Experiencing World History through the Eyes of Ordinary Women

By Kohlmeier, Jada | Social Education, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Experiencing World History through the Eyes of Ordinary Women


Kohlmeier, Jada, Social Education


DURING AN IMPROMPTU conversation with freshmen in my world history class, one of my students, Craig, spoke up and said, "History is one of the classes that is the most interesting ... but I don't see it as one of the most important." I was initially taken aback by his comment. I took great pride in the lessons I taught, blending critical reading, analysis, and writing skills with factual content. I believed I was teaching my students to empathize with the people we studied in history. However, it became painfully obvious that my efforts were not instilling my students with a sense of value for history.

My students' views on history inspired me to reflect on my own teaching and to explore historical thinking. I decided to research the impact of a three-step approach to reading primary documents on my ninth grade world history students, I was curious as to whether developing and using a consistent series of strategies with various primary documents could teach my students to think like historians. I wanted them to investigate documents as a detective looking for clues and then build a case with the evidence, much like a lawyer presenting arguments to a jury.

In addition to the teaching strategies, I was also interested in providing my world history students with a multiple-perspective view of history by incorporating more women's social history. Therefore, I selected documents written by ordinary women from throe historical periods we studied during our spring semester. I found a set of letters written by a woman to her merchant husband during the Renaissance, (1) an interview with a peasant woman who had lived during Stalin's rule, (2) and a memoir of a young girl living during the Cultural Revolution in China. (3)

One challenge with teaching students skills in historical thinking is providing them with a framework to guide their thinking. I hoped that by using the same strategies with each document, the students would become more comfortable with the scaffolding and focus more of their energy on interpreting the documents. The strategies I included in my three-step approach were a reading web (to enhance comprehension and analysis), a Socratic seminar (discussion), and an historical essay. These strategies were designed to work incrementally, guiding the students through deeper analysis of the document with each method.

I focused on three aspects of historical thinking explored by Grant: historical knowledge, historical significance, and historical empathy. (4) Historical knowledge is the understanding of the interpretive nature of history involving multiple perspectives, selecting information, and the emphasis of the historian. Historical significance is determining which information from a document or event would be important for illuminating the broader historical record. Historical empathy is "imagination restrained by evidence" or attempting to understand the viewpoint, attitude, beliefs, and/or values of the historical figure. (5) Each strategy was designed to gradually deepen the students' understanding of the document by building on the previous strategy. The reading web would help them investigate the document and consider issues pertaining to author bias or point of view; the seminar would encourage them in historical empathy as we considered the viewpoint of the author; and the essay would allow them to synthesize the historical significance of a person in a particular time period by comparing the evidence in the document to the students' prior knowledge.

Reading Historical Documents

In order to help students move beyond summarizing the documents to analyzing the subtext, I designed a graphic reading guide. I created a "document web" based on the idea of a concept map or graphic organizer. (6) I have labeled the three representations as simple, one-word questions:

(See Handout A, which I have adapted from its original web form for the purposes of simplification. …

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