In the fifth grade, I remember memorizing the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution for a school play. I also remember reading textbook entries about it; thus, I was able to answer questions such as: Who wrote it? When and where was it written? Why was it written?
What I don’t remember is actually reading the document or grappling with its content. I did not answer questions that promoted higher order thinking like: What is the historical significance of the Constitution given the time period? How did the document reflect the social and political thinking of the time? How is the document relevant to me today?
Students need opportunities to explore more robust questions about the contexts of historical documents. For example, in “The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible?,” program 2 of Democracy in America, students study the document as a “living” entity. They examine their own role in perpetuating the principles set forth in the Constitution. They answer such questions as: What are some of the disputes over the Constitution’s wording that persist today? Why do some people consider the Constitution as a timeless, perfect document while others view the Constitution as a living document to be reinterpreted by each generation? In exploring these questions, students learn that the Constitution is a product of its people and that it is perpetuated by the people.
In particular and as described in the Artifacts & Fiction workshops (halfway down the web page), I like the CAATS strategy, which encourages students to study the Creator, Assumptions, Audience/User, Time and Place, and Significance of a historical document. An overview of this strategy is provided in the following table:
|Creator:||Who created this artifact? What do we know about the person(s) who created it? How did it influence his/her life at the time it was created? Would the creator find relevant connections to the literature you are pairing with this artifact?|
|Assumptions:||What do you know about the context of this artifact? What assumptions can you make based on prior information that you bring to this analysis?|
|Audience/User:||Who was the audience for this object when it was originally created? What leads you to this assumption?|
|Time and Place:||When and where was this artifact created?|
|Significance:||Why is this artifact important? How does it help explain the literature you are teaching with it? Does the context of the artifact parallel the context of your literature?|
In Primary Sources: Workshops in American History, also find “Examining Documents and Images,” a resource guide with strategies to teach students how to read primary sources skeptically and critically. This workshop also offers webpages on several historical documents; these pages provide historical background and robust questions about the document. For example, the webpages featuring “The Declaration of Independence” and “Emancipation Proclamation” provide teachers with a brief historical background and questions about the documents.
Students will greatly benefit from studying historical documents from various and multiple perspectives and/or lenses (Appleman, 2010). By having students study the contexts of historical documents, teachers are building a rich knowledge base for students – one that supports agency and advocacy. By helping students go beyond “what is this document” to also examining “why this document” and “how this document,” then we are empowering students to understand their own roles and responsibilities.
How are you teaching about historical documents in your classes? Please share in the comments section under this post.
Appleman, D. (2010). Critical encounters in high school English: Teaching literary theory to adolescents. (2nd Edition). NY: Teachers College Press.