his pelvis, or Barbie is in her dreamhouse, popular culture always has a story to tell about who we are and what we value.

  • How have ideas about gender shaped America? - From Abigail Adams urging her husband to not forget about the ladies, to the inauguration of the first female vice president, notions about gender have played a role in how America has developed. Did you know that at one point, opponents of women's suffrage suggested that if women voted while pregnant, they would have ugly babies?

The topic glaringly missing from this list is race. And that is because race plays a role in every single one of those questions. There is no way to leave it out, and so it is everywhere. And, honestly, I feel that is the best way to tackle the issue. Why was slavery left in the Constitution? Why did the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments not end racial segregation? Why did reconstruction fail? What role did Black Americans have in creating American music? There are so many questions!

My other class idea is, in my mind at least, loosely called World Civics. While I teach Current Events in Context on Outschool, I often wish I had the opportunity to go into more depth with some subjects, and I think there are students out there who could benefit from understanding how the world works, politically, geographically, economically, etc. My idea would be to split the class into 3 or 4 week sections and to cover a variety of concepts, while tying in current news stories. My broad categories are below.

  • Types of government: monarchy, parliamentary, presidential, mixed

  • Types of economic systems: capitalism, socialism, communism, and the reality that there are almost no pure systems of any kind in any country today

  • Population and migration: why do they matter and how are they connected?

  • Maps, borders, and geopolitics

  • Globalization and trade

  • Global health and health geography

Obviously, this second set of classes is not as far along as the American history one, but it's buzzing in my head nonetheless. Now, I just need some extra hours in the day to get the planning done!

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