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Theme Books

October 30, 2013

Question – How would you change this assignments so it could be used for middle schoolers?  Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Mr. Qua
Theme Book
US History

Purpose:  Themes.  They are interwoven throughout American History.  Despite the fact that much has changed in the last four hundred years since we were founded as a British colony, patterns can be seen and used to better comprehend our history.  Therefore, it will be your job this year to spend time each week not only discovering themes in the subject matter but also using them to gain a more thorough understanding of how our country developed.

Structure:  Each weekend (or during the week if you choose), I expect you to spend time (30-60 minutes) thinking about themes and making connections between what we are currently learning, what we have learned in the past, and what you already know about our present.  While much of your work will be conceptual, it’s crucial for you to write down your thoughts in your Theme Book, which I will collect at various times each month to check your progress. 

Theme Book: Your book will actually be a three-ring binder, which will allow you to type and organize your thoughts.  The first page should be used as a title for your theme book. The remaining part of your book will be divided into ten sections corresponding to the themes below.  Each section needs to be labeled with a section divider, which you can purchase in the bookstore. The first page of each section will be reserved for you to periodically define and redefine these ten themes because many of their meanings will change over time.

  • Big Government vs. Small Government
  • Strict Constructionist vs. Broad Constructionist
  • Liberty
  • The Growth of Democracy and the Power of Politics
  • Reform
  • Discrimination
  • Courage
  • Isolationism vs. Internationalism
  • Two of Your Choosing

Expectations:  You must:

  • Spend a minimum of thirty minutes thinking and writing about your theme each week.
  • Mark the sections you have been working on each week with a post it note on the top of your notebook. 
  • Date each definition and entry in your theme book.
  • Make connections to a previously learned concept or with events from our present.
  • Capture your internal dialogue in writing.
  • Think deeply about what we are learning in class with the goal of gaining a better understanding.
  • Review and broaden your knowledge of previously learned material.
  • Gain a better understanding of the present.

Grading Guidelines:  Theme books will be counted as part of your writing grade (15%), and each entry should be at least a page in length and will be worth 20 points.

  • Each entry must be dated                                                           
  • Each entry must make connections to the past or present                       
  • Each entry must explain reasoning behind connection(s)
  • Each entry must show “deep thinking”           


2/25:  The Failure of Reconstruction and the Promise of Obama

The decade following the end of the Civil War was a time of great change in American society, and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were remarkable in their intention to equalize African-Americans in society by freeing them from slavery, giving them equal rights, and granting them the right to vote. For the first time in American History, the federal government was taking action to secure and guarantee the rights of blacks.  I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Virginia’s colonial government had taken action in 1619 when the first boat of slaves arrived at the port of Richmond. But back then, the discrimination that African slaves faced was not as pervasive, as many of these “slaves” were later freed or were allowed to earn their freedom.  The same was not true of blacks in the mid-19th century because they were viewed by many citizens as the lowest of the low.

Black Codes passed by several states to reverse the emancipation of slaves following the13th Amendment were proof of the racism and the desire by the whites in the South to maintain their social position.  These laws made it difficult for blacks to buy property and kept former slaves out of various types of work.  Most states made it illegal for freedmen to testify in a court of law or to carry a gun, and interracial marriage was prohibited.   Blacks, guilty of breaking these laws, were subject to imprisonment and could be made to work for their former owners (

The Black Codes, which conflicted with the 13th Amendment, forced Republicans in Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment of 1867, which made discrimination unconstitutional.  To enforce these federal laws, President Ulysses S. Grant sent the army to the South, and Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republicans pushed for the passage of the 15th Amendment, which gave blacks the right to vote.  Yet, as time passed, Reconstruction lost steam, Southern politicians regained their seats in Congress, and Jim Crow laws of the 20th century returned the country to its racist ways. 

Following the Second World War, which forced blacks and whites to serve together on the battlefield, the push towards equality was reignited during the Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s.  While schools were desegregated in 1947 as a result of Topeka vs. Board of Education, and Lyndon B. Johnson launched his plan for the Great Society in 1965, America still fell short of equality for all as the country entered the new millennium,.  Now, with the upcoming presidential election and the possibility of the first African American president, I can’t help but wonder if we, as a country, are ready to jump over the last hurdle and create a country where everyone is equal.  I think that having a black president will prove to people that their prejudices are unfounded.  However, racism runs deep, and I doubt that everyone will change his or her paradigm as a result of an Obama presidency.  As Eugene Kane wrote recently in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “If Obama takes the oath of office in January, it will be a signal not only to America but to the world at large. But it won’t mean institutional or personal racism will disappear overnight. There will still be suspicious police shootings, racial profiling, claims of discrimination, ugly hate crimes.”  The head of the NAACP, Julian Bond agreed and in a recent speech at their national convention he said, “We know that Obama’s electoral success, even if he should win the ultimate prize, won’t signal an end to racial discrimination, but it does mark the high point of an interracial movement that dates back to the Underground Railroad. (”

However, I believe that an African American president will do much to move us closer to equality in America.  At the root of racism is ignorance, and Barracks’ intellect and ability will prove to those willing to listen that African Americans are as capable as whites and deserve to be treated with respect. While the federal initiatives taken during Reconstruction and the Civil Right’s movement fell short, the example of a president may bring us closer to the ideal set forth in the Declaration of Independence and create a country where all men are created equal.


From → Lesson Plans

  1. Heather permalink

    I think I would use it with 8th graders almost the way it is, but I would do it in class for the first part of the year, and shorten the time and length expectations. After a few months of examples, discussion, and related work, I would make some of it independent work (homework). For 6th graders I think just identification of the themes, and some short explanation would be enough to start with at the beginning of the year. If they master that, other parts could be added on. I like the assignment, I may borrow some of these ideas. I do some similar things with the “Value Tensions” lessons created by the Colonial Williamsburg education folks: Law vs. Ethics, Unity vs. Diversity, Common Wealth vs. Private Wealth, and Freedom vs. Equality.

  2. Tracy L Brady permalink

    I teach grade 6 Social Studies and often run accross the same problems you presented. Generally, begin by modeling what you want them to do (or video and present) using just enough words to get the idea accross; give a basic example that they can refer back to as needed and allow time for class discussion (if they feel unsure they may not proceed 🙂 You may be surprised what they do NOT know and need clarification on. Start with their prior knowledge and make connections to what they do know. For example: “Big vs. Small Government” – Review grade 5 content or shoot the teacher(s) an email. They can send you tests/quizzes that students were given last year so you can see the reading level used and the types of questions asked. From there you can use examples from the local paper or even student council (if it is active in your building) to start those all important connections. Maybe include a “Think List” to go along with each Theme listing different questions you would want them to think about / incorporate into their response. Take it slow, model each step (a LOT!), and eventually it will click. Those students who get it first can assist their peers. I agree with others that you may want to alllow yourself the first term as “practice.” Maybe even include a pre/post example so that at the end of the year, you and the kids can see just how far they have come using this higher level thinking skill that is so important in life. Good luck!

  3. Tracy and Heather – Thanks for the great ideas!

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