Teaching US History Thematically for Engaged and Connected Learning

Teaching Us History Thematically

Teachers who have tried this new way of teaching history report a change in the dynamics of their classrooms. Students are excited about their courses and want to continue them in the future.

Using overarching themes as labeled bookshelves on which to organize knowledge allows students to see how past events and current issues are connected across time periods. This thematic approach to American history develops literacy and higher-order thinking skills, connects the past to students’ lives today, and meets most state standards (grades 7-12).


If a teacher chooses to teach thematically, she will need to decide what themes to use for her class. For example, a social studies teacher could utilize the principles in the Preamble to the Constitution as her theme. In this way the teacher might create units centering on such ideas as “Forming a More Perfect Union,” “Promoting the General Welfare,” and “Insisting on Individual Liberty.”

Teachers can also find thematic lessons based on key events, people or ideas in history. A thematic curriculum allows for more flexibility in lesson planning since content can be derived from a broad range of time periods.

Diana Laufenberg argues that thematic teaching can help students understand their own sense of American history by describing it as books, stacks and stacks of disorganized knowledge. Overarching themes act like labeled bookshelves that allow students to couch new information and organize it for later use. The teacher can also build in time for students to develop and respond to societal issues, such as global connections or the basic needs of others.

Essential Questions

A good essential question improves the curriculum in multiple ways: it makes a topic relevant to students’ lives, it requires higher-order thinking skills, and it provides a framework for learning both discrete facts and bigger ideas. It acts as the magic glitter glue that sticks the people, places, and events into a larger story for students.

While there is no one right list of social studies essential questions, this resource carefully selects documents from an array of sources to provide a variety of viewpoints that will challenge and engage students. It also seeks to address a problem with traditional textbooks, which over-represent the views of powerful white men.

Each unit begins with a brief essay introducing a Key Theme. Afterward, discussion questions link that theme to the broader Three Essential Questions. Moreover, teachers can choose to emphasize any or all of the seven Key Themes throughout their classrooms. They can also explore additional thematic lines that may resonate with them and their students.


Thematic curricula offer flexibility in lesson planning, allowing teachers to draw from a wide range of time periods. This allows students to look at the flow of history through the lens of an overall narrative, while also focusing on how historical movements, events and people interact.

Metro’s lessons use carefully excerpted documents to introduce students to diverse perspectives from which to study the past. She deliberately chose documents that reflect authors from “women, people of color, and those with less socioeconomic power” (p. 2).

For example, in the lesson on Taking Up Arms, students compare two 17th century maps of the Massachusetts Bay colony to gain a better understanding of the push and pull factors that encouraged or hindered migration. Students then examine a number of other documents, including the different promotional tracts that William Penn used to describe his Pennsylvania settlement. By studying these documents side-by-side, students learn to identify inconsistencies in the views of American founders on slavery and other issues.


When teachers use a thematic approach, it allows students to see how historical events are connected. This is important because it helps students understand how the past relates to their lives now. It also makes the learning more meaningful.

A thematic curriculum also offers students opportunities to compare and contrast. For example, they could compare the factors that led to American military intervention in World War I to those of the recent conflict in Syria. This type of comparative thinking is not possible with a traditional chronological curriculum.

Diana Laufenberg argues that the traditional chronological approach strips students of their ability to explore multiple perspectives on history. She likens the mountains of information they must memorize to stacks of unorganized books. Overarching themes, on the other hand, act as labeled bookshelves on which to place new knowledge. She believes this is the key to creating an understanding of American history that students will remember.

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