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Up Against Authentic History

Spice up history curriculum by making the most of primary source materials online

By Tally Bill
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Last fall an eighth-grade social studies teacher named Paul browsed wide-eyed through an online archive of Matthew Brady's Civil War photos from the Library of Congress. "If only my students had access to this," he said, "we could throw away the textbook. They'd be researching history themselves, not just memorizing names and dates."

At the Education Development Center's Center for Children and Technology (CCT), we've spent the past year watching teachers like Paul use the Library of Congress American Memory collections of oral histories, pamphlets, photos, films, and political cartoons. The library and the Kellogg Foundation asked CCT researchers and curriculum designers to explain what roles these kinds of online primary sources can play in social studies classrooms, and what support teachers and students need to use them well.

Authentic Pieces of the Past

After years of teaching with bland textbooks crafted so as to offend no one, and with the barely adequate resources of most school libraries, classroom teachers who can get onto the World Wide Web now have access to a growing number of primary source collections in libraries.

Students can now get at the kind of fragmentary and detailed pieces of evidence that historians use. At their best, these fragments are vivid and personal — a letter, a photograph — in ways that intrigue students and provoke questions.

But electronic primary sources also pose new challenges for teachers. They invite teachers and students to confront new kinds of materials, new perspectives on historical events, and a new need for historical context.

 

History in Multiple Media

Online archives often contain materials in a variety of media — photographs, films, and audio recordings. Paul was adept at helping students look closely at the meaning of texts, but he and his students had never before delved into a photo archive. What did pictures of men sitting and standing around in encampments, in kitchens, in front of tents, and at card tables say about the Civil War?

Paul had his students follow four steps to deconstruct the photographs:.

  1. They carefully observed and wrote down everything they saw in a photo.
  2. They noted what they knew about the objects and activities.
  3. They drew a provisional conclusion based on their observations and background knowledge.
  4. They asked what else they needed to know, and how they might go about finding it out.

Paul's students used the photos as launching pads to learn about the technologies used during the war, the complex roles of African Americans in the war, and how the North's industrial power ultimately helped it to win. 
 

History From Multiple Perspectives

Online historical archives offer a more complex, fragmentary, and cacophonous view of history than traditional classroom materials. Textbooks in many ways perform a filtering function absent on the Web. Their narratives are written in a vocabulary and at a level of complexity deemed suitable for particular grades. Materials are screened for moral and ethical appropriateness. Offensive language and undemocratic sentiments — for example, espousing racial inferiority — tend to be omitted. And lastly, textbooks create a "master narrative" — a single, coherent story of social, political, and economic transformation over time — "a big picture" that students can take away.

Historical collections used by scholars, including many on the Web, are more unruly. For a teacher, a key challenge is that primary sources faithfully depict the language, thinking, and behavior of historical actors, even when they are out of step with contemporary values — or are even patently offensive.

Students in Jeanne's seventh-grade social studies class encountered the oral history of Lonnie Pondly, a Georgia preacher who, in his description of life as a slave, tells his interviewer, "Oh, miss, we was the happiest little niggers in the world." Jeanne found her students perplexed and uncomfortable — first by the word nigger (Was the teacher sanctioning its use? Was it okay to joke around with the word?), and second by Lonnie's upbeat description of his life as a slave, which seemed to contradict their strongly held belief that slavery was bad.

The danger presented by such raw and unfiltered historical material is that students might leave the classroom believing that the word nigger — and the experience of slavery — wasn't so bad after all. Students with contrary views, especially if they are black, might feel silenced and angry. But these texts also create rich learning opportunities, if they are treated as historical evidence, subject to intellectual and ethical scrutiny.

 

Dealing With Sensitive Issues

A creative teacher, Jeanne acknowledged the discomfort that the word nigger caused, explained its historical origins and meanings, let students voice their own associations and feelings about it, and established ground rules for its use: it was to be used in a scholarly way, as a linguistic artifact, and as historical evidence.

As to Lonnie's account of life as a "happy slave," Jeanne had students carefully note exactly what things about his life were happy. They began to see that he chronicled many abuses that slaves routinely suffered. Was he telling the whole truth about his own life, or softening it for the white interviewer?

Finally, Jeanne assigned students a variety of accounts of slave life by rich white planters, poor whites, and former slaves who described both harsh treatment and efforts to resist and escape. Students compared competing accounts and tried to explain variations and discrepancies. They consulted secondary sources as well as their textbooks. After arguing back and forth, they concluded that while some slaves may have felt agreeable toward their masters, all were deprived of fundamental rights and dignities; many resisted and built and maintained their own lives and traditions.

 

What Teachers Need

As Jeanne's experience demonstrates, teachers using online source materials require support such as:

  • Professional development. Teachers should be trained in techniques for analyzing historical documents and strategies for addressing provocative materials that offer nontraditional perspectives and may raise intellectual and emotional tensions for students.
     
  • Better design: While many archives have awkward search engines and no overviews to provide historical context, one exception is The Valley of the Shadow, an archive housed at the University of Virginia containing thousands of documents detailing the history of two communities on different sides of the Civil War. It includes both a national overview document and one that is local, narrating the events in each community.
     
  • Collaboration: Web-based publishing by teachers may be a key to making historical archives useful for other teachers by sharing lesson plans. The Valley of the Shadow now contains an index of teacher-created activities, as does the New Media Classroom site.

While the textbook may not be passé for today's classroom — in fact, it may be more important than ever, as a quick reference resource — the challenge of "doing history" with online primary sources presents an exciting new frontier for teachers and students.

 

Electronic History Resources

  • Subjects:
    Historic Documents, World History, Teacher Tips and Strategies, Communication and the Internet, Computers, Teaching with Technology
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