Thematic Unit Design in US History

Considering that my recent post on teaching US History thematically has been among the most frequently viewed, I wanted to return to the topic and explore my process for unit design. My process not very scientific and reminds me of changing a chain on a bike. Various gears need to be properly aligned, and I have to keep loosening or tightening the chain until I get the right fit. Luckily, I have a better handle on curriculum than mechanical repair.

The process involves several challenges: content and skill selection, assessment design, and leaving space for inquiry, scaffolding, and differentiation. I am a proponent of backwards design, and begin with learner outcomes and standards.1 Then I work backwards, starting with formative and summative assessment design, selecting my content/illustrative examples and planning lesson activities and scaffolds along the way. It is a living process and tends to be more complex in a thematic unit since thematic units cover larger chronological periods. Eventually I get a good fit and a structure that still retains flexibility for when I need to make adjustments year-to-year based on new ideas, collaboration, or student needs.

When I approach unit planning I start with a handful of value statements that align with both my style and philosophy of education. The internal consistency these can create in a unit is a powerful tool for unlocking student understanding.

1: Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings should guide both the unit’s structure and its assessment design.

Too often EQs and EUs are referenced in curriculum documents and then forgotten. These are powerful tools for student engagement and understanding when used appropriately. I want my EQs to be the backbone of the unit as they are going to drive my content selection and inquiry approach. I want the EUs to have both a content and skills focus. The content EU attaches easily to the unit’s themes while the skill EU reminds students that skill and content go hand-in-hand. Combined, they show students that what we are learning should not be compartmentalized and can be applied to other units, other content, and at times, other courses. If you are looking for skills-based EUs, check out a previous post on the topic linked here.

2: Inquiry needs to be embedded within each unit and across units.

Ever since a training in Hong Kong with inquiry guru Trevor Mackenzie I have been looking for ways to integrate inquiry deeper into my practice. Designing a thematic course from scratch gave me a great opportunity. I think about inquiry in two parts. 1) inquiry with a “little i” is about developing student interest, engagement, and questioning within an individual lesson. 2) Inquiry with a “big I” is how I scaffold the inquiry process across units, beginning with highly structured inquiries in the first unit and slowly moving students toward a guided inquiry or free inquiry project that culminates at the end of the semester. Constantly spiraling these skills and processes is an important piece of helping students be successful with Inquiry.

3: Both instruction and assessments need to be scaffolded according to skill and designed to support a formative/summative feedback cycle.

Feedback is probably the most critical component of student growth. However, because of large class size and a loss of planning time this is often one of the first casualties of the year. (More administrators and school board officials need to reckon with this). I have found that feedback is most effective, and is easier to provide quickly, when it is connected to scaffolded instruction that prioritizes skills. Likewise, when the formative/summative cycle is present, students have plenty of opportunities to practice the skill, receive feedback, and progress towards the expected outcomes. Differentiation does not mean forgoing all repetition.

4: Skills are the most significant and can be the vehicle for students to learn content.

I’ve written on length about skills before. In order to teach skills, content is needed. However, too many lessons push content alone in the mad rush to finish curriculum forgetting to explicitly build historical thinking. I want the skills to be present in every part of my lesson, assessments, and unit design. Even if a curriculum does not use standards-based grading (and there are many arguments out there against it that I empathize with) a teacher can assess and track proficiency towards certain skills and score students appropriately. It takes some work, but is well worth it in showing the applicability of the course to both students and parents.

With these in the forefront of my mind it is easier to navigate the shifting sands of content selection, lesson planning, and pacing.

Example Unit: The American Character & Ideology

Essential Questions

  1. What beliefs, ideas, and values make up the American Character and Ideology?
  2. How have the meanings of foundational ideas of the American character and ideology changed over time?

Essential Understandings

  1. Context, author’s point-of-view, purpose, and audience are critical to understanding and analyzing primary sources.
  2. Identity and core beliefs develop over time as a result of both conflict and consensus. These core beliefs take on historical meaning and agency of their own.

It is easy to recognize the skills that are embedded in the EQs and the EUs. As the first unit of the course I wanted to emphasize primary source analysis and continuity and change over time. Historical inquiry begins with source analysis and CCOT offers a framework for understanding chronology and periodization. The former should be a foundation of any history course and the later is particularly important for a thematic approach. Without CCOT as a guiding skill it is easy to get lost in the sea of content.


