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Building a Conversation between Textbooks, Students, and Teachers

Print, Woman Faning Woman Reading, George Arents Coll., New York Public Lib.
Why Do It?

One of my goals while teaching 11th grade U.S. History at a large urban high school in Oakland, CA, was to try and change the way students viewed our textbook and its role in our discussion of history. I wanted to move the textbook from it’s position as final word about an historical topic to a position as a “point-of-departure” for historical inquiry. My strategy was to ask students to read the text without having to answer any direct questions from the teacher or the textbook. Students generated questions for the text guided by a worksheet used throughout the year.

My class was mixed in ability and ethnically diverse; I wanted to take advantage of this by making their different reactions to the reading a center of attention.

What Is It?

What Students Do
Each time students read the textbook they worked on a core activity where they selected important people and events, generated questions about and reactions to the excerpt, and analyzed images in the text. They used questions from the Reading your Textbook worksheet to guide their responses.

What the Teacher Does
1. Collect and read over the student responses to parts I, II, and III of the core activity.

2. Use student work to create a handout to be used in class on the next day. This handout listed:

  • terms the students thought were important;
  • questions they had; and
  • examples of inquisitive and perceptive writing.

3. Answer student questions in subsequent lessons.

The questions they asked revealed their thinking, prior knowledge, and engagement with the topic.

When I looked at the individuals, events, terms, and illustrations the students chose to write about I was interested in what caught their attention, and how their reactions reflected key concepts necessary to the development of historical understanding: historical agency, historical empathy, and moral judgments.

Consider these examples of questions that students generated in response to reading a textbook section on early Westward Expansion.

1. Why couldn't Supreme Court Justice John Marshall enforce his ruling?

2. Why did the Cherokees abandon their ideas and change their lifestyle?

3. Why were the settlers so inclined to leave where they were from? Did something happen to them? Why did they want to leave?

4. What was the American frontier?

5. The U.S. didn't want their land (or rights) taken by the British. They knew what it was like to be threatened. Why would they threaten someone else?

6. If the U.S. government took the time to protect the Native Americans in the Northwest Ordinance (1787) why didn't they follow through with it?

Handout Prompts Discussion
As I distributed the handout created from student responses, one student immediately wanted to talk about the question, "If the U.S. government took the time to protect the Native Americans in the Northwest Ordinance (1787) why didn't they follow through with it?" This was an excellent question because it focused on a number of issues connected to historical understanding: chronological thinking (questions of continuity and change), moral judgment, and historical empathy. Noting that the Northwest Ordinance was written in 1787 and the Cherokee removal was fifty years later, I asked, "What had changed during these fifty years that would help us explain this change in policy? Think about changes in national goals and changes in those who were making the laws and policies.”

Often, it was the questions they asked that most revealed their thinking, prior knowledge, and engagement with the topic.

Why is This a Best Practice?

Student Questions “Open Up” the Textbook and Identify Historical Puzzles
Questions students asked revealed their thinking about some aspect of the reading. They turned written factual material into a series of historical puzzles. How can people say one thing and do another? Why would people abandon their traditions and heritage?

Turn the textbook into a point of departure

These are questions that could only be answered with further study and discussion. At the very least these questions suggest an engagement in the material that would either be invisible or absent if the students were simply required to answer the textbook questions. Textbook questions often end discussion as they only ask students to identify information contained in the text. These types of questions don't lead students to believe there is more to know, nor do they suggest that there may be different ways to interpret the events and actions of individuals in the narrative.

Student Questions Reveal How Students Read
Students' questions often reflected their challenges, as readers, to glean information from the textbook. For example, the textbook does explain the American frontier. However, providing students space to write down questions to which they expect an answer reveals areas of difficulty they may be having with a text.

Opening Up a Dialogue
Students' questions often went beyond simply asking for factual knowledge. In other questions we can see the beginnings of a dialogue between the students, their textbook, and the teacher. These questions, originating from the students' reading of the textbook, turn the textbook into a point of departure, rather than the final word. Answering these questions requires engaging in historical inquiry and going beyond the information required in the text.

Creating a Teacher and Student Active Classroom
The students were actively involved in developing questions that pushed them beyond the limits of the text's narrative. Many wanted to know more and, as their questions revealed, they wondered about important historical issues, like freedom, justice, and equality. I took seriously the task of responding to them (when I returned student papers I responded in writing to particular questions on individual papers) and helping students find ways to respond. That I then took their questions and made them a focus of class discussion was a starting point for delving more deeply into the history we were studying, and continuing to build a classroom community. Indeed, I found that if students didn’t get responses to their questions they stopped asking.

Through this approach, both teacher and students are actively involved in the lesson and the important work of moving from engagement with an historical question towards historical understanding.