Historical Literacies Module

~ A Module for Learning ~

Welcome to the Drew Writing Project/NEH Grant “Building a More Perfect Union” workshop series on Artifactual and Historical Literacies!

By the end of the module you should be able to:

  • Define historical literacy.
  • Define historical thinking.
  • Use support tools to read objects and texts to activate historical thinking skills.
  • Articulate how historical literacy allows one to have a deeper understanding of the world around them.

Prior to getting settled, please download a copy of this organizer or a journal for writing.



Introduction to Historical Literacy

Start a 1-minute timer and then make a list of as many details as you can about the object in this picture. Consider the following questions as you describe:

  • What is it?
  • What are its parts? 
  • What is its purpose? 
  • Who might have owned it? When? Why?
  • Would it be useful today?
  • Has it evolved? 
  • What does it mean to you?

The telephone is an example of an innovation that changed the trajectory of history, and with each iteration, the ways humans existed shifted. How many iterations of the telephone have you experienced? How did your life change with each one? Was the change in the phone the only reason your life changed?


You have just demonstrated skill in one element of historical thinking: CAUSALITY.

Understanding causality allows you to trace threads that connect historical moments. Deep understanding of causality in historical thinking leads to awareness that there is never just one cause that leads to an outcome.

Now let’s look at a second element of historical thinking: CONTINGENCY.

What if you had never been introduced to a smartphone? How would your life be different?


Did you know that there are people who have never seen a smartphone?


Now let’s look at a third element of historical thinking: CONTEXT.

Looking at this data map, how might you deepen your understanding of what life without a smartphone might look like beyond your personal context? If you have time, read the full article to go even deeper into this thinking.

Click Here for Data Map

The ability to use historical thinking skills in order to think critically about the world around us is historical literacy. Watch this video to hear more about it.


Make a connection to your life experiences, a current event, or your knowledge of history using one or more of the 5C’s mentioned in the video.

Developing Historical Literacy

IMPORTANT: We develop historical literacy by learning how to read primary and secondary sources, including images, videos, and objects, with a critical lens.


For more information on primary and secondary sources, feel free to consult or consult this website.


Let’s apply historical thinking while we examine an object from the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts in Madison, NJ.

What is this object?

Click Here for the Answer!

This is a printing press! If you don’t know what this object is, check here.

Look closely at the pictures. Use your imagined five senses to observe the details of the object. What do you notice?


Now, go back to the details that you noticed and zoom out to the bigger pictures.

What do you wonder about this object? Make a list of questions.

There are no right or wrong questions. Ask anything that comes to mind.


Let’s use historical thinking to read this object.

Watch this video that explains the historical reading skills outlined in the following chart. 


Historical Reading Skills Questions
Sourcing
Ask the who, what, where, when, and why of the object.
– Who made this object; did they make it for themselves or for someone else?
– Is this object man-made, manufactured, or natural?
– When was this object created and/or found?
– Where was this object created and/or found?
– Why was this object made and for what purpose?
– Is the object authentic or a replica? How do you know?
Contextualization
Consider the setting during which the object was utilized and how it influenced its time, space, and place.
– When and where was the object made?
– What were the circumstances of the time that impacted the object’s construction/use?
– Was this object made with a purpose?
– What societal changes prompted the need for the object? What predated the object? Has it been replaced with something else?
– How might the circumstances in which the object was made/used affect its material construction?
– How does the object play a role in the events of the time?
Corroboration
Examine the object against other sources and objects so that its authenticity can be tested; using multiple texts allows an individual to see multiple points of view.
– Is this object part of a collection?
– What do other sources reveal about the object?
– What do other sources add to your understanding of the object?
– Are there other objects similar to it in form and function? 
– What sources confirm the authenticity of the object?
Close Reading
Take a closer look at the object by bringing in outside information and examining for clues that may connect to a person, time, or culture.
– What are the material qualities of the object? (Use your senses to determine.)
– How many people used this object, and in what way(s)?
– Does its creator impact the object’s value? 
– Does its former or current owner determine its value?
– What story does the object tell?
– How does this object differ from others like it? What makes it unique?
Adapted from Stanford History Education Group by Drew Writing Project Open Institute, 2022

Use the questions from each section of the Historical Reading Skills chart to interrogate the text about the printing press.

