Class 7: Close Reading Historical Documents

Close Reading Historical Documents

Prep for this class – in advance students should complete these two lessons.

Teachers can use historical documents to build literacy skills in a content area while empowering students to be the historian in the classroom. But document-based  instruction in this context requires four key elements to be successful:

  1. The right documents. (shouldn’t be reliant on background knowledge)
  2. Knowing how to “read” the historical document.
  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 7 offers strategies for assisting students to more closely read a document (in all their multimedia formats) by answering three Common Core questions.

Broad version

  1. What does it say?
  2. How does it say it?
  3. What’s it mean to me?

More specifically, what do we mean by close reading? Teachers can guide students with scaffolding questions that explore “texts” (in all their forms).

  • Key Ideas and Details:
 What does the text say? Identify the key ideas. What claims does the author make? What evidence does the author use to support those claims?
  • Craft and Structure:
 Who created the document? What’s their point of view / purpose? How did the text say it? How does it reflect its historic time period?
  • Integration of Knowledge and ideas: 
Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text. Recognize disparities between multiple accounts. Compare text to other media / genres. How does it connect to what we’re learning? 
And what’s it mean to me?
Assignment 5

Students will prepare to teach their second lesson to peers during the two classes noted below. As they did last time they will do a blog post to introduce the lesson and following the lesson. Students are strongly encouraged to try integrating some tech into the lesson. Here’s ideas for using Google tools.

The introductory blog post can highlight:

  • target audience
  • content (what will be studied)
  • process (what will you do – what will students do)
  • resources for lessons

Class 8 (10/22)  Nicole  |  Nick K  |  Gabe
Class 9 (10/29)  Jana  |  Nick C  |  Jordan

I’m also recommending that students join the Teaching With Primary Sources Network. A great place to discover and share classroom ideas. It’s free and member only – so no spammy social media stuff. Sign up info here.

Black and “Wanted”: Enslaved Black Runaways

Henry Brown's Box

Mini-Lesson Created by: Alekzandr Wray

Target Students: 10th Grade

SHEG Skills: Close Reading, Sourcing, Contextualizing

Learning Topic: Runaway Slaves

Essential Question: What were the narratives being told about/by enslaved runaways during the 1850s?

Description: Students will discuss three documents which illustrate the perspectives of historic stakeholders in the issue of enslaved runaways. The first document, an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave”, recounts his experience at the slave breakers’, Mr. Covey, property. The second document is about Drapetomania, a mental illness attributed to enslaved runaways by Samuel A. Cartwright. Finally, the third document is a reward poster published in Washington, D.C. by a local enslaver. Each document plays off of each other to paint different perspectives on the issue. Students will be asked to work in partners or in small groups to discuss scaffolding questions after each segment to further understanding.


Frederick Douglass


Part I: Frederick Douglass & Mr. Covey

Students work in pairs to read the article, discuss it, respond to the prompts and take notes on their conversation.

Fredrick Douglass recalls being sent to Mr. Covey, a slave breaker (1833, Maryland)

“Master Thomas at length said he would stand it no longer. I had lived with him nine months, during which time he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose. He resolved to put me out, as he said, to be broken; and, for this purpose, he let me for one year to a man named Edward Covey. Mr. Covey was a poor man, a farm-renter. He rented the place upon which he lived, as also the hands with which he tilled it. Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him. It enabled him to get his farm tilled, with much less expense to himself than he could have had it done without such a reputation. Some slaveholders thought it not much loss to allow Mr. Covey to have their slaves one year, for the sake of the training to which they were subjected, without any other compensation. …

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”

Scaffolding Questions: 

  1. Who was Frederick Douglass and from what perspective was he writing?
  2. What was Douglass’ experience like with the slave breaker?
  3. Who do you think was Douglass’ intended audience when reflecting on his experience?
  4. Why did experiences like Douglass’ lead many slaves to runaway? Why did they cause many to stay?
  5. What parts of the passage stand out the most to you and why?
  6. How does the concept of “breaking” a slave land for you? What do you think that means?
  7. Can we trust him as a source for how slavery was? Why?

Samuel CartwrightPart II: Drapetomania & Samuel A. Cartwright

Students will each have a copy of Cartwright’s description of Drapetomania and will work in a group to discuss the article, while a scribe takes notes, and review the scaffolding questions.

Scaffolding Questions:

  1. Who was the author of the article, what did he do and what role did he serve?
  2. What was he writing about? What was his perspective? Who was his audience? What/who could he have been influenced by?
  3. Where in the United States was this article written and when?
  4. Why was “science” used to connect enslaved runaways to a mental “malady”? What purpose did it serve?
  5. What two types of treatment by enslavers did Cartwright claim were the chief primary causes of drapetomania?
  6. Is Cartwright a reliable source to consider when discussing enslaved runaways?

$100 Reward PosterPart III: $100 Reward, “… so that I get her again.”

Again, students will work in a small group to analyze the document, start a conversation using the scaffolding questions, and take notes to turn in.

  1. Who wrote this poster?
  2. Who are the beneficiaries of this poster? Who loses?
  3. What is the article’s purpose?
  4. Where and when was it written?
  5. How much is $100 in 1858 worth in today’s money?
  6. What gave enslavers the right to offer rewards for the capture/return of a human being?
  7. Why were posters like this common during this era?
  8. Does this poster give a reliable description of Sophia? Why? If not, what are the costs of its unreliability?
  9. What were some of the impacts of posters like this?
  10. Have you seen posters like this today? If so, where and who/what was the poster about?


Reflection: I believe what I put together is more of a series of mini-lessons that all connect rather than one mini-lesson that stands by itself: I’d likely have to dedicate a few class periods to teach this activity in order to do it justice. In the future, I’ll likely add an additional section to the presentation that covers the abolitionist viewpoint on the issue and then ask students questions that delve into corroboration territory; doing so would allow students the opportunity to tie each of the different sources together in order to create a larger view of the issue.

An aspect of the mini-lessons that I appreciate is that, at each step of the process, students are allowed to utilize community to further their own understanding and because each group will have a scribe to take notes on their conversation, the teacher can gain some really revealing information into her/his students’ thought process when they’re not being hovered over. That information can help determine where the large group conversation should lead and could be useful in deciding what future activities, if any, need to be planned for this topic.


Henry Brown’s Box

$100 Reward Poster

Frederick Douglass’ Photo


Samuel A Cartwright

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

Reprinted in Eyewitness to America, David Colbert (Pantheon Books,  NY) 1997  p 143-146

Yellow River Rulers: The Spiritual and Logical foundations of Chinese Rule

An Illistration from a Japanese Edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms
An Illustration from a Japanese Edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms

By: Benjamin Heebner

Target Students: 6th Grade

Historical Thinking Skills: Contextualization, Close Reading

Essential Question: What are the foundations of the right to rule for Chinese Emperors?

Rationale: The scaffolding questions are based around the comparison and contrasting Chinese, Sumerian, and Indian religious practices and how they relate to the right to rule on a graphic organizer. Using this as the base point Students will make a guess about how the Chinese will use religion to legitimize their Right to Rule. This activity is based on the previous information that the students are worked on in class already. In addition  a close reading of the Mandate of Heaven, the logical manifesto of the Chinese Right to Rule will be done after the comparison and contrasting activity in order to either affirm of dis affirm their guess.

Primary Sources:

In the twelfth month of the first year… Yi Yin sacrificed to the former king, and presented the heir-king reverently before the shrine of his grandfather. All the princes from the domain of the nobles and the royal domain were present; all the officers also, each continuing to discharge his particular duties, were there to receive the orders of the chief minister. Yi Yin then clearly described the complete virtue of the Meritorious Ancestor for the instruction of the young king.

He said, “Oh! of old the former kings of Xia cultivated earnestly their virtue, and then there were no calamities from Heaven. The spirits of the hills and rivers alike were all in tranquility; and the birds and beasts, the fishes and tortoises, all enjoyed their existence according to their nature. But their descendant did not follow their example, and great Heaven sent down calamities, employing the agency of our ruler- who was in possession of its favoring appointment. The attack on Xia may be traced to the orgies in Ming Tiao… Our king of Shang brilliantly displayed his sagely prowess; for oppression he substituted his generous gentleness; and the millions of the people gave him their hearts. Now your Majesty is entering on the inheritance of his virtue; — all depends on how you commence your reign. To set up love, it is For you to love your relations; to set up respect, it is for you to respect your elders. The commencement is in the family and the state….

“Oh! the former king began with careful attention to the bonds thar hold men together. He listened to expostulation, and did not seek to resist it; he conformed to the wisdom of the ancients; occupying the highest position, he displayed intelligence; occupying an inferior position, he displayed his loyalty; he allowed the good qualities of the men whom he employed and did not seek that they should have every talent….

