Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Can DBQs be interactive?

In my first few years of teaching, I found DBQs (Document-Based Questions) incredibly difficult to teach to.  A large part of the issue was that I was tacking DBQs on near the end of units that I had planned without that kind of analysis in mind.  There were several major problems with this:

Firstly, it meant that there was a serious time-crunch--I expected that students would write their DBQ essays in a single class period.  This is, after all, what students in AP World History and AP U.S. History have to do, to prepare for the AP exam!  The problem is, if students are taking my Humanities class, it means that they have explicitly chosen not to take AP U.S. History, and likely, that they did not take AP World History the previous year.  Most of these students have not written a DBQ essay since 9th grade, and more than a few have some degree of DBQ-phobia.  For most of my students, a time limit was paralyzing.  A few years ago, I asked myself a difficult question: was enforcing a time limit on the DBQ educationally defensible?  I was forced to conclude that since none of my students would be taking an AP history exam in the future, the time limit was absolutely indefensible--there was no sound reason to hold them to a time limit.

The second problem was that I was using DBQs as an afterthought because I was required to use them as a social studies department assessment.  I was treating them as a hoop, and not as a valuable measure of students' analytical or writing abilities.  Because of this, I was not actually teaching to the assessment.  I was teaching about other things, and then essentially saying, "Oh, by the way, do this in-depth analysis of historical documents that are only tangentially related to what we've been studying."  It is difficult to get students to see the value of an assessment when I, as the teacher, do not see the value of an assessment.

In short, my use of DBQs was not a recipe for success, though it may have successfully scarred students' relationships with historical analysis.  I realized that I needed to rethink the purpose of assigning students to write a DBQ.  If I took the time-limit out of the equation, the DBQ could be an ongoing endeavor, an opportunity to practice and build valuable skills of analysis and critical reading throughout a unit, rather than only at the end.

For the past two years, I have allowed students more time to work on their DBQs in class, and to ask me questions if they had them.  In spite of the extra time, I kept running into the frustration that some students were not asking questions about documents they were struggling to understand until the last minute--some students did not even fully recognize their confusion until the time came to start writing.

Today, as I prepared to start my students on their unit two DBQ on how enlightenment philosophy impacted the creation of the American government, I had a brainstorm: what if I found some way for the students to interact with each document in a meaningful way from the start, reacting and questioning to fix misunderstandings?

I printed each document out on A3 paper and created eleven different stations around the classroom, with Post-it notes at each.  I then asked the students to do a "gallery walk" of the documents in pairs, writing reactions and questions down on the Post-it notes as they engaged with each document.  The activity took the entire class period, but it was fun to watch the students wrestle with a variety of enlightenment philosophers, from Locke, to Rousseau, to Hobbes, to Montesquieu.  Sometimes, a student would ask their partner for help in understanding the document.  Sometimes, they would argue about what the document was really saying.  Sometimes, they would find help in the Post-its that had already been left.  Sometimes, they would ask me for clarification.

Afterwards, I compiled the A3 sheets and Post-it notes and placed them at the back of the room--the students have a copy of the prompt and the documents digitally, of course, but they may refer to the physical notes at any time throughout the unit as they reread, analyze and write.  For my part, I feel more comfortable knowing that the students have already started wrestling with each of the documents, and that many misunderstandings or points of confusion have already been uncovered and dealt with.

I'm looking forward to seeing my students make connections between the philosophies they read about today, and the history we will look at over the next few weeks, spanning from the Revolution up through the Constitutional Convention.  I'm also looking forward to finding more ways to make this time of reading and thinking more interactive and more engaging in future units!

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