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December 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 4

Hardwired Into History

Primary sources from the Smithsonian capture students' imaginations and deepen understanding of historic events.

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To celebrate the centennial of the Wright brothers' historic December 17, 1903, flight at Kitty Hawk, a 6th grade teacher decides to do a lesson that focuses on the event. She divides her students into five groups and distributes copies of relevant primary source documents. One group reads Orville Wright's journal entry from that historic day. Another group looks at the telegram Orville sent to his father describing the successful liftoff. Other groups tackle other documents: a letter the brothers' father wrote to a journalist, reporting the event; the account of a bystander who was injured on the ground when the plane collided with him and dragged him off; and an interesting secondary source, a newspaper article appearing the following day. Students answer a series of questions about their documents. Later, they meet to compare answers, discuss the reliability of their sources, and try to clarify the facts. They also discuss what the individual documents say about the people who authored them and the times in which those people lived.
Students in a 7th grade class are reading The Invisible Thread by Yoshiko Uchida, which discusses life in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II. The teacher weaves in letters that children in the camps wrote to a sympathetic librarian. Some letters show resourcefulness and resilience during a time of great stress; some resound with optimism, others with frustration. The students pop out of their seats, wanting to share the connections they have made between the letters and the book.
This information—both primary source materials and accompanying lesson plans—comes to teachers at no charge from the Smithsonian Institution. The teacher doing the lesson plan on the Wright brothers logged on to the Smithsonian's new Web site, www.smithsonianeducation.org, and clicked on the section for educators. By entering her grade level and a few key words in the search engine, she generated 18 citations of relevant Smithsonian Web sites as well as lesson plans, publications, and field trips. The page also directed her to an interactive Web site for students about the first trip to the moon as well as to an exhibit and Web site with activities that teach students the fundamentals of aero-dynamics.
The Smithsonian is a vast resource of authoritative content. As the world's largest museum complex, the Smithsonian comprises 16 museums and 9 research centers that preserve more than 142 million objects. More than 1,000 researchers, curators, and educators interpret this impressive collection, which includes specimens, artifacts, artwork, photographs, film and audio recordings, oral histories, documents, and historical maps. The collection contains a wealth of primary source material for teachers to use in their classrooms.

