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Creating Document Based Questions (DBQs) with Documenting the American South materials

Advanced Placement teachers find the primary sources made available on-line via Documenting the American South useful to help students develop the skills of inquiry, comprehension, and synthesis necessary to complete a document-based question. Here are some suggestions and sample lesson plan options to assist the process.

Finding your theme:
Many of the collections of primary sources are already organized according to themes. This means that the documents have already been grouped in a logical format, making them easy to develop into a DBQ. For example "The North Carolina Experience" can be accessed according to topic at /nc/topics.html. Topics included range from: "African American" to "Women" and "Agriculture" to Medicine" and many others. While these topics relate to NC history they generally reflect the larger historical experience in the U.S.

Choosing your excerpts:
The Documenting the American South collection contains complete documents some of which are extremely lengthy. As such it is necessary for instructors to select specific excerpts from the documents. This requires front-work on the part of the teacher but significantly cuts down on the amount of time spent working on the documents in class. After identifying your main theme and related question, look for sections of the text that specifically relate and enhance the discussion.

Creating conflict:
One of the most important skills students develop related to working with primary source documents is the ability to sift through contradicting or conflicting historical evidence and come to their own understanding of the topic. The Documenting the American South collection provides ample opportunity to do just that since it includes a comprehensive inventory of primary sources from a variety of perspectives. For instance, not only are abolitionists and slaves represented but, so too, the reader can find the writings of plantation owners and white politicians in the South. By analyzing the experiences and arguments of the various historical characters, students can gain valuable insight into the past. So, teachers should and can look for a variety of perspectives on a topic while creating DBQ's without having to leave this digital library.

Teach literacy and writing skills:
It is likely that students will feel overwhelmed with a DBQ the first time they face one. For many this may be their first experience working with primary sources and trying to synthesize them into a coherent essay. Teachers first need to help students develop literacy skills and strategies to help them read primary sources. By providing students with handouts on which they can note key aspects of the document, for instance, teachers help them begin to analyze the source. [See the "Primary Source Analysis" handout in the teacher's tool box.] Also, charts are useful to help students compare documents. [See the "Compare and Contrast Chart" and the "Comparing Primary Sources" chart in the Teacher's Tool Box.] By working through these handouts, students gain practice in critically reading documents and uncovering key points. Additionally, if students read the documents on-line, teachers must provide strategies such as encouraging students to highlight text with the electronic highlighter in a Word document or opening a notepad on the screen to record notes as they read. After students grow familiar with reading primary sources, teachers should then encourage them to begin the writing process in small steps - starting with a pre-writing activity such as creating a graphic organizer, then moving on to creating outlines, next writing thesis statements and introductory remarks, and eventually to writing a final document. Every step of the way, students must be aware of the need to edit, revise, and refine their writing.

Sample Lesson Plans:
Option #1: In this lesson, students create a DBQ on their own in order to better understand the nuances of this type of question while also giving the opportunity to study a particular piece of history.