Although it seems counter-productive, I designed the final project first. The image below is the first part of the directions of this project. It is flexible and takes a different form based on a student’s topic and medium of delivery; students take a lot of ownership over the unit projects and how they showcase their learning. I wanted it to be something that pulled together all the skills and content of the unit. Because of this, there was scaffolding embedded. Many of the sources, concepts, and content that the project was asking students to explore had been previewed through the unit. They could use it all as a starting point for deeper investigations that the lessons had pointed them towards. What is not shown are the check-points and accountability scaffolds that I used for pacing and quality control. These are also critical for students and the teacher.

Unit 1 Final Project

There were earlier assessments, both formative and summative, that gave students opportunities to practice and receive feedback on the skills embedded in the final project. I believe this was a critical part of student success on the project itself. My goal was that each standard would have 1-2 summative assessments before getting to the project. This would also mean 3-4 formative opportunities for practice with the skills that involved teacher feedback and student reflection.

This may make it sound as if class was nothing but assessment, however, a redefining of formative and summative assessment opened up new opportunities for efficiency. Most of my formative assessments were 15-20 minute checks at the end of a lesson; something as simple as a primary source paired with few document analysis questions. Feedback then drove the next lesson. Summative assessments were more formal, but were likewise smaller tasks focused around a single skill. At most they would be half a block (45 minutes). I gave up on the dream that I could hold students accountable for every piece of content I taught on a single assessment. After all, a well designed assessment forces students to select and use content from everything they have learned. There is very little space for students to hide if they begin the assessment without a firm foundation in the content the class is focused on.

Content Selection

This is a potential black hole for many teachers. Since I was teaching this course alone I was not constrained by finding agreement with anyone else. I created my content targets based on a handful of factors 1) Alignment to the final assessment 2) Availability of Resources 3) Ease of applicability to the prioritized skills 4) Personal Preference. The last factor is where the biggest potential for disagreement with other teachers lies. At the end of the day, there is too much content to teach and something has to face the chopping block.

The content targets below provided me with my unit structure, kept me on track, helped me avoid tangents, and made sure I was constantly thinking about skills. The wording of the targets is based on curriculum expectations of the school. I wanted to make sure all my content was aligned and that I had planned enough opportunities for directly instructing skills.

Content targets for the unit

I enjoy discussing how to integrate interesting content with other teachers, or even what content might make a more effective illustrative example for a particular skill. (Let me know in a comment or message if you have an idea in this regard) I know there are lots of topics I did not include that would have worked really well. However, time is the ever-present accountability partner. I do like that when planning in this way the teacher’s voice and values also tends to speak through the unit. It gives a sense of agency and ownership over the unit.

One of the struggles of content selection in a thematic unit is minimizing large jumps in time. It can be done, but big jumps make it harder to contextualize events and developments. This unit was a challenge in that regard, particularly jumping from the Civil War to Reconstruction and then to the Civil Rights era. Its a lot. However, it will pay dividends in future units when some of the content returns within the lens of a new theme.

No unit is perfect and there will always be missed opportunities. Likewise, a unit overview on paper never does justice to the instruction that actually occurs. This method of unit design gives me a way to honor some of my core values regarding what history education should be, helps me plan more engaging activities and stronger assessments. I hope the students also prefer it to something more traditional. As a professional, I also value the voice it gives me in content selection. Even if I were guided by state standards, this would still be possible.

Next time you design a unit, try thinking backwards. Use your EQs and EUs to unlock the full potential of inquiry in your lessons. Rethink assessments to focus on skills and free yourself from the content trap. If it doesn’t go exactly according to plan, make adjustments and do it again! Teaching is an art, not a science.

Foot Notes

  1. Understanding by Design – Jay McTighe – I have done UbD trainings multiple times, and anyone familiar with the process will see its influence here. The structure of my process is identical to UbD. Alongside a training on inquiry, UbD has had a substantial impact on how I approach my planning. I did not include any of the planning forms I use because they are simply versions of the UbD resources that I have made small adjustments to according to my own preferences.

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