Friday, July 19, 2013

Inquiry Lesson: Opportunities and Challenges of Writing about the Past

Essential Course Question: How do historians do history?

Focus Question: Why do people write about the past, and what challenges are associated with writing about the past?

Some big ideas/themes embedded in this lesson:
-History textbooks are just like all other written accounts of the past. As such, they need to be examined critically.
-Accounts of the past contain claims about the past. These claims need to be examined (need to teach Ss how to examine claims about the past).  
-The past no longer exists in the same way it once did. There are, however, some remains of the past that do linger. These remains can be examined and interpreted, providing us with information about the past. 
-When writing about the past, authors make a number of choices that impact how they present the past to readers.
-All texts are underpinned by questions. Figuring out these questions, as well as the questions not asked, is one way to analyze a text.
-Movies about the past ought to be examined with the the same scrutiny we subject to written accounts.
-We need to be careful about throwing around the term truth in a history class. What, exactly, do we mean? Is it more precise to speak of truths? Multiple perspectives? We need to unpack this term and consider its implications. 

Lesson Overview
     Regardless of your attitudes and views about textbooks and their role in a history classroom, your students walk into class with their own thoughts about these commonly used classroom 'tools'. This lesson is designed to place textbooks into a larger intellectual context. Like all texts, textbooks are written by authors with a purpose. What is that purpose? And what factors impact the extent to which this purpose can be achieved?

     By comparing and contrasting different ways that authors articulate meanings about the past, students will begin to see all texts for what they are: human constructions that are underpinned by questions. They will also begin to see that claims about the past must be evaluated, as opposed to simply accepted.  

Start lesson with this video clip, a short excerpt from Spielberg's movie Lincoln:

(Rational: Students are likely familiar with Spielberg's movie, even if they haven't seen it. And they are almost definitely familiar with Lincoln. It will not be difficult, I suspect, to convince students that when Hollywood does History it exercises considerable dramatic license. The medium itself, film, necessitates that many gaps are filled and assumptions are made about what viewers see and hear. A movie like this is connected to the past, but it is not the past. This inquiry will get students to begin to think about some of the ways people in the present try to construct, or reconstruct, the past. I want students to eventually approach all accounts of the past with the same questioning approach that many of us, almost by default, apply to a movie about people and events from the past. Does our textbook, or my lectures, deserve the same scrutiny? The answer, of course, is yes.)

Quick/Write Reflection: When you watch a movie, such as this one about Lincoln, what are your expectations about truth and accuracy? 

(-Throughout the semester, students will keep a notebook/journal, containing quick writes, questions, notes about sources, etc. A notebook provides a single place for students to gather their thoughts and play around with ideas. The writing in this book is often informal and unpolished, incomplete.....Regarding this prompt, I think some possible responses include the following:
-"We expect that the person making the movie will tell the truth."
-"If film maker wasn't 'telling the truth', they wouldn't 'get away' with it. Too many people would point out errors."
-"If the movie maker is not going to tell the truth, she ought to be honest with the audience."
-"Writer, director should consult historians to make sure that their story is accurate, truthful."
-"When you go to a movie, you ought to know that much of what you see is not 'the way it happened'.)

Pair/Share: Have students partner up with someone (appointment clocks?) to discuss their responses. 

Use the random name generator to select a few students to share details about their partner discussion focused on the prompt. What points were made? Points in common? Points not in common? 

Our inquiry is going to have us exploring ideas about accounts of the past and historical truth/accuracy.

Draw this simple timeline  on the board.  Students will refer to this during the inquiry and during the post inquiry debriefing. Turn this into a class poster since it will be referenced regularly throughout the semester.

This inquiry will occur in groups of three. Each student will receive a packet containing the following readings:

A. a recent news article about something that happened in town. For example, this article from July 23rd discusses a robbery. 
B. This poem by Sean Nevin discusses memory and memory loss. 
C. This book excerpt presents Galileo in a conversation (see reading 3).
D. This textbook excerpt describes Galileo and a few of his accomplishment (see reading 4).   

Before students begin reading, establish the following purpose: As you read think about the following question: Why do people write about the past? What challenges might these authors have faced when writing these different accounts of past people and events?

When students are finished reading, have someone from the group take 5 pieces of chart paper and some markers. Each group will put their ideas on chart paper. 

