Spanish-American War: Textbook

Historians arrive at historical knowledge by carefully reading and interpreting sources from the past. Yet most high school textbooks hide this process by presenting history as a series of uncontested, fixed events. Reading and analyzing additional documents can "open up" the textbook and introduce students to the contested and interpretive nature of historical knowledge.

Textbooks can be "opened up" in a number of ways. This lesson focuses on the following method: Direct Challenge – bringing primary evidence to challenge issues of fact or interpretation.


In this lesson, students use McKinley’s war speech ("McKinley" document) to challenge a textbook’s account of the explosion of the Maine triggering the Spanish-American War. First, students read a selected textbook passage and begin to analyze its story. They then consider what McKinley’s war speech to Congress might contribute to their understanding of these causes, read McKinley’s words, and answer the notebook questions on the site. Finally, each student rewrites the textbook passage using evidence from this primary document.

Learning Goal:

Students will be able to use information from a primary document to contest a textbook account of an event and re-write that account incorporating the new information.


  • Textbook – The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century (California Edition). (2006) Eds. Gerald, Danzer, J. Jorge Klor de Alva, Larry S. Krieger, Louis E. Wilson, and Nancy Woloch. McDougal Littell.
  • Questions for textbook excerpt (Home: This lesson: Step 1)

Before the Lesson:

Students should have read the entire section on the Spanish-American War (pages 346-351). Focus their attention on the sections "War Fever Escalates" and "War with Spain Erupts." Ask them to answer the following questions:

  1. According to the textbook, what caused "war fever" to escalate?
  2. Of these reasons, which does the textbook present as most significant? Provide a quotation from the textbook to support your answer.
  3. According to the textbook, why does McKinley ask Congress for authority to use force against Spain?
  4. What additional information, outside of that provided by the textbook, would you need to answer (3) more completely?

Plan of Instruction (approximately 50 minutes)

Step 1: 10 minutes: Discuss (whole class)

Review homework and have students share responses. Make a list answers to question (4) in the "Before the Lesson" questions.

Tell students that they will read an excerpt of McKinley’s war speech to Congress ("McKinley" document) next. Ask them:

  • What information do you predict McKinley’s speech will contain?
  • In what ways will the speech help us understand why the U.S. went to war against Spain?
  • In what ways do you think the speech might be limited in helping us understand why the U.S. went to war against Spain?
Step 2: 15 minutes: Read document

Students read "McKinley" document. Have students read the document and answer the notebook questions on the website.

Note to teacher: this step can also be done using a printed copy of the document and questions.

Step 3: 5 minutes: Check student thinking

Briefly discuss the following question: What does this speech add to your understanding of the causes of the Spanish-American War?

Step 4: 20 minutes: Assessment

Students respond to the following prompt:

Rewrite the passage about McKinley’s speech on page 349 so it takes into account McKinley’s justifications for war. Your passage should include direct references to his words (for example, a quotation or other information from the speech).

Note to teacher: To help students complete this assessment, you may need to coach students in how to use quotations in their writing.