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Entering the Historical Problem Space: Whole-class Text-based Discussion in History Class

by Abby Reisman - 2015

Background/Context: The Common Core State Standards Initiative reveals how little we understand about the components of effective discussion-based instruction in disciplinary history. Although the case for classroom discussion as a core method for subject matter learning stands on stable theoretical and empirical ground, to date, none of the research on classroom discussion has examined whole-class text-based discussion in secondary history classrooms.

Purpose: This study explored how teachers and students in five 11th-grade classrooms participated in whole-class discussion, using intervention materials designed to promote text-based disciplinary discussion. Analysis of videotaped instruction sought to (a) determine the degree to which the instructional materials fostered disciplinary discussion about texts, and (b) analyze teacher talk moves that characterized effective facilitation of such discussions.

Research Design: This qualitative study was embedded in a larger quasi-experimental curricular intervention that found treatment effects on factual recall, historical thinking, and general reading comprehension. In this paper, we analyze classroom videos from five treatment classrooms taken over the course of the six-month intervention. Each teacher was videotaped once per week, for a total of 20 videotaped lessons per teacher.

Findings/results: Analyses showed that disciplinary discussion was surprisingly rare, and discussion that promoted historical understanding even rarer. Discussions that were most successful in deepening studentsí historical understanding were characterized by talk moves that drew studentsí attention to the text, and that stabilized the historical content.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The study has implications for teacher preparation focused on implementation of Common Core State Standards as well as for teacher training in domain-specific core practices.


The Common Core State Standards (2010) highlight the importance of discussion-based instruction in disciplinary history. The CCSS include Speaking and Listening standards that require students to have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations . . . built around important content in various domains, and to be prepared to analyze and synthesize a multitude of ideas in accordance with the standards of evidence appropriate to a particular discipline (p. 48). Moreover, the CCSS identify domain-specific reading comprehension skills in history/social studies. These skills reflect, in large part, the extant research on historical thinking, which presents disciplinary reading as an analytic process that involves questioning the reliability and probity of texts, corroborating sources with other pieces of evidence, and weaving an intertextual understanding of the past that takes into account its foreignness and unfamiliarity (Lee, 2005; Wineburg, 1991, 2001).

The present study examined whole-class text-based discussions in five classrooms that participated in a six-month curriculum intervention in 11th-grade history classrooms (Reisman, 2012a, 2012b). The intervention curriculum consisted of stand-alone Document-Based Lessons that centered on a debatable, interpretable historical question and that had three distinct lesson segments: (1) overview of relevant background knowledge, (2) independent or small-group analysis of historical documents that shed light on the lessons central historical question, and (3) whole-class discussion, during which students were prompted to use evidence from the documents to substantiate their claims in response to the central historical question. The documents were intentionally selected to maximize the likelihood that students would arrive at conflicting interpretations that would have to be reconciled through discussion (Reisman, 2012a, 2012b). This study asks:


To what extent did the presence of inquiry-based curricular materials foster whole-class disciplinary discussion?


What was the nature of teacher facilitation of classroom discussion about historical texts?


The case for classroom discussion as a core method for subject matter learning stands on stable theoretical and empirical ground. From a learning standpoint, sociocultural theory maintains that learning is situated and mediated by language, and that novices learn by observing and participating in cultural activities with experts. Productive classroom discussion, therefore, initiates students into the processes of knowledge construction and fosters the development of what Vygotsky called higher mental functions (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, 1990; Vygotsky, 1978, 1981). Such productive discussions also promote student participation and dialogic interaction (Wells, 1999). Theoretical justifications for classroom discussion are also rooted in normative notions of participatory democracy and reasoned discourse (Habermas, 1990; Hess, 2009; Dewey, 1985; Parker, 2006). Classrooms, from this perspective, are the training grounds for citizenship, and discussions afford students opportunities not only to hear diverse viewpoints, but also to substantiate their claims with evidence.

A considerable empirical literature shines light on how classroom discussion fosters and supports student learning and reasoned inquiry. Much of this research has occurred in mathematics, science, and reading classrooms. For example, certain features have been found to characterize productive discussions about text: authentic teacher questions and uptake of student ideas (cf. Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003; Nystrand, 2006; Soter et al., 2008); accountability to rigorous thinking and relevant knowledge, as well as to the ideas of other participants (cf. Michaels, OConnor, Hall, & Resnick, 2002; Michaels, OConnor, & Resnick, 2008; Wolf, Crosson, & Resnick, 2004); and collaborative reasoning about big questions or dilemmas (cf. Clark et al., 2003; Reznitskaya et al., 2001). Math education researchers have explored pedagogical strategies, including specific teacher talk moves, that help students develop reasoned mathematical explanations (e.g., Ball, 1993; Lampert, 1990; Kazemi & Stipek, 2001; OConnor, 2001; OConnor & Michaels, 1996). Likewise, research in science classrooms has explored how to characterize and support disciplinary inquiry. For example, for Engle and Conant (2002), productive disciplinary engagement occurs in learning environments characterized by: (1) problematizing subject matter, (2) giving students authority to address such problems, (3) holding students accountable to others and to shared disciplinary norms, and (4) providing students with relevant resources.  

One big question to emerge from this body of research concerns the role of the teacher in scaffolding and supporting reasoned discourse (Elizabeth, Anderson, Snow, & Selman, 2012; Lawrence & Snow, 2011). Researchers agree that productive student discourse cannot occur in a classroom where teacher talk consists exclusively of Initiation-Response-Evaluation (I-R-E) patterns (Cazden, 2001; Mehan, 1979; Nystrand, Gamoran, Kachur, & Prendergast, 1997), yet suggestions for effective teacher facilitation vary. Research on peer discussions of literature found a relationship between the absence of teacher talk and student ability to sustain cohesive discussion (Almasi, 1995; Almasi, OFlahavan, & Arya, 2001; Soter et al., 2008). However, a meta-analysis on discussion literature found that increases in student talk (relative to teacher talk) did not necessarily result in concomitant increases in student reading comprehension (Murphy, Wilkinson, Soter, Hennessey, & Alexander, 2009). Other researchers have recast I-R-E sequences as potentially useful under certain circumstances. Wells (1999) found instances when the third move of the sequence served to follow-up on, rather than evaluate, student thinking, and scaffold the joint construction of knowledge. OConnor (2001) distinguished between exploratory talk, when the teacher might hesitate to correct a students misconception, and summative talk, when the teacher might need to review a concept in order to solidify students knowledge. Indeed, Boyd and Rubin (2006) found that the most extended student responses followed closed questions about known information, as long as these were contingent on prior student comments. Wolf et al. (2004) also found that the quality of student responses depended on the types of questions that teachers posed. Clearly, the teacher plays a more critical role as facilitator in whole-class discussion, as opposed to small-group discussion, where teacher involvement is at best intermittent.

To date, none of the research on classroom discussion has examined whole-class text-based discussion in secondary history classrooms. Hess (2009) and Hess and Posselt (2002) studied student and teacher participation in discussions about controversial political issues, focusing on the role that such discourse plays in preparing students for democratic participation. However, their work did not explore student ability to interpret historical texts and reason about the past. Wortham (1994, 2001) examined a classroom discussion about Plutarchs description of the Spartan practice of infanticide, but his analysis began when students departed from the text and used contemporary analogies and participant examples, rather than close textual interpretation, to understand the past. The only research that has studied how students in middle or high school marshaled textual evidence to support oral claims about the past has emerged in European contexts (Dickinson & Lee, 1984; Martens, 2009; Pontecorvo & Girardet, 1993). Yet even these studies examined students in autonomous small groups, rather than in teacher-led, whole-class discussions.

The present study focused on teacher and student participation in the whole-class discussions that were designed to occur in the latter part of each Document-Based lesson. The quantitative measures used in the study showed overall effects on factual recall, historical thinking, and general reading comprehension, as measured by the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test (GMRT) (MacGinitie, MacGinitie, Maria, & Dryer, 2000). However, these measures did not capture a crucial part of the Document Based Lesson, which involved student argumentation during whole-class discussion of historical documents. This study explored whether relationships existed between particular teacher moves and higher levels of student historical understanding.


The framework for this study draws from the research on student historical thinking, as well as from the philosophy of history. Cognitive research on historical thinking has found differences between how expert historians and adolescents approach historical texts. Weaned on textbook instruction, adolescents initially view texts as receptacles for decontextualized historical information. In a subsequent developmental stage, students view accounts as pieces of testimony that should either be accepted as truth or discarded. Historians, by contrast, consider the evidentiary potential of a historical text in shedding light on a particular historical question (Lee, 2005; Lee & Ashby, 2000; Shemilt, 1983; Wineburg, 1991, 2001). They approach artifacts with skepticism, questioning their reliability and corroborating them against additional sources. Historians appreciate the human constructedness of historical sources, recognizing that any given source can offer insight on the strangeness of the past. Historical understanding is the complex process of reading intertextually across multiple sources in an effort to reconstruct the past (Perfetti, Rouet, & Britt, 1999; Wineburg, 1994).

