Blueprint at the American Historical Association Conference

Originally posted on January 14, 2012 by Shennan Hutton

Last Saturday, Karen Halttunen, Kristi Peckham, Amy Hale and I gave a presentation about the History Blueprint and the new Civil War unit at the American Historical Association (AHA) Conference in Chicago.  It was a good opportunity for us to take stock of our efforts and reflect on the progress that we’ve made in the past year.

If you’d like to see our powerpoint presentation, click here: Powerpoint AHA Blueprint 2012

The text of my talk is below:

The California History-Social Science Project began work on the History Blueprint project in 2009.  Building on the work of our history scholars in the academy and history teachers in the K-12 schools, the Blueprint combines all we have learned about good history instruction into a systematic structure that will be available to all teachers everywhere.  We felt the need for this project is particularly critical at this time, because history and the related social sciences have been marginalized for some years.  Many elementary schools and some middle schools in California have dramatically reduced the amount of class time devoted to history.  In the middle and high schools, where history is tested, student test scores are particularly low in history in comparison to other subjects.  Test scores for English learners (that is, non-native speakers) and students from disadvantaged socio-economic groups  are even lower.  In addition to our natural desire to preserve the place of our discipline, we are also concerned that the very students who most need history instruction to act as responsible citizens and knowledgeable workers in the global economy are faring so poorly.

Although these are thorny problems, we believe that history teachers can make a difference in student learning if they have the right tools.  The History Blueprint’s goal is to support teachers’ efforts to increase student achievement and engagement and improve students’ historical knowledge, academic literacy, and critical thinking skills. We operate on the premise that history is an interpretive discipline.   Teachers have to engage students in the subject, and once they are engaged, teach them not only historical “facts” but also how to analyze primary sources, how to make an interpretation, and how to support it with evidence.  To these ends, the History Blueprint is designed to give teachers four tools or components.  The first is a comprehensive curriculum for history-social science in grades 4-12, aligned with the California content standards.  This means a full set of units, lesson plans, primary sources, activities for students, multimedia, and teacher keys for the entire scope of U.S. and World History.  Everything teachers need will be included in each unit, and when each unit is finished, it will be made available online for teachers everywhere – for free.  The second piece is that all the lessons will incorporate literacy support for students.  Third, we are creating a set of assessments that will measure student achievement in historical thinking and literacy, in addition to mastery of content knowledge.  The final component is professional development for teachers – to increase their historical knowledge and build their repertoire of teaching skills.  In short, the History Blueprint puts all the tools and support structures that the History Project has developed at the disposal of teachers.

Creating units of this type for all of U.S. and world history is naturally a massive undertaking, and this year we have produced just one unit – on the Civil War, chosen to coincide with the sesquicentennial anniversary.  We have also gained intellectual support from a number of institutions – the AHA and the Library of Congress – and six school districts across the state, and financial support from History Channel and the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation.

This spring a team of historians – Alice Fahs, of UCI, and Karen Halttunen of USC – six teacher leaders – 8th-grade teachers from schools in Orange County, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, and the Bay area – and coordinators from the CHSSP office began to design the Civil War unit.  We worked together online, and met in person for a very intense five days this summer to design the unit.  Since that time, we have sought feedback and revised the unit three times.  We will revise it again after teachers field-test with students this spring.

Our challenge was to combine together three sets of standards – California’s content standards, which assign the Civil War to the 8th grade – the Common Core standards for reading and writing, and historical thinking skills, while adhering to the most up-to-date historiography.  We also incorporated the Common Core reading and writing standards.  Many of these standards, quoted here for the 6th-8th grade, harmonize with our objectives as history teachers, such as:

  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis – or –
  • Identify aspects of a text that reveal author’s point of view or purpose

These standards mesh easily with what we have been doing at the History Project.  Finally, we also structured the unit around historical inquiry and patterns of historical thinking.

In sum, the Blueprint approach is to organize the unit around an engaging historical question, provide a rich collection of primary sources, teach critical thinking through the process of historical inquiry and support students’ literacy needs with a discipline-specific approach to reading and writing development.  Blueprint units are aligned to state content standards and Common Core standards, and include assessment with differentiated guidance.

Now to take a look at the Civil War unit.  The History Blueprint Civil War unit has a historical focus question – Was the Civil War a war for freedom? – which is introduced in the first lesson, woven through the other lessons, and forms the basis of the assessments at the end of the unit.  This is deceptively easy question, but as the students read the primary sources and go through the lessons, it becomes a richer and more complex task to draw an interpretation.

There are 8 lessons in the unit.  Each lesson has a focus question of its own, but at the end, each ties back into the unit focus question.

Lesson 1, the Road to War, examines the causes of the war. With its simple focus question, “What caused the Civil War?”, this lesson centers on one of the most significant and contested issues about the war itself.  The lesson shows students that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, because it underpinned all other causes.  Sectional differences between the North and South also contributed to the division, as did the unsettled constitutional question of states’ rights.  The South’s desire to extend slavery into the western territories against the desires of the Northern majority reinforced sectional differences and fueled the argument for states’ rights.  Some of the activities in this lesson are analyzing graphs and charts of data from the 1860 Census, making a living timeline of the Chronology of States’ Rights, and analyzing primary sources from the debates of the era.

