How to DBQ: One Teacher's Reflection on Teaching a Complicated Essay

What is a DBQ?

The Document Based Question is an assessment of a student’s skillset not their content knowledge. It is designed in such a way that it is meant to emulate what a professional historian would do when writing an evidence based historical essay. As a teacher who doesn’t really enjoy grinding out content and assessment or encouraging content regurgitation, I really dig the idea of teaching skills in my classroom. The DBQ speaks to one facet of my educational philosophy: teach students skills that will serve them well in the world. Does this mean that I expect all of my kids to go on to be historians? No. Critical thinking isn't subject specific, and in all honesty I think the world could benefit from a bit more historical thinking know-how.

Check out the rubric for a standard WHAP DBQ:

Let's piece together what we're seeing in the rubric shall we?
  • First off, the model is broken into a core and expanded core system. In short the student must attain all 7 of the core points before they warrant expanded core consideration. What's the primary difference? Well you can see above, but in short it's the difference between meeting the standard and providing a sophisticated and excellent essay response that builds off of the standard. Why do I like this model, it provides a very concrete image of expectations, and how those expectations can be met and rewarded.
  • Secondly, notice that this rubric embodies an assets-based model. In laymen's terms, assets-based equates to assessing the performance of students based upon what they do right, not what they do wrong. We read to reward a students success rather than to punish their faults. What a novel idea, right? 

An assessment built on skills, what skills exactly?

Another look at the rubric gives us some insight
  • Core Elements 1 and 3 point to developing an evidence based argument. 
  • Core Element 2 addresses the skill of demonstrating understanding of evidence. 
  • Core Elements 4 and 5 delve into multiple forms of document analysis. 
  • Core Element 6 develops the skill of addressing additional evidence and arguments beyond the scope of your collected evidence. 
Perhaps the finest element of this assessment is its ability to teach students how to use evidence. The word use is a fairly loaded term. Four separate elements on the rubric address using the documents. Mr. Strickland again, provides a good starting point for discussing this with our students.

To these points on the definition of using evidence I would only add a few observations:

  1. Right around this point is where my students tend to hit a wall of "Oh my goodness, this is a lot to absorb." For most of my kids up until this point they've always had the understanding of using evidence as "If I provide the evidence as a quote or paraphrase, then my work is done, it's self-explanatory." This sort of thinking is a bit one-dimensional. Bridging the divide between stating the evidence and using the evidence is key. In my earlier non-WHAP related teaching back in Philadelphia we tackled this by using a simple active reading model to highlight the importance of relating evidence back to your thesis.
  2. Element number 4, analyzing the point of view, is another tough skill for students. I still battle with my kids in a way that is similar to my first point. Often times they think simply stating a date for context "Oh, this document was written in 1776.", or some personal aspect such as "This document was written by a man." is enough; it's not. For some earlier thoughts on how you can approach teaching skills of POV analysis see my earlier post on the Football DBQ example. If I can impress one idea about POV analysis upon my students it's this, "Answer me this class, how does the doc's POV influence our reading of its evidence?"
  3. Of the various ways to use documents and evidence, the most approachable one for students to grasp is grouping. Why? I think we are all naturally pre-disposed to recognizing patterns. How do I do it, I make use of some professional advice I received a while ago: 

"Kick off your shoe and present it to the students as a document." 

And that's where I will start off in my next post on teaching How to DBQ.

:-) Happy teaching...

Full Disclosure: I'm a 2nd year WHAP teacher and my initial thoughts on DBQ writing were derived from some wonderful resources I've encountered through my interactions with some great educators in the WHAP teacher community. The work of Mr. Bill Strickland has been a big help to me and my students in our DBQ efforts. The tables and activities shared in this post are derived from his tireless efforts and shared works. The reflections and notes on "How to DBQ" in practice are based on my classroom and represent just one interpretation of pedagogy. It should also be noted that the active reading model was one developed in collaboration with my former teaching colleague, Mr. David Sokoloff, at Northeast High School (Hail Northeast!).


The WHAP Tribal Contest

Brothers front, they say the Tribe can't flow
But we've been known to do the impossible like Broadway Joe...

Asking a student to take on AP World History (WHAP) is quite a commitment. We ask our students to learn roughly 10,000 years worth of history, usually in the span of a single school year, and then cap it off with an intense timed exam. If you aren't familiar with the format of the exam, here's the "battlefield" that is the AP World History Exam:

I use the word battlefield deliberately as a necessary part of my course has become teaching kids how to deal with stress and time limits; for some of them it's a battle. It's up to me to help my students see this challenge not as impossible, but rather as a moment they should aspire to conquer. How am I currently getting my kids there? As a tribe of course.

