Right to Vote Institute: Digital Resources for Teachers

Narratives, Historical Thinking, & Digital Sources

Dr. Shelley Rose

Visualizing Primary Sources” focused on how digital tools can inspire deep learning through visualizations. Here, let’s explore how narratives, historical thinking, and digital sources combine to create engaged learning opportunities for students at all levels.


First, think about the role of narratives in teaching and learning. Educators from all disciplines craft narratives every time they write a lecture or frame a discussion session. In history, narratives can be found in the classroom as well as in primary and secondary sources. A big question to ask ourselves and our students is why do narratives matter? In 2021 narratives often overwhelm us thanks to social media and mobile devices. In fact, consider that educators are not the only ones who regularly create narratives- our students are often adept narrators whether they craft them for social media like YouTube or TikTok, through group text messages, or even their digital profiles in online platforms (like gaming). Think about how you might help them recognize the narratives in their everyday lives.

Most narratives have 3 main components:

  1. Explicit or implicit periodization: The narrator chooses when to start and when to end a story. In my survey world history course, I have students introduce themselves to the class- a personal narrative. Most often, students choose an important marker to start their narrative- their birth, their schooling, a family move to the area. Equally as often, their narratives end with their arrival at CSU or even the start of our course.
  2. Context (historical thinking): Students must decide how much detail the reader needs to understand their narrative. This is context, and contextualization is a step in historical thinking. Did they move to Cleveland for a reason? Why did they include the adoption of the family pet in the narrative?
  3. Evidence: Every narrative is an argument. It shows the audience what is important to the narrator. No argument is convincing without being supported by evidence. This can be seen in personal narratives as snapshots of vacations or pets, maps of road trips and many other artifacts.

Here again we come back to the question of why narratives matter. In the teaching and learning of history, narratives reveal

  • Power Dynamics
  • Individual Agency
  • Structural Inequities
  • Memory Politics

Historical Thinking

Teaching students to construct personal and historical narratives fosters

  • Historical Thinking Skills (see this chart from the Stanford History Education Group)
    • Sourcing
    • Contextualization
    • Corroboration
    • Close Reading
  • Individual Agency
  • Engagement with Current Events
  • Critical Thinking about Historical Memory & Memory Politics

Think about narratives you teach your students. Take a moment to write down examples of a historical narrative; a narrative that shows individual agency; narrative about a current event; and a narrative that reveals memory politics.


Digital Sources

Every digital resource has a narrative. From social media posts to databases and statistics, there is a human behind the computer crafting a narrative with periodization, context, and evidence. Let’s analyze a few digital resources from the Right to Vote collection hosted by the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative and created by Cheyenne Florence. Think through them using the four steps of historical thinking (sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, close reading) and the three components of narratives.

Narratives are not exclusive to historical projects. Consider the methods used by librarians, archivists, and scholars to organized materials in digital databases and referatories. From local libraries which use the Dewey Decimal system (read “Bad Dewey“) to the Library of Congress (see Melissa Adler, Cruising the Library), students need to learn to be critical consumers of knowledge and categories.

Two CSU projects will help us think about this:




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