When I was a brand new high school teacher — at age 39 — a colleague gave me some excellent survival advice. It had two parts. First, kids love moral dilemmas. Whenever you get a chance to introduce one into a lesson, do it. Second, the textbook is your friend. When you’re not sure what to do, assign some of it and teach from it.

That advice, plus rampant fear and enthusiasm, powered me through my first year of teaching. Now, closing in on the end of the second decade of trying my luck, I’ve got a more focused and productive way to plan: the Four Question Method (4QM). That first piece of advice is still there, incorporated in the method. Question Four: “What do we think about that?” is the payoff question, where we grapple in the classroom with moral dilemmas, and with lessons from history about how to be good citizens and good people.

I’m less keen on the second part of my erstwhile colleague’s advice these days. What was and is true about that advice is that reading is the spine of our courses. Our students must read, or “read” (in the 21st century, let’s allow that “texts” include digital and audio formats). It is not possible to intuit what happened or is happening in the human world. You need to learn about it from a source. If you, the teacher, speaking in class, lecturing and showing slides, are the only source of information for your students, you’re doing them a disservice. One day, you won’t be around to tell them things. They need to practice learning from a variety of sources that are widely accessible. They should do that while you’re around to coach and guide them.

The fact is, literacy is the great seismic undercurrent of schooling. How well students do in school mostly reflects how well they read. That’s especially true in Social Studies and English, obviously. So we need to attend to our students’ reading in order to facilitate their overall learning, in our subject and others. That requires that we make two important decisions well: what to read, and how to read it.

What to Read

Textbooks are boring, by design. They need to be. After all, they are tertiary sources. Secondary sources give an account of historical (or sociological, economic, or political) events and patterns from the point of view of a particular author, typically a scholar, whose personal reputation as a source of information and insight is wagered on each publication. Tertiary sources, like reference books, encyclopedias, and textbooks, wager a reputation, too. But they tend not to want that reputation to hang on the validity of an argument or of a distinctive or “original” account of something. On the contrary: tertiary sources aspiring to be consensus documents, reliable and uncontroversial. They want to be boring, and usually succeed.

Textbooks served a purpose once. They provided an economical and reliable way for students to read what happened. Today we have alternatives. In fact, in the Internet Age, we have more tertiary sources than we know what to do with, literally. Between Google and Wikipedia, our students have moved beyond textbooks, digital or otherwise. To act as if that isn’t true is to make yourself thoroughly anachronistic and a bit ridiculous. If you don’t permit your students use Wikipedia, you’re in denial. If you don’t make them corroborate what they find there — and show them the “Talk” and “View History” tabs — you’re being irresponsible.

The main advantage of modern forms of reference is that they are much more modular than traditional textbooks. I can and do use ABC-Clio and Gale to find reference articles on exactly the actors and events I want my students to learn about. And I show them how I find these sources, so that they can do it, too. I can put together a packet of tertiary readings that suits our needs much better than the textbook chapters I’d taken to carving up and editing. And I get the apparatus these publishers and aggregators provide to boot — links to related sources, cool pictures, maps, and videos, support facilities like dictionaries, and a digital voice that will read to you. “Reading” in the twenty-first century often means reading something other than a traditional textbook.

How to Read

For purpose, obviously. But what purpose? I’ve heard teachers say — and heard myself say, once upon a time — that students should read for “main points,” “key ideas and understandings,” “major ideas and supporting details,” and so forth. Let’s let these expressions go the way of the old essential question. They are placeholders for conceptions you haven’t worked out yet. Work them out.

When I assign homework and independent reading, most often I want students to get a chunk of my unit story. For sure, when I assign a tertiary source, I do it because I want students to get an answer to Question One: What happened? Unlike journalists, my students don’t have to gather the primary evidence for that story. More like keen news readers, they need to achieve fluency, accuracy, and comprehension in the story they’re being told. Once they do that, we can get to work with questioning, which by now should be a familiar operation: take any of our four questions seriously and you’ve got a real inquiry going. All of them, at any rate, start with the story.

I assign other kinds of sources besides the tertiary sort when I have other purposes for their reading — other questions I’d like my students to answer. For Question Two, we almost always read some primary sources. A manageable selection from an interpretive scholar may help with Question Two as well. The same is true for Question Three. We share excerpts from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel so that students can see how a smart person tries to answer a classic explanatory puzzle. And Op-Eds are classic sources for modeling answers to Question Four: What do we think about that?  

4QM Reading

The major premise of the 4QM is that questions drive curiosity, and that curiosity motivates people to learn. Find the right questions and the kids in our classes will light up. The minor premise is that you can teach students explicitly to identify, ask, and answer the kinds of questions that show up routinely when people talk and write about history, politics, society, and the everything else Social Studies people and active citizens care about.

If our fundamental wager is correct — that people engaged in understanding the human world are asking and answering one, several, or all of the Four Questions — then when we read a document, article, book, or other literary artifact by such a person, we should read with those four questions in mind. When students (and others) know what the pros are doing, what questions historians and social scientists and journalists are working on and what techniques they’re using to answer them, they’ll be in league with those authors. Reading them, then, will be way more fun and productive, and way less frustrating and intimidating. One day, our students may even choose to do it on their own.