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Sam Wineburg is still a stud

I mentioned historian and author Sam Wineburg last week while sharing a story from columnist Leonard Pitts. I’ve read Sam’s stuff and had the chance to hear him speak several years ago.

And just so you know, Sam’s a history stud. He’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and saves babies from burning buildings. He’s like Superman of the history Justice League.

So . . . okay. I like the guy. He says stuff that makes sense and is working to find ways to help history teachers do their jobs better. What’s not to like?

And a recent article in the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Quarterly just adds to his studness. This quarter’s theme is Using Primary Sources to Teach Historical Thinking and Sam shares some reasons why primary sources are such powerful tools.

To get the total Wineburg buzz, head over and read the entire article. I’ve put a bit of a taste below. He starts the article with a conversation:

When I recently asked Kevin, a sixteen-year-old high school junior, what he needed to do well in history class, he had little doubt: “A good memory.”

“Anything else?”

“Nope. Just memorize facts and stuff, know ’em cold, and when you get the test, give it all back to the teacher.”

“What about thinking? Does that have anything to do with history?”

“Nope. It’s all pretty simple. Stuff happened a long time ago. People wrote it down. Others copied it and put it in a book. History!”

I’ve spent nearly 20 years studying how high school students learn history. Over the years I’ve met many Kevins, for whom the life has been sucked out of history, leaving only a grim list of names and dates.

Sam suggests that the way to combat this is by teaching kids to think about what the facts mean rather than just the facts themselves. Nothing new for many of you but he goes on to share how primary sources lend themselves perfectly for this purpose.

History experts approach documents differently than history novices. Mostly, Sam suggests, by coming to documents with

a list of questions—about author, context, time period—that form a mental framework for the details to follow. These questions transform the act of reading from passive reception to an engaged and passionate interrogation.

What sorts of questions?

  • Sourcing: Think about a document’s author and its creation.
  • Contextualizing: Situate the document and its events in time and place
  • Close reading: Carefully consider what the document says and the language used to say it.
  • Using Background Knowledge: Use historical information and knowledge to read and understand the document.
  • Reading the Silences: Identify what has been left out or is missing from the document by asking questions of its account.
  • Corroborating: Ask questions about important details across multiple sources to determine points of agreement and disagreement.

Perhaps most important is the need for teachers to model this sort of questioning out loud for their students. I don’t think we do this enough. We assume that kids know how to think this way. And they don’t.

The title of Sam’s book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, says it all. To think historically is not natural and we need to be more responsible in training our students to do something that they may find uncomfortable.


It’s pretty simple.

The goals of school history are not vocational but to prepare students to tolerate complexity, to adapt to new situations, and to resist the first answer that comes to mind.

These are not history skills. These are life skills. Get on it. Superman is depending on you.

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