History Instructional Design Uncovering History

Using Primary Sources

My mind has turned toward history teaching again this week after a summer of Online Politics and Law curriculum writing.  August on the calendar has me thinking about the other classes that I will be teaching this fall: Global Studies and AP European History.  And, over last weekend I reviewed some US History curriculum as a consultant.  This curriculum exposed students to many primary sources, but was not encouraging as much student inquiry as I would like to see.

Of course, I’m not encouraging as much historical inquiry as I would like to see in my history classes, either.  I often include visual sources as illustrations in direct instruction.  For instance, I recently came across this cartoon at the Marchand Archive, UC-Davis History Project, an excellent source of images:

19th century political cartoon caricatures a drunken, simian Irish man sitting on powder keg. Thomas Nast cartoon. Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 2, 1871.

Whole class discussion of this cartoon would lead into  some direct instruction from me about nativism in general, and racialized hostility to Irish immigrants in particular.  The image functions as evidence for my thesis, and students uncover my thesis by unpacking the image.  Doing this does not require that they have much context about the it or its production. I need only tell them that is a 19th century, American cartoon. In fact, I could have used one the many anti-Irish, Puck cartoons to make the same point about American nativism, obscuring Puck’s English origin.  The lesson could become more student centered with more documents, and some small group discussion. But, it would probably remain ahistorical in that students would be reading evidence for main ideas only without an exploration of context or authorial point of view.

Several things, however, recommend this approach.  In the example above I have a lot to offer students: a graduate seminar on American immigrations, reading several books on race and immigration, and incorporating some of this analysis into the final project for my masters degree.  Moreover, in some units in some of my classes, such World Religions in Global Studies, we are surveying content and only seem to have time for one primary text per subject.  Done correctly, students are engaged at a higher level: reading more deeply and/or analyzing images.

My aim, however, is to move toward a more authentic approach, where students work to draw independent conclusions from groups of documents.  In such history labs students analyze the documents in context and compare documents.  This requires curriculum with more depth and less depth.  So far, I have only done this once in Global Studies, a study of Toussaint L’Overture [update: here is the lesson] and the Haitian Revolution.

As I approach the new year these are the questions: how to build history labs in Global Studies? how to more authentically use more isolated images and texts?  How best to use primary sources in high school classes?

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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