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ON THE PODCAST: The Power of Teaching History Thematically

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For so long, history has been taught chronologically, but does it have to be and should it be? China Harvey and Lisa Herzig would argue that it does not and it should not.

They are authors of the brand new book Teaching Beyond the Timeline: Engaging Students in Thematic History. And today we'll hear about their innovative approach to teaching history thematically. We'll explore the motivations behind this instructional shift, the challenges and triumphs they've encountered along the way, and the profound impact it has had on student engagement and understanding.


Below is a full transcript of the episode:


Hi, this is Edie. Welcome back to the Heinemann Podcast. For so long, history has been taught chronologically, but does it have to be and should it be? China and Lisa would argue that it does not and it should not.

They are authors of the brand new book Teaching Beyond the Timeline: Engaging Students in Thematic History. And today we'll hear about their innovative approach to teaching history thematically. We'll explore the motivations behind this instructional shift, the challenges and triumphs they've encountered along the way, and the profound impact it has had on student engagement and understanding. China opens up this episode.

China Harvey:

So teaching chronologically, teaching history chronologically, is what most of us are used to. History teachers are used to that, it's the way textbooks are structured, it's the way most courses of study are structured. And all of us, as students, are used to that. It's how we were taught history in high school and in the college classes we might've taken. It's starting at one point in time and then continuing on event by event, until you get to whatever your endpoint happens to be.

Teaching thematically centers an idea, a concept, a theme at the center of an instructional unit rather than centering a period of time. For example, in a chronological history course, a unit might be centered around World War II. It's a defined period of time. In a thematic class, a thematic unit might be structured around African American history or US immigration policy. So it really allows teachers and students to explore a theme over time, giving students that opportunity to follow patterns of causation, continuity, and change, really making connections between events around one particular topic.

Lisa Herzig:

I think what's interesting and a little surprising was that we are, speaking to that World War II example, we actually go into World War II multiple times for multiple lenses. We might explore World War II from the African American experience and part of a broader unit on that focus. And then we'll get into it as we talk about women's history and LGBTQ history, as we talk about foreign policy, as we talk about economic policy. So I feel like my students actually walked away knowing World War II even better and understanding it from many, many different angles.


Actually, Lisa, as you're giving those examples about African American history and women's history, it's making me think that when a teacher teaches chronologically, because again, that's the way textbooks and courses of study are structured, that tends to follow one perspective, it tends to the perspective of who has power. That's just how these classes are structured.

And so teaching thematically really allows teachers to bring to the forefront traditionally marginalized voices that haven't been maybe brought out of the shadows a little bit. You can really center those perspectives in a way that teaching chronologically simply doesn't lend itself to.


I hear you saying that for a long time there's been a lot of chronological coursework, and I love how you describe the key ingredients for planning a thematic course. I want to delve deeper into what those key ingredients are.


Three is the magic number. So we have three really essential pieces that we talk about throughout the book. One is engaging through current events. One of the frustrations I think with the chronological approach is that it feels like there's a race to cover and get to some end point, students-current era, and that seems to be this hypothetical magic time when kids are able to put it all together, everything you've gone through over the course of the school year. We found just one thing that never is finite is history. So we're constantly adding to ... Even in the span of time that we've been teaching, we have an entire generation now of kids that were not alive during 9/11. I mean, what was once a current event is now something that is ancient history in their minds.

And so to begin with that piece and have them approach the unit from an open question of how did we get here has been a nice way to start a unit and to really try to hook kids into the conversation, because history is not merely something that happened in the past long before they were born and it doesn't matter anymore. We really want them to see that's an evolving story with many, many players.

And then the second piece is centering identity and inclusion, which is another big reason why we made the shift. We found that, as China spoke to, we're constantly telling the perspectives of people with power and not helping students get a window into other perspectives or even a mirror for their own identities. Not that every single unit is an identity focused one, but just to really strive to bring in multiple lenses and perspectives throughout each unit has been more satisfying with this type of approach.

