Reading Like a Historian

This is a terrific book by Sam Wineburg, Daisy Martin, and Chauncey Monte-Sano. It gives us strategies and examples for teaching history in middle school and high school.

The book takes eight situations from American History, providing readings and comparing how high school students viewed the readings with how graduate students in history who were specializing in areas other than American History viewed the readings. The graduate students were trained in historical thinking, and even though they were also not specialists in American History they were able to dissect the readings and determine the salient points that needed to be understood.

“Facts are crucial to historical understanding, but there’s only one way for them to take root in memory: Facts are mastered by engaging students in historical questions that spark their curiosity and make them passionate about seeking answers. Did 10-year-old Matoaka, known to the rest of the world as Pocahontas, save Captain John Smith from mortal danger, or was this a figment of Smith’s supple imagination, a spicy tale designed to boost book sales for his 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles? Was Abraham Lincoln a racist? Depends. Is racism an ethereal quality unaffected by time and place, or are all historical judgments, particularly moral ones, conditioned by circumstance and conventional wisdom? Did Federal policy lead to the Dust Bowl crisis? Or was the real crisis caused by arrogance, the belief that armed with new technologies, human beings were immune to the fluctuations of Mother Nature? Each question sends us back to the original sources to formulate arguments that admit no easy answer. Each question requires us to marshal facts to argue our case. But facts isolated from the questions that give them meaning no more constitute historical understanding than bands of roving teenagers with AK-47s slung around their necks constitute an army.” [p. ix]

Teachers especially will find this book useful, especially when comparing how historians and high school students view documents. “Many students, even some of our best readers, start with the first words at the top of a page and end their reading with the last. The attribution at the document’s end receives scant attention or is ignored altogether. Historians, on the other hand, begin a document at the end, by sourcing it. They glance at the first couple of words to get their bearings, but then dart immediately to the document’s bottom, zooming in on its attribution. Who wrote this source and when? Is it a diary entry? A memo obtained through the Freedom of Information Act? A leaked e-mail? Is the author in a position to know firsthand, or is this account based on hearsay? Even before approaching a document’s substance, historians have formed a list of questions that create a mental framework to hang the details that follow. Most important, sourcing transforms the act of reading from passive reception to an engaged and passionate interrogation. For historians, the act of reading is not about gathering lifeless information to repeat on a test, but engaging a human source in a spirited conversation.” [p. x]

Sourcing is not the only tool historians use when reading primary source material. “Consider a second pillar of Reading Like a Historian: the practice of contextualization–the notion that events must be located in place and time to be properly understood. Faced with Abraham Lincoln’s statement that he had ‘no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races,’ … many students shudder in disbelief or conclude that what they’ve been taught about the 16th president belongs in the trash with the other lies their teachers told them. But historians–even those who know little about the Civil War–start from a different place. Instead of issuing conclusions, they begin with questions. What was the context for Lincoln’s words? (A debate with Stephen A. Douglas for a fiercely contested senatorial seat.) When and where were these words uttered? (On September 22, 1858, in Ottawa, Illinois, a hotbed of anti-Black sentiment.) What kind of people made up the audience? (Those largely supportive of Douglas and suspicious of Lincoln.) Just as students in Language Arts class are taught about similes and alliteration, so history students must be taught to source historical authors and to contextualize historical documents. When they leave our classes, students get to practice these skills every time they open their browsers to read the daily news.” [p. x]

Each chapter begins with an introductory essay and provides primary sources to evaluate along with sample questions for discussion and suggestions for further research. In each introductory essay, we learn how the graduate students approached the topic and that’s contrasted with how the high school students approached it.

We can find some other great tools to use that are related to this book, such as this rubric:

Or this one:

An additional rubric showing some questions to ask:

And finally, there’s this one:

This is extremely useful for teachers, but students of history can also profit greatly by learning this information and applying it in their own reading. It also helps develop critical thinking skills that can be applied almost anywhere.


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