Why This Handbook?
This handbook is designed for use with digital collections of primary sources available at the Wisconsin Historical Societyʹs Web site (www.wisconsinhistory.org).
It reproduces activities from workshops offered to teachers in 2005 by the Society. Its first half reviews the elements of critical thinking as they pertain to understanding and analyzing historical evidence. This includes 10 handouts that can be quickly adapted for use with students, as well as a toolkit of classroom techniques for encouraging critical thinking and a guide to evaluating it. The handbook’s second half offers 20 model lessons, each of which centers on a single document available online at the Society’s Turning Points in Wisconsin History collection (www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints). These lessons span all eras taught in U.S. history classes, connect local Wisconsin history to national themes in standard textbooks, and walk students and teachers through the analysis of eyewitness accounts with specific suggestions for developing critical thinking skills.
Using primary sources, especially to develop critical thinking, is an unfamiliar practice in most secondary‐level history classes. History has traditionally been taught not as a practice in which students engage but rather as a collection of data that they master. ʺCome on, Bart,ʺ Marge Simpson says in a recent episode of the well‐known cartoon series, The Simpsons. ʺHistory can be fun. Itʹs like an amusement park except instead of rides, you get to memorize dates.ʺ (ʺMagical History Tour,ʺ which aired Dec. 22, 2004).
Like Marge, we hate to admit that most kids find history boring and we try to persuade them that itʹs something they should enjoy. But, lulled by oversimplified generalizations and deadened by a stream of names and dates unrelated to their own lives, they know better than to believe us. It’s no wonder that they can be reluctant to engage original historical documents. ʺMy teacher made us use this Web site [American Journeys],ʺ one student told us through our feedback button. ʺIʹd rather have all the spinal fluid drained from my body.ʺ
Itʹs sad that a young person with so much spunk, intelligence, and eloquence as that correspondent should miss the benefits that history has to offer, especially its potential to be a whetstone for sharpening critical intelligence.
The past is rarely simple. There are usually more than two sides to a question: historical events are not neatly balanced rectangles but irregular polyhedrons that shift their shape as one changes oneʹs perspective. When students engage their minds on