The Reading Like a Historian curriculum engages students in historical inquiry. Each lesson revolves around a central historical question and features sets of primary documents modified for groups of students with diverse reading skills and abilities.

This curriculum teaches students how to investigate historical questions employing reading strategies such as sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, and close reading. Instead of memorizing historical facts, students evaluate the trustworthiness of multiple perspectives on issues from King Philip's War to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and make historical claims backed by documentary evidence.

  I was fortunate enough to be a part of and a TAH grant program: Footsteps to Freedom in San Bernadino County. One of your associates came and shared an Abraham Lincoln lesson plan about whether or not Mr. Lincoln was a racist. I used it with my students yesterday as part of a Civil War unit. It went extremely well! Even though I teach junior high and was cautioned by other teachers not to try anything so controversial, it was very well received. I added an additional 4 primary sources from Mr. Lincoln's speeches to give them more evidence from which to choose. Interestingly, the five classes voted differently at the end, depending upon the strength of the debaters. The students appreciated being allowed to make their own informed decisions.  

Robyn Lee Serrano, Teacher, Lake Forest, CA


How do I use these lessons in my classroom?

The 75 lessons in this curriculum can be taught in succession, but are designed to stand alone and supplement what teachers are already doing in the classroom. Most lessons are designed to take a full class period, though some extend over several periods. Lessons generally follow a three-part structure:

1.  Establish or review relevant historical background knowledge and pose the central historical question. Each lesson approaches background knowledge differently.  For some, we've designed PowerPoints, in others a video clip from United Streaming* effectively establishes historical context.  Many lessons ask students to read a relevant selection from their textbook and answer questions.  In some we've outlined mini-lectures or included a timeline about the period that teachers and students might reference as they read through the documents.  While establishing background knowledge is important, it's only a first step in the inquiry process, and shouldn't extend beyond opening the lesson. This content introduces and frames the central historical question, motivating students to investigate the documents for that lesson.

*Note: United Streaming requires a subscription to Discovery Education.

2.  Students read documents, then answer guiding questions or complete a graphic organizer.  Lesson plans in the Reading Like a Historian curriculum feature documents that address the central historical question; most use two or more documents with conflicting perspectives or accounts. The teacher's decisions on how or whether to assign homework plays a big part in pacing the more elaborate lessons.  Depending on the lesson plan, students will engage in different activities as they read and interpret the documents.  The Reading Like a Historian curriculum offers four basic lesson structures:   

a) Opening up the Textbook (OUT): In these lessons, students examine two documents: the textbook and a historical document that challenges or expands the textbook's account. For a sample OUT, see the Battle of Little Bighorn Lesson Plan.

b) Cognitive Apprenticeship: These lessons are based in a theory that cognitive skills must be visible in order for students to learn how to practice them.  Here, a teacher explicitly models historical reading skills (sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, close reading). The full sequence begins with cognitive modeling, followed by teacher-led guided practice, and ultimately independent student practice. For a sample cognitive apprenticeship lesson, see the Stamp Act Lesson Plan.

c) Inquiry: Most lessons in the curriculum include elements of historical inquiry, where students investigate historical questions, evaluate evidence, and construct historical claims. Some, however, are designed around a process of inquiry, where students develop hypotheses through analyzing sets of documents. Such inquiries are best suited for block or multiple class periods. For a sample inquiry, see the Japanese Internment Lesson Plan.

d) Structured Academic Controversy (SAC): For these lessons, students work in pairs and then teams as they explore a historical question. After taking opposing positions on a question, they try to arrive at a consensus or at least clarify their differences. These lessons are well suited to block or multiple class periods and work best after students gain experience working with primary documents. For a sample SAC, see the Lincoln Lesson Plan

3.  Whole-class discussion about a central historical question using documentary evidence to support claims.  The final segment of the Reading Like a Historian lesson plan is probably the most important. Unfortunately, it is often dropped due to time constraints.  We tell teachers that it's better to eliminate one of the documents than cut such a valuable opportunity to practice historical thinking skills, articulate claims and defend them with evidence from the documents.  Only in whole-class discussion can students see that history is open to multiple interpretations, and that the same piece of evidence can support conflicting claims. Students often find this activity foreign and uncomfortable at first, but through practice can gain an understanding of their role as knowledge-makers in the history classroom. 

Can I start the Reading Like a Historian curriculum in the middle of the school year?

Of course! Reading Like a Historian lessons are designed to stand alone or to supplement your curricula at any point.  However, because the Reading Like a Historian lessons present history in a way that may be unfamiliar, it's important to introduce students to the basic concepts of the curriculum.  That's why the Introduction Unit includes materials and three short lesson plans to orient students to the curriculum, even if you start late in the year.