1. As you read the question, come up with at least three categories. Then try to fill in as much specific factual information that you can think of, and put this into the categories. It’s important to do this BEFORE you read the documents, so that you don’t forget them when you are analyzing the documents.
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2. After you do this, and ONLY after, start reading the documents. When looking at the documents, be sure to look at who is the author/painter/political cartoonist/historian – many times you will recognize that name and can give the document some context by what you know about the person, even if you have never seen the document before. Recognize that not all documents are equal in significance.
3. Sometimes the documents are intended to trigger reader memory – for example, a first hand account of a labor protest turned violent in 1896 means they want you to recognize that they are talking about the Haymarket Square Riot.
4. After you figure out what the document is saying, write it down in the appropriate category. If it supports your position, put a + next to it; if it is contrary to your position, put a – next to it. Be sure that you put the letter of the document (A, B, C, etc) when you write down the point the document is making, because this will make it MUCH easier when you are putting all of this information in essay form. If you go to the College Board AP US History Exam website, you can view released prompts and suggested document analysis.
5. Do not be afraid to use a point that contradicts your position. You are expected to acknowledge the complexities of history. Just show why it doesn’t defeat your position. For example, if your essay is about the impact of Reconstruction, and your position is that the U.S. government did not do much to help the freed slaves, you should not ignore the Freedmen’s Bureau. Rather, you should point out the inadequacies of the Freedmen’s Bureau – it didn’t last long enough, the majority of local Bureau agents were hampered in their efforts by former Confederates, and there was no military power to enforce the authority of the Bureau agents.
6. Now, and only now, write your thesis. The thesis should not exceed two sentences. State your position clearly in the first sentence. In your second sentence you can define a key term (progressivism, Robber Baron, Jacksonian Democracy – depends on the prompt) and include the categories that you used in your chart back in step #1. Be sure to write your categories into your thesis in the same order in which you are going to discuss them in your essay.
“From 1775 to 1830, many African Americans gained freedom from slavery, yet during the same period the institution of slavery expanded. Explain why BOTH of those changes took place. Analyze the ways that BOTH free African Americans and enslaved African Americans responded to the challenges confronting them.” (2009 DBQ question)
Your thesis could be something like the following:
African slaves and their American-born children were ignored by the Constitution (which, in its original form, referred to slaves as “other persons”), but the contradictory nature of the new American identity [described in this student’s introduction prior to the thesis, using details that indicated the student’s knowledge of the time period referenced in the question] both led to greater freedom and more widespread bondage. Slaves and freedmen alike suffered under, exploited, and coped with the aspects of an agrarian economy, capitalism, and Christianity in America.
This thesis (this was from a sample answer that received a score of 8 out of 9) makes writing the essay easy. Every paragraph should have a topic sentence that states the category (see how this sample has three categories) you are talking about and your position on this category. Then include in the paragraph the points that you listed in your chart, and make it flow together, using both the documents and outside information. The last sentence in each paragraph is the clincher sentence that finishes off your thoughts on that one category and provides a transition into the next one. When you are finished, rephrase your thesis for the conclusion.