History Teachers are Literacy Teachers, Too

Last week, we focused our blog on the need for a revolution in teaching history. Content-knowledge can no longer be the end goal of a history education. Content is merely the means to an end of creating historical thinkers. To be a historical thinker, though, literacy is key. 

Often, when school administrators or instructional coaches remind their history departments that “they teach literacy too,” it almost sounds as if the history teacher is only providing a supporting role for the more important English- Language Arts teacher and curriculum. After all, at least in California, it is the ELA standards that are assessed by high-stakes state exams. But this assumption profoundly misunderstands the power of a history education, centered on historical thinking, in cultivating both thinking and literate citizens. 

In fact, many of the Common Core standards in literacy may in fact be best suited for the history classroom. When we look to the news, social media, or the political landscape, these common core skills (citing textual evidence, identifying a central idea, defending a claim, etc.) are rooted in history. When people look for the present moment to be contextualized or understood more clearly, they often look to historians to make relevant judgments. In fact, in the world around us these skills of literacy are almost always rooted in the study of the past.

With this landscape in mind, part of the needed teaching revolution is for history teachers to reclaim their role as primarily teachers of literacy. We want students to be able to interrogate documents, identify key evidence, and make defensible claims with that evidence. Yes, when many in education hear these goals, their minds quickly go to the English classroom and the Common-Core standards privileged in those classrooms. But the history classroom has so much to offer here. Not merely as a support role, but as leaders in equipping students in literacy.

For this reason, Thinking Nation’s rubrics are clearly aligned to Common Core standards. For students to be successful on our DBQs, they must be able to craft claims, cite evidence, identify central ideas, and write in a professional style. When we teachers require this type of writing and analysis of our students, we reclaim our role as teachers of literacy. We bring about opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, demonstrating to students just how transferable the skills they gain in the history classroom are to their entire education.