The following blog post is part of a blog series called "Comments on the Common Core," written by Eye On Education's Senior Editor, Lauren Davis.
When I first read the CCSS for English Language Arts, I was confused by the heavy focus on texts from U.S. history. I kept thinking I was accidentally reading the social studies standards instead of the ELA ones. For example, students in grades 9–10 are expected to “analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, Kings “Letter from Birmingham Jail”) (Standard 9). Students in grades 11–12 are expected to analyze “seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features” (Standard 9). Students in 11–12 are also expected “delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning” (Standard 8).
If I were still in the classroom, I would be intimidated by those standards. My background is in English, not history. I wouldn’t feel qualified to instruct students on the historical context of those types of texts. But upon further reflection, I can see that there is value in having English teachers teach historical U.S. documents. Students need to learn to read a wide variety of genres and appreciate different kinds of language. Too often, students breeze through historical documents in social studies class because they are looking to extrapolate facts; they don’t stop to appreciate the writing or understand the different levels of meaning. English teachers can help students learn the rhetoric, vocabulary, and meaning. And they can pair up with a social studies teacher if they want help teaching background information about the time period. Here are some tips to help you teach historical texts in your ELA classroom.
Where to Find Text Sources
- Think integrated. Don’t teach one CCSS at a time. Plan your lesson around multiple standards, integrating reading, writing, speaking/listening, and language. For example, if you’re teaching Patrick Henry’s speech, you might want to have students read it closely and analyze the rhetoric, and then you might want to incorporate listening skills by having students listen to the audio recording of the speech. Ask students, “How does listening to the recording change your opinion of the tone or your understanding of the rhetoric?” (Davis, Common Core Literacy Lesson Plans: Ready-to-Use Resources, 9-12). Or incorporate writing: Have students use some of Henry’s strategies to write their own speech.
- Think interdisciplinary. Pair up with a social studies teacher and create a unit that pairs a novel with historical texts from the time period. This presentation, “Tackling Seminal U.S. Documents: How English and History Teachers Can Benefit from Collaborative Teaching of Historical Documents,” includes examples of five units that pair historical documents with novels.
- Connect past to present. For example, if you’re teaching FDR’s 1941 Annual Message to Congress (the famous Four Freedoms speech), have students analyze how FDR uses “freedom” to mean different things. Then have students compare it to a current speech by President Obama and trace how Obama uses the word “freedom.” How has our understanding of freedom changed over time?
How are you teaching historical U.S. documents and other literary nonfiction? Leave me a comment!
Check back on February 20 for the next post in this series!
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