Emily A. Owens is an assistant professor of history at Brown University.
The Choices Program writers begin work on the first unit in a new U.S. history series.
The Choices Program published its first series of U.S. history units more than twenty-five years ago. Since then, much has changed about the way the country’s story is studied and understood. So this winter, the four writers who create the Choices content began the task of rewriting the series for today’s classroom.
“We want to write a history that’s inclusive and more informative,” says Andy Blackadar, director of curriculum development, who collaborates on the Choices content with Susannah Bechtel, Ada Okun and Lindsay Turchan.
The first new unit, which they began in January, will chronicle the period from the end of the American Revolution through 1830. Titled A New Nation, the unit will highlight relevant themes, such as the dynamics of power, gender and race that were at play during that time, as well as labor and the economy. Much of the content will focus on the experiences of marginalized groups of that era, including enslaved people, native people and women. For example, one major theme is an examination of the first three words of the U.S. Constitution — “We the People” — and who that phrase actually included and didn’t include. All of the themes in A New Nation will be carried throughout the subsequent new U.S. history units.
“We want students to understand that U.S. history is really complex and to understand it fully you have to understand all of these pieces”
It’s no small task to research the details of a significant period in history and boil it down into text and lesson plans that are accessible to high school students. And the decades covered in A New Nation were particularly eventful, with the creation of the founding documents, the Louisiana Purchase, the dispossession of native land, the War of 1812 and the rise of industrialization all happening within a short time. These events, and many more, will be explained in A New Nation. The unit will end with the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and lay out a series of questions for inquiry, setting the stage for the next Choices unit, which will cover the Civil War.
Before beginning any Choices unit, the writers consult with scholars on themes and events to include and what source material to reference. The goal is to create material that is historically accurate by including multiple perspectives.
For A New Nation, Emily Owens, assistant professor of history at Brown, and Serena Zabin, professor of history and director of American Studies at Carleton College, are lending their expertise throughout the process.
A signature component of the Choices Program curricula is the use of primary source narratives. A New Nation will include several first-hand accounts to give students insight into what was happening at the time and help them connect on a more personal level with those events.
Take, for example, a lesson that examines excerpts from slave narratives that describe enslaved people’s experiences building their own religious communities. It’s accounts like these that the Choices writers think will resonate strongly with students.
“Human experiences are what make history powerful,” Blackadar says.
In addition to historical facts and narratives, each Choices unit includes interactive lesson plans and activities that reinforce the information students are learning.
While working through A New Nation students will be prompted to engage in lessons on Census data, the founding documents, land treaties between the U.S. government and native peoples, and the Haitian revolution. Activities will include primary source analysis, a role play, data analysis and historical thinking and synthesis. Maps and imagery included in the unit will further augment the material.
“The lessons we include allow teachers to set students up to discover. We want students to feel like they are peeling back the layers of history. The goal is to make them feel excited and engaged and build skills so they can discover more.”
The team is also working on several videos featuring Brown scholars, including Professor of History Michael Vorenberg and Emily Owens, answering questions about the United States’ early years. The videos will be publicly accessible on the Choices website as they are completed. A New Nation will be published in print and digital editions in May.
Until then, the Choices writers will be hard at work, finishing up a unit on an important, but sometimes difficult time in U.S. history.
“We hope that students walk away from A New Nation with a deeper understanding of the contradictions and complexities of that time,” Blackadar says. “There’s a sense of empowerment that comes with learning that it’s not just a simple story.”
Join us August 20-21, 2018 for a 2-day summer program where we will introduce teachers to the multiyear expansion of our U.S. History series.