In a 2004 Gallup survey, history and social studies ranked as the least popular subject for teenagers. Why is this? Many adults recount history class as being forced to memorize names, dates, and events without a connection to one another. Acronyms like SOAPStone (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject, and Tone) for teaching the process of analyzing sources and MAIN (Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism, and Nationalism) for teaching content like the causes of World War I remove humanity from instruction. Our students are perceived as vessels carrying reading and writing strategies and content knowledge.  

Instead of only learning strategies, students ought to think critically about why or how people and events influenced the past. Over the course of the semester, students will ask the question historians ask themselves: so, what? Why must we know about a certain person, place, or event? What makes something historically significant? How is historical knowledge gained? And can we foster the lessons of the past to create a better future? 

History is much more than memorizing important names, dates, and events. Rather, as an argumentative and interpretative discipline, history is the cornerstone to developing an active citizenry in the twenty-first century. If students can recognize and apply historical knowledge and historical thinking to contemporary issues and develop positions that reflect deliberation, cooperation, and diverse perspectives, our students will be in a better position to prepare themselves for their role as citizens in a complex and arguably broken democracy.  

One way to help build these skills is through reading and analyzing historical arguments in journals. This process will help students see history not as a task to memorize names and dates, but as an interpretive discipline to assess arguments and make sense of ever-evolving historical knowledge. 

For example, when studying the New Deal, students read “Consuming Relief: Food Stamps and the New Welfare of the New Deal” by Dr. Rachel Louise Moran in the Journal of American History. When reading this research, students can better situate New Deal policy in the context of balancing the needs of interest groups, the vast array of political goals, along with the needs of food recipients. Students ultimately better understand how policy was made during the New Deal.  

To help students accomplish this, I provide support for them as it is very often the first time students will read a historical article from an academic journal. As students read, they determine the author’s argument, assess the types of sources the author used, evaluate the author’s effectiveness in proving their argument, and finally make connections to the world around them. These skills will help our students make history relevant to their experiences.  

The work of our discipline is not to have students memorize but to interpret, ask questions, and find relevance. A great place for this work is in academic articles.  

In this activity, students will analyze and engage with historical documents using a helpful graphic organizer as a guide.


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Pat Sprinkle is a history teacher at the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, teaching AP® U.S. History and AP® U.S. Politics and Government. Pat is a graduate of The Ohio State University and Columbia University. Pat has served as a member of the Teacher Advisory Council for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, National Humanities Center, and the National Constitution Center. In addition, Pat was a 2013 James Madison Fellow along with a 2021 C-SPAN Fellow. Pat lives in Jersey City, NJ with his wife, son (Franklin), and dog (Lyndon)