Reading & Literacy

History Lessons Blend Content Knowledge, Literacy

By Catherine Gewertz — July 30, 2012 11 min read
Shilpa Duvoor reviews primary source documents with her 7th and 8th grade students during a lesson on American slavery during summer school at Sunnyvale Middle School in Sunnyvale, Calif.
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For years, bands of educators have been trying to free history instruction from the mire of memorization and propel it instead with the kinds of inquiry that drive historians themselves. Now, the common-core standards may offer more impetus for districts and schools to adopt that brand of instruction.

A study of one such approach suggests that it can yield a triple academic benefit: It can deepen students’ content knowledge, help them think like historians, and also build their reading comprehension.

The Reading Like a Historian program, a set of 75 free secondary school lessons in U.S. history, is getting a new wave of attention as teachers adapt to the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts. Those guidelines, adopted by all but four states, demand that teachers of all subjects help students learn to master challenging nonfiction and build strong arguments based on evidence.

Searching for ways to teach those literacy skills across the curriculum, while building students’ content knowledge and thinking skills, some educators have turned to that program. Designed under the tutelage of history educator Sam Wineburg, it has been downloaded from the website of the research project he directs, the Stanford History Education Group, more than 330,000 times in the past 2½ years.

“It completely changed the way I teach history, and my students are getting so much more out of it,” said Terri Camajani, who teaches U.S. history and government at Washington High School in San Francisco. “They get really into it. And their reading level just jumps; you can see it in their writing,” she said.

A photo of slaves is reviewed by students at Sunnyvale Middle School as they learn about slavery in America.

Ms. Camajani was one of the teachers involved in a 2008 experiment that gauged the impact of Reading Like a Historian lessons on 11th graders in 10 San Francisco high school classes. Teachers in half the classrooms had been trained to use the lessons; those in the other half did not use them. After six months, students using the program outperformed those in the control group in factual knowledge, reading comprehension, and a suite of analytical and strategic skills dubbed “historical thinking.”

Avishag Reisman, who led the curriculum development and the study as part of her doctoral work at Stanford University under Mr. Wineburg, said the program “seems to hit a number of important goals. Literacy skills: got that. Higher-level thinking and domain-specific reading: got that. And basic facts: got that, too. Students did better on the nuts and bolts because they were embedded in meaningful instruction.”

And they did better even though their teachers “didn’t always implement the lessons with the highest level of fidelity,” said Ms. Reisman, who published her findings last fall and winter in two journals, the Journal of Curriculum Studies and Cognition and Instruction. That suggests, she said, that improved professional development could produce even stronger results.

The program takes primary-source documents as its centerpiece and shifts textbooks into a supporting role. Each lesson begins with a question, such as, “How should we remember the dropping of the atomic bomb?” or “Did Pocahontas save John Smith’s life?” Students must dig into letters, articles, speeches, and other documents to understand events and develop interpretations buttressed by evidence from what they read.

Four Key Skills

Teachers trained in the approach focus heavily on four key skills: “sourcing,” to gauge how authors’ viewpoints and reasons for writing affect their accounts of events; “contextualization,” to get a full picture of what was happening at the time; “corroboration,” to help students sort out contradictory anecdotes and facts; and “close reading,” to help them absorb text slowly and deeply, parsing words and sentences for meaning.

One lesson begins by asking whether Abraham Lincoln was a racist. Students are always intrigued by the question, said Valerie Ziegler, a teacher at Lincoln High School in San Francisco, because they learned as children that he freed the slaves.

But as they read a group of documents the lesson provides for them, it becomes clear that they can yield multiple interpretations, she said. For instance, Mr. Lincoln said in 1858, while debating Stephen A. Douglas for a seat in the U.S. Senate, that he viewed “negroes” as morally and intellectually inferior to Caucasians, but believed they were still entitled to equal rights under the law.

A student at Sunnyvale Middle School reviews a document illustrating the types of restraints used on American slaves.

The roots of Reading Like a Historian reach back to Mr. Wineburg’s own doctoral work in the late 1980s. A cognitive psychologist, he compared the way historians read documents with the way students in Advanced Placement history courses read them, in an attempt to distill the types of thinking necessary for successful study of history. Following that trail in the ensuing decades solidified his conviction that history education must be fueled by teaching students modes of thinking that are specific to the discipline, a view he explored in his 2001 book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Fritz Fischer, the director of history education at the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, sees “Reading Like a Historian” as a valuable step toward turning key strains of thought in history education into a curricular program.

Many scholars, such as Peter Seixas of the University of British Columbia and Bob Bain of the University of Michigan, have long pressed for historical thinking and use of primary-source documents in K-12 education, and programs such as the Evanston, Ill.-based “DBQ Project,” which offers writing resources for history teachers, and Brown University’s “Choices” series, draw on that thinking, as well, he said.

Collectively, such efforts help push history education in an important direction: They encourage students to see history as a rich trove of stories and interpretations, rather than a staggering assemblage of facts, said Mr. Fischer, a past chairman of the National Council for History Education.

The approach, however, requires a type of preparation that isn’t common in programs for aspiring teachers, Mr. Fischer said. And for classroom teachers, it requires time to delve with students, and “time is what is being cut from social studies classrooms,” he said.

Mr. Wineburg said that the lessons were designed specifically to fit within the 50-minute class period. Teachers can choose from among them, or use them all. But for teachers accustomed to a traditional, textbook-focused classroom, he said, making optimum use of the lessons will require “a deep content-knowledge base to understand the methodology of historical thinking.”

