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Where English and history meet: A collaboration guide

By Karen Cobb Carroll, Ph.D., NBCT

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

The educational environment in North Carolina reflects more and more the influences of high stakes testing and data-driven instruction. Teaching, once considered by many as a flexible art form, has morphed into an intense drive for increased test scores. This highly charged environment makes it all the more important for schools and teachers to effectively use instructional time. One way to increase this effectiveness is to recognize and utilize the commonalities between two courses often seen as competitive—English and history. Both courses often rely heavily upon written responses, critical assessment, and vocabulary. Yet the content and directions of the two courses need not diverge. By partnering English and history a high school can develop a strong and mutually supportive focus that can benefit both student and school. One example of this type of partnership is the cooperative planning possible between Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) and Advanced Placement English Language Arts (APELA).

Both APUSH and APELA are normally taught in the junior year of high school and both involve a national test in May to determine possible college credit. Teaching the two courses in tandem can take many forms. I was fortunate to teach both AP courses simultaneously as a course entitled “AP Humanities.” I have also taught the APUSH course with an English colleague as well as the APELA course with another history teacher. The combination APELA-APUSH course can be taught over two periods on a traditional schedule or on a block schedule, as separate semester courses, or as an A/B day arrangement (two paired courses taught on alternate days) that encompasses an entire school year. Teachers often prefer the latter configuration, as it allows instruction to continue into May, when the national AP exams are scheduled.

Several advantages of teaching these courses in concert surface immediately. Students engage in cross-curricular activities that incorporate content and skills at an advanced level. Students effectively and efficiently use their educational energies not only to master knowledge, skills, and dispositions, but also to see connections among elements in our social, cultural, and political landscapes. Often these connections lead to new and expanded insights. I taught both these courses to the same high school students for ten years. My students were able to draw deeply upon the historical background in APUSH to explicate English essays, and the essay writing skills developed in APELA served them well when completing APUSH essay assignments.


One challenge to teaching APUSH and APELA together involves scheduling. With few exceptions, the same students must take both courses. To facilitate student success in both AP courses, schools must address vertical articulation for students—AP students must begin to prepare for AP work as early as the freshman year. The Pre-AP Vertical Teams Guides available from College Board can assist with the challenge, as these guides clearly articulate skills needed for AP level work, including cross-curricular strategies. For instance, both guides highlight strategies to encourage critical reading by students. By encouraging the development of AP skills early, students at various ability levels will be more likely to be comfortable enrolled in two AP courses simultaneously.

Another challenge is teacher collaboration. At one time collaborative teaching at the high school level was called, “team teaching,” but that term resides now chiefly in the middle school domain. And yet teaching as a team, a partnership, is exactly what is required. Successful collaborations allot common planning times for participating teachers, and the teachers learn new ways to use that planning time productively. They understand both Standard Courses of Study, and draw from both. They abandon the departmental territoriality that is common in many high school environments and focus upon teaching things differently than in the past. They also nurture more similarities than differences within their disciplines. For instance, they should agree to a common writing style that is acceptable for either discipline. As students use a common style manual for both courses it enforces student writing discipline. An additional example of collaboration involves grades. Collaborative teachers must be willing to accept common assignments for grades in both courses. For example, the current North Carolina Standard Course of Study in English requires students to master research techniques. A common research paper, submitted in both the English and history class, would meet the English research requirements and allow students to investigate in detail a historical topic of importance.

These similarities become intuitive if one teacher teaches both courses, but that is a rare occurrence. More commonly two teachers will collaborate, and their willingness to do so is critical in the success of the venture.

Collaboration is much more likely if the two teachers share similar educational philosophies. They must buy into the collaboration, accepting that neither course should dominate the overall instruction. The two colleagues should share a student-centered approach to teaching, being willing to cooperate to ensure student learning and growth is tantamount. This is perhaps the most challenging obstacle to overcome. Teachers who are chosen for collaborative positions must be carefully selected, and if both participants can share inservice activities to encourage collaboration, their partnership would go far to encourage the spirit of collaboration throughout the school.

Curriculum and content

Connections between English and history are many. A careful selection of classic American novels enables APUSH students to enrich their understanding of American history. My students read such novels and plays as The Crucible (involving the Salem Witch Trials), The Scarlet Letter (Massachusetts colonial theocracy), Walden and Civil Disobedience (nineteenth century reform movements), and The Things They Carried (Vietnam War).

Several APELA practice essays have historical frames, and students can use both historical and rhetorical strategies to approach the material. Examples include:

Historical frame AP English language prompt1
Revolutionary War Our perceptions of people often differ according to our attitudes and circumstances. Describe in a vivid and concrete way one person seen at two different times (or in two different situations) so that the reader understands the difference in your attitude.2 Answer the prompt with reference to Benedict Arnold.
Settlement of the Trans-Mississippi West In the following passages, two Native American writers describe similar landscapes. Read the passages carefully. Then, in a well-organized essay, explain how the passages reveal the differences in the authors’ purposes. Consider such features as diction, syntax, imagery, and tone.3
Civil Rights Movement The following passage is the introduction to Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait, a book that describes the social conditions and the attitudes of many Black Americans in the 1960s. Read the passage carefully. Then write a cohesive essay in which you describe the rhetorical purpose of the passage and analyze its stylistic, narrative, and persuasive devices.4

The examples address goals and objectives from the North Carolina Standard Course Study for eleventh grade United States history and English. But these are not the only courses ripe for articulation. The ninth grade world history curriculum connects to the English I curriculum at several points, as does the tenth grade civics and economics curriculum and the English II curriculum.

Teachers can work together to develop cooperative lesson plans to make effective and efficient use of teacher and student efforts and maximize the impact of classroom instructional time. Whether used in an English or history classroom—or any collaborative setting—these lessons will help students connect content across the curriculum.