And then finally keeping it inquiry-based, which that's a lot of the work on the back end, but how do we build some of those connections with kids. And I think thematic teaching enables that, where we can really focus in on patterns of causation and continuity and change over time really carefully because we're grouping information together in a pattern so that they can make those connections between the so-called first wave of feminist movement, to the second wave, to the third wave, and so on. They can see that, instead of units on war in between 19th Amendment and women's suffrage, through to Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique. They can see that and make those connections a little more readily if it's presented in grouped in that kind of fashion.


As I'm hearing you speak, I'm imagining redoing my high school history classes from a thematic approach, and I already feel more engaged just with the thought of it. So what have you seen in terms of student engagement with this approach?


I mean, I think you kind of hit the nail on the head there. Many high schoolers don't like studying history, but then when you meet them as adults and you tell somebody that you're a history teacher, they're like, "Oh my gosh, I wish I had paid attention in my high school history class." Or they'll hear how we're teaching it, "I wish I had learned it that way." Students just haven't been connecting with the chronological approach in our experience. Everything is like, "Why do I need to know this? Why do I need to know this?"

So when we switch to thematic teaching, we switch to increased student engagement and we keep doing it because our students are engaged. I think they've responded so overwhelmingly positive, and we know that a few ways. We know that in our day-to-day lessons. We see them participating more. We see them bringing their stories in. When we do a unit on immigration, for example, we teach a lot of students who themselves are immigrants or their parents are, and they can bring in that personal history and just make the connections to what we're studying so much more easily.

Lisa and I, we talk all the time, and she was just telling me yesterday I think that she had taught a lesson that we do looking at the ... It's called the Gay Rights Movement in the 1970s. And we bring in different protest posters and students do a gallery walk. And after the lesson, I'm stealing your story, Lisa, but-


That's okay.


... I'm giving you credit, a student came up and thanked her for teaching this. These are just not histories that are always highlighted, and I think students are really appreciating that.

We survey our students at the end of every year and we just ask them a series of questions, but one of them is, "Do you wish we had taught the class chronologically? Do you prefer the thematic approach, or no preference?" And overwhelmingly the students prefer the thematic approach. And then we ask them open-ended questions. "What units did you like? Why did you like them? What connected with you about this course?" And I remember one student that I had last year, Sabine, she said that her favorite unit was our Women in LGBTQIA+ unit. And she said that in a lot of history classes she ends up leaving feeling small, and she said that she left our class feeling empowered.


And what a testament. Now, I just have my curious teacher brain on a bit and I'm thinking, wow, this is this student engagement. But the shift could feel daunting in terms of planning. And so when you made this shift, there weren't a lot of resources and that was part of the drive behind writing this book. So let's talk about how the book is designed in that way as a resource to get this started.


I think we didn't really light upon writing a book initially. We kind of had a year of, well, like many people with the pandemic, a year of interesting opportunities and, slash, challenges where we really had to build the plane, I hate this analogy but I'm going to use it anyway, build the plane in midair. But we found that freeing somewhat. And so, I mean, I love working with China, I've worked with her for many years in many courses, and so this to me was like, "Let's have some fun. Let's have some fun doing this."

And we finally hit upon, "What is our central theme? What do we really want students to leave our class understanding in a big way," and then broke into the unit level. And we had some experimental units, everything was out on the table in the limited time that we had. We had so much book reading and video documentary watching and discussions to really make sure that we were teaching as honest a history as we possibly could and an inclusive one, of course.

Going through that process and backtracking to what did we have to do to understand how to present this, I think there was a lot of work and a lift, but we certainly think there are some small steps some instructors could take to embrace the idea in a small way. I think there have been efforts to start Women's History unit. At least put that focus on that one group that tends to get marginalized literally in the margins of a lot of textbooks. That could be a start, or even a foreign policy unit or something to recap information.

