Reading History Like A Historian
Catherine Gewertz of EdWeek writes about the Reading Like a Historian program, a set of 75 free secondary school lessons in U.S. history developed at Stanford University:
“The program takes primary-source documents as its centerpiece and shifts textbooks into a supporting role. Each lesson begins with a question, such as, ‘How should we remember the dropping of the atomic bomb?’ or
Did Pocahontas save John Smith’s life?’ Students must dig into letters, articles, speeches, and other documents to understand events and develop interpretations buttressed by evidence from what they read.
One lesson begins by asking whether Abraham Lincoln was a racist. Students are always intrigued by the question, said Valerie Ziegler, a teacher at Lincoln High School in San Francisco, because they learned as children that he freed the slaves.
But as they read a group of documents the lesson provides for them, it becomes clear that they can yield multiple interpretations, she said. For instance, Mr. Lincoln said in 1858, while debating Stephen A. Douglas for a seat in the U.S. Senate, that he viewed ‘negroes’ as morally and intellectually inferior to Caucasians, but believed they were still entitled to equal rights under the law.
A study of the approach suggests that it can yield a triple academic benefit: It can deepen students’ content knowledge, help them think like historians, and also build their reading comprehension.
Programs like this one push history education in an important direction: They encourage students to see history as a rich trove of stories and interpretations, rather than a staggering assemblage of facts.
A central aim in creating the Stanford program, says one of its authors, history educator Sam Wineburg, is to ‘break the stranglehold of the textbook,’ which typically plays such a large role in instruction that it reduces primary-source documents to ‘decorations.’ A textbook author himself, Mr. Wineburg said he grew frustrated that most textbooks’ focus on facts obscured “the grand narrative of history.’” Read more here.
What a great way to teach history! It makes sense that students would learn more, and enjoy more, by digging into primary materials in search of the answer to a question, than they would by memorizing a list of facts provided to them by someone else.