“He extensively sought out wise men, who should be helpful to you, his descendant and heir. He laid down the punishments for officers, and warned those who were in authority, saying, ‘If you dare to have constant dancing in your palaces, and drunken singing in your chambers, — that is called the fashion of sorcerers; if you dare to see your hearts on wealth and women, and abandon yourselves to wandering about or to the chase, — thar is called the fashion of extravagance; if you dare to despise sage words, to resist the loyal and upright, to put far from you the aged and virtuous, and to seek the company of…youths, — that is called the fashion of disorder. Now if a high noble or officer be addicted to one of these three fashions with their ten evil ways, his family will surely come to ruin; if the prince of a country be so addicted, his state will surely come to ruin. The minister who does not try to correct such vices in the sovereign shall be punished with branding.’…

“Oh! do you, who now succeed to the throne, revere these warnings in your person. Think of them! — sacred counsels of vast importance, admirable words forcibly set forth! The ways of Heaven are not invariable: — on the good-doer it sends down all blessings, and on the evil-doer it sends down all miseries. Do you but be virtuous, be it in small things or in large, and the myriad regions will have cause for rejoicing. If you not be virtuous, be it in large things or in small, it will bring the ruin of your ancestral temple.”

The Mandate of Heaven, Selections from the Shu Jing (The Classics of History) (6th Cen. B.C.E.) Retrieved from Link on 9/30/15.


Ox Scapula at the National Museum of China
Ox Scapula at the National Museum of China
Ancient Ziggurat in Iraq
Ancient Ziggurat in Iraq
Qin Shi Haung: First Emperor of China
Qin Shi Haung: First Emperor of China

Scaffolding Questions:

  1. What emphasis could the Ancient Chinese be placing on the role of religion and the supernatural in Chinese society if they do not have large temples like the Sumerians, and Indians did?
  2. Look at the illustration of Qin Shi Huang, what do you notice about the clothing that he is wearing? It is similar to the illustrations of Egyptian Pharaohs, Sumerian Kings, and Indian Rulers that we have seen in class so far?
  3. How does the Mandate of Heaven stand up to the Written Laws of the Sumerians in explaining why a King should rule?
  4. What does the Mandate of Heaven tell us about the role of the supernatural in Ancient China? Does this change the answer to the question above? If yes then please explain the change.

Summary and Reflection: During this lesson students will be tasked with first refreshing their background information by reminding them about the information that we have gone over in classes before. Then by asking the first two scaffolding questions the students will have the chance to compare their previous knowledge with the new Chinese information that we are introducing in class. Once we have gone over first two scaffolding questions I will have the students Close Read the Mandate of Heaven. During the close reading students will focus on taking margin notes and once they have finished the notes they will answer the last two scaffolding questions on the Close Reading sheet to show their understanding of what it meant to be the ruler in Ancient China.

I found the SHEG model to be informative in forming questions that allow me to see what my students are thinking and show that they get the concepts that I want them to see as well. It serves as a nice model to base what particulars I want my students to focus in on as they navigate the waters of Primary and secondary sources. In particular while the skills and questions that they promote are more suited for non ancient history classes it is a format that allows me to do a lot even though there are very few Primary sources to draw upon. I will use the SHEG model in the future when I need to do primary source analysis in my classes since the format makes primary sources more than a question and answer session and allows students to show their interaction with the source itself.

Image Credits:

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Sangokushi- Gentoku Woodblock Print. Licensed under Public Domain in the United States.

Shang Dynasty Inscribed Scapula from: Wikimedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Atribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported.

Ancient Ziggurat from: Wikimedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Atribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported.

Artist Depiction of Qin Shi Huang from: Wikimedia. Licensed under Public Domain in the United States.

Affronts, Indignities, and Dangers: Slavery in the Roman Empire

Statue of Pliny the Younger on the façade of the Cathedral of St. Maria Maggiore in Como.
Statue of Pliny the Younger on the façade of the Cathedral of St. Maria Maggiore in Como.

By: Heidi Kershner

Target Students: 6th grade

Historical Thinking Skills: Contextualization, Close Reading, Sourcing

Essential Question: What was the nature of slavery in the Roman Empire?

