National Archives and Records Administration Digital Classroom
Created and maintained by National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
Reviewed January 2004.
The National Archives is a treasure trove for teachers and students of U.S. history. More than 120,000 of its billions of records are available in digital copies on its Web site. The National Archives and Records Administration Digital Classroom, the focus of this review, includes a number of valuable resources, all of which can be accessed from its relatively uncluttered main page. Most useful for teachers is the “Teaching with Documents” section. Here lesson plans based on primary sources and created and tested by teachers are organized by chronological period and correlated with national standards. The lessons themselves go a long way toward solving the usual difficulties of applying someone else’s ideas in your own classroom. They include extensive contextual background, a selection of classroom-usable documents pertaining to the subject, and a variety of ideas for classroom activities. The lesson on the election of 1824, for instance, contains specific questions to focus student analysis of the “Tally of the 1824 Electoral College Vote”; questions for discussions of larger issues, including references to relevant portions of the Constitution; debate set-up suggestions; a BioPoems activity; and a letter-writing activity to a state’s congressional delegation. The “Document Analysis Worksheets” section offers excellent forms to focus students on nuances of interpretation in a variety of sources (written, sound, poster, photograph, motion picture, and map, among others). The downloadable and usable forms call attention, for instance, to audience, intention, internal evidence about validity, and information not included.
Online access and digitized sources, such as those at the National Archives, are changing how history is learned. Since competent students readily can find accurate detailed information online, the teacher can no longer be distinguished by content mastery alone. What teachers and students need more than anything else, I believe, is online access to accurate sources, organized by topic and excerpted thoughtfully for student accessibility. Students needs a challenging but not too frustrating task that allows them to roam in (what seems to them) a large database, analyze sources they “discover,” form valid questions of their own from the sources, and draw conclusions based on their work. Only by “constructing” history (on their own, but with the highly structured support of teachers and Web site providers) can students truly learn what it means to think critically: how crucial perspective and audience are; the use of gender, language, and culture as analytic tools; and that there are contradicting yet valid conclusions about the same topic—that history is, to quote Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, “faithful to the sources . . . convincingly imagined and vividly evoked.”
The Digital Classroom is a wonderful resource; it is clearly the result of thoughtful work by many contributors. My wish is that support be provided now to the hard-working education staff at the National Archives so that the wealth of digitized resources currently available in the ARC: Archival Research Catalog can be made a part of the Digital Classroom, integrated in a variety of ways as tools for student history projects. That, I believe, would be a truly outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history.
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology