Literacy and Engagement with Primary Sources (Webinar on 9/11, 3 pm ET)

As I prepare to receive our first applications funding Literacy and Engagements with Historical Sources (drafts due 10/1/14, final 12/4/14), I often reflect on my first experiments with trying to have college students use documents on the web in the 1990s. It wasn’t always easy for them. Undergraduates were not all comfortable on the web. The Library of Congress’s American Memory site had functionality issues then. Most importantly, I wasn’t aware of all the trouble they were going to have with the assignment. I just gave up at that point and turned to printed primary source readers.

Young sailor on board ship during civil warAs much as the grant announcement stresses projects that will engage students or other audiences, I think every applicant will have to take into account how those “teaching” the resource will need to prepare. Michael Federspiel in an essay “Focus on the Questions in High School,” published in Uncovering Our History: Teaching with Primary Sources, ed. by Susan H. Veccia (2004) explains how he gradually learned to introduce his students to primary sources on the web. He learned he could not just bring his class to the computer lab and let them explore American Memory. He first needed to demonstrate skills in his class, both in using the site and in analyzing primary sources. Then once his students realized that in most cases looking at one primary source would raise more question, he opened up broader questions. He focused the class on photographer Mathew Brady’s pictures of the Civil War, but asked the student to pick a topic, and then use the pictures to make a hypothesis. After refining this assignment until it worked well for students, Federspiel used it as model for other assignments. He would limit his students to a single website, but let them pick the topic, and form the hypotheses. He concludes that the benefit of these assignments is his high school students saw that primary sources are key to history and “demand interpretation.”

For the Literacy and Engagement program, we do not require projects that will be taught by in-person instructor. So I’m curious to see how applicants might mimic some on these lessons learned in the classroom in an environment that draws the public in but without a teacher to offer the first demonstration and later give help and advice.  Share your thoughts here.

Of course, applicants may want to explore other ideas in this grant program and we welcome that. So join me for a webinar on Thursday, 9/11 from 3 pm to 4 pm ET. Simply click on this link:

Then, enter your name and email address.

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