Teaching with Primary Sources

Primary sources are the documents and objects created as part of daily life, such as birth certificates, photographs, diaries, and letters. Primary sources are a museum's lifeblood—and they can infuse life into a classroom by introducing first-person reports from people directly involved in an event. Marty Creel, program supervisor for K–12 social studies in Montgomery County, Maryland, says that his district has used primary source materials regularly in the high school but has now begun to introduce them in the earlier grades. “Primary sources fire the imagination,” he points out. “Students see history the way historians do, as an evidence trail.” As students examine these primary sources, they learn to think analytically and to question the various—and sometimes discordant—perspectives of history itself.
The Montgomery County School District has used the museum's lesson plans for the past three years. The 5th grade has incorporated the Smithsonian lesson plan on currency from the period of the American Revolution in a unit on colonialism. Students examine reproductions of paper money dating back to that time and gather primary source information. Research proves insightful: On one bill, King George tramples the Magna Carta as he sets fire to an American city; on the reverse side, an allegorical America and Britannia hold an olive branch between them. Students see a perfect illustration of the ambivalence of the times.
Creel suggests that teachers consider how they would like to introduce primary source materials in the classroom. These materials may simply be supplementary and incidental to the lesson. A more ambitious strategy is to introduce primary source materials using a document-based question (DBQ) approach, in which students move from an overview provided by a secondary source to an analysis of a related primary source. Still another approach is to adopt an investigative framework, in which students move from the primary source to the secondary one. This investigative approach has worked best for Creel's district, especially when the primary source is a visual, such as a painting or an artifact.
Creel recounts the 5th grade's experience with Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre, which shows British soldiers lined up like a firing squad as they shoot a group of unarmed colonists. The students identify who's there, what's going on, and who's causing the event to happen. It's clear to them that Revere takes the point of view of the angry colonists; one student points to a puppy in the foreground, who seems as vulnerable to the bullets and as blatantly innocent as the colonists themselves.
Primary sources present history as investigation, not as immutable facts that come down from on high. Creel notes that teachers sometimes have a more difficult time with this concept than students do. Because history as investigation raises innumerable questions, it requires debate and an ability to contextualize evidence. Primary source materials open the door to this interpretative side of history, encouraging teachers to make the leap from presenting facts to opening historical events up to discussion.
That's not to say that Creel thinks teachers should leave students hanging. Different points of view don't all carry the same weight. Some points of view—and this idea is often the subject of healthy classroom debate—are more authoritative and more factual than others. “We want students to create questions,” points out Creel, “and to look for other sources of evidence.”
The district has incorporated the Smithsonian lesson plan on the Lewis and Clark expedition into its 8th grade classrooms. The expedition takes on immediacy when read in its original form of journal entries, and it inspires a sense of wonder: For the explorers, even the Rocky Mountains came as a surprise. Students examine the journals and drawings and learn the importance of accurate observation.
Jackie Moore, a 4th grade teacher in the district, can attest to the advantages of using primary sources in the classroom. “Textbooks can provide background material that illuminates a historical event,” she notes. “But a primary source can bring a sense of reality to that particular moment in history.” She continues,I can't even imagine teaching without primary sources. Students who only learn from textbooks and lectures may never be able to make the connection that what they are reading or listening to actually happened to real people in real places.
She has used the Smithsonian lesson plan on the Japanese American internment camps, with its collection of letters that children wrote inside the camps. The lesson plan suggests that students plunge into reading a letter first, with no background, and try to deduce the situation of the letter writer. One 16-year-old Japanese American writes about “the camping life.” “A summer camp?” the students ask themselves. But then a reference to barbed wire suggests something quite different. The variety of letters provided also illustrates why historians listen to many voices before drawing conclusions because different people experience the same event in different ways.
The Smithsonian lesson plans often incorporate multiple primary source materials for a given topic, a strategy that facilitates dividing the class into small groups that each work with a different document or visual. The various primary source materials often present starkly different perspectives on the same issue. Before coming together to compare and contrast their conclusions, the students work on answering a given set of questions about their primary source document. Moore takes the process one step further, often browsing through flea markets and museum shops for replicas of primary sources. She explains,I like to have plain white cotton gloves on hand, like the ones used by curators and museums, for kids to wear when handling primary sources. This adds to the atmosphere of respect and seriousness. And the kids think that they are sooooo cool!
She suggests that teachers who have never taught with primary sources use the Smithsonian lesson plans to familiarize themselves with the concept and with specific teaching strategies.

Smithsonian Resources for Educators

The Smithsonian has developed three education-focused outreach programs that help teachers work primary source materials into their lessons: a new Web site that targets education, a magazine that shows educators how they can use some of the Smithsonian's primary sources in their classrooms, and a series of Smithsonian-sponsored teacher workshops. All three programs meet curriculum standards with content selected to inspire teachers and students, including ready-made lesson plans for the classroom and relevant information based on current scholarship and the Smithsonian collections.

On the Web

The new Smithsonian Web site (www.smithsonianeducation.org), which was launched in September 2003, presents three distinct, easy-to-access sections. In the section for educators, teachers can sort information by grade, subject, keywords, and museums. They can also access lessons, interactive activities, and teaching tools aligned with standards in the United States. The site lists professional development opportunities, special events for teachers, and a step-by-step guide to planning meaningful field trips to the Smithsonian and other museums.
The section for students is highly interactive, featuring streaming video, sound, collection photos, and maps. Students can take a trip to the moon with the astronauts on Apollo 11, pick up tips on how to gather artifacts, or browse through dozens of Smithsonian Web sites.
The section for families shows parents how to make the most of their museum visits by following tips and activities provided by Smithsonian education experts. Parents will also discover a comprehensive list of child-friendly exhibitions at the Smithsonian and its affiliates across the United States, as well as reading lists, interactive learning labs, and other online activities to help parents encourage the love of learning.

