The Siren Call of Coverage

The new school year is underway, and so far, I’m really enjoying my new school. My colleagues have been welcoming and supportive, my students inquisitive and hard-working, and there is a strong culture of learning that aligns nicely with my own approach to education. All in all, I’ve felt very good about my decision to come to Tampa.

That said, as one might expect, there have been a few things that have required some adjustment. This being a much larger school than my previous two (more than double the size of my last school, for instance), it marks the first time in my career that I’m not solely responsible for the courses I’m teaching. In fact, in both my preparations (World History I in the 9th grade and U.S. History in the 11th grade), I’m one of three people who teach the course. Though we’re not required to be in lockstep, there is an expectation of general alignment across sections.

I’ve grown accustomed to having near complete control over what and how I teach (within reason, of course), but this year, I’ve had to recalibrate to the fact that my colleagues have different approaches than I do. For the most part, I think this will benefit me. The opportunity to get back to the classroom and continue honing my craft as a teacher was a major motivation for me to pursue this position, and collaborative planning and informal conversations with colleagues about what works and what don’t will only make me better. I’ve already noticed this in small ways.

However, in my last few years of teaching U.S. history (prior to this year, I hadn’t taught it since 2013-2014) I had adopted a thematic approach. I could write a post—or several—on why I now favor themes over chronological units, but my colleagues here were less enthusiastic. After some conversation, we settled on what I believe is a completely reasonable compromise: interspersing more traditional chronological coverage with intensive “modules” which consider some historical issue in greater depth. (For example, after lectures/textbook readings covering prehistoric America through the Puritan migration, we’re now considering the question of why history matters. By considering various portrayals of Columbus, Pocahontas, and John Winthrop, we’re examining the relationship between past and present and the ways in which history shapes—and is shaped by—our contemporary worldview.)

Of course, making room in the curriculum for these intensive mini-units requires sacrificing some coverage, and this brings me to the crux of my post. What has challenged me most this year is not the collaboration, as new as that experience is. It is, rather, the gravitational pull of the coverage model. In other words, by adopting a “textbook” (we’re using The American Yawp) and working through it chronologically, I find myself tempted to try to assign the entire thing. I volunteered to plan our first unit, which spans prehistory through the Revolution, and it was a constant battle with myself as I decided what content to pare back in order to make more room for the “deep dive” sections.

When I adopted the thematic approach around 2011 or 2012, I essentially dispensed with any semblance of coverage—and I was completely OK with that. The reality is that, even in American history (which is among the briefest of national histories), we can’t possibly cover everything that might be deemed significant. History is just too big, and if we try to cram it all in, we run the risk of turning history into “one damn thing after another,” which is exactly what led me to hate history as a high school student. In choosing a thematic approach over a chronological one, I abandoned the notion that I could cover it all, which was incredibly liberating. My students didn’t learn everything—they certainly would not have earned a 5 on the APUSH exam, for instance—but they definitely learned how to think about important ideas in American history and draw connections across vast spans of time. And they did learn a fair amount of “content” along the way. I felt good about it.

This year, though, as I’ve compiled lists of “Key Terms” for my students, I’ve found myself identifying many people and events that would never have seen the light of day in my thematic course (or come up only in passing). So how “Key” are they, really? And more importantly, why am I finding this so difficult? Is it the textbook? The chronological organization? I’m not sure, but this struggle has me reflecting on how the most seemingly basic decisions about curricular design can profoundly shape our conception–not to mention our students’ conception–of the discipline.

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