by John Beisner
So let’s start with the basics.
What is a DBQ? Some people believe that DBQ stands for Designer Baby Quilts, Drum Beat Quantification or that popular YouTube channel Ducks Being Quacky. All of this is true, yet in an educational context it’s meant to refer to a Document (or Data) Based Question.
According to Wikipedia, this style of question was first unveiled in the 1973 AP US History exam as a way to reduce student’s dependence on “half-remembered facts” and instead assess them on their ability to interpret available documents and respond to the information they present in a meaningful way. The merits of this approach are still evident, and questions of this type are now fairly common. Our students can expect to encounter DBQ-style questions on the GED, CAASPP or even in much of our current curriculum such as History and Restorative Justice packets and the Forced and Voluntary Migration series. It’s a well-established and growing trend in pedagogy, and it’s just as well since it seems to more accurately mirror the ways students will likely be challenged in real-life academic and professional contexts.
Currently there are three DBQ packets on the intranet: The House on Mango Street, To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. I looked at The House on Mango Street for this review, though I get a sense that one could successfully modify and use this curriculum framework for any number of different projects, depending on what texts the instructor has available to match the student’s interests and needs. That’s because many of the questions are very general, such as “Who is the Narrator?” and “What are many of the characters pursuing?” Aside from the specific reading comprehension-style questions, there are exercises that are typical to all DBQ Project curriculum.
These are: “Bucketing”, “Chicken Foot” and Guided Essay framing and peer or self editing draft. They, like the rest of the packet, can be done in a one-on-one ISP setting or as part of a class or small group instruction. For this latter use, there is a supplementary packet (also available on the Intranet) called a Mini-Q. Like the packet itself with the above-mentioned exercises, the Mini-Qs frame each activity extensively. In my opinion, this represents both the strength and greatest flaw of this curriculum.
It’s worth noting for a moment that the DBQ Project is not a concept or idea but rather a private company founded in 2000 and based out of Evanston, Illinois. Their website shows all the many curricula and Mini-Qs available for purchase by a school or district. (Perhaps if these three packets become very popular amongst teachers and students our own repertoire will increase.) But their proprietary methodology has a problem: it holds the students’ hands very tightly. The step-by-step process of sorting ideas and constructing essay topics and arguments will no doubt lead to the composition of immaculate essays, and yet these essays will be so meticulously constructed that there will be little room for trial, error and therefore growth.
For example, the students are tasked to write their introduction thus:
I have no doubt that strict adherence to this method will generate essays that will shine on the GED, CAASPP, in college or beyond. Yet isn’t this nearly a rote, fill-in-the-blank exercise? It seems in danger of returning to the “half-remembered facts” problem that inspired the development of DBQs in the first place. The peer editing and rubric exercises help a little, yet even those would be more effective if applied to a more individualized essay structure. For some students, being entrusted to apply themselves to an essay structure their teacher has modeled for them--including many mistakes or inefficiencies--and then trying again and again might be more satisfying and effective. Simply put, this curriculum can be like bumper bowling or learning to ride a bike with training wheels (pick your metaphor). Some students might feel coddled.
That said, it does seem to be very careful, thoughtful and thorough material and will doubtless have students engaging with the text in a significant, meaningful way.
Depends on the Document, or the student. In the CAASPP/GED sense, yes. In the immediate sense of connecting with student’s day-to-day lives, well which of our students doesn’t struggle to realize the “American Dream”? Plus they might also happen to live on a street called Mango...
Yes, it breaks the text into small, digestible pieces and asks incisive questions. It doesn’t waste time or let a single line of text go unexamined.
Yes and no. Some students will be engaged from the first page; others will feel their being led by the nose towards pre-approved conclusions and formulations.
Yes, the curriculum does a good job of anticipating student reactions to the text and selecting excerpts that will elicit those reactions. It’s definitely created with them in mind.
It doesn’t impart facts so much as encourage analytical, textual thinking. It also pushes formulaic writing conventions, but insofar as those conventions are important things to understand and navigate, they comprise useful information in themselves.
Okay I hope that gives you a sense of these new resources! As always, please feel free to comment, disagree or share your experience with the DBQ project in your classroom!