Two women have a discussion about sticky notes, organized around essential questions and themes.

Essential Questions and Themes for Social Studies

By in

I’m a big fan of using essential questions and themes to organize my social studies class. If you’ve looked around this site, you probably know that already.

If not, check out a few of these posts and then come back:

In short, using themes to organize the curriculum allows you to focus more on using history to understand the world – or in the words of Paulo Freire, learning to read the world instead of learning to read the word.

How I Use Themes to Organize My Class

I draw on the work of Beth Rubin and her book, Making Citizens: Transforming Civic Learning for Diverse Social Studies Classrooms, to organize my Early U.S. History course around five major themes: Civics and Government, Equality, Economics, Conflict, and Movement.

I start the year off by discussing each of these themes to lay a foundation, and throughout each unit I ask my students to reflect on how the things they’ve learned help them better understand these themes. It makes a great summative assessment to have students think back over a unit, a semester, or the year and integrate the things they’ve learned to re-evaluate these questions.

Ultimately, if you had enough freedom in your curriculum, you could organize it into a unit for each of these themes. I don’t have quite that much flexibility, and so I use the essential questions and themes to weave together the content as we go through it.

Five Sets of Essential Questions For Your Social Studies Class

In each of the posts below, I share a set of three essential questions that I use to think about each theme. I share a bit about what my students often say when we discuss them, and I include a link to a slideshow that you can use to facilitate the discussion.

Downloadable Resources for Teaching Thematically

To make your life easier, I’ve collected a set of resources – five Power Point slide decks and five printable posters – to help you incorporate these essential questions into your class. Just enter your e-mail in the form below, and I’ll follow up with a link to download these resources.

Have You Used Essential Questions and Themes In Your Class?

I hope you find them useful. And if you do – or if you have another strategy for incorporating themes into your class – drop a comment and let me know. I’m always looking for educators to feature as a Civic Spotlight, and you can submit a post here.

3 comments on “Essential Questions and Themes for Social Studies”

    • Anne
    • April 30, 2019

    I’m interested in teaching ancient civilizations thematically next year. Any and all resources or suggestions would be great!


      • Donna
      • November 4, 2019

      In keeping with the standards and inquiry – have you thought about teaching the recipe ingredients for a civilization? I don’t use “themes” but concepts. Civilization is a concept. The “ingredients” of a civilization are common across time. (i.e. art, government, family, commerce, religion…). Once I teach the questions that are asked of a civilization, the structure works no matter what the civilization is:)

    • j
    • January 28, 2021

    The links in the email you sent don’t work

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