Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Method for How to Plan a Unit Using Essential Questions: Colonial America

One of my pet peeves as a teacher is when I see a syllabus for U.S. history that only lists the title of the unit as "Chapter 4." And then under each day, you see things like "section 4.3." To me, this suggests a unit planned according to a textbook. Even very good textbooks are flawed and they should never be used as the guiding force in planning. And really, what kid is going to be excited about the fact that tomorrow's lesson will be on Chapter 4, section 4.3?? Give your unit and each lesson a title. Not only does this make things sound more interesting, but they probably will be more interesting because you have now put thought into what the unit and lesson are really all about. It will also help students see the structure of the course more clearly and therefore better understand the context for each day's lesson. 

A unit in a U.S. history course ought to focus on a few essential questions. And what one teaches Monday should logically lead to what is taught on Tuesday, and so on. What is taught in the unit as a whole should carry through themes or questions raised in earlier units and/or introduce problems or issues that will be developed in later units. It is okay to skip part of the textbook. (Indeed, it is okay not to use one at all, but that is subject unto itself.)
For me, it has always been easier to figure out what needs to be included in units on the wars because there is a clear sequence of events. And I have found it harder for periods that are broad like Colonial America (200 years of history in 2 weeks!) Industrial America (too much going on: railroads, big business, labor, immigration, urbanization, the last of the Indian wars, the rise of Jim Crow, oh my!), or the Progressive Era (so much legislation revolving around so many issues: women, prohibition, trust-busting, federal regulation—how to avoid the unit becoming a slog of filling in charts of all these laws?!).

So here’s my suggestion:
Take a cue from a literature: foreshadowing and themes. DON’T cover everything in your textbook about the colonial era. Instead, choose themes which “foreshadow” what will happen in the next unit and/or later on in the year. The reason for teaching a particular topic should never be because that is what comes next in the book. It should be because that what logically follows in this grand story you are teaching. Does this mean you will leave out important information about what life was like in Colonial times? Yes, of course. Does this mean you will probably skip having students copy information out of the textbook about the differences between proprietary, royal and charter colonies and put the info into a chart? Yes, thankfully! But remember, you can't EVER hope to "cover" everything, nor should you even if you could. (If you did, you'd be lucky to make it to World War I by May!) And remember the most imporant question all students ask: why do we have to know this? Planning a unit like I am suggesting will help you help them answer that question.

Click here to see my example of this kind of planning for a unit on Colonial America.

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