I think there's a little bit of flexibility in our book. We want to show you how to do the big overhaul, but also, if you're not ready to make that dive, what could be a small baby step that could get you into this. And we feel pretty confident that once you've gotten through one unit of a change, you could build from there and expand from there.


And the book is so thoughtfully designed and I feel really leads a teacher through some of those steps. What are some of your favorite elements of the book?


I think, for me, one of my favorites and something that we said to each other again and again as we were writing it, is that it has to be practical for teachers. We wanted it to be just a practical guidebook, but also one, like Lisa said, that gives teachers the flexibility to make it their own.

We teach different subjects. She and I teach US history, but we're thinking about world history teachers, and we have different students than people across the country. Teachers can look at their own student populations, their demographics, and create a course that meets the needs of their students. So I think those two things combined. One, it's really meant to be a step-by-step guide for teachers who want to teach thematically but just don't know how, but then also have that flexibility to make it fit their needs.


I also love how early on in the book you identify that it is really important to think deeply about your why as an educator, why make this shift, and you both go into that beautifully. And you've lighted upon this in the conversation already, but I'd love each of you talk about your why specifically, get to know you a bit as well.


Such different experiences. I feel like I won the US history teacher lottery in my 11th grade class in San Francisco. Mr. Glenn, my US history teacher, just did an incredible job making history almost secretive.

Like he would bring in a Vietnam War veteran, and I remember he turned off all the lights and we were going to ask real questions about the Vietnam War, things our textbook didn't want to tell us about. And just really engaged us in some mystery and some just real-life accounts of this conflict. In the 1980s, there was a lot of reticent maybe to speak about that particular conflict as we were still essentially licking our wounds from that war. He tried to make it personal for us, asking us to find our own family history. It was a chronological approach, like most people probably my generation were taught that way, but it really was an interesting way to engage students.

And so when I went into college, I think I had other minors in mind, but eventually I just kept coming back to history and how much I loved it. So yeah, I feel like I'm living the dream teaching US history 24/7.


Yeah, as Lisa said, we had pretty different experiences in high school. I hated history in high school. It was easily my least favorite subject, and I was a good student, so I did the work. I showed up, I participated, but I did not enjoy it. But I didn't know why I didn't enjoy it, it was just boring. I just didn't care.

When I started college and I went in as a biology major, you take the required Intro to US History course. And in that course, it was my second semester of college, I had a professor, and as she was teaching the study of history, she just included women as part of it. And I remember the moment when she was talking about the American Revolution and was just discussing women's roles in it. And it hit me in that moment in my seat, this is why I hated history before, I couldn't see myself in it. It had no relevance to me. I was not connected to it at all.

And in that moment, it just completely shifted for me. Then I just wanted to know more and more. I wanted to know more about women's history, and then I wanted to know more about my own family's history. My mom was white and my dad was Mexican and Navajo, and we didn't know much about my family's ancestry. I didn't know why my last name was Green, I didn't know where that came from. And through studying history is how I found answers to those questions that my own family couldn't even answer. So for me, studying history really became a process of self-discovery.

I think for both Lisa and me, we both have had this common goal for years. Like she said, we've been working together for years and years. We've had this common goal of really wanting to make our classes inclusive and meet the needs of our students and have our students be engaged. But we just kept falling short of that goal. We didn't know how to do it. And then we came across this idea of teaching thematically, and that shifted things for us, that finally allowed us to implement our vision.


Are other grades teaching thematically as well?


We have a high school district where we work, and I think right before the pandemic, we had a redraft of our district rubric or framework I think for US history. And I remember we were both a part of it and it was the same chronological approach. And for myself, I felt like it was the same stuff, different decade.

