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History Detected

Give kids original source material, teach them how to weigh evidence and defend their conclusions, and they'll shine in class—and as citizens.

By Theresa Johnston

In the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ben Stein famously plays a high school teacher who drones on about the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act while his students slump at their desks in a collective stupor. For many kids, that's history: an endless catalog of disconnected dates and names, passed down like scripture from the state textbook, seldom questioned and quickly forgotten.

Now take a seat inside Will Colglazier's classroom at Aragon High School in San Mateo. The student population here is fairly typical for the Bay Area: about 30 percent Latino, 30 percent Asian and 40 percent white. The subject matter is standard 11th grade stuff: What caused the Great American Dust Bowl?

Tapping on his laptop, Colglazier shows the class striking black-and-white images of the choking storms that consumed the Plains states in the 1930s. Then he does something unusual. Instead of following a lesson plan out of the textbook, he passes out copies of a 1935 letter, written by one Caroline Henderson to the then-U.S. secretary of agriculture, poignantly describing the plight of her neighbors in the Oklahoma panhandle. He follows that with another compelling document: a confidential high-level government report, addressed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decrying the region's misguided homesteading policies.

Colglazier clearly is a gifted and well-trained educator, a history/economics major and 2006 graduate of the Stanford Teacher Education Program. But what sets this class apart from Ferris Bueller's is more than the man; it's his method—an approach developed at Stanford's Graduate School of Education that's rapidly gaining adherents across the country. At a time when national student surveys show abysmal rates of proficiency in history, trial studies of the Stanford program demonstrated that when high school students engage regularly with challenging primary source documents, they not only make significant gains learning and retaining historical material, they also markedly improve their reading comprehension and critical thinking.

Colglazier builds his thought-provoking classes using an online tool called Reading Like a Historian. Designed by the Stanford History Education Group under Professor Sam Wineburg, the website offers 87 flexible lesson plans featuring documents from the Library of Congress. Teachers can download the lessons and adapt them for their own purposes, free of charge. Students learn how to examine documents critically, just as historians would, in order to answer intriguing questions: Did Pocahontas really rescue John Smith? Was Abraham Lincoln a racist? Who blinked first in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Russians or the Americans?

Apparently the program has struck a chord. In school districts from red states and blue, New York City and Chicago to Carmel, Calif., history teachers are lining up for workshops on how to use the materials. The website's lessons have been downloaded 800,000 times and spawned a lively online community of history educators grateful for the camaraderie—and often desperate for help.

Many would agree that they need it. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 30 percent of the people who teach history-related courses in U.S. public high schools both majored in the field and are certified to teach it. Fewer than one quarter of the country's students in grades four, eight and 12 are considered proficient in American history. Only 32 percent of eighth graders who took the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress could name an advantage American forces had over the British in the Revolutionary War. Just 22 percent of high school seniors knew that U.S. troops were up against Chinese forces in the Korean War.

Sitting back at his desk after the bell rings, Colglazier says he can't imagine teaching history any other way. "It's so powerful to give these skills to students at a young age," he explains. "I easily could have told them in one minute that the Dust Bowl was the result of overgrazing and over-farming and World War I overproduction, combined with droughts that had been plaguing that area forever, but they wouldn't remember it." By reading these challenging documents and discovering history for themselves, he says, "not only will they remember the content, they'll develop skills for life."

As Wineburg notes in the website's book counterpart, "the practices historians have developed can be used to make sense of the conflicting voices that confront us every time we turn on Fox News or MSNBC. Put simply, the skills cultivated by Reading Like a Historian provide essential tools for citizenship."

To understand how the series works, it's helpful to look at the first lesson, on Pocahontas. The teacher is encouraged to start the class with a short clip from the 1995 Walt Disney movie: the scene where the svelte, eco-conscious Indian princess rescues her English settler boyfriend from a clubbing ordered by her father. The story is the best-known part of the Jamestown colony saga. But is it true?

