“We inherit our history.” It was a phrase I often used to begin my year in the hopes of sparking student agency and making history relevant. But as an early teacher in social studies and ELA, misconceptions about the importance of authentically investigating history filled my brain. I knew I wanted my students to engage in source analysis, and I knew I wanted them to think deeply about complex history. I quickly realized, however, that giving students a set of sources and asking them to think critically wasn’t enough, because it wasn’t working. When it came time for an assessment asking my students to make a claim about sources, I was confronted with the truth of my failed logic:they didn’t know how to inquire. Introducing students to the sources wasn’t enough. Students needed a relationship with them.
I decided to try something new.
I had often used document-based questions and other methods of source analysis as a way to engage students in thinking like historians. But in doing so, I had missed a vital component: students need to be taught how to investigate history. So I began to dig for a solution.
I came upon the article, Anatomy of an Inquiry, by Kathy Swan, John Lee, and S.G. Grant, advocating for the Inquiry Design Model (IDM) approach and its support of the C3 Framework. I knew instantly that this was the “how” I had been looking for.
As I scanned the article, I saw a question highlighted: Can words lead to war? It was an inquiry about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While I didn’t teach that novel in class, I knew that the idea of that compelling question not only hooked me, it was easily translatable to other content areas, and it would provoke my students to intellectual action. I decided to use a variation of it in our next novel study of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Our introductory lesson focused on propaganda, and I felt that this was the perfect time to try a deep dive into inquiry. Or, at the very least, dip our toes in the water.
“How can images control a society?” I thought.
I had a compelling question. Now I had to decide how to ease my students into this new learning style. They were acquainted with critical thinking; they’d engaged in source analysis and even participated in Socratic Seminars. But honestly, I had done most of the heavy lifting. The staging of our introduction to propaganda would be a perfect way to hook my students. I explained that I was going to show advertising and promotional images. I asked them to sort the images into three categories they were familiar with: ethos, pathos, and logos.
As they sorted in small groups, analyzing each image in the set, I could tell they were already noticing propaganda techniques but without a clear definition of what they were seeing.
After the task was finished, and students had categorized all 10 images, I asked, “Based on what you just did, tell me, ‘How can images control a society?’” Students debriefed about the images they saw and examples of consumer control being used in advertising. Ultimately, students felt that while advertisers and promoters were definitely targeting consumers using forms of persuasion, it was essentially harmless. Even political ads, they argued, still left the voter with a choice. I knew this would jumpstart a great inquiry on the impact of propaganda techniques in the novel and Russian history.
After the staging task, students studied propaganda techniques (bandwagoning, testimonials, loaded words, etc.) and read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. As we read, students completed discussion questions.
Ready to further immerse ourselves in inquiry, I refocused my old lessons analyzing political examples of propaganda towards having students inquire and prepare to make an argument about the uses of such techniques in the novel and in Russian history.
By the end of our inquiry, students were poised to make an argument. Several students wrote claims supported by robust evidence from our inquiry, and many included additional research they found to support their arguments. Others made propaganda posters fusing Animal Farm and Russian political history.
I had enough time to try an extension activity and was inspired by the one highlighted in “Can words lead to war?” I had students complete a similar task: Create an educational video/skit answering the compelling question: “How can images control a society?”
Albeit imperfect, my first attempt teaching this unit through inquiry sparked debate in my classroom that I hadn’t expected. It challenged my students to think in multidisciplinary ways, and we ended our unit with a lively Socratic Seminar that was contextually meaningful, rich with evidence, and a lot of fun! They hadn’t just dipped their toes in the water; they’d jumped in the deep end!
In the years since, I have incorporated more inquiry into my instruction, punctuating nearly every unit with pieces of its form to the point where it has become more and more of a fixture of my classes. Teaching a range of ELA and Social Studies classes over the years, it’s taken my students on a deep dive into the more challenging yet incredibly fruitful skills of history and literature.