National Council for the Social Studies

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Teaching "Against the Textbook": Proposal for global "critical reading" wiki project

Hi Folks,

Any fans of James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me will be familiar with the thinking behind the idea I'm about to propose, which is this:

We create a single wiki, "A Critical Supplement to Major History Textbooks," and create a page on it for each textbook we're using, in whatever class.

In our classrooms, we assign student teams to tackle each section of the textbook by identifying any perceived biases, coverage emphases and de-emphases, omissions, errors of fact, and so forth, in that section, and publish their findings on that textbook's page on the wiki.

The project would have value in a number of ways:

1. Students would have to know the material in the textbook in order to identify what is not in it, so the project would not conflict with learning the course content objectives.

2. Students would learn to read the textbook critically and skeptically, and their discovery of the inevitable biases, assumptions, omissions, under-representations of certain classes/genders/races/religions etc in the texts would surely go far in developing their critical thinking skills and their stance toward authorial authority. The dangerous naivete and blind trust in the written word so common among the young (and not-so-young) would be remedied by such an experience to a considerable degree after a year of such study.

3. The wiki itself would be a resource of lasting value. Over time, other teachers and students would surely discover it, and find it useful as a supplement to their textbook.

4. Students would be practicing research and, done well, internet literacy as they searched for more information about material covered in each section of their textbook. (Wikipedia would be an obvious place to start, but not to finish, in this research - particularly the external links and citation footnotes at the bottom of each page.)

5. History would obviously come alive more by being turned into a field of controversy in this way, rather than remain the dull grind of memorizing stuff that turns so many students off of history.

Parting shots:

I'd love to brainstorm how to set this up with any interested parties. I'm talking to the blogger of the Core Knowledge blog (you know, E.D. Hirsch's gig) about it, and he seems interested.

If you'd like to read more on the idea, I've blogged about it on my education blog at here, here, and here.

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I don't understand the delay in response from those on this site. This idea is fantastic, and one that could live inside or outside the classroom as year-long project. As students study the "schooly" version of history, they would be required, on their own time, to do the research for this wiki for their classes. All kinds of accountability is built into this as well: discussion posts, research added, questions asked of other students, expert voice brought in for comment--the list goes on.

I passed this along to several of the teachers in my district, and will press this issue during our June meetings.
Thanks Patrick,

I've seen a lot of buzz about the idea on Twitter, and one history teacher in Ohio says he's in.

Since it's not really necessary for this to be collaborative - all it takes is a single classroom reading a single history textbook to create the online critical supplement - the number of takers isn't crucial.

We can't forget that most teachers are swamped with end-of-year madness right now either. Not ideal timing on my part.

But we've seen before (think 1001 Tales and Project Global Cooling) how slow these things start in the beginning. When I return to Beyond School ( is great, but it's too fast-paced for this "slow blogger," so I'm pulling back to a contributor-only position in mid-June, and giving up the editor/chief blogger position), I'll be doing more outreach there and on Twitter.

But again, for this project, numbers don't matter. It's great if people add the textbook they're using to the wiki and let their students practice historical-textual criticism of it; but if they don't, mine and a few others will be. Others can come in later, since it's obviously, being a wiki, an open-ended project.

Happy summer break!
I'm totally on board with this project. I am a fan of "Lies My Teacher Told Me" and want to find more ways to bring teaching to the 21st century as well as bring history alive for my kids. I'm pumped about this idea!
Great, Paul. What ages and subjects will you be teaching next year? Where are you?

I teach 8th Grade in Ionia, MI. It's 19th Century American History.
Clay, I'd love to help in this endeavor. I'll contact you soon to discuss it.
I created a similar "opening up the textbook" lesson using a wiki, but we worked with only a small chunk of the text, and I provided students with related primary sources so that they could corroborate evidence. I think it is good to start w/ just small sections of the text to have them analyze, and it is important to guide them in their research so that their new, self-created textbook isn't full of misinformation.
Daisy Martin of Stanford University first introduced me to the "opening up the textbook" model. I believe she has written a few articles on it.
I just happened upon this and I really like this idea. I teach 8th graders who seem at a perfect age to be excited about uncovering "problems" and building upon knowledge from the textbook. I think that as long as it is interactive and they are discovering things that question authority they would be excited about it. I also like the idea of a wiki so that the students can respond to each other's entries. Some school blogging sites are not set up to allow this to happen easily. Ireally like this idea to help students learn how to find reliable sources.
This is a fantastic idea. If anyone implements it, I highly suggest starting with an initial lesson similar to what is discussed in this article "The Grammar of History Textbooks Part I: Getting Meaning Through L.... I think this was originally set-up for an ESL classroom, but I found that this type of deconstruction of the language really helped every student in my class become more aware of the nuances authors use in their language.
Clay -

I am a few months behind on reading this, but I totally gave up using my American History textbook for the lack of information and one-sided aspect of it. I would be interested in participating in any endeavor designed to overcome the shortfalls of a history text. I am not teaching my American History class until the spring, but count me in.

Hi, I teach 7th grade world history and I would love to be apart of this idea. Please keep me informed, Thank you!
Please let me know how I can participate with my AP US History course students. They're mostly juniors and seniors and will be using Kennedy's The American Pageant. I'll be giving them lots of primary sources and interesting secondary readings, all of which will be analyzed for biases as well. I hope to show students that history is not a timeline but an interpretive discipline, and that ownership of analysis and reflection is part of the joy of history.





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