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Patrick Halbrook

Teaching History - Primary Sources

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All history teachers agree we should get students reading more primary sources. But how should we use them?

I have lots of books on my shelves with 1-3 page snippets of primary sources accompanied by convenient paragraph-long introductions and short study questions. Sometimes I assign these to my students. If you're familiar with AP history tests, you know that the Document-Based Questions give students primary sources consisting of very short paragraphs to analyze and write essays on. Students figure out the context and make quick judgments about the accuracy, biases, and meaning of the texts, most of which are just a few sentences.

I read an article a few years ago (I have no recollection where--maybe a classical education site? if anyone else saw it I'd love to find it again) in which the author discussed the value of reading lengthy sources, not just short selections. The reason is that the more time you spend with and author, the better you get to know him or her. The text becomes a much more personal interaction between author and reader, rather than a brief collection of sentences relaying some information.

I've thought about this a lot as I've assigned readings for students over the years in my history classes. Reading the entire text of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is a much different experience than just reading a couple of paragraphs. Reading The Communist Manifesto in its entirety gives you a better sense of Marx's personality and style of arguing than just reading a page or two (and, I have to say, it's not very pleasant). Serving our students texts that have been sliced and diced the way they typically are in anthologies of sources allows them to hear from a greater number of voices, and gives us the ability to feel happy that we are having them read "lots" of primary sources. But the trade-off is not only depth of meaning, but missing out on the personality behind the text.

For sure, some primary sources may not be worth reading in their entirety. And students can't read everything. Perhaps this simply comes down to having to make judgment calls about which texts to read short excerpts from, and which to read more of. But however we do it, I think there is great value making sure, as frequently as possible, that students have the opportunity to spend greater time with the authors they are reading in order to develop that personal interaction that isn't possible by reading a short, utilitarian snippet or two.

What do you think are the best ways to teach primary sources in history classes?

Edited by Patrick Halbrook

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I tend to agree with you about the primary sources. You can't read all of everything, but making sure students can understand...oh, maybe The Federalist Papers or The English Constitution, or Democracy in America or The Law or Common Sense means that they have a much stronger sense of the author and full argument.

I also think it's a mistake to make them feel like they have the full picture because they've bits and pieces of everything. It's a much better posture for long-term learning to be aware that you *haven't* read something, than to feel that you "already know it" because you read a few paragraphs or highlights--a real danger sometimes.

I was doing a podcast with a friend on history some time ago, and she shared that her teenage son (about 15 at the time, I think) told her that the more history he read, the more history he realized he didn't know. Which I thought meant she was definitely doing something right. :)

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I've used Charlotte Mason's method of narration with all my students, and it is very effective. I've found, though, with primary sources, one of the ways to give my students a better sense of what the documents meant in their context was to imagine themselves a contemporary reader of the material, and to write about it in that persona--maybe drafting an opinion letter to the newspaper, or writing a letter to a friend to send along with the pamphlet "Common Sense" for example, either recommending it or objecting to it. It doesn't work for every primary source, but it's one engaging way.

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On 12/15/2018 at 1:03 PM, KarenG said:

I've used Charlotte Mason's method of narration with all my students, and it is very effective. I've found, though, with primary sources, one of the ways to give my students a better sense of what the documents meant in their context was to imagine themselves a contemporary reader of the material, and to write about it in that persona--maybe drafting an opinion letter to the newspaper, or writing a letter to a friend to send along with the pamphlet "Common Sense" for example, either recommending it or objecting to it. It doesn't work for every primary source, but it's one engaging way.

I like this as a way to contemplate, as the teacher, what to assign in order to give the student a rounded understanding of the time and and state of the culture. Figuring out one primary resource to read all the way through, and then using snippets, art, music, secondary sources that lend to the atmosphere surrounding the philosophy, religion and political standing of the era would equip a student more fully to think within the context of that time, hopefully, rather than our own. Or at least conversations could be pointed and drawn that way. A Western Civ class sort of approach to the history at hand? 

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I try to incorporate both approaches to primary sources: short snippets and extended versions. Indeed, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" gives a poor picture of Edwards if you don't read it until the end. A couple of years ago, I assigned an excerpt of that sermon for homework. The next day, the students were horrified at the harshness until we read aloud the last page or so of the sermon. I used it as a lesson to urge my students to take the entirety of a source in context rather than in sound bites. 

