Reflections on a DBL


Lesson 3 from El Amancer Del Pueblo (Sunrise of the People), the standard issue Literacy Workbook, with lesson’s generative theme at top.

When I began designing my chapter for our shared iBook, I considered only a handful of ideas before settling on the Nicaraguan Literacy Crusade.  Having spent the better part of the last year researching the campaign, becoming intensively familiar with the historiography of the topic, and looking for sources, I had constructed an excellent library of documents and evidence to draw from.  The iBook design process offered an opportunity to showcase some of these findings, and choosing such a familiar topic meant that much of the grunt work had already been done.  I could focus, almost entirely, on selecting my absolute favorite documents and creating an educational experience built from those sources.

Working within the iBook design process offered another opportunity, however.  For months, I have played the role of historian, looking into this topic to discover new understandings, and form new conclusions.  The nature of the Document Based Lesson format, which puts students into much of the same role, meant that with some careful planning, I could provide a lesson that would mirror my own experience, and offer students a chance at a history project more closely aligned with how academic historians operate.  I sequenced documents in a way that mirrored, in general execution if not in exact similarity, my own research process, and my own journey of discovery.  In my lesson, students examine some of the same secondary sources I did to gather context, come to understand the historical event through the same quotes and excerpts I used, and are given a chance to carefully examine the same primary materials I did, with a different but no less meaningful focus.


Image accompanying the generative theme in Lesson 3 from the El Amancer Del Pueblo (Sunrise of the People) Workbook.

One of the aspects of the Nicaraguan Literacy Crusade that drew me to the topic when selecting it for a Thesis, and again when beginning this project, was it’s relevance to both myself and to a degree, all students.  The Nicaraguan Literacy Crusade is a story of how a nation came together — albeit in sometimes controversial ways — to better their society.  It is a story of relying on the youth to make this vision happen.  As an educator, a historical event centered around teaching and instruction naturally appeal to me.  But I hope that for students, the emphasis on education can bring some relevance as well.  Students spend the lion’s share of their day at school, immersed in an educational system they’ve known in some form almost as far back as they can remember.  School is a fixture in student’s lives, and a fixed one at that — a system that changes slowly, is defined by the past, and presents one narrative of what education is and what it should look like.  Creating a lesson about a project where middle- and high-school aged students not only played a vital role in a national endeavor, but also served as teachers themselves, opens up an opportunity for students to step outside this system and reflect on the differences between different ways we educate.  Perhaps, in the process, they can begin to think critically about their own education, and the structures that facilitate that education.

Designing a book like this could be challenging at times, from a mundane technical standpoint, but that challenge never seemed so big as to obstruct the overall goal.  iBooks Author proved to be intuitive enough, for me at least, to make the real difficulty of this assignment the challenge of sequencing interesting content and providing meaningful questions to accompany that content.  Finishing the chapter was extremely rewarding, both due to the sharp professional look of the book, and the satisfaction of being able to incorporate an event I find fascinating into a new and fresh format.  This was a fresh look on a topic I have spent much time looking at already, and the new perspective was valuable and refreshing.  Knowing that I already had most of the documents I needed due to prior research additionally reinforced to me the value of the skills I have acquired to find sources in the future, for future, similar projects as this.

Republica De Nicaragua. Cruzada Nacional De Alfabetizacion. Ministerio De Educacion. El Amancer Del Pueblo. Republica De Nicaragua, 1980.

Class 6: Literacy DBL

I is for India

I is for India,
Our land to the East
Where everyone goes
To shoot tigers, and feast

Common Core offers an incentive for teachers to use historic documents to build literacy skills in a content area while empowering students to be the historian in the classroom. But a document-based lesson (DBL) in this context requires four key elements to be successful:

  1. The right documents.
  2. Knowing how to look at them.
  3. Letting students discover their own patterns, then asking students to describe, compare and defend what they found. These historical thinking skills correlate with edTPA’s language functions.
  4. Basing the task on enduring questions, the kind that students might actually want to answer.

Class 6 offers strategies for assisting students to more closely read a document (in all their multimedia formats) by answering three Common Core questions.

  1. What did it say?
  2. How did it say it? See: SHEG – Sourcing, Contextualizing
  3. What’s it mean to me? See: SHEG – Corroborating

Here’s a handout of my slide deck 3.2MB pdf


Students will design their own literacy DBL. Assignment (note – various due dates)

For source material, I’ve collected some great websites that include many of the major archives from around the world.

Best Sites for Primary Documents in World History

Best Sites for Primary Documents in US History

Here’s some some sample DBLs that I have designed:

Page from: “An A B C, for baby patriots”
Creator: Ames, Mary Frances
Publisher: Dean & Son
Place of Publication: London (160a Fleet Street E.C.)
Publication Date: [1899]
Archive: University of Florida UF00086056:00001

Learning To Interpret Primary Sources

In my DBQ assignment, students will begin to interpret the language in a set of primary sources. Each source will be directly related to the topic covered in the classroom. The students will be given a journal, which contains each primary source in the original language on the left pages. On the right will be my interpretation of the document, rewritten into student friendly language. Each lesson will examine a new primary source in the journal. Starting at the beginning, students will read both the original source as well as my interpretation. This will be followed by a class discussion of the document, both in the content of the document as well as any language nuances or syntax. As the lessons progress, and the students advance through the journal, my interpretations on the right pages will begin to disappear, leaving large blanks for the students to fill in for themselves. Then the class will discuss the content and meaning of the primary source, focusing on the blanks in the interpretation.  Eventually, the students will be writing their own full interpretations of the documents. Each lesson will include a class discussion to make sure that everyone is on the same page (or close to it) on the meaning of the documents.

Class 1: Question the Document ~ Design A Teacher


Our class got off to a good start on August 26th. It’s great bunch of students – four undergrads and eight in the MAT program. All of them are just beginning their student teaching this fall term.

As an ice breaker I handed them a copy of my 1971 student teaching evaluation (2 page pdf) Quite a relic – I’m surprised I still have it. I noted that it’s a historic document and asked them to examine it with a critical eye considering a number of questions: Who created it and why? Historic context? Point-of-view? What could we learn from it? What other sources might we need to collaborate? A great discussion followed ranging from how historians look at documents to how pitiful this evaluation was as an feedback tool for the student teacher (me!)

Next I gave them an activity to design a great history teacher. I applied a variation of “Tool 13: Brainstorm, Group, Label” from my Literacy Strategies Tool Kit (free PDF)

  • Asked them to brainstorm all the words or phrases they can associate with “a great history teacher.”
  • Gave them Post-Its and asked them to write one associated word or phrase on each sheet.
  • Put them in groups and asked them to share their Post-its and thinking. Then design an illustration that captured their collective thinking. And be prepared to share that with the class.
  • Working in fours they synthesized their individual brainstorming into a collective vision on large paper, then took turns sharing and responding to questions.

What followed was a lively Q and A session as we explored the attributes they thought went into an exemplary teacher.

Finally, I logged them into their new LearningCatalytics SRS accounts and gave them a series of questions to help me get to know them better. On the tech side I was interested in their devices, digital skills, social media profile, and some of the programs they were comfortable using. From an instructional perspective I asked them to describe their goals for the course.

I learned a lot this first class – foremost that I’m fortunate to have such a thoughtful, well-spoken and clever group of people to work with. From a class design perspective I found out that many the elements I want to include in the course are well-aligned with their learning goals.