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Teaching History With Real Artifacts: Six Strategies


EducationWorld is committed to bringing educators the practical tools they need to make good decisions, engage in effective leadership and implement strategies that work. To further this commitment, we have formed a content partnership with Stenhouse Publishers. EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts as part of this collaboration.

The following excerpt comes from Eyewitness to the Past: Strategies for Teaching History in Grades 5-12, by Joan Brodsky Schur (Stenhouse Publishers, 2007). The book is available on the Stenhouse Web site.

Be sure to check out another excerpt from this book: History Lesson Idea: Election Debate. Also see EducationWorld's review of the book.

Historians rely on several forms of source material to better understand the past. The following excerpt offers six strategies for engaging students in the history curriculum through personal exploration of readily available primary source documents.

Each strategy below focuses on one type of written primary source document: diaries, travelogues, letters, newspapers, election speeches, and scrapbooks. Students study the properties of a genre and its use to historians in understanding the past before they write in that genre themselves. With each strategy, the class ends up generating work from a variety of viewpoints, thus creating a more complex appreciation for the texture of American life. Engaging their minds, imaginations, and multiple intelligences ensures that all students will find at least one route through which history becomes meaningful.

Diaries: Writing from Opposing Viewpoints
Have students read examples of historical diaries and then create a persona and write a diary of their own. Students keep their diaries while they “live through” a set of events as they “unfold” in their textbooks. Divide the class into different viewpoints on the same events (Rebels and Tories, for example). Students maintain these viewpoints as they write their diaries and discuss events in class. They create covers for their diaries that depict their homes or crafts.

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Travelogues: Eyewitness Perspectives on a Growing Nation
Historians have an incredible array of travelogues written by those who journeyed across America at various times in our history. After reading samples from travelogues and related chapters in textbooks, students imagine themselves as a traveler with a particular purpose: explorer, land speculator, immigrant, or conservationist, for example. They describe what they see from a particular perspective while gaining an appreciation for America during a particular time period. In addition to writing, students create sketches and artwork of what they see along the way.

Letters: Arguing the Past in Written Correspondence
After reading examples of historical letters, students are put into pairs of correspondents. Students role-play by writing a series of letters to one another while holding different perspectives on the issues they are learning about from their textbooks. Correspondents might be stationed on the homefront and battlefront during a war or be supporters of opposing presidential candidates. Enclosures in their letters include family photographs or sketches and a variety of keepsakes such as news clippings about important events of the time.

Newspapers: Conflicting Accounts of the Same Events
With an ever-increasing number of documents now available online, students can easily access examples of news articles expressing different viewpoints written at various times in our history. After studying how language can slant our take on events, teams of students write their own newspapers representing partisan perspectives of key events of the day such as a Civil War battle or controversial trial. Students also generate advertisements and cartoons that put events in sociological as well as historical perspective.

Election Speeches: Advocating for Your Candidate
Campaigning and speechifying have been integral parts of the democratic process since our nation’s founding. This strategy is set during a presidential election year and focuses on the rhetoric of speeches. Students work in teams, supporting different presidential candidates. Each student writes a speech in favor of one aspect of his or her candidate’s platform and presents the speech in a formal debate. Students also generate cartoons, slogans, posters, and, for modern campaigns, radio and television advertisements.

Scrapbooks: Documenting the Past Across Time
Scrapbooks are a means to preserve and reflect on how historic events play a role in personal or family histories. They demonstrate how politics, social trends, and technology affect our private and professional lives. In this activity students work alone or in family groups to create a collection of memorabilia that demonstrates the impact history makes on individuals and their families.

Adapting the Strategies
When adapting one of these strategies, I start with the textbook. American history textbooks all tell much the same story in much the same sequence.

Here is a possible sequence to cover the first half of a typical U.S. history textbook:

  • Personal diaries during events leading to the Revolution
  • Election debate of 1800: Adams versus Jefferson
  • Travelogue describing life in America in the early 1830s
  • Letter exchange set in the 1850s with a focus on events leading to the Civil War
  • Conflicting news accounts of a Civil War battle
  • Scrapbook of life during Reconstruction

In such a sequence students would be learning about America’s first one hundred years as a nation, encompassing the life spans of two to three generations. It is not too hard for a student to imagine that the character he or she develops in the Revolutionary War diary then traveled around America in the 1820s, perhaps settling out West and voting for Andrew Jackson in 1832 at age seventy. Perhaps that individual’s offspring lived through events leading to the Civil War and into Reconstruction. We truly are a young country, after all!

While students are not expected to develop a family saga throughout the sequence of eyewitness strategies, they should be encouraged to imagine the characters they create living through time. There was not, after all, a generation that was born in 1776 and dropped dead all at once in 1787 when the Constitution was ratified. Americans living in the Roaring Twenties were not all born in 1920 only to die with the stock market crash in 1929. Indeed, some people living in the 1920s fought in the Civil War, while others would live into the 1980s, and so forth.

A sequence for the second half of U.S. history might look like this:

  • Scrapbooks of immigrants arriving during the Great Migration of 1880 to 1925
  • Travelogues of Americans during the Great Depression
  • Letter exchanges between individuals on the battlefront and home front during World War II
  • Diaries during the Cold War era
  • Conflicting news accounts of the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive
  • Election debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980

Here again we can easily imagine an overall story of two or three generations. A young child arrives in America with his or her immigrant parents, lives through the Great Depression and World War II, and raises children who fight in and/or protest the war in Vietnam.

Because this second sequence takes place during and after the advent of radio, film, and television, students can access primary sources created with these new technologies. It is not difficult to find famous speeches online and hear their original audio recordings, for example. Students can also interview people in their own communities who lived through these events. Finally, students can make use of twenty-first century technologies to create their own documents. Rather than produce printed newspapers, they can create conflicting radio accounts of the same events or videotape their election debates and broadcast them on video or DVD. At the same time, students can study the effects of new media on the political process.

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Last updated: 9/28/16