Using a provided time line, the teacher offers some background on the doomed 1607 English settlement. Then she asks her students to pair up and hands out two accounts written by the man Pocahontas supposedly saved, Capt. John Smith. The first, dated 1608, makes no mention of the dramatic incident; instead it praises the Indians for their "kind welcome, good words and great platters of sundry victuals." Only the second account, written for a wider audience 16 years later, describes his near-death experience at the hands of a now fearsome tribe.

After students read the texts aloud to their partners, they answer written questions: Who wrote these accounts, and when? What's the difference between them? Why might Smith lie or exaggerate? Why wouldn't he lie? The exercise is repeated using short texts by two different historians. One says the rescue probably didn't happen, because nobody else in the Virginia Company mentioned it in their diaries. Another suggests that Smith may have misinterpreted an Indian manhood ritual. The class ends with a group discussion and homework: "Did Pocahontas rescue John Smith? Use evidence from these documents to support your argument."

These are fairly challenging texts. To make them more manageable for middle school and high school readers, Stanford developers took the bold step of modifying their language and length, editing them down to a few hundred words each while keeping the historical voices intact. Unfamiliar words, like victuals, are highlighted and defined in word banks off to the side. Teachers who download the lesson plans are assured that they don't have to use them exactly as written. Nor are they required to give up their state-issued textbooks; they just need to understand the books' limitations.

"Don't get me wrong," says Wineburg, PhD '89. "Textbooks are useful as background narrative. It's difficult to talk about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution if students don't know where Vietnam is, or the Lincoln-Douglas debates if they don't know who Abe Lincoln was before he was Daniel Day-Lewis." But when a ten-pound textbook becomes the script for a whole year's worth of instruction, a precious learning opportunity is lost. "Many students go through their entire middle and high school and never encounter the actual voice of a historical participant," Wineburg laments. The secret to success, he says, "is removing the barriers between learners and the people of the past."

The roots of Reading Like a Historian go back to Wineburg's boyhood in upstate New York. The son of a veteran "who never met a World War II documentary he didn't like," Wineburg devoured history books as a kid and did well in Advanced Placement courses at his public high school. But when he entered Brown University, he was shocked at how ill-prepared he was in the subject. Employed after college as a high school history teacher, he saw similar weaknesses in his students. "The best ones could repeat what the text said," he recalls, "but when I asked them to critically examine whether they believed the text, I could have been speaking Martian."

Why do some students "get it" when they read history, and others don't? The question led Wineburg to a doctorate in psychological studies in education. An answer came in the early 1990s while he was working at the University of Washington. One day Wineburg was watching a history professor examine a document relating to Abraham Lincoln when he noticed something interesting: The historian barely glanced at the first line of the text before zooming in on its attribution. When Wineburg asked about this, the historian dismissed it with a wave of his hand, saying, "Everyone does that." But when Wineburg gave the same document to undergraduates in the historian's class, not a single one seemed to care about where it had come from, let alone the context in which it was written.

Wineburg realized that the art of historical thinking is not something that comes naturally to most people; it has to be cultivated. Students have to be taught to look at the source of a document before reading it, figure out the context in which it was written, and cross-check it with other sources before coming to a conclusion. The professor codified his thinking in an award-winning 2002 book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Then he returned to Stanford, determined to spread his educational theories to an even wider audience.

Wineburg founded the Stanford History Education Group in 2002 with the help of two doctoral students, Daisy Martin, PhD '05, and Chauncey Monte-Sano, PhD '06. They sought to promote research from a variety of Stanford departments on how history is best taught and learned. (The three later co-authored the 2011 book Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms.) During the next decade, Wineburg taught his methods to hundreds of master's students enrolled in the Stanford Teacher Education Program, as well as doctoral candidates eager to devise new document-based lesson plans. Leading the pack were Abby Reisman, PhD '08, PhD '11, and Brad Fogo, PhD '10.

In 2008, Reisman was ready to conduct a test of the curriculum at five schools in the San Francisco Unified School District. As expected, students in the test classes showed an increased ability to retain historical knowledge, as well as a greater appreciation for history, compared to the control group. What took everyone by surprise, though, was how much the test students advanced in basic reading.

