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The How and Why of Thematic History

February tends to be the start of planning for homeschoolers for the next year. Some will make concrete plans, purchasing curriculum or signing up for classes. Some will ponder and dream for a few months before taking concrete steps. As a homeschooling parent, I tended to be somewhere in between the two. As a provider of social studies classes to both homeschooled and traditionally schooled high school students, I find that this time of year is a good time to explain my approach to history.

We study history to learn about humans - what they thought, who they fought, what they built, how they organized their lives, what they celebrated, who they worshiped, what they wore, what they ate, who they loved, and more. We study history to consider the context of all of those things, and what it tells us about the past and the present. But when I was teaching history the more traditional, sequential, way my students were missing out on real deep dives into all of that context.

I set out to find a way to merge the need to understand the sequence of history with what I started calling "big questions" or "big themes." I wanted students to look at the context... the why, the "so what" of history. I developed a set of 6 questions for world history, and 6 for US history. Each question relates to issues that come up regularly in history, and that are also issues we see today. Then, I chose events, people, or situations that involve one of those themes, and included regular comparisons between past and present.

Investigating each question starts with something modern, which allows students to place themselves in the historical timeline. Then, we look back at times that the big question has been answered in the past. Was the big question always answered in the same way? If not, why not? Did different groups of people ask or answer the question differently? Why?

For world history, we consider these big ideas:

  • Why and how have humans created systems of government? What have the expectations been between the government and the governed?

  • Who gets to decide who is civilized and who is not? How have terms like civilized and barbaric been used?

  • Why do humans fight? What issues push us to the brink?

  • How have gender expectations evolved over time? How have those expectations been challenged?

  • What have humans invented to make our lives easier? What are the pros and cons of those inventions?

  • How have humans worked to bring about political and social change?

For U.S. history, we consider these big ideas:

  • Who has the power and where does that power come from? Does the Constitution give power to the federal or state governments?

  • What is the United States' role in the world? How and why has that changed over time?

  • What does it mean to be a U.S. citizen? Who or what defines what a citizen is, what a citizen can expect from the government, and what the government expects from a citizen?

  • What responsibility does the government have to protect citizens? What about to protect business and industry? How have expectations about those responsibilities changed?

  • What has the immigrant experience been like throughout our history? What have immigrants contributed to the U.S.?

  • What have Americans done to work to shape the country into what they want it to be? How have citizens worked to bring about political change?

Along the way, we use primary and secondary sources including letters, speeches, political cartoons, artifacts, essays, and videos to try and better understand the questions, and the answers. Students complete my classes with a deep understanding of human history, and with new skills of analysis that go far beyond the memorization of a timeline.

Having taught history "sequentially," and then by theme, I am confident that thematic history is the better way to go. This is especially true for students who may have followed the classical 4-year cycles of history often used by homeschoolers in elementary and middle school. These days, we all have access to timelines and a seeming unending array of historical data online. Information is not helpful if we don't know how to interpret, analyze, and compare.

I'm incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to teach this way, and to get to work with the amazing students that I do, both in person at FreeSpace Secular Learning Pod and on Outschool.

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