Choosing Documents

For a discussion-based history course.

For those who want to try a discussion-based history course but are not sure how to structure the readings if you move away from your text book. Participants will have a chance to consider a course they teach in terms of written documents, artifacts and visual art.

We will discuss four principles of choosing documents and setting up a unit that will lead to a good discussion.

  1. A reading that establishes context via narrative, like a text book.

  2. Primary documents

  3. Something in the readings creates a tension that requires sustained thought and discussion to resolve it.

  4. Evaluation and revision. If the teacher is expecting to teach the same class again, evaluate the discussion and how you might revise the assignments to make it go better.

BONUS: You might give some short readings by historians to introduce the students to historiographical debates about the topic as a way of modeling how historians deliberate. See They Say, I Say.

Links: To resources for primary and other history sources.

The American Yawp. A free online textbook. A primary document reader is also included. You can order physical copies, for about $25.

SHEG (Stanford University Education Group; includes some downloadable document sets as well was exercises designed to teach historical thinking skills)

Modern History Sourcebook (primary documents in world history, Fordham University)

Project Gutenberg (free downloadable ebooks)

The Avalon Project (documents in law, history and diplomacy)

Library of Congress: Primary Source sets (documents for teachers) (Primary documents for US history)

Spartacus Educational (encyclopedia entries that directly connect to primary source documents in global history)

Cartoons: The Thomas Nast Collection at the Princeton University Digital Library (601 of Nast's cartoons are on display here. For an example of a unit I made using two of Nast's cartoons and a timeline, see the document attached at the bottom of this page). Go here for a related primary source on Reconstruction which likely influenced Nast's view.

Lincoln and Emancipation. This is my unit on the Civil War. Students engage the question of whether Lincoln deserves to be considered the Great Emancipator. The unit was inspired by a chapter in James Loewen's Lies my Teacher Told Me. Here's a link to the paper they have to write at the end of the unit. One of the documents I give the students is a picture of the Emancipation statue in Lincoln Park in Washington D.C. You can read about that controversial monument here.