Teaching US History Thematically

The featured image (courtesy of wikimedia commons) is of Teddy Roosevelt because he is my favorite US President. I love the intensity on his face in every image where he is giving a speech.

Today’s Coffee Shop

Gather Coffee: 1085 Pudong South Rd. (浦东南路)

The coffee shop was packed with people, a good sign for the quality of their drinks. It is another warm afternoon, so I opted for an iced flat white. Gather Coffee’s beans live up to the reviews I saw on DianPing (点评), my drink had a good bitterness that bordered on salty. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it was an enjoyable flavor. I was eyeing the Tiramisu, but my wife and I just had lunch at a nearby Turkish restaurant and treated ourselves to some amazing baklava. So ordering another dessert was just a little too much. We will just have to come back another time to try their sweets…

*I borrowed the picture of the inside of the shop from 点评。There were so many people inside I did not want to take a picture.

Teaching History Thematically

I have referenced in earlier posts the US history course that I have been teaching thematically for a number of years. I wanted to reflect on where this idea came from and why I am a fan of this approach. Initially, the idea of doing a thematic course came from an article by Mary E. Connor.1 I forget where I originally saw it, but I have provided a link to an online version of the article in the footnotes. All of my units were created and developed based on her initial theme recommendations.

When I made the switch to a thematic US history course I had already been teaching AP World History, the curriculum for which includes several themes that act as interpretive continuities across the course’s chronology. I have slowly expanded how I use these in AP World. I admit that using a thematic approach in a world history course is more daunting simply because of the sheer amount of content and how easy it is to get lost if there is not some type of grounding in a chronological approach.

Here is why I plan on continuing with a thematic approach to US history.

Relieving Content Pressure

As Russell Brown and Stephen Schell explain, since 1965 the amount of content expected to be taught in a standard high school US history course has expanded tremendously.2 The number of days teachers have been given to address this additional content has largely remained the same. In fact, you could argue it has actually shrunk given the expansion of standardized testing and other such requirements that steal instructional time from teachers through the year.

Rather than try to teach everything, a thematic approach allows me to focus on the key concepts, essential questions, and enduring understandings that are central to understanding the development of the United States. These serve as a magnetic poles around which students can make sense of the content that is taught. I would argue this helps instruct historical significance while also preventing students from getting lost in a cacophony of historical details. Its easy for students who don’t already enjoy history to view a chronological approach as a parade of meaningless detail and as a result they miss the proverbial forest because of their complete boredom of the sight of so many seemingly meaningless trees.

Most significantly, the thematic approach means I don’t have to wait until the end of the year to get the contemporary history that many students find most engaging and relevant to their lives. Each unit can act as a 1500 – present survey course that is united by the theme and essential question under investigation. Both myself and the students can be involved in the selection of content that best serves to reveal thematic insight or help answer the essential question. Its more exciting for all of us.

Selecting the themes, essential questions, and enduring understandings might be the most important job of any teacher in planning a thematic course. Thankfully, there are many resources out there to support teachers in this. I will list some of my favorites later in the post.

Emphasizing Essential Questions

When I started teaching, I did not properly appreciate the importance of a well written essential question or enduring understanding. These are critical for students, giving them cognitive structures to organize the content they are learning.

Likewise, strong EQs and EUs help develop classrooms built around student inquiry. Done well, this can increase student engagement, develop both research and thinking skills, and help you become a better facilitator of learning. If you is already doing Project Based Learning or another inquiry-driven model such as a flipped classroom, it is an even easier transition to a thematic approach.

Flexibility is important, and you can adjust the themes along with the EQs and EUs as needed. Maybe recent contemporary events demand a new thematic lens or maybe, as often happens to me, you uncover a compelling concept or resource that offers new insights and possibilities for your students. Some of my favorite and most effective essential questions have been:

  • How have the meanings of foundational values of the American character and ideology changed over time?
  • How has the United States both embraced and struggled with diversity?
  • To what extent have economic concerns been the driving force of American politics and society?
  • To what extent has American Imperialism anti-imperial?

Often I use my EQs to create my unit assessments. Open-ended DBQs, research projects, and presentations allow me to asses a student’s understanding of content while also scoring their proficiency on historical thinking skills.

