Teaching United States History Thematically

Mary E. Connor

How can educators in the late 20th century convey the essentials of American history in a way that is engaging and memorable? One possible answer is a course organized around central ideas rather than chronological periods. The primary benefit of teaching U.S. history thematically is that it affords a better grasp of the principal developments in the nation's history by treating issues in depth.
A common problem in many high school U.S. history courses is the neglect of teaching about the recent past. It is not uncommon to hear of classes that never get to the Civil Rights movement or the Vietnam War, much less the events of more recent decades. The signal beauty of the thematic approach recommended here lies in the fact that in the first unit-the American Character and American Belief System-students can be holding informed discussions of the views of our political leaders on current issues by mid-October. For example, a discussion of welfare reform can take place within a framework of knowledge about basic (and opposing) American values of self-reliance and social egalitarianism.
A thematic approach allows students to become involved, sometimes for weeks, with narratives and articles about one topic. Why did it take so long for women to get the vote? What should be the United States policy on immigration? But the question arises: can one cover all the important material in American history and still go into detail about particular topics? Given the fact that both curriculum and text seem to lock many teachers into a chronological approach, would it not be better simply to enhance themes within the traditional chapter-by-chapter approach, rather than changing to a fully thematic course?

Consider how a teacher might cover the traditional material in exploring the theme of War and Peace in U.S. history. The teacher outlines the causes and results of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and the Korean War. Students study in depth the Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam. For the Civil War, students might read Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg and Elsie Singmaster's account of the devastating effects of war on civilians in Civil War Women. The class might also view segments of the movie Glory and Ken Burns' PBS series The Civil War. An excellent book about the American effort in World War II is Stud Terkel's The Good War. Differing interpretations of the Vietnam experience can be found in the movies Coming Home, Dear America: Letters from Vietnam, and Heaven and Earth. The cumulative effect of looking at the aftermath of nine wars over a six-week period seizes the imagination.

In developing a theme, students could be offered different options for assignments. For example, on the topic of The Immigrant Experience, a student might research the Irish in the 19th century or interview a recent immigrant to America. One class who took the course interviewed immigrants from 30 countries on five continents. These interviews revealed that virtually no one felt discriminated against because of race or ethnicity, all believed they had achieved the American Dream, all preferred living in this country to anywhere else despite its problems, and the most difficult adjustment was learning the English language. This analysis of the immigrant experience took on added meaning as students confronted California Proposition 187, and debated it among themselves and with their parents.

A history course based on themes responds well to the particular character of the student body and to regional or state issues. California students might want to read about the experiences of women at Berkeley during the Great Depression or about the internment of the Japanese at Manzanar during World War II. Whether classes are ethnically diverse or not, units may be designed to allow students to read about their own ethnic group or another of interest to them. For some, it was their first literary encounter with the lives of Asian Americans and Mexican Americans.

In following a thematic approach, students journey from the past to the present more than ten times. The success of the method validates the venerable principle of repetition. There are frequent opportunities for discussing contemporary issues within an historical framework. For example, after studying the experience of women in American history, students discuss the challenges faced by women today and the debate over the current status of the feminist movement. The economics unit ends with a discussion of the conflict over tariff regulation in today's global market economy.

Still another benefit of the thematic approach lies in the sheer power of the narrative. Whereas the vitality of historical accounts can be lost using the traditional chronological approach, thematic units have their own inner dynamic and can help students develop more far reaching perspectives on important issues in American history. This includes such topics as African American history from slavery to the Million Man March, the recurrent debate over accepting newcomers into the country, and the progress of efforts toward creating a peaceful world.

Students may enjoy the thematic approach for another reason: a student who does not feel very involved with one theme need not wait long before encountering another. In the women's unit, for example, the teacher may give brief lectures and show slides of what has been considered fashionable and beautiful throughout American history. Students learn about diet, health care, exercise, skin color, make-up and hair styles. They learn how a woman was supposed to act and think. At the end of the unit, each student brings in a photograph of a women whom he or she considers beautiful. When all of the photographs are placed on the bulletin board, needless to say, the students are engrossed.

Moving through successive themes rather than chronological periods allows for greater creativity. The text no longer determines how one does history, and each theme permits varied and absorbing activities. Students investigate their own family background to better understand their roots and to discover how their own histories are part of a larger history. Each student reports to the class on what has been discovered. While this exercise is not graded, it does garner attention. Students may find ancestors on the Mayflower or at Jamestown, among freedmen or forty-niners. Ellis Island, the Great Depression, the D-Day invasion, and the 1960s student protests all may acquire a new luster when one's own or a friend's grandparent was there. This is especially poignant when the persons in question were on different sides-as, for example, in World War II.

Examining themes in American history provides opportunities to view familiar materials in new ways. Under the topic of Leadership and the Reform Tradition, students concentrate first on the qualities necessary for effective leadership. As they study the American presidents, students consider not only the details of each administration, but also how presidents can instruct us about leadership. Since many students will probably have some opportunity to lead, these lessons can be invaluable.

Another example of looking at familiar material in new ways occurs in the unit on War and Peace. When we study American history chronologically, our wars appear inevitable. But when students address conflict as a theme, they may more readily discern that there were opportunities for mediation and that had public opinion been shaped by different values or perspectives, different outcomes might have been possible.

A final element of importance in my thematic course is that of choice in student research. Preparation for the course begins during the summer, when incoming students receive a list of books organized under the themes used in the course. Students are encouraged to read two books, preferably on the same theme. This exposes them to some superb source materials, and allows them to gain some in-depth knowledge before the academic year begins. The great majority will select a research topic related to their summer reading.

What are the particular difficulties of teaching American history thematically? Clearly, it will be easier for the seasoned teacher to move to a fully thematic course. However, one can develop a three-year plan to advance toward the ideal by expanding on themes encountered in the textbook currently used. Teaching thematically requires more time for planning, but the rewards for this approach are high: for the teacher, greater personal and professional satisfaction; for students, greater interest, performance, and retention. And, your students are likely to thank you.


1 The American Character and the American Belief System
2 Making a New Start: The Immigrant Experience
3 The Struggle for Equality: Making a Place for All: Women's History, African American History, Native American Studies, Chicano Studies, and Asian American Studies
4 Boom and Bust: Economic Development
5 Leadership and the Reform Tradition
6 American Cultural Traditions:Religion, Education, and the Arts
7 War and Peace
8 An Opportunity for Choice: Your Major in American History

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Mary Connor teaches American history at Westridge School in Pasadena, California.