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Blast About the Past

The National Archives and Records Administration's Digital Classroom project is bringing history to life.

by / July 31, 1999

As more and more American schools have been given the chance to install computers and connect to the Internet over the past few years, they've simultaneously been given a new challenge. While the E-rate and other programs may supply the necessary hardware, wiring and connectivity, the question of how to actually bridge computers with curriculum has largely been left unanswered.

According to the ninth World Wide Web User Survey conducted last year by the Georgia Institute of Technology's Graphic, Visualization and Usability Center, one out of every four visitors to Internet sites is either a student or an educator seeking curriculum ideas, research tools, information on publications, or opportunities for professional development. The reason is simple. When it comes to technology, teachers consistently face either a total lack of information or an overwhelming number of options from which they are unsure how to choose.

In response to this dilemma, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) instituted a program called the Digital Classroom In becoming a source of online material for teachers, NARA is attempting to make history more interesting to students while simultaneously giving teachers an easy, trustworthy place to begin learning how to integrate computers and curriculum.

"The mission ... is to provide ready access to essential evidence that documents the rights of American citizens, the actions of federal officials, and the national experience," said Lee Ann Potter, an education specialist with NARA who is managing the Digital Classroom project. "Through the Digital Classroom we are providing educators and students with this access to the federal records in NARA's archival holdings across the country."

Changing Times

The Digital Classroom was developed in 1996 to provide information to teachers about NARA's 20-year-old education program. But at that time, the Digital Classroom consisted only of a list of NARA workshops, ordering information for their educational publications and a few sample lessons.

But last year, recognizing the increasing role computers are playing in classrooms, NARA set out to become a more valuable resource for teachers. This February, it released its first set of online materials for teaching American history. The materials include nine lesson plans that use digitized documents -- including everything from paper documents to original photographs, maps and sound recordings -- to teach middle- and high-school students about the role of the U.S. Constitution in history. In doing so, NARA has become one of the first government agencies to offer actual lessons teachers can use to instantly integrate technology with curriculum.

"As Internet uses (and expectations) by educators and students changed over the past three years, the Digital Classroom also changed," Potter said. "We are now reaching far more educators and students than ever before with our goal of encouraging the use of primary-source documents as teaching tools."

Hitting the NAIL on the Head

NARA's Digital Classroom currently covers American history from the 1750s until the beginning of the Civil War. By June, the site was expected to include over 30 lessons encompassing the entire span of the nation's development. Each lesson provides links to images from NARA's collection of photos and documents, a description of the historical context for the documents, a bibliography and suggestions of activities for students.

Meanwhile, the NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL), a searchable database, contains information about a wide variety of National Archives holdings across the country. Teachers can use NAIL to search record descriptions by keyword or topic and to retrieve digital copies of textual documents, photographs, maps and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.

While there's no denying the wealth of information in NAIL, some teachers have complained that the documents are missing the background materials needed to use them appropriately in class. "NAIL contains more than 120,000 digital images of historical documents, but does not include historical context for each document," Potter conceded. "NARA is doing something about this, though."

Last summer, the NARA education staff received a grant from the Department of Education to coordinate the efforts of teachers from across the country to develop lessons using images from NAIL. The teachers are incorporating historical background information into the lessons and suggesting ways in which other teachers might use the documents in their classrooms. The project is called the Constitution Community. The first 17 lessons produced by the group are available in the Digital Classroom

Kerry Kelly, a teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J., became part of the Constitution Community when she realized what the Digital Classroom lessons were doing for her students. "Using primary-source documents allows students to learn valuable critical-thinking and application skills," she said. "Primary sources connect to their daily lives -- seeing and examining documents, photographs, maps and artifacts that could very well be from someone in their own family. It allows students to be active learners -- in charge of learning history, making connections, bringing the past alive and making it relevant."

Kelly said the online images have helped her students really tune into history topics because they get a feel of the color and texture of the documents. She's even discovered that she doesn't have to lecture to students as much because many of the documents speak for themselves.

Linda Clark teaches U.S. History to 11th graders at Padua Franciscan High School in Westlake, Ohio. She said the Digital Classroom project has helped improve her teaching skills. "The Digital Classroom has been very helpful to my teaching -- especially since I base my curriculum on primary sources. I now have a variety of sources at my fingertips and have been able to provide a wide variety of sources for my students."

Clark said she actually prefers less background material in NAIL. "Quite frankly, I wouldn't want to wade through a whole history lesson in the background information. I don't think this would be the appropriate place for that," she said. "As it is, the Digital Classroom has pushed me to use the Internet more in my own lesson preparation as well as in classroom use, and has challenged [me to become more] computer literate."

Touching the Past

Since its February launch, the Digital Classroom has been gaining rapid popularity among teachers. "It is impossible to tell exactly how many classrooms are using our materials," said Potter. "But we do know that our monthly hits are steadily increasing. More and more we see our site highlighted in professional education journals and in teacher workshops, and the mail we receive through the Digital Classroom's mailbox continues to increase."

Last year, the Digital Classroom was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the MCI Foundation and the Council for Great Cities Schools as one of the best Internet sites for education in the humanities. Later this year, NARA will make materials from the Digital Classroom available through the Federal Resources for Educational Excellence (FREE), a new interagency Web site Designed for teachers, students and parents, FREE will serve as the online gateway to educational resources offered by more than 30 federal agencies.

Until then, NARA will continue to build the Digital Classroom with the belief that the use of primary-source materials expose students to important historical concepts they would otherwise miss. "Not only does studying a document encourage the development of important analytical skills, but it also allows students to become aware that all written history reflects an author's interpretation of past events," Potter said. "Also, through primary sources, students directly touch the lives of people in the past. Primary sources fascinate students because they are real and they are personal; history comes alive through them."


"History in the Raw" -- The Digital Classroom Project

By Lee Ann Potter, NARA Digital Classroom Manager

The National Archives and Records Administration's Digital Classroom Project features main sections on Primary Sources and Activities, General and National History Day Research, and Publications and Professional Development.

Primary Sources and Activities includes an article describing the value of learning "history in the raw." It emphasizes how teaching with primary documents personalizes individuals and events for students at every level and promotes development of critical-thinking skills, which mirrors one of the important goals articulated in the National Standards for History.

This section is particularly helpful to educators who actively seek materials to reinforce these skills. Here they will find online lessons developed by education specialists that feature archival documents and focus on subjects generally taught in U.S. history and government classes. The units are arranged chronologically and include such topics as the Zimmermann telegram transmitted during World War I, FDR's attempt to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court during the 1930s, and the Watergate scandal. Additional units are added each month.

Accompanying each document are historical background and activities correlated to national standards and suited for cross-curricular use. The lessons offer teaching suggestions that move from the simple to the more sophisticated. All aspects of a lesson -- including the digitized images of original documents -- are designed for easy downloading,
printing and photocopying for classroom use. Educators and students are also encouraged to provide links to these items from their own Web sites and to incorporate items from the Digital Classroom into their own electronic presentations and projects.

The General and National History Day Research section gives students a general introduction to how to do research at the National Archives and an opportunity to learn to use the NARA Web site for conducting research.

The Publications and Professional Development area describes educational materials and opportunities available through the National Archives. Also available is information on instructional workshops, including NARA's summer institute.


Justine Kavanaugh-Brown is editor in chief of California Computer News, a Government Technology sister publication. e-mail.

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