In attempting to reconstruct the past, the historian enters into what I am calling the historical problem space, where the strangeness of the past butts up against the human desire to render it familiar. When the desire for familiarity pulls too strongly, one runs the risk of presentism, or the application of anachronistic, present-day standards, values, or worldviews to the past. At the same time, one can never completely abandon ones historical perspective. As Wineburg (2001) explains: Trying to shed what we know in order to glimpse the real past is like trying to examine microbes with the naked eye: The instruments we abandon are the ones that enable us to see (p. 10). The historical problem space, in other words, is characterized by paradox. Still, the expansive, humanistic potential of historical study lies in the sheer effort one undertakes to understand the conditions that allowed our predecessors to act as they did.  In the words of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Having an historical sense is to conquer in a consistent manner the natural naiveté which makes us judge the past by the so-called obvious scales of our current life . . . and from our acquired values and truths (1979, p. 90).

The strangeness of the past nonetheless becomes a sticking point for students who struggle to explain unusual historical customs or behaviors. Using the present day as a standard, students initially judge historical actors as stupid or morally deficient, and they impute motivations without regard for contextual circumstances. Limited subject matter knowledge and a political (and classroom) culture of intransigent debate also militate against student entry into the historical problem space. At more sophisticated levels of historical reasoning, students acknowledge an increasingly complex context that shaped the behaviors and worldviews of historical actors. Some scholars have termed this stage contextual historical empathy (Ashby & Lee, 1987; Dickinson & Lee, 1984; Lee, Dickinson, & Ashby, 1997; Shemilt, 1984). Lee explains the distinction between historical empathy, as a cognitive stance, and an affective notion of sympathy: Empathy . . . does not require that historians share either the beliefs or the feelings. What it does demand is that they can recognize at some level their appropriateness in their context (Lee, 1983, p. 40). Classroom discussion marked by contextual historical empathy would be characterized by puzzlement, wonder, and a reluctance to rush to judgment.

Ultimately, entrance into the historical problem space requires careful and deliberative reading of historical texts, and the formulation of claims that reflect the tentative nature of historical knowledge. Dominick LaCapra (1980) distinguished between the documentary aspects of textwhich constitute the texts reference to empirical realityand the work-like aspects of text, which extend beyond the literal and involve interpretation and imagination. In embracing the latter, LaCapra warned against reducing the text to little more than a trampoline for ones own creative leaps or political demands (p. 274). The historian may not wrest evidence from its documentary and historical context, but rather must attend to the facts, especially when they test and contest his own convictions and desires (including the desire for a fully unified frame of reference) (p. 274).  Recognizing the difficulty of entering the historical problem space, my analysis focuses on those moments where the logics of the past and present meet and demand from both students and teachers an awareness that presentist judgments stand in the way of historical understanding. This study examined whether and how teachers were able to foster disciplinary deliberation and textual analysis among adolescents studying the past.


Over the course of the six-month intervention, five treatment classrooms were observed twice per week and videotaped once per week, for a total of 20 videotaped lessons per teacher, 100 videotaped lessons total. Field notes were taken during observations and are occasionally referenced to paint a fuller picture of the teachers instruction over the six-month intervention.


The study included five teachers who volunteered to participate in a curriculum intervention that emphasized disciplinary reading of historical texts (Reisman, 2012b).The teachers responded to a flier announcing the project, and expressed interest in learning how to teach using an inquiry method with primary sources. All five teachers participated in four-day summer training, and three follow-up workshops.

The schools represented a cross-section of the citys public high schools. One 11th-grade classroom from each of the schools in Table 1 participated in the curriculum intervention. The teachers varied in age, years of experience, and background in history.  

Table 1: School Demographics

Total School Enrollment

Percent Free/Reduced Lunch

Percent 11th graders at or above proficient on ELA




Years Teaching

Undergraduate Degree

School 1




Mr. Peters


U.S. History

School 2




Ms. Clay



School 3




Ms. Addams


American Studies

School 4




Ms. Hudson


Art History

School 5




Ms. Smith


U.S. History


Videotaped classroom lessons were analyzed and instances of whole-class discussion were identified using four criteria: (1) the teacher had to pose the lessons central historical question explicitly at the start of the discussion; (2) students must have read at least two documents prior to the discussion;1 (3) the discussion had to include at least three distinct student turns that responded to the central question; and (4) the discussion needed to have lasted at least four minutes. These criteria were far more stringent than those used in prior research on discussion (e.g., Nystrand et al., 1997).2 However, they maximized the probability that the discussions would contain instances of substantive text-based discussion about the past.


Nine discussions satisfied all four criteria and were transcribed verbatim.3 Transcripts were parsed into teacher and student turns. For teachers, a turn began either at the start of the discussion (after the initial posing of the central historical question) or after a student spoke and ended when another student spoke. A summary chart was created for each transcript that tallied the number of student participants, the total word count of each student turn, and the number of text-based claims made by students.

Analysis: Phase One

Analysis of teacher participation involved two phases. First, teacher turns were divided into two moves: generic and historical. Classified as generic were any moves that are not particular to historical discussion, for example, when a teacher encouraged student participation or basic elaboration on a point (e.g., Does anyone have anything to add?). Historical moves explicitly prompted text-based historical argumentation (see examples below). When a single turn straddled multiple codes, both codes were assigned. Under generic, three codes were assigned:

Press: Teacher pushed student to elaborate or provide a reason for claims (cf. McElhone, 2012). (If a teacher requested specific textual evidence, it was coded as Textual Press under historical discussion.)

Broadcasting: Teacher restated student comment in a louder voice.

Participation: Teacher asked for volunteers or cold-called on students.

Ultimately, these three codes were collapsed into one category: generic.

Seven codes were generated to capture teachers historical discussion moves. Many of these terms were borrowed from prior research on classroom discussion, albeit in other subjects, in particular math and English. An intentional effort was made to use existing language, in light of the call to develop a common technical vocabulary of instruction (Grossman & McDonald, 2008, p. 186), and several codes below include citations to prior work where the term was applied or coined. Here, however, the terms specify history-specific disciplinary moves, as described below:

Modeling (text-based discussion): Teachers model how to use text to support a historical claim or how to agree or disagree with a classmates interpretation of evidence (e.g., When you disagree, I want you to say, I disagree with so-and-sos interpretation of Document C).

Revoicing (a text-based historical claim): Teacher reformulates/refines student text-based claim in order to highlight/clarify the relationship between the claim and warrant (e.g., So youre arguing that the New Deal was a success because more people were employed?) (OConnor & Michaels, 1996).

Uptake (of text-based historical claim): Teacher follows-up student textual reference with a question (e.g., What do people think of Suzannes interpretation of Lincolns speech?), or teacher requests or provides a counterargument (e.g., Does anyone disagree with Devons claim that the New Deal was a success?) (Applebee et al., 2003; Nystrand et al., 1997). Linking moves (Wolf et al., 2004), whereby the teacher explicitly links students ideas, were coded as uptake.

Marking Text (for historical interpretation): Teacher directs student attention to a particular document and asks an interpretive question about it (Beck & McKeown, 2006).

Textual Press: Teacher asks student to substantiate a claim with textual evidence.

Stabilize Content: Teacher authoritatively (most often through an I-R-E sequence) reviews content knowledge relevant to the discussion at hand (e.g., What did the Missouri Compromise say?; And where is Texas located?; So would it be a free or slave state if it joined the union?).

Presentist Question: A final code was developed to account for instances when the teacher posed a question that was ahistorical or prompted students to turn from the documents and to bring contemporary worldviews to bear on the topic. Consequently, presence of this code was considered evidence of ahistorical discussion (e.g., If an officer tells you to shoot a civilian, what could you do?).


Two coders tested inter-rater reliability. The first coder, the author, generated the coding scheme; the second coder was blind to the studys hypotheses. Reliability tests were conducted on three discussion transcripts (33% of the total data set because only nine discussions fulfilled all four criteria). Inter-coder agreement was 84%, κ=0.84. Disagreements were resolved by discussion, and the author coded the remaining transcripts.

