From Lecture to Lesson through "Opening Up the Textbook"

Daisy Martin

Thirty high school teachers, all taking part in the local Teaching American History grant, listen to a history professor talk about the New Deal. The lecture is transplanted from the professor’s college level survey course. There is a guiding outline on the screen, and the professor invokes historiographical debates, quotes Francis Perkins and FDR, and describes opposition and support for the government’s policies.

Anyone familiar with professional development for K-12 teachers will recognize this scene. Planners and policymakers claim such lectures will increase teachers’ understanding of history, which will then translate into increased student achievement. The goal is one we all applaud, but its logic is suspect. The notion that students will learn more history because their teachers have heard some good lectures ignores the realities and working conditions in today’s high schools.

A high school teacher’s classroom is a different world from the college professor’s. Pressured by state standards, faced with the daily press for coverage and classrooms that include unmotivated or struggling students, high school teachers often have only the textbook easily available as an instructional resource. They may wish that a transplanted college lecture would work in their classrooms, but they know better.

Given that such approaches are a mainstay of professional development, what tools improve the odds that a historian’s lecture could actually make a difference to high school teachers and their students?  My colleagues and I have created one such tool and it relies on an unlikely resource. In the “Opening Up the Textbook” (OUT) lecture that we have developed, the point of departure is the very narrative that teachers find in their own, much-reviled history textbook. By focusing on such narratives, and then bringing in other sources to challenge them, historians model the nature of the discipline—how they use texts to challenge other texts and, in the process, enlarge their understanding.

The New Deal: An Example

Consider the following passage from the California edition of a popular textbook:

The New Deal changed the link between the American people and their government. The leaders of the 1920s had promoted business as the best way to achieve progress, and they generally viewed government as a barrier to progress. Roosevelt believed that government could help businesses and individuals achieve a greater level of economic security. The new role for government meant a much bigger government. Dozens of new programs and agencies put people in contact with their government in ways they had not experienced before. Americans now began to look regularly to government for help. Roosevelt and the New Deal were both praised and hated for this. For some, this change brought a welcome shift from the laissez-faire policies of the 1920s. To others, it threatened the basic character that had always held the country together (1).

An OUT lecture might begin by having participants read this passage carefully and generate questions about it. “Is that true—that FDR was as concerned with businesses’ economic security as he was with individuals’ security?” asks one teacher. Another wonders, “What is this ‘basic character’ of the country that the text refers to?”

Most important to an OUT lecture is the importing of other sources that highlight the textbook’s gaps, failings, or watered-down prose. For example, a historian might offer the following excerpt from Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom,

Like the Civil War, the New Deal recast the idea of freedom by linking it to the expanding power of the national state. But now, economic security, not the civil and political rights of the former slaves and their descendants, dominated discussions of freedom. “Our democracy,” wrote John A. Ryan, “finds itself . . . in a new age where not political freedom but social and industrial freedom is the most insistent cry.” 3 During the 1930s, the federal government took up this responsibility, laying the foundation, in the name of greater freedom, for a broadly based American welfare state. . . .

Roosevelt conceived of the second New Deal, and especially Social Security, as expanding the meaning of freedom by extending assistance to broad groups of needy Americans—the unemployed, elderly, and dependent—as a universal right of citizenship, not charity or special privilege (2).

Juxtaposing this account with the high school textbook helps teachers, especially those who have never experienced a university seminar, see that the same historical story is not always told the same way. First, just the existence of footnotes marks the second excerpt as different. Then there is the substance. Nowhere in the first excerpt is economic security linked to ideas of freedom. Yet, Foner depicts this link as important to Roosevelt’s understanding of what he was doing and the rhetoric that surrounded New Deal reforms. Comparing the two passages not only surfaces that idea, it demonstrates that a classroom textbook is only one source among many, not—as some teachers and many students believe—the final, irreproachable word on the past.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

Whether we like it or not, textbooks continue to serve as the primary instructional resource in many classrooms (3). It is this somewhat unsettling reality that prompted our then Stanford team—Sam Wineburg, Chauncey Monte-Sano, and me—to revise our Teaching History course for prospective teachers. While lessons on the use of source materials are important, we found they are often removed from what teaching candidates observe in real schools. Because the gap between what we advocated and what our students encountered in the field was so great, we crafted a pedagogy that started with the routine—the textbook—but pushed towards the ideal—teaching students to think and read historically (4).

