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Using Themes and Essential Questions to Bring Out the Civics in Social Studies

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Part of the reason we’re so bad at teaching civics is curriculum – and for two reasons. When it comes to social studies, we try to teach way too much history and we almost always insist on organizing it chronologically.

The two problems are self-reinforcing. When you orient the entire curriculum around time periods, you have no real basis for choosing what to include and what to edit out. If it happened in or around the American Revolution, it ought to be in the American Revolution unit, right?

But what if you re-arranged the entire curriculum and built it around themes instead of time periods…?

Well now you just pick things that relate to your theme. If an event, person, or thing is irrelevant to your theme it doesn’t go in the unit. You’re under no obligation to try and teach everything.

A Social Studies Curriculum Centered Around Thematic Essential Questions

It’s a brilliant idea. But it’s not mine. For the sake of this article, I’m going to borrow extensively from the work of Beth Rubin, a professor of social studies education at Rutgers University and a former social studies teacher. In her book, Making Citizens, Transforming Civic Learning for Diverse Social Studies Classrooms, Beth writes about an effort to reconstruct the modern American history curriculum around five thematic units.

The entire curriculum was built around a series of essential questions that related to five different topics – Conflict, Social Change, Movement of Peoples, the Economy, and Government.

For example, the Conflict unit focused on questions like “Why does the United States go to war?” and “Can nations cooperate?” You can use many different conflicts, from the Spanish-American War to World War I to the U.S.-Iraq War, to illuminate these issues. Rather than simply studying each conflict in history, organizing the curriculum thematically allows you to include the examples that best illustrate different aspects of a question and force students to grapple with them.

By organizing the curriculum thematically, you’re focusing on reading the world. A traditional, chronological curriculum tends to put the emphasis on simply reading the “word” of history – the facts and things that happened.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the luxury of rewriting the entire curriculum. If your district is like mine, a committee of people (or a committee of one) is assembled over the summer every few years and  given a few dozen hours to “rewrite” the curriculum. The time is barely sufficient to go through the textbook unit by unit, align everything to the proper standards, list some resources, and come up with some assessments. There’s no way in hell you’re gonna blow it all up and start from scratch.

Use Essential Questions to Incorporate Themes Into a Chronological Curriculum

But with a little creativity, the concept can be applied in any classroom with any curriculum. Establish the essential questions and themes early on, use them as an anchor for each unit, weave them into your assessments, and return to them for reflection at the end of the year.

For the last few years, I’ve kicked off my year by simply discussing these essential questions. We spend somewhere in the neighborhood of a week on it, focusing on one or two themes a day. I usually write all the students’ ideas down on the board to keep a record of the conversation, and I’ll often have students write some kind of reflection on the discussion afterwards for homework.

Here’s a copy of the slideshow that I use to frame things. It includes some images that may or may not work well as prompts to help the students think about the questions.

Revisiting the Themes Throughout the Year

Moving forward into the year, the next step is to think carefully about what to focus on and what to “skim” over. Like many social studies teachers, I’m guilty of “covering” things because they’re in the curriculum. But if I spend a significant amount of time on anything, it’s because it hits on one of the essential questions that we talked about. I try to incorporate a couple of them into any given unit.

These essential questions then become a focal point of the assessments. I might throw in some random multiple choice or matching stuff to “assess” what the kids remember and know, but I’m really concerned with whether or not they can relate what they learned back to a question. Most importantly, I’m concerned with whether or not they can explain how it reinforced or changed the way they thought about the question.

Now is there something magical about the questions that I used? Probably not. I adapted and/or borrowed them from Beth’s book referenced above. You’re certainly free to choose different questions.

The important thing isn’t the questions themselves – it’s how they’re used and how they influence the way the students experience the course. By embracing a thematic approach, you shift the purpose of the course from learning content to understanding the world.

The questions are the lens through which to see it. Which ones you use will determine what aspects of the world and society the students will think about. But the important thing is that they’re thinking about the world and using history to refine their understanding of it.

For some more specific suggestions on how you can use essential questions to emphasize themes throughout your social studies course, check out this blog post.

Some Additional Reading for Homework

On the topic of paring down the curriculum and embracing the concept of “less is more,” I’d suggest you check out the book, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History. It’s by James Loewen, the same guy who wrote Lies My Teacher Told Me.

1 comments on “Using Themes and Essential Questions to Bring Out the Civics in Social Studies”

    • Aadel Bussinger
    • November 30, 2019

    Rewriting my curriculum for Modern World History is my task right now for my master’s practicum. I have created six themes that will help students view current issues more in-depth in light of causes, similarities, and differences from the 1500s onward. It is a huge task, so I thank you for covering this topic. I am definitely going to check out Rubin’s book on the subject. I also recommend the C3 teacher page where teachers have created inquiry arcs based on essential questions. Several of those have fantastic resources.

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