Chart 1- Why do people write about the past? (write as many reasons as you can think of)
Chart 2- Challenges associated with writing A, a ______________ 
                                                             (what would you call this piece) 
Chart 3- Challenge associated with writing B,   a  ______________
Chart 4- Challenges associated with writing C, a______________
Chart 5- Challenges associated with writing D, a______________

A= news article, B= poem, C= historical fiction, D= textbook excerpt

Once students have completed filling in their charts, select someone from each group to discuss Chart 1- Why people write

Now tell students that you are going to select three students, each from a different group, to come to the front of the room to discuss the news article. The students will act, to the best of their abilities, as if they have written the news article. The rest of the class, acting as if they are eager, aspiring news writers, will ask the author(s) questions to learn more about the news.

Now tell students that you are going to select three students, each from a different group, to come to the front of the room to discuss the poem. The students will act, to the best of their abilities, as if they have written the poem. The rest of the class, acting as if they are eager, aspiring writers, will ask the author(s) questions to learn more about writing poetry.

Do the same for pieces C and D.

I am considering constructing a graphic organizer for students to use when working with the various sources. It may look something like this, though students will fill in the type of source and its purpose. 

Type of SourcePurpose(s) of Sources
ANews ArticleTo inform
BPoemTo describe, reflect, put feelings/emotions into words
CHistorical FictionTo entertain, teach about past people/events
DTextbook Excerpt To teach students about past people/events

Connect today's lesson back to the focus question: Students will write a blog post addressing this lesson's focus question-  Why do people write about the past, and what challenges are associated with writing about the past?

Discuss with students your expectation that they attempt to connect ideas, themes, and questions that surfaced in today's lesson to their blog post. Once blog posts are submitted, students will read and respond to some of their classmates' posts.


-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Some Unused parts of this lesson, notes

Why do people write? (to reflect; to think something through; to avoid forgetting; to express creativity; to grieve; to connect with someone; to express knowledge/understanding)

“Science Fiction writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the past. Ultimately, both are seeking to understand the present.”

(Regarding the above quote, I want to highlight to students a simple idea. When people write, they are writing about the past, present, or future. Authors, of course, write for a variety of reasons; but, a common core exists that unites all writers. Each writer applies a unique blend of curiosity and creativity as they pursue and express through words a multitude of meanings and understandings. When we read, we need to consider both author and message.)   

Some discussion questions to use with the above quote: 

Why do people write about the past? (curiosity: to answer questions we have about past people and events; to share with others what we know about people and events of the past; to find connections between the present and the past; to keep a record of important moments)  

What are some of the unique challenges associated with writing about the past? (our memories are not like tape recorders that vividly capture every single moment; if we want to know more about a past event that we did not witness, we need to conduct research. Research involves examining sources that provide information about the past. Sources will never tell us a complete story about the past) 

Some extension questions...

Why do people write about the present? (discuss newspapers) Why do people write about the future? (express hopes fears, to entertain, interesting to think about what the future holds)
Do historians imagine the past, or do they reconstruct it? Do these two expressions have the same meaning? If not, why not?
What does it mean to "understand the present"?
How is imagining the future connected to understanding the present?How is trying to reconstruct the past connected to understanding the present?

Transition: Writers construct a variety of texts, including stories, essays, poems, narratives, descriptions. Today we are going to take a closer look at the similarities and differences between a work of historical fiction and our textbook. We are also going to compare our textbook to an academic history written by an historian. 

From an early age, we are taught that writers’ works can be placed into two broad categories: fiction and non-fiction. Write these two words on the board. Since this is a history course, let's add the word history to each: "historical fiction" and "non fiction history". We are going to explore how these two types of writing may be similar and how they are different.

Let's begin by trying to create working definitions for each term:

historical fiction (A possible definition: Stories that involve actual people and events from the past; however, many of the details of the story are dramatized, made up.)  

non fiction history  (A possible definition: Descriptions and interpretations of past people and events that are based on evidence. The author deliberately avoids making up details for dramatic effect.) 

Tell students that a quick google search revealed to you that at least a few works of historical fiction have been written about a person that we study in Western Civ, Galileo Galilei. We will use what has been written about Galileo to learn more about different ways of writing about the past.

