More thoughts on occupational realities vs. the integrity of the discipline

2008 November 18
by Ellen Noonan

As I ponder putting together more (!) TAH proposals for the upcoming round of funding, I’m thinking about how developing materials and approaches that hit the correct point on the spectrum between K-12 teachers’ occupational realities and professional historians’ disciplinary standards is different for different groups of teachers (and I suppose for different groups of professional historians as well, but that’s a story for another day).

For example, after a year of working with teachers of English Language Learners (ELLs) in one of our TAH programs, we found ourselves last month modifying the syntax and vocabulary of the late 18th century documents we were using to teach about the American Revolution. It was the kind of move I fiercely resisted when we began doing these TAH programs nearly five years ago, when I had spent more years in graduate school than actually working with teachers. And I still wince when I hear teachers talk about “rewriting” primary source documents, imagining the worst kind of mischief being done to the historical meanings they contain. But for this group of teachers and these documents, I have no doubt that we did the right thing; if we hadn’t, chances were little to none that they would ever use them. In the discussion after the activity, many teachers said that they would need to modify these documents even more (and a terrific discussion ensued about “simplifying” versus “amplifying” documents for ELL learners, the latter being a more constructive approach that emphasizes adding the supports that students need for comprehension rather than subtracting content). The experience emboldened me; I think we should be doing more such document modifications, radical though they may seem (although common sense tells me that we need to learn a lot more about theories and practices of ELL teaching in history/humanities before we plunge into such a project).

Here’s an example of our modified document and the original. I’m curious about what others think of how we modified these documents: were we pedagogically justified or did we commit a crime against historical standards?

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1 Comment
2008 November 18

To my mind, the issue is not modification, per se, but how we can convey the essential meaning and method of a document and also signal to the reader that it is an adaptation—while at the same time avoiding any note of condescension during the whole process. It’s a procedure that I think has been implicit in our documentary work for some time—although I fear more telegraphed than actually engaged with: if I remember correctly, we prefaced our programs with a title card warning that the archival visuals were tinted and occasionally retouched. There were a few articles written by ASHPers discussing our “tampering” and our reasons, but, frankly, I think we sort of dropped the ball on that one. As one colleague noted about our 1877 film and use of tinting, she had no problem with the technique, but she feared that viewers would take for granted, as one example, that the nineteenth-century pictorial papers were resplendently colored (and a simple solution could have been a dissolve from, say, an unretouched Frank Leslie’s front page to a colorized version). In any case, at the risk of simplifying a complex issue, it seems that our “mission” involves trying to figure out ways to embrace comprehension as well as context, since in the end it is not just the original document we need to contend with but how we relate that document, modified or not, to its historical moment.

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