Reading like a historian

A program developed by Stanford historians that asks students to analyze primary sources can “deepen students’ content knowledge, help them think like historians, and also build their reading comprehension,” reports Ed Week.

The Reading Like a Historian program, a set of 75 free secondary school lessons in U.S. history, is getting a new wave of attention as teachers adapt to the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts. Those guidelines, adopted by all but four states, demand that teachers of all subjects help students learn to master challenging nonfiction and build strong arguments based on evidence.

In a 2008 experiment  in 10 San Francisco high school U.S. history classes, teachers using Reading Like a Historian outperformed the control group in factual knowledge, reading comprehension and analytical skills.

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.

Teachers trained in the approach focus heavily on four key skills: “sourcing,” to gauge how authors’ viewpoints and reasons for writing affect their accounts of events; “contextualization,” to get a full picture of what was happening at the time; “corroboration,” to help students sort out contradictory anecdotes and facts; and “close reading,” to help them absorb text slowly and deeply, parsing words and sentences for meaning.

The Stanford historians adapted the documents to help weak readers. “They shortened them, simplified syntax and vocabulary, and added word definitions,” reports Ed Week.

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  1. GEORGE LARSON says:

    “The Stanford historians adapted the documents to help weak readers. “They shortened them, simplified syntax and vocabulary, and added word definitions,”

    So they are not really reading like historians because they are still using secondary sources and not true primary sources.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    It would be like reading Catton vs. simplified versions of, say, Meade’s orders. Still a primary source, compared to what most of us read, which is in the Catton category.

  3. GEORGE LARSON says:

    Wouldn’t it be just as easy or easier to read two contradictory secondary sources?

  4. I’d rather see the use of GOOD history texts, with supplemental sources as needed, until AP level. We had many excellent books (now passed along to our adult kids) at home that included copies of historical documents, maps, paintings, photos etc. which we used extensively to supplement school materials. That was pre-internet, so today’s resources are much larger, with whole libraries online.

    Professors of history have(or should have) extensive background knowledge in their area(s) of inquiry; it is that knowledge that suggests questions/theories to investigate. Prior to HS AP level, I’d rather see time and effort spent on ensuring that kids have decent background knowlege of government, world and US history. The HS our older kids attended had (and still has) honors prerequisites for AP classes, so APs were truly college level. Primary sources were widely used and college-level research papers with serious bibliographies were required. BTW, I don’t think that most HS students could even handle Catton. I recently read a post by a freshman composition professor who added an extra-credit question to his final; explain the meaning of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. In classes of several hundred students, it was rare that 10% could do so.

    Prior to AP level, this program sounds like some of the “think like a scientist” inquiry programs that ignore the decade-plus of background knowledge real scientists bring to inquiry and fails to start the process of acquiring the necessary foundation. My older kids took an after-school session of Hands-on Science and hated it; they said it had lots of play and artsy stuff but no real substance. Cynic I may be, but this sounds similar – particularly at MS level.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    George. Sounds like what they’re doing.
    If you get enough primaries, you’re bound to get contradictions.
    Still, unless the kids are pretty active and have sufficient foundation to even know there’s an issue someplace, they’re stuck with what the organizer thinks is the proper source material. And since there’s a time constraint, there have to be choices.
    And when somebody mentioned the atomic bomb, I figured primary sources promoting Fussell”s view”Thank God for The Atomic Bomb” might have to be left out. Not enough time.
    Call me suspicious.

  6. The teaching of Social Studies in general (World Geography, U.S. History, World History, U.S. Government, Economics) is pitiful at best in most K-12 schools in the U.S. Have you seen the National Geographic polls where most Americans between the ages of 18-30 can’t find New York or Texas on a map of the U.S., or find the U.S. or Iraq on a map of the World? Who think that the Civil War happened between World War I and World War II? Who has no idea how the President and Congress is elected, what either branch does, how a Bill is passed, what the Supreme Court does, how the States relate to the federal government, etc.? [Many Americans think that the President literally ‘rules’ and dictates laws – which is w hy the President gets so much adoration / blame when things go well / badly in this country.] Who have never read the U.S. Constitution – even in school – and have no idea what their rights are, outside a few vague principals they can parrot (freedom of speech is usually the only one they ‘know’). The list goes on and on… and the ignorance is beyond saddening and scary.

  7. RIchard Aubrey says:

    True. Feature or bug?

    • Unfortunately, I think he’s talking about a feature… (is that Dr. Evil’s cat, or Dr. Claw’s cat?)

      When you don’t know your rights and you don’t know how things work, those in power can easily pull the wool over your eyes… And if you’re really ignorant enough, they don’t even have to bother with doing that.

  8. Has the general population (not just in the U.S., but worldwide) always been so eternally ignorant, or is it more of a modern phenomenon? Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” comes to mind here…