What is a tribe to you?

What is a tribe? What image does that word evoke in you? For me the concept of a tribe has always brought to mind the ideas of teamwork, of camaraderie, and family. In my classroom I'm always working to help my students not only to learn about and engage with the course material, but also with each other. To what end? To help them flow as they learn.

What is flow?

A friend of mine once described the notion of flow to me. He described it as an optimal state of being in which one loses themselves in the task at hand, and operates at full capacity. That sounds like quite an ideal for a student to achieve! Imagine what they might feel like. Perhaps moments of inner clarity, or having a sense that what faces you is doable? Have you ever felt flow?

So my aim to help my students achieve flow--to help them aspire to conquer the course and its exam--I felt that it was imperative to put my students into tribes. 

What Being A Part of a Tribe Looks Like in My Classroom:

The idea of classroom tribes was born of a simple line of inquiry, "How can I structure my class in such a way that the students will have more fun and interact with their peers in a friendly manner?" My question took me to some interesting thoughts. The houses system from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series was a starting point as I wanted to emulate the house competition system. A lot of my students are HUGE Harry Potter fans so I figured this would go over quite well. For ideas on how to structure creative group projects I dug into my own past teaching experiences in Philadelphia. I went back to a project I designed with a colleague. Finally, I consulted with a WHAP colleague back in Michigan for more ideas.

Once I had a rough sense of what I wanted to do I created my own version of a tribal system, I call it the WHAP Tribal Contest. I absolutely welcome you to consult my materials online and beg, borrow and steal as you please. Here are a few key ideas about the tribal structure:

  1. The students are each in a tribe representing the earlier civilizations we study right away during the first marking period of the school year.
    • Our Tribes this year include: Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Han, Rome, Gupta, Mayans
  2. The tribes are pretty competitive and always in the spirit of fun. It never truly gets out of hand and the students are well aware that negativity will great displease their Supreme Being.
  3. Tribal roles are always rather interesting. The students, be they priest or slave wear their roles like a badge of honor.
    • The Greeks eliminated the station of King in favor of Athenian Democracy. The Persians have considered eliminating slaves.
  4. The initial tasks given to the students: the dead body outline, and tribal propaganda presentations were both aimed at developing skills of comparison. The comparative essay is the first type that I teach. This project represented a way to introduce some basic concepts of how to compare, contrast and analyze without resorting to writing an essay.

For more glimpses at their work check out my "currently" page on this blog for a full slideshow of images. Here are few samples:

 Above: Here are some shots of the students prepping their body outline drawings.

 Above: Here's a finished body outline by Egypt. I posted them on the ceiling of the classroom.

Why A Tribe Called Quest?

In the back of mind as I wrote this post, I was drawn to the lyrics of A Tribe Called Quest:

"Brothers front, they say the Tribe can't flow
But we've been known to do the impossible like Broadway Joe...

I chose these lines for a reason. Perhaps its a stretch to compare our students to Broadway Joe, but I feel that an added implication of these lines is relevant, a tribe that flows can do the seemingly impossible. A tribe of students that can achieve a state of flow together can overcome self-doubt together, they can learn about World History and their tribe. Perhaps over time they will also learn what it means to flow on exam day. 

Full Disclosure: I'm a 2nd year WHAP teacher and I borrowed and revised the idea of creating WHAP Tribes from my amazing colleague Jason Hundey who used it to teach his students about post-classical Mesoamerica. Jason is a talented veteran WHAP teacher at my alma mater: Armada High School (GO TIGERS!). Here's a link to the WHAP Tribal Contest I gave to my students. Be sure to check out my "currently" page for more images of my students' tribal work.


The Creativity of Students Never Ceases to Amaze

I'm trying to get myself into a weekly routine of 2 posts per week. I will be posting every Monday and Thursday from now on. However, I had to share these incredibly awesome moments from class today.

AWESOME Moment #1:

A student of mine came in after school the yesterday and decorated the chalkboard with an artistic interpretation of our assigned document readings. This image was waiting for my class when they walked in. The image also incorporates a theme of "corn is in everything" which is a joke taken from our study of agriculture in geography class last year.

