Class 14: Proofing Our DBQs

Exploring history-2
This is the final activity in our DBQ design project. It began with exploring historic thinking skills and ends with students designing their own DBQs for inclusion in a class published iBook.

During the last few classes we have had 45 min sessions in the Mac lab (only a few students have their own Macs with iBooks Author). Students have arrived with their prewritten text, source material, images and YouTube video links. They used a total of about 2 hours of lab time to complete rough drafts their chapters. They shared their chapter files with me and following class, I compiled their chapters into a single iBook. Link to a PDF version 27MB pdf.

I’ve arranged to have the iBooks draft file loaded on to iPads for the students to use. In Class 14 we will proof and peer review our chapters and take one last trip to the Mac lab to use iBooks Author to do a final version. After the final edits, I’ll upload to iTunes. Net result – a student publication in just a few hours of lab time (with all research and writing done in advance)

Update Exploring History: Vol II is now available free at iTunes

Exploring historyii

Indecisiveness and the WPA – Forging Ahead in My DBQ Journey

This project was such a great opportunity to try my hand at creating the type of relevant history lesson that I want to include in my curriculum as a future social studies teacher. Unfortunately, I did not fully take advantage of it as I wish I had. Initially I struggled narrowing down a subject, I wanted to land on something I felt a strong personal connection to which would also be relatively simple to construct a DBQ project around. Quickly settling on the topic of communism and the Red Scare, I felt confident, perhaps a little too confident. When I realized that someone had focused on that topic last year for this project, I decided that topic would no longer work for me. I could have carried on with the communist angle and perhaps focused more specifically on one aspect of it such as the Ronsenbergs or the Cuban Missile Crisis, but my internal drive to be as close to original as possible forbid me from this. Instead I decided to switch gears entirely.

After debating various topics in my head from Civil War Reconstruction to the often forgotten historical figure of Noah Webster, of that dictionary we refer to from time to time (who I discovered in my preliminary research may have been a thoroughly unlikable fellow which is why his contributions to the founding of the USA have largely been forgotten…) but I digress. After bouncing around a variety of ideas after the Red Scare topic fell through, I finally settled on focusing my DBQ on the New Deal and the various forms of propaganda and art that came out of that time period in American life.

This period in history is complicated and filled with difficulties and political initiatives that mirror our own times to such a degree it is almost unsettling. Much as President Obama has needed to sell his ideas for recovery and change in the last six years such as the Affordable Care Act, so FDR needed to sell his plan for getting America out of the Great Depression. The poster collection created by the WPA and FAP between 1933-1943 is one of the first things I re-discovered when researching this topic.Forging Ahead They are beautiful, modern and striking. The have an agenda, often times more than one and they have much to tell us about what art can do to shift public opinion, and what those responsible for creating those posters believed needed to be shifting.

Once I settled on a topic my drudgery through this project was not alleviated. I did not have a focused point of view or purpose for the posters though I know I wanted to use them. Peter Pappas helped me collate my thoughts on what things could be asked of students in relation to the artwork and what conclusions or inferences could be drawn that might be helpful. My resulting DBQ project is not the best thing I have every produced, but it is definitely a place to start. As one of my favorite authors Elizabeth Gilbert has said “You must be very polite with yourself when you are leaning something new.”

If I could do it again I would get started much sooner, put my head down and find a topic I felt was original and interesting. I might have focused on maps or the layout of cities in America or something closely related to that. The good news is I hope to be at this for a while and I think the benefit of DBQ questions can not be understated, so I might just get me do-over shot after all. For now it’s about doing the best you can and learning that procrastination does not a stellar project make.

Advice to Future Self on Undertaking a DBQ Project:



