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Teaching U.S. History Thematically: Document-Based Lessons for the Secondary Classroom

reviewed by Gregory Samuels & Amy Samuels - April 12, 2018

coverTitle: Teaching U.S. History Thematically: Document-Based Lessons for the Secondary Classroom
Author(s): Rosalie Metro
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775868X, Pages: 224, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

Teaching U.S. History Thematically: Document-Based Lessons for the Secondary Classroom provides readers with an inclusive approach for teaching U.S. History and a series of uniquely designed units and lesson plans to engage both teachers and students in extraordinary ways. The author, Rosalie Metro, offers extensive opportunities for those using this text to stretch their foundational understanding of content and pedagogical practices far beyond what is traditionally seen in U.S. History classrooms. Applying a thematic, documents-based approach best suited for grades 7-12, the tools provided serve as a guide for creating an interconnected story of Americans and a holistic view of perspectives and experiences. In traditional teaching approaches, it is not uncommon to see African Americans’ appearances limited to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, women highlighted only for their role in the Suffrage Movement, immigrants provided relevance solely during the historical waves of immigration, and Native Americans depicted only as shadows of themselves beyond the early stages of the course. Metro challenges this paradigm and is committed to offering an inclusive view of history filled with multiple voices and perspectives, as well as the representation of people of color, women, and individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Her dedication to presenting diverse perspectives from across the social and political spectrum is evident as she encourages the reader to question who is included and who is excluded in the portrayal of history and offers strategies for challenging the master narrative often presented in textbooks.

Her work takes a multi-dimensional approach to exploring the ever-evolving American identity and embraces intersectionality of content, pedagogy, key figures, and events across themes in a way that is groundbreaking. Both teachers and students are encouraged to examine U.S. history and historical figures in ways that prompt complex engagement through exploration of essential questions, facilitation of mini-lectures, actively participating in summits, exploring comprehension, open-ended questions, reflecting on moral and ethical dilemmas, and much more. The approach is designed to offer both breadth and depth for a curriculum anchored by the Common Core State Standards while still catering to brick-and-mortar classrooms with 45-50 minute periods, as well as homeschool students. Metro provides a resource aligned with the evolution of not only a more critical approach to presenting historical content, but engaging pedagogical frameworks that encourage learners to be investigative, engage higher-order thinking skills, and develop evidence-based responses in their learning while at the same time meeting Common Core State Standards. In addition, historical documents are a critical component to this approach because they provide students direct access to people’s thoughts and ideas, rather than an interpretation of their words.

Metro offers an innovative approach through her development of a curriculum centered around seven essential questions designed to promote critical thinking about themes in U.S. History. While history is typically presented chronologically, which Metro contends “is out of habit” (p. 2), she argues that a thematic, documents-based approach makes history relevant and allows students to understand how issues develop over time. As such, she highlights seven key areas of focus: (1) American Democracy: What is American Democracy, and What Should It Be, (2) Diversity and Discrimination: What Does Equality Mean?, (3) States’ Rights and Federal Power: How Should Power Be Distributed Among Local, State, and Federal Governments?, (4) Government, Business, and Workers: What Role Should Government and Business Play in Promoting Citizens’ Well-Being?, (5) Foreign Policy: Under What Circumstances Should the United States Intervene in World Events?, (6) Civil Liberties and Public Safety: Under What Conditions, If Any, Should Citizens’ Freedoms Be Restricted?, and (7) Identity: What Do We Mean When We Say “We”?

The design of the text is hardly foreign in its nuances yet allows social studies educators to quickly acclimate themselves to the user-friendly structure and poignant themes while still enjoying the comforts of familiarity in historical timelines, key dates, seminal figures, widely known primary resources, and places of historical significance. The lesson plans in each themed unit are designed to capture critical moments and highlight how change agents and ideologies connect and evolve across various time periods. With carefully designed mini-lectures, effective comprehension and reflection questions, and optional activities to be embedded in each unit, the content is made accessible to both teachers and students. While most traditional U.S. history curriculum taught from a chronological approach typically loses momentum after the Reagan era and hardly ever reaches the Gulf War, Metro ensures relevance in the curriculum by connecting historical events to the present day by examining the beliefs, practices, and policies of Presidents Bush, Clinton, Obama, and Trump.

Along with inclusive representation and contemporary connections, this field guide offers two additional extraordinary features. The first is the idea of voice and agency communicated when Metro asks teachers and students to consider the question, “What Do We Mean When We Say ‘We’?” This concept is introduced at the beginning of the book and thoroughly explored in Unit Seven. The author connects this question to the evolution of the American identity. She contends that most people, including herself, use the term we without serious thought as to who is represented in this collective identity. Some examples include: we moved the Native Americans from their land, we treated slaves badly, and we won the Mexican American War. The author was intentional to embed such a poignant feature, not only because it reflects a key component of social justice, but because it serves as “a great question to get students thinking about continuity and change” (p. 7) regarding the evolution of the United States and American identity.  

A second extraordinary feature of Metro’s work is the option for teachers to facilitate summits at the conclusion of each unit. The summits are collaborative, summative assessments in which students engage in civic debates. Students can be placed alone or in teams and take on the role of a historical figure highlighted in the unit. Students are expected to consider the views of the historical figure on themes and issues presented at the summit (i.e., diversity and discrimination, restrictions on citizens’ freedoms, equality, interpretation of democracy, etc.) and articulate arguments to other key players in history related to these topics. For example, in Chapter Six, Civil Liberties and Public Safety, students may participate in a summit that includes the roles of Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, Carrie Nation, Paul Robeson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a member of the Black Panther Party. Once they are positioned in a role, students are prompted to make an opening statement, listen attentively to other students’ presentations, participate in a question and answer session, and challenge or agree with each other based on their ideas related to the question: Under what conditions, if any, should citizens’ freedoms be restricted? The icing on the cake is that this affords students the chance to dress in costume or assume the speaking or acting traits of the historical figures, all while critically engaging and staying “in character” throughout the summit.

Rosalie Metro is a practitioner at heart, and this quickly becomes evident through the 85 carefully crafted lessons supplemented by thoughtful pedagogies and other resources that encourage teachers to facilitate non-traditional approaches in the classroom. The design and organization of Teaching U.S. History Thematically encourages educators at all levels (e.g., teacher education programs, preservice social studies education candidates, and inservice social studies teachers) to reflect upon the curriculum and its purpose and to adopt an innovative approach for high quality lessons that promote an inclusive story of all Americans throughout history. Not only is the book a thorough and comprehensive guide for teachers, it is an invaluable tool for educators looking to encourage and enhance reflective practice and promote meaningful, engaging, and inclusive teaching and learning.  


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 12, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22328, Date Accessed: 1/26/2022 12:02:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Gregory Samuels
    University of Montevallo
    E-mail Author
    GREGORY SAMUELS is an assistant professor of secondary education at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. In addition to teaching courses on classroom management, diversity, literacy, and social justice, he supervises interns in an alternative secondary education master’s program. His research interests include pedagogical applications in the social studies, teaching and learning for social justice, facilitation of critical pedagogy, and working to include marginalized voices in the curriculum. His recent publications include "Untold Stories: Using Common Core State Standards to Give Voice to Japanese Americans" (The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies, 2017), "Un-silencing Voices: Investigating Human Rights Violations Regarding Violence Against African American Males" (Social Studies Education Review, 2017), and "Uncovering Lost Voices: African American Involvement in the Liberation of Jews During the Holocaust" (in Mending Walls: Historical, Socio-Political, Economic, and Geographical Perspectives, 2017, edited by Diem and Berson). Current projects include a qualitative study titled “Educators’ Perceptions of Advocating for Racially Just Schools,” designed to examine educators’ perceptions of how race and racism impact teaching, learning, access, and opportunities, as well as their perceptions of how to advocate for racially just schools.
  • Amy Samuels
    University of Montevallo
    E-mail Author
    AMY SAMUELS is an assistant professor of leadership at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. She teaches courses on action research, curriculum, equity, mentoring, professional development, restorative leadership, and social justice in both the Instructional Leadership and Teacher Leadership programs. Her research interests include examining how race and economic status influence and shape educational and social contexts, as well as culturally and ethnically responsive educational practice. Her recent publications include "Exploring Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: Teachers’ Perspectives of Fostering Equitable and Inclusive Classrooms" (The SRATE Journal, 2018), "The Dialogue of Denial: Perpetuating Racism through Thoughtful Inaction" (Understanding and Dismantling Privilege, 2017), and "Un-silencing Voices: Investigating Human Rights Violations Regarding Violence against African American Males" (Social Studies Education Review, 2017). Current projects include a qualitative study titled “Educators’ Perceptions of Advocating for Racially Just Schools,” designed to examine educators’ perceptions of how race and racism impact teaching, learning, access, and opportunities, as well as their perceptions of how to advocate for racially just schools.
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