That said, I've always struggled with finding the time to really dwell on a primary source. It always feels like I'm being pushed into the next event or era because there's so much that is important!

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On 12/15/2018 at 1:59 PM, KarenG said:

I also think it's a mistake to make them feel like they have the full picture because they've bits and pieces of everything. It's a much better posture for long-term learning to be aware that you *haven't* read something, than to feel that you "already know it" because you read a few paragraphs or highlights--a real danger sometimes.

I was doing a podcast with a friend on history some time ago, and she shared that her teenage son (about 15 at the time, I think) told her that the more history he read, the more history he realized he didn't know. Which I thought meant she was definitely doing something right. :)

Yes, that's a great point, and your friend's teenage son definitely has the right perspective. I think it's challenging, teaching in the context of the classical model, to constantly push students to draw conclusions about what they are reading, to take a side and defend it, to express themselves and argue their points--and to also make sure they realize that in so doing, even the smartest kids may still have no idea what they're talking about. (And that's okay!)

As I guide our seniors through their thesis project each year, one of the great benefits I see is that many of them develop a keen awareness that learning more about a topic actually serves to raise more questions. Once they start really delving into their research, many realize that they can't possibly read all the books they have found, that smart people have good arguments for both sides, and that some problems which seemed to have simple solutions at first are actually much more difficult, or even impossible, to solve. They discover--as H.L. Mencken put it--that "there is always a well-known solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong."

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3 hours ago, Patrick Halbrook said:

They discover--as H.L. Mencken put it--that "there is always a well-known solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong."

Ha! That's great. And all too true.

This is kind of veering off your main question, about history, but all discussion circles back to philosophy, doesn't it? One tension or point of discussion or area of thought, or whatever you want to call it, that I think needs to be a part of all discussions about classical education and K-12 is exactly how much of a classical education can we give our students? The full liberal arts (the seven liberal arts) course was a university course--not studies for children. So, what we do in K-12 cannot rightly be considered a fully-fledged "classical education" in that historical sense. On the other hand you can make progress and set a student's feet on that path. How far they go is ultimately up to them. I like David Hicks' focus on paideia--the idea of intellectual awakening and appreciation that allows a person to take responsibility for his own learning and conduct. That, I think is possible to achieve within our K-12 framework, and is more important than any specific content or books we have them read.

She doesn't use the word, but this is Charlotte Mason's vision of paideia for young people, I think:

Quote

Education is the Science of Relations.––A child should be brought up to have relations of force with earth and water, should run and ride, swim and skate, lift and carry; should know texture, and work in material; should know by name, and where and how they live at any rate, the things of the earth about him, its birds and beasts and creeping things, its herbs and trees; should be in touch with the literature, art and thought of the past and the present I do not mean that he should know all these things; but he should feel, when he reads of it in the newspapers, the thrill which stirred the Cretan peasants when the frescoes in the palace of King Minos were disclosed to the labour of their spades. He should feel the thrill, not from mere contiguity, but because he has with the past the relationship of living pulsing thought; and, if blood be thicker than water, thought is more quickening than blood. He must have a living relationship with the present, its historic movement, its science, literature, art, social needs and aspirations. In fact, he must have a wide outlook, intimate relations all round; and force, virtue, must pass out of him, whether of hand, will, or sympathy, wherever he touches. This is no impossible programme. Indeed it can be pretty well filled in by the time an intelligent boy or girl has reached the age of thirteen or fourteen; for it depends, not upon how much is learned, but upon how things are learned. (School Education, p. 161-62)

It comes down to "ordering the affections," doesn't it?--learning to care about all the things it is possible to know. She thought it could be done by age 13 or 14--and when she wrote that, young people of that age were often full-time wage earners without the liberty of further formal education. We can surely do as much by 17 or 18.

At any rate--that's what I like my use of primary sources to aim at--helping my student put himself in that time and place, and imagine reading it as if he lived then and it meant something immediate and powerful, rather than reading sources as historical artifacts.