Analysis: Phase Two

In the second phase of analysis, each teacher’s transcripts were read holistically in an effort to form a synoptic portrait of teacher questions and the quality of student discourse that ensued. The categories of analysis for the second phase were derived from those proposed in the work on Accountable Talk: Accountability to the Learning Community; Accountability to Standards of Reasoning; and Accountability to Knowledge (Michaels et al., 2008). However, these categories were reconceptualized more narrowly to align with the discourse of text-based historical discussion. For example, in the context of historical discussion, where texts serve as the evidentiary foundation for claims, the category of Accountability to Standards of Reasoning was reconceived as Accountability to Texts. Likewise, the category of Accountability to Knowledge was more narrowly reconceptualized as Accountability to Historical Context about the time period under discussion. For the purposes of this study, I was not concerned with Accountability to the Learning Community, as it cuts across disciplines and is therefore less related to the particular demands of text-based historical discussion (Michaels et al., 2008). These accountability portraits were cross-referenced with the teacher-talk tallies.



The nine discussions that satisfied all criteria occurred in three of the five participating classrooms: Ms. Clay in School 2, Ms. Addams in School 3, and Ms. Smith in School 5. These schools and teachers represented a range of classroom contexts. Schools 2 and 5, where Ms. Clay and Ms. Smith taught, were large, comprehensive high schools, where approximately half of 11th-graders achieved a score of proficient on the English Language Arts exam. In School 3, by contrast, only 11.5% of 11th-graders scored proficient on the same exam, and nearly two-thirds of students qualified for free or reduced lunch. Ms. Smith had been teaching for 17 years, almost three times as long as Ms. Clay and Ms. Addams. Ms. Smith, furthermore, held an undergraduate degree in history, whereas Ms. Addams majored in American Studies and Ms. Clay studied business (see Table 1).

Table 2 summarizes the topic, central question, and descriptive features of these nine discussions. Ms. Smiths discussions totaled 48.5 minutes; Ms. Clays discussions totaled 53.5 minutes; and Ms. Addamss discussions totaled 30 minutes. The paucity of substantial whole-class text-based discussion is surprising given that Document-Based Lessons included explicit directions for such instruction, and given that the videotapes captured approximately 1,400 minutes of instruction per teacher. Furthermore, in eight of nine cases the Central Historical Question was evaluative (i.e., requesting that students judge historical actors) rather than interpretive (i.e., requesting that students examine textual evidence) (Haroutunian-Gordon, 2009, p. 6). The exception was the discussion in Ms. Smiths class about the Philippine War, which in fact became an evaluative discussion of whether or not American soldiers were required to follow orders. Quantitative differences between teachers are reported below, followed by qualitative analyses of discussion transcripts.

Table 2: Discussions fulfilling all four criteria

Topic/ Central Historical Question

Length (in minutes)


Participating Students*

Average Words per Student Turn

Teacher = Ms. Addams

Were Lewis and Clark respectful to the Native Americans they encountered on their journey?




Was Abraham Lincoln racist?




Did President Wilson have good reasons for entering WWI?




Teacher = Ms. Smith

Were Texans justified in declaring independence from Mexico?




Was Abraham Lincoln racist?




Were American soldiers required to follow orders during the Philippine War?**




Teacher = Ms. Clay

Were Texans justified in declaring independence from Mexico?




Did President Wilson have good reasons for entering WWI?




Was the New Deal a success or failure?




*Percent of participating students based on average attendance across discussions (Addams=23; Smith=29; Clay=33)

**Original lesson designed with an interpretive question: What accounted for American atrocities during the Philippine War?


Differences were found in the degree and style of facilitation of the three teachers. Smith had far fewer turns across all three discussions than the other two teachers (.6 teacher turns per minute for Smith, versus 2.8 teacher turns per minute for Clay and 3.2 teacher turns per minute for Addams). In addition to her minimal involvement as facilitator, Smith did not ask students to substantiate their claims with evidence nor did she stabilize students content knowledge. In addition, she rarely revoiced students textual arguments or asked interpretive questions about specific documents. Her primary contributions were presentist questions.

Clay and Addams were far more active facilitators of their classroom discussions. Addams requested that students substantiate their claims with textual evidence, and she incorporated student comments into subsequent questions (i.e., uptake); she did not, however, ask questions about specific documents nor did she stabilize students content knowledge. Clays involvement included both generic and disciplinary moves. Compared to the other teachers, Clays facilitation was distinguished by the number of times she marked the texts, revoiced students text-based arguments, modeled participation in text-based discussion, and stabilized content knowledge. Figure 1 shows the distribution of teacher participation across all three discussions.

Figure 1. Comparison of Teacher Moves Across All Discussions


Holistic analysis of teacher transcripts revealed that during class discussion Smiths questions did not hold students accountable to text or to historical context. Addams held students accountable to text, but not to historical context, and Clay held students accountable to both text and context (see Table 3). It is important to note that these portraits only capture teacher facilitation of whole-class discussion. In other classroom exercises, for example, Smiths students received extensive encouragement to substantiate their claims with textual evidence, as will be evident in the discussion below.

Table 3. Teacher Facilitation Portraits


Overall Facilitation

Questions hold students accountable to text

Questions hold students accountable to historical context














From the outset it should be noted that I cannot engage in causal or even comparative analyses. The brief moments of whole-class text-based discussion examined below cannot be said to represent a given teachers general pedagogical approach, nor can a teachers particular discursive moves be said to have caused a particular students comment or insight. Moreover, the three classrooms are incomparable not only because they exist in three different school contexts, but alsoas any teacher will attestthe social configuration of a classroom has as much influence on the dynamics of classroom discussion as the incoming literacy levels of its students. Finally, whereas other studies have measured student participation or elaboration of student speech as evidence of successful discussion (e.g., Boyd & Rubin, 2006), the reader will see in Table 2 that within-teacher differences on these metrics are as great as between-teacher differences. Variation in student participation is likely as influenced by length or structure of discussion (e.g., debrief after small group work versus seminar discussion after individual work) as it is by particular teacher moves. Participation, of course, also varies by topic and student interest. Ideally, all three teachers would have facilitated discussion on the same lesson. However, because teachers were free to choose which intervention lessons they wished to implement, such comparisons were not available.

Rather, the analysis that follows examines student discourse before and after particular teacher talk moves. I argue that certain moves may have opened or closed the door to deeper historical understanding. Furthermore, by examining each teacher in turn, I suggest that the presence and absence of certain moves may shed light on each teachers beliefs about the goal of whole-class text-based historical discussion.

Ms. Addams: Historical Discussion as Quote Sandwich

Ms. Addams loomed large as facilitator of whole-class discussion. She regularly cold-called on students and broadcast their responses. Her disciplinary moves were largely comprised of heavy textual press and frequent uptake of students textual claims. The result was relatively high student participation with peaks of heightened engagement when students disagreed. At her best, Addams facilitated a smooth volley of evidence-based claims about the pastno small feat in her classroom, where many students struggled with literacy (only 11.5% of students scored at or above proficient in ELA; see Table 1) and academic habits, such as regular attendance, arriving to class prepared, and completing homework.

For example, Addams played an important role in moderating discussion in a lesson that explored whether Lewis and Clark were respectful to the Native Americans they encountered on their journey. The lesson included several documents: excerpts from William Clarks diary; a 2002 Time article accusing Clark of helping to engineer Jeffersons land-grab policy which some historians have called cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing (Roosevelt, 2002); and a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the explorers, instructing them to offer the natives gifts and medicine, and to tell the chiefs that If any of them wish to have some of their young people schooled by us and taught things that might be useful to them, we will receive, instruct and take care of them (Jefferson, 1803). In the following exchange, students discuss Clarks pledge to Sacagawea to raise her son in such a manner as I thought proper (Clark, 1806):


Amanda, what is your evidence that they were [respectful]?


Because they were going to raise the children properly in their own way.


[skip two turns]


So they said they would raise the children properly? Thats a quote?




No. They said it like this [lifts document with dramatic flourish, fake cough]: I agree to raise the child as my own, in such a manner as I thought proper.


Okay raise the child as my own. So how they see fit. And Dara, your issue with this is?


We disagree [that Lewis and Clark were respectful] because theyre also talking about cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing or something. Basically theyre taking their children, right, and theyre raising them as how they think is properlike Christianity. . . So basically like theyre saying youre not capable of raising your own children that way.


And Amanda, youre not buying that?




Why not?


Because Document A [Jeffersons letter] says that theyll put them in school and teach them stuff thatll be useful to them.


With Addamss facilitation, students engaged in a meaningful discussion of the implications and legacy of early 19th-century notions of cultural supremacy. In formulating their arguments about whether or not Lewis and Clark were respectful, both students seized upon Clarks offer to raise Sacagaweas son. Amanda (S1) argued that the offer was generous and well intentioned, as evidenced and corroborated by Jeffersons directions to the explorers. Dara (S2) countered that Clarks offer was nothing more than a harbinger of White settlement and its accompanying cultural genocide.

