Best Major Assignment: French Revolution DBQ

2010-11 Teaching Portfolio Entry #6

I’m using “best” loosely here.  The most important “best” is the assignment that elicits the best work from my students, which was my History Day assignment.  Another “best” might be the project that demands the most of students, thus serving as a model for the directions I want to move in my teaching.  The best example of this work was the Bill & Ted Project.

The “best” I am going to talk about, though, is the best assignment I gave to develop and assess students’ historical thinking, which is on the surface, a relatively simple DBQ essay on the French Revolution (for copyright reasons I can’t post the whole assignment, but the documents are here).

Like just about any history teacher, I’ve been using DBQ essays for a long time.  The structure is an easy way to make you feel like you’re “doing history” in the classroom, while still assessing traditional skills such as depth of knowledge and writing ability.  While AP teachers seem to be used to DBQ’s that force students to think critically, the ones that are used on the New York Regents are rather straight forward tasks that ask students to write explanatory essays using the supplied documents as factual evidence.

I tried something new with DBQ’s in the second half of the year, and the results were extremely promising.  I modeled what I did on Historical Thinking Matters, which presents students with contradictory documents, asking them to then develop historical arguments based on the evidence in front of them.  Because students are faced with conflicting primary documents, the students need to assess sources for credibility and perspective, which is an increasingly important skill in our information-rich world.  I took my assignment to an even deeper level by including a questionable secondary source from Wikipedia, which was actually contradicted by evidence in another document.  Students were asked to write an essay evaluating the extent to which the French Revolution was successful.

The most important move for me was in how I assessed these essays.  Previously, I would have assessed the students for the strength and coherence of their arguments.  For this essay, I went further, demanding that my students demonstrate the historical thinking skills that I had been working on with them throughout the year.  Students were assessed for not just the their arguments and organization, as I had in the past, but also for evaluating evidence in terms of its perspective, believability, and accuracy.  Students were expected to not just take a black or white side and support it, but to demonstrate their understanding of the shades of gray that make up history.  No student who argues that the French Revolution was entirely a success or failure is making a historically accurate argument, and it was high time I held my students accountable for that.  Students were also held accountable for engaging with counter arguments.  (It was a pleasant coincidence that all this jives completely with the new Common Core Literacy Standards for Social Studies).

I had 14 different aspects of students’ writing that I tracked on this assignment, divided into four larger categories: argument, use of evidence, content, and organization.  The argument and organization categories were basically the same as how I previously assessed my students, whereas the evidence and content categories contained most of the new expectations.  As this was only the second time I was formally assessing my students in this manner for evidence and content, it is not surprising that students scored the most poorly in these categories.  This points to the need to be doing this kind of assessing explicitly from day 1, which is something I plan to do moving forward.

The more interesting development, though, is that for argument and organization, students did their best work on this assignment.  By asking my students to do much more complex work, they exhibited a far superior ability in the “basic” skills I had been teaching and assessing all along.  This is perhaps the most important takeaway I have from this project, as well as from my time at Bronx Lab: the key to helping students to develop the basic reading and writing skills that many of them lack is not simplify the curriculum, but rather to make the thinking and content required for the curriculum even more complex and advanced, so that it demands them to better their skills in order to engage with complex and engaging topics.