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...and to that, I would add an observation I posted to Facebook a few weeks ago:

Quote

If you didn't enjoy history in high school, it probably wasn't your fault. It was more likely because you were subjected to chapters in textbooks that started out like this one I came across yesterday:

"Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe witnessed a prolonged struggle between monarchs seeking to consolidate and extend their power, and social groups and institutions opposing those efforts. Many factors—political, social, and economic—influenced the course of this struggle, and the outcome varied from country to country."

Bored already? Why in the world would anyone want to keep reading? (And I say that as someone with a master's degree in history who has taught the subject for the past decade.)

I'm convinced that everybody is born with a natural love for history. It takes a textbook, and sometimes a teacher (think Harry Potter's "History of Magic" class--shouldn't it have been absolutely fascinating?), to ruin it for them.

 

Edited by Patrick Halbrook
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ALL my junior and senior high history teachers were coaches - that’s what they actually were. “History” was the thing they had to teach to save the district money for sports. We read aweful texts like that and then took ridiculous notes off the chalk board just as bad. And the a multiple  hoice test. 😢  

Edited by Cheryl Floyd

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I grew up in the era of "social studies." I only remember one class, ever, which was called "history"--and I don't remember any of the history we learned (it was 8th grade, and nearly 40 years ago, so surely I can be forgiven). But this much I do remember--the teacher had been a soldier in Korea, and would occasionally tell us stories about that. And those stories (some of them, anyway), I remember. Which was kind of being exposed to a primary source in the flesh, I guess?

Here's a funny thing--when I start thinking about that class, I can picture it. I remember being there. I remember what I was doing to occupy my time during that class, at least sometimes. I would cross one leg over the other and time how long it took for my foot to fall asleep...and write on my jeans with an ink pen. I must have found whatever was going on in that class really, really boring. I don't think I could be convinced that that class wasn't wasting my time and that I could have been during something more meaningful.

If your students aren't doing this, you're miles ahead of the history I got in school!

Edited by KarenG
The usual typos
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Cheryl and Karen--your experiences make me cringe, but I know they're all too common. I suppose we can at least take comfort in the fact that many (most?) people, by the time they reach adulthood, rediscover their love for history. People over 40 tell me all the time, "I didn't like history as a kid, but now I read history books for fun!"

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Back to the question of how we teach primary sources...the chapter about history in Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Educated Mind has some great questions to ask when studying a historical work at different levels. In the book she expands on each of these points in detail, but I'll just list the major questions here. As you can see, there's quite a bit of overlap with what you would study in a literature class when reading a novel.

These questions are not relevant to every single primary source you might encounter (i.e. a random 16th century letter), but it could work well with biographies, histories (Herodotus, Gibbon), and some political and theological works (Augustine, Locke, Marx).

The First Level of Inquiry: Grammar-Stage Reading

  • Look at the title, cover, and table of contents
  • Does the writer state his or her purpose for writing?
  • What are the major events of the history?
  • Who is the story about?
  • What challenge did this hero/ine face?
  • Who or what causes this challenge?
  • What happened to the historical "hero/ine"?
  • Do the characters go forward, or backward--and why?
  • When does the story take place?
  • Where does the story take place?

The Second Level of Inquiry: Logic-Stage Reading

  • Look for the historian's major assertions
  • What questions is the historian asking?
  • What sources does the historian use to answer them?
  • Does the evidence support the connection between questions and answers?
  • Can you identify the history's genre?
  • Does the historian list his or her qualifications?

The Third Level of Inquiry: Rhetoric-Stage Reading

  • What is the purpose of history?
  • Does this story have forward motion?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • Why do things go wrong?
  • What place does free will have?
  • What relationship does this history have to social problems?
  • What is the end of history?
  • How is this history the same as--or different than--the stories of other historians who have come before?
  • Is there another possible explanation?

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1 hour ago, Patrick Halbrook said:

Cheryl and Karen--your experiences make me cringe, but I know they're all too common. I suppose we can at least take comfort in the fact that many (most?) people, by the time they reach adulthood, rediscover their love for history. People over 40 tell me all the time, "I didn't like history as a kid, but now I read history books for fun!"

Thank God! He does redeem our faculties, our loves, our intellects. And he is redeeming education in our lifetimes! Thank you for loving history and choosing to bless students with your faculties and affections!

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