Throw Out Your History Textbook

A case for primary source analysis.

Jay Leno: Debbie, where you from?

Debbie: South. South San Francisco.

Jay Leno: South San Francisco. OK, and you’re a citizen of the United States?

Debbie: I sure am.

Jay Leno: Born here?

Debbie: Sure was.

Jay Leno: What country did we fight in the Revolutionary War?

Debbie: [Pause] France.

Jay Leno: What does the Emancipation Proclamation mean What did it do?

Debbie: [Pause] Ummmm. The emancimation approximlation?

Jay Leno: No, the Emancipation Proclamation. What did it do?

Debbie: I don’t know.

Jay Leno: You’ve heard of it?

Debbie: I have heard of it.

Jay Leno: It freed the slaves.

Debbie: It did. Yes, that’s right.

Unfortunately, Debbie and the other interviewees on Leno’s “JayWalking” segments are not outliers. Just 20% of fourth graders, 18% of eighth graders, and 12% of twelfth graders achieved proficiency in U.S. history on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, U.S. history is America’s lowest performing subject.

What’s Wrong With the Textbooks?

Is the problem that our history courses fail to explain the Emancipation Proclamation and the Revolutionary War? Of course not. Americans recall so little about our nation’s history because we do not engage in meaningful questions with enough depth to make the information memorable. The broad scope of U.S. history, the multiplicity of perspectives and contexts, and the sheer volume of material leave traditional textbooks to simply “cover” the material, favoring cursory memorization over deep engagement.

In designing the history program at Harlem Academy, our goal was to challenge students to tackle the big questions of the discipline: the arc of our nation’s history, the key drivers of change, and the causes and effects of the transformational events that have shaped our country.

In 2010, we threw away our traditional textbooks and set out to develop our own two-year U.S. history curriculum based entirely on primary source analysis. Below we describe some of the benefits—both expected and unexpected—of this approach.

Challenge Students to Think Like Historians

Our seventh grade year begins with Paul Revere’s famous engraving. Students begin by noting details in the pictures: smoke and guns, soldiers in uniform, an unarmed crowd. They conclude that it depicts a bloody massacre in the streets of Boston.

Then they read an account from Captain Preston who led the troops in Boston, arguing the soldiers were provoked and killed only five people. Students continue to unravel a series of conflicting narratives, and they come to conclude that Revere created this image as propaganda meant to inflame passions.

Teaching students that the information they read must be questioned is perhaps one of the most critical skills for success in the 21st century. In the age of the Internet, the ability to critically evaluate information and its sources is a prerequisite for meaningful, informed citizenship. Rather than a hollow reminder of the importance of validating sources, the practice of using primary sources in place of textbooks impels students to construct their own understandings in ways that will not be quickly forgotten.

Hone Advanced Reading and Writing Skills

Primary source analysis is a central tool in developing students’ confidence when faced with challenging texts, and is increasingly recognized as a fundamental component for college and career readiness. Several Common Core Standards focus specifically on the use of primary sources, including:

  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
  • Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

To decode primary texts, we read passages aloud as a class with a highlighter and pen in hand, marking important ideas and highlighting unfamiliar words. When a student says, “Ding!” the class stops to redefine the word. Students can then draw on their marked-up texts as they consider some of the most difficult and contentious questions in our country’s history.

Harlem Academy also follows a structured approach to written analysis, using these five steps:

  1. Read the document carefully, defining unfamiliar vocabulary as you go.
  2. Re-read the document and identify the main idea.
  3. Write an attribution sentence that includes the author, title, year, and main idea.
  4. Select 5 to 10 key words or phrases from the source that best support the main idea.
  5. Follow the attribution sentence with a full paragraph summary integrating all of the key words or phrases, and finish with a concluding sentence.

Primary sources offer a valuable (and often free) tool for advancing the critical skills in reading and writing that students need to thrive in secondary school, college, and the workforce.

Teach Empathy

Despite all the attention it gets, teaching empathy is difficult. We know that, like any other habit, developing empathy requires intentional practice.

Figure 1.
Sample Eighth-Grade Paragraph Response

In “Creating an Open and Just City” written in 1966, the author describes how there is segregation in the North in cities such as Chicago. As in the South, African Americans are equal politically, but not equal socially nor economically. Blacks are living in areas away from cities inhabited by white people. They are given high rent and low wages. It is also reflected in poorer schools. In conclusion, though Chicago’s racism does not include severe brutalities such as in the South, it is still existent.

Students are given 10 minutes to summarize a passage using the approach described here. This sample from November 2015 shows an eighth-grade response.

Compared to most opportunities to practice empathy, primary source analysis requires students to bridge significant gaps (e.g., temporal, cultural, geographic, etc.) to connect emotionally and understand another person’s perspective and motivations. Students must “stand in someone else’s shoes” and relate to their circumstances, interpreting actions within historical constraints rather than present standards.

In the exercise of perspective taking—often with individuals who possess reprehensible stances on topics such as segregation—students develop critical life skills. Students who seek to understand the actions of those around them are better prepared for conflict resolution and problem solving in their own lives. As students learn that history is driven by basic human motivations, desires, and fears, they come to understand the role of individuals in defining our nation’s path and their own potential to affect change.

Figure 2.
Perspective Taking: Cedric the Segregationist & Emily the Inclusionist

To support students in this process, we introduce characters who represent different points of view. Throughout the course, students conduct exercises analyzing events from these characters’ perspectives.
For instance, Harlem Academy students meet Cedric the segregationist, a white southerner who believes it should be left to the states to decide the question of segregation. They also meet Emily the inclusionist, an African American northerner who argues that separate will never be equal.Students then read several editorials written in 1954 and explain why Cedric and Emily would agree or disagree with each.

Ready to Throw Out Your Textbook?

Here are some resources to help get you started:

  • The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has a searchable database of vetted lesson and unit plans and more than 60,000 primary sources.
  • The Avalon Project through Yale Law School has hundreds of primary sources related to U.S. history.
  • Georgetown’s September 11th Sourcebooks has hundreds of documents on 9/11 and many other national security issues.
  • The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) Reading Like a Historian curriculum has 71 document-based lesson plans spanning 11 units.
  • The World Digital Library has a database of more than 7,000 primary sources searchable by date, location, and theme.