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The Historian's Apprentice

By Alice Kurtz - Posted Mar 1, 2010
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Report Card

Overall Rating: 4 stars

Installation:  A

Content/Features: A

Ease of Use: A

Product Support: A

Company: Social Studies School Service/MindSparks, 10200 Jefferson Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232. Phone: (800) 421-4246. Internet:

Price: $499-Complete set; $40-Individual titles. Site license pricing is available.

Audience: Grades 8-12.

Format: The complete program includes a multimedia learning kit with a CD-ROM and 14 topical booklets. Individual units include a CD-ROM and single title booklet.

Minimum System Requirements: A computer with a CD-ROM drive. Adobe Reader (a free download) is required to view the PDF files.

Description: The Historian's Apprentice series gives students a chance to simulate the experiences of a historian as they follow a five-step protocol for examining primary and secondary sources to answer complex questions from American history.

Reviewer Comments:

Installation: The CD-ROM loaded easily. Installation Rating: A

Content/Features: The program offers 14 units: What Did It Mean to Be a Puritan?; How "Radical" Was the American Revolution?; The Constitution & Slavery; Jefferson vs. Hamilton: Two Visions of a Nation; Garrison & Douglass: Abolitionism in Black & White; The Emancipation Proclamation: Political Ploy or Courageous Gamble?; Manifest Destiny and Its Critics; Happy Trails: The Appeal of the Frontier in 19th-Century America; Urban Disorder & Progressive Reform; What Happened at Ellis Island?; The 1920s: Golden Age or Age of Illusion?; FDR & the First Hundred Days; The Great Society and Its Critics; and Why Did the Civil Rights Movement Succeed?

Each unit is self-contained and offers a PowerPoint presentation incorporating the historical process with the content under consideration, warm-up activities, student activities, work sheets, primary and secondary sources, and follow-up activities such as debates and written work.

The program presents five "habits of historical thinking" as tools for students to use while examining the primary and secondary source documents and drawing conclusions about historical events. These habits of historical thinking are labeled History Is not the Past Itself; The Detective Model: Problem, Evidence, Interpretation; Time, Change and Continuity; Cause and Effect; and As They Saw It: Grasping Past Points of View.

Each unit provides background-building material in the form of an essay, a warm-up activity to activate students' prior knowledge, and a PowerPoint presentation that sets the stage for the historical question the students will examine. Multiple primary sources are provided, in both text and picture format, along with work sheets and two secondary sources. These materials allow students the opportunity to examine evidence and opinions about the specific historical dilemma. Optional activities offer document-based questions for essay writing and debate experiences.

The PowerPoint presentation that introduces the habits of historical thinking offers clear and concise definitions and examples of each. This presentation is a stand-alone piece that would only need to be shown once if a teacher is using more than one of the simulations; a refresher on historical thinking is woven into all of the content-specific PowerPoint files.

The PowerPoint presentations are interesting and engaging. They incorporate some of the primary source photos, postcards, and political cartoons that the students will examine in the lesson sequence. The slides act as an anticipatory set for the coming activities.

The background-building essays are concise and tend to highlight the important points the students need to think about as they examine the documents. Each unit provides between 10 and 15 primary source documents for the students to examine. These are accompanied by didactic work sheets that specify questions to be answered by the students. Each work sheet is tailored to the document under consideration and the questions identify a particular strategy that the historian might use to work with the document.

The questions revolve around issues such as source (when and why the document was created), context (where the document comes from; where it fits), the interpretation of meanings, point of view, corroboration of sources, and more.

The primary sources themselves are excerpts from major documents, photos, and political cartoons of the time under study. The photos are on the small side and don't photocopy well. It would be best to have the students work with the slightly larger photos and political cartoons in the PowerPoint presentations.

Some of the documents should have been included in their entirety. Certainly secondary students can comprehend historian Frederick Jackson Turner's complete essay on the frontier. By including full documents, the instructor can make a greater range of differentiated activities for the wide variety of learners in the classroom.

The secondary sources demonstrate the work that the historian has done with the primary sources. The instructional pieces that accompany the secondary sources clearly help students see how these secondary sources are developed and allow them to compare and contrast two different points of view on the same issue.

The follow-up activities provide students with the opportunity to develop and organize their thinking and communicate their understandings. The lesson plans suggest that the follow-ups are options, but I think these can be outstanding embedded assessments of the students' grasp of the content as well as the historical process. The document-based questions used for follow-up activities are rich and diverse. They can address the needs of students of varying abilities.

The materials, lesson plans, and suggested timelines for teaching are packaged in two manuals. The included lesson plans provide for implementation of the unit in a 3-, 4-, or 5-day sequence. Teachers are provided with suggested answers to all questions. Content/Features Rating: A

Ease of Use: The Historian's Apprentice offers everything needed to provide a simulation of the work historians do when delving into perplexing historical questions. Each unit on the CD is self-contained with PDF files of the necessary documents and work sheets and a PowerPoint presentation that incorporates the topic with the historical processes the students will use in their work.

The CD is easy to use and indexed by topic. All of the pages in the manuals may be photocopied for classroom use. It would be nice, however, if the volumes were spiral bound to make copying the documents a bit easier. Ease of Use Rating: A

Product Support: The teacher's materials and lesson suggestions are complete, well-written, and easy to follow. All of the necessary materials are provided in the manual or on the CD-ROM. Support is available via a toll-free telephone number and online. Product Support Rating: A

Recommendation: The Historian's Apprentice provides aggregate information as well as context, primary and secondary documents for analysis, and the opportunity for students to devise their own perspectives on a variety of issues in American history. The program offers challenging lessons with the potential for additional independent study, multiple-perspective group discussions, and individual reflection.

The simulation can demonstrate how historians work and can teach students how to examine primary and secondary sources in a methodical and professional way. The teachers' guide is thorough in its lesson design and lesson plans. Differentiation for students of varying ability can be accomplished with the wide range of offered sources and the types of questions posed for the individual documents.

Overall, this product provides solid innovative teaching materials that encourage students to step into the shoes of an historian as they examine issues in American history. The topics cover an important chronology of our country's history. The materials employ the best practices of teaching, allowing the students to analyze evidence and draw their own conclusions about key historical events. Highly recommended.

Reviewer: Alice Kurtz, 5/6 grade teacher, Irving B. Weber School, Iowa City, IA.


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