Valley Forge Mini Q Essay

DBQ "Mini Q" Valley Forge

DBQ...Document-Based Questions.  I was trained on this over the course of the last year and have done two DBQ lessons.  One was on Jamestown (Early Jamestown: Why did so many die?) and this last one on Valley Forge (Valley Forge: Would you have quit?).  My fifth graders LOVE doing DBQ lessons.

There are 7 components of a DBQ unit:
1. The Hook: getting students to think about the topic
2. Background Essay: providing context and a purpose for learning
3. Pre-bucketing: organizing thoughts
4. Document Analysis: carefully examining documents (primary and secondary sources)
5. Bucketing/Chicken foot: deciding on main points and which documents support them
6. Thrash out: students are discussing the evidence found on each document and how it supports arguments
7. The Essay: a 5-paragraph essay, from graphic organizer to final copy

I do the hook, background essay and pre-bucketing with the whole class.  The students lead the discussions though and I guide when needed.  We do the first document together as well.  I like to set the tone here. The documents are charts, graphs, pictures, journal entries, excerpts from books or articles.  I thought my students might have difficulties locating the evidence in the documents.  Nope.  They are great detectives! I send the other documents home as homework and we discuss/analyze them in class the next day.  The copies of the documents are littered with their notes and questions and highlighting. There are questions to answer on the bottom of the page.  Text-dependent questions.  Another buzzword in education these days.  TDQs. The students must use the documents to answer questions (it's the evidence!).  Doesn't that just scream Common Core?!

After the document analysis, the class gets together to discuss the question and the categories that the documents create. For Valley Forge, our buckets were survival, Congressional support, and not wanting to be a "summer soldier."  The students decided which document supported each category. There were only four documents in this mini DBQ, but two of the documents were contested about how they supported a claim, so it was a good conversation.

Once we had our documents categorized, the students went through a graphic organizer with sentence starters that set them up to write their 5-paragraph essay.  I was so impressed with their writing!  They were impressed with their own writing!  Check out the website of the DBQ Project and be amazed.  Below are some photos of my students's essays.

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:

Any other questions? Leave them in the comments below!




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *