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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Using Document-Based Questions for Historical Writing

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Amanda Westenberg uses grouping techniques, peer revision, self-revision, and teacher feedback to address the skills needed to write a document-based essay.

Teacher: Amanda Westenberg

School: Rangeview High School, Aurora, Colorado

Grade: 12

Discipline: History (World History)

Lesson Topic: Document-based question on China’s one-child policy

Lesson Month: May

Number of Students: 30

Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:

  • Content objectives – Identify the demographic, social, and environmental effects of the one-child policy in China
  • Literacy/language objectives – Write a proficient or advanced five-paragraph essay
  • Engagement/interaction objectives – Work collaboratively with peers

Standards Addressed:

Colorado Academic Standards

Social Studies

  • Standard 1.1
    The historical method of inquiry to ask questions, evaluate primary and secondary sources, critically analyze and interpret data, and develop interpretations defended by evidence
  • Standard 1.2
    Analyze the key concepts of continuity and change, cause and effect, complexity, unity, and diversity over time

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts

    Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
    Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
    Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
    Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
    Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Instruction Details:

The Unit
This lesson took place at the end of a 15-day unit about modern China. The unit goal was for students to understand the current political and economic climate of China and how China arrived there during the tumultuous 20th century. The focus of the skills for the unit was on writing a document-based question essay (DBQ), which incorporated reading and analyzing primary sources and synthesizing a response to a historical question in a five-paragraph essay. The free-response essay for the final unit exam asked students to analyze change over time and write about it in a five-paragraph essay without the use of any documents to aid in their response.

Before the Video
Prior to this lesson, Ms. Westenberg’s class had spent several weeks studying modern China. Part of her curriculum for the year was teaching students to become proficient at writing a document-based question essay (DBQ), in which students use several primary and secondary sources in order to respond to an essay question. She had provided whole-class instruction on the DBQ twice already.

Just before the featured lesson, students played a game of catchphrase to review historical information about China’s one-child policy as well as important vocabulary.

During the Video
Ms. Westenberg provided students with various handouts, such as the DBQ Comment Key and DBQ Rubric and Self-Reflection Sheet. She instructed students to begin by reviewing the DBQ outline and identifying one part that they could teach to someone else and another part that they needed to learn more about. She then distributed their previous DBQ essay and asked them to self-reflect on the feedback they had received from her and to identify next steps for what they needed to work on to earn a “proficient” or “advanced” grade.

Ms. Westenberg grouped students according to the gaps they had in their essay writing (as determined from the last two DBQs). Students reviewed their work with their peers and discussed what they needed to do to move forward. Each group of students worked together on a specific activity to help them achieve the skill they were working on (for example, they analyzed another essay or worked together to group documents). Students who were ready to move on worked on writing a point of view statement.

After the Video
After the featured lesson, students were given a day to rewrite the document-based essay independently. The next lesson asked students to create a three-panel visual metaphor examining Chinese history in the 20th century and to answer this question: How has China transformed itself in the 20th century? Student posters represented the changes in China during the Revolution and warlord era, the Communist Revolution, and China’s economic transformation. Students chose a metaphor (such as a road, tree, or river) and made comparisons between it and key aspects of each period of history. While creating the metaphor, students watched clips from the Frontline film Young and Restless, which traced the lives of nine young Chinese citizens experiencing the triumphs and trials of modern-day China.

Teacher Prep
Ms. Westenberg plans her curriculum for the entire year before the year begins. For the featured lesson, she provided copies of the DBQ Outline, China’s One-Child Policy DBQ assignment, the DBQ Comment Key, Catchphrase cards, and the Self-Reflection of the DBQ sheet. She assessed the essays that students had written and divided students into groups based on the gaps in their skills. She created activities tailored to the needs of the group and assembled packets for each group that included materials such as a copy of a proficient essay, Point of View Sheets, and handouts from the AP European History website on how to write an acceptable and unacceptable point of view essay.

Prior Knowledge
Ms. Westenberg had previously worked with her class on writing document-based essays using several primary and secondary sources (6 to 12 different documents) to respond to an essay question. In addition, some students may have also learned about the DBQ in other courses at school.

Students had been introduced to China’s one-child policy with a background informational sheet prior to the featured lesson. However, Ms. Westenberg felt that she would use more sophisticated sources to give students more background knowledge in future years.

Differentiated Instruction
In the featured lesson, Ms. Westenberg created working groups for students based on gaps in their skills that she determined from their last two DBQs. She created specific activities for each group to help them develop their targeted skill. Throughout the lesson, she moved from group to group and asked questions to help students talk through what they were learning.

Part of the culture of Ms. Westenberg’s classroom is that students should always have something to do that is worth doing. She provides multiple assignments so that fast-moving students can proceed on to the next step while those who need more time can continue at their own pace.

Group Interaction
Ms. Westenberg’s students worked in skill-based groups during the featured lesson. Within their groups, they were able to discuss their weaknesses, help each other, and identify issues that they may not have been able to identify on their own.

Resources and Tools

  • Catchphrase cards
  • Steps in Differentiating the Writing Assignment handout
  • DBQ Comment Key
  • Data-Analysis Sheet
  • DBQ Exercise for Conflict
  • China’s One-Child Policy DBQ handout created by the DBQ Project
  • DBQ Outline
  • AP European History 2010 Scoring Guidelines by The College Board
  • Self-Reflection of the DBQ
  • Point of View handout
  • The DBQ Challenge Power Point


Formative Assessment
During class, Ms. Westenberg walks up to every single student or group and asks specific questions about what they are doing. If they cannot answer her question, or if she sees that their work is not done correctly, she may model how to do the problem or give them another set of directions. She carefully thinks about questions that ask students for criteria that support their thought and their understanding.

In addition, Ms. Westenberg uses data-driven instruction to meet the needs of students at varying levels. As she grades papers, she makes note of what skills students are missing and considers why they are struggling with that skill. She adjusts her curriculum to respond to the data that she collects (for example, she may reteach the skill the next day). As seen in the featured lesson, she created targeted activities to improve certain skills and had students work in skill-based groups as determined by her assessment of their essays.

After the group activity, students wrote the DBQ again, and Ms. Westenberg was able to analyze that data to see if students had improved or not. She could then determine whether a student needed one-on-one attention or if she could figure out how to otherwise advance student learning.

Student Self-Assessment
Ms. Westenberg provided a handout for students to self-reflect on their essay and discussed it with each student after he or she had completed it. She wants her students to be responsible for their own learning and to be able to articulate where they are in their understanding; however, she recognizes that they need a structured format for self-reflection.

Summative Assessment
Ms. Westenberg assessed students based on the DBQ that they wrote at the end of the lesson. She graded them using the rubric that they had been provided with at the beginning of the project.

Impact of Assessment
After assessing the DBQ, Ms. Westenberg felt that students needed additional knowledge about China. She returned to the themes of modern China and gave them more background information to write the final free-response essay that ended the unit and the course.

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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4