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Tip of the Week: Text, Context, and Subtext

I wrote earlier this week about some things to think about when selecting primary source documents for use in your classroom. But then what? I hear it a lot:

“How can I actually use them in the classroom? Isn’t there some sort of structure that can help me plan what to do with them?”

Yes, Virginia, there is a structure.

You can thank Sam Wineburg and Bruce Lesh. They are history studs. Sam is like the Superman of the Social Studies Justice League and Bruce is . . . um, maybe Batman.

Sam runs the very awesome Stanford History Education Group and Bruce is the author of Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer, a incredibly practical book all middle and high school teachers need to read.

Like I said:

history studs.

I’ve had the chance to sit at their feet several times over the last few years as I’ve coordinated our Teaching American History grant. They’ve got very handy ideas for helping you structure how your students mess with primary sources.

Part of what they both say about using primary sources is that we need to do it differently, that the goal is help change how kids think about the content and the world around them. Perhaps Bruce said it best when he described current history instruction. He referred to what happens in many social studies classrooms as the Bermuda Triangle of history instruction:

Students don’t like it, they don’t remember it, we keep teaching it the same way.

So what do they suggest we do?

I’ve taken what the two of them have done and combined things a bit to simplify the process. Think of three stages:

  • Text / Sourcing
  • Context / Contextualizing
  • Subtext / Reading the Silences

Stage One
Bruce refers to the first stage as Text while Sam calls it Sourcing. The idea is the same. Train kids to look for the obvious things such as a document’s author and its creation.

Select a historical document, such as a diary entry, letter or memo, and provide students with copies. Model for students how to scan the document for its attribution, often at the end, as a first step instead of reading the text from beginning to end. Demonstrate how to begin questioning the source by asking: Who created this document? When? For what purpose? How trustworthy might this source be? Why?

Stage Two
Think of the second stage as the Context or Contextualizing stage. This is when kids need to work to situate the document and its events in time and place.

Encourage students to brainstorm the document’s historical context, piecing together major events, themes, and people that distinguish the era or period in which the document was created. One way to do this is to have kids create brief timelines with the primary source in the middle of the timeline. What happened before, during, and after the creation of the primary source?

This helps us avoid “presentism” – the habit of transferring our values, beliefs, or attitudes into the analysis. People live differently in different places and times. We need to understand their world so we can understand the primary evidence that they create.

Stage Three
The final stage asks kids to look beyond the obvious. Bruce calls it Subtext, Sam refers to this part of the process as Reading the Silences.  The task here is to train kids to identify what has been left out or what’s missing from the document. Kids need to learn how to read between the lines of the document or source.

After reading the document, ask students to think about what they did not hear. Prompt class discussion with questions: What is the document’s author not mentioning? Whose voices are we not hearing in a particular document or historical account? Which perspectives are missing?

When we start training kids to think about text, context, and subtext, there is a purpose to using primary sources as part of your instruction. Using primary sources now become more to encourage high levels of historical thinking rather than simply a fun activity that replaces reading the textbook.

See what I mean?

Superman and Batman.

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