History Goes Digital
Teaching when the Web is in the Classroom
EDC/Center for Children and Technology
New York, New York
D-Lib Magazine, September 1996
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
-- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
the Shadow now
contains an index of teacher-created activities, as does the New Media Classroom site
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.