Corroboration, Conflicting Sources, and Competing Narratives
Students often ask me, “how do we know what really happened?” As historians, we tackle this sophisticated question by corroborating, sourcing, and evaluating evidence. We look to multiple accounts and determine points of convergence and divergence, and from there we determine historical facts. This blog post focuses on corroboration as a means to push rigor, thinking, and engagement in the social studies classroom.
The Stanford History Education Group suggests students ask these questions in order to corroborate information contained within sources:
- What do other pieces of information say?
- Am I finding the same information everywhere?
- Am I finding different versions of the story? (If yes, why might that be?)
- Where else could I look to find out about this?
- What pieces of evidence are most believable?
This important historical literacy skill is closely aligned with Common Core State Standards, in particular CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.9, where students “Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation.”
How do we know what really happened?
In our modern Africa unit, students read conflicting sources about an attack on the Congo River, which occurred in the early 1870s. Chief Mojimba, an African tribal leader, wrote one account, while Lord Henry Stanley, a British explorer, wrote the other.
Both provide vivid descriptions of a conflict but vary greatly in their details and experiences of what happened.
Close Reading Activity:
- Students work in partners to read Chief Mojimba’s account and Lord Stanley’s account.
- As students read, they complete a graphic organizer:
- Once the students finish dissecting the texts, I post this question on the front board: “What REALLY happened on the Congo River?”
- As students provide answers, I push back on the validity of their statements and demand text evidence from both sources. For example, a student said “the Africans danced in their canoes” so I asked “is that true? How do you know that? Where did you find that?”
Using the attack on the Congo River as a model, students then compose their own competing narratives of another event. This work builds on CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.9 and incorporates CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.3 when students “write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.”
Book Jacket Project:
- Students read “The Man Who Shared His Hut” by Jomo Kenyatta independently. The story is an allegory of the Berlin Conference and provides a scathing critique of European imperialism in the late 19th century.
- Working with a partner, the students draft two accounts of the story, one from the man’s perspective and one from the animals’ point of view.
- Students then collaborate to create book jackets:
Front cover: an illustration of the story, title, and their names
Inside: left panel is man’s version and right panel is animals’ version
Back cover: critique and Venn diagram
By focusing on corroboration, students need to trace patterns and draw conclusions from multiple sources. They need to identify main ideas and key details, and determine how different authors portray similar information. They need to evaluate and synthesize, and ultimately this challenging work leads to great comprehension.