Shifts in Materials

A central aim in creating the program, he said, is to “break the stranglehold of the textbook,” which typically plays such a large role in instruction that it reduces primary-source documents to “decorations.” A textbook author himself, Mr. Wineburg said he grew frustrated that most textbooks’ focus on facts obscured “the grand narrative of history.” Students need the chance to experience history as a weave of questions and interpretations, but such a shift can be uncomfortable, he said.

“It’s disconcerting to teachers and students who have been housebroken to think there are right answers in history,” he said.

The common standards echo key themes in Reading Like a Historian. Issued in 2010, the standards place a premium on students’ abilities to carefully read and re-read a complex text until they’ve mastered its meaning and to use evidence in that text to build arguments.

Many educators fear that students with weaker academic skills could struggle under such expectations unless appropriate supports are provided. Recognizing that urban classrooms have high proportions of students reading below grade level or learning English, Mr. Wineburg and Ms. Reisman adapted the documents used in the lessons. They shortened them, simplified syntax and vocabulary, and added word definitions.

Ms. Camajani, who began her teaching career as a paraprofessional in a reading lab for students with weak literacy skills, said she found the adaptations “brilliant,” and just what she needed to help her most reading-challenged students access the material.

One of her former students said he was put off at first by having to read historical documents.

Currency from the 19th century South is reviewed by students at Sunnyvale Middle School during a lesson on American slavery.

“To be honest, I don’t like reading,” said Erick Osorio, who graduated this past spring. “And when I saw the stuff Ms. Camajani wanted us to read, I was like, ‘We gotta read this?’ But it was more interesting than stuff in other history classes. We learned how to look for information very deeply. And it really helped me in English class, too.”

Ms. Ziegler said that her students seem to enjoy, in particular, challenging the orthodoxies they’ve learned as children. A civil rights unit on Rosa Parks, for instance, takes on the popular story that she sat initially at the front of the bus. The students read documents that raise the possibility that she sat in the middle, Ms. Ziegler said.

“What all the lessons have in common is that you’re trying to solve a mystery, and for kids, that’s the exciting part,” Ms. Ziegler said. “It really changes their thinking about history. They’re so into the investigation that they don’t even realize they’re learning some really important skills.”

She leads students in comparisons of their textbook with others, too, so they can see the variations. “They begin to see textbooks differently, too,” she said. “They see that they can’t rely on just one source.”

Something Ms. Camajani likes in particular about the approach is how it “empowers” her most marginalized students. Some of the quietest, or least engaged, students have been hooked by the assumption-challenging exercises, she said.

“I’ve got a really edgy kid in baggy jeans, who used to not say much of anything, and in the middle of discussion, he says to another kid, ‘Can you source that for me?’ He is really engaged, really challenging things. He’s getting a chance to experience himself as intellectual.”

But to enable that in students, teachers have to resituate themselves in the process, Ms. Camajani said. Typically, she has students pair up to examine documents, then sit in a big circle to discuss their interpretations. At first, they do what they’re accustomed to: look to the teacher for the right answer.

“I had to learn to redirect them: ‘Don’t tell me, tell him,’ ” she said. “They quit looking to me for the answer and began to engage in academic, intellectual discourse with one another. I was absolutely stunned. It’s difficult, because there is some real zing in being the star of the show. You are the final word on everything. But you have to learn to push the ball down the hill and get out of the way.”

Catching On

The approach is drawing notice. Dana Chibbaro, the social studies director in the 39,000-student Newark, N.J., school system, said it is one of a handful of programs the district has recommended to principals as they implement the cross-disciplinary literacy expectations of the common standards.

The methodology, more than the content, is what she hopes teachers can take from the program, she said. The questioning and analyzing skills it demands of students are important for their futures as informed citizens who are “critical consumers of information,” Ms. Chibbaro said. She thinks it does a better job than does Advanced Placement—which also emphasizes “DBQs,” or document-based questions—in teaching students how to engage in deep analysis of text.

The Lincoln, Neb., school district has been working to incorporate the approach into its K-12 curriculum.

Randy Ernst, the social studies director in the 36,000-student district, said the program addresses gaps that district officials found between their standards and their teaching.

“We were supposed to be teaching history from multiple perspectives, but we weren’t doing that,” he said. “We weren’t asking kids to corroborate.”

Led by dozens of teachers in a master’s degree program funded with a federal Teaching American History grant, educators in Lincoln are drawing on Reading Like a Historian to revise their own instruction for students from 12th grade all the way down to kindergarten, Mr. Ernst said.

The work blends instruction and assessment. The district has been field-testing new types of tests created by Mr. Wineburg and his team, which are slated to be available for free in the fall on a new website, Educators in Lincoln have been trying out what the Stanford team calls HATs, or “historical assessments of thinking.”

Students analyze documents to answer a question, and teachers use those short essays to gauge how well students are absorbing the lessons, said Rob McEntarffer, an assessment specialist who has been working on that project. The ultimate aim is to use the approach to create districtwide social studies tests, to be used for formative purposes and to help the district improve its program, he said.

The hope is to extend the assessment work into summative tests, as well, he said. Document-based analysis and writing would be embedded into lessons, with teachers using the results to adjust instruction, while students learn skills like backing up their claims with evidence. Students would later engage in the same kind of exercise as a final assessment, Mr. McEntarffer said.

He believes such tests are doubly valuable, because they are activities that engage students and they can reflect more accurately the skills teachers most want them to develop.

“I hope it will enable a more focused attention and honoring of student thinking,” he said. “There has been great critical-thinking instruction in the classroom, but it’s always been a real challenge to get that honored on the assessment side.”

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Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Rid of Memorization, History Lessons Build Analytical Skills


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