Using PBL Themes for U.S. History

The worst history classes drudge students through a chronological lists of dates and facts that are memorized from powerpoint lectures and textbooks to be regurgitated on a multiple choice test. We know better, and most teachers are now doing better teaching historical thinking skills such as cause and effect, multiple viewpoints, and analyzing primary sources.

Although I believe the field has made huge strides in going deeper and increasing relevance, the practice of chronological teaching still means that many teachers never get to recent history. Some teachers weave current events into the sequence, but why not start out from today’s perspective? An effective way to do this is to teach thematically.

I use a Project Based Learning (PBL) framework to have students explore themes across the historical timeline of the class standards. I originally planned my course by printing out the state standards, cutting them into strips, and dividing them into categories. I focused on the power standards as identified by my district (most of the “lesser” standards fell under the power standards anyway). Next I plotted out how many weeks each project would need based on the number and complexity of the standards in each pile. Finally, I designed a project for each theme. I fully developed the first project of the year but had rough ideas for the rest of the projects, adapting them as the year went on based on student feedback and interests.

One advantage to thematic PBL teaching is that I launched each project with an Entry Event that tied the content into current events. Then students were tasked with looking backwards to discover how we arrived at this point in our history. Each project ended with a final product that asked students to synthesize their understanding of the history and apply it to today.

For example, we started our Civil Rights Podcast Project by looking at current racial injustices such as Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown. We showed historical pictures of a KKK rally on July 4, 1925 in our hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. I blurred out the label of the city, and students used a reverse image search to discover for themselves where it happened. This gave local significance to the Civil Rights Movement as they were surprised to see it here, launching our project to research local civil rights events and compare them to the famous, national ones.

Using PBL with themes gives relevance and an opportunity to connect students to the community by presentations of final products. Our class took a trip to the library and explored the archives, practicing historical skills of research of primary sources. Students interviewed people that they found in the archives and other community members from diverse perspectives about their memories and experiences. Teams wrote and recorded podcasts and a walking tour of significant locations, which were published online and promoted by our local tourism website.

Link to Free PDF download of my curriculum map.

Above is a link to my scope and sequence for this class to give you an idea of what the full year of wall-to-wall PBL looks like. Please note that this was an integrated American History and ELA class for dual credit in the 10th grade. This is intended to be a guide only for pacing and ideas. Any teacher using it should customize projects for your students in your local context.

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

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