Focusing on Historical Thinking Skills

The thematic approach makes it easier for me to focus on historical thinking skills. Emphasizing continuity and change over time might be the easiest to instruct in this way. Since a thematic approach moves across time quicker than a chronological approach, students are able to more easily grasp the way continuities and changes are interwoven as historical events and developments unfold.

Skills such as argumentation or comparison also fit in well. With a thematic approach, students tend to have a greater grasp of the bigger picture that helps them make more complex arguments that are more historically defensible and relevant to contemporary issues. Opportunities for comparison become more frequent as students can, for example, compare factors leading to American military intervention within a few weeks of class time and thereby pull insights into a complex comparative argument. With a chronological approach, it would take nearly the entire year to cover the American Revolution through the World Wars in order to gain similar comparative insights. The skills just become clearer in a thematic approach; the avalanche of disconnected content no longer obfuscating the purpose of historical education.

Teaching US History to International Students

For the last six years I have been teaching international students in international schools. The majority of my students have been Chinese nationals, but I have also taught many Korean, Japanese, and European students. Ironically, American students have been the smallest minority to enter my classroom.

I think a thematic approach is particularly useful for teaching such a diverse group of students. It allows the teacher to select themes, concepts, and content that are more effective for engaging the students where they are. The essential questions and enduring understandings help the students grasp the big picture of US history and development while making connections to their own cultural contexts. Since making the switch I find that I have to spend far less time defending the purpose of the course to the students and parents.

Struggles of a Thematic Approach

Making a transition to a thematic approach is not easy. There are several struggles that a teacher may discover. It took me two years to get my curriculum set and really feel like I was serving my students well with the approach.

  • You probably won’t find a thematic textbook to use. This means you will have to spend extra time looking for primary sources and supplemental secondary sources to help support content acquisition. I have tried using a textbook, having students jump around through it week by week. It was confusing for them and felt unorganized for me. The last three years I have taught the course without a single required textbook, opting for articles, book chapters, and other resources.
  • If you have state or county standardized tests at the end of semester one, it may be challenging (or even impossible) to cover the required content. An end of year test does not present the same difficulty as long as you plan your units with the standards and state-requirements in mind.
  • Students may have never taken a thematic course before and might seem lost in the first few weeks or first unit. Stick with it! I have found students respond if the first unit feels more traditional and slowly adds opportunities for thematic inquiry.
  • Transitioning to a thematic approach will push you as a teacher and might demand new pedagogical approaches. Think of it as (valuable hands-on) PD opportunity.

If a thematic approach sounds exciting, but you are worried about doing to much too quick, try planning a thematic unit at the end of a semester. This can be a smaller unit organized around a single essential question or key concept with a little inquiry. For students it might feel like a culminating course project.


What I have listed below are some of my go-to resources for both content acquisition and lesson planning. I mentioned earlier I do not currently rely on a single textbook, instead I frequently use primary sources and supplement with other secondary sources. I’d be happy to provide a run-down of the guaranteed topics and primary sources I use for each unit. I like to change it up a little every year though to keep resources updated and relevant.

  • My US History Resource page – this includes my Scope and Sequence and a selection of resources I used.
  • Stanford’s Reading like a Historian Curriculum
  • Zinn Education Project & excerpts from A People’s History of the United States
  • AP US History – Released DBQs provide great primary source material
  • JSTOR and other article databases – my school pays for subscriptions and these provide great access for myself and students to quality journal articles and supplemental material. One example would be “The American Character” by Michael Collins.
  • The American Soul by Jacob Needleman – I have multiple books I use excerpts from for both content and historiography lessons; Needleman’s is one of my favorites.
  • Various YouTube content creators like TedEd and channels from the APUSH world help me provide content. I like assigning these and supplemental readings for homework so we can use class time for more hands-on and cognitively challenging activities and discussions.

Good luck!

Footnotes – They are nor formatted according to any style guide…sorry…

  1. Mary E. Connor on Thematic US History – Mary E. Connor, “Teaching United States History Thematically,” Social Education, 61 (no. 4, 1997), 203. Rodney M. White, “A Modest Proposal for Course Design and Delivery,” OAH Magazine of History, 14 (Fall 1999)
  2. Russell C. Brown and Stephen Schell, “Not your Grandfather’s U.S. History Class: Abandoning Chronology and Teaching Thematically” (Link)

One thought on “Teaching US History Thematically

  1. Pingback: Courageous Deletions: Surviving the Interminable Avalanche of Historical Content | Coffee House Historian

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