More on Homework-Free, Document-Based Lessons

(A follow-up to yesterday’s post.)

Hi, can you elaborate on a document based lesson? How much time do you spend working with a document?*

I’d love to hear others’ takes on this question. Me? I’m making my own DBQs, basically, to bring out the essential learnings and understandings key to the narrative frame that I’m building around the entire span of China’s recorded history. It’s a semester course, so much selection and rejection of textbook content is going on — and textbook coverage of those concepts is disappearing almost entirely. Other sources bring these things out so much better, and with so much more interest.

Since the Shang and Zhou dynasties are as seminal to China as the Hebrew and Christian traditions are to the West (Confucian ritual and ideology trace back to the Shang and Zhou), I’m spending a lot of time on those two dynasties in primary source work.

Long story short, rather than a paragraph from a textbook about the importance of Ancestor Rites, I lead students through a three-page essay from a secondary source about the role of music in Zhou ritual that (deliciously) includes two extended texts — one from the Zhou Classic of Odes (Shi Jing), another from a bronze bell inscription — that actually narrate the ritual performance from start to finish.

Since Confucian ethics revolve around ritual and music, not religion or rules, I spent about a half hour on these three pages in class. Procedure (and I myself wince at this too, but feel it’s justified since it’s so crucial to understanding the next 3,000 years of China’s history):

  1. I read aloud once, slowly, instructing students to annotate anything that strikes them (their choice), but also to double-underline any word or phrase that I pause to read twice. (Why? There are key repetitions and motifs that sleepy or inattentive students can gloss over and miss. My reading these key passages twice, I hope, forces the discussion afterward to address these key elements.)
  2. I occasionally pause with comprehension-checking questions (“Who is the ‘impersonator’?” “Who is the ‘revered guest’?” “Remember who King Wen and Wu are?”) along the way to keep everybody from getting lost.
  3. Once I finish reading aloud, students get the essential questions (E.g., “These rites, and the values in them, will be central to China for the next 3,000 years. When Christian Europe arrives 2,500 years later, how do you think Christian missionaries will react to the types of ritual worship we see here? What is ‘holy’ in China that might be ‘sin’ to Europeans?” “What do we learn about how the ancient Chinese saw the afterlife? Is it similar to Christianity, or different?” On and on.)
  4. We open it up and discuss from there.
  5. Homework is only to write on a team blog a minimum 14-sentence post about one of the essential questions of the day. They comment on each others’ posts as a way of peer teaching and, in the best cases, simply conversing about the interesting thoughts they’re having.

I’ve been timing how long it takes me to read the texts aloud before class, and planning the length of discussion based on how many texts are included in the day’s plan.

Here’s the packet with the readings I referenced for the session above (the Shang and Zhou Ritual text on the last two pages is incredibly interesting). The entire packet is a two-lesson mini-unit on the legacies of the Shang and Western Zhou. We’re on a block schedule, so that means about 2 hours in class.

*Copied from an H-NET history teachers list-serv for my own records.

6 thoughts on “More on Homework-Free, Document-Based Lessons”

  1. Clay,
    I’m reading your packet and it’s AMAZING. How long did it take you to make? This is my 4th year teaching “world” English and  I would love to create my own coursepacks like this, but geez, by the time I go home, cook a nutrient dense meal, workout and then play with the internet for awhile, I don’t care anymore. :) What keeps you motivated to keep creating for the classroom? Thanks for sharing your process.

    1. Ahh, she sees, she sees. :)

      I’ve been teaching this course — four-thousand years of Chinese history in a semester — going on the sixth time now over the last three years. And I’ve been increasingly obsessed and spellbound with each survey (I’m re-reading the *Analects *this weekend for the fourth time, now, in a new translation because the Confucius lesson comes this week, and loving it the way I used to love re-reading the *Iliad*). So I read instead of browsing or blogging or really anything else (I lived in China for five or six years, and am surrounded by Chinese culture here in Singapore too, so I have personal connections galore to motivate this as well).

      Lots of what I read is pdf / ebook, so it’s not hard to copy/paste into a packet.

      I’ve got a monster “DBQ Sources” Word document that I paste new finds into as I read, arranged by dynasties primarily, so it’s like a massive file cabinet for me to choose from for lessons.

      But I don’t work out or cook or anything else, so I figure I’ll die a few years earlier because of this love. Which is fine with me, really, because it’s that sweet.

      Anyway, glad you enjoyed it.

      1. I’ve been thinking about what you said: that this is your passion and you do it ANYWAY, and it has really helped clarify for me where my interests are. What do I read/do obsessively? Sourdough cultures, propagating apple species and how to cook pork trotters and sweetbreads and tripe and make my own stock and how to build a root cellar….This is what I read all the time when I’m not “working,” and this is what I do, obsessively on my own time.  I have been considering a shift lately to try to find some niche where I can teach gardening/sustainable living/permaculture to students. I don’t know what that would look like, other than continuing to need to educate myself first because I am NO kind of expert. Not even close. But it makes my soul sing. That, and poetry.

        Do you ever have those moments in class when you are so moved by the work you are studying, even to tears, and you say “Oh my god. Do you guys feel this??” and they look around at each other and say, “No.” I’ve decided they’re lying. 😀 Any ideas of how to combine earth loving, poetry and education? Because I love that moment in the class when I’ve just read a poem and it is s-i-l-e-n-t, in a mystical way, for just a moment. And I don’t want to give that up, even if I leave my teaching job.

        One more: have you ever read the Rumi poem “The Way Wings Should”? Perhaps corny, but I love it!

        Mind if I use excerpts from your handout in my world lit class? Perhaps pass it on to a colleague looking to include more “Asian” material?


        1. Hold on a second, Sarah, while I slow down to read the Rumi poem. Nice 2.14 a.m. surprise, that invitation…


          “the sky’s mouth is kind” — oh yes. And to several other lines. So thank you. It sounds very Chinese to me, and makes me wonder if we Westerners are as blind as we seem to be about the beauty of non-Western eyes and ways over the centuries. Do Iranians and Afghanis ever wonder why Rumi is not a household name in the West, and whether things would be slightly different between us if it were?


          I hear you on sharing beauty with kids, but am less sanguine than you seem to be. I’ve written about it in “Too Beautiful to Teach” , “On Inspiration Gaps and Ecstatic Pedagogy”, and (my favorite) “Ecstatic Teaching 2: It Helps to Get Drunk”.But I agree we’re lucky to know ecstasy through reading. And I hear you on having a calling that wants to also be a vocation. I feel the same way about teaching Chinese history. It’s beauty and majesty enthralls me, so I dream of being paid for that gift not by parents forcing their kids to come, but by adults who are curious to hear what I can share — ideally through travel. Yet here I sit, grading. Such is life. It could be far, far worse (and in fact is quite good as is, anyway), so for now that’s the game.(Did I mention it’s wee hours over here? Late-night thoughts and all that jazz.)Thanks for the poem and chat :)

    2. I didn’t answer your question. That packet I started at about midnight, and finished at about 6 a.m. Now that it’s done, though, I won’t have to do that again. I think it’s way good enough as is. (Okay, I’ll probably tinker around its edges.)

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