Standards Commentary

Using History to Invigorate Common-Core Lessons

By Sam Wineburg — December 10, 2013 5 min read
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Common-core anxiety sweeps the land, and professional developers of curriculum and assessment smell dollars. Flashy brochures promise that once that purchase order is signed, every child will pass the new tests. For a pittance more, they’ll make the lion lie down with the lamb.

District administrators would be wise to lay down their pens. There’s a valuable resource right in front of their eyes. It requires no lengthening of the school day, no elimination of art and music, and no endorsement of checks to third-party developers. It’s so familiar we no longer notice it. It’s called the history/social studies curriculum.

One would assume that the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on nonfiction would spur a flurry of interest around a subject area jam-packed with relevant texts. But the opposite has occurred. The entire discussion around the curriculum of nonfiction and “informational texts” has focused on English/language arts, a bizarre turn when history’s essence is its claim to be true, to be nonfiction. Listening to some, one would conclude that the purpose behind the writing of Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was to teach students the difference between assonance and alliteration.

The lack of attention to historical texts may stem from the belief that social studies teachers already have a text—that 1,000-page behemoth known as a history textbook. But those who embrace this view need a lesson in “close reading.” And they should start with the common standards themselves: Students must learn to “integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats,” to “assess the strengths and limitations of sources,” to attend to and interrogate “the date and origin” of information, and to evaluate authors’ claims by “corroborating or challenging them with other information.” Teaching students to contend with this complexity by using the homogenized prose of the textbook is like training swimmers to survive a raging sea but never letting them out of a wading pool. That approach sets them up to drown.

There are three main ways that historical reading contributes to the goals of the common core:

• First, research has consistently shown that a key to adolescent literacy is exposing students to a rich diet of texts. These texts should mix genre and style and be pitched, in the words of Harvard researchers Gina Biancarosa and Catherine E. Snow, “at a variety of difficulty levels and on a variety of topics.”

Adolescents become fluent readers when their horizons are broadened. The documentary record—a trove of letters, diaries, secret communiqués, official promulgations, public speeches, and the like—confronts readers with varied styles and textures of language that push the bounds of literacy. It is this rich textual fare that students most need.

• Second, at the same time when students need to cope with this welter of texts, they need to know when to slow down. Sadly, the how-to books on “close reading” hawked on Amazon have led us astray. Close reading does not exist in the abstract. Decoding a 17th-century lyric poem by John Donne requires the toolbox of symbolism, rhyme scheme, inversion, and theme. But different tools are needed to parse the Lincoln-Douglas debates. When Abraham Lincoln tells Stephen A. Douglas that “the Negro is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment,” many readers today instantly cry racism. Yet, these same readers typically miss—or dismiss—the equivocation in Lincoln’s retort—his barely noticeable “perhaps.” But, as the late Stanford historian George M. Fredrickson observed, in an era when notions of innate inferiority were part of the everyday landscape, Lincoln’s “perhaps” signaled an"open-minded or liberal position.” History demands that we think about the meaning of words not to us 150 years later, but to the people who actually uttered them.

• Third, when any kook with an Internet connection claims historical expertise, separating truth from falsehood is not a luxury, but an essential quality for discharging the duties of citizenship. A 2010 flap over a Virginia textbook dramatizes what’s at stake. Our Virginia told 4th graders in that state that “thousands” of African-Americans voluntarily fought for the Confederacy, “including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson,” a claim that historian Carol Sheriff from the College of William and Mary likened to saying that Jews “helped with the Holocaust.” When the book’s author was queried by a Washington Post reporter about her sources, she explained that she conducted her research primarily on the Internet. For this claim, she visited the website of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a “patriotic, historical, and educational organization ... dedicated to ... preserving Southern Culture.” If adults become snared in such digital traps, what can we expect of students?

Even among common-core supporters, arguments have degenerated into a numbers game—whether the split between fiction and nonfiction should be 60-40, or if the right mix is closer to 50-50. But such questions miss the forest for the trees. At its heart, the common core forces us to admit the world has radically changed. In a different time, the challenge was to teach students to locate and remember information. Today, when information bombards young people from all sides, the question is not where to find it, but once found, whether it should be believed.

Traditional pedagogy prepares students to meet the challenges of a world that no longer exists. It makes little sense to have students read their textbook chapter and memorize facts that can be found instantaneously on their iPhones. For their part, social studies teachers can no longer palm off the responsibility for developing students’ literacy with the excuse “I’m not a reading teacher.” All of us have a role to play in meeting new challenges. Even if we are able to come together over the common core—itself a tall order, given the checkered history of school reform—it’s not assured we will succeed. But if we don’t join hands and use all the resources at our disposal, our failure is surely guaranteed.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Steering Clear of the Textbook


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