Reading Like a Historian

Another way to engage students in historical inquiry

Unfortunately, history class can receive a reputation of being dull based on its more traditional methods of instruction, namely lecture. When this is the case, students often separate themselves from the subject, creating a divide or disconnect between themselves and past events. However, just as we use science or a language as a means to explore, discover, and understand the world around us, history allows for the exploration and eventual discovery one has about themselves and their place in society, or how a particular event shaped an individual or a group. Just as science is grounded in inquiry, so is history.

As I mentioned in my first post, these ideas of exploration and discovery in order to better understand the world around us and our place in society are what I value about history as a discipline. Regrettably, while reflecting on my teaching practices as I worked on my TW this past summer, I discovered that the focus was primarily on the acquiring and sharing of information. Whereas, the students should be interpreting, internalizing, and making meaning of content. It is those skills that properly reflect what a historian does. In order to effectively do this, the design of each unit should be based in inquiry, just like the research of a historian.

Thus far, the writing in my class has supported the inquiry based approach for which I am striving. My inclusion of expressive and reflective writing activities supports students as they practice those same habits of a historian (interpreting, internalizing, and making meaning). My template for many of these writing activities is Mandell’s Thinking Like a Historian framework. This framework supports students as they question and think about a historical event through each lens of historical thought. Historians do more than write, however. They also read. The reading of various primary and secondary sources, and the skills used to interpret those sources, allows historians to tackle those questions we ask about the past. It dawned on me the other day that I was using an additional framework in my class to continue to ground each lesson in historical inquiry. Additionally, this framework assists students in reading primary sources. Not only are students learning to think like historians, but they are also learning to read like historians.

How do you read like a historian?

Created by the Stanford History Education Group, the Reading Like a Historian framework focuses on four specific reading skills to help students successfully read and interpret primary sources. These four skills include:

  1. Sourcing: Identify the author’s purpose and position and evaluate the source’s trustworthiness.
  2. Contextualization: Understand how historical context can influence the content of a document.
  3. Corroboration: Establish what is probable by comparing the document with others and recognize disparities between accounts of the same event.
  4. Close reading: Identify the author’s claims about an event and evaluate the evidence and reasoning used to to support those claims.

I begin modeling this framework at the onset of the school year. My first lesson is grounded in a question, “Who am I?” The students must read various primary sources and artifacts in order to develop claims supported by evidence from the sources that effectively answers that question about their history teacher. Since historians rely on a variety of sources (songs, photographs, artifacts, posters, letters, etc.) to make meaning of the past, I provide a diverse array of documents and artifacts from my own life. I then model each reading strategy and as a class we create a bank of questions the reader should ask themselves as they source, contextualize, closely read, and corroborate primary sources. Our question bank looks like this:

Sourcing: Who created this? When, where, and why was the source created? What is the author’s perspective? Is this source reliable?

Context: What was different or the same back then? What was going on at the time this source was created? What circumstances should the reader consider?

Close reading: What claims does the author make? What evidence does the author provide to support those claims? What is the author’s perspective? What language is used to show the author’s perspective?

Corroborate: What do other sources say? Do other sources agree? What sources are most reliable?

Employing these reading skills to interpret and make meaning of historical documents does not happen overnight. When I first began using this framework last year, I chose to use prompts to assist them with the reading skills. Unfortunately, these prompts did not foster the level of inquiry I desired. Students were merely looking for the correct answer to complete the sentence starter. Furthermore, good readers in any discipline question. Not only should they question the author’s purpose and audience in fiction, for example, but they should be doing the same when reading primary sources. The question bank provides an appropriate amount of guidance as students read and interpret a historical document. Moreover, the questions also support the five themes in Mandell’s historical thinking framework. As students source a document they have to consider a historical event through someone else’s eyes, and when the contextualize they must examine change and continuity, as well as historical turning points.

My modeling of these reading skills continues throughout the year with both historical documents and even literature. (I am fortunate to be both the eighth grade English and history teacher). For example, as we read Pride and Prejudice in English class, students had to investigate the historical context of the novel in order to better understand Jane Austen’s (source) perspective on marriage and class in the novel. The students also practiced closely reading Mr. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth by identifying his claims and supporting those with evidence. You cannot imagine my joy when one student utilized these reading skills when questioning Elizabeth’s decision to willingly accept Mr. Wickham’s characterization of Mr. Darcy after having just met him and without even corroborating his story.

Given the advent of questionable news stories on the internet, it is becoming increasingly essential that students are able to differentiate between fact and fiction. The ease at which we can access information about current events necessitates a need for critical a lens with which to read, examine, and judge the validity and reliability of a source. These reading skills address that need. Furthermore, the framework supports historical inquiry, instilling in students the need to question and closely examine before developing claims and substantiating them with evidence.