  1. Start with the document(s) first. Learn about it (or them), and place that document in a time period and look at everything that surrounds it. Follow the rabbit trail from MLK’s “Beyond Vietnam” to Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” and see where it takes you. The themes will show themselves sooner or later. Humans are programmed to seek out patterns and find the stories. But starting with a theme and hoping to find documents to undergird that theme is risky. It could work, but it could also lead you on a search for something that doesn’t exist.
  2. Be careful about trusting your crazy brain. Sometimes it does magic tricks when you least expect it. Sometimes it lets you think it can do the impossible. This is when you need to reach out to, and listen to, the friends who will be bluntly honest with you and tell you when you’re headed out onto unfruitful waters.
  3. Don’t try to answer philosophical questions with a DBQ project. Yes, there is an inherent discrepancy between perception and reality. Great. But a DBQ is probably not the correct avenue to explore such an idea. However, don’t be afraid to present the unanswerable questions. Part of life is learning that not all questions have answers.
  4. If you know how your brain works best, go with it. I tried to learn how to design a DBQ while simultaneously trying to figure out how to use Learnist and Evernote with my brain balking at me all the way. When I finally relented to how I learn best (paper and Pilot G-2 pen), my brain finally began to kick into gear. If I had accepted the truth of how my brain works sooner, I could have just gotten the work done and copied and pasted my work into these new programs afterwards. Trying to learn a design process while attempting to learn a new computer program was too taxing and, ultimately, unproductive.
  5. Don’t let your heart get broken, don’t lose anyone you love, and don’t get ill. These will all interfere with your work.
  6. Don’t be afraid to suck at something the first time you try it. Scarred knees are simply reminders that you now know how to ride a bicycle. Embrace the suck. Listen to Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Image credit: Private collection of Karen Elaine Parton

Note to Self

American Revolution DBQ

American Revolution
Designing a Document Based Question, or DBQ, has been a great experience. I learned the importance of creating a dynamic generative/essential question that serves as the framework of the assignment. Just as critical, are the five to eight related documents that will assist the students in answering the generative question. The documents can be sources including images, texts, videos, or audio. Each document will also include scaffolding questions to assist the student in examining the document.

The goal of the DBQ I created was to design and utilize a generative question, documents, and scaffolding questions that incorporated historical thinking skills. I wanted students to analyze the documents, gather evidence from the sources and create an argument, or side, about a topic. The topic of my DBQ is the American Revolutionary War. This DBQ could be used as a conclusion of a unit.

I think the DBQ assignment process has given me a great deal of value as a learning experience. Creating interesting and engaging questions and finding quality sources has helped me learn and work through the process of finding content for my classroom. The challenges I had were making sure the assignment incorporated proper historical thinking skills. I found a lot of success in discovering a variety of documents and sources. Some of the lessons I learned were the importance of peer review and advice from peers.

Next time, I would approach this assignment with the intent of finding more engaging documents such as video and audio. I thought this assignment was clear and intriguing. I look forward to creating a DBQ assignment in my future career.

Yesterday Looks Like Today

We have learned a lot about teaching history as well as history itself through this DBQ project.  First off, we were reminded about how vast history is and how deep you can go with a topic.  Our topic developed and changed over the course of the semester, but it always stayed within the realm of America in the 1920’s.  The reason we switched around so much was because we realized there was so much going on in the 1920’s in America and had to decide on a corner to focus on. We eventually decided upon views of immigration in the 1920’s in America, not only because there are a lot of primary sources on the topic but also because it directly connects to the hot contemporary topic of views of immigration today in America.

Some difficulties we encountered were sifting through all the primary sources out there.  We also struggled with coming up with a narrow, specific question for our DBQ. Additionally, we struggled with time management in devoting more time to this project, due to the impending due date and demanding assignment of our work sample. If we were to do this over, we might select an even more narrow topic to make it easier to decide which primary sources to include.

We did learn over the course of this project, though, the value of having students examine historical documents.  It is vital for students to be placed in the role of historian, in order to immerse them history and see it as more than memorizing facts.  It is also important to come up with narrow, specific questions for historical document examination.  We look forward to using “historical labs” in our future classrooms, by having students examine evidence and conduct their own observations and inferences of what that historical evidence means and says.  It is equally important as well to help students make connections between past and present events, in order to see how the past affects today through similar contemporary events.

Image source: US Library of Congress, found here.

The Pig War DBQ: So, How’d It Go?

Pig War Political Cartoon

Pig War political cartoon created by Team 5

I was impressed with the products students created when I ran the Pig War DBQ with my sophomore U.S. history and government class. I incorporated it into the last lesson of my work sample as a performance assessment because it touched on three of my learning targets: increased knowledge of the U.S.’s occupation of Pacific Northwest, improved historical reading skills, and a more-developed ability to work collaboratively. In teams of five, students tackled the documents and re-created narratives of the event, all within 90 minutes. Products that they created included straight narratives, a poem told from the pig’s perspective, and the political cartoon pictured in this post.

Some narratives were more complete than others, but for the most part, each team was able to extract the important historical markers of the Pig War. The teams that were most successful were those in which one or two of the students took up an executive or administrative function. My goal was to have the students work as a group; 22 documents would be difficult for a single person to analyze in 90 minutes. Instead, the executor would outsource the documents to the rest of the team and have individual team members summarize those documents. Those summaries were eventually incorporated into a common template, which was fleshed-out into a unified narrative.

As an experiment, I tried to create an atmosphere in which the success or failure of a team to create a product would not affect their grades. Rather, the goal was to create the possible narrative purely for the sake of creating it, for the glory of being the best. This saw mixed success on a student-per-student basis, but overall the teams were able to work effectively to create quality products.

As it was, students assessed as team “most knowledgeable others” (MKOs) were the most contributive to the assignment. Students with lower skill abilities were at first disruptive to team progress. As the exercise progressed, competitive pressure required each team to “step up their game,” and non-contributive members were essentially ostracized or forced to actually contribute to their teams. I observed less-proficient students alternatively find a role in their groups, or simply tune out of the exercise. In the future, I think I would be more explicit in my expectations for team members to actively contribute to the process of creating a product, in terms of quantifying individual contribution for the use of grading.

I was not sure how adept my students would be at accomplishing my goal, of their creating discrete narratives of the historical event that created the documents. Frankly, I was dubious of the lesson’s success. On the first day of class, I administered a team-building exercise, a tower-building activity, and not every group was able to create a free-standing tower. I was worried that this assignment would show a similar success rate, and that not every team would be able to create a product.

To my surprise and delight, however, every team was able to create a narrative that included that major markers of the historical event in question. This shows that every team was able to utilize their historical reading skills to pull relevant information from the documents, and synthesize an historically accurate interpretation of the event in question.

My approach to presenting the lesson, emphasizing that it was supposed to be fun and “for the glory” of creating the most quality norm-referenced product, met with mixed success on a per-student basis. I would be curious to see if with a consistently implemented “for fun” approach, coupled with the peer-pressure effect, would create a classroom climate in which every team member would give his or her best effort.

Experience is Learning

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Reflection on the process of creating DBQs for social studies: by Erik Nelson

My grandfather used to tell me stories of climbing Mt. Rainier in his youth. I loved his stories.  My imagination tried to relive those events, longing to know what that challenge was like. Growing up in Western Washington Rainier dominated our views on clear days; a monster of snow, ice and rock beckoning me. The challenge awaited, I needed to experience it for myself. No old person could tell me how or why, I needed to do it for myself.

As a young teacher, I am re-learning lessons I should have understood from my own past. Learning happens through experience. As a teacher, I need to focus on creating opportunities for my students to experience history and social studies for themselves so that they can draw their own conclusions. In the same way my grandfather’s stories enticed me to the mountain but could not tell me how or why, I can present opportunities for my students to develop their own hows and whys about social studies.

Creating my first DBQ has been an experience for me to learn as a teacher. It is very difficult for me to stay in the mindset of thinking how students might approach a document, let alone a series of documents. It is very easy for me to know how and why I am studying history, but not so easy for me to think how students might encounter the same sources. I am committed to treating my students as capable and independent learners, and DBQs like the ones we are creating in class can harness student independence and focus it into learning. As I curate source material and create accompanying questions to guide students I need to always keep the perspective of how they will approach the document in mind. This will allow me to give ownership of the creation of meaning and understanding to the students.

Going through this process has helped remind me that the learning found in experience can be truly rich, and should be the type of learning I am committed to regularly making available to my students. They will need to experience for themselves the lessons, and not simply be told an answer from this old guy. My own experiences on Mt. Rainier mean so much more to me that my grand father’s stories, but I might not have my own experiences if he had not presented the ideas and possibilities for me to explore on my own.

As a teacher, I hope I can always create opportunities for my students to learn through experience, and well crafted DBQs are a tool to facilitate that process. The irony is that I need to experience making more to make them well crafted. Further proof that the experiential process reveals the rich learning.

(This DBQ will be published in iBooks in Dec. 2014. Check back for the link and free download!)

Image Credit: Mazamas hiking trip to Mt. Rainier. Original Collection: Gerald W. Williams Collection. Item Number: WilliamsG:Mazamas_Ranier1905. Link.