As the Common Core Standards attempt to put rigor and relevance back into reading programs, students will be assessed on their ability to analyze primary source documents. This is one of the six major shifts – an increase in reading informational texts from the 9-15% they are currently reading in their elementary reading anthologies to 70% of a high school day they will be expected to spend reading informational texts across core curricular areas. The following is an example of an assessment of Reading Informational Text (RI) at a sixth grade level.
“Students trace the line of argument in Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” address to Parliament and evaluate his specific claims and opinions in the text, distinguishing which claims are supported by facts, reasons, and evidence, and which are not. [RI.6.8]” ELA Common Core Standards Appendix B p. 91.
Immediately California history teachers recognize that this sixth grade reading assessment is a California tenth grade history-social science standard. Clearly sixth graders are not expected to master the history standards to be able to do the task, but just as obviously, they will not have the background knowledge to thoroughly understand the context of this document. Teachers then ponder what they are supposed to do with this dilemma.
I have used this task as an example with many groups of teachers and administrators to show the need :
• for teaching history-social studies regularly at all grade levels
• for teachers to have time to analyze how they would tackle difficult reading tasks
• to create a sense of urgency that students have to spend more time reading difficult material
• for teaching social studies specific strategies for understanding informational texts
When I first looked at this prompt, all my training as a history teacher flew out the window as I was blinded by the task not aligning to the state standards. Once I got over the initial shock, I reverted back to known territory – and used the tools I know. I will walk through this reading prompt as I presented it to teachers and administrators K-12, highlighted by how I would teach it to students as a practice sample in my language arts class or self-contained sixth grade class. This is important to practice because students need to know how to read difficult texts, even when the topic is unfamiliar to them.
“Students trace the line of argument in Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” address to Parliament and evaluate his specific claims and opinions in the text, distinguishing which claims are supported by facts, reasons, and evidence, and which are not.”
Before they begin addressing any task, students need to reread it carefully. This will help them find specific words to explain and clarify the task. In this case all they have to do is to distinguish 1. What are Churchill’s claims? 2) Which claims are factual? 3) Which claims are not factual? (By definition a claim is something that one is asserting to be a fact, so the students looking words that seem like facts, but are not.)
Middle school teachers had no difficulty attacking this task and coming up with solutions, where teachers of other grade levels were somewhat overwhelmed. By and large middle school history teachers approached this task from a language arts perspective. As a language arts teacher, I recognize that there are some Tier Two words in this task information that I would teach because they are important for more than just this test: claim – assertion of something as a fact, address – meaning a speech, and braces – meaning to gain strength to stand against a strong force. I would simply remind students that Parliament a legislative body in England, just like Congress is in the United States, and that people from Britain are called Britons just like people from Mexico are called Mexicans. If I was not going to just teach to the test, as a language arts teacher, I would make a note to myself that my students need to read public addresses as part of my language arts program.
“Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: Address to Parliament on May 13th, 1940.”Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, 3rd Edition. Edited by William Safire. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. (1940) From “Winston Churchill Braces Britons to Their Task”
When I gave this task to teachers, I did not give them any tools except to have the task and the speech printed in large font double spaced so they could write on it, and analyze what they did to make meaning of the text. I read the speech aloud to some groups, and that made a difference about how quickly they were able to distinguish emotion-laden words. However, the next time I present this task to teachers, I will give them a choice of tools to use, and have them discuss how those worked. With students, though, I would want to help them gain a thorough understanding of the prompt and to read as a historian. I would want them to learn to question the author. There are many tools recommended by different authors. I will only mention a few here.
• APPARTS: author, (place& time), prior knowledge, audience, reason, main idea, significance
• Text, Context, Subtext: (Lesh, 2011)
• Evaluating Historical Opinions: (Lesh, 2011)
• Fact v Opinion Chart
If I taught history or multiple subjects and I was teaching this to students, I would have them fill out the APPARTS Chart as best they could and then share in groups before they read the document. Sharing is the best way they can build background knowledge painlessly. They find out, not only what they know, but start questioning what they don’t know or might want to learn. Building curiosity by not answering all their questions gives them a motivation to read. I might also have another source for them to read after they do this that provides a bit of background for them. If they were already used to the APPARTS Chart, I might use Lesh’s form, Evaluating Historical Opinions, or use the Fact v Opinion T Chart form so students are looking at the words themselves.
However, as a language arts teacher, teaching history is not my main goal, and I merely want the students to be able to pick out fact from fiction using the language, so I would use the Fact v Opinion Chart. I might give them the background information after they read to confirm their findings. Further, I might play a YouTube video with the actual voice of Churchill as well as primary source video from the time period for the students that are second language learners. I would save this step for after the document has been analyzed to serve as a validation and not a scaffold. Students might then reanalysed the document based on hearing the speech and compare their findings.
I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs – Victory in spite of all terrors – Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival. I take up my task in buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. I feel entitled at this juncture, at this time, to claim the aid of all and to say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.
Once the teachers analyzed and discussed the speech from a language arts perspective, looking at the structure of the speech which uses repetition, and for descriptive adjectives and nouns, it was a simple matter for them to do the task. Almost everyone did the task quickly, and they could have written about it, or answered multiple choice questions. This task does not specify how the students are supposed to demonstrate their learning, or what is an acceptable to prove their mastery. I would work with the teachers in my district to create rubrics for this task and others. Rubistar is a website that has a free rubric creation tool that is easy to modify.
Common Core Standards by its strong informational text requirements leads most consultants to recommend teaching history-social studies and science regularly in elementary classrooms. This is can be achieved in elementary grades by simply substituting teaching from the social studies text book or using other available non-fiction sources during reading language arts time. It is important to understanding the Common Core Standards that students also understand History Analysis Skills. Questioning strategies, alternative literature aligned specifically to California’s standards can be found in the document, The California Common Core Language Arts/History-Social Science Implementation Toolkit, available online at no cost at http://ccss.tcoe.org/content/public/doc/tcoe_ela_hss_implementation_toolkit.pdf
Ideally, from an accountability standpoint, students should practice using primary source documents from the time period that aligns to the state history-social science standards. In California, starting in 5th grade the standards are studied chronologically, divided between U.S. History and World History, so this makes reading primary sources more difficult because the style of writing changes over time. It charges younger students with the responsibility to read writing from older periods in history. While historians wince at the idea of making changes to the primary source documents, successful teachers and professors shorten them to make understanding the documents attainable.
As the Common Core shifts happen, and students read more and more informational texts, students will slowly realize that their own thinking, using imagination alone is an untrustworthy method for understanding history, and for understanding informational texts about history.