DID YOU SEE THAT CATCH?: Teaching How to Analyze Historical Documents

I can distinctly remember watching the MSU vs. Wisconsin football game on October 22, 2011. I remember holding my breath as the ball sailed through the air, cheering as our wide receiver caught the pass, and anxiously waiting for the refs to confirm the touchdown. I never thought, "wow this would be great for teaching kids how to analyze historical document accounts!"

My WHAP students were met with that particular youtube clip today when they came into class. Taiwan doesn't exactly have the largest American Football fan base. So I wanted to address my concerns of cultural capital before launching into my lesson. Following the video I asked, we talked game rules and about positions (quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive back), then I asked them to consider the event as if they had missed the television broadcast. How would you learn about "the catch", how good "the catch" was, and the outcome of the game?

It's an interesting set of questions for students. It asks them to consider how they could find out, what that information might show, and naturally lead them to consider the limitations of that information. In studying history we have the same dilemma. History is a debate about the past, no one source is enough to attain a complete picture of historical events.

With regard to our MSU vs. Wisconsin game the students came up with an immediate list of potential sources and document types to consider:

"Ask someone who was at the game." 
"Talk to the players."
"Read a newspaper."
"Check out ESPN." 

Mr. Walker: What's strong about our list of ideas, what's weak?

After a quick discussion of strengths, weaknesses, and the inevitable discussion of bias. We move on to some actual documents. The Football DBQ Activity is a great way to engage the students in an approachable context. Showing the clip of a football pass for non-American students is also a great way to help build that context. The introduction, or background context for the documents, is not unlike the improbable passing play from the MSU vs. Wisconsin game earlier.

Here's a quick list of what I like about this activity:
  1. It gives the students 9 documents, with a wide variety of viewpoints. Students need to understand that in the case of historical analysis more evidence is better!
  2. The viewpoints are easily sorted. Pro-team #1, Pro-team #2, objective/neutral. It provides strong in-roads for discussing context of each document as well as the purpose or agenda each document might possess.
  3. The documents are short and to the point. When teaching students how to approach documents, direct and accessible information is best.
In addition to the accessibility of the Football DBQ Activity, I further support my students with a simple model for analyzing historical accounts; it's called SOAPSTone.

If your kids are anything like my students, then they want to find the right answer and they want it to be simple, i.e. easy to write down. Many of the items in the list below might have that simple aspect at times, but with regard to my course simple identification isn't enough--you've got to think it through!
  • Speaker -- the speaker in the document, it may or may not be the author, it gives the reader a "personal/individual context" for understanding the document.
  • Occasion -- the "surrounding context" in which the document was created, i.e. what chronological circumstances surround the document.
  • Audience -- who was the document intended for? Is it implicitly or explicitly stated?
  • Purpose -- Why this document was created.
  • Subject -- a quick understanding of the document's topic.
  • Tone -- the mood expressed in the documents phrasing, syntax, and vocabulary choices.
*Blue are typically prior to reading skills, and green are typically during or post-reading skills.

When you combine the two, the activity and model, you might end up with a discussion like this:

Who is the SPEAKER? What shapes her point of view (POV)?
What is the OCCASION? In what context did Mary share her POV?
Who is the AUDIENCE? To whom was Mary directing her thoughts?
What is the PURPOSE? What views does Mary have? What purpose might her words serve?
What is the SUBJECT? What did Mary tell us?
What is the TONE? What sort of mood or emotion does Mary convey? How do you know?

Full Disclosure: I'm a 2nd year WHAP teacher and I borrowed this lesson idea from one of my amazing WHAP mentors, Mr. John Maunu. Here's a link to the Football DBQ Activity I gave to my students. I also made extensive use of the SOAPSTone method for analyzing historical documents.

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