Primary Sources w/ Mr. Miyagi (Introducing Basic Document Analysis using APARTY or SOAPSTone)

Karate Kid - Wax on Wax off

As you may have gathered from my avatar, this is a thing with me. Lil' Daniel-san thinks he's there to learn karate, but instead is given seemingly unrelated tasks. Those tasks, however - well, you get the idea. 

So much of education - especially in middle school and early high school - involves tricking them into learning. I was never actually a fan of the whole 'post your objectives on the board each day' thing, even when it was 'required'. Why would I want to give them something specific to resist? 


If we were face to face, we'd giggle and sip our shakes and talk about it all night long, but I'm going to assume that if you're bothering with this page you're a fellow fan of historical documents, photos, cartoons, etc.

When introducing them in class, you should make sure your kids know the difference between Primary & Secondary Sources. I know, I know - surely it's been covered in past years, right? And it probably has. Still, I'd go over it, and then try to get them to suggest ways the two are different, other than their definitions. 

Primary sources come with their own set of challenges. The most common type used in the most history classes are texts of various sorts - diaries, newspaper accounts, letters, speeches, government documents, etc., so we'll start with those. The biggest problem with text documents is... they’re text documents. As in, full of text.

The other common challenge is that, for reasons which remain unclear to me, many high school students deny the fascination and excitement inherent in 'doing real history'. I assume this reflects poor relationships with their mothers or some such thing, but I didn't really pay attention in my psyche classes because they were boring, so I don't really know.

I know the stuff I choose is interesting, though, and can't fathom why they don't embrace it with equal enthusiasm. 

So, I start with something accessible. 

I like to use songs - something I find amusing or interesting from my personal collection. It's not important that students like the song, but it helps if it doesn't make them want to run a letter opener through their brain to make it stop. Ideally the lyrics will include some uncommon vocabulary words or maybe an allusion or two, and require a certain amount of inference in order to completely understand. 

I use different songs from year to year, but I'll share a recent favorite by way of example after a rough outline of the steps. Remember – whatever you’ve selected, students are to treat it like a legit historical document, taken at face value

The Steps (sorta depending on how it goes but kinda like this usually):

OneOne. I set up the process. I know it's a pop song, they know it's a pop song, but we're going to treat it at face value as a legitimate historical document. The first time through all they have to do is follow along and absorb - nothing else. 

TwoTwo. I play the song for the first time while they follow along with the lyrics on the screen or on whatever. Face value.

ThreeThree. We talk about how to approach a ‘complicated historical document.’ Most of them are familiar with steps and processes from their math or science classes – this is similar. We practice it with something fairly easy, so that we’ll be good at it when dealing with something more complicated. So, where do we start? 

I take suggestions, thoughts, and eventually steer towards the importance of key vocabulary or phrases. 

FourFour. Play it again, with cause. The second time through, students work with a partner or small group to identify key words and phrases that not everyone might know. They don’t even have to look them up until we discuss them.

FiveFive. We discuss terms and phrases. There’s no precise right or wrong way to do this part. The important thing is to avoid diving past the basics and into full interpretation and analysis. We’re practicing STEPS, so let’s follow them. I take a half-dozen and we discuss meaning, implications or tone, etc. 

I’d respectfully suggest that this approach is good for our Eagles in class as much as our Turtles. It gives Turtles a chance to address unfamiliar terms and clarify meanings without so much risk, but it also helps our Eagles get in the habit of slowing down and paying attention to details. Sometimes they get so used to being ahead of the curve that they get careless, and then when something is challenging for them – and doesn’t just magically unfold in their minds – they lack the experience or skills to move forward. 

SixSix. I begin asking them about the author (or narrator – not the actual band or songwriter, but the ‘voice’ in the song). What can they tell me about him or her, and HOW DO THEY KNOW? 

This part is pretty important, since we want to distinguish between things stated explicitlystrong inferences, and weak inferences. There’s nothing wrong with proposing a weak inference, as long as we’re aware that’s what it is. Most of modern life’s great ongoing arguments would become far less irritating if we’d simply delineate what we know from what’s fairly certain from what we’re just kinda hoping to be

But for every comment or observation – no matter how obvious or how bizarre, I ask them to support it in the text. This is a critical "habit of mind" when processing primary sources, especially when eventually using them to build a narrative or argue a position. HOW DO YOU KNOW? 

SevenSeven. We work through the rest of the APARTY elements together. I strongly encourage students to support or refute one another’s statements about the Author, or Time, or Reason, etc., using specifics from the text or concrete outside knowledge. As with so many things, the process and the interactions are as important as the answers themselves. In this practice activity, the process and interactions are MORE important than the answers. 

Sometimes we recognize clues about the author, reason, audience, etc., without knowing specifically what the clue tells us. If there’s a reference to the rough year the Hartford Whalers are having in the WHA, we don’t have to know who they are or what that means in order to realize that a little Googling would help us zoom in on a time frame and maybe give us some hints on location or cultural background.

Encourage students to identify possible clues even if they're unsure precisely what those clues suggest. 

EightEight. If it hasn’t already become obvious through the doing, I show them APARTY (or SOAPSTone if you prefer). It’s not magic, and it’s not intended to become yet another worksheet or graphic organizer to fill out whatever the cost. It’s a tool to help us process tricky documents effectively and completely. If it’s treated as an aid in so doing, it’s nifty. If it’s taken too literally and too ‘have to’, it’s not nearly as swell. 

NineNine. We recap and summarize, and make sure we have a solid 'Main Idea'. I try to avoid inflicting my own ‘final interpretation’ of whatever ‘document’ we’ve been using, other than to clarify ‘strong inferences’ and ‘weak inferences’, and to make sure we politely but firmly discard completely unreasonable or unsupportable interpretations (there’s always one kid who sees bizarre conspiracies or gay love triangles in everything). This is all about practicing the skill. 

TenTen. Move forward and apply the skill. In years past, I’d do two songs and then compare and contrast them. Depending on your situation, that might prove useful. With my kids in my reality, once we’ve spent a class period or so with the faux document, we move to a ‘real’ primary source and go through the same steps. 

It's important that students not blow past the system. There’s inherent, long-term value to being methodical at this stage. Professional athletes still run drills in practice, experienced pilots still go through a checklist before they take off, and we’re going to take a little time to process our documents properly, darn it.

If you’re the type who pretty much does it your own way and figures it out as you go, you can skip the next part. If you prefer some sort of example, I’ll do my best to capture the madness that is introductory document analysis with some sample-ish-ness. Or, if you'd prefer something a bit more ELA, local legend Rick Cobb from OkEducationTruths did this post about something similar he does to introduce poetry. It's funnier and more succinct than mine, but mine - um, well... mine is nice too.