The Seven Themes of the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap

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The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy is organized around an inquiry-based content framework of seven themes. These themes integrate history and civic education through key concepts, broad driving questions, and specific guiding questions. Even though the interplay of history and civics are the crux of the roadmap, the seven themes draw upon the broader social studies to include other tenets like geography, economics, culture and society, and governance. Due to their comprehensive nature, the seven themes are versatile and transdisciplinary enough to teach across subject areas and courses. In fact, the seven themes do not adhere to a specific course, subject area, or discipline but vertically spiral through the grade bands K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. 

While not organized in a hierarchical or chronological order, there is an interlocking nature among the seven themes and a deliberate progression in key concepts. The themes begin by focusing on the role of schools in preparing students to become active participants in their communities and our constitutional democratic republic. This is done through fostering the civic aptitudes of knowledge, attitudes, skills, and behaviors. The themes then build upon this need for civic readiness in forming communities that encompass human and natural elements and a polity in light of the United States constitutional form of government. The themes then invite a critical analysis of our country’s substantive achievements alongside its many challenges in self-government, using both a historical and civic lens. This analysis is then extended beyond our country’s borders in a global context and emphasizes the complexities that have arisen in history in conjunction with those we presently experience. The themes then circle back to the importance of civic aptitudes and shared political principles in our ever-pressing need for informed, responsible participation in decision-making processes, compromise, and civic friendship.

It is important to stress the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy is not a set of standards or a curriculum. Instead, the roadmap is meant to serve as a guide or touchpoint to teach history alongside civics, connect complementary concepts, and elevate what is already being taught in the K12 classroom. Tammy Waller likens this traditional approach to treating the people, places, events, and ideas taught as balloons. Any significance simply floats away if not tethered to concrete, student-centered ideas and student-driven experiences. To this end, the roadmap centers the student experience through an inquiry-based approach that draws upon historical constructs, including those of students and their families, and active participation within the classroom and school community. As we discuss each of the roadmap’s seven themes in greater detail, you can access an interactive roadmap on the Educating for American Democracy website at

Theme 1: Civic Participation

Theme 1: Civic Participation is the essence of the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy and the premise behind public schools. Throughout the early beginnings of the United States, schools were recognized for their role in nurturing our infant democracy and creating a civic ethos among communities. It was understood that we the people must develop the civic aptitudes of knowledge, attitudes, skills, and behaviors necessary for participation in a government for the people and by the people. Hence, Benjamin Franklin’s famous dire advice following the Constitutional Convention in 1787, wherein he tells onlookers that he and other convention members created “A Republic if you can keep it.” More recently, research has shown that learning things like how a bill becomes law, absent of any civic action or experiential learning, will not help us keep our republic. Dubbed guardians of democracy, schools have been tasked with teaching students how to navigate information and democratic processes to participate and effectively make participatory decisions. This idea of participatory readiness and healthy civic engagement are the aims of Theme 1, which are inextricably linked to the civic aptitudes of knowledge, attitudes, skills, and behaviors. At its core, this theme positions students to mold themselves into future civic leaders and changemakers.

The key concepts and driving and guiding questions of Theme 1 pull together the historical precedents of civic leadership and legacies and position students to practice being informed, engaged participants in our constitutional democracy. Examples of civic leadership include historical examples and present-day leaders and how they address(ed) problems within their communities. This theme equips students with the civic aptitudes to tie historical examples and contemporary knowledge to their classroom and school community and to practice civil discourse and deliberation with one another in a risk-free, safe space. Students hone their civic aptitudes through civil dialogue and disagreement and the nurturing of civic friendships. The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy provides a robust model for this level of participation. Additionally, the beauty of Theme 1, and truly the entire roadmap, is that it’s not tied to a specific event, person, place, or time. Instead, it can be grounded in the local community or even draw upon the state and national levels.

Theme 2: Our Changing Landscapes

While the use of the word “landscape” in Theme 2: Our Changing Landscapes may generate a misnomer in purely the geographical sense, the term “landscape” in the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy is meant to be expansive and include cultural, social, economic, and political landscapes, as well as the landscapes of students and families, as in their lived experiences. This theme offers opportunities to discuss how these landscapes translate to engaging and existing as a citizen in this country and how our historical landscapes shape civic responsibilities in our present-day communities. Theme 2 connects time, place, and space beyond political borders and maps to reflect on complex experiences of both benefits and harms, including those impacting our natural world.

Through Theme 2, students analyze how regions have changed over time, specifically drawing upon the people and their existence alongside the land and natural elements, and how this influx and efflux affects culture, politics, language, etc. The approach taken up by the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy in this theme is twofold: students draw upon their cultural, familial, and societal connections to reflect upon the history of how the United States has shaped its physical, geographical, and social-cultural contours. Even from its early beginnings, the United States was diverse in demographics, social and cultural identities, and political ideologies -as seen in both the early colonies and the indigenous peoples. By fostering a shared understanding of varied landscapes and an appreciation for tackling issues across regions and self-imposed boundaries, students can apply this learning to various contexts and address interdisciplinary crosscuts such as sustainability, economic choices, and current challenges in our continuously changing world.

Theme 3: We the People

Theme 3 of the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy explores the notion of We the People as a shared political construct. Tocqueville, like many others, wrote of the uniqueness of the American experiment with democracy, citing that the origins of the United States do not rest on commonalities like blood, ethnicity, nationality, or race. Instead, the United States is a country both bounded and bonded by its ideas, institutions, and shared documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. Theme 3 addresses the tensions between the concept e pluribus unum and our country’s history of people immigrating and migrating, people coming to this country voluntarily and involuntarily, and the people who have existed here for tens of thousands of years.

Theme 3 recognizes the United States not as a monolith but as one of the most diverse nations in the world politically, religiously, racially, and culturally. Our country’s pluralism, while at times historically challenging, carves out space for reflection on how the concept of unity can be equitably beneficial and forge a common path forward for our country. Likewise, in this theme, students examine the shared political culture of values and principles that tie us together as We the People. True to the aim of the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy, Theme 3 uses both history and civics to challenge students to consider how individualism and differing ideas among groups, groups both inherent and self-created, can co-exist and offer opportunities to pursue shared ideals that connect our diverse population and shared societal decision-making processes. Through an inquiry lens, students explore who we are as a nation, how we have changed over time and space, and who we must become because our constitutional democracy depends on We the People. Theme 3 provides students with a deep understanding of the complex phenomenon of who the people of the United States have been and come to be and centers the necessary civic aptitudes students need as they traverse our country as part of We the People.

Theme 4: A New Government and Constitution

The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy explores the institutional and constitutional underpinnings of the United States in Theme 4: A New Government and Constitution. This theme recognizes that while our country has founding documents, these documents are meant to be interpreted alongside our current society, with the Constitution framed as a living document meant to be adapted following our country’s current needs, ideals, and values. One example of dynamic interpretation can be found in the idea of equality in the Declaration of Independence and how the pre-Constitution idea of equality differs from the idea of equality in the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, and other amendments and acts, such as the various Civil Rights Acts. Theme 4 of the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy positions our layered levels of governance and participation and founding documents like the Constitution as driving catalysts for change present day.

Theme 4 draws upon our country’s historical past to bring relevancy to present ideas, controversies, and principles. This theme spirals historical contexts and shifts with the continuous debates on the relationship between the balance of liberty and equality, power and rights, and multi-facets of political participation. Using founding and seminal documents, Theme 4 encourages students to apply their civic aptitudes to critically analyze historical policies, amendments, and court rulings and question whether such decisions are what best serve our diverse electorate present day. Like the debates of the Federalist papers and the Constitutional Convention of 1787, students will grapple with questions like Who participates in our country’s shared decision-making processes? In what ways may people participate? and reflect on How well have we achieved the ideals and promises of our past? How can we equitably create a more perfect union? juxtaposed with Who is the current union more perfect for? Additionally, students will explore how present-day civic practices and processes can be used to enact change, examining how adaptable or flexible these processes are and how the long-standing, baked-in debates of our country’s political culture play out through a contemporary lens.

Theme 5: Institutional and Social Transformation

Theme 5 of the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy focuses on our country’s institutional and social transformations as a series of refoundings. While the founding of the United States is often myopically discussed as our independence in 1776, this theme invites us to reconsider and investigate our country’s multiplicity of foundings as seen through paramount social, political, and economic shifts, spanning those that predate the earliest colonial period to the most present. In fact, changes to our country’s political philosophy, political and civic infrastructures, and justice systems have arisen and been modified through each of these refoundings. Therefore, an important tenet of Theme 5 is the concept of change in relation to the growth and progress of our country. Drawing on founding documents like the Declaration of Independence, this theme points to how the promises and ideals outlined in these documents can be our north stars in achieving equitable and just institutional and social transformations. 

In Theme 5, students are provided opportunities to examine historical and contemporary changes in the United States, recognizing that change is inevitable and inherently part of the human experience. Students will explore the roles of people and the roles of formal and informal institutions in enacting changes in our society. Theme 5 fosters classroom discussions and a critical examination of change as a self-governing people through questions like What should we change and to what end? What benefits and harms will be experienced with such changes? Are there things we ought not to change, and why? Further, students will consider how our country’s systems work to facilitate change with examples spanning the Constitution, people’s rights, and democratic participation -all backdropped by the idea of justice. Theme 5 of the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy assists students in developing their civic aptitudes with a sense of fairness or a moral compass to examine whether changes were just or unjust and determine changes that need to be made in our current society to further the ideals of justice.

Theme 6: A People in the World

The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy’s Theme 6: A People in the World explores the existence and role of the United States within a global context. This theme covers critical historical events, crucial interactions, and fundamental connections between the United States and other countries and regions worldwide. Through this historical lens, the global power of the United States is debated and discussed adjacent to responsibility and implications. Also, with an overarching focus on the myriad of ways in which the United States and its people are entrenched in modern-day global economic, social, political, cultural, and environmental relationships, Theme 6 drives home the concept of global citizenship to build an understanding of the principles, values, and laws at stake in debates about our country’s role in the world.

