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Dueling Documents


This strategy is effecting in helping students understand one reason why historians sometimes arrive at different conclusions about the past.


1. Select a topic for exploration (e.g. slavelife).

2. Gather two documents that offer competing descriptions of a(n) person, event, institution, society etc. For example,

    • Document A = a former slave describes the experience of slavery as one of unrelenting horror in which slaves are viewed as passive objects.
    • Document B = a former slave describes his or her life as a subject who exhibited agency and crafted moments of joy despite the evil that existed.

3. Jigsaw: Split the class into halves. Divide students in both halves into small groups and distribute Document A to some groups and Document B to other groups.

4. Have students read and analyze their document and discuss the following in their small groups: What does this document suggest about the topic (e.g. slavelife)?

5. Take students who analyzed Document A and pair them off with students who analyzed Document B. Ask each student in the paired group to describe the conclusions they drew from their photograph. If the photographs are well selected, students should arrive at competing conclusions.

6. Tell the students that they are now going to play a game of Dueling Documents. Explain that they have two documents that are competing to tell the story of the past (e.g. what slave life was like). Their task is to decide which document should win the duel. Ask them to discuss the following questions as they decide which document wins the duel:

  • which source is “best?” Why”
  • which conclusion about the past is "best?” Why?

7. Ask each group to explain which document won the duel and why?

8. Debrief: Ask why might historians arrive at different conclusions about the past? Explain that history is filled with different interpretations. One reason for the different interpretations is that historians often rely on different pieces of evidence (e.g. photographs) to construct their accounts. However, your experiences with the documents suggest that there may be more than one story about the past.


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