Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Inquiry1- What is history?- Intro Ideas

Inquiry Lesson Title: What is history?

Big Ideas Associated with this Lesson: Historians ask questions about the past; the questions historians ask influence the history they write; historians rely on sources to construct interpretations; an historical interpretation is shaped by available evidence, fact selection, and fact connection.

This lesson connects to our year long process question: Constructing the Past: How do historians do history?

What do historians do?

Setting the assignment up with students:

     We all know that historians tell us certain details about the past. This semester we are going to take a deeper look at what it means to study the past.

     Let's begin by taking a look at ourselves. Each of us has a past. In fact, most of you come in here today with a past that I know little or nothing about. I may know some of your siblings, and I may tell myself that I know what a typical student that is your age and lives in this community is like, but I do not know you.

     Many of you know each other. Some of you have pasts that overlap, shared experiences, memories, and friends. And we all make judgments about people based on what we know, or think we know, about each other. Are these judgments always accurate? It's important to know what our judgments are based on. Historians take this idea seriously, reminding us constantly to question our sources and corroborate our knowledge.

Writing/Thinking Prompts

-Consider talking to students about some of the ways you might get to know them before ever speaking to them. You might talk to their former teachers. Call their parents. Access the gradebook to view their previous year’s grades. Ask students if getting to know them via these methods would be helpful. With which methods would they be comfortable? Not comfortable? Why? (The big idea here is to get students thinking about getting to know someone indirectly, through various sources. Historians do this all of the time. The number of sources used and the diversity of  these sources are key elements to examine when assessing the judgments made by historians.)

-Have students think about a time in their lives where they made a judgment about a person that turned out to be incorrect. What was your initial judgment based on? What did you learn from this experience? (Some students may say not to judge people until getting to know them. They may also say consider where you are getting your information from. Point out that historians generally don't have the luxury of getting to know firsthand the people they are investigating. And most of the time, historians do not witness the events they are writing about. Therefore, by its very nature, the discipline of history is based on source analysis and the construction of interpretations about the past rather than on direct knowledge or in the moment reporting.)  

-As we get to know each other this semester all of us will share certain details about ourselves. The key word is ‘certain’. We will not share everything about ourselves for many reasons.

Writing/Thinking Prompt

What are some of the reasons we are selective about what we share with each other? (It takes time to get to know someone. We share aspects of ourselves depending on the context and how we feel about the people we are with.)

Inquiry Activity Idea

PHASE 1: The interview
Tell students that they are going to interview a randomly selected classmate to learn more about them and to learn how historians acquire and use information. Students are to approach the interview the way an historian would, with questions (8-10) and a desire to turn the interview into a written account about that person.

After the interview, the student historians will use the facts/details acquired during the interview to write an account about the person they interviewed. They will later share their written account with the person they interviewed (see PHASE 3)

PHASE 2: All students are going to create a few short narratives about themselves.

In one piece they are only allowed to include 5 facts about themselves. (You may choose to skip this step if time is limited. A couple of reasons for doing this step: It eases students into the writing process and also illustrates the need to select facts. When writing an account, you can't share everything, especially if limited to just 5 facts. How do you decide what to include and exclude? Limiting students to five facts exaggerates the difficulty associated with fact selection.)

In the second piece, students are allowed to include 10 facts about themselves. But five of the ten facts must come from at least 3 sources other than themselves. That is, these sources must exist outside of students' minds. For example, to gather these additional five facts, a students could interview her mom or dad, reference a picture showing herself playing soccer, and discuss a piece of her artwork. Students should bring in evidence of the interview and include pictures of the physical artifacts referenced.)

PHASE 3: Students will share the historical narratives they wrote about the people they interviewed in phase 1. Ask the subjects of the narrative how they feel about the account that was written. Ask the writers to talk about the connection between the questions they asked and the narrative they constructed. (Big Idea- Quality historical accounts are derived from quality questions). Also, ask the subjects of the narrative how they feel about what was written. Is it fair? Does it capture you, as you see yourself? How does the account based on the interview compare to the 10 fact account that you wrote?

PHASE 4: Get students thinking more about the 3 sources they used to acquire additional information about themselves.

Writing/Thinking Prompts

Why did they select the sources they used? Do sources speak for themselves? (They do not) Since sources do not speak for themselves, how does a writer of history use sources? If necessary, could you have found sources to challenge your narrative? (Make the point: First, historians ask questions about the past. They then use sources to derive evidence; the evidence shapes and supports the answers historians construct in response to the questions they ask about the past.)



  1. Love this assignment! An additional step occurred to me. Before students share their first narrative, have them partner up, and develop enough questions to learn 5 facts about their partner and write up that short narrative. Then compare with the facts/story that student wrote about him/herself. This would make the additional point that the facts we learn and stories we tell are directly connected to questions we ask. The past does not change but questions historians investigate do.

  2. You have my thoughts whirring. I hope you don't mind my using the comment section to this post to build on your ideas. So much you could do to dramatize the essential, foundational points about the craft of history and process of historical inquiry underlying your initial inquiry. In response to the 5 formative facts/events, students could follow up by formulating questions to learn more about a fact/event from a classmate's life. To make it fun, you could provide the interrogative, or they could draw from a hat, or you could challenge them to come up with a question for a group of interrogatives. I guess I like the idea of making the point that the answer to an historical question is often another question. This is not obvious to students who have been trained to think teachers ask the questions, and students give "the" answer. It would be good to underscore that different questions yield different kinds of information, shift the focus, etc, and honor the idea that individual students may incline toward some types of questions more readily than others, just as is the case with professional historians. After all, one goal of an inquiry driven curriculum is to help students discover the questions they would like to pursue, right? Thanks for giving me so much to think about. Love reading your ideas as they unfold!

  3. Wow! I can't wait to sit down and think about the different dimensions that this assignment taps into! I think this, in some form, will be how I intro the course.