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Teaching Profession

Government Collections Provide Primary-Source Tools for Common Core

By Catherine A. Cardno — March 13, 2013 5 min read
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With the Common Core State Standards putting greater emphasis on the close analyses of informational texts across subject areas, primary-source documents such as historical letters and records are gaining prominence as potential lesson materials. The federal government’s largest repositories of historical documents have taken notice: Both the U.S. Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration are expanding their digital offerings to help teachers address requirements of the common standards.

The Library of Congress offers digitized primary-source-based classroom materials from a broad swath of historical time periods and subject areas, and includes free supplemental lesson plans and activities on its teachers’ resource webpage. The library has made all the materials searchable by common standard and grade level. So, for example, a 6th grade teacher looking for primary-source material to support the standard to “cite specific textual evidence” for the analysis of sources would have a range of materials to choose from: 30 primary-source sets, 43 lesson plans, 31 presentations, and 20 activities are available, ranging in time from colonial America to the present. The choices include ubiquitous topics, such as the national role of Abraham Lincoln and the Industrial Revolution, as well as collections that might appeal to more specific interests, such as how baseball developed between the end of the Civil War and World War II and state-based primary source collections.

“The vastness of the collection and the wide variety—both in terms of content and media—make the digitized primary documents of the Library of Congress significant in terms of their ability to support the common core,” Lee Ann Potter, the director of education outreach at the Library of Congress, said in an email. “Resources from the library’s collection are relevant to every possible subject matter—not just English/language arts and math, but also science, the social sciences, and more,” she said.

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Currently, not all the common standards are equally represented with the library’s classroom resources. For example, searching for material to support the standard requiring 6th grade students to identify key steps in a text’s description of a process related to history or social studies turns up only one available lesson plan.

However, the library is working to expand the classroom resources and digitized document collections, according to Potter. “Photographs, letters, maps, music, and more not only capture student attention but they inspire, fascinate, and engage even the most reluctant learners,” she said. “The Library wants to get these materials into more and more classrooms and help more and more teachers use them effectively.”

In addition to its digital resources geared specifically for classroom use, the library also has available a wealth of general digital collections that can be used by teachers looking for historical images or photographs, recordings, legislation, newspapers, or other documents, to support their own lesson plans.

Archival Searches

The National Archives and Records Administration—the official repository of documents related to the federal government—has gone a step further than the Library of Congress by developing a website that allows teachers to create interactive learning activities around source materials.

The website, called DocsTeach, includes a collection of seven different tools that teachers can use to create projects for their students. The activities draw on a collection of almost 7,000 digitized documents and images, although that number is constantly growing, according to Stephanie Greenhut, the education technology specialist at the National Archives. The activities rely on visualization processes to help students develop skills with sequencing, focusing on details, making connections, mapping history, seeing the big picture, weighing evidence, and interpreting data.

The tools have been designed to be adaptable to a range of ages and skill levels, Greenhut said. For example, a 2nd grade teacher can use the sequencing tool and a collection of photographs of the Washington Monument in various stages of construction to help students understand chronological thinking. At the other end of the spectrum, Greenhut said, an 11th grade government teacher can also use the sequencing tool to teach students how a bill becomes a law.

“It’s the same tool, but depending on what we or a teacher does with it, or what primary sources are picked, it can really change dramatically how much analysis students need to do,” Greenhut said.

The DocsTeach website is also designed to help teachers narrow down their searches, Greenhut said, so they can select from materials that the archives has chosen as being strong teaching tools.

“When our education program started over 30 years ago, it was really about trying to get primary sources in the hands of teachers because they were hard to come by,” said Greenhut. “And now, there are a lot of different places to get them, and so sometimes I think [teachers] can even be overwhelmed in the number of resources that are available.”

Currently, the National Archives resources are tied to the National History Standards, rather than to the applicable elements of the common standards, but changes are in the works, Greenhut said. Common-core vocabulary is being added to the DocsTeach site, she said, and by this coming summer the archives anticipates launching a new version of the DocsTeach site that will align documents and resources with specific common-core standards.

The archives also has various online locations where digital primary documents can be accessed to support a teacher’s existing lesson plans, including its “Our Documents” collection which hosts 100 milestone documents in American history, a Digital Vaults page with 1,200 documents that students can use to create their own posters or movies, or the main archival research catalogue, ARC, that can be searched specifically for digital copies.

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