To the Editor:
Teaching adolescents to “read to learn” continues to be a challenge for content-area teachers. The lessons presented in the Education Week Teacher partnership video produced by Teaching Channel “Reading Like a Historian” (edweek.org/tm, March 4, 2013) were well planned and executed, but the video should have been titled “Comprehension of Historical Topics.” There was no evidence of critical thinking, and the material presented did not represent how historians read, either.
Historians read discerningly because they have depth of knowledge and context. The model presented in the video reflected a traditional classroom: Take notes or read a textbook for background and then look at a primary document and try to figure it out. Until content-area teachers are given some training in teaching adolescents how to read, the type of superficial reading portrayed in the video will continue to take place in social studies classes.
Students need meaningful reading experiences that provide opportunities to explore. Instead of the topic-driven focus of “March on Washington” or the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident,” why not ask questions? The teachers could ask students: What shapes a social movement? The other prompt could have asked kids: What motivates and challenges leaders as they make decisions?
Then the primary documents could be part of the students’ research. This also provides opportunities to explore these questions in relation to other topics or across disciplines.
Historians read because there are questions they want to answer. They use primary documents as tools to gain insight into a time period. Their ideas evolve as they explore a variety of materials and persist in making sense of it all. Then they share their ideas with others, who develop their own interpretations, pursue further study, or embrace the perspective.
It’s time to start a conversation about content-area reading.
The writer teaches social studies in the Westport, Conn., public schools.
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Critical Thinking Is the Key To Historical Reading