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1.1: Introduction

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This book provides high school U.S. History teachers and students with sets of primary and secondary sources about important topics. Some teachers will use it as a supplement to a traditional textbook. For those looking to leave the textbook behind entirely, it will provide a course with basic structure and continuity, and will reduce the burden of finding new primary sources for each class meeting. However, it is not yet comprehensive enough to meet the coverage requirements of, for example, an Advanced Placement test.

Reading Like a Historian

The methods used in this book draw on the latest research in history education, and particularly on the work of Stanford professor Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Group. Wineburg has shown when reading documents, historians consistently engage in several characteristic behaviors that non-historians do not—sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, and close reading.

  • Sourcing – When reading a primary document, historians look first to its source information, anticipate its perspective, and consider its trustworthiness. Sourcing questions should be answered after reading the source information and headnote but before reading the document. Who created the document? With what purpose? What was the intended audience? Is the document trustworthy?
  • Contextualization – As they read and interpret a document, historians consider the historical context within which it was created. What was going on when this document was created? What were people doing? What did people believe? Why might this document not provide the whole picture?
  • Close reading – As they read and interpret a document, historians also try to understand the argument being made within the document and the rhetorical strategies being employed. What is the argument being made in this document? What evidence is presented? What specific words are used?
  • Corroboration – After reading multiple documents, historians consider how they relate to each other. Do the sources agree with each other or are they in conflict? Are they reliable? Considering all of the sources available, what can we say about the issues they address?

The texts in this book have been selected to cover important and interesting topics in U.S. history that allow students to practice these reading skills. The book is divided into chapters, each of which covers a historical period (e.g. the Civil War) and contains sections that address specific topics (e.g. the New York City Draft Riots). Each section contains approximately 2-5 documents, which have been selected to be read as a group. Each document is followed by questions for students to answer, most of which correspond to one of the four historical reading skills listed above—sourcing, contextualization, close reading, and corroboration. Some sections include ‘section questions’ which are more global and address all of the documents in the set.

Advanced and Basic Versions

Document-oriented history teachers quickly learn that historic sources often use dated language that challenges some students and stymies others completely. To address this difficulty, the book is available in advanced and basic versions. The advanced book is a straightforward collection of excerpted documents. The basic book, however, requires a bit more explanation. Most documents in the basic version have been modified from the original text—sometimes radically—to make them more accessible to less proficient readers. Some difficult words have been replaced, while others are underlined and defined below. Complicated syntax has been simplified and sentences rearranged, but we have strived to preserve original meanings. Documents at the beginning of the book are more heavily modified than those at the end, both because older documents are usually more difficult and because students’ reading skill is expected to improve as the course progresses. We encourage teachers of the basic book to explain to students that the documents have been modified, to have copies of original documents (i.e. the advanced book) available, and to periodically read aloud or distribute copies of the original documents to convey the flavor of the language, and to make clear exactly what is preserved and lost in modification. The questions that follow each document are identical in both versions.

The documents in this book were selected and modified by Stanford Ph.D. candidate Abby Reisman, as part of her doctoral research, under the supervision of Sam Wineburg. The curriculum was piloted in four San Francisco classrooms during the 2008-2009 school year, and post-tests showed statistically significant gains in both historical reasoning and general reading ability. A short promotional video, which includes interviews with students participating in the San Francisco pilot, is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWz08mVUIt8. Classroom-tested lesson plans for most of the documents in this book are available at http://sheg.stanford.edu, although there may be minor divergences between the sourcebook and lessons. The website also contains document sets extending from 1923 to the present that are not currently included in the sourcebook.

We have chosen to end this book in the year 1923 because documents from before that year belong to the public domain. After that point, the legal doctrine of ‘fair use’ permits the inclusion of limited excerpts from documents. Additionally, audio and video sources become important. As of this writing, such capacities are just beginning to be supported by CK-12’s Flexbook format, and most history education research has focused on the use of text and images. We hope eventually to extend the book’s coverage through the rest of the twentieth century.

Adding Sections

In the period from colonization to 1923, this sourcebook covers major events, but not all topics are addressed and coverage could be improved. Users of the textbook are invited to submit additional document sets, which we will review for inclusion in the next edition of the book.

New document sets should address topics commonly mentioned in state or AP history standards. The documents selected should not merely address the same topic but should be selected to be read as a group and to facilitate the historical reading behaviors included above. Document sets should include (1) An introductory paragraph to provide background information and frame students’ reading, (2) Source information for each document (3) Documents, excerpted as necessary to reach an appropriate length. Documents may include text, images, sounds, or video, but their inclusion in the book must not violate copyright law. Eligible documents include those in the public domain, under a Creative Commons license, or available under legal ‘fair use’ doctrine. (4) Questions addressing the sources individually and as a group. Most questions should correspond to one of the four historical reading skills described above.

To Learn More

A further explanation of the teaching strategies used here can be found at http://historicalthinkingmatters.org/, particularly in the introductory video, Why Historical Thinking Matters (http://historicalthinkingmatters.org/why/). Much of the research informing this method is available in the book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, a collection of papers by Sam Wineburg.

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Feb 23, 2012

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Aug 13, 2014
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