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Teaching Historiography in High School

Photo on 12-9-15 at 2.02 PM (1)

James Zucker teaches Advanced Placement United States and World History at Loyola High School in Los Angeles.

Note: Check out the first post in our series on historiography in the classroom here.

How do you get high school students to reflect upon history? Many teachers have attempted to use primary sources to solve this problem. This teaching method argues that acting like historical detectives working with real documentary evidence will excite students. I would argue that this teaching theory has fallen upon several problems.

First, this treats students as if they had the same knowledge of professional historians.

Second, it asks students to understand primary sources without giving them a framework to understand the context of the document.

Third, this idea assumes that students can basically understand a foreign time period, culture, and group of people simply by observing the facts.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a good reason to teach students about the art of historical inquiry using primary sources. But, we can help students to understand these sources in greater depth by giving them context through historians’ interpretations.

For example, when American high school students study the American Revolution, they often bring a number of assumptions from their own time period. They assume the revolution was about taxes. They assume that the Americans were good and the British were bad. And, they assume that the Americans were united in thinking of themselves as an aggrieved and foreign people fighting against the evil imperial British. All of these assumptions are highly questionable. But to question them, one needs to provide the students with some frameworks.

Here is how I approach this issue using both secondary and primary sources with the students.

I have the students read articles from prominent historians on this time period. I have them read T. H. Breen’s, “Ideology and Nationalism on the Eve of American Revolution” and Gary Nash’s article, “The Unknown American Revolution”. Both can be found in readers like Interpretations of American History. I provide the students with guided questions to take notes since the students may find the readings complex and difficult to follow. We then work in class in both small groups and as a socratic seminar to analyze the authors’ arguments and evidence for support of their points of view. The students will work in small groups to find the authors’ thesis statements and major pieces of evidence. They post these on the board with sticky notes. They then do a gallery walk of the boards in the room taking notes. We then do a socratic seminar using the questions and the notes from the small groups. This allows the students to understand the arguments made by the historians, their similarities and their differences in points of view.

Using these techniques, my hope is that the students see the revolution as a far more complex event for different groups. T. H. Breen helps to show that the revolution was about a change in ideology for American farmers from one of accepting British authority as a divine institution to a challenge of government by the newer philosophy of natural rights. Gary Nash’s article helps to show that the revolution was not about a monolithic criticism of the British government. But, rather different groups had criticisms ranging from Native Americans on the issue of communal land to African Americans on slavery to women on equal rights. The students see that the revolution was a period of differing challenges to authority.

Now, I can have the students analyze primary sources in a deeper historical context. I place students into small groups of about 3-4 students and I give them primary sources like at James Otis’ “Situation in the American Colonies in 1769.” They can also look at Peter Kiteridge’s “African Americans and the Revolution.” The students then analyze the documents using a scaffolded analysis. For example, I use Bill Polasky’s HAPP analysis. HAPP stands for Historical Context, Audience, Point of View, and Purpose. The students can then use this to either see how the primary sources either support or challenge the historians’ interpretations.

We then regroup as a class to discuss the relationship of the primary sources to the historian interpretations. I can now ask the students some exciting questions about the relationships between the primary and secondary resources.  For example, I can ask the following compelling questions:

  1. Do the primary sources support Breen, Nash or both in their interpretations of the motivations for the Revolution?
  2. Do the primary sources challenge the historians or show areas that they omitted in their interpretations?
  3. Why do you think Breen and Nash have their point of view? Do they have their own agenda?
  4. How do the interpretations of Breen and Nash reflect their own historical time period and point of view?

The most exciting element of this is that we can combine our best teaching practices in the classroom. Only using primary sources pushes students back into a form of “fact” gathering. Only using secondary sources gives students the impression that history is a “completed” project. But by combining both we inspire students with interesting frameworks and we ask them to challenge historians by looking at real world evidence.