The Document Based Lesson

The Document Based Lesson (DBL) is the third section of Abby Reisman’s award-winning dissertation. Avishag (Abby) Reisman lectures at the Teachers College at Columbia University and is an Assistant Professor at Penn. She won the Larry Metcalf Exemplary Dissertation Award from the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in 2011. This post attempts to summarize pp. 124-168. The entire dissertation is a fantastic read for History geeks.

This paper came out of a six-month intervention that was tested in five San Francisco schools. The Reading like a Historian program (RLH) created significant outcomes on student learning along four measures: (1) historical thinking, (2) factual knowledge, (3) general reasoning, and (4) reading comprehension. DBL requires students to engage in rigorous, open-ended historical investigations. The curriculum provided teachers with classroom-ready, sequenced lessons that were free. The activity sequence followed three distinct structures in the same order in each lesson: (a) establishment of background knowledge, (b) historical inquiry with multiple documents, and (c) discussion. DBL Fig 1 Each lesson begins with a review of background knowledge via lecture, video, or textbook questions. Students read between 2-5 primary documents that examine a historical question from several perspectives. Documents offer conflicting interpretations. They are sequenced to make students change their minds. These conflicting accounts forced students to evaluate the level of truthiness (thanks Steven Colbert) in the claims, consider the context, and rationalize their judgments. Finally, students participate in a whole-class discussion around the central question and were required to use evidence from the documents to substantiate their claims. Teachers remain active leaders of classroom activities. They rely on sequences to review students’ content knowledge and to redirect discussion to the documents. Key to the program’s success was how DBL embedded historical inquiry into familiar structures and rearranged them into a repeatable instructional order. Doc Based Lesson RLH simplified excerpts of primary source documents for presentation and focus. Each doc was presented in large font with lots of white space and no longer than 250 words. Then, RLH turned social studies teachers into reading instructors who delivered explicit strategy instruction. Students need to watch teachers repeatedly practice the strategies of disciplinary reading. The DBL curriculum chose four strategies used by expert historical readers: (1) sourcing (considering the document’s source and purpose), (2) contextualization (placing the document in a temporal and spatial context), (3) corroboration (comparing the accounts of multiple sources against each other), and (4) close-reading (considering an author’s use of language and word choice.

This lesson encompassed five activities in a 50-minute class period: video, lecture, teacher model, small group-work, and whole-class discussion. The activities all shared the goal of initiating students into the practices of historical inquiry. DBL mirrored reform efforts that have produced instructional change by providing extensive materials to support teacher change, clear and specific methods for instruction practice, and local facilitators whose job it is to coach teachers and ensure curricular fidelity. Teachers interested in adopting this model may get free lessons.


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