Lesson 2 examines the constitutional issue of secession, through an analysis of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Ordinances of Secession of South Carolina.  Students decide whether South Carolina had the right to secede from the Union, and support their interpretation with evidence from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Lesson 3 is on Strategies and Battles.  Its focus question is “Why did the North win?”  Students chart the advantages of the Union and Confederacy, evaluate Union and Confederate strategies and gather evidence about the major battles of the war.

Lesson 4 is about perspective.  It asks students “How did individual Americans define freedom?”  This is an extremely difficult concept for students to grasp.  Not only do modern students have a difficult time realizing that anyone ever thought slavery was a good idea, they are often confused by the diversity of perspectives among people at the time.  This lesson teaches them that the majority of Northerners were white Republicans who wanted land in the Western Territories open to “free” farmers.  Abolitionists were primarily a Northern minority group of both black and white people who were considered radical at the time.  In this lesson, students also learn how to analyze perspective through critiquing primary sources.  Last, they are assigned one of 14 historical figures to investigate in depth.

We collected information about 14 Historical Figures from the Civil War.  Some of these figures – such as Frederick Douglass and Louisa May Alcott – are well-known, while others, like Clinton Hatcher and Oliver Wilcox North – a Confederate soldier and a Union soldier respectively – are much less familiar.  The figures reflect points of diversity – male and female, black and white, Union and Confederate, soldier and civilian, rich and poor.

In the 8th-grade classroom, the teacher will assign each historical figure to two or three students, and distribute a one-page source handout with a secondary biography and a primary source excerpt, either by or about the figure.  A set of activities takes students through analyzing the sources and determining the perspective of their historical figures.  They return to the historical figure in later lessons as well.

The next lesson is the Lincoln’s Speeches lesson, which begins on p. 9 of your handout.  In many ways, this is the most challenging of all the standards, because it asks students to read and understand five of Lincoln’s speeches or writings:  the “House Divided” speech, the First Inaugural Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural Address.  Although we would all like students to appreciate Lincoln’s beautiful prose and majestic language, comprehending his vocabulary, style and complexity, let alone his use of biblical references and irony, is an uphill battle for most 8th-graders.  In keeping with current historiography, we also want students to grapple with the issue of Lincoln’s role in freeing the slaves, rather than to accept blindly that freedom came because Lincoln ordered it.  The counterpart questions – what role did the slaves play in freeing themselves?  How did their actions affect Lincoln? – will be taken up in the next lesson, but for this lesson, we decided on a more tangible focus question: “Why did Lincoln fight?  Students read and analyze each of the speeches to identify the reason or reasons he expressed for fighting the war.  You’ll see in this lesson excerpt our approach to literacy and how we connect literacy support to historical analysis, helping students to spend time looking carefully at the reading, to understand it and collecting evidence. At the end of lesson, they address a revised question, “How did Lincoln’s reasons for fighting change over time?”  The lesson has activities on synthesizing the sources, making an interpretation about change over time, and supporting it with evidence.

These two lessons have related focus questions: How did Lincoln’s reasons for fighting change over time, and how did the slaves gain their freedom.   These two questions and the Emancipation Review timeline will guide students to a deeper understanding of how the slaves became free.  They will realize that the emancipation was not just a top-down process, but one in which slaves played a leading role.  Students are thus grappling with the significant historiographical issue of how the slaves became free, and what role Lincoln played in emancipation.  They will appreciate that the actions of slaves & events of the war led him to take an action he did not initially contemplate – at least publicly.  In these demonstration lessons students also analyze primary sources and make interpretations.  The sentence frames, the EAR charts, and the field notes form are all methods to help students look carefully at the sources, understand the meaning, gather evidence and use it to support their interpretations.  This is our discipline-specific approach to literacy.

The next lesson is on the Effects of the Civil War.  Students look at the death and destruction of the war, technological developments, the growth of the federal government, and effects on different populations – women, African-Americans, slave owners, and white Southerners.  At the end they realize that the war did not bring about equality for the former slaves, an issue that will be more fully explored in the next unit on Reconstruction.  And the losers of the war had a deep sense of loss of freedom.

In the final lesson, students grapple with the unit focus question, “Was the Civil War a war for freedom?’   This final lesson has two parts.  In the first, students play the role of their assigned historical figure in a Talk Show simulation, and express how their historical figure would have answered the focus question.  Since the historical figures come from a variety of backgrounds, this will surface a number of different answers.  In the second part, students will write an essay expressing their own interpretation of this question, using the evidence they have gained from the unit.  We have included sentence frames, EAR charts, and other tools to help students organize and write this essay, as well as a rubric for grading.

We plan to use our website to post examples of student work – and teachers’ comments and evaluations of that work – so that teachers can compare their students’ essay writing to students across the nation.

I’d like to point out one last feature of the unit: the modifications page.  Each lesson plan includes suggested modifications such as additional literacy support – for English Learners; extension – for Gifted students; and suggestions for re-teaching concepts.  There is also a “Short-Track Schedule” – a shortened version of the lesson for teachers who do not have time to teach the entire lesson.  On our website, we plan to offer multiple pathways through the lessons for differentiated instruction.

Our future plans are to pilot unit in 8th grade classrooms in spring, revise the unit once again, and then to make it available online for free.  We are also planning to develop new units in world & U.S. history, for which we will continue to seek additional funding.

If you are interested in learning more about the History Blueprint, obtaining materials, or participating in field tests, please check out our website, and feel free to email us.

Shennan Hutton: or, 530.752.0572

History Blueprint:,

CHSSP Statewide Office:, (see videos)

Thank you.