Good history teachers use themes to tell their story

Political Cartoon "war is hell"

A theme is your bottom line message about a topic - the most important thing you want your students to actually understand about the lesson. Themes are different from topics in two specific ways:

Your themes will be directly linked to your grade level standards. If you were using the theme, "war is hell," you would then examine the 8th grade standards -http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/ (scroll down and click on "History/Social Science"), and find out which embrace this theme. You will find that the theme especially highlights Standards 8.1, 8.5, 8.8.6, 8.10, 8.12

How do we teach thematically?

  1. As you become more familiar with the standards for your class, you will gradually be able to discern the big TOPICS that can then be converted into 5 or more THEMES. Nancy Henkel's themes
  2. Each day you teach, you must integrate one of more of your themes into the lesson
  3. For each assignment, you must require your students to demonstrate how the reading and the course material illustrates one or more of the themes, and/or, you ask students to demonstrate how and why they agree or disagree with your themes.
  4. For each exam, you must require your students to provide specific examples from the class and the reading to illustrate the themes and/or to create their own theme.

What are the advantages of teaching thematically?

  1. Students have a focus for their historical studies – a focus they can take with them when they leave your class.
  2. Students understand that you are telling a story that emphasizes the course themes.
  3. Students learn to really think about and understand the discussion and written class materials in a way that requires true analysis.  They must relate everything they learn to a theme.
  4. Students have a very difficult time cheating.  They can’t go online and find an essay about the American Revolution, or research about the American Revolution that illustrates one or more of your course themes.

What are the disadvantages of teaching thematically?

  1. Teaching thematically is rarely modeled in history classrooms; most history teachers continue to teach facts and dates that do not connect the dots through larger themes and a larger story. 
  2. Teaching thematically requires a strong understanding of the topics you are teaching, passion and interest in the topics you are teaching, and your interpretation of the grade level standards.  In other words, themes do not always jump out at you.
  3. Teaching thematically requires you to tell a story into which your themes are carefully integrated.
  4. Teaching thematically is hard; none of these things are easy - but they are well worth the trouble.

Methods Discussion: Do Now Assessment: There are many times when you will want to immediately assess how well your students learned something. You can use a Do Now method for such an assessment. Announce that students will be working on a Do Now assignment. Our assignment today is to assess how well you understand themes and how to use them in a secondary history classroom. .

  1. Take out a piece of paper and write your name and "Do Now" at the top
  2. Get into four groups of three or four and take 15 minutes to create 3 themes that you believe could be applicable to an 8th grade U.S. history course that roughly covers the pre-Columbus era through Reconstruction.
  3. Remember, each theme must be in sentence format and must provide a bottom line message.
  4. Take 5 minutes to legibly write your group's themes on the paper provided. Tape your paper to the wall,.
  5. While one person is writing down your themes, the remainder of the group will discuss explanations for why you choose these themes.
  6. Be sure to keep both your "Do Now" activity with the themes from your group as well as the themes we selected for the course. This will go into your Portfolio.

When we are done with the group activity, be prepared to discuss the themes from each group. Together, we will adopt 5-8 themes that you may use throughout the semester to guide your research and lesson plan.