One of the most common and familiar activities in the social studies classroom is document analysis. Teacher training programs encourage it and our curriculum materials support it. I’ve got a shelf of document primary source readers on my office bookshelf, which I rarely use any more but can’t bear to part with. The internet is chock full of primary sources. Fordham sourcebooks, anyone? 

Why Bother?

But why exactly are we so intent on reading these primary sources? Jon and I have a clear and specific answer: we read sources to understand how someone, somewhere — someone who is not us — made meaning in and of their world. If you do it right, you get to know what that someone-who-is-not-us was thinking. That, in turn, helps our students to cultivate two cognitive habits that we consider extremely valuable, historical empathy and the author concept. Historical empathy is the capacity to understand how others think about things, regardless of whether we ourselves happen to think that way. The “author concept” is the awareness that things happen in the human world because actual people did and do them. When we practice interpreting primary sources the right way, we encounter other minds and contemplate their choices, and so cultivate both historical empathy and the author concept. 

The right way to interpret starts with asking the right question: What were they thinking? On the other hand, even if you and your students are clear on your reading purpose, there are two common problems you’re likely to encounter when you ask students to read and interpret primary sources in pursuit of an answer to Question Two. The first is the discovery, often well into the process, that students don’t actually understand the text they’ve allegedly read. The second is that, having read and understood it, they’re not sure what to do next.

The first problem is easily preventable. In this blog space and in our book, we endorse some straightforward reading strategies designed to make sure that students get the plain meaning of the texts they read, which in history class are often difficult and obscure to them. The key for teachers is to invest the time to do document analysis right. If you just want to talk about ideas, that’s fine — skip the document analysis. But there really is no substitute for interpretation, and there’s no way to get to interpretation without working your way through a meaningful artifact like a primary source. Take your time. 

The Challenge of Interpretation

The second problem is trickier. Let’s say your students know what the primary source says, and you know they know because you’ve seen their paraphrase or summary of the text or their answers to your carefully constructed text-dependent questions. Now what? 

A couple of years ago, I watched a young colleague try to coach his students into doing more than summarizing in response to a primary source. He conferenced briefly with each student, encouraging them to “say more” about the text than the brief summary they’d managed to produce. He’d then give them some examples for the text in question. It was a valiant effort, but not terribly efficient, for him or for them. What his students needed was an interpretive method, one they could use to approach any text and come out with real meaning. 

The first key to getting beyond paraphrase and summary and on to genuine interpretation is to use questions as inquiry tools. Question Two comes in a variety of forms (as do all Four Questions). Some versions work particularly well for directing student attention to the author’s purpose and intention, and from there into what they were thinking. So, for example, whatever the author of our text said and however they said it, we know that they were making choices. They could have said this exact thing — or said something else. And they could have said what they said in this way, or in some other way. So let’s ask ourselves: Why did they choose to say this thing in this way? Likewise, we can ask, bluntly, what was the author’s goal in saying this thing in this way? And, we can add: What assumptions about the world or the audience does the author make or reveal in this text? 

Use Your Story

This much students should be doing not only in social studies but in English class. Whether they do it systematically is, unfortunately, an open question. In any case, there’s a second tool available to social studies teachers that we need to use methodically: our story. The right way to select primary source documents to read with students is to identify a turning point or revealing moment in a true story and to get curious about it. Primary sources then give us the evidence we need to figure out why those people did what they did. 

The story frames the document analysis. Remember the young teacher prodding his students, one by one, to say more? Those students were reading extracts from Confucius’ Analects. They already knew the story of the Zhou dynasty collapse into civil war. That wasn’t trivia. It was the background knowledge they needed to make sense of the author’s choices and assumptions. If you’re wondering what problem Confucius was trying to solve in his philosophical teaching, it surely helps to know that he was an itinerant sage trying to convince local leaders to restore virtue and order in the midst of hostility and corruption. So, teaching students to use what they know — and planning for them to know what they need — is an essential part of document analysis in the social studies classroom.

So, doing document analysis? Start with your story. Check to make sure everyone knows what your sources actually say. Then, get beyond paraphrase and summary by asking the thinking question that makes kids smarter: What were they thinking…?