Teaching Historiography in Middle and High School
This teacher asked his students what they didn’t like about textbooks and used their responses as a way to have them engage in close reading of primary sources.
“Open up your textbooks.” Even as I write this, I can hear my students collectively sigh, grumble, and groan in a rare response of adolescent unity. As a middle school social studies teacher, I learned very quickly how routinely students at this age voice their disinclination.
Relationship-focused teachers often identify student interests in order to create context and increase engagement. However, I realized that the stuff adolescents and teens say they do not like is just as meaningful to student engagement as student interests. What sometimes sounds like complaining can in fact galvanize class focus, provide students with much-needed relevance of content and skill, and establish the curiosity that facilitates deep learning.
Here’s how I used my class’s disdain for textbooks as a vehicle to teach close reading and literacy skills.
Recognize the Inherent Value of Student Opposition
The idea that students strongly dislike textbooks should not come as a surprise. As I began to field my students’ protests over the use of history books, I learned a great deal. As I pressed my students to elaborate on the complaint that “textbooks are boring,” I listened as the class voiced concerns regarding the relevance and quality of textbook-based instruction:
- “Teachers give us [text] book work because they really don’t care about teaching.”
- “Instead of making us use the book, you should be teaching us.”
- “The book is fake. Why can’t we learn about real history?”
- “Adults think we can’t handle what really happened in the past. We are smarter than you think we are.”
I learned three things from these conversations: (1) For some students, an overuse of textbooks implied that the teacher was either unwilling or unqualified to dig in and teach the class; (2) others expressed a strong distrust of the content contained in history books; (3) many children felt that the textbook presented them with a sterilized version of history, watered down for the “unrefined palate” of adolescent youth. The overarching message was clear: For the vast majority of kids, the book was akin to a villain in a Marvel movie. Once I began to see this, it was only a matter of time before I figured out how to unite the class against our new common opponent.
Establish a clear contrast between history and historiography
Inspired by an article in The Atlantic, I began to teach my students that history is often presented by secondary sources like textbooks as a fixed narrative with the orderly packaging of an easy-to-digest beginning, middle, and end. In contrast, historiography, the actual writing of history, is a rich conversation—at times a contentious argument—with varied perspectives.
To illustrate the point, I posed a hypothetical scenario wherein a student’s behavior in class allegedly warranted a call home:
- “What are the chances that the student’s version of the story and the teacher’s version of the story are the same?”
- “What if you were in the class when the student got in trouble? Do you think your story would be the same as either the teacher’s or the student’s?”
- “What are some factors that might influence the differences in each version of the story?”
- And just for good measure: “How many of you would tell your parents or guardians a version of the story that would mitigate or lessen your culpability—that is, how guilty you look in the matter?”
In addition to generating vibrant discussion, student responses always reveal key literacy concepts in the work ahead of the class as they identify author’s voice, author’s purpose, tone, and bias. Students also begin to develop a working context around the relationship and fundamental differences between primary and secondary sources.
Compare primary sources to the textbook
With the class united against the text and armed with an understanding of historiography, we were ready to examine primary sources and inspect the secondary-source textbook for errors and bias. I charged the class with figuring out where the social studies book used tone to shape a particular perspective of history, as well as identifying what the textbook was omitting.
For instance, as a class just starting U.S. history, we engaged in a close reading of excerpts from The Journal of Christopher Columbus. Afterward, on their own, students examined their history textbook’s retelling of Columbus’s first voyage. Remarkably, the same students who expressed such an adamant contempt for textbooks were now carefully scrutinizing their textbook, paragraph by paragraph.
For a teacher, there are few feelings better than witnessing a child’s light bulb moment. As they read, students would express awe once they connected the dots from the primary source material to the repackaged secondary source—as they compared history with historiography. Most frequently, students were more surprised by what was left out than they were by the use of tone to shape perspective. Inevitably, this exercise always provoked the class to ask why:
- “Why do history books leave out important things?”
- “Do they think we can’t handle it?”
- “Why would they skip this part?”
These questions reflect the curiosity I strove to uncover in my students and paved the way for more learning. Additionally, this exercise set the pace for students to understand my expectations of close reading and class discussion. Tricking the students into a meaningful close reading of primary texts and accompanying thoughtful discussion, so to speak, is no easy task. This exercise is dependent on inspiring curiosity.
Sometimes curiosity comes from a desire to learn about what we like. For instance, when we get into a new series on our favorite streaming platforms, we want to know all about the actors, the source material, the settings, the characters, the sequels, etc. Other times, we are inquisitive about what we do not like. When there is a trending issue on social media that divides us, we fall into a different kind of rabbit hole. Our students are no different. As we strive to engage a new generation of learners, it is incumbent upon us to unearth curiosity in our classrooms in every way we can. From time to time, it helps to have a villain to unite against.