Despite the seeming disparity between their stances, the students responses shared an important commonalityboth presented Lewis and Clarks 29-month journey as a single, monolithic event. No doubt this was due in part to their lack of more detailed historical knowledge of the explorers experiences. However, even in the absence of such knowledge, certain questions could have been posed that would have disturbed the simple good/bad binary that characterized the students exchange. For instance, what might we need to know about Sacagawea, about Lewis and Clark, and about the expedition, to understand and judge Clarks offer to raise Sacagaweas son? Over the course of their 29-month expedition, Lewis and Clark encountered a diverse population of Native people; under what circumstances did these encounters occur? How did the encounters differ? To what extent were Lewis and Clark responsible for the imperial vision that followed in their wake? Indeed, what additional evidence exists that might shed light on Lewis and Clarks behavior toward and beliefs about Native Americans? Such questions attempt to reconstruct the historical context of 1805 in an effort to see the world as Lewis and Clark might have seen it (Aron, 2005; Ronda, 2005).

The discussion failed to progress beyond the promising, initial volley. Six turns later, after Dara restated her claims and Amanda maintained that Lewis and Clark were respectful, Addams continued facilitating:


Youre not really convinced that Daras right that the White people are going to raise the Native Americans [well]?


Kind of but Im running out of evidence.


[laughs] Youre running out of evidence. Okay. And Tina, why are you confused?


Cause I dont know if theres a right or wrong [inaudible].


You cant tell. Because youre getting mixed messages. Okay. And lastly, Group E, did you come to an agreement?




So are you guys also divided, two respectful and two disrespectful? Do you have any other evidence besides what Amanda said?  


They were treated friendly.


And thats from what? Thats from the letter?

Although Addams worked tirelessly to push students to substantiate their claims with textual evidence, the discussion never entered the historical problem space, where one strains to understand the foreignness and complexity of the past. The final part of the discussion lost touch with any historical mooring as some students assumed that the medication Jefferson sent with Lewis and Clark in 1803 would have alleviated the smallpox epidemic that swept the plains in the mid 19th century, while others suggested that Native Americans might have refused the medicine due to allergies. The bell rang before Addams had an opportunity to correct these misunderstandings, but subsequent discussions suggest that Addamss instructional goals lay elsewhere.

The same pattern of high textual press and uptake was apparent in Addamss facilitation of a discussion about the question: Was Abraham Lincoln racist? Materials for this lesson were drawn from empirical work on historical thinking (Wineburg, 1998; Wineburg, 2001; Wineburg, Martin, & Monte-Sano, 2011) that demonstrated professional historians ability (and pre-service teachers relative inability) to move beyond the limits of their contemporary worldviews to imagine the implications of Lincolns social and political context. In the following discussion, which occurred in the 11th week of the intervention, Addams asked each small group to report their conclusions about whether or not Lincoln was racist. She insisted that students support their claims with evidence from the documents, and she duly recorded each groups claim and the quote they used to substantiate it:


John, what did your group say?


That he was racist


That he was racist? Why?


Because the way he talks about them.


Okay. What?


Because the way he talks like bad about them like theyre not equal.


Okay, do you have a certain document or quote that youre referring to?


[Shakes head].


Okay I need that evidence. Where does he specifically say theyre not equal? Document B? Can you quote it?


He says, I as well as the Judge Douglas am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.


So [thats] actually this one [points to a quote already on the board]. Can [you] find a different one?


Where he says, um, I agree that the Negro is not my equal in many respects.

In such a manner, Addams proceeded to elicit evidence from each group. Yet, again, after the last student provided the final piece of textual evidence, the discussion ended abruptly:


I said he wasnt racist because . . . [in Document B] he [said] . . . There is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence. . . . I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.


He is as much entitled to these as what? [Writing on board.]


White man


As the White man.


Excellent quote.


[skip one turn]


All right, did anyone switch sides? This group switched sides several timesMario was saying that he was not racist and then he ended up with racist. Alright. So ultimately we have a mixed bagwe have racist, not racist, racist, who knows, racist, also undecided.

Given the abrupt end to this discussion of Lincolns racism, we must ask how the discussion might have progressed had students entered the historical problem space. One possible direction would have been to engage students in a closer examination of the quote S3 shared, in which Lincoln stated, I agree that the Negro is not my equal in many respects. The quote was taken from Lincolns response to Stephen Douglas during the first debate of their campaign for the U.S. Senate on August 21, 1858, in Ottawa, Illinois (Lincoln, 1989, pp. 504505). However, S3 did not share the complete sentence, which reads: I agree that the Negro is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment (See Figure 2). Although Lincolns words ring as unambiguously racist to our ears, some historians have argued that Lincolns use of the qualifier perhaps, in the context of a debate over slavery in 1858 before a pro-slavery audience, represented a radical departure from the views held by many of his contemporaries (Fredrickson, 1971, 1975; Wineburg, 1998). As Fredrickson (1975) explains,

This of course is the classic statement often used to demonstrate Lincolns dyed-in-the-wool racism. But it should be noted that Lincoln made this concession in the course of refuting Douglass argument that the Negro was not a man entitled to equality by the Declaration of Independence. . . . All that Lincoln was willing to affirm unequivocally was white superiority in color. . . . In the context of the time, when dogmatic statements of innate inferiority were heard on almost every hand, such tentativeness denoted a relatively open-minded or liberal position. (pp. 4647)

Frederickson need not have the final word on Lincoln. Yet his careful placement of Lincolns words not only in the context of the remainder of the speech, but also in the context of 1858, is precisely the sort of textual analysis that allows one to enter the historical problem space and wrestle with the complexity and otherness of the past. How can we begin to understand a world in which the mere suggestion that slaves were morally and intellectually equal would mark a White politician as progressive? A world where many accepted as given the notion that God made one race to serve another? How can we fathom a society where the buying and selling of human beings was part of the market economy? Had students entered the historical problem space, they would have had to pause and ask whether Lincolns words sounded as irreconcilable to his audience in 1858 as they sound to us today.  

Figure 2: Abraham Lincolns reply to Stephen A. Douglas at Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858.

I have no purpose, either directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independencethe right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respectscertainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

Addamss actual response to S3 sheds light on her instructional goals. Addams noted that S3 quoted only part of Lincolns sentence, and she suggests to the student that either segment of the sentence could be used to bolster a claim, depending on the position one wished to argue:


I agree that the Negro is not my equal in many respects. Okay. I know some people actually used this quote for the other sideit just depends where you end your quote. Historians can do that, right? You decide where youre going to end your quote? Because what does the rest of this sentence say?




Perhaps. Definitely in color were not the same, which is true, right, that has nothing to do with inferior/superior, it means just saying we definitely dont look the same, and perhaps were not the same intellectually. Maybe. He doesnt say for sure. So its just, just to show you, that historians, anyone, can just decidewhat do you choose to present?


=not in moral or intellectual endowment.


Right? So you can end your quote earlier.

Historians would take umbrage at the thought that they pull quotes from context to support a particular view. College handbooks for history warn students to never omit anything from a quotation if doing so would change the original authors meaning (Benjamin, 2004). Yet Addamss goal here is not to illuminate the context of 1858, but rather to stress the importance of providing a textual warrant to back ones claim. The claimwarrant relationship constitutes the core of any argument (Toulmin, 1958). Addamss insistence that students supply warrants to substantiate their claims reflects her commitment to their academic development and college readiness.

Why, then, should an emphasis on argumentative warrant work at cross-purposes with careful textual analysis and entry into the historical problem space? The answer lies in how one arrives at the argument. To better understand, we must turn to a popular4 writing scaffold known as the quote sandwich (e.g., Lieberman, 2010). In a quote sandwich, textual evidence is represented by the lunchmeat, tucked between two slices of claim and analysis bread. While arguably useful as a structural support during the writing process, the quote sandwich, when used as a blueprint for student text-based claims during historical discussion, inverts the inductive process of historical reading. Rather than prompting students to derive their claims from careful, collective analysis of text, the quote sandwich model of discussion prompts students first to stake a claim, and then to find a textual warrant to support it, even one that happens to be decontextualized.  

That Addams used the quote sandwich as the template for discussion became evident in an earlier exchange, when a student claimed Lincoln was racist because he used the word creatures to describe the slaves he observed on a boat. The student quoted an 1841 letter in which Lincoln marvels to a friend that the slaves appeared to be the most cheerful and apparently happy creatures on board, considering they were to be separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, and going into perpetual slavery (Lincoln, 1989, p. 74).


He called them creatures. Okay, and why does that mean hes racist?


Its like farm animals.


Okay, so that would be like your analysis, if you used that quote, then that would be your analysis that goes right under your quote.

Rather than push the student to consider Lincolns use of the word creatures in the context of the letter, let alone the context of 1841, Addams prompted the student to see how he might incorporate the quote into a written paragraph. Historical argument, for Addams, was a formula to prepare students to write a five-paragraph essay. Yet the generic model (claimevidencewarrant) (Toulmin, 1958) offers little room to reconcile competing interpretations or deepen historical understanding. The question left hanging is whether certain discursive moves might have encouraged students to linger long enough in the historical problem space to gain access to the foreign past.

