Class 4: Teaching With Documents

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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 document-based (DBQ) instruction 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.
  4. Basing the task on enduring questions, the kind that students might actually want to answer.

Class 4 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?
  3. What’s it mean to me?

Here’s a pdf handout of my slide deck Week 4 HandOut (6 MB pdf)

Next our class examined two sample DBQ’s that I have designed. The first is my iBook “Progress and Poverty in Industrial America” ~ Free at iTunes. The second is the PDF version of my Homefront iBook series. Link to free PDF.

Students will be assigned the task of designing their own DBQ.

Additional resources:

For more strategies see these tags on my blog:
Close Reading | History / DBQ’s

Other examples of my DBQ’s available as free pdfs.
European Views of the New World | The Impact of Industrialization

Title: “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

14 Replies to “Class 4: Teaching With Documents”

  1. I really liked the idea of supporting questions throughout the DBQs and the questions used to understand and analyze the documents. It reminds me of a schema we used in my high school, VLOP: Values, Limits, Origin and Purpose. This schema allowed us to evaluate and analyze any document we came across. I hope to use the model we discussed in class and my knowledge of VLOP in my own classroom.

    1. Christina,
      I had never heard of VLOP. I did the google and found this powerpoint call “What is VLOP

      Looks like the approach blends nicely with what we were talking about in class.
      • V- Value
      What is helpful about this source in terms of how it could contribute to my reading/research/project?

      • L- Limitation
      What are some weaknesses of this source?

      • O- Origin
      What type of source is it?

      • P- Purpose
      Why was this source written?

  2. I agree Christina! I have always valued the ability to analyze sources and to eliminate much of the historical prejudices that are in textbooks. With primary sources, the students are able to create their own opinions. Of course, even primary sources have biases. But it is really neat to see a student working with primary sources understand that it was created in a certain time with a certain point of view. Historical sources are great in that they might not always give us an accurate view of events, but they can provide excellent insight into the point of view of the sources creator. I am excited to further develop methods of teaching that involve the use of primary sources.

  3. I think that pictures are one of the most powerful forms of primary sources that we can use. I really like how, instead of simply telling us what the pictures are, we are made to actually examine and analyze the pictures. It really engages me, and it keeps me interested in the photo much longer than I would be.

    1. Photos are great, but they only go so far back in time. Honestly, I’ve always had a little more trouble attaching myself to paintings and other pre-photography images. There’s much less of an immediate sense of “being there,” and a much stronger awareness of the artist’s role in mediating the world. For example, the painting of the two boys and a girl that we examined in class was interesting once the context was explained, but didn’t suck me in as a “historical document” like a photo.

      Anyone have any thoughts on using paintings and other old images? Do they simply serve different purposes than photographs, or is it all in the choice of what we use? I admit I did like the painting of a castle town that we saw in this class… maybe because it still gave the sense that the artist was trying to report what they saw.

      1. You raise some good questions. All media have differences in creative process and work flow. Are there different ways to read a Renaissance Fresco, pre-historic cave painting and an Instagram photo? Yet they all invite historians to look at the creator’s purpose, historic context, intended audience, validity, etc.
        Here’s rather detailed guide – Arts in the classroom The Arts and the Common Core Curriculum Mapping Project
        – it goes from K to 12.

      2. It bears mention as well that photographs are, by no means, free from the biases of the photographer. While they’re certainly grounded in reality, what a photographer chooses to portray has far-reaching effects on the intended audience. Turn, if you will, to this series of essays by the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris regarding the Crimean War photography of Roger Fenton. The Crimean War was the first European conflict to be photographed, and, as Morris points out, it immediately called into question our reliance on the objectivity of photography.

        Thus, I think it’s essential to point out to our students that any retelling of history is bound to the teller, whether they’re a photographer, painter, or writer. In many ways, that’s what makes history such an exciting and psychological study. The sooner we break students free from the constraints of the classical textbook, the better historians we’ll all become.

  4. It is startling how often we use images in the classroom in other topics, but forget to use them where they might be the most helpful. There are so many things that an image can tell a person about a time period. It is interesting, and, just as Cory said, is engaging. There will always be images from the past to use in the classroom and they are a great supplement to any text you might use.

  5. Working with primary sources is a great way to supplement your teaching. As others have stated, they make the lesson more interesting and make the subject a little more real. As Sam noted, many times primary documents can contain biases which are important for the students to understand. The biases are almost as important to understand as the material itself. Any time you are reading a historical document you want your students to be asking: Who made this? Why did this make this? Why was the document kept throughout all this time?

  6. I like the concept of encouraging students to draw their own conclusions from primary sources. The fact that this is encouraged by the Common Core is ideal. By allowing students the opportunity to dissect original documents rather than secondary interpretations, students build their ability to think like a historian, which will (hopefully) get them excited about the subject.

    1. I’m with you, Tom. Reading someone’s interpretation of past events or works of art is helpful to a point, but it can never be a substitute for experiencing the item in question first hand and developing your own opinion. I feel we are often too reliant upon these second-hand opinions, especially when we are young. That’s not to say youth are lazy, but rather that our schools do not always promote original thinking or experience. I see examples of it at the school where I am observing, and I can remember this being the case during my school career

  7. I’ve always liked using pictures, images, and other primary documents to support an opinion or point of view. I remember using DBQs in my high school AP US History class – we were asked to answer a question and support our opinion using a certain number of DBQs. I think that students also get a kick out of using these, because it’s something more immediate and authentic than just reading the opinion of someone else. To answer the question of if paintings are good to use, I think that they offer a valuable lesson on what was important to the society at the time. They might not offer a realistic portrayal of whatever is being painted, but I think that they do offer a great insight on the society’s culture/values/beliefs, etc.

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