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Prioritizing Evidence to Address a Document-Based Question

Tenth-grade students in Claire Wolff's humanities class at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in New York City think like historians to curate a collection of primary source documents that are the best match for a Document-Based Question similar to what they will encounter on New York State's global history and geography Regents exam.


- [Narrator] In an era of high stakes testing, when many teachers feel pressure to choose breadth over depth, Claire Wolff’s 10th grade Humanities class is preparing for the New York Regents exam by thinking critically about primary sources. She’s decided to turn the tables on her students, asking them to take on the roles of history teachers to curate a collection of primary source documents that are the best match for a document-based question, or DBQ, the kind of question they will soon face on the Regents.

- Instead of just going through the motions and following a task that someone else laid out for them, now they’re really thinking critically about why certain documents might be more relevant and evaluating the documents that they would give to a high school history classroom. Good morning, good morning.

- Morning.

- So I wanted to start class by just kind of getting on the same page about what a historian does. What are some ideas we have, Jonathan?

- Historian studies a specific time period or event and becomes an expert on it.

- Okay, so studies. We do a lot of work in my class where we think about where our learning comes from.

- I said historians think deeply about the sources they have and go beyond what is plainly shown.

- How historians found out this information that we’re using in our classroom.

- Historians try to understand the history of past human society in order to better understand our current society and how it functions.

- [Narrator] Throughout the semester, Claire’s students have been studying the Holocaust through the lens of four themes, political and economic conditions, the impact of fascist ideology, human rights violations, and choices made by individuals or communities. Today, students are working with over 20 primary sources with which they are deeply familiar, matching those sources to each of the themes.

- Their task was to come to consensus in groups about which eight documents they thought best told the story of the Holocaust. In their table groups, I asked the students to first talk about and then really be explicit in their thinking about why they selected those documents for each part of the task.

- So you’re saying that their response was to accept the propaganda?

- Not that they didn’t have a choice, but, ‘cause, like, the White Rose, they had a choice, they chose to be an activist for--

- We’ve ran a lot of DBQs, so we already understand the perspective of writing a DBQ essay.

- This would be good for “Explain the impact of fascist “ideology on the German people.”

- Yeah.

- Now, we’re actually thinking like a person who designs DBQ essay and it takes a lot more thinking. It makes you think, like, is this document useful? Are you giving the student the resources he or she needs?

- I think we should include Mein Kampf because, like, a lot of the, like, without propaganda, this wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t talking about them as a--

- And then so that they could make that thinking visible to other kids in the classroom, I had them write on Post-its. So one thing they had to think about was how does this document relate to the task? What’s the history here? Remember to write clearly enough so that your classmates can come around and examine them and see your thinking. The second one, then, is thinking like a history teacher, why did your table group prioritize this document? What made it more relevant or significant than the other documents that you decided not to use?

- [Narrator] After finalizing their selections, the class began a gallery walk.

- As we walk around, we are thinking about this question, how do history teachers select documents for students? Were they thinking about the content of the documents? So there are a lot of times that it makes sense to be pulling in primary source documents. I use them a lot at the very beginning of a case study to build student interest and create a mystery. But before using documents to have complex conversations about bias and perspective, I think it’s important to lay a groundwork with a shared narrative, because if students don’t have an understanding of the narrative history, they’re not gonna be able to access those documents. Most 10th grade classrooms are focused on writing a DBQ essay. You guys took it a step further and you created your own DBQ essay. And then you took it a step even further and you thought about the thinking of the creation. What are some of the things that you guys kept in mind when you chose these documents? And we’re adding to Note Catcher, so please keep it out.

- If you can answer the question based on only the document.

- Does it connect to other documents in a way that would help develop the task?

- Specifically for images, I feel like we should look at how much they say because we have the entrance to Auschwitz. If you don’t have background knowledge on that, you would never guess what it is, right? That was one of the documents I picked for the DBQ and I had to pair it up with another picture because it’s, like, not something you can pull from it.

- Fantastic, so does it give the student enough information? We ended class with a synthesis ticket that allowed students to sort of place themselves on a spectrum. We have here our work of a historian and we have here our work of a history teacher. You have notes on both. What do you think? And where they were on the spectrum, I wasn’t as concerned with. I was more interested in what connections did they see and what disparities did they see between our shared vision of what historians do and what we’re doing as history teachers in this project task.

- I feel like it’s the job of a historian to come to the conclusions by analyzing the documents, and then it’s the job of the history teacher to take these ideas that have already been formed and pass them onto his students, that gets them to think about the why and gets them to think about.

- It is hard to cover all of the things that our students might be tested on in these very high-stakes exams.

- Your audience is students, right? And students have different needs that a historian doesn’t really have to worry about.

- But what I found is that active being the historian by looking at the documents and evaluating them and then having an opinion about history.

- So I feel you have a more important and more complex role because your goal is to make us understand.

- Is what makes it stay with them so much more than spending more time on something or covering more topics.

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