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Nerdfest 2015 Day One: Teaching Literacy with Historical Documents

We’re jumping right into this. Ian Anderson, from Nebraska Wesleyan, is sharing info about his program there in Nebraska. His project is all about improving the reading / writing abilities and historical thinking skills of K-12 students in the state.

The problem? Students are struggling with these skills. So they developed a staff development program to help teachers support these skills. They used the framework from Sam Wineburg and SHEG as the basis of of their rationale and programming.

So their purpose? Training teachers to get kids to do and thinking like historians with the following questions:

  • What do historians do?
  • Why should we study the past?
  • Why do our students not always like to study history or succeed at it?

Ian used the Traxoline example to help us understand that being able to close read and comprehend text is not always the same as disciplinary specific skills.


The Montillation of Traxoline
It is very important that you learn about Traxoline. Traxoline is a new form of zointer. It is montilled in Ceristanna. The Ceristannians gristeriate large amounts of fevon and then bracter it to quasel traxoline. Traxoline may well be one of our most lukized snezlaus in the future because of our zointer lescelidge.

Answer the following questions in complete sentences. Be sure to answer using your best handwriting.

  • What is traxoline?
  • Where is traxoline montilled?
  • How is traxoline quaselled?
  • Why is it important to know about traxoline?


It’s fairly simple for students to get all four of these questions correct. The idea here, of course, is that students can learn stuff but won’t really know much about what they are learning or be able to recall anything later. We need to add context, emotion, and problems to solve for powerful learning to happen.

So how should we do this? What should it look like in the classroom? Students need to do what historians do. Which takes us back to Ian’s set of three questions. I really like the last one:

  • Why do our students not always like to study history or succeed at it?

We need to be aware of how the brain works best and what that can look like when we’re dealing with the past. So Ian fell back to the Wineburg framework to discuss the skills of:

  • Sourcing
  • Contextualization
  • Corroboration
  • Close Reading

Ian used the example of Dwight Eisenhower’s view of immigration and compared it with the current views of Republican presidential candidates. We can use the study of Eisenhower’s views to better understand the views of 2015 candidates. He went on to talk about how to transfer this sort of thinking to younger kids to improve not just historical thinking skills but also improve reading and writing skills.

We looked at a SHEG example to get a sense of what that can look like at the 6th grade level. Using the Nazi Propaganda lesson, Ian walked us through the process starting with a great compelling question or problem. We sourced the poster in the lesson – looking at colors, structure, word choice, elements that suggest heavenly approval and unity / conformity.

german propaganda

We also spent some time discussing the actual German ballot of 1938.

german ballot

Interesting exercise. I like how he structured the process. It’s a nice way for us to think about how we create our own lessons and activities:

  • Frame the inquiry
  • Consider persepectives, gather resources
  • Apply the skills of historical thinking (sourcing, contextualization, close reading)
  • Draw conslusions
  • Demonstrate historical understanding

We need to start the process with modeling our thinking and using read alouds to help lead kids to more independent work. One of the things we talked about was making documents “accessible” to students – should we modify documents? Is it okay to tamper with the past? If yes, how do we do that?

There is no such thing as a pure primary source. Modifying documents is an extension of what is already happening. Using textbooks is a perfect example of this. Someone has already modified documents and packaged them for us.

We need to be very focused on using brief, focused, and manageable texts with our kids. One resource Ian shared as a site called Another site you might try to help with this is called Rewordify.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very much in line with the SHEG approach, check out the free archive of primary sources and story-driven topics at
    (You can also become a member of “MakerSpace for the Humanities” for yourself or your class, sleuthing sources, writing and citing articles, stories and lessons for publishing. Very cool and very cheap.)

    November 12, 2015
    • glennw #


      Thanks for sharing! Appreciate the link. Awesome Stories is a great name because . . . well, it is awesome.


      November 12, 2015

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