Primary Source Paradise: Trends in Teaching History

For about 18 years, I have relied on using primary sources to teach history. The Internet made it possible. It is, after all, the information super highway. But for teachers, the Internet is a portal to another world, a wormhole if you, please. Before the Internet, access to primary sources was rare unless you bought a book, traveled to a museum, historical site, or an educational institution. In fact, those sources were only accessed by historians and were often closed to the public.  One could only see a document behind a glass cover/shield.

Beginning in the late 1990s, companies like Jackdaws and Discovery Enterprises, Ltd. began producing collections of primary source materials for teachers to use. Now, any Social Studies catalog is filled with primary source collections from events as far back as Ancient Greek. For US history, however, these collections can change how one teaches and how students learn.

Digressing back to the effect of the Internet, in recent years, libraries and other educational institutions are now putting these primary documents online for the public to peruse and use. The John F. Kennedy Library put an amazing amount of sources from the Cuban Missile Crisis online a few years ago. I have found collections from the McCarthy era, the Civil War, the Black Hawk War, the rise of Barbed Wire in DeKalb, Illinois, and a ton of sites with documents about Lincoln and the Civil War.

More recently, the John F. Kennedy Library has added a collection of materials regarding the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. This seminal event almost galvanized the nation and inspired thousands of young African-Americans to attend traditionally white southern schools like the University of Alabama.

jfkmicrosite 2

The collection contains amazing documents from Meredith, the Kennedy administration, the courts, and the Mississippi establishment. It is quite expansive and quite in-depth. As a teacher, these documents can provide a plethora of activities and teachable moments through decision making and analysis. Using these documents makes history come alive. As a teacher, you could create a series of dilemmas to face from many different viewpoints – and that’s what teaching history is about is to understand that there often 3 or more sides to every story – not just two.

I am in the process of using the Meredith microsite to create a 3-4 day simulation lesson. It will be filled with decisions, cartoons, video, letters, court cases, and most importantly, critical thinking.

I also found several space race exhibits and documents online. Educational institutions across the country are creating the digital portals. Whether it is Eastern Illinois University, Northern Illinois University, or presidential libraries like George W. Bush or Dwight Eisenhower, digital primary source access is changing how history is taught, but more importantly, how history is actively learned.