Activity 3: Addressing the Essential Questions with the first reading

Activity 3.1: The first reading


  • To understand Zinn’s account of Columbus’ encounters with the New World.
  • To determine Zinn’s perspective of Columbus’ experience.
  • To reflect on the nature of secondary texts (historical accounts such as Zinn).

Materials: Zinn, chapter one from A People’s History of the United States.

a.  Students wrote their initial thinking before reading for homework and they are asked to contrast their initial thinking with what they read from Zinn. What did you think about this reading selection? Did you find more evidence from the chapter that supported your initial thinking or contested your initial thinking?

Student Responses: It is apparent from the discussion that students have the sense of Zinn’s perspective. Using Zinn as an initial text works really well in this case because he is so accessible for students. The way he frames the contact between the Europeans and Native Americans creates a bit of cognitive dissonance for students. For some students, this is the first time that they are exposed to Columbus’ actions. The discussion that takes place is usually a lively one.

b. Small group discussion—an “Undiscussion”TC_Bubble

Post instructions for students on the process of the “Undiscussion” –
(1) One student selects a question from the pile and poses it to the group
(2) All other members respond to the question
(3) Student who selected question provides final thoughts
(4) Move to next person


c.  Discuss characteristics of secondary texts (historical accounts). Generate a list of characteristics.

Student Responses: Here is a link to student responses.TC_Bubble

Activity 3.2: Return to students’ ideas of what history is.

Purpose: To ask not, “What is history” but “What do historians do?” in order to understand what students think now about the process of understanding the past.


a.  “Write now” What do historians do? Students generate a list of historian’s activities and these are discussed and summarized into a master list. This procedure also allows me to analyze students’ changes in understanding of historical epistemology (Goal 6: Epistemology). (Link goalTC_Bubble

Student Responses: Some students mentioned the idea that historians look at perspective and have perspectives. Here is a selection of student responses to the question “What do historians do?”.TC_Bubble

Key understanding: Everyone brings his or her own perspective to the reading, writing and thinking in history. The perspective of a person writing about the past motivates their decisions about the evidence they select, how they evaluate the evidence and the way they interpret the evidence. Historians use interpretive frameworks as a way to analyze the past. For instance, they may think history plays out because of great men or that grassroots movements are at the heart of change over time (Great Man v. Grassroots). Some think that history is a story of progress, whereas some view it as a story of decline.
Some historians celebrate traditional interpretations of the past, while others challenge the dominant narrative.TC_Bubble