"It was cool, for lack of a better word," says Valerie Ziegler, a social studies teacher at Abraham Lincoln High in the Sunset District, who participated in the trial. "Several of the students said they felt better about their reading because they were doing so much more of it. It wasn't just textbook reading, it was more challenging."

Stacey Horman, a 2008 STEP graduate, has seen similar gains over the years among her lower-income, ethnically diverse students at Fremont High School in Sunnyvale, Calif. "I have one student this year who had some health issues and was reading at a sixth- or seventh-grade reading level. He recently completed a history essay for me, which was a huge triumph," she says proudly. "Students often push back at the beginning of the year, because this class isn't like anything they have ever seen before. They are not used to reading a document—or two or five—every single day. I frequently hear students say, 'Ms. Horman, this isn't my Lit class!' By February they don't make any negative comments because they are used to it."

Fremont 11th grader Ayanna Black agrees. "In other history courses I have taken, I wasn't able to fully understand what was going on. It seemed that it was just a bunch of words I had to memorize for a future test," she says. "Now that I contextualize the information I am given, it helps me understand not only what is being said but also the reason behind it." The approach, she says, "leads me to remembering the information out of curiosity, rather than trying to pass a test."

Scholars in the Stanford History Education Group hope to develop more online lesson plans in world history, as well as plans geared to middle schools. Their most pressing task, though, is to give schools the tools they need to measure their students' progress in light of coming changes in state-mandated testing.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a nationwide effort to reform and better align state educational standards so that U.S. students can compete more effectively in the global economy. (States that accept the new standards bolster their chances for competitive federal Race to the Top grants.) The Common Core curriculum will bring radical changes in the standardized state tests that youngsters have been taking for decades. Instead of filling in multiple-choice bubbles, they will be expected to write out short answers that demonstrate their ability to analyze texts, and then cite those texts to support arguments—the exact skills that Reading Like a Historian fosters.

With that in mind, in 2009 the Library of Congress gave Wineburg's group a $315,000 grant to help teachers make better use of the 37 million letters, photographs, recordings and other primary sources the library makes available online. "Incorporating primary sources into K-12 instruction is mandated in all 50 states, and the new Common Core State Standards, which 45 states have adopted, rely heavily on their use," notes Vivian Awumey, program manager for the library's Teaching with Primary Sources program. "We have been following Professor Wineburg's work for many years and considered him to be a trailblazer."

To help districts prepare for the challenge, Wineburg and his PhD students have teamed up with the library on another project: a website called Beyond the Bubble,where teachers can learn how to evaluate their students using short written tests called History Assessments of Thinking. Each HAT asks students to consider a historical document—a letter drawn from the archives of the NAACP, for example—and justify their conclusions about it in three or four sentences. By scanning the responses, teachers can determine quickly whether their pupils are grasping basic concepts.

"The materials aren't just created in a vacuum; they've been piloted by hundreds of students," says Joel Breakstone, who developed the site along with fellow Stanford education doctoral student Mark Smith. "At the same time, we've rolled up our sleeves and are traveling the country, talking about this in districts from Colorado Springs to South Carolina. It's hard, interactive work, but teachers really appreciate it."

Farther down the road, Wineburg hopes to make Reading Like a Historian lesson plans completely paperless, with exercise sheets that can be filled out on a laptop or tablet computer. And he'll continue searching for opportunities to spread the word about his ideas. Scholarly journal articles are useful for establishing credentials, he says, but if professors of education want to reach teachers and principals in the trenches, they need to be more comfortable using mainstream media, YouTube, blogs and social networking.

"If you had told me five years ago that I would be on Twitter, I would have laughed at you," Wineburg admits, smiling. "But you cannot ignore the way that people access information if you want to be relevant these days." His ultimate goal would be for textbook publishers to get the message. "Perhaps when they realize that people are downloading our stuff for free, and it's better, they will up the quality of the things that they produce. Who knows whether that's a sound theory of change? But it's the principle that we are working on."

