Slice of Life March Challenge: March 13th., 2014 – “Historical thinking questions”

orange soltwt

The March Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by Two Writing Teachers .  

 About a year ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a Content Area Institute in Social Studies at TC.  Our large group sessions were led by the always inspiring and thought provoking Mary Ehrenworth, who encouraged us to teach our kids to be aware of multiple perspectives when reading texts, viewing art or print media, and studying reports of historical events and issues.  We examined some narratives  about the Pilgrims and the early days of American settlements, and were fascinated to find a wide variety of often diverging points of view as to what that experience had been like, and what the Pilgrims found when they so famously landed on Plymouth Rock. In one of our text selections, we were astonished to discover that the Puritans were the first people to ever set foot on Plymouth Rock, a fact that would have come as a great surprise to the Wampanoag people who had inhabited the area for many generations!

Mary challenged us to be more intentional about building a habit of historical thinking based on the following questions:

  • what’s the story?
  • what’s the other story?
  • who is telling the story? who is left out of the story?
  • how do you know the story?
  • why know/tell the story?
  • where is the power in the story?

These questions are posted on the wall at the front of my classroom, we call them our “historical thinking questions”, and they continue to guide the way we think about what we learn in history:

 photo (3)

I think I feel a special urgency to teach this way because ours’ is a small, affluent and homogenous town.  I have very few students of color, and there tends not to be much socioeconomic diversity.  My kids do not know want, and theirs is a largely safe and happy world.  I realized this my very first year of teaching, the year of Hurricane Katrina.  The current events reports that my kids presented on Katrina were rife with misunderstandings about the lives of the poor residents of New Orleans. I was horrified at first, and then thought: okay, so let’s find a way to learn about the situation together. And, we did.   We were using a version of “historical thinking questions” then, only I hadn’t thought of it quite that way yet.

All of this came to mind today, as my kids were putting together their Westward Bound photo journals – the culminating project for our Westward Expansion unit.  Now that we’ve studied all about the Oregon and Santa Fe trails, the California Gold Rush, and the Homesteading Act, my students selected photographs and wrote journal entries based on what they’d learned.  Photographs like these:

download (2) images OT-Wagon Train

It was fascinating to see the variety of perspectives from which my kids wrote.  In addition to the pioneers and homesteaders, there were entries from  Native Americans watching the wagon trains encroach their land, migrants who toiled in the gold mines, children, pets, the weary oxen, and even the wild life whose grazing land was soon fenced off .  Collected together, it was such a rich narrative – with each perspective adding a new layer of understanding.  That’s the power in the story!


12 thoughts on “Slice of Life March Challenge: March 13th., 2014 – “Historical thinking questions”

  1. Wow. I love these questions. They force your students to view other perspectives, and to expect that their are other perspective. I wonder how your current student would react to something like Katrina. You have given them habits of thinking that will stay with them forever.

  2. These questions are very powerful and really meet the demands of the common core. More importantly to your point, they help create better more critically aware citizens. I will be adding these questions to my history units. “Collected together, it was such a rich narrative – with each perspective adding a new layer of understanding. That’s the power in the story!” This is so very true! Also, I really like your Westward Expansion project and if you don’t mind, I may use that in the future.

  3. Tara, this is powerful! I copied the questions so that I will remember to write them and put them up in my classroom as well. I try to do this when I work with my ELLs studying US history. We can always do more.

  4. It seems like we’re on the same wavelength these days. First our similar posts yesterday, and today the power of story. I loved reading about your students’ westward expansion project and the historical thinking questions that guided their work.

  5. Thanks for sharing the other questions for students to consider when reading historical texts. I like how your students used the photos to consider other points of views that would have been represented at that time. I love your Photo Journals as a part of your Westward Expansion unit!

  6. Wow, Tara, as always, your posts are inspiring. I love the questions. In light of the CCSS, your emphasis on visual and cultural literacy is timely. You are showing your students that there has been and will be a world outside of their own “homogenous” community. PS Thank you for fixing my link today. I did it from my phone….I guess that didn’t work out so well!

  7. Two of the teachers of the oldest are doing American history this year and traveling to the Boston area for their big trip in the spring. I’ll certainly pass the questions on to them, Tara. What you’ve described is a dilemma in our school as well, the point well taken to help the students look at all perspectives, and especially too, to examine who is telling the story. Thanks for another great post I’ll keep referring to!

  8. Such important messages for students in this post, Tara! Thinking about the different perspectives builds not only better historians, but also more empathetic citizens, and lord knows we need those. I love the questions that you have in your room. Thanks for sharing.

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