Rationale: The scaffolding questions listed below ask students to first locate the document within time and space. Having done this, students are then asked to engage both with the provided document and other secondary sources in order to further understand the institution of slavery in a Roman context. Finally, students are called upon to determine what might be unsaid in the document. To answer this, students will need to use what they already know about Roman history and society in order to fill in the blanks of Pliny the Younger’s letter.

Primary Source:

XXXIII To ACILIUS THE atrocious treatment that Largius Macedo, a man of praetorian rank, lately received at the hands of his slaves is so extremely tragical that it deserves a place rather in public history than in a private letter; though it must at the same time be acknowledged there was a haughtiness and severity in his behaviour towards them which shewed that he little remembered, indeed almost entirely forgot, the fact that his own father had once been in that station of life. He was bathing at his Formian Villa, when he found himself suddenly surrounded by his slaves; one seizes him by the throat, another strikes him on the mouth, whilst others trampled upon his breast, stomach, and even other parts which I need not mention. When they thought the breath must be quite out of his body, they threw him down upon the heated pavement of the bath, to try whether he were still alive, where he lay outstretched and motionless, either really insensible or only feigning to be so, upon which they concluded him to be actually dead. In this condition they brought him out, pretending that he had got suffocated by the heat of the bath. Some of his more trusty servants received him, and his mistresses came about him shrieking and lamenting. The noise of their cries and the fresh air, together, brought him a little to himself; he opened

"The Gladiator Mosaic" at the Galleria Borghese
“The Gladiator Mosaic” at the Galleria Borghese

 his eyes, moved his body, and shewed them (as he now safely might) that he was not quite dead. The murderers immediately made their escape; but most of them have been caught again, and they are after the rest. He was with great difficulty kept alive for a few days, and then expired, having however the satisfaction of finding himself as amply revenged in his lifetime as he would have been after his death. Thus you see to what affronts, indignities, and dangers we are exposed. Lenity and kind treatment are no safeguard; for it is malice and not reflection that arms such ruffians against their masters…I can tell you one further circumstance relating to Macedo, which now occurs to me. As he was in a public bath once, at Rome, a remarkable, and (judging from the manner of his death) an ominous, accident happened to him. A slave of his, in order to make way for his master, laid his hand gently upon a Roman knight, who, turning suddenly round, struck, not the slave who had touched him, but Macedo, so violent a blow with his open palm that he almost knocked him down. Thus the bath by a kind of gradation proved fatal to him; being first the scene of an indignity he suffered, afterwards the scene of his death. Farewell.”

Pliny, the Younger (2011-03-30). The Letters of Pliny the Younger (Kindle Locations 798-810).  . Kindle Edition.

Secondary Sources:

1. Frey, W., J. Bergez, A. Joseph, & Teachers’ Curriculum Institute (2004). History Alive! The Ancient World. Palo Alto, CA: Teachers’ Curriuclum Institute.

2. “The Roman Empire in the First Century.” Retrieved from: PBS 

Scaffolding Questions:

  1. Who wrote this letter? Around when and where was this letter written? Use your textbook and/or this PBS site to answer these questions.
  1. Given what the author tells you about Largius Macedo, what can you infer about slavery in the Roman Empire?

3.  What hasn’t the author told us in this letter–what has been left out?

Summary & Reflection

During this mini-lesson students will be asked to engage with the primary source (Pliny the Younger’s letter) itself as well as use secondary sources (the PBS website and their textbook) in order to discover more information about the primary source. This lesson should occur during a larger unit about ancient Rome so that students will have some background information about ancient Roman society and its stratification. This lesson will serve as a jumping off point to talk about slavery in the ancient Roman Empire and how it compared to manifestations of slavery in other time periods and regions of the world. Once students have answered the above scaffolding questions they will then be called upon to create a 4-5 panel comic strip displaying the events described in the letter from the perspective of Largius Macedo’s slaves. This exercise will call upon students to critically engage with the primary source, especially in terms of “reading the silences”–deciding what has not been said.

I found the design process for a lesson using the SHEG model to be a lot more difficult than I anticipated. It is a very thorough and thoughtful process that I look forward to using again in the future. This particular lesson I think would be a great starting point for a larger lesson about slavery and its various manifestations and/or social class in general.

Image Credits:

“Como – Dom – Fassade – Plinius der Jüngere” by Wolfgang Sauber – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – Link

“Borghese gladiator 1 mosaic dn r2 c2”  Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – Link