History Goes Digital

Teaching when the Web is in the Classroom

Bill Tally
EDC/Center for Children and Technology
New York, New York

D-Lib Magazine, September 1996

ISSN 1082-9873

A shorter version of this article will appear in the October 1996 issue of Electronic Learning [http://scholastic.com.EL], a print magazine for school teachers and administrators.

One day last Fall, an 8th grade social studies teacher named Paul browsed wide-eyed through an on-line archive of Matthew Brady's Civil War Photos from the Library of Congress. "If only my students had more 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 Center for Children and Technology, we've spent the past year watching teachers like Paul use the Library of Congress American Memory collections -- primary sources in U.S. history that include photos, films, pamphlets, oral histories and political cartoons. Supported by the Kellogg Foundation, the Library has asked CCT researchers and curriculum designers to help them understand what roles these kinds of on-line resources can play in history and social studies classrooms, and what kinds of support teachers and students need to use them well.

Paul's enthusiasm, we've found, is common. And it's easy to understand. After years of teaching with textbooks cobbled together so as to offend no one, and with the inadequate resources of a small school library, classroom teachers with World Wide Web access now face an exciting prospect: access to a growing number of primary source collections in government and university libraries around the world -- materials that, up to now, have been available only to scholars who could make a special trip to visit them.

Why exciting? On-line primary sources promise, most of all, more authentic materials that can enliven history for students and teachers. Instead of consuming history as an 'end-product' -- the closed and consensus-based narrative that students find in textbooks -- students get fragmentary and detailed pieces of evidence that historians themselves use as building blocks in fashioning their narratives. At their best, these fragments are vivid and personal -- a letter, a domestic photograph -- in ways that intrigue students and provoke questions and curiosity. And what teacher doesn't want students who are genuinely curious and motivated to inquire into the fascinating complexities of history? For a teacher like Paul who's taught the Civil War through textbooks and lectures for a decade, the Brady photos -- views of battlefields, but also portraits of slave 'contrabands', documentation of military technology, and images of what daily life was like for common soldiers -- open new windows onto an old subject, and new avenues for his own, as well as students', curiosity and research.

But what does it take to use these more authentic historical sources well? In our research, we found that electronic primary sources pose new challenges for teachers and students, at the same time that they opened new possibilities. The most commonly discussed challenges of teaching with on-line resources are practical -- access to good quality information, speed of downloading, the time necessary to find and make good classroom use of the material. All of these hurdles must be faced with electronic primary source archives. But the pedagogical challenges that primary sources raise are more novel. On-line historical archives invite teachers and students to confront new kinds of materials, new perspectives on historical events, and a new need for historical context. Ultimately, using these resources to advance a more dynamic, inquiry-based approached to history teaching and learning will require creative teachers to collaborate with each other -- perhaps using the Web itself -- and share lesson plans, teaching approaches, and assessment methods.

History in Multiple Media

On-line archives can contain documents in many different media. The Library of Congress collections, for example, include photographs, films, audio recordings, pamphlets, and political cartoons. Teachers and students need new kinds of skills to interpret these different media. Like most teachers, Paul was adept at helping students look closely at the meaning of texts; he and his students had never before used a photo archive as a learning resource. And the 1,100 Brady photos accompanied only by bibliographic records, seemed strangely mute, especially in comparison to photos that appeared in books about the Civil War (which illustrated the accompanying narrative, and which had explanatory captions as well). What did 24 pictures of men sitting and standing around in Union encampments, in kitchens, in front of tents, and at card tables, say about the Civil War?

Only when students began to interrogate the pictures on their own terms did they begin to 'speak' to students. Paul had his students follow a four-step process in which they first carefully observed and wrote down everything they saw in a photo, then noted what they knew about the objects and activities they observed, then drew a provisional conclusion from the photo based on their observations and background knowledge, and finally noted what else they needed to know, and how they might go about answering these questions. Following this method, Paul's students used the pictures of Union camps as launching pads to learn about a variety of topics -- the technologies in use at the time of the war, the complex roles that African Americans had in the war, and how the North's industrial strength helped insure better material and supplies and ultimately helped win the war.