Theme 6 emphasizes students as global leadership stewards and changemakers. No longer can history and civic education be taught with a pre-World War II isolationist approach; students must understand how they fit in and interact with the world and be aware of globalization’s impact on their daily lives. In this theme, students will learn critical concepts of interdependence, shared leadership and global governance, cooperation and conflict resolution, and the roles of political leaders and civil servants in preserving our global position and influence. Theme 6 of the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy aims to position students as informed actors equipped with the civic aptitudes to apply forward thinking to the many global challenges we face today, beyond man-made borders. These challenges include national interests and security, human rights, environmental justice, and global health.

Theme 7: Contemporary Debates and Possibilities

The final theme of the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy is Theme 7: Contemporary Debates and Possibilities. This theme recognizes political argument as central to our United States government and governance structures and therefore calls for an investigation into historical narratives and events as a way to shape current political and social challenges, policies, and debates. Through the knowledge building of past political events and social movements, this theme builds relationships between different perspectives and experiences to build civic friendship and explore methods of compromise. While acutely aware of the fragility of democracies worldwide, Theme 7 emphasizes optimistic possibilities in civic and political participation and innovations as we traverse the threats to our own country’s constitutional democratic republic.

Throughout the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy Theme 7, students are asked to apply their knowledge of the past to a forward-thinking present. In this theme, students are provided the space for exploration and reflection on the past as a way to frame the present, including their roles within the community and the greater world. Simultaneously, Theme 7 allows students the opportunity to explore present-day rhetoric concerning issues and events while at the same time drawing upon the past for ideas and solutions. The questions within this theme position students to practice civil dialogue through healthy debates on a shared pathway forward utilizing a reflective patriotic lens and their civic aptitudes.


It is important to remember that the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy is not a set of standards nor a national curriculum. The roadmap in its entirety may not even be used, or not every history and civics lesson may incorporate the roadmap’s themes. However, the roadmap is flexible enough to be partially integrated or used as a supplement to other resources and materials. Due to this malleability and contextual nature, the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy can be used in conjunction with various settings and for multiple purposes, such as state-level standards, curriculum, instructional resources and materials, professional development, pedagogical strategies, and lesson plans. The roadmap is meant to guide history and civic education, so the responsibility rests with states, districts, and schools in deciding how to incorporate the roadmap to meet local needs.

We encourage anyone considering using the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy to take the time to review the themes fully, including the other grade bands as a vertical alignment. We also hope the roadmap inspires educators to re-examine current curricula and resources and consider ways to integrate the roadmap to transform the teaching of history and civics to meet the needs of diverse 21st-century learners and leaders.

The Seven Themes Podcast Part 1

The Seven Themes Podcast Part 2

Author bio
Tara Bartlett portrait photo, smiling with greenery in background

Tara Bartlett is a Ph.D. candidate in Arizona State University’s Educational Policy and Evaluation program. Her research focuses on participatory governance within school communities, particularly through a student-centered approach. Tara’s research is driven by her experience and a passion for integrating opportunities for youth and families to participate in school and district-based decision-making processes and policy creation and adoption. Before pursuing a doctoral degree, Tara was a public school educator with 14 years of teaching experience in Arizona Title I middle schools. As an education leader, Tara has been integral in elevating district curriculum and statewide standards initiatives and facilitating professional development opportunities for fellow educators. These experiences, coupled with the observed outcomes of civic action and student voice within the classroom, led Tara to reimagine how K12 schools can better equip youth with the knowledge, attitudes, skills, and practices to become political and civic changemakers within their own communities for the long term. Read more about Tara below.

Before pursuing a doctoral degree, Tara was a public school educator with 14 years of teaching experience in Arizona Title I middle schools. As an education leader, Tara has been integral in elevating district curriculum and statewide standards initiatives and facilitating professional development opportunities for fellow educators. These experiences, coupled with the observed outcomes of civic action and student voice within the classroom, led Tara to reimagine how K12 schools can better equip youth with the knowledge, attitudes, skills, and practices to become political and civic changemakers within their own communities for the long term.

Additionally, Tara has experience working on small and large-scale civic education projects in Arizona, the US, and internationally. In Arizona, Tara serves as Co-Director of the Arizona Civic Coalition. She has been integral to expanding and adopting Arizona schools’ proven civic education practices. At the state and regional U.S. levels, Tara coordinates and facilitates several K12 civic learning programs like Project Citizen, Kids Voting, and We the People. Nationally, Tara has worked on several civic research projects, including the Educating for American Democracy project and the Project Citizen Research Program. Internationally, Tara continues to partner with the U.S. State Department to facilitate cross-cultural learning opportunities on citizenship education, public pedagogy, and civic engagement for the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative (YSEALI), the Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), and the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).

Born and raised in Arizona, Tara is dedicated to investing in Arizona’s future. Outside of volunteering for several local K12 education organizations and serving as her precinct’s committee person, Tara enjoys spending time exploring all Arizona has to offer, including hiking, biking, and eating. She is a self-dubbed localist and a strong supporter of local businesses, events, and restaurants -ask her what some of her favorites are! Currently, Tara lives in South Phoenix with her partner and their three fur kiddos: Thor, Sucia, and Pata.