We coach history teachers who use the Four Question Method for unit planning to start by defining the “story of the unit:” decide what actual content you will include in the unit, and in what order. (If the 4QM were reduced to a bumper sticker it would say, “Story First!”) But this imperative poses a real challenge for teachers who are new, or just new to a course: What if you don’t know much about the unit you’re supposed to be teaching? This happens to history teachers, even experienced history teachers, all the time. Unlike high school math or language teachers, who if they have a BA in their subject area already know all the content they’ll ever teach, most history teachers can’t possibly know all the content they will be responsible for teaching. Even setting aside the reality that there’s more history being made every day, the breadth of content that secondary history teachers can be called on to teach in any given year is staggering. In Massachusetts, for example, the state’s high school history curriculum standards cover world history from the middle ages to the present, and American history from the founding era to the present. It takes years of reading to gain solid knowledge of so much content, and the task is never complete. So if you’re a history teacher you’re inevitably going to have to teach units you don’t know. How can you do it?

The answer is that you can’t. You simply have to know a rudimentary “story of the unit” before you can teach it. But there are some ways to learn those stories quickly, and well enough to get by until you can build your understanding through more serious study. In this post I’ll share three techniques for learning the story of the unit in a hurry, presented in ascending order of time demands.


Gary and I are old enough to remember when Wikipedia was new and unreliable. But now it’s actually pretty good, and is a quick-and-dirty way to get an acceptable narrative about any historical topic. Entries are usually well organized, with timelines and periodizations readily apparent, and citations for sources at the end. The entry for the progressive era in the U.S. is typical: it opens with a tight introduction that summarizes the era clearly, then gives an easy-to-read table of contents that shows you the main time periods and topics. The entry closes with references and suggestions for further reading. Gotta learn the story of the unit in twenty minutes? Wikipedia works in a pinch.

College Level Textbooks

You should have a good college level textbook for the course(s) you’re teaching. Often you can get one free from the publisher if you contact them and ask for an “exam copy.” Or you can buy a used one cheap off the internet. Ask your administration to buy one for you, or at least save your receipt and write it off on your taxes — it’s a professional expense.  However you obtain your copy, a college level text is a great tool for staying ahead of your students and getting a deep enough understanding of the material to teach it your first time through. When you’re scrambling to plan your next unit and only have an hour and a half to devote to learning the story, you should read the college level textbook first, then read your students’ textbook, then construct the story of the unit.

Good Synoptic Secondary Sources

If you have a little more time there are some excellent short secondary sources that pack a lot of history into a few pages. I particularly recommend the New Oxford World History series. This is a recently published series of books that integrate political and social history in under 200 pages each. The series features a wide variety of titles, including China In World History and The World From 1450 – 1700. Each volume ends with a timeline, suggestions for further reading, and a list of relevant websites. You can get your brief but comprehensive synopsis from the text itself, and then explore the suggested readings more deeply when you have more time.

Long Term: Keep Reading!

Of course your long term goal is to eventually develop a strong knowledge of everything you have to teach, and perhaps even to have a field or topic that you read deeply in. This will happen naturally over time if you try to always have a book going, without worrying too much about how it relates to what you teach. Popular scholarship, of the sort written by David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, is fun to read and builds knowledge effectively. You can find more demanding books that are also well written by consulting the list of Pulitzer Prize winners in U.S. history and the Bentley Book Prize winners in world history.

A history teacher’s content learning is never done — but if you don’t enjoy reading history in at least some of your free time you should probably consider changing professions. In the meantime, remember that you don’t need to have a PhD level understanding of a topic in order to teach it well — you just need to have done enough reading to know a responsible and coherent story of the unit. And with the right reading plan the work of learning those stories can be both efficient and fun. Happy learning!