Teaching Social Studies = Getting to the Source(s)

In the last couple of weeks, I have had several occasions to work with social studies teachers from around Central New York as well as working with pre-service teachers in my class at SUNY Cortland. I have found an ongoing theme in many of these encounters: Teachers want to teach social studies in ways that engage students and give them opportunities to interact with history in authentic ways by using primary sources. It is what is the basis for the Social Studies Practices in the NYS K-12 Framework and is certainly at the heart of the C3 Framework and the Inquiry Arc.

The challenges are finding, adapting and modifying those sources for classroom use and finding the time to do those things. There are no easy answers to this dilemma. This whole process just takes time: time to look through resource books, time to find useful websites and then sift through thousands of documents and materials online. If teachers are lucky, they might have supplemental materials from publishers that provide suggestions or even actual primary sources to use that support the content and skills they are teaching. More likely, however, you are starting from scratch to find appropriate sources that get at the ideas and concepts you want students to think about. It’s a monumental task!

Then what? Finding the sources is only the beginning. No matter what grade level or what content area, teachers have students who vary widely in their ability to read and process complex text. How can teachers provide their students with primary documents that are nearly impossible to read in their original form? Of course, photos, paintings, cartoons, artifacts (or photos of them), videos, and maps are all good ways to engage students with social studies concepts in authentic ways. For these types of sources, reading is less crucial to understanding. However, teachers also need to get students to grapple with primary text sources. For text sources, teachers must consider modifying and scaffolding them so that students have a chance to read and make sense of them. In their article Tampering with History, Sam Wineburg and Daisy Martin offer several suggestions about how to modify text documents:

  • Focusing: Focus students’ attention on the most important ideas and concepts, teachers should excerpt documents limiting no more than 200-300 words. By providing students with smaller chunks of text to read, it is m ore likely that they will read carefully.
  • Simplification: Simplify complex sentences and syntax, conventionalizing archaic spelling, punctuation, and capitalization and change some of the most challenging vocabulary to make the text more accessible, especially to struggling students. Vocabulary can also be supported by providing student-friendly definitions in a word bank or in the margins.
  • Presentation: Larger font of at least 16 point and wide margins are less overwhelming than small densely packed text and students the space to annotate and underline as they read.

Good examples of these modifications can be found in the documents of the Stanford History Education Group’s Reading Like a Historian Curriculum. Documents in both the US History and World History lessons have been excerpted, modified and scaffolded using the methods outlined in the article.

Now back to the issue of time. There is no getting around the fact that this process takes time. However, a couple of ideas might make the process a little less daunting. First, collaboration here is key. If you have colleagues who teach the same content, band together, divide and conquer, slice up the work into smaller chunk and begin to develop a bank of good, modified and scaffolded sources that work well with your students. If you are a department of one, find colleagues in other schools who might be willing to work together on a project like this.

A second idea is a recent discovery thanks to Colleen Crissell of the RSE-TASC at OCM BOCES. Rewordify.com is an online tool that simplifies the vocabulary in a piece of text. You cut and paste the text into the rewordifier, choose how much vocabulary to simplify and how to display the text. And voila! Here is a snapshot of the Gettysburg Address displayed in two columns with the rewordified text on the right:

It’s not perfect in how it rewordifies, but I think it may have the potential to make teachers’ work with sources a bit easier.

What are some sources for working with sources that you have found helpful? Let me know and I will pass along your suggestions!





Wineburg, Sam, and Daisy Martin. “Tampering with History: Adapting Primary Sources for Stuggling Readers.” Social Education (National Council for History Education) 73, no. 5 (2009): 212-216.

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