Tell students that they are going to read an excerpt from a source that includes information about Galileo. As they read it, you want them to consider the following question: Is this source likely historical fiction or a non fiction account of history?

Students will likely point out that this text contains direct quotations, which reveal that it is almost definitely a work of fiction. Ask students, why are direct quotes a clue that this writing is a work of fiction? (No source is mentioned. The only way an historian would have access to the details of a conversation like this is if someone wrote them down. There is no mention of a source.)

 What does fiction mean? After some discussion, show students how the Merriam Webster dictionary defines ficiton: .

Continue discussing the above text: Besides direct quotes, what else stands out to you? Students may make the following points:

-It is possible that the author used historical documents as inspiration for this book, and maybe even this passage. But if he did, he does not say that. 
-There are no footnotes, citations. So the reader cannot look at any sources the author used, if they were used at all. 
-This writing flows. It has a conversational rhythm and reads quite differently than a history textbook, biography, or a non fiction history about Galileo. 
-It is possible to learn some details about Galileo and his accomplishments by reading this work of historical fiction. At the same time, the reader may end up believing ideas about Galileo that are not true, that were made up by the author for the sake of the story. What are the 'rules' of historical fiction? 

Students will now examine what our class textbook has to say about Galileo. As they are reading this excerpt from our textbook, tell students you want them to think about how it is similar and different to the work of historical fiction we just read. 

When students have finished the two text excerpts (not much more about Galileo in our text) about Galileo ask them the following questions: 
How does the textbook account differ from the historical fiction we just read?
-The textbook account does not use direct quotes.
-It talks about Galileo in the third person.
-It is much more dry.

How is the textbook account similar to the historical fiction?

-The two texts mention him timing a swinging chandelier.  

-The textbook mentions a few other facts about Galileo.

-The textbook does not reference any sources.

More to come....

Non-fiction text about Galileo based on his daughter's letters.

Other Resources
Video clip about Galileo:


  1. Hi! This lesson has great small group and class brainstorming opportunities! How about something like this:

    1. Pose question to class--"Why do people write?" Brainstorm on board--you or student can record class ideas.

    2. Present quote to class. Do they agree/disagree? Why?

    3. Break class into three groups. Brainstorm ideas for the following:

    a. Group 1: Why do people write about the past? What are some unique challenges in doing so?
    b. Group 2: Why do people write about the present? What are some unique challenges in doing so?
    c. Group 3: Why do people write about the future? What are some unique challenges in doing so?
    Use whiteboards or large paper to record ideas.

    4. Have groups present ideas to class. Allow for others to add to each group's list. Offer extension questions to the class--use ideas to create other lists or add to existing lists.

    5. Guide above discussion to transition into defining terms. If working definitions, hang large paper around the room. Each sheet should have a term on it. Kids will add their previous knowledge and new ideas throughout the rest of the lesson.

    6. Have kids read excerpt (independently, in groups, as a class?). Encourage discussion (in groups, as a class?).

    7. Have kids read from text (independently, in groups, as a class?). Again, encourage discussion (in groups, as a class?). Have kids add to definitions or previously brainstormed material.

    8. Compare textbook and historical fiction (independently, in groups, as a class?).

    9. More to come! :)


  2. More great stuff, Joe! I also love how Johanna has envisioned multiple ways for students to engage with the material and collaborate with one another. Another option, and i have not thought this through fully, would be to start with the two "documents", the textbook and historical fiction excerpts, and have students decide which is "fiction", which is "non-fiction" and defend their choice. Let them notice what each text includes (or leaves out) and discover on their own that there are "no footnotes" for example and explain significance of that. Ask them about each category, their validity. Perhaps one student will say "let's look up definitions." My hunch is you could tease from the discussion many of your larger points with advantage of students making real discoveries, initiating further inquiry. Then as a conclusion to the exercise perhaps have them write something about the larger guiding, essential questions, using their insights about the texts as their example...Sometimes I think a very specific question/task is a better "hook"...Again, Joe, thank you for sharing your work and process! Lisa

  3. Thanks for the feedback! I see a lot of evidence of the habits that I am trying to distance myself from in this lesson. At the same time, as both of you have pointed out, there is also much potential for student engagement, collaboration, and, ultimately, inquiry. Will spend some time over the next few days refining this lesson and thinking more about how I adjust my plans to improve the level of student involvement.