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Using Old Newspapers To Teach History




Few people think of todays newspapers as tomorrows history books. But two history teachers have compiled reproductions of newspapers front pages to help students get a snapshot of events as they were reported. Included: Ways to use the newspaper reproductions in class.




Two high-school history teachers -- one retired one still teaching -- have developed lessons using reproductions of old newspapers through a program called Historical Fishwrap (fish wrap is an old expression for a used newspaper). Students can learn about World War II rationing, the Great Depression, and other historical events the same way their grandparents did --maybe even by reading the same newspapers.

Kenneth Molzahn, a retired teacher and one of the founders of Historical Fishwrap, said he is finding that even in this digital age, students still enjoy the authenticity of a period newspaper. He talked with Education World about the program and how teachers can use it.

Scott DeTore
Kenneth Mozahn

Education World: How did you come up with the name Historical Fishwrap?


Kenneth Molzahn:The name comes from the fact that my partner, Bill Downey, has collected thousands of newspapers. His collection of newsprint ranges from the early 1800s to the 1950s. Bill also has a limited number of papers from the 18th century American and Colonial periods. Also, prior to refrigeration, day-old newspapers were used to wrap fish at fish markets and by individual fishermen. The main reason was sanitary in nature; ink and paper are not conducive for bacterial or microbial growth, plus it was a cheap method to transport their purchase or days catch.


EW: How did you develop this idea?

Molzahn: Bill and I had discussions on and off for a number of years about somehow using his collection of newspapers to form a business. I observed the interest his papers generated when he brought them to class, for example, to introduce a new unit or era. His students really enjoyed reading the headline stories and checking out the fashion and food advertisements. Bill has carefully coordinated the papers he uses in the classroom with the important events discussed in the various textbooks he has used through the years. It simply seemed a natural idea to expand on his success and bring his idea to other classrooms across the country.

EW: How did you choose which moments in history to highlight and which newspapers to use?


"Bill found his students would rather read an exact newspaper account of an event on the day the ink dried rather then read a description of a famous person or an event in a textbook.

Molzahn: We broke down the papers into themes and eras and sought out the most provocative headlines. Bill is in charge of the research and archival discovery process. Using current textbooks and state teaching standards, Bill researches the themes, major events emphasized in curricula along with attention-grabbing headlines, photos, and other interesting graphics built around a theme, decade or an era.

EW: Some of your best pieces focus on the World War II-era. Why did you choose to focus on that period?

Molzahn: It was the greatest conflict of the 20th century! World War II was a global ideological quarrel, it was fought on every habitable continent, except Antarctica, and it killed more humans, and destroyed more property than any other conflict. It is the war of the greatest generation America has ever produced -- although some would have a valid argument that the generation that produced the countrys founders and framers was their equal. World War II also set the international political landscape for the later half of the 20th century, pitting communism against democracy.

EW: As a teacher, why do you think students, especially since they are so used to technology, enjoy learning through Fishwrap?

Molzahn: First, many people view news and history, in general, as beginning on the day they were born. So reading an Historical Fishwrap paper is something very different and unique to this generation -- and future generations -- of middle and high school students. A second reason simply is that current textbooks, no matter how well they are written or reflect a states educational standards, by their very nature are limited in space, time, and format as to what historical events are presented and in what format. Bill found his students would rather read an exact newspaper account of an event on the day the ink dried rather then read a description of a famous person or an event in a textbook.


"Our hope is students will appreciate a snapshot of an era or specific historical event.

Also, although some Internet sources have old newspapers, school systems may not have access to them. If schools do use those sites, the inability of students to physically touch and hold the paper, we feel, limits their experience.

EW: What do you hope young people will appreciate the most when they get to hold history in their hands?

Molzahn: Our hope is students will appreciate a snapshot of an era or specific historical event. For example, rationing is a hard concept for many students to comprehend in comparison to 21st century prosperity. Throughout the World War II papers, stories related to the various commodities and substances that were rationed bring the experience to life. Those stories can be better understood if a teacher brings in the amount of sugar, flour, and so on to which families were entitled, and explains that most households baked their bread, made their own desserts, or rolled their own cigarettes.

This e-interview with Kenneth Molzahn is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.



Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World


Published 11/19/2008