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Thinking like a historian in the elementary classroom

It’s day two of the Best Practices conference. I love this sort of stuff – the conference isn’t that big but that just means a lot more conversation and working together. So we all are walking away smarter.

This morning’s session is focused on training elementary kids to think like a historian. Lyndsay and Amy are from Olathe, Kansas and are sharing how engaged kids are when they’re asked to solve problems using historical evidence.

They’re big fans of Sam Wineburg’s Stanford History Education Group site and are showing how third, fourth, and fifth grade teachers can use the resources on the site. I especially like the SHEG Historical Thinking Chart and the posters that explain the skills kids need to make sense of evidence.

screenshot of SHEG chart

After creating a free account, you can download all of this stuff for free. I really like the idea of introducing the idea of historical thinking with an example that relates directly to students – a fight in the lunchroom. Kids have to “interview” witnesses and ask questions about what else was happening in the school before and after the fight occurred.

Another great example for younger kids is Snapshot Autobiography. Ask kids what was happening on the day they were born. “How should we know? We were just a baby!” What a great way to introduce the concept of history – trying to figure out what happened even if we weren’t there. Very cool!

I also like the far right column on the Historical Thinking Chart titled Prompts. These are perfect for training kids to use Evidence-Based Terms. So when asking kids to create products, to make claims, or to construct an argument, you should require them to use this sort of language in their work.

The Close Reading poster is also very useful – especially for teachers who equate Close Reading with ELA. We need to be careful to make sure that when we close read in social studies, we do it differently than when we do it in ELA. These questions help support the historical thinking concept – the last one that asks kids to think about bias is especially powerful.

close reading schreenshot poster

They also shared some student work from a Document-Based Question exercise.

dbq student example

Lyndsay and Amy mentioned what I call “academic discomfort.” Kids want to know the answers. They want to know what actually happened. The best quote of the morning? They asked kids to get out their books and read a portion for background knowledge. One of the students asked:

What’s the source for this?

You gotta love that! A perfect example that highlights the fact that elementary kids are capable of thinking deeply about the past.


And be sure to go to their project web site that hosts a ton of elementary social studies lesson plans.

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