Ms. Smith: Historical Discussion as Moral Lesson

Ms. Smith taught in a comprehensive high school attended by a broad cross-section of the citys population. The range of academic ability and linguistic facility was accentuated during whole-class discussion by Smiths laissez faire approach to facilitation. This is not to say that Smith was hands-off in all instructional activities; she often worked with students individually and in small groups when they read and answered questions about documents, and she occasionally lectured on relevant background knowledge. Indeed, she had a strong classroom presence, and of the three teachers discussed here, she had the most teaching experience and the most training in history.

Given her low profile as discussion facilitator, it is perhaps revealing to examine the moments that Smith did intervene to pose questions. Several of these instances were coded as presentist questions, or questions that invite students to bring their contemporary worldviews to bear on historical matters. Such questions work directly against the grain of contextualized thinking, where one sees the past as contingent and unpredictable . . . a cluster of realms distinct from the present, each with its own mentalities and sociocultural determinants (Lowenthal, 1989, p. 1276). Presentist questions, instead, encourage students to draw a continuous line from past to present, to impute contemporary concerns and values to those who lived in dramatically different times.

It is important to draw a distinction between presentism, or the prevalent misconception that the mentalities of people in all times and places simply reflect . . . those of 21st century Westerners (Thornton & Barton, 2010, p. 2485), and the belief that the historical study holds some social utility in the preparation of thoughtful, reflective citizens. To decry the former is not to reject the latter. A core premise of social studies education, dating to its birth in the interwar years, is that students should study the past to better understand the present. Many reformers have further argued that social studies classrooms should prepare students to be agents of social justice and change (Evans, 2004). To be sure, the field has disagreed about how best to pursue the elusive goal of effective citizenship, with moral education, citizenship education, social issues education, and other candidates vying for airtime in the curriculum. Yet few have questioned the core role of history in any social studies curriculum (Thornton & Barton, 2010; Thornton & Crocco, 2005). The claim here is that it makes no difference whether students study history for its own sake or whether they study history to illuminate the roots of a contemporary issue; in both cases they must understand that history in all its complexity and with all its contingencies. In short, they must develop a knowledge base from which to make their claims and draw comparisons. In the context of a text-based discussion about a historical question, presentist questions work at cross-purposes with the goal of historical understanding, for they cut short the opportunity to dwell in the historical problem space. Below I examine the student discourse preceding and following such presentist questions in an effort to better understand Smiths goals for whole-class text-based discussion in history.

Students in Smiths class discussed the same lesson on Lincoln as described in the previous section. It should be noted that the Lincoln lesson was designed as a structured academic controversy, or SAC (Johnson & Johnson, 1988), a lesson structure in which students initially argue one or another side of a controversial issue, but ultimately abandon their respective positions and attempt to arrive at consensus. The SAC structure is meant to counteract the either/or, pro/con schema of classroom debate that students bring to controversial issues discussion. In the Lincoln lesson, the SAC structure encouraged students to abandon the yes/no binary posed by the question and arrive, instead, at a nuanced consensus that acknowledged the historical context that shaped Lincolns thought. Ultimately, students might be prompted to consider whether racisma 20th-century termwould be an anachronistic charge to levy against a 19th-century politician.

At the outset of the discussion, Smith indicated some discomfort with the mere notion of relativizing racism.


Okay. So. Lincoln. Was he racist? Talk to me.


Can you say hes like racist to an extent, but hes not like an extreme racist?


Well . . . one of the things to think about istheres this phrase that sometimes people use: Can you be a little bit pregnant?






I dont know. Can you be a little bit pregnant? Mostly youre pregnant or not. So if you want to talk about degree or relative to somebody else, thats one thing, but were talking here about is Lincoln racistas opposed to being prejudiced.

Smith rejected the argument that Lincolns views may have only been racist to an extent. Like pregnancy, one was either racist or not. Her view reflects a contemporary understanding of racism as structuralan institutionalized power relationship that operates regardless of individual attempts at consciousness. By todays standards, Lincoln was racist by virtue of his existence in a society whose economic viability derived from slave labor. Furthermore, Lincolns claim to be in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position betrayed an unambiguous commitment to White supremacy, a persistent racialized worldview that some historians argue predated American slavery (Jordan, 1968). On the other hand, to foreclose discussion of the extent of Lincolns racism relative to his contemporaries is to forego the opportunity to understand the strange historical context that would have permitted Lincoln to simultaneously embrace both emancipation and colonization of former slaves (Fredrickson, 1975; Foner, 2010), a contradiction that lies at the heart of the historical problem space surrounding Lincoln.

In terms of classroom pragmatics, Smiths remarks effectively eliminated a middle ground response to the question, and the opening discussion was instead framed by the yes/no binary. Still, Smiths students needed only minimal prodding to engage in sophisticated and self-sustained textual interpretation and argumentation:


I dont think he is a racist because . . . he is a politician so hes most likely lying partially to get the votes, but his main argument is like they do deserve equal rights as the White man, and so thats why hes not racist.


I disagree with Lisette because . . . when he was writing his letters, he referred to Black people as creatures and that wasnt a political thing, he was just talking to one of his friends.


Wait, which document is that?


Thats Document C. [Refers to 1841 letter from Lincoln to his friend, Mary Speed (Lincoln, 1841)].


[skip one turn]


Im going to disagree . . . [in Document B] he says that I agree that the Negro is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment and he says that and it can be seen as racist, but at the time, its true, because Black people werent allowed to be educated, so that is why they werent as intellectual, and they were a completely different skin color, and people viewed them as that . . . but I dont think that that makes him racist.

Smiths students demonstrated many markers of academic discussion: They used textual warrants to substantiate their claims (e.g., he referred to Black people as creatures); they held each other accountable to the texts (e.g., Wait, which document is that?); and they positioned their claims in relation to their classmates propositions (e.g., I disagree with Lisette). Their disagreements remained reasoned and civil, constrained to their respective interpretations of the texts. The excerpt above further demonstrates that they viewed the documents as human constructions. They appreciated that Lincolns words should not be taken at face value (e.g., He is a politician so hes most likely lying), and they considered and evaluated the context in which he was speaking. These practices were the result both of Smiths vigilant insistence on a respectful classroom culture, and her enthusiastic embrace of the curriculums habits of mind, in particular, sourcing and backing claims with textual evidence.

Furthermore, S3 came the closest to transcending her contemporary biases when she began to argue that Lincoln was not racist. She teetered on the edge of the historical problem space as she began to grapple with the reality of the 1858: it can be seen as racist, but at the time, its true, because Black people werent educated and they werent allowed to be educated . . . and they were a completely different skin color. At this moment, Smith entered the discussion for the first time and asked students to define racism:


Can I ask you a question? What does racism mean? What does it mean to be a racist?


To judge humans, like judging somebody by their race.


Discrimination against minorities.


So as long as youre not discriminating, as long as its only in your head, its okay, youre not racist?


No, it can be in your head, too, and youd still be racist cause youre thinking it.


Its like grouping people into one group, and like, not


Thinking youre superior to other people.


Its like uh discrimination against a specific group of people.

Just as S3 began to suggest that Lincoln might not have been racist, given his ambiguous word choice, Smith prompted the class to formulate a stable definition of racism. Yet the notion that such a definition exists, and that it might transcend time and space, is itself ahistorical. To use such a definition as a yardstick by which to evaluate historical actors is to insist that the past defer to the moral imperatives of the present. In such history the domesticated past is enlisted for modern causes. Legends of origin and endurance, of victory or victimization, project the present back, the past forward, aligning us with forebears whose virtues we share but whose vices we shun (Lowenthal, 1997, p. 35). Such presentism ignores the complexity and ambiguity of the past and blocks entry into the historical problem space.

Smith also posed presentist questions during a class discussion about the atrocities committed by American soldiers during the PhilippineAmerican War (18991902), which asked students to consider why American soldiers behaved with such cruelty. The lessons documents were disturbing, and included graphic descriptions from Congressional testimony of torture known as the water cure, as well soldiers macho boasts that compared shooting Filipinos to hunting rabbits. One soldier, A. A. Barnes, wrote to his brother on March 20, 1899: I am in my glory when I can sight my own gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger (Storey & Codman, 1902). These documents supported three potential hypotheses: (1) that American soldiers were merely following orders; (2) that American soldiers viewed Filipinos as less than human; and (3) that American soldiers were seeking revenge for how Filipinos treated Americans. Students were also encouraged to generate their own hypotheses. Like all lessons in the Reading Like a Historian curriculum, the goal was for students to arrive at a nuanced, multi-causal understanding of the topic through careful examination and interrogation of textual evidence.

