Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How You Might Explore Students' Ideas about Texts and Truths on Day 1

Present students with a fictional account of an event. Maybe a page or two.  I think if it is the first day or two of a course it is probably better to avoid using a work of historical fiction. Though, at some point in the course, maybe even after this activity, introducing some historical fiction may be exactly what is needed to push students to make more connections, delve deeper into the themes introduced here.

After students read the excerpt of fiction, talk to them about what this is.  Show them the book that it is from, give them some details about the author. What questions does this text trigger in their minds? Is this text true?  I assume most students will quickly respond that the text is not true. After all, you just told them it was a work of fiction.

At this point, your goal is to push students to consider the following question: are there ever truths within a fictional account? That is, while the details of an account may be made up, might there still be certain truths within the text? If so, what do we mean when we talk about a text containing truths?

Now give students another account of an event, this time from a personal account of  something that students are aware happened in the past.  After students read the text, ask the following: Is this account more true than the previous story, which we all agreed was a work of fiction? Again, I assume that most students will be quick to say yes. Push students to articulate why. Help students to think about how one might test whether or not details in the account are accurate. Also, help students to see how an historian might use this source to learn about more than just the details contained in the account.  It is important to think about who created the account. What does this tell us about the time period? Make the point that historians use personal accounts in many ways, often ways that the creator of the source likely never could have imagined.

Next, push students to consider what the first two texts have in common?  It’s important, I think, to linger here. Keep digging. What will  students likely say here? I suspect   students will initially struggle with this question. That’s ok. You will come back to this question in a bit.

Finally, take a look at an account from a textbook. What is going on here?  Ask students: Is this the least fictional account?  Or, stated  more directly, the text that is most true?  If students say yes, push them to articulate why.

What do ALL 3 texts have in  common? Are they more similar than we initially thought? If so, in what ways?

As you move away from this lesson, some  of the key points that you will have helped students consider: All texts were created by authors. All authors are people with certain perspectives. When a text is constructed, a number of choices have to be made, including what words to use, what to emphasize, what to ignore. These choices tell us much about the creator of the source and the time period he or she is from. 

In addition, we are thinking about truth in simple, even elementary, terms if we are going to place texts into buckets labeled true or false. Throughout this course we are going to unpack and challenge our preconceived notions about truth.

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