4 Keys to Making DBQ Work in Middle School


Deneen MRC Katie Lyons discusses whether the Code of Hammurabi is just or unjust in this DBQ lesson.

Think DBQs are only for Advanced Placement students?

Please think again.

While many of our history teachers use materials from  The DBQ Project’s Mini-Q binders successfully in 9th-12th grade classrooms, the original target audience was middle school.  In fact, because these Mini DBQs contain less documents to analyze and some really great scaffolded supports, students as young as 2nd grade have actually completed units.

As with any rigorous CCSS-aligned undertaking, implementation of a DBQ Project Mini-Q involves lots of thoughtful planning ahead of time.

Luckily, we have teachers across our network who have learned how to do this really well, whether it be in an 11th grade US history class or a 6th grade literacy block that combines social studies and ELA.  From planning with them and observing their classes, I’ve learned that there are 4 keys to successful DBQ units in middle school and beyond.

1.  Tie it to a Theme

While especially important for teachers who are trying to thread social studies into a literacy block, aligning a DBQ to other topics students are studying makes it even more powerful and can minimize the time needed to build background knowledge.  Some great examples include:

  • using the Revolutionary War novel My Brother Sam is Dead as a whole class read aloud, while completing the “Valley Forge: Would You Have Quit?” Mini-Q

  • tying the “What Caused the Dust Bowl?” Mini-Q to a science unit on weather

  • incorporating the “Early Jamestown: Why Did So Many People Die?” Mini-Q into an ELA unit with an essential question focused on survival

2.  Study Structure

Look at the question the DBQ is asking to ascertain what type of essay students will need to write and how difficult the process will be.  For instance, a simple two-side question like “How Great was Alexander the Great?” has proven to be surprisingly easier than the more complicated “What was Harriet Tubman’s Greatest Achievement?”  In the first example students seem to have very little trouble finding evidence as to whether Alexander was great or not great; whereas, in the 2nd they must mine the documents to determine what Harriet Tubman’s 5 great achievements before ranking those achievements at which point the can finally argue which is the greatest.

3.  Modify, Modify, Modify

There is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching the documents in a different order than they are presented or even in leaving out a document that students may not need to write a proficient essay.  In fact, not only does the great history education thinker Sam Wineburg argue that it’s ok to modify primary sources in his article “Tampering with History: Adapting Primary Sources for Struggling Readers”, he provides tips on how to do so.

Also as mentioned before, The DBQ Project’s Mini-Q Binders have some excellent supports in them that make for great modifications like the Guided Essays, which provide students with DBQ essay specific sentence stems.

4.  Model, Model, Model

Often it’s important to demonstrate the rigorous thinking that’s needed to analyze documents in order to write an argument-based essay for students.  Don’t be afraid work through an entire document for students as you would a read aloud.

And because many of the types of primary sources may be unfamiliar to students, it might make sense to practice with something that is. For instance, analyzing a map of the school to determine the best route to the cafeteria before digging into one that follows Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca.

Wondering what DBQ actually looks in an AUSL middle school classroom?  Please check out this video of Deneen MRC Katie Lyons, teaching a DBQ during her time at NTA.

Wondering what else you should consider while planning?  We have terrific resources for you:

  • the AUSL Historical Reading & Writing Framework, which includes tips on everything from pacing to literacy strategy ideas.
  • our TchAUSL Group where you can join an open forum to share and reflect and also to download resources and view video and learn more about best practices in DBQ.

Any other questions? Leave them in the comments below!




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