READING IN MY CLASSROOM

Angelina Kreger
BHP Teacher, Michigan, USA

About the author: Angelina Kreger is a veteran high school history teacher and instructional coach in Novi, MI. She has five years’ experience teaching the semester-long BHP course to twelfth graders.

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Life and Purpose reading with Three Close Reads worksheet

“Today, we’re going to explore ‘Life and Purpose,’” begins the enthusiastic teacher. The students look up hopefully. “It’s an article in Unit 5 we’ll study using a Three Close Reads activity.” A unanimous groan—they’ve realized she means reading.

Have you had this experience? Do you sometimes wish you could get around the Three Close Reads activities? They’re not always the most fun-filled exercises, compared to everything else the Big History Project offers. But reading—in any history classroom—is an integral part of learning the content and making sense of larger historical patterns, and Three Close Reads is one of the best research-based strategies to accomplish this task. That’s why, if I’m teaching students the skills of a real historian, this technique hits the mark.

The Three Close Reads activity that accompanies every BHP reading assignment is really helpful, but it can be a bit overwhelming. There are some ways to break the work into smaller chunks for your students. In my classroom, I like to take the questions for each close read and post them on separate pieces of chart paper. After giving students the reading material, I ask them to work in teams to answer the questions, moving from station to station. Small groups can share out quickly after each stage of reading. This is a great way to introduce the activity at the beginning of the year and get students familiar with the process. I change out the pieces of chart paper as the students complete the different “reads.” As they work, I monitor for misconceptions and write formative data on the chart paper to figure out if I need to spend more time on the reading.

Another technique I like to use is to make reading more of a game for the students. Three Close Reads naturally gets students to read with a purpose, analyze text, and think about it critically, but sometimes a little competition can facilitate this even more. Here’s what I do:

  • For the first read (capturing gist—the preview read), pair up students and have each skim the text.
  • Make one student the “questioner” and the other the “responder.” Provide the questioner with the questions for the first of the close reads, found in the lesson. The responder uses their reading to help them answer, and the questioner allocates points for every correct response given.
  • Both students move on to the second read (informational—reading for facts and key ideas) and read the text for understanding; then they switch roles.
  • For the third reading (thinking bigger/conceptual thinking), students might work independently or the groups might reverse roles again.

Critical reading is not a gift or a talent – it’s a skill to be learned. As students engage with text that is often filled with discipline-specific vocabulary and content, it’s our job to provide them an on-ramp that makes the text accessible and offers opportunities to internalize their learning. Three Close Reads does this explicitly. You’ll see students who can take the skills presented and transfer them to any course or content. Sure, many lessons will start with that collective groan, but there are plenty of strategies to make sure these same lessons end in critical thought and a feeling of intellectual success.

REFRAMING THE TASK OF READING IN HISTORY

Anita Ravi
BHP Expert, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Big Historian Anita Ravi is a history teacher, an educator of history teachers, and a curriculum designer. She has worked on the BHP curriculum since 2014, and supports innovative teacher prep programs through her work with the National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR), as well as with University of Michigan’s TeachingWorks.

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Scriptorium Monk at Work. A monk copies a text from a large book on his writing-table. Public Domain

History is a text-based discipline. At its core, the task of sorting through historical materials involves dissecting and interpreting how people in the past have related their experiences in writing. At times, we might incorporate into historical analyses nontextual sources—such as maps, artwork, and photography. But to do history well, we must be able to read and interpret text well. This can be a struggle if students enter your classroom reading and comprehending at levels other than you might expect.

How to Approach Reading Difficult Text in History

As a history teacher, you know that any text written before, say, 1930, will be difficult for students. The author’s word choice and syntax might be foreign to students, and the way in which the writer makes a point is probably unfamiliar as well. Language, like any other human-created system, changes over time. If you approach historical text as an exercise in translation to modern English—for ALL students—you reframe the task of reading and interpreting history as an active process of meaning-making, thus emphasizing the task itself, and not the difficulty of it. But how exactly can you scaffold students to engage with and understand complex text? Here are two approaches to help students get ready to read complex historical texts.

Understand How Text Structure Relates to the Type of Source

In history, we tend to classify texts as primary sources or secondary sources. However, within each of these two categories, there is vast variation in the structure, purpose, content, and complexity of sources. A letter is perhaps the “simplest” form of historical text: there is an identified author writing to one or more people; it’s narrative in form; and it generally describes feelings and experiences of the author. Although letters often make a claim, the ways in which that claim is supported can be identified somewhat easily. In contrast, a public document—such as a treaty—is much more complex. Often, the authors and intent are hidden. We have to work hard to understand the historical context that produced the treaty and what the authors sought to gain by producing it; and then we have to unpack archaic language to understand what the treaty actually says. Teaching students about the features of the various genres of documents they encounter will help them understand the task at hand before they approach the text.

Read Around the Text

Once you’ve established some understanding of the features of a particular type of source, there are moves that historians make to “read around” the source before delving into the text itself. This involves sourcing the text: Who wrote this? Who is the intended audience? We also need to situate the text in time and space: When was this written and where? What do I already know about what’s happening at the time this text was written? Situating the text in these ways establishes a baseline for understanding specific words, phrases, and points made in the text. To fully unpack the meaning, a reader moves back and forth between reading around the text and reading the text itself.

Some students will balk when given the task of reading a dense, historical text. This is understandable, especially if Big History is their first exposure to engaging with primary sources. By reframing the task of historical reading with these two concrete strategies, we offer students a foothold into the world of historical analysis that will serve them in Big History and beyond.

I HATE RUBRICS!

Anita Ravi
BHP Expert, University of California, Berkeley, USA

About the author: Big Historian Anita Ravi is a history teacher, an educator of history teachers, and a curriculum designer. She has worked on the BHP curriculum since 2014, and supports innovative teacher prep programs through her work with the National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR), as well as with University of Michigan’s TeachingWorks.

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A complex and tedious performance measurement chart. Public Domain.

“I hate rubrics!” Even if you’ve never uttered these words, your students certainly have. And for good reason. At first glance, rubrics appear complex and tedious. But they can also be incredibly effective tools when used by teachers and students to break down the elements of good writing into achievable chunks. So how do we get past that complex, tedious part? Keep reading.

Why use a rubric?

The most important reason to use a rubric is that it establishes clear expectations for students. Rubrics are intended to describe what the student needs to do in order to demonstrate their learning of a particular topic or skill. If students truly understand the criteria for scoring “proficient” (or above) on the rubric for a particular assignment, and if you guide them to practice meeting these criteria, then their final work products will indeed be better.

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BHP Writing Rubric. Download the full PDF version here.

Using the rubric as a teaching tool

Chances are, you and your class are approaching the first Investigation in the BHP course in the next week or two. Throughout these first few weeks of school, you’ve focused on teaching students how to read source material (print and video) for key ideas and details, and perhaps you’ve begun to delve into what a set of sources can tell us about an overarching historical question or problem. Students have written responses to their first claim tester and perhaps done a bit of peer editing. The Investigations in BHP are set up in the following way: First, students start with a conjecture in response to the overarching question; next, they read several texts in order to gather evidence to test that conjecture and refine it into a thesis; finally, they create their written analysis marrying thesis with evidence. The BHP Writing Rubric describes the final product according to these four criteria: A) constructing an argument; B) using texts as evidence; C) analyzing BHP concepts; and D) writing with appropriate mechanics. Criteria A and B are the core of any historical analysis. Criteria C asks students to connect their historical arguments to the larger themes of the course. Criteria D ensures that students write academically instead of colloquially. So how might a teacher use these criteria in instruction?

If you look to the “proficient” category of the rubric for Criteria A and B, you will see that students are expected to develop a claim (or thesis) and use evidence from multiple sources to support that claim. After students have done some initial work on the Investigation—perhaps independently, perhaps in pairs—the first step in teaching students to develop a worthwhile claim and supporting evidence is to have them go back to their initial conjecture or claim (Criteria A). By turning each “proficient” descriptor on the rubric into a question, you can lead students through the process of refining their claim:

  • Did you stake out a position that answers the essay question? If not, how would you revise what you wrote so that it clearly answers the question?
  • Does your claim establish a clear position, but still account for some nuance?

Next, you can turn to using texts as evidence (Criteria B) and repeat this process:

  • Which three (or more) texts provide the best evidence in support of your claim?
  • Did you summarize the main point of each text? How does each text connect to, or support your claim?
  • Did you write about the similarities and differences between these texts?
  • Is it possible that one (or more) of these texts actually provides evidence that does NOT support your claim, but is worth mentioning anyway? Did you summarize this text as evidence of a counterclaim?

In the next class—after some of the above work is done in class and students have time outside of class to refine their writing—you can come back to Criteria C and repeat the process, turning the “proficient” column (or higher) into guiding questions students can use to ensure they attend to the larger BHP theme of that Investigation. Repeat the process for Criteria D (mechanics), but have students do this work themselves, in pairs.

By using the rubric as an instructional tool, you are more likely to make expectations for writing clear, guide and monitor student progress as they write, and, in the end, receive more final products that meet or exceed the criteria.