Teachers assume deep moral responsibilities when they bring such disturbing subject matter into the classroom. As Simone Schweber (2004) discussed in her study of Holocaust curricula, moral lessons are inherent in the way such topics are framed, in the choice of materials, in the framing of questions. To frame such atrocities historically is not to eschew the moral dimension. Rather, it is to engage students in examining the historical forces that would have rendered such brutality possible, let alone acceptable. Such an inquiry requires that students locate the events in both the local context (i.e., what was happening in the Philippines? When were the atrocities committed? Who was involved?) and the broader national context (i.e., Were such actions sanctioned by the military? By popular opinion?). Only by understanding the conditions under which such actions occurred can students begin to wrestle with the moral implications.

As the discussion began, one student offered evidence that soldiers were following orders. Another student supported this initial claim, to which Smith responded with a series of questions:


I have another evidence from Document B Immediately orders were received from General Wheaton to burn the town and kill every native in sight. [Refers to 1899 letter from Barnes to his brother.]


Okay, so does that seem like brutal to you? More than just war?






More than just, because who fights in a war?




Soldiers, right, and theyre like




What about that seemed particularly brutal to you?


cause this wasnt just the soldiers, but civilians also.


Civilians, right? When theres a civilian targeted, women and children, right? And theyre burning down the village. Umm, anybody got anything else about brutality? Just following orders?

Smith entered the discussion here to elicit students reactions to the soldiers actions. In particular, she wanted students to notice that by attacking civilians, the soldiers actions constituted a level of brutality that violated accepted conduct during war. After eliciting this distinction, Smith returned to the students initial claim and asked for additional evidence. A second student provided additional evidence that the soldiers were following orders:


Um in Document E, Frederick Funston [is] saying like I personally strung up thirty-five Filipinos without trial, so what was all the fuss over Wallers dispatching a few treacherous savages? Im assuming that Waller is another person in the army and that he dispatched


So were looking at [whether] American soldiers who treated Filipinos with cruelty were simply following orders. . . . Do you think Funston and Waller were ordered to do that? Whats your sense of that?


I think they were following the orders. . . . However those people were killed were in fact the orders.


Ehh. Huh. Yah.


I dont think he was really giving orders because he said that he strung them up himself and so, I dont know, I dont really know many people who order themselves to do something. [some laughter]


But what do you think about that ideaI think your point is [to S2] that there was sort of a general, overall understanding to go out there and do this.


Yeah. That somewhere out there . . . that if need be we could just kill off everyone.

S2 held firm to his belief that soldiers were following orders, though he substantiated his claim with General Funstons quote, which, as it appears in the document, does not make reference to soldiers following orders. It appears that S2 might have misread the word dispatching as evidence that Funston followed orders. In fact, Funston used dispatch as a euphemism for killing, and was dismissing the public outcry against Littleton Waller for dispatching a few treacherous savages. S3 correctly pointed out that, far from blaming his superiors, General Funston boasted about personally killing 35 Filipinos.

Yet, had he had more information about the historical context, S2 would have been on firmer ground. Funstons controversial remark was a response to the public outcry over the actions of Littleton Waller (called the Butcher of Samar by American newspapers), who was being court-martialed (and ultimately acquitted) for his massacre of Filipinos in January 1902 (Miller, 1982, pp. 234235). Wallers defense rested, in part, on the claim that he was following the orders of his superior, General Smith. Of course, a teacher who does not have access to such detailed background knowledge will not know to raise this relevant context. Nevertheless, drawing students attention to the text would have at least clarified S2s confusion with regard to the word dispatching, and might have prompted students to ask about Waller (a Google search yields several biographical sketches that mention his court-martial). Moreover, focusing on the documents would have allowed students to engage with the initial inquiry question: What accounted for American atrocities during the Philippine War?

Instead, when another student suggested that soldiers are permitted to disobey orders that are morally objectionable, Smith seized the opportunity to make her main point. I quote the remaining discussion at length, to illustrate the extent to which it veered from the historical:


Thats a very interesting thing, right? . . . That youre not obligated to do it. You know, in WWII, when people, when Nazis at the end of WWII or people who worked in concentration camps were trying to defend their position about why they killed all the Jews, it was always just following ordersand your position is no such thing.




[skip two turns]


Thats the question, isnt it. So what if your officer comes up and says to you, Kill that pregnant woman and you dont do it, whats he going to do to you?


Kill you!


I dont know, yah?




[skip six turns]


I dont know the answer to that. Do you think if you were a soldier in war and your officer says, Im ordering you to go kill those children and that woman


Id be like, can I go home? [laughter]


I dont really think so because . . . in the Philippines, they kill all these Filipino people and theyre like, Oh, okay it doesnt really matter but . . . I think that the people in charge sort of know that if an American dies its a big deal, and they mightlike make their life miserable for them if they dont follow the ordersbut I dont think theyd necessarily kill them.


YahI think that sounds really reasonable. But if you were a soldier and theres a bunch of you around and the officer says, You, go kill those people, and you say, Im not going to do it and he says, Okay Im going to shoot you and he does, he shoots youwhat do you think




But youre not injured!


You die. Lets say you die. But what do you think that means for all the other soldiers who are watching this, like, it could go sort of either way


Like theyre always going to help him


Like, oh my god, we better do it or else. And on the other hand, they might be what?






I dont know, like is there another option, if you were a soldier and you refused


You kill him!


[multiple voices at once]


Or you could do what [to one student]?


You could report him to the authorities.


Yeah, sure, you could report them or something.

In a series of interventions that were uncharacteristic of her general approach to discussion facilitation, Smith challenged the claim that the brutality in the Philippines resulted from soldiers simply following orders. Such an outright rejection on principle of passivity or conformity in the face of injustice is consistent with the moral message of popular curricula that address historical atrocities (e.g., Stern-Strom, 1982). It is an important message.

At the same time, Smiths questions move students far away from the historical context of 1902, where following a superiors orders constituted grounds for Wallers acquittal (Kramer, 2008; Miller, 1982), and to a series of hypotheticals that lay beyond their 11th-grade experience and comprehension. Deeply committed to social justice, Smith wished to impart moral lessons, to make her students better people. She saw historical discussion as an opportunity for students to learn from the mistakes of the pastto defy a superiors unjust orders, for example, if they were ever asked to act against their conscience. Today, in the wake of Nuremberg, My Lai, and Guantanamo, legal and public consensus has largely rejected the superior orders defense. Yet, as evidenced by Wallers acquittal, this was not the case in 1902 (Miller, 1982, pp. 230232).  

Certainly, other contextual factors also influenced the soldiers behavior. Many of the soldiers fighting in the Philippines had participated in multiple campaigns aimed at dispossessing and controlling Native Americans, including the brutal Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. These soldiers easily transferred notions of cultural and racial superiority to native Filipinos, who they viewed as savage and barbaric. At the same time, many of the more heinous atrocitiesincluding torture and execution of captured soldiers and civiliansoccurred during the second phase of the war, when Filipinos largely relied on guerilla tactics to combat the better-armed Americans (May, 1999). In Wallers case, the decision to summarily execute 11 innocent Filipino porters occurred at the climax of several weeks marked by fear, illness, and exhaustion, not to mention rage and humiliation at being outwitted by an enemy perceived as inferior.

To acknowledge the complex circumstances that led American soldiers to commit atrocities in the Philippines is not to absolve the perpetrators. Yet one need not turn away from the historical record to find ample evidence of public disgust and horror at the same atrocities (as evidenced by newspaper coverage, the court-martial, and Congressional hearings). This public outcryamong the soldiers contemporaries in 1902further complicates any simple explanation for why American soldiers behaved as they did. By encouraging students to face seeming contradictions and inconsistencies that characterize the historical problem space, one hopes to develop their capacity to tolerate complexity. Perhaps, if students begin to understand the complex forces that shape moral judgments in the past, they might begin to gain a fix on their own historical subjectivity in the flow of human experience.

Ms. Clay: Historical Discussion as Textual Analysis

Like Smith, Clay taught in a large, comprehensive, well-respected high school whose students represented a cross-section of the citys population. Like Addams, Clay was a highly involved facilitator, who pressed students to substantiate their claims with textual evidence and who regularly incorporated prior student claims into subsequent questions. Unlike both Addams and Smith, Clay was more likely to engage in four additional talk moves: She modeled how she expected students to frame their arguments in text-based discussion; she revoiced student claims to refine their argument, often highlighting the relationship between their claim and their evidence; she marked certain aspect of the texts that she wished students would address; and she stabilized the historical content at moments when confusion arose. In the following discussion about Texas independence, Clay exhibited these moves. I will argue that in doing so, Clay moved students toward a deeper appreciation of the historical context.

