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April, 2012 Blog - Historical Literacy and Active Learning

I recently read an interesting article in the March, 2012 edition of Educational Leadership magazine entitled “Teaching for Historical Literacy.” Written by two literacy consultants, Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey, the article stresses the importance of teaching students the difference between information and knowledge, and that, if information is to become knowledge, students need to think about what they’re reading.

 

The authors review current concerns over the reduction of instructional time for teaching history—and really all social studies—due to the No Child Left Behind law, which they characterize as being “morphed into MCLB—More Curriculum Left Behind—as schools narrow their curricula in the face of high-stakes tests in math and reading.” They point out that “in a democracy, history and social studies shouldn’t be optional.” The problem isn’t just the loss of instructional time for teaching social studies, but also how being tied to a textbook creates instruction that is a mile wide and an inch deep. The authors pose the problem: How will our students ever learn the democratic process if they have so little time to learn how it worked in the past? 

 

Throughout the article, Goudvis and Harvey stress the importance of teaching historical literacy, and they provide several useful practices to implement in the classroom. These include having students read multiple texts to build knowledge, ask questions for different purposes, evaluate authors’ purposes and perspectives, and use picture books to spark their imaginations. As I read through the article, I thought of how active learning strategies could be incorporated to help teachers implement these practices with their students.

 

Let’s say you’re teaching a topic like the Great Depression. This historical period is cited in several content standards compendiums such as National History Standards, McREL standards, and most state standards listings. You could just rely on the textbook to cover the material in a flat, uninspired way that covers names, dates, and events and has students spew these back on tests. Or you could take a different approach. Begin by providing students with a variety of reading materials to capture their interest and spark their curiosity. These might include newspapers of the period, diaries, letters, photographs, even some historical fiction. Allow students time to pour through these materials, exploring their contents and thinking about what they’re reading.

 

By now you’re probably saying, “But wait! Instructional time is so limited now. How can I spend even one class period having students ‘explore’ history in a vacuum? How will I know what they’re learning? What’s to prevent the entire activity from turning into a complete waste of time?” Well, there are some effective active learning strategies that can help students understand the materials and transform information into knowledge. You might want to start even before engaging students in any reading materials. Provide a brief description of the Great Depression and ask students to complete a KWL chart (What I KNOW, What I WANT to Know, and What I’ve LEARNED). They can participate independently or in pairs/triads, and it takes about five minutes. They can then exchange ideas and ask questions when they’ve completed their charts.

 

Next, have students take out a sheet of paper and write leading statements, with space below each, such as “I was surprised that…” “I learned that…” “I wonder about…” Then make the reading materials available to students, and as they review, have them jot down quick notes or comments to these leading statements. Students may be surprised at the number of people out of work during the Great Depression, or that most people didn’t suffer from the Stock Market Crash but from the loss of jobs that occurred in the subsequent years. Students might wonder how families survived with the main breadwinner out of work. Periodically, have students share their reading and discovering with other members of the class. Listen for general themes or topic areas related to the Great Depression that you can use in later activities.

 

Historical thinking begins with authentic questions. As students interact with the news articles, pictures, letters, and personal narratives, they begin to formulate questions. To help students record these questions for later study, you can have them use graphic organizers or create class lists. These can be placed on large sheets of chart paper hung around the room. Each piece of paper can be headed with a general theme or topic of the Great Depression, such as the Stock Market Crash, Unemployment, President Herbert Hoover, The New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Alphabet Agencies,” the Dust Bowl, the Labor Movement, etc. You can model possible questions to help students understand how the topics relate to inquiry. Then have them write their questions in bold letters on the appropriate chart. Or, if you’re having students review the materials in small groups, one student can be “the recorder” of questions while the other students look review the materials and formulate questions. It’s a good idea to have students take turns being the recorder so all get a chance to develop questions.

 

As their knowledge increases and students find answers to their initial questions, more questions emerge. Periodically, it’s a good idea for students to review their KWL charts by asking what they know now and what the need to know to increase their understanding. This step can be conducted in small groups or as an entire class. Eventually, students will have this process become an integral part of their information-gathering process.

 

As the research progresses, topics of interest will emerge that students will want to examine further. You can help students formulate these topics and even align them to the standards. Examples: Causes and consequences of the Stock Market Crash, Causes of the Great Depression, How the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl affected Americans, Reasons for unemployment and people suffering, or How the New Deal addressed the problems of the Great Depression. List these on the front board or overhead. Have students form small groups and share their learning on a mind map to help organize their completed research and gain guidance for new research.

 

At this point, you can highlight the differences between primary and secondary sources and the advantages and disadvantages of each. This can lead you to help students evaluate authors’ purposes and perspectives in writing the materials. Part of the difficulty students will have with this process is their limited background knowledge. (Hey, they’re only kids, right?) A quick series of questions will help them through this process. Who wrote the material? Why do you think they wrote it? What is the author’s perspective or point of view? Are there any possible biases? How does the author interpret (spin) the ideas and information, and what is the effect?

 

For example, students might come across political cartoons on New Deal policies or newspaper articles that describe the effects of government policies critically or favorably. They might find artwork produced through the WPA that pays tribute to the American worker or photographs that depict the plight of the unemployed or victims of the Dust Bowl. Students can use effective questioning strategies to evaluate the impact of these images and readings. You can also access more detailed document and photo analysis forms from the National Archives “Teaching with Documents” site at http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/.

 

Lastly, Goudvis and Harvey encourage the use of picture books to help students infer important ideas. Historical fiction and non-fiction illustrated books are great resource for immersing students into the past. With strong writing, vivid language, and striking images, they allow students to better imagine a different place and time. Because these books are usually short, students can review several sources and engage in critical thinking about different points of view. 

 

Active learning strategies, like the ones suggested above, help empower students’ thinking and reasoning and build reading skills aligned to the Common Core State Standards for reading informational text—citing evidence to support important ideas, asking and answering questions to arrive at an understanding, and evaluating information and different perspectives. They provide students with ways to link the past to the present and make historical connections to their own lives. Ultimately, they’re a great way to prepare students for active participation in a democratic society.

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