Here's some historical context: The two documents were both from post-classical Eastern Europe, specifically Vladimir I of Kievan Rus, and an account of Byzantium's Constantine the Great. Both docs were written by monks from the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith. The general message of each document? Veneration of great "Christian" leaders. Both documents give accounts of the a leader accepting Christianity and baptism. Both go out of their way to legitimize the superior position of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The docs give accounts of some great "tall tale" miracle stories, and give some insight into what each historical figure might have actually thought about the Christian faith. It all makes sense given the POV of the authors, who also wrote in retrospect. You could even take the document on Constantine, or the document on Vladimir and compare them to Kati's doc about Mansa Musa. Lots of parallels are present.

AWESOME Moment #2:

A few moments after seeing the chalkboard... a different student came up and excitedly asked me, "Mr. Walker! Did you check your email?"

Here's what I found:

It's Mehmed II leading the Ottoman army towards Constantinople. I heard you liked the Ottomans, so yeah.... :D Hope you enjoy it!
P.S. i got the picture of your face from the WalkerTeach blog.

Apparently I was the secret weapon that the Ottomans used to capture Constantinople. Either that or I'm suddenly as cool as Bruce Campbell. Both options are absolutely acceptable.

Final Thoughts?

It's encountering moments like these that remind me of one reason why I am a teacher. Sometimes I am lucky enough to bear witness to completely random moments that prove just how amazing kids are.

The Most Important Aspect of Lively Student Engagement? Feedback.

Recently, I did a post on inquiry and my attempts to create more lively discussion in my classroom. I focused on the use of the Harkness Discussion Method. You can check out my earlier thoughts and methods here.

Today I want to talk about a follow-up discussion I had with a colleague. I had just finished up a meeting with a student, let's call her Facilitator N, regarding her agenda and duties for this afternoon's Harkness session.  My goal in these meetings is to diffuse any nervous tension my student has, and to touch base with them about how to effectively organize a discussion. After Facilitator N left, my colleague leaned over and commented on what he observed. Here's what the ever-wonderful Mr. Choquette had to say

Mr. C: "You know it's a funny thing about Harkness, we often forget that the most worthwhile part of the method is giving feedback."

Me: "I couldn't agree more."

Mr Choquette is a wonderful teacher and person, so I greatly appreciate his counsel in all things. When he shares his pedagogical views, I make sure to stop and listen carefully. He really had a point about Harkness feedback, and it got me to reflecting on my methods.

Often times teachers seem to get caught up in the process of discussion. We devote a great deal of energy to prepping our students for discussion, we then add more when we observe and coach our kids through discussion. If you are anything like me, you get very caught up in discussion prep and student performance during class. I'm always intrigued by where the students will take the discussion topics. My interest is further peaked when I compare discussion performance from class to class. Each session always leaves me fired up and ready to implement the next week's preparations. However, Mr. Choquette's words are a sobering reminder of the importance of feedback and slowing things down. I think that for as much attention and structure that we bring to the planning and implementation of a Harkness discussion we should bring at least as much to our closing remarks and feedback to the students.

Here's my method:

During the discussion:

  1. I draw a map of the conversation.
  2. I code the map with specific symbols representing ideal skills employed by the students (e.g. "T" for text reference/facilitation, "Q" for question raising, "C" for chainsawing a topic, etc.)
  3. I color code the lines on my maps so the kids see not just how much they contributed to the discussion, but specifically to what topic.
  4. I highlight kids based on their overall performance (e.g. silent, involuntary/prompted speaking, "on fire" performance, sophisticated analysis, etc.)
  5. I also take notes on key ideas/examples discussed (if possible).

After Discussion:

  1. I snap a picture of the discussion maps with my smartphone. I post the photo to our class Edmodo page.
  2. In the same Edmodo post I provide written feedback in the following format:

    • Class Performance Grade: Out of 14 Ideal Criteria. Based on the total number of criteria they meet a class average score is determined. Individual performance can either move a student up or down. See my Student Harkness Handout for further details.
    • General Group Feedback: General thoughts, content ideas to revisit or pay special attention to
    • Facilitator Feedback: Notes on the overall performance and constructive advice.
    • Student "Shout Outs": Individualized notes on "significant" student moments or contributions present in the discussion.

Here's a Recent Example of My Feedback Method:

This first map comes from our first student-led discussion of the year:

Class Average Score: 10/14

General Comments: All in all I was pleased with the group discussion. At first I was a bit concerned about the aggressive nature with which the ideas were discussed. There were more than a few moments where pockets of the group engaged in ferocious debate as opposed to constructivist discussion and critical thinking. I pondered this for a while, and wondered was this a negative? Until I realized that what I witnessed was my students putting on their “game face” for all the right reasons. Still, I’d like to remind you to understand that the purpose of our discussion isn’t competition; it’s team building and creating a welcoming environment for all members.

