Teaching MS History: Themes or Timelines?
A MiddleWeb Blog
Other students echoed his complaint. What do these dates matter? Why should we need to know the difference between 1789, when the Constitution was ratified, and 1765, when the Stamp Act was passed? Isn’t saying they’re in the 1700s enough?
At this point, after a year and a half of teaching 8th grade U.S. history thematically rather than chronologically, I started wondering whether I was on the right track. If my students weren’t understanding these connections, maybe I was giving short shrift to the momentum of a strong historical narrative.
The power of chronology
I know what that momentum feels like. When I taught 7th and 9th grade world history, we began with Rome and swept through to the Black Plague. For Europe, the chronology was clear. For Africa, China, Mesoamerica and India, we could make connections between events that happened at approximately the same time, such as the construction of Machu Picchu and the Great Zimbabwe.
Similarly, when I first taught 8th grade U.S. history, we did a standard middle school sequence based on California’s content-based social studies standards: Pick up where elementary school left off at 1763 or so, and then dive into the 100 years to the Civil War and beyond. It was thrilling to observe the progression from Jeffersonian to Jacksonian democracy, to watch Manifest Destiny work its way westward.
Teaching a U.S. history survey course to juniors also left little doubt about the power of chronology. Certain themes, such as reform movements and U.S. intervention in world affairs, appeared over and over. To recognize these patterns was to understand the rhythms of a young country’s experiments at home and abroad.
With a chronological approach, a lot of the work of history happens naturally. This leads to this leads to this, one after the other. Lincoln’s 1858 “House Divided” speech gives way to South Carolina’s secession two-and-a-half years later. China’s artistic Tang Dynasty, contemporaneous with Europe’s early Middle Ages, shines all the more because of its contrast with more militaristic earlier reigns.
I get it. The students get it.
But when I returned to 8th grade U.S. history two years ago (after seven years teaching English), I did not simply want to march through the same material students would encounter again in three years, in the soup-to-nuts survey course they would take as high school juniors.
Instead, I wanted to highlight U.S. history’s greatest hits, the moments that most laid the groundwork for today.
Amazingly, my school gave me flexibility to choose the content of the class, as long as there was a reasonable focus on civics and the Constitution.
So, for the past two years, the first semester’s curriculum has covered the following:
- Current events, including how to read and look for news articles;
- The American Revolution, 1763-1783, with a focus on philosophy and primary documents to make it different from many elementary school curriculums;
- A research project on a dictator in another country, to tie in with our focus on governments and to connect with George Orwell’s Animal Farm in English class;
- Federalism in U.S. history, focusing on the conflicts of the 1850s and the early civil rights struggles of the 1950s;
- The Constitution, 1781-1789.
Second semester has been even more thematic. It covers:
- Social reform movements, including women’s history, affirmative action, and Progressive Era reforms;
- A research project on a reformer in American history, including the film “All the President’s Men” to show the power of investigative journalism;
- Civil rights during the Civil War, a short unit centered on the film Glory;
- Total war, using Sherman’s March to the Sea as a springboard, in which we also touch in World War I trench warfare before focusing on the nuclear bomb. In future years, I would like to include 9/11 and its aftermath.
My goal in constructing these units has been to give students a grounding in government, current events, social history, civil rights, and warfare.
And deep questions have easily emerged: What does it look like to be a good citizen? What makes change happen in American history? When should the United States be the world’s police officer?
But we miss a lot
The first year, I didn’t teach John Marshall’s theory of judicial review from Marbury v. Madison, and students’ understanding of the Supreme Court’s power suffered as a result. Had I been teaching the Early Republic chronologically, this topic would have been at the top of the list.
Last year I also realized, as we were finishing the Glory unit, that my students had no idea what Fort Sumter was. Oops! While we had read the pages on social history from the textbook’s Civil War chapter, we had unfortunately skipped exactly how the war started. This year I made sure to discuss the election of 1860 and Lincoln’s decision not to resupply the fort, and my class felt more grounded as a result.
At moments like the Fort Sumter omission, I sometimes despair that I have not taught students enough, that I have left out something crucial. And then I remember: We all leave out something crucial when we teach history. We cannot include every date, every strike, every financial crisis.
National standards lean toward thematic study
Many national standards acknowledge this impossibility by focusing on skills rather than content. The Common Core standards for “literacy in history and social studies” discuss reading and writing literacies, and the National Council for the Social Studies standards cover ten key themes of history.
Even the College Board has jumped on the thematic bandwagon in recent years, with new AP U.S. History course guidelines in 2014-15 and AP European History guidelines in 2015-16 that emphasize historical analysis skills and depth of content more than before.
A swinging pendulum
As much as I love the ideas that have emerged from the past two years of teaching 8th grade history thematically, I still can’t say definitively whether it’s a better approach. We are able to span more eras and focus on high-interest topics, but we miss the rat-a-tat excitement of chronological history.
As the year ends, I do know that the 8th graders in my class need more help realizing the importance of cause and effect. Before our final exam, I plan to remind Danny and the others that the dates I force upon them help illuminate how one event leads to another – just as the events in their lives lead one to the other.
And I’ll hope that this year’s web of history, however scattered, make sense as it relates to the personal identities that these 13- and 14-year olds are forming, as well as to the drumbeat of history that we are all trying to establish.
Roman Empire, 200 BC – Thomas Lessman, via Wikimedia Commons
Mesoamerica: via Wikimedia Commons