I’ve always loved history. Some of my favorite memories are of looking through old photo albums with my grandparents and imagining what life was like for them when they were young. I can spend hours poring over collections of historical photographs and my podcasting selections have an obvious bias towards the past. I even spent the first year of college as a double major in history and art. But despite my personal affection for the subject, I wasn’t sure how to go about teaching it to others.
Many moons ago, I was an apprentice teacher at a small independent school in Cape Ann, MA. For half a year, I had the opportunity to work alongside a remarkable fifth-grade teacher who had – and still has – an uncanny ability to forge simplicity out of complexity. She shared with me an incredibly simple, but very powerful framework for teaching history that I have used in my classrooms ever since. I don’t know where it came from, or if it has a name, but I call it Three Questions and A Statement. Not a very catchy title, I know. But it goes something like this:
Question One: Who Told the Story?
We need learn how to recognize author perspective and bias whenever we consider historical texts. Read a collection of first-person accounts from a shared historical experience to see how opinions and points of view differ depending on the role, experience, and position of the different authors. Note: even textbook authors have bias and perspective – how might that influence what is included in the book? We often read excepts from this collection of primary sources to compare the experiences and perspectives of different people involved in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Question Two: When Was the Story Told?
The gap between when an event takes place and when its story is told can dramatically impact its reliability. Memories shift and change over time. It’s therefore important to know if we are reading an account written days, months, or years after and event took place.
Question Three: Whose Story is Missing?
Someone once remarked that history is written by the victors. And even when we try to consider as many perspectives as possible, someone’s voice is missing from the conversation. Part of being thoughtful students of history is not only recognizing that bias pervades the narrative, but also identifying and actively seeking those voices missing from the record, for their perspective is an integral piece of the whole.
Statement: You Never Know the Whole Story
Imagine that we could build a book that contains every recorded account of every historical event ever to happen in the world. That’s too big. Instead, let’s imagine that we build a book that contains every recorded account of a singular historical event, such as the Battle of Bunker Hill. Diary entries from soldiers on both sides, letters from civilians living nearby, newspaper articles, editorials, propaganda. It would be an enormous book filled with an incredible amount of information, and yet it wouldn’t be the whole story. How many people didn’t write down their thoughts and experiences? How much has been lost with the passage of time? We need to keep reminding ourselves that, no matter how much we might know, there is so much more we don’t.
I’ve introduced this framework to students at the beginning of every year and it’s opened up incredible discussions about the nature of knowledge and our efforts to understand the past. They also work well as essential questions (+ one statement!) for each unit of study throughout the year. But most importantly, it empowers students to think beyond the narrative, think critically about sources, and recognize that, no matter how much we may know about something, there’s always something more to learn.