Which History Approach Works Best for Kids?
A MiddleWeb Blog
The debate about teaching history thematically versus chronologically still captivates and frustrates me almost daily. How does history seem most alive and authentic?
Two years ago I developed a unit on federalism with a colleague from another school who was working on his doctorate in education. When he asked me to think of concepts that are particularly difficult and important to teach, the tension between state and federal governments topped my list.
In this three-week unit, the eighth graders and I discuss the problems with the Articles of Confederation in the 1780s, jump to the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, dash through the 1850s with a brief stop at Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, mention Fort Sumter in 1861, and then catapult 100 years into the future, to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
Throughout, I bring in current events relating to federalism, such as Ohio’s recent decision rejecting legal marijuana, Houston’s vote against an anti-discrimination statute, and a Mississippi man throwing a bomb into a Walmart because the store had stopped selling Confederate flags.
The pros and cons of time hopping
There are so many things I love about these three weeks:
- The framework of federalism across time demands complex thinking.
- Students read the newspaper with a new lens and realize that the creative tension between the national and state governments is everywhere.
- I have to stay current. Last year’s enormous federalism issue was gay marriage; now that’s literally history. This year recreational marijuana, gun control and abortion laws are playing large on the national screen.
- Students realize and appreciate the idea that conflict is “hardwired” into the American political system – that we are supposed to take risks and experiment, as individuals and as states.
And yet… and yet…
This morning, as we looked at a map of the Missouri Compromise, Arek asked, “What happened if a slave ran away across the Ohio River from Kentucky into Ohio?”
“Yes!” I said, throwing my arms to the sides, thrilled by how perfect his question was to open a discussion. “That’s called the Fugitive Slave Act, and you’ll be reading about it tonight with the Compromise of 1850. Actually, this was the second such law – the first one was passed in 1793, a few years after the Constitution was signed.”
At which point the self-doubt started.
How can students possibly understand the magnitude of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act if we haven’t yet read the Constitution?
How can I possibly be teaching the 1850s tomorrow if they don’t know about the Mexican-American War?
When can I fit in an excerpt from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to make them feel what it was like to cross the Ohio River in 1852?
And, most disturbing, I wonder: Am I bowdlerizing the narrative of history by cherry-picking the highlights?
Which approach will mean more to students?
What makes these questions more difficult to answer is that today’s thematic class felt rich.
Students shared an assignment they wrote for homework about how they would describe the Missouri Compromise to an eight-year-old, with metaphors including cookies and sports teams. They looked at the compromise map together and imagined future issues that might arise when California eventually enters the Union.
We read Thomas Jefferson’s magnificent “wolf by the ear” letter about the compromise, writing out main ideas and then drawing thumbnail sketches of two favorite images, such as “a fire bell in the night” or “justice…in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
But – and this is a big but – which approach will inspire students to apply more history to their lives? Which approach will inspire them to read more about the time period: focusing on one topic per class to give a deep and narrowing understanding, or covering many details during class to show the depth of government policy and human biography?
Ultimately I come back to the idea of what students will remember in one, five or ten years. If we spend most of a period on the Missouri Compromise, the self-doubt and fallibility of the decision makers will likely sink in more than if we simply read a textbook and discussed the 36’30” line for a few minutes.
But today, for whatever reason, I’m yearning for some old-fashioned history. History that builds up in our minds, layer by layer, as it did when it happened.
If you’re a history teacher, would you describe yourself as more chronological or thematic? Do you feel this tug-of-war in your teaching?