“Opening up the textbook” can take many forms—comparison, direct challenge, narrativization, articulating silences, vivification, and close reading—but what unites these approaches is the same point of departure: teaching teachers (and by extension their students) to become thoughtful consumers of textbooks (5). A second example based on the Montgomery Bus Boycott makes this goal clear (it is drawn from the website <> where readers can find more resources supporting this lesson idea) (6).

In December 1955, Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, became nationally famous. She refused to move to the rear of a Montgomery city bus so that a white man could have her seat. At the time, blacks were forced to extend such courtesies to whites, and Mrs. Parks was arrested for disobeying the law. The following night, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., organized a bus boycott that lasted more than a year (7).

Historians will find several errors in this passage. (It is drawn from an older textbook specifically chosen to provide a clear example: still, many students are reading passages all too similar to this one.) Giving workshop participants this passage, then following up with a 1954 letter from Jo Ann Robinson, then president of the Montgomery Women’s Political Council, provokes questions about the textbook’s story. Her letter, written more than a year before Parks’ arrest, warns the mayor of Montgomery that, “even now plans are being made to ride less, or not at all, on our busses.”

Robinson’s letter calls into question the textbook’s account that the boycott was a spontaneous event arising out of Rosa Parks’ arrest. Complicating that narrative allows teachers to generate more questions: What was already happening that sparked the rapid response to her arrest? Why did the boycott happen in December 1955 and not 1954? Who was this Jo Ann Robinson and what was her role in the boycott that eventually took place?

The OUT approach is one response to a challenge faced by many engaged in professional development: helping teachers translate new historical understanding into effective classroom lessons. It acknowledges the working conditions of teachers and recognizes that the history textbook is their most readily available resource. But its real strength lies in using that same textbook to show that history is the study of multiple accounts that must be analyzed, compared, and synthesized to yield a fuller understanding of the past.

This approach to professional development requires that historians get their hands on a current high school textbook, preferably one used in local classrooms. Before a lecture, historians would select a passage and supply additional sources to “open it up.”  Selecting excerpts that target key aspects of standards-based topics will make these lectures and documents even more useful. Teachers will not only deepen their own understanding of history and the role of the textbook, they will come away with specific sources to help students understand the same.

Too often, efforts to improve education ignore or minimize the working conditions of K-12 teachers. As new collaborations and dollars are devoted to improving classroom instruction and student achievement, we must create instructional tools that fit teachers’ occupational realities without sacrificing the integrity of the discipline. Historians are in the business of contextualizing people and events. Let’s not forget the importance of the real-world context in improving educational practice—starting with that cornerstone of the high school history classroom, the textbook.


  1. Edward L. Ayers, Robert D. Schulzinger, Jesus F. de la Teja and Deborah Gray White, American Anthem: Modern American History (California Edition) (Orlando, FL: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2007), 372-373.
  2. Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1999), 196, 205-206. Footnote 3 in quote is: Francis L. Broderick, Right Reverend New Dealer: John A. Ryan (New York, 1963), 195.
  3. For data supporting this claim, see U.S. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. National Center for Education Statistics. The Nation’s Report Card: U.S. History 2001, NCES 2002–483, by M.S. Lapp, W.S. Grigg, & B.S.-H. Tay-Lim (Washington, DC: 2002), 159-161.
  4. For an account of this, see Daisy Martin and Chauncey Monte-Sano, “Inquiry, Controversy, and Ambiguous Texts: Learning to Teach for Historical Thinking,” in History Education 101: The Past, Present, and Future of Teacher Preparation, eds. Wilson J. Warren and D. Antonio Cantu (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2008).
  5. See Sam Wineburg, “Opening up the Textbook and Offering Students a ‘Second Voice’,” Education Week (June 6, 2007) Vol. 26, Issue 39.
  6. See for a lesson designed for teacher educators to use when introducing the OUT lesson. For additional examples, visit the “teacher materials and strategies” platform for each unit and see “textbook” under “materials.”
  7. Lew Smith, The American Dream (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1983).

Daisy Martin is a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University's School of Education. A specialist in history education, Martin earned her Ph.D. in curriculum and teacher education in history and social science education and codirects Historical Thinking Matters, a project of the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, and School of Education, Stanford University.