The teachers and students we observed had to develop new skills of observation and analysis in each of the media they used. With photos, they learned to take account of as many visual details as possible. With political cartoons, they began to attend to the symbolic use of imagery, making the task of interpreting historical cartoons something like cracking a code. For audio recordings such as political speeches, students noticed and discussed a speaker's use of vocal inflections and flourishes, in addition to the words spoken. These different formal features were keys to the getting the fullest historical insight from the document.

History from Multiple Perspectives

On-line historical archives also offer a more complex, fragmentary, and multi-vocal view of history than most traditional classroom materials. Textbooks, for all the complaints they receive, perform a crucial filtering function that is absent on the Web. First, there is age-appropriateness. Textbook narratives are written in a vocabulary and at a level of complexity deemed appropriate for 6th graders, or 10th graders. Second, materials are screened for moral and ethical appropriateness. Offensive or inflammatory language, and undemocratic sentiments, for example those about genetic racial inferiority, tend to be omitted. Third, textbooks strive to create a 'master narrative' -- a single, coherent story of social, political and economic transformation over time, a sense of 'the big picture' that students can take away.

Historical collections used by scholars, including many now on the web, are more idiosyncratic and unruly. For a teacher, one key challenge is that primary sources faithfully depict the language, thinking, and behavior of historical actors, even when these are out of step with contemporary values, or are even patently offensive to many. When students in a seventh grade social studies class were reading through interviews with former slaves culled from the Library of Congress collection of WPA Life Histories , for example, they encountered 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, a colleague of Paul's, found her students doubly perplexed and uncomfortable -- first by the word 'nigger' (Was the teacher sanctioning its use? Was it OK 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 slavery in general, weren't so bad after all. Students with contrary views, especially if they are black, might feel silenced and angry. But the multiple perspectives presented by these kinds of texts also create rich learning opportunities, if they are treated as historical evidence, subject to intellectual and ethical scrutiny. A creative teacher, Jeanne dealt with the material in a straightforward fashion. She acknowledged the discomfort that the word 'nigger' caused, explained the historical origins and meaning of the word, allowed students to voice their own associations to and feelings about it, and finally, established ground rules for the use of the word in the classroom: it was to be used or referred to not in a casual but in a scholarly way, as a linguistic artifact and a form of historical evidence.

Lonnie's account of life as a 'happy slave' called for a more nuanced response. Jeanne had students carefully note exactly what things about his life were happy. It did not take them long to see that he also chronicled many abuses that other slaves routinely suffered. This raised the question of whether he was telling the whole truth about his own life, or softening it for the benefit of a white interviewer whom he did not want to offend by showing anger or resentment. Jeanne introduced information about the context of the interview -- that in 1930s, Georgia blacks could not communicate with whites on an equal footing, but had to defer to them in myriad ways.

Finally, Jeanne made use of the strong point of primary source archives -- the ability to see history from multiple perspectives. She assigned students a variety of interviews describing slave life on the plantation: accounts by rich white planters, poor whites, and former slaves who described both harsh treatment and efforts to resist and escape. Students thus had to weigh competing accounts and the evidence they presented, and come up with ways of explaining variations and discrepancies. In order to do so, they consulted secondary sources that Jeanne had gathered, as well as their textbooks. After arguing back and forth, they concluded that, while some slaves lived well and felt agreeable toward their masters (and their masters towards them), all slaves were deprived of fundamental rights and dignities; many resisted their masters' power, and strove to build and maintain their own lives and traditions within the confines of white-dominated society.

The multiple perspectives presented by primary source archives make history, and history teaching, more complicated, and they can also touch emotional nerves in students, making the history classroom a more volatile place. Yet as Jeanne found, primary sources, approached critically, can help students build a more authentic and complete portrait of the past, against the frequent impulse to edit and thereby 'soften' history for students.