Facilitator Notes: J, I really admired the quality of the agenda you made. Your questions raised were well thought-out, and insightful. Your candor in the group was reassuring. It was refreshing to see a student facilitator be unafraid to put their views into the discussion. You did a solid job of guiding your peers through the agenda and helping them to break down the questions. Each chainsaw recap was effective and reflected your leadership. A student who can recall the full breadth of the topic discussed is one who had it very well laid out and organized. You laid out the questions and kept the discussion and information organized—you did that. It’s not easy being the first student facilitator of the year, but you made it look effortless.

Student Shout Outs: J your voice was a constant presence of support and leadership. You did a great job of informally facilitating the group by reminding your peers of the bigger themes and concepts of the content material, and you did a good job of redirecting them at times.

Keep after it team, you’re getting there!

Here's the following week's discussion. A different chapter, a different facilitator, and group mindset.

Class Average Score: 12/14

General Comments: I’d say that this, by far, was the most fun discussion yet. You could tell from the beginning that this conversation would be different. The “bacon-chopper”, the laughter, the good-natured response to questions (and clever quips about them) was all in all what I like to see most in discussion. I found myself having a harder time than usual finding constructive criticisms to give. That being said, don’t grow complacent, we’re still developing as a discussion group! My main comment about this would be to remind you of the ideal “the loud do not dominate and the shy are encouraged.” Here’s my observation. Did everyone participate? Yes. Did everyone participate freely and of their own accord? No. Did we have excellent leading voices? Yes. Did the lesser voices receive encouragement? At times, yes—but it’s the “cold call” nature that I worry about. Encouraging the shy should go beyond, “Do you want to read the question?” or “Hey “bacon-chop” that!” When you develop a lively attitude, make it fun, but develop a community of support. As for the more silent folks, get bold, your team needs you to speak out more. Your voice can only benefit your audience.

Facilitator Notes: K, you’ve set a real standard for raising the level of discourse. Your rebranding of “chainsaw” as “bacon-chopping” was in of itself, hilarious. To go a step further and to provide a cardboard and hand-labeled handsaw was totally random and awesome. You brought fun to the circle, and your attention to the facilitating your agenda made the discussion easy to follow. Awkward silences were a foreign concept today. Bravo.

Student Shout Outs: First off thanks to all the juniors for being amazingly welcoming of the “new” 10th graders who joined your session. A “tip of the hat” to the 10th graders is in order. You transitioned seamlessly; you mixed it up and at times gave the upper classman a run for their money. Iz, I loved your total confidence in question asking. Every time you asked a question it raised the discourse level. B I was very glad to hear you speak your mind openly without prompting this week, keep it up! J I appreciated your willingness to draw in your outside study of GDP and skyscrapers.

A weekly ritual, decorating the chalkboard, and a new talking piece, the BACON-CHOPPER.
Why bacon-chopping? Their response, why NOT bacon-chopping? I can't argue with that.

What's the Endgame?

As teachers we are taught that feedback should meaningful and timely. By implementing a specific design and scaffolding our students for success we can begin to help our students understand what is expected of them. Tailoring our feedback to that design and scaffolded student understanding benefits the student immensely. I feel that my system brings meaning to the post-discussion experience. It gives them something to think about in between weekly Harkness sessions. This time between sessions is what makes the feedback portion of Harkness discussions the most important aspect of lively student engagement. That time for reflection is key as it allows for personal growth. In my mind that's really why we use these sorts of teaching methods, it's not just about encouraging students to engage with us or the material, it's about encouraging our students to grow as individuals.


The Richest Man in the 14th Century: Teaching Causation in History

"Kankan Musa went on his journey, about which there are many stories. Most of them are untrue and the mind refuses to accept them. One such story is that in every town where he stopped on Friday between here and Egypt he built a mosque on that very day. It is said the mosques of Gundam and Dukurey were among those he built." 

Ok, here's a quick pop quiz. 

In Mahmud Kati's historical account where did you see examples of causation? What constituted a cause? What constituted an effect? How would you describe both? Was the cause immediate or long-term? What about the effect?

If you mentally noted that Mansa Musa's journey, i.e his Hajj, was a cause and the construction of mosques every Friday was an effect you are on the right track.

Why Causation?