Back at Aragon High School in San Mateo, 11th grader Annika Ulrich has finished her homework on the Dust Bowl and is busy with another activity: putting out the next edition of the Aragon Outlook newspaper. Though the work has been hard in history this year, she appreciates what it's taught her. "I've learned that you don't just read what is put in front of you and accept it, which is what I had been doing with my textbook all summer," she explains. "It can be frustrating to analyze documents that are contradictory, but I'm coming to appreciate that history is a collection of thousands of accounts and perspectives, and it's our job to interpret it." For a budding journalist, that's an important lesson—one even Ferris Bueller could appreciate.


Theresa Johnston, '83, is a frequent contributor.

Comments (7)


  • Dr. Helen Gaynor Deines

    This is such an exciting article! As a former history major ('64), I construct modules similar to this for adults in racial healing workshops in which participants explore the enduring consequences of past wrongs, usually laws written long ago such as the Homestead Act, Chinese Exclusion Act, and such.  Most participants get really excited...something they report as not associating with history.  What a delight to see Stanford connecting the challenges of historical analysis with the Common Core.  Kudos!

    Posted by Dr. Helen Gaynor Deines on May 15, 2013 3:05 PM

  • Richie Jonah Meyer, Ph.D.

    As a student of John C. Miller who taught American history at Stanford, I learned about original sources from him. He always made history interesting such as his discussion of "The sex life of John Smith" during his seminar on American Colonial History.
    Dr. Richie Meyer '54, MA '61, PhD NYU, '67.

    Posted by Richie Jonah Meyer, Ph.D. on May 15, 2013 5:29 PM

  • Dr. Linda Lawson Elman

    There were similar, if less sophisticated, materials like this when I taught history in the early 70s.  

    Posted by Dr. Linda Lawson Elman on May 16, 2013 7:50 AM

  • Mr. David Matthew Hannigan

    One historical note: Jamestown was not a "doomed...English settlement," but in fact the first successful English settlement in the Americas, one which faced numerous existential challenges but survived, gave birth to the colony of Virginia, and had its 400th anniversary celebration 6 years ago. The author likely had the Lost Colony of Roanoke in mind.

    Posted by Mr. David Matthew Hannigan on May 21, 2013 1:21 PM

  • Dr. Nancy Neaher Maas

    This is old news. I took an M.A.T. at Harvard 1963-64 and this is exactly what we were doing then. I admit I went on to become a univ. prof (via Stanford) so I lost touch with developments in public education. It's astonishing, though, to think that this is a "new" discovery. I feel sorry for h.s. students in the 50 years in between whose schools didn't adopt/or have exposure to the Harvard approach.

    Posted by Dr. Nancy Neaher Maas on Jun 5, 2013 8:08 AM

  • Don M. Boileau, Ph.D.

    This methodology reminds me of the approach Prof. T. A. Bailey took to teaching American History.  We had an American History textbook [THE AMERICAN PAGEANT] and another book full of documents [THE AMERICAN SPIRITY].  The subtitle of the latter, "United States History as Seen by Contemporaries" provides an insight that the reader will discover history as items communicating the ideas of the day.  These documents--letters, bills, newspaper articles, editorials,
    personal letters, diaries, propaganda leaflets, public debates, political cartoons, and reported interviews--hooked me into taking more history classes.   Bailey wanted the readers to discover the controversies of the time while learning about the unsuccessful and unpopular sides of controversial issues.  
        To me this was the best way to approach history.  While I applaud the work mentioned in the article, I must agree with Dr. Maas that "this is old news."  
    Don M. Boileau, Class of 1964  








    Posted by Don M. Boileau, Ph.D. on Jun 13, 2013 7:44 PM

  • Mr. Stewart Duff Hayes

    Whether one considers it re-inventing the wheel or discovering an old treasure, no matter, I applaud the latest re-birth of a tried and true history teaching method.  The method can be applied to all subjects including athletics.  Self discovery yields better recall than knowledge force fed.    

    Posted by Mr. Stewart Duff Hayes on Sep 6, 2013 4:52 PM

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