In Writing

The Smithsonian has created a magazine written for teachers, Smithsonian in Your Classroom, which mails free of charge twice a year to all elementary and middle school libraries in the United States. The publication informs educators about Smithsonian resources and provides strategies for using those resources to prepare a class for a museum visit or to align with curriculum standards. Each issue includes background essays on specific topics, lesson plans that teachers have designed, graphic organizers to guide critical analysis, and recommended resources. Issues spotlight a Smithsonian resource: a new exhibit, a collection, or a body of research. Recent issues celebrated the new Wright brothers exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum and the numismatics collection at the National Museum of American History.
The magazine also shows educators how to teach students historical thinking skills. The primary sources included in recent issues—letters from the Japanese American internment camps, journal entries from Lewis and Clark, and money from the colonial period, to name a few—require different kinds of historical thinking. The lessons strengthen an understanding of the historical process and encourage critical thinking skills. The magazine provides accompanying lesson plans that tie into the Smithsonian education Web site.

Instructing the Instructors

The Smithsonian also offers teacher workshops in Washington, D.C., and at Smithsonian affiliates across the United States. These courses vary from one-day workshops to eight-year commitments for ongoing training. Smithsonian staff, regional museums, and school districts collaborate to ensure that the workshops effectively address student and teacher needs.
Workshops focus on how scientists, historians, and artists think about their work. Teachers get a behind-the-scenes look at how scientists conduct an experiment, how a historian analyzes primary sources, how an artist executes a work of art, or how a curator interprets objects for an exhibit. Workshops showcase scientific, historical, and artistic thinking. They give teachers new insights into the creative processes of each discipline and an understanding of what museums have to offer.
This past summer, teams of teachers from Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina spent one week at the Smithsonian to study methods to improve the teaching of U.S. history. These workshops, funded through the U.S. Department of Education's grants for Improving the Teaching of U.S. History, targeted specific curriculum objectives.
Middle school and high school teachers from Charlotte-Mecklenburg focused on developing lessons that taught students to investigate historical issues using primary sources. Each morning, they observed a historian analyzing a specific type of evidence. They subsequently applied these skills to an exhibit and spent the afternoon working in Smithsonian archives to research resources for the classroom. For example, a high school U.S. history teacher might work with museum educators to plan a gallery tour for his students, conduct his own research in Smithsonian libraries and archives to find relevant primary sources, and then use this information to develop a unit on the civil rights movement that might incorporate music, photographs, and oral histories as evidence.
Fourth and 5th grade teachers from Montgomery County Public Schools took a different approach. Teachers participated in their own field research to learn more about the colonial period and then developed lesson plans to share this knowledge with their students. Guided by forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley from the National Museum of Natural History, teachers carefully examined the skeletons of the 18th century founding family of Maryland—Philip Calvert and his wife, Anne Wolsey—for evidence about life in colonial America.

Reaching Out to the Community

The Smithsonian is also committed to bringing its collection to people in their own communities. In the past few years, the Smithsonian has created a new Affiliates program to build collaborative partnerships with museums and cultural organizations throughout the United States. This partnership enables the Smithsonian to display artifacts in museums across the United States and to offer teacher workshops and adult programs locally. A complete listing of Smithsonian Affiliate Museums is available atwww.affiliations.si.edu.
The Smithsonian is always looking for ways to reach new audiences. Plans include the development of a new line of books for adolescents. Smithsonian Books will publish Joy Hakim's The Story of Science in spring 2004. This five-part series targeting middle school students will educate young adults about the world's most intriguing scientists.
The Smithsonian takes students straight to the source—to the artifacts, specimens, and works of art that document our most important achievements. Consider making the museum your partner for your next lesson plan, field trip, professional development course, or needed bout of inspiration. Let the museum come to you.

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