Joan Brodsky Schur
One good strategy for helping students to organize what they learn around larger themes is to post your "essential questions" or "enduring themes" on the classroom wall at the beginning of the year, and then refer to them continually in assignments and class discussion. If essential questions inhabit only the mind of the teacher, they are not effective teaching tools. This is also true if there are too many of them. One advantage of this strategy is that teachers are forced to think about the overarching themes they want to emphasize early in the year, and to articulate them in a few succinct sentences. This exercise gives clarity and direction to a course right from the start.
Teachers need not reinvent the wheel. For example they can adapt the four "persistent issues" identified by the Persistent Issues in History Website of Auburn University.One of them is "When are citizens justified in resisting governmental authority?" Now events like the Boston Massacre (1770), Shay's Rebellion (1786) or the Tariff of Abominations (1828), which students often view as just so many facts to memorize, can be analyzed with reference to developing a set of criteria in response to this overarching question. With the issue posted on the classroom wall throughout the year both teachers and students can constantly evaluate whether an event relates to that issue, and if so how.
By varying their choice of essential questions from one year to the next, teachers can reengage with their course material, keeping it vibrant and relevant. For example, in a presidential election year teachers might want to focus on themes that relate to good governance and civic participation.
It can be very helpful for your students if you establish some major themes that you look for across units of study. For example, the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies published by NCSS in 2010-2011, provides ten important themes for your consideration. You might select from the ten those that you believe will be most likely to reoccur throughout the year in U.S. history so students can use them to anchor ideas across units. The themes are highly interrelated and some might be more emphasized in one unit than another.
Another effective means of keeping attention on major ideas in eras of history is to select a few major concepts for more intense focus within a unit and continuing emphasis across units of study. For example, several years ago, there was a great Smithsonian exhibit about the Columbian exchange called "The Seeds of Change" that focused on the meeting of Europeans and Native Americans following Columbus's voyage in 1492. The exhibition focused on the introduction of horses, sugar, and disease to America and the introduction of potatoes and corn into Europe. The point of the exhibit was to show how these themes translated into consequences (both positive and negative)--immediate consequences at the time of the exchange and consequences for centuries to come.
The main idea is to offer students bigger ideas that are memorable and that show significant connections across time and space. Doing this can provide a way for students to remember what they are learning and invite them to see how history can provide the context we need to better understand the sweep of time.
I believe the key idea for a teacher is to tie each theme to current issues. By relating events which happened in the past to events which are currently occurring, students can more easily see the connection to the broader themes in my opinion. For example, as we are currently studying the Civil Rights movement, I am able to relate the restrictions placed on voting rights in the South (poll taxes, literacy tests) to the law in Wisconsin which required voter ID and how this law could disenfranchise some people. When students see the connections to their lives, I believe it is easier for them to see the broader themes of history.