Does Not Exist in the Abstract

The Common Core is a potential step forward for history curriculum nationwide. It actually has history standards, but makes little reference to historical thinking (e.g., sourcing, contextualization, corroboration). For the Common Core to seriously address historical thinking (and, ultimately, critical thinking), we need to have a much better understanding of the documents we use in assessments and what we ask students to do with those documents.

Appendix B to the Common Core contains a well-currated list of documents and sample performance tasks that show the potential of the Common Core: the Constitution, John Adams’s letter on Thomas Jefferson, and the Narrative Life of Frederick Douglas, to name a few. The tasks have potential as well – questions about Adams’s perspective or the evils of slavery described by Douglas. Unfortunately, as test writers and teachers gravitate towards historic documents, they yank the documents out of history and drop them into a blurry land known only as Nonfiction.

Once placed in Nonfiction – the letters of Adams, speeches of Gompers, and words of Douglas are reduced to documents analyzed for their argumentative structure and not as evidence of a time we struggle to understand. “What arguments do they make in support of their point?” “Compare and contrast the challenges faced by ____ and ____.” All without reference to a time nor place in history. Granted, at one level we need our students to read and comprehend these texts – but let’s not confuse reading comprehension with critical thinking. Sam Wineburg of Stanford gracefully makes the point simply by pointing out the significance of Lincoln’s use of “perhaps” 150 years ago.

When we ask our students to “think critically” about documents, it cannot be in a historical vacuum. Gompers’s speeches exist in very specific world and give the modern reader a (biased) glimpse into the problems of the time. As do the challenges faced by Frederick Douglas, Helen Keller, or any of the other figures from history whose writings end up inside state tests. As a history teacher, their presence thrills me. Now let’s make sure the questions we ask about these documents do the same.

On the eve of the annual NYS ELA state tests, I make a minor request from the peanut gallery – also known as the History Department: When we ask our students questions about historic documents, let’s make sure the documents are used as part of history and not reduced to ahistorical pieces of rhetoric.




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