A Ten-Lesson Unit on Document-Based Questions

OK, this post begins a run of eleven (twenty-two including the interstitial quotes) that comprise a global studies unit dedicated to the document-based question (DBQ).

I wrote this unit in the late summer and early fall of 2018 after a late-spring meeting that year with the assistant principal of humanities at the school in which I then served. He stressed the importance of DBQ work in our classroom. The next year’s New York State Global History and Geography Regents Examination, he assured us, would require students to possess a strong ability to interpret primary source material–i.e. complete the standard DBQ.

Because I was a doctoral candidate in history before becoming a high school teacher, and because I respect the importance of inquiry in primary sources, I knew I needed to get to work on creating DBQ materials for the struggling students under my purview–even though in principle I fervently resent teaching to tests. (Aside: I am still surprised at how many of my students, past and present, link their sense of themselves as students, and indeed their self-esteem, on achieving “success” on the kinds of crude instruments that constitute our standardized testing regime.) The problem I faced was at once simple and complicated: DBQs require interpretation, which means students completing them must be able to think abstractly. Many if not most of the students I served struggled with abstract thought. I knew they could learn to deal with DBQs, but I also knew it would be a careful, even painstaking process that would take place over a relatively long period of time.

So, I started with the standard textbook we used in social studies classes in my school, to wit, McDougal Littell’s World History: Patterns of Interaction (Beck, Roger B., et al., Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2007) and wrote materials based on the primary documents in that book.

Unfortunately, I never used this unit. When I returned to school that fall, I found I’d simply had enough of working (after ten years of it) in a building without windows, an hour-long commute twice a day, and living below heavy-duty partiers in The Bronx. I resigned, sold my apartment, moved to New England, and forgot about this unit.

But now it’s back. I’ve spent a few hours revising the lesson plans and making sure everything is formatted correctly and consistently–something I think is important in meeting the needs of struggling learners. If you’ve made it this far, here is the payoff–the documents.

This is the unit plan with all the scholarly and pedagogical apparatus–i.e. standards and works consulted page. If you want to rewrite or edit this unit for use in your particular classroom, here is a lesson plan template, a context clues worksheet template, and a primary worksheet template for your use. Finally, here is a couple of pages of assorted cut-and-paste text to prepare new lessons.

Let me close with this unsurprising statement: there is a lot of room for expansion, adaptation, and improvement in this unit. As with the lion’s share of documents on this site, all of these are in Microsoft Word, so you can revise and edit them to suit your classroom’s needs.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

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