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History Department Redesigns United States History 400
Maya Laur Staff Writer '20
November 9, 2018

In 2017, the History Department came to the decision to make a radical change: a complete overhaul and redesign of the United States History 400 curriculum.

“The goal of this change was to create a course that emphasizes a few big ideas revealed by a close look at discrete moments in time, with a strong emphasis on primary sources,” said History and Social Science Department Head Julia Rivellino-Lyons. “What has sticking power is wrestling with ideas and having to apply what you’ve learned in contemporary world questions.”

Credit: Madeline Lee

Since this course does not have to prepare students for the AP U.S. History exam, U.S. History teachers can be more flexible with the material, finding new ways to explore the course of American history. Through this method, teachers can take the time to develop in-depth conceptual and analytical skills.

Ms. Rivellino-Lyons said, “Given the opportunity to do something really different than a typical chronological based survey, we have developed something that we’re hoping will allow us to explore topics in more creative ways and to structure a class that helps us teach students how to apply history to their role in the world—to use history when they vote, when they read the news, etc.”   

From there, they decided to take advantage of the flexible curriculum provided by a non-AP course to teach students conceptual and analytical skills that AP students may not have the time to focus on. With this goal in mind, this course was developed through what Ms. Rivellino-Lyons calls backwards planning.

“Start with something you want students to be able to do,” she said, “And then plan backwards— figure out what they need to do to accomplish it.”

“Each unit explores one of five big ideas by traveling chronologically: the course as a whole doesn’t seek to ‘cover’ the content, but asks students to ‘uncover’ meaning in particular moments, in relation to these themes,” said Ms. Rivellino-Lyons.

The theme of “Democracy and Citizenship” highlights the relationship between the people and the government and the responsibilities each owe to one another. The theme of “History” acknowledges that history is the stories we choose to tell. The fact that the American identity is a malleable and contested concept is discussed in the theme “Identity.” The development of “Capitalism” is another theme, expanding on how the desire for material progress shaped the American social, political, and economic environment. The final theme of Exceptionalism explains how America’s expansion shaped American foreign policy.

Ms. Rivellino-Lyons and History Teachers Mr. Chapin and Mr. Pitcher each applied for a Release Grant during 2017 to develop this course, which means each of them was “released” from another aspect of their job. During this time, these three teachers pulled a variety of sources, researched textbooks, and visited classes to develop the main themes and layout of the course. Continuing into the summer, and joined by 9th  and 10th Grade Dean and History Teacher Ms. Rebecca Melvoin, History Teacher Ms. Marissa Cornelius, and History Teacher Mr. Tim McVaugh, they fleshed out the details of each of the five main themes, planning the specific and daily details of the course.

“This collaboration among six teachers, across nine sections, and this decision to work from a common syllabus means that teachers can share ideas and talk about particular classes. All 100 students taking U.S. History 400 are doing the same readings/assignments/projects, which means there is cross-pollination among them, as well as among the teachers,” said Ms. Rivellino-Lyons. This year, both Ms. Rivellino-Lyons and Mr. Pitcher have another Release Grant in order to manage and organize the teaching of this course.

“A lot of times teachers have general ideas, but it’s rarely the norm to think this carefully about the whole big picture of an entire year,” said Ms. Rivellino-Lyons. “We don’t have a textbook, [so] we’re pulling sources from a lot of different places.”

Teachers use both primary and secondary sources, including a variety of historians, Crash Course videos, museum visits, and relevant films. The class time is spent evaluating sources in groups, exploring historical events, and making judgements off of these sources.

Ms. Rivellino-Lyons said, “We’re taking some of the time we thought we couldn’t spare [in the AP course] to do many different things.”

Helen Feng ’20, a student currently in the course, made it clear that the class is not only focusing on content, but on concepts as well, saying, “We’re looking at history from an analytical, humanistic perspective.”

“The thematic system is much more effective in teaching students lessons to actually understand the roots of our country, not just dates and wars,” said Kate Landino ’20, another student enrolled currently. “The lessons we learn widen our perspective on a sociopolitical level and send us into the world with a deeper understanding of bias, society, and anything to do with the origin of America.”