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Why Do Teachers Use Historical Records?

Before teachers ever stood in front of a classroom, they all sat in one.  The most vivid memories of school cluster around people we knew:  friends with whom we giggled, pests who tormented us, teachers over whose assignments we perspired, and, yes, teachers who left us inspired.  Most of these classroom activities are forgotten or, if remembered, remain hazy at best.  One of the exceptions, alas, is frog dissection day.  Who doesn’t recall the stench of formaldehyde, the sharp scalpel, the limp slippery frog?  As if dissection weren’t bad enough, the frog’s insides never looked like the drawings in the biology textbook.  Revulsion had to be set aside as we minutely examined the creature to get through the lab assignment.  Most of us were so busy struggling through the frog that we never were conscious of the other lesson of that day:  by seeking the information at its source, we learn most intensely.

Historical records are a bit like friends and frogs in that they stimulate very personal, very vivid memories.  They provide teachers with a way to introduce pupils of the present to people of the past.  When students read historical records that reveal the human side of people long dead, they begin to care about these people, ask questions about them, and want to learn more about them.  Students discover that people of the past had emotions, attitudes, values, and speak with voices that are colorful, real, and are as fascinating as their friends or the entertainers they see on television.  This personal link enables students to become emotionally engaged with the past and to get excited about it.  Curiosity stimulates them to research the topic more deeply, learn more intensely, and as a consequence, retain what they learn.

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Historical records can be used to help meet standards in curriculum areas other than Social Studies, as well.  Because history is the record of our world, every discipline has historical records that are available to enrich and expand student horizons.  For example, a science student who analyzes a letter from Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt discussing the use of uranium for a bomb will have a richer context for understanding the impact of scientific discoveries on our world, both in terms of technology and ethics. 


Letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt,
Aug 2, 1939; page 1. United States Department of Energy,
Argonne National Laboratory, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library. 

New York City Classroom
Clay modeling class at Public School No. 147 in New York City, 1895-1910

Just as chemistry is more than memorization of the periodic table of the elements and formulas, history is more than names and dates.  Historical records give teachers of the social sciences a way to include a laboratory experience in their discipline.  Historical records can be used in a structured way to have authentic, yet predictable outcomes, just as chemical experiments are structured to have educationally valid, but