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.

Curriculum is key, teachers say

A strong curriculum is a top priority, said more than 40,000 public school teachers in pre-K through 12 who participated in Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on America’s Schools by Scholastic Inc. and the Gates Foundation. The report states:

“Nearly 9 in 10 teachers agree that a high-quality curriculum ensures academic success for their students (88%).”

Other conclusions:

  • Fewer than half of teachers (45%) say higher salaries are essential for retaining good teachers. More teachers say it is absolutely essential to have supportive leadership (68%), time to collaborate (54%), and quality curriculum (49%).
  • More than 80 percent of teachers say district-required tests are at least a somewhat important measure of student performance (84%). Overall, teachers value multiple measures, including formative assessments, performance on class assignments and class participation along with standardized tests.
  • Only 10 percent of teachers say that tenure is a very accurate measure of teacher performance while 42 percent say it is not at all accurate. Student engagement and year over year progress of students are by far viewed as the most accurate indicators of teacher performance measures (60% and 55%, respectively, rate as very accurate) but are not frequently used to evaluate teachers.
  • The report is a “useful snapshot” of teachers’ views, writes Common Core’s James Elias, though he hopes for questions in the next round on time management and the effect of testing on what gets taught.