Grappling with Multiple Historical Sources

History | Grades 6-12

This is the fifth in a series of eight resources on historical argumentation written especially for the Lesson Study Group at Mills College by educator Stan Pesick. These resources are designed to be used individually to help define inquiry questions for use in Lesson Study cycles or in sequence for background research in the Study phase of a cycle. An ordered list of the sequence can be found in part one.


As discussed in previous resources, reasoning with historical sources is necessary to determine how, when used as evidence, they do or don’t support an argument. Those two resources focused mainly on close reading and “sourcing,” i.e., the contextualization of sources. This resource will focus the importance of corroboration.

As research proceeds, student will read, annotate, and analyze sources, ultimately settling on a claim to be developed and defended. Building an claim relies heavily on organizing evidence taken from a variety of sources into a coherent argument. Students must understand that, in general, using just one piece of evidence is inadequate for supporting a position. 

Therefore, students must learn to bring sources together and explain how the evidence they contain support or corroborates, each other. This is different than just making a list of all the reasons that might support a position. As the Stanford History Education Group highlights, there are several important questions to consider with working with multiple sources:

  • What do other documents say?
  • Do the documents agree? If not, why?
  • What are other possible documents? 
  • What documents are most reliable?

Gaining Credibility with the Reader

When a piece of evidence from one source can be used to reinforce an analysis developed from another source, the writer gains more confidence in each of the source’s accuracy and reliability and more confidence in the decision to use them to develop a position.  In the same way, a reader who encounters a position supported by multiple pieces of evidence, tied together in a way that links them both topically and logically, is more likely to think of the writer and the position as credible.

Consider the following letter from the National Writing Project’s Civically Engaged Writing (CEWAC) site. In this letter a 10th-grade student in Montana writes to the editor of the Stillwater County News, advocating for creating an Advanced Life Support District to serve outlying rural communities. 

Reproduced from National Writing Project’s Civically Engaged Writing Analysis Curriculum 

Note how the writer uses multiple pieces of evidence to support the argument for developing an Advanced Life Support district.  This evidence includes:

  • Research – “The money from transports doesn’t pay the wages for the paramedics providing life-saving service.”
  • Community surveys
  • Interviews with current Fire and Ambulance paramedics

Grappling with Conflicting Sources 

Teaching corroboration skills must also focus on what to do when sources contradict each other and undermine student claims. This is not easy. In a multi-year analysis, Oakland Unified School District history teachers observed that “Students have difficulty in working with counter evidence, they don’t often acknowledge something that counters their argument and then explain why the counter evidence is either not important or wrong.”  History educator Jeffery Nokes writes that “Texts with content that is contradicted by other sources present a greater challenge to students…Student must be taught to notice and to seek explanations for discrepancies, such as different physical locations of eyewitnesses…At times the difference between accounts might require students to make judgments between opposing texts.”

Indeed, grappling with, and not ignoring, contradictory evidence is a learned skill requiring the contextual knowledge and analytical skills  to demonstrate why one piece of evidence is valued over another. As Nokes states, this is an intellectual and academic challenge for many students.  

An excerpt from student work shows (introduced in resource 3) how a student might meet this challenge. The following student essay—which responds to the prompt, “Imagine it’s April, 1963: Should Dr. Martin Luther King encourage school age children to participate in the continuing demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama?”—develops the argument that King should not support the children’s participation. As part of that work, the student had to grapple with a source that supported the alternate position.  The student wrote:

By allowing children to join would mean heavy costs for the rest of the family. In terms of financial problems, it was declared that bail funds were raised from $300 to $2,500. The cost to bail their children from prison, where they were almost certain to go, would be devastating for the mostly lower-income African American families of the south. In addition, despite Reverend Bevel’s idea that the parents’ job would be safe if their children participated instead of themselves, it would be uncharacteristic of radical southerners not to place the blame on the parents. The parents would most likely lose their jobs and have trouble finding new ones based on their new reputation, placing the family in a bad economic position.

To support the argued position, the student uses the amount of bail a family would have to pay, and then reasonably counters Reverend Bevels’ statement that parents would not be punished for their children’s actions. , Drawing on knowledge of the historical context, the student connects the high bail amounts to the overall social and economic plight of African-Americans,concluding that, “…it would be uncharacteristic of radical southerners not to place the blame on the parents. The parents would most likely lose their jobs and have trouble finding new ones based on their new reputation…” This is a reasonable, clearly stated conclusion that effectively counters a piece of evidence that could be used to support the alternative position. Note also the students’ rhetorical skill: using the term “despite” is an effective signal that that writer is taking issue with a source, illustrating an understanding of how to introduce evidence that is being countered.   

An Important Distinction

It is important to remind ourselves and students that working with counter-evidence is different than developing a counter-argument. For counter argument, this means developing a position rests on alternative interpretations of a similar body of evidence, or putting forth an alternative body of evidence. For grappling with counter evidence, this means a writer has to explain why a piece of evidence, often used by the alternative position, doesn’t undermine the position being argued. This is taken up further in the resource Drafting an Historical Argument.

Discussion Questions

After reading this resource, discuss the following questions as a team.

  1. What ideas about teaching and learning to reason with historical sources strike you as important to your setting?
  2. How does your curriculum currently support students in developing this key historical thinking skill?
  3. What experiences have your students had in working with and across multiple pieces of historical evidence as they develop an historical argument?
  4. How might this disciplinary skill and concept be developed as students move from one grade to another in your school?  Is there a developmental progression based on age and grade?

About the Author

Stan Pesick taught U.S. History and American Government/Economics in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Oakland, CA, for eighteen years (1976 – 1994). Between 2001 and 2011, he co-directed OUSD’s history/social studies department and directed three federally funded Teaching American History (TAH) projects. Between 2011 and 2014 he co-directed the Oakland Unified School District/Mills College History-English Language Arts (ELA) Collaborative on Writing the Argumentative Essay. Since 2014 he’s worked as a curriculum consultant to the National Japanese American Historical Society and National Park Service. He currently works with both the Bay Area and National Writing Projects.