A New Need for Historical Context

A final challenge of using electronic primary sources is that historical archives are both vast, and fragmentary. Finding resources that link to established curriculum topics can be difficult. And because most documents are about highly specific events -- an impending treaty, a wounded soldier's convalescence, the opening of a world's fair -- students need help gaining historical context, or background knowledge of the period, to make sense of the documents. The Brady photo collection, for example, contains over 1,100 photographs, yet these are almost exclusively of Union, not Confederate, armies, and they show mainly men's contributions to the war effort, for example, and not women's contributions. Teachers need to do two things: first, help students identify the subset of photos that might help them answer relevant curriculum questions; and second, direct students to appropriate secondary sources that can provide the scaffold they need to understand a particular photo's content. Teachers need, in short, lesson plans or student research guides, that suggest how parts of a vast collection can be used to accomplish common curriculum objectives, and that also suggest helpful supplementary reading.

Supports for Teachers

Many teachers will be eager to incorporate into their students' work the historical archives now becoming available on the web. Meeting the pedagogical challenges above, however, and getting the most from these resources, will require staff development for teachers, more sophisticated web and CD-ROM design, and a new kind of shared curriculum development.

Staff development experiences should give teachers strategies for analyzing historical documents that come in new forms, such as photos, films, and poster graphics. They should also give teachers critical thinking strategies for addressing provocative historical materials that offer non-traditional perspectives, and may raise intellectual and emotional tensions for students. The New Media Classroom, a program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a week-long institute for high school humanities teachers that offers overviews of cutting-edge history-related web sites and CD-ROMS, hands-on strategies for working critically with electronic primary sources, roundtable discussions with history scholars and new media producers, and opportunities for teachers to collaborate on designing sample lessons, and even publishing them on the web. Teachers who participate in these kinds of training experiences will reap rich rewards for themselves and their students.

The design of on-line and CD-ROM-based archives should also take into account the needs of teachers and students. Too often, archives are mounted with awkward search engines, insufficient background on the historical collections, and virtually no overviews to provide historical context for the material. Some sites, however, are beginning to offer all these things and more. The Valley of the Shadow is an archive housed at the University of Virginia containing thousands of primary documents detailing the history of two communities on different sides of the Mason-Dixon line during the Civil War. Ideal for student documentary research, the site contains, in addition to census records, newspapers, photographs, government papers, and letters and diaries, several different kinds of overview documents that orient the researcher in time and place. One is like a traditional textbook, providing a national scope of events; another is more local, narrating the events in each community. Both provide branch points into the archive of primary documents in multiple places. The researcher can at any time 'dip down' for more archival detail, or 'back up' for contextual information, as he or she pursues a line of inquiry. The Library of Congress American Memory sites also contain orienting 'essays', and a Learning Page to guide teachers toward useful resources.

Finally, web-based publishing by teachers may be a key to making historical archives useful for the great majority of teachers who do not have time to create their own primary source-based lessons and research projects from scratch. By definition, historical archives contain more learning opportunities than any one publisher or institution can imagine and publish. The smaller number of teachers who are willing to invest some time in devising and sharing lessons or guidelines for student research are therefore in an ideal place to help their colleagues, and contribute to the reshaping of history and social studies teaching. Look for web sites that offer lesson plans created by teachers, places to post lessons you have designed, and on-going projects that your classroom can join. The Valley of the Shadow now contains an index of teacher-created activities, as does the New Media Classroom site mentioned above.

As Paul and Jeanne and a whole host of teachers are now discovering, teaching with electronic primary sources opens up the classroom to new and challenging perspectives on history that can enliven history for students. While the textbook may not be passe -- in fact, it may be more important than ever, as a quick reference resource! -- the challenge of using digital archives to explore history presents an exciting new frontier.

Copyright © 1996 Bill Tally

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