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Engaging Students in the Discourse of History

As a student, I did not have much interest in history because I learned it as a set body of knowledge. There was nothing to figure out or argue. There were no grey areas. I never once considered what historians did or even if there were any historians left. From my perspective all the work of history had already been done.

The Common Core Standards in reading and writing for middle and high school validate the importance of students engaging in the practice of analyzing and writing historical arguments.

My misconception of history as a set body of knowledge had everything to do with the sources and pedagogical methods that my teachers were using. My textbooks presented history as a static body of knowledge devoid of all traces of historical thinking. Too many of my teachers treated history as a body of facts and students as bodies to fill with those facts.

What I have since learned is that while history may begin with facts, it does not end there. The excitement and rigor of learning history lies in the interpretation—how one makes sense of the facts. Learning history provides an opportunity for our students to have a voice in an ongoing dialogue about what happened in the past and why it matters. To engage in this scholarly dialogue, our students must learn what it means to think, read, and write like historians.

If our students are going to develop an appreciation of history as a dynamic discipline of meaning-making, they must be immersed in models of history texts that demonstrate varied perspectives on a topic. Our students need to analyze historical arguments that allow them to identify and evaluate authors’ claims and the evidence used to support those claims. Additionally, our students need multiple opportunities to try their own hand at making meaning through historical thinking and writing.

The Common Core Standards in reading and writing for middle and high school validate the importance of students engaging in the practice of analyzing and writing historical arguments. In the Reading Standards for Informational Text 6–12, 8th-grade students are expected to “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient. . . .” (Standard 8). When students read the genre of historical argument with the purpose of identifying and evaluating the author’s claim and the evidence used to support that claim, they are not only exposed to the content of history, but also the discourse of history. When students “analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation” (Standard 9), they are experiencing a discipline that holds the possibility of multiple interpretations and invites participation in the making of meaning.

In the Writing Standards 6–12, 8th-grade students are expected to “write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence” (Standard 1). As part of this standard, students must make a claim, distinguish that claim from alternate claims, and support their claims with reasoning and evidence. Having already analyzed what characterizes the genre of historical argument, students are now positioned to experiment with constructing their own written arguments.

As a student, what I did not yet know about history is that there always has been and always will be historical meaning to be made and arguments to be constructed. The Common Core Standards offer an exciting expectation that our students can and will engage in the rigors of this historical discourse. To support students in meeting this expectation, teachers need access to a wide range of historical writing models beyond those offered in history textbooks. Teachers also need access to resources that are based in pedagogical methods that align with an understanding of history as a dynamic discipline based in interpretation. As a teacher, I look forward to collaborating with my colleagues to continue refining our practice of teaching history.