Causation is an essential tool for understanding historical events, and encompasses a basic skill of historical thinking that my course requires of its students. By most of my students' accounts it is not a difficult tool to master. I'd venture to say that all of my students have heard about cause and effect relationships prior to entering high school. The goal of my teaching this skill then isn't introduction, but rather sophistication. I like to tell my students, "Take me farther, what else can you tell me?" In this sense a discussion about causation becomes a discussion of not only recognizing patterns that fall into cause and their effects, but also how we can describe these relationships in terms of their duration as well as implications for change and continuity.

How to approach this? Why not use a figure like Mansa Musa? The students love the story of this historical figure, his immense wealth, the tall tales surrounding him, and of course my ever-memorable impersonation/dance of Mansa Musa "spending 'fliff' like a sultan." In my preparation for our discussion of West Africa and Islam in the postclassical period I came across a great activity for teaching causation through the lens of Mansa Musa and the West African region. 

I love this activity for several reasons:

  1. It's a great activity for kinesthetic group work.
  2. It has the students practice chronological grouping by placing the events in chronological order.
  3. It has the students practice thematic grouping by reordering the events into causes and effects, and later immediate vs. long-term causes and effects.
  4. The final collection of student responses to the board provide for an opportunity to see larger implications of change and continuity over time.

Here's what I noticed as I used this activity:

The chronological sort took some time. My students made excellent use of their notes and textbook, but I didn't have a single group of students get the chronology perfectly right. So don't get hung up on it. The real reward of this activity is the interaction with the student groups as they are discussing and defining cause vs. effect and types of cause and effect (immediate vs. long-term).

The students are told to define Mansa Musa's Hajj as a turning point. Sorting cause and effect becomes simple then: if it came before the hajj it's a cause, if after, it's an effect. The simplicity of that division makes the initial thematic sort pretty quick. The important thing to keep in mind is that the turning point is crucial. Encourage your students to consider the sorting of immediate vs. long term cause and effect as it relates to the turning point. This will help them a great deal as it aids them in making sense of how causation relates specifically to Mansa Musa. 

Long-Term cause to Mansa Musa's Hajj: 8th century Islamic conversion of the North African Berbers.

Short Term Cause of Mansa Musa's Hajj: The return to Timbuktu with Arab architect al-Saheli.

Clever Student Z: "But Mr. Walker, depending on which events we look at there are immediate and long-term causes throughout. The architect could've been considered a cause for the use of bricks in mosque construction."  

Mr. Walker: "I totally agree and applaud your use of causation Z, but remember this activity is all about Mansa Musa's Hajj; that's our turning point! Apply causation to that turning point!"

What about Change and Continuity?

By far the best part of this activity is the display of student responses, given as written lists of events on the board, and the post-activity discussion. Why? The discussion allows for a moment to define and identify the change and continuity. As the CCOT essay can be particularly challenging for the uninitiated student I found this discussion to be a great way to talk about how change and continuity are entities that can be defined in terms of their nature:

What is change? What is continuity?

-Is there a clear starting point or ending point?
-What evidence of change or continuity do we see?
-What is the duration of both?
-How do we describe change? Is it gradual? Immediate?

With regard to Mansa Musa take a look at the list of causes vs. effects, what continuities do you see?

-The presence of Islam early on in the region (early Berber and Ghana elites/merchants).
-The presence of Islam later on in the region (class wide conversion in Mali and later Songhay)
-The existence of trade networks early on (N-S Berbers to Ghana)
-The existence of trade networks later on (N-S & E-W trade routes, Timbuktu as an entrepĂ´t)

What changes do you see? Consider our list before:

Long Term:
-Islam was not only present but its diffusion expanded to incorporate larger populations of people.
-Trade was not only present but it too was expanded (more routes, greater cities like Timbuktu)

Short Term (immediate):
-Mansa Musa's post-hajj diplomacy policies
-The shift to brick-structed mosques
-Mali merchants shift to Arab style of dress

My students left the classroom with an enriched understanding of the region in the postclassical period, and a newfound respect for the centrality of Mansa Musa's Hajj as an example of Change and Continuity Over Time (CCOT). I hope your class will have a similar response to this activity. Good luck with causation!

Full Disclosure: I'm a 2nd year WHAP teacher and I borrowed this lesson idea from some files shared by the amazing WHAP teacher community. Here's a link to the Mansa Musa Cause and Effect Activity I gave to my students. As a precursor to this assignment my students and I made extensive use of the three documents about Africa in the postclassical period. Mahmud Kati's collection of oral historical accounts of Kankan Musa was especially enlightening and at times entertaining.