Sourcing
  • Who made this object; did they make it for themselves or for someone else?
  • Is this object man-made, manufactured, or natural?
  • When was this object created and/or found?
  • Where was this object created and/or found?
  • Why was this object made and for what purpose?
  • Is the object authentic or a replica? How do you know?
Contextualization
  • When and where was the object made?
  • What were the circumstances of the time that impacted the object’s construction/use?
  • Was this object made with a purpose?
  • What societal changes prompted the need for the object? What predated the object? Has it been replaced with something else?
  • How might the circumstances in which the object was made/used affect its material construction?
  • How does the object play a role in the events of the time?
Corroboration
  • Is this object part of a collection?
  • What do other sources reveal about the object?
  • What do other sources add to your understanding of the object?
  • Are there other objects similar to it in form and function? 
  • What sources confirm the authenticity of the object?
Close Reading
  • What are the material qualities of the object? (Use your senses to determine.)
  • How many people used this object, and in what way(s)?
  • Does its creator impact the object’s value? 
  • Does its former or current owner determine its value?
  • What story does the object tell?
  • How does this object differ from others like it? What makes it unique?

Bring it together!

What do you understand about this object now that you have interrogated it? What questions still remain? How might you uncover answers to your questions?

See it in Action!

Watch as Lauren describes her process of thinking about the printing press when she first encountered it.

*Notice how Lauren uses historical thinking as she asks questions about the artifact.*


What did you learn from Lauren’s interrogation of the printing press? How does her interaction with the object inform your own understanding?


Moving from Objects to Written Texts

We can analyze texts with a tool called HIPPO, which is commonly shared in AP training.


For example, look at the following object, in this case an advertisement from a Runaway apprentice found in the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts.

Take a moment to go through and identify the H.I.P.P.O. in the document.

Property of the Early Trades and Crafts Museum, Madison NJ.

Now write a paragraph using the letters as a stem starter.

Need an example? Click here!

“The document __________________ was found within the exhibit on the printing press in the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts in Madison, NJ. The  historical context of the document shows….From reading the document, the intended audience for the document most likely is…After reading the document further, it is clear that the purpose of the document was…and was written from the perspective of… After reading the document it shows….The document can also be connected to the …. Because…”

Bringing It All Together


How can developing historical literacy deepen your understanding of the world around you? How can objects or artifacts help with the development of historical literacy?


Please complete this FORM once you have finished the module.


Additional Resources

Access the Historical Thinking Chart HERE

Works Consulted

Andrews, Thomas, and Flannery Burke. “What Does It Mean to Think Historically? | Perspectives on History | AHA.” Perspectives on History: The News Magazine of the American Historical Association, American Historical Association, 1 June 2007, www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/january-2007/what-does-it-mean-to-think-historically#:~:text=In%20response%2C%20we%20developed%20an.

Mandell, Nikki, and Bobbie Malone. Thinking like a Historian : Rethinking History Instruction : A Framework to Enhance and Improve Teaching and Learning. Madison, Wis., Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2007.

Printing Press Exhibit.  “R. Hoe & Co. NY Printing Press. 2022. Private Collection, Museum of Early Trades and Crafts, Madison, New Jersey. 

Stearns, Peter N. “The Challenge of “Historical Literacy” | Perspectives on History | AHA.” Perspectives on History: The News Magazine of the American Historical Association, 1 Apr. 1991, www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/april-1991/the-challenge-of-historical-literacy.

“Teachinghistory.org.” The Connection between Literacy and History, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, 2011, teachinghistory.org/nhec-blog/25172.

“What Is Historical Thinking?” Teachinghistory.org, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, 2011, teachinghistory.org/nhec-blog/24434.

About the Authors
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