It's hard in our district, if you don't have a model, people will not jump on board. And so I think we had to be the experimenters and do this. We presented after the pandemic to the district, and we had a few people interested, mostly because there was now a how-to that didn't exist before. And we, I think, inspired a lot of US history, but also world history teachers, to adapt a thematic approach. World history has done more of the baby step model. The US history team now district-wide is all in and they're innovating their own themes and approaches. It's been actually really exciting and very gratifying to see the change happening.


Before we end, I do want to make sure that we've hit on everything you want to talk about.


I guess the person I hope picks up the book is me from six years ago, where I remember buying a couple of books that projected that there was going to be a thematic approach, but all it did was give a list of themes and questions, which is an important start but how do I do this?

I hope that this is going to be the answer to that question that we had to find out or figure out along the way with a lot of trial and error. But hopefully this will smooth the process for people that understandably have a lot of reservations about making such a big switch, that you can make small changes, that's important, and build from there. But also, if you're really ready to jump in, to dive in, hopefully our book will guide you through that process successfully.


When we were building our thematic course the first year, I remember when we were planning our Immigration unit in particular. And for a lot of our units, we used a lot of the same lessons that we had done before, but we rearranged them differently. For example, we've taught a lesson on Women During World War II in our chronological course so we were able to pull that in into our Women in LGBTQIA+ unit.

But with our Immigration unit, when we were looking, "Okay, well what have we done? What can we pull from," we really realized that when we taught immigration in the past, it was very much centered around European immigration. And I don't think we had even realized that when we were teaching it chronologically. It just wasn't something that even came to mind. So sometimes when we would teach a lesson or start structuring a unit, you'd have those cringe-worthy moments like, "Oh, I didn't even realize that we had left out a lot of immigration from Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East, and from Latin America and South America. How do we even leave this out?"

And so really just being honest with yourself and giving yourself some grace and, "Okay, well, now let's correct this. Let's really make sure that we are doing this justice." And as Lisa said earlier, teaching as accurate a history as we can. And for us, that means pulling in multiple perspectives to a large extent. That's one component of it, is pulling in multiple perspectives.


I think part of the problem, not completely, but so much of the immigration changes especially are a result of the Immigration Act of 1965. And so if you never get in a chronological approach beyond that, you just are not going to be able to really examine the demographic shifts or even tap into the importance and controversies over that topic today.

So I think that it facilitated for us a way to start from the now and to jump in from the controversy itself. And then that requires us to discuss some of the challenges. Are people that are Mexican American immigrants during the late 19th century in the wake of the Mexican-American War, Californios, to bring it more closer to our home, are they immigrants? Are they citizens? How does the law look at that? You have to talk about Chinese immigration from the mid-part of the century. To leave that story out, especially for the population in our schools, is doing a harm.

You have to trace that whole roller coaster ride of policy to understand the motives behind that policy. Those are some ways that we try to hook students into that question, and it is personally meaningful for many of our students.


Thanks for tuning in today. To learn more about China and Lisa's new book and to read a full transcript of this episode, visit blog.heinemann.com.


Beyond the TImeline_ Book Cover


China and Lisa are authors of the new book Teaching Beyond the Timeline: Engaging Students in Thematic History.




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China Harvey is currently a high school social studies teacher and has served as instructional coach and teacher on special assignment, developing curriculum, leading professional development trainings, and helping to write the course of study for her district’s U.S. History course. She has led professional development workshops for teachers across the country, serving as a Teaching Fellow for Brown University’s The Choices Program, facilitating teacher cohorts for Learning for Justice, and working with elementary teachers and the community on moving beyond the myths surrounding Native American history.   


Lisa Herzig teaches high school students in World History, U.S. History, and AP U.S. History. Selected as a teacher on special assignment for her department, she was also a district finalist for “Teacher of the Year” award. Over the span of her career, she has helped create district-wide assessments, worked on curriculum development, and has written courses of study for World and U.S. History.  

Topics: History, Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Teaching Beyond the Timeline, China Harvey, Lisa Herzig, podcasts

Date Published: 04/16/24

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