In the eighth week of the intervention, Clays students read five documents prior to their discussion about whether or not Texans were justified in declaring independence: (A) an excerpt from a letter written by an American in 1823 requesting permission from Mexico to settle and pledging loyalty and good behavior (Ripley, 1823); (B) an excerpt from a letter written by a Mexican Tejano to a military commander in 1826 complaining of Anglo-Americans disregard for Mexican laws (De la Teja, 1997); (C) an excerpt from the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence; (D) an excerpt from Colonel Juan Seguíns eulogy for the defenders of the Alamo (Seguín, 1837); and (E) an excerpt from an 1836 abolitionists pamphlet arguing that Texas independence was intended to expand slavery (Lundy, 1836).  

Initially, Clays comments focused on encouraging student involvement. After several turns where students failed to refer to the documents, Clay explicitly modeled for students how to support their claims with documentary evidence: Its even more effective if when you make your point you say, If you look at Document C, this tells me that . . . Point to something in one of the pieces of evidence to make your point. Five turns later, and four minutes into the discussion, S1 was the first to reference the documents:


When they [the Americans] say something like, um, they deny us of worshipping our almighty and they demanded we give up our arms [refers to Document C] so thats not their country, so you cant be angry that you go to a different country and they [the Mexicans] deny you like certain stuff because its their laws.


And then also in Document A it says that oh yeah were [Americans] going to go to your country [Mexico] . . . well follow by your rules, and well be, like, a help to you. And they ended up doing the total opposite . . .


I think whats interesting about Document C is that its entitled the Texas Declaration of Independence, right? So, I think the fact that they put out a Declaration of Independence and complained about all these things, and that Mexico still wouldnt let them have their way, proves that theyre totally justified. I mean, the Americans had a revolution, they put out a Declaration of Independence, we all said the King was bad, we didnt say they werent justified, so how can the Texans not be justified?


But the Texans have no right to claim independence on land that does not belong to them


=Theres more of them there.


=Theres more of them there because they brought more of them thereits like, if I bring my whole family from Nigeria to America and theres more Nigerians in San Francisco, San Francisco doesnt turn into Nigeria. [laughter] Its still San Francisco. [laughter]


Thats a good one.


Im waiting for your classmates. Yes, thank you.


I think Document D . . . I think it says that some Mexicans didnt like the government, because its a Mexican who supported the Texas revolution, so I dont think it was entirely wrong that the Americans, um, wanted Texas to have independence.

The discussion began with a decidedly anti-Texan stance. S1s indignation (thats not their country!) had already been articulated by four classmates. One dissenting voice, S3, argued that Texans were justified in declaring independence because they outnumbered Mexicans in the region. Although this argument refers to a historical fact (and in that sense nods to the historical context of 1836), it evaluates historical actors according to the students (unexamined) moral standards (i.e., if you outnumber a native population, you have a right to declare independence).

Yet Clays first comment above served to reframe the discussion, in effect signaling to students that she would prefer they speak in less sweeping terms, and instead focus on the complexities in the documents. Her comment (I think whats interesting about Document C is that its entitled the Texas Declaration of Independence) simultaneously marked the text, (directed student attention to a particular document) and stabilized the content (reviewed content knowledge relevant to the discussion) by reminding students that the fight for American independence had occurred only 60 years earlier. Five turns later, S5s comment represented the first point where a student used a textual warrant to tentatively suggest (so I dont think it was entirely wrong . . .) that the issue of Texas independence might not be clear cut. Clay turned S5s comment to the class for comment, and continued to train students eyes on the text by asking about the documents reliability:


Comments on that one? So the General was Mexican and hes siding with the Texans, in Document D.


[skip seven turns]


Maybe its because, uh, he was like, uh, getting benefits from the Americans because he fought with them and they said nice things about him.


Okay, so did you guys write that you trusted that as a source?




I put that it was interesting how someone who was from a different area was supporting the Texans because it wouldnt make sense if someone decidedits kind of like a Republican siding with a Democrat, in a sense.

Clays question about Document D, Juan Seguíns eulogy for the defenders of the Alamo, led to student puzzlement. That Seguín, a Tejano, would have joined American settlers in opposing Santa Annas power grab would not surprise someone familiar with the history, and its clear from this exchange that students were not familiar with this aspect of Mexican history. Indeed, to 21st-century teenagers, the notion that a Mexican General would eulogize Americans who were fighting for independence from Mexico is truly puzzling. S6 surmised that Seguín might have somehow benefited from the Americans; S7 commented that the document was interesting but that on some level it didnt make sense. Clay did not choose to stabilize the content hereperhaps because the context of Tejano perspectives on Santa Anna would have been new information, not review. Instead, she allowed the puzzlement to linger, which shifted the tenor of the discussion from one of certain indignation to one of uncertain contemplation. Such puzzlement characterizes entry into the historical problem space, as one begins to appreciate the inadequacy of ones presentist worldview in making sense of the strangeness of the past.

Nine turns later, one student turned the discussion back to the Texas Declaration of Independence and noted its similarity to the American Declaration of Independence:


What do we think? Hes pointing to the first line of the Declaration . . .


[skip four turns]


Well, in Document E, the American [abolitionist] points out that a big part of the reason that the people in Texas want to revolt is because they want to keep their slaves and the Mexican government doesnt allow slaves. So that is kind of part of the beginning of Document C, where they say, the government had ceased to protect the lives, liberty and property of the people. So the Americans in Texas considered their slaves property, so then, in their definition, I mean, interpretation of it, the government has stopped doing that, but from the Mexican point of view, forbidding slavery, theyre protecting the lives of other people. So then, a big part of this is how you interpret the definition of something.

What we see in this exchange is a dramatic shift in how students engaged with the question of Texas independence. S10s comment shows us what student thinking looks like when it begins to grapple with the awareness that contemporary definitions and understandings prevent us from fully understanding the past. S10 first paraphrased the argument in Document Ethat Texas independence was a concerted strategy to expand slaveryand then suggested that perhaps because Texans viewed slaves as property, they might have truly believed the Mexican government was overstepping its power in abolishing slavery. S10 neither condoned nor condemned the Texans for their stance. Rather, he withheld his contemporary abhorrence of slavery and attempted to see the world through the eyes of 19th-century Texans.

Clay turned S10s comment back to the class and asked for students to respond. After one student faltered, S2 admitted, I never understood Document E. Clay continued:


Lets look at it all together then. Okay, who can read the sourcing information for me? [S11 reads sourcing information on abolitionist Benjamin Lundy. T reminds class what abolitionism means.]


What do we think this authors perspective is? Does he think theyre justified in taking Texas, or theyre greedy?




Theyre greedy. And why does he think theyre greedy?


Because theyre just taking Texas to make it a slave state.


Because theyre just taking Texas to make it a slave state. What do we know, looking at a map about the area of Texas?


It’s below the line.


[skip one turn]


Okay. What do we know about our discussion of the Missouri Compromise and 36°30′? What would happen if Texas were added?


It would have to change [inaudible].


What kind of state would it have to be?


It would have to be a slave state.


It would have to be a slave state. Okay? So that document, he talks about, we have been asked to believe that the inhabitants of Texas have been fighting to maintain the sacred principles of liberty and the natural, inalienable rights of man, whereas their motives have been exactly the opposite. So does he think theyre fighting for liberty?



Clay quickly realized that S10s argument was lost on many of his classmates because they struggled to understand the abolitionist pamphlet. At this moment, she paused the discussion to do two things: First, she modeled historical reading, by helping students discern the authors perspective on Texas independence; second, she stabilized the content, by reviewing the geographical context that tied Texas independence to the expansion of slavery. Stabilizing the content occurs when the teacher recognizes deficiencies in students background knowledge that thwart their attempt to engage in thoughtful historical discussion, and intervenes to provide that background knowledge. At the end of this short exchange, students were positioned to evaluate the abolitionists argument, effectively infusing the discussion of Texas independence with a crucial piece of historical context.

The seeming simplicity of Clays intervention masks its underlying pedagogical mastery. Clay launched the above sequence as a direct response to student confusion, signaling that substantive historical discussion could not proceed without basic comprehension. She assumed an authoritative, I-R-E discourse pattern, which temporarily lessened the cognitive demand on students and allowed her to demonstrate how she expected students to approach the text and what constituted the basic historical facts that might help them interpret the document. The entire sequence functioned as a scaffold for student understanding both of this particular document and of the disciplinary demands placed on students as they tentatively venture into the historical problem space.


