Using Authentic Historical Texts to Implement the Common Core

Using Authentic Historical Texts to Implement the Common Core

In this forceful article in Education Week, Sam Wineburg (Stanford University) says that one of the best ways to teach the nonfiction English language arts Common Core standards is through the social studies curriculum. But not using “that 1,000-page behemoth known as a history textbook,” he says. The following Common Core standards suggest a very different approach:

  • Students must learn to “integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats.”
  • Students should “assess the strengths and limitations of sources.”
  • They need to “attend to and interrogate the date and origin” of information.
  • Students should learn to evaluate authors’ claims by “corroborating or challenging them with other information.” 

“Teaching students to contend with this complexity by using the homogenized prose of the textbook is like training swimmers to survive a raging sea but never letting them out of a wading pool,” says Wineburg. “That approach sets them up to drown… Traditional pedagogy prepares students to meet the challenges of a world that no longer exists.” He believes that social studies teachers can no longer hand off literacy responsibilities by saying, “I’m not a reading teacher.” In fact, there are three ways reading high-quality historical material can contribute to the laudable goals of the Common Core:

Rich variety – An important key to adolescent literacy is exposing students to a well-chosen, varied diet of texts, mixing topic, genre, style, and levels of difficulty. “Adolescents become fluent readers when their horizons are broadened,” says Wineburg. “The documentary record – a trove of letters, diaries, secret communiqués, official promulgations, public speeches, and the like – confronts readers with varied styles and textures of language that push the bounds of literacy. It is this rich textual fare that students most need.” 

Close reading – When reading historical texts, students need to slow down. “Decoding a 17th-century lyric poem by John Donne requires the toolbox of symbolism, rhyme scheme, inversion, and theme,” says Wineburg. “But different tools are needed to parse the Lincoln-Douglas debates.” For example, Lincoln’s statement that “the Negro is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment…” leads superficial readers to accuse him of racism. But a close reader notices the word “perhaps.” In an era in which the innate inferiority of African-Americans was commonly accepted, Lincoln’s “perhaps” signaled that he was open to a different interpretation. “History demands that we think about the meaning of words not to us 150 years later, but to the people who actually uttered them,” says Wineburg.

Judgment – Now that “any kook with an Internet connection claims historical expertise, separating truth from falsehood is not a luxury, but an essential quality for discharging the duties of citizenship,” says Wineburg. “Today, when information bombards young people from all sides, the question is not where to find it, but once found, whether it should be believed.” 

“Steering Clear of the Textbook” by Sam Wineburg in Education Week, Dec. 11, 2013 (Vol. 33, #14, p. 36, 30),

From the Marshall Memo #515

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