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Need to teach historical thinking and literacy? To both high and low levels? You need this book

rtw book cover

One of the obvious reasons for attending professional conferences and workshops is the opportunity for checking out new BBQ restaurants. Of course, there is that whole learning new stuff, meeting new people, attending sessions idea too.

And last week’s KCHE / MOCHE Best Practices conference in downtown Kansas City gave me the chance to check off both. Got to eat some great BBQ and do all of that other stuff. I really did walk away smarter (and thanks to Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ, also just a little bit rounder.)

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from my two days?

I learned about a book called Reading, Thinking, and Writing About History: Teaching Argument Writing to Diverse Learners in the Common Core Classroom, Grades 6-12. I mentioned the book yesterday while sharing about Evidence-Based Terms. And the more I dig into it, the more I’m starting to really love. Seriously. You need to grab one a copy – perfect for PLC book studies, personal professional development, and helping to understand how the historical thinking process can look embedded in an extended lesson.

One of the questions / comments I heard from a ESSDACK workshop participant yesterday is a variation of what I hear often enough that it concerns me:

I really think all of this historical thinking stuff is good. But most of my kids can’t do it. I’ve tried it and they just aren’t getting it. They seem to have more success with what I’ve always done – lecture and have them read from the book. They need that foundational knowledge and can’t seem to do anything else. Is there a way to get struggling kids to do this?

For some teachers, I think the real question underneath this sort of comment is:

What’s the easy way to get struggling kids to do this?

or worse:

Deep down, I don’t think my kids are actually capable of ever doing this kind of thinking no matter what I do.

For most teachers though, I think it’s more of a frustration and confusion about what this kind of teaching and learning actually looks like. We have been trained for so long that memorizing and multiple choice is not just acceptable but preferred, that it’s hard to envision anything else.

So scaffolds and structures and tools are needed for teachers. Stuff that doesn’t have to be planned but used right away. Stuff that can help me start to see how teaching historical thinking and literacy skills look like and provides a jumping off point for planning my own lessons.

And that’s why I think Reading, Thinking, and Writing About History can be so powerful.

You get a bit of theory and philosophy but more importantly you also get examples, unit designs, and specific structures to use with your kids to help with reading and writing in the discipline. Co-author Chauncey Monte-Sano was also a co-author on Sam Wineburg’s Reading Like a Historian so the message is very consistent – kids need to read, think, and write in very discipline-specific ways.

A few highlights?

The authors suggest that there are three foundational concepts we all need to accept before jumping into this:

  • History is evidence-based interpretation.
    A 4th grade kid, after being led through a historical thinking exercise, said “So the past is what really happened. And history is what we say happened.” Yup. That’s what we want.
  • We learn history through analysis and questioning.
    Sourcing, contextualizing, and corroborating are the foundational skills we need to teach our kids.
  • Reading, Thinking, and Writing are interconnected.
    These three processes “are aspects of the same activity.” They overlap and mutually support one another.

They also suggest five “principles for integrating literacy and history:”

  • Pose central historical questions and present sources.
    I’ve called these “un-Googleable” questions – questions to lead to the understanding of big ideas. After present kids with the question, be sure to provide evidence that helps them answer it.
  • Develop students’ background knowledge.
    I think this is what freaks out many teachers. Still with the lecture or textbook assignment otherwise “they won’t know what they need to know.” Nothing wrong with providing a variety of activities that provide context but we need to remember that this is an inquiry activity. The inquiry will provide opportunities for kids to learn what they need to know.
  • Use developmentally appropriate tasks.
    This is what yesterday’s comment was really about – “I don’t know how to teach low readers and writers. Give me some tools.” The authors understand that kids are at different places and provide examples of how to get all kids moving.
  • Take a Cognitive Apprenticeship approach to thinking and literacy practices.
    Though the concept isn’t new, the phrase is. I like it. As teachers, we need to do a better job of modeling what historical thinking looks and sounds like – making it visible – for our students. The authors do a good job of providing tools you can use to make this happen.
  • Adapt to student’s needs while emphasizing disciplinary thinking and writing.
    Every class is different. This book is not one size fits all. You’re gonna have to make some professional decisions about how to adapt what the book suggests to make it work for your kids.

Much of the book focuses on providing specific examples of lessons and units that you can immediately put into practice or adapt to your own content. The book also provides tons of student examples and lots of stuff you can copy off and use right away. Two of my favorites is their IREAD and H2W.

Short for Identify / Read / Examine / Assess / Determine, the IREAD is a great structure for helping kids through the thinking process. H2W is short for a tool that helps kids create written responses to questions and prompts – How to Write Your Essay.

Struggling to figure out what it looks like to teach historical thinking and literacy? To a variety of different learning levels? This book is a great place to start. And as much as I hate to say it, the book is probably even better than a great rack of ribs.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m using this book to help re-define the work we have been doing for years at the History Project at UC Davis. I agree with you –the idea of cognitive apprenticeship is not new but Wineburg, Montesano’s discussion of it is helpful in light of the CCSS and teacher’s (new/old) concerns about sharing the responsibility of literacy.

    October 2, 2014
    • glennw #

      I just think there are a lot of teachers who need ideas of modeling / think alouds / demonstrating the idea of analyzing evidence. The book provides some useful strategies for doing that. (And I’m going to borrow your phrase “shared responsibility of literacy.”)

      Thanks for the comment!


      October 2, 2014
  2. Reblogged this on .

    October 2, 2014
  3. Glenn- This book has been in my Amazon cart for a while, but for whatever reason I haven’t pulled the “buy it” trigger. How does it compare to, say, Bruce Lesh’s book? How useful is it for World History teachers? Thanks for any feedback you can give!.

    October 14, 2014
    • glennw #

      Like Lesh’s book, this one focuses on historical thinking skills but with more emphasis on literacy. And it uses US History topics as the examples. So … I do think it’s useful to help get ideas of how to incorporate literacy activities into instruction and how to assess historical thinking / literacy skills, you won’t find any specific world history “lessons” included. I’ve pasted features and chapters below to give a bit of an idea of content:

      Book Features:

      Integrates literacy and inquiry with core U.S. history topics.
      Emphasizes argumentative writing, a key requirement of the Common Core.
      Offers explicit guidance for instruction with classroom-ready materials.
      Provides primary sources for differentiated instruction.
      Explains a curriculum appropriate for students who struggle with reading, as well as more advanced readers.
      Models how to transition over time from more explicit instruction to teacher coaching and greater student


      – On Integrating History and Literacy
      – Teaching Disciplinary Literacy Through a Cognitive Apprenticeship
      – Who Fired the First Shot at Lexington Green?
      – Were Shays and His Followers Rebels or Freedom Fighters?
      – Did the Alien and Sedition Acts Violate the U.S. Constitution?
      – What Path Offered the Best Chance of Survival for the Cherokee in the Early 1800s: Staying in Their Original
      Territory or Removal to the West?
      – What Was the Most Effective Way to Free Slaves in the U.S. Before the Civil War: Nonviolence (“Moral ‘Suasion”) or
      More Aggressive Action?
      – Was the U.S. Justified in Going to War with Mexico in 1846?
      – Assessing Historical Thinking and Writing Outcomes

      Hope this helps!


      October 15, 2014

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