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5 inquiry learning and primary source teaching hacks. Cause you know . . . it’s good for kids

I’m spending the next several days with some amazing teachers. We’re all part of the Kansas Department of Education’s work on tweaking and revising the rubric used for scoring the state mandated social studies assessment.

We’ve chatted before about the state standards and the very cool state assessment. But in a nutshell? The standards focus on discipline specific skills and process rather than just rote memorization of facts. The state assessment, which the department calls a Classroom-Based Assessment, allows local districts and classroom teachers to design their own inquiry based assessment activity specific to their students and content.

These locally designed assessments are scored with a generic rubric created by KSDE and a select group of teachers. After a year of field testing, we’re coming back together to fix some issues with the rubric that teachers have noticed.

As part of that process, we’ve had the opportunity to look at a wide variety of student created products that address the tasks outlined in the CBAs developed by teachers. And we’ve noticed a few things about these tasks.

The goal of the CBA is simple. Measure how well students can make claims and support those claims using evidence and reasoning. And, well . . . this requires the use of evidence, specifically the use of primary sources. What have we noticed? Not all of the CBA tasks are . . . hmm, high quality. So it’s difficult to determine, using the rubric, whether kids can actually make claims using evidence because the task is poorly designed. A lot of the design issues involve the integration of primary sources.

We figured this would happen and that ongoing professional development would be needed along the way. Teachers across the state (and across the country) are still wrapping their heads around what inquiry-based instruction and assessment can look like. So, in addition to tweaking the rubric, we’ve also started thinking about and planning for next year’s professional learning opportunities around the design of not just the CBA but the integration of evidence in instructional activities.

Part of that planning is providing teachers with primary sources and how to integrate them into a inquiry-based activity. So . . . today? Five hacks for using primary sources as part of your everyday activities.

Hack one:

Start with a clear end in mind. There needs to be a purpose for using the primary sources. Have a question, a problem, a task, a one pager – some sort of activity that demands that students create some sort of product based on their evidence analysis. And I’ve been on a Project Zero / EduProtocols kick for the last few months so maybe a Thin Slides, or a Step In Step Out Step Back, maybe a Number Mania. (Get a ton of ready to use examples and templates in this Google Folder.)

Hack Two:
Create a hook, generate some intrigue, ask for predictions, develop a cliffhanger. 
You might share some backstory and context to the people or place or event that your kids will be exploring. I’ve been using I call a Visual Discrepant Event Inquiry activity for years. Based on the work of Michael Yell and his Mystery / DEI stuff, it’s great for generating a sense of academic discomfort in the brains of your students. And who doesn’t love the idea of captioning images?

Hack Three:
Use interesting and provocative primary sources. This seems like a no-brainer. But we all can slip in the habit of using whatever sources are a part of our textbook materials. I get it. Teaching is hard. Time is short. And there’s not anything wrong with newspapers, letters, official documents; you know, the regular stuff like FDR’s Infamy speech, or stuff from MLK, or the photos from June 6.

But start thinking beyond the regular. Start looking for stuff from BIPOC perspectives. If all the primary sources focus on politicians and notable figures, the everyday folks driving history are left out. Discovery Ed’s Joe Sangillo  says that “analyzing the words of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln are important, but so too is hearing from those not so famous and those often marginalized in society.”

Use charts and graphs generated from Google’s Public Data Explorer. Use maps. Be sure to include multimedia beyond photos such as videos, audio clips, and artwork. Need some primary sources that perhaps aren’t as mainstream? Try some of these:

Hack Four:
Tamper with history just a little bit. As in . . . modify the sources (especially the textual ones) to make them more accessible for your student.
Sam Wineburg and his minions at the Stanford History Education Group suggest that no textual document is more than 300 words. There’s a whole process for modifying your own stuff. Get the details. This include, BTW, the inclusion of the original and the creation of some sort of Word Wall with difficult words defined in context.

If you’ve been using SHEG activities, you already know what this looks like. (ANd you should always start there is you’re looking for primary sources cause . . . well, they’ve already done all the work for you.) Need something that works with visuals? Try the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery stuff like their Four Quarters Activity.

And finally, turn your kids loose with your compelling question that aligns to your hook activity. And that requires some conversation with others while creating their final product. I love the idea of a Structured Academic Controversy. Need an example? Can’t find anything better than Laura McFarren’s Masterpiece Matchup activity.

Maybe you feel super comfortable with your primary source game. Use these to review and hone your ongoing best practices. Maybe you’re just getting started down the road in using sources to create inquiry-based instruction. These might make the process a little less painful.

Either way, it’s the right thing to do. So file these hacks away for next fall and pull them out as you begin your back to school planning.

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