Think Like a Historian: Close Reading at the Museum

» 22 April 2013 » In History / DBQ's, How To, Literacy, PD, Strategies, Students »

I'm planning for an upcoming full-day workshop for Chicago-area middle school teachers entitled "Think Like a Historian: Literacy and the Common Core." The Common Core encourages students to more closely read a text (in all it's multimedia formats) by answering three critical questions

  • What did it say?
  • How did it say it?
  • What's it mean to me?

If you were apply those questions to my workshop you might answer them like this:

  • What did the workshop say? For all it's controversies, the Common Core provides a basic road map for helping your students to "think like a historian" and enhance their literacy and critical thinking skills.
  • How did the workshop say it? Don't lecture at people. Model the strategies and let teachers experience them in a classroom-like setting.
  • What's it mean to me? What are the workshop's strategies and perspectives that I could feasibly incorporate into my classroom to support Common Core skills?

Now that I've "flipped" the workshop, here's a brief lesson in using Common Core questioning. I'm currently visiting Turkey and I thought I'd model a Common Core close reading of my visit to an Istanbul museum exhibit. I'll dig a little deeper into the three questions with a few more prompts and provide brief answers as if I were a high school student reflecting on their experience.

First the setting: I visited the "Anatolian Weights and Measures" exhibit at the Pera Museum in Istanbul. It's one large room with exhibit cases around it's perimeter. A very manageable number of artifacts, labeled in both Turkish and English. I spent about an hour there. So here goes - Common Core close reading prompts, followed by "student responses." Left: Roman steelyard weight - Hercules

1. What did the text (artifacts / exhibit) say? Summarize the key ideas and provide supporting details.
A: The museum exhibit is a roomful of measurement tools - weight, volume, distance. When I first walked in I turned right and looked at some tools from the 1900s. As I continued around the wall I realized that I was going back in time. Sort of an interesting way to look at the artifacts.

As I progressed "back in time" to the Egyptians era, I realized how important measurement was to civilization. I realized that if you were going to trade things, you needed to measure them. The same was true for owning land. You needed to have a way to measure it. Plus people need to have some way to agree on the "official" measurements. That means the ancients needed some sort of government or rules for trade. You can see that many of the weights had "official" seals on them.The exhibit showed that the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks created standardized systems for measurement.

Common Core close reading prompts, followed by "student responses."

2. How did the text (artifacts / exhibit) say it? How is it organized? Who created it and what were their goals? What patterns do you see?
A: I'll answer this one from two perspectives - first the creators of the original artifacts and then the curators who designed the exhibit.

The weights were all designed to serve a function, but they were often very artistic as well. At first I wondered if that was because craftsmen wanted to personalize their work. Then I thought the artisans might have decorated the weights to make them harder to counterfeit. Ancients would want to be sure that weights were accurate and that some trader wasn't ripping them off with a phony measurement. I think the weights were also designed to look official to give people confidence in the measurements they were getting.

The curators of the exhibit used a chronological approach to present the artifacts. But they also grouped items together by themes to help you make connections across time. For example there was a section featured mobile scales from different eras. They were designed for traders that needed scales that they could easily bring with them. That got me thinking of the long history of trade routes tranporting goods from far off lands.

18th C Money Changer's Balance 18th C Money Changer's Balance

3. How does it (artifacts / exhibit) mean to me? How does it connect to my life and views?
A - The exhibit is called "Anatolian Weights and Measures" and it makes it very clear that every artifact was found in that region. I think one of the goals of the curators was to prove that Turkey has had a long history of civilization and trade. The exhibit showcases thousands of years of measurement tools that reinforce the idea of Turkey as as the crossroad of different cultures. That echoes the image of modern Turkey as a gateway between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The exhibit also makes me realize that the idea of a global economy is actually not a new thing. People have been trading across vast distances for thousands of years.

In one way, in the exhibit reminded me of how some things never change. It seemed like there was little difference in the scales used in Egypt or the portable balance of 18th century money changer. The basic physics stayed the same. The Roman steelyard balance works using the same principals as a locker room scale with sliding weights.

But in another way, the exhibit reminded me how much the new technologies have changed things. The exhibit included a set of linked folding metal measuring rods that today are easily replaced by a small laser distance finder. They would could both measure distance, but the technology, accuracy and portability of the tools are dramatically different.

Image credit/ Pera Museum Pinterest


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Trackback URL

4 Comments on "Think Like a Historian: Close Reading at the Museum"

  1. peter
    anne rhodes
    10/05/2013 at 6:54 am Permalink

    This is a great post and I am planning to share it with the teachers at my school. I think they will chuckle though when the read the answers that were supposedly “brief answers as if I were a high school student reflecting on their experience.” In my experience it would be difficult to get this level of response from students. Some of the really motivated kids might do this, but most would give a few words and a virtual shrug. Sorry to sound so pessimistic but this is at least the reality that I have seen.

    But, that is not a criticism of your post. I appreciate you sharing it and also think that it is a great concept. We can always dream that students will really engage!

  2. peter
    Peter Pappas
    10/05/2013 at 10:23 am Permalink

    Thanks for the chuckle, Anne. OK, I admit that I sort of lost the “student voice” there a bit.

    But we can train foster more depth and engagement from students. (BTW – a key goal of Common Core)

    Actually I think that students are rarely asked what they think. Teachers tend to ask questions that the teacher knows the answer to. Thus, the student perceives the need to get the question “right” and is hesitant to stray far from “right there” types of observations.

    Watch a typical whole group discussion in the classroom and you’ll most likely see a “hub / spokes” flow of information. Teacher to student A and back to teacher. Teacher to student B and back to teacher. So it goes as the “bluebirds” get to show how smart they are. Over time, students learn that their comments are of provisional value until “approved” by the teacher. That’s because in this style of discussion the teacher is most likely searching for specific replies – sort of playing “guess what I’m thinking” with the “best” students in the class.

    Students tend not to listen to each other and only focus on what the teacher says or validates – “will that be up on a test?” When students are put in small group discussion, they rapidly get off subject. With no teacher to validate their comments, they naturally gravitate to other subjects where peer comments are valued – “what are you doing this weekend?” Often teachers then conclude that small group discussion doesn’t work.

    In my workshops I train teachers in discussion techniques that foster student reflection and interaction. The strategies are focused on getting the teacher out of the role of information gatekeeper and encouraging student-centered dialogue.

    With practice, teachers find that students are eager to engage and participate. We know they want to contribute, because outside the classroom, students are flocking to social networks to share their thinking with one another. It’s unfortunate that our students can’t be part of the (offline) social network sitting beside them in class.

  3. peter
    anne rhodes
    13/05/2013 at 6:42 am Permalink

    Hi again,
    Thank you for this insightful reply. I am going to show it to my colleagues and let them think about this. I am a librarian and don’t teach any classes, but I realize that when I do interact with the kids, I have a tendency toward your first description. I already have in mind what I want people to say and just wait for someone to say it. I am going to make an effort to try and get some real reflection and discussion going next time I have an opportunity to interact with students.

  4. peter
    Peter Pappas
    14/05/2013 at 1:59 pm Permalink

    Sounds good Anne,

    You might like this post as well – models a more student-centered summarizing technique How to Teach Summarizing: A Critical Learning Skill for Students


Hi Stranger, leave a comment:


<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Subscribe to Comments