In hindsight, it is clear that our expectations for this study were naïve and unrealistic. We expected to videotape dozens of hours of text-based classroom discussion about the past simply because we recruited enthusiastic, skilled teachers and supplied them with Document-Based Lessons that focused on the interpretation of historical texts. We should not be surprised that we only found 132 minutes of disciplinary whole-class discussion in over 7,000 minutes of footage. Classroom discussion, in general, is rare, and history instruction, in particular, continues to be characterized by recitation and lecture, despite myriad reform efforts5 (Cuban, 1982, 1986, 2013). That only three of five teachers who used the intervention materials led substantive text-based discussions demonstrates once again that the curricular materials alone are insufficient to bring about instructional change. Nonetheless, the study has implications for todays educational context, where curricular developers have been quick to repackage their products with labels that promise Common Core Alignment, college readiness, and disciplinary literacy.

This study demonstrates that genuine disciplinary discussion about historical texts runs counter to many of the assumptions and expectations that both teachers and students bring to the classroom. First, popular curricular resources consistently present argumentation in discipline-neutral ways. Studies on writing instruction have shown that students develop the capacity to reason historically in their writing when they have received extensive instruction in disciplinary reading; instruction in generic argumentation is not sufficient to promote contextualized interpretations in student essays (Monte-Sano, 2008, 2011). And yet, the Common Core State Standards do not reflect this profound relationship between disciplinary reading and writing. While the CCSS distinguish between historical and scientific reading, they collapse the two (and throw in technical subjects) in their Writing Standards for Literacy (p. 64). The overview text in Speaking and Listening Standards mentions domain specificity (p. 48), but disciplinary distinctions do not appear in the actual standards.

This distance between domain-specific reading, on the one hand, and generic argumentation in both writing and discussion, on the other, has profound implications for how teachers (and curriculum developers) represent the development of a disciplinary argument. How one marshals evidence to substantiate a claim differs depending on the substance of the argument. How one reads in order to argue whether or not Lewis and Clark were respectful differs from how one might read to argue whether or not a particular species of bird should be considered endangered, and both differ from how one might read to argue for or against school uniforms. Although the quote sandwich predates passage of the Common Core State Standards, we are likely to witness a proliferation of similar, content-free scaffolds for written argumentation. The classroom exchanges discussed above suggest that teachers will need a more robust model of historical argumentation if they are to help students engage meaningfully with historical texts.

The second obstacle to genuine disciplinary discussion about historical texts is the human tendency toward presentism. We all struggle to see ourselves historically, to recognize that our beliefs, our institutions, our valuesour very realitydo not belong to some timeless, universal truth, but rather, to a particular socio-historical moment (Wood, 2008). We should not be surprised that all nine discussions that met the criteria pivoted around evaluative Central Historical Questions that asked students to judge historical actors, rather than interpretive questions. Evaluative questions had purchase with students; the invitation to pass judgment on historical actors lowered the threshold for participation. The problems arose when teachers were challenged to move students beyond their initial judgments, to grapple with the strangeness of the past. To assume an agnostic or impartial orientation toward a past filled with grave and unconscionable injustice may seem unacceptable to social studies teachers, many of whom entered the profession because of their commitment to social justice. Yet, to bring students into the historical problem space, the teacher need not sacrifice the moral lessons that tie the past to our lived experiences and contribute to the betterment of humanity. The teacher need only commit to helping students appreciate the complexity of the past, and to allow the actual texts to paint a picture of a textured and foreign historical context.

The final obstacle lies in contemporary classroom norms that champion student-centered learning and pillory authoritative teacher-centered instruction at the expense of substantive learning. Without question, whole-class discussion constitutes a student-centered instructional method rooted in constructivist notions of student learning. Nonetheless, active teacher facilitation and intervention proved essential for meaningful student participation in both Addamss and Clays classrooms. Both teachers consistent use of textual press and uptake pushed students not only to support their claims with textual evidence, but also to engage with one anothers ideas. Clay kept students eyes trained on the documents by marking the text, and modeling and revoicing how to read and how to use quotes as warrants for historical claims. Furthermore, she was the only teacher to interrupt discussion with I-R-E sequences that reviewed and stabilized content knowledge. Such a teacher-centered, didactic intervention is often frowned upon in teacher education programs; it is viewed as heavy-handed, squelching the childs agency. Yet it is precisely these moves that pave the way to substantive historical discussion. Clay effectively established boundaries for historical discussion, beyond which students were discouraged to stray. In doing so, she infused the discussions with substance, factual accuracy, and historical legitimacy. Collectively, these moves increased the probability that students would enter the historical problem space and engage in disciplinary discussions that would prepare them not only to enter the college classroom, but also to succeed.


In focusing on the historical problem space, an admittedly high bar for historical discussion, it is easy to lose sight of the extraordinary talent of all three teachers. Addams, Smith, and Clay established safe classroom environments that welcomed participation and dialogic interaction. All three teachers established the habits of mind that laid the foundation for substantive text-based discussion: They expected students to substantiate their claims with evidence from historical documents; they offered students multiple opportunities to practice and receive feedback on the strategies of historical readingsourcing, contextualization, close reading, and corroboration; and they held students accountable for reading, interpreting, and answering questions about multiple documents in each lesson. Had this foundation not been laid in daily instruction, the discussions above would likely never have happened.  

By using a disciplinary lens, I imposed on all three teachers a primary goal for social studies instruction that they may not have shared. In a subject area as contested as social studies, it is far more likely that the teachers had multiple goals, all legitimate and valuable (Evans, 2004). Many social studies teachers prefer to tie historical topics to contemporary social issues, and to draw thematic connections. Such teachers believe that social studies content is most valuable when it is directly relevant to students lives. Whether or not such approaches are incompatible with a disciplinary stance is beyond the scope of this paper, though my own position is that they are not. In either case, it is essential to underscore the specificity of the lens through which I examined these teachers.

Given its disciplinary focus, however, the study contributes to our understanding of effective discussion-based instruction in history, and suggests directions for future research.  For example, what might a developmental trajectory look like for students engaged in whole-class text-based discussion over the course of a school year? What instructional scaffolds best prepare and support students to engage in such discussions? What is the relationship between such instruction and growth in student historical reading and writing?

There are also direct implications for teacher preparation. Discussion facilitation has been identified as a core practice in history education (Fogo, 2014), and a growing body of literature proposes that teacher education programs reorient methods courses around core teaching practices in each subject area (cf. Ball & Forzani, 2009; Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009; Windschitl, Thompson, Braaten, & Stroupe, 2012). We know very little about whether the discursive moves discussed above can be learned and how they might be practiced. It is certainly worth exploring. Such an approach to teacher preparation would require that teachers be able to distinguish between presentism and historical understanding, and to identify elements of emergent historical understanding in student speech. It may require that teachers understand how classroom discussion supports and develops student historical argumentation and critical textual analysis. If we can prepare teachers to engage students in text-based discussion about the past, we increase the likelihood that students will participate in meaningful, reasoned, and provocative deliberation that stretches their understanding of the human condition in the present and the past.

The benefits of bringing students into the historical problem space transcend the academic. There is moral value in slowing ones judgment and stretching ones understanding to grasp the unfamiliar. To engage in the historical problem space is not to fetishize esoteric historical trivia. Rather, it is a deliberative stance that cultivates the habit of pausing to ask: What more do I need to know before I label this person and dispense with his or her views? Such habits foster humility in the face of the unknown and serve as a check on the certainty and arrogance of the present. It behooves us to consider the value of such a disposition as we race to legislate and quantify college and career readiness. Such a capacity to understand lies at the core of our humanity.


1. Each Document-Based Lesson included a minimum of two historical documents; this criterion ensured that we captured the discussions that were supposed to occur at the end of each lesson.

2. Nystrand et al. (1997), for example, define discussion as the free exchange of information among students and/or between at least three students and the teacher that lasted at least half a minute (p. 36).

3. T indicates teacher, students are identified with S followed by a number, according to the order of their turn in the discussion. Ss indicates multiple student voices simultaneously. I indicate when I have deleted turns and these turns only contain irrelevant material (e.g., student side talk or teacher disciplinary talk) or redundant material (e.g., arguments that are otherwise included in the segment, or students clarifying a question before responding). I use italics to indicate the speakers use of special emphasis. An equal sign at the start of a turn indicates latching, that no time elapsed between the end of the preceding turn and the start of the new turn. A dash marks suddenly cut-off speech. Brackets include transcribers comments. Ellipses indicate deleted material inside a turn.

4. A search on Google yielded 15,200 entries, primarily from writing centers and school districts.

5. Nystrand et al. (1997) found on average 50 seconds of discussion per class in eighth grade, and less than 15 seconds in ninth-grade classrooms in their study on classroom discussion in over 100 eighth- and ninth-grade English classes (p. 42).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 2, 2015, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17783, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 1:03:34 AM

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About the Author
  • Abby Reisman
    University of Pennsylvania
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    ABBY REISMAN is currently an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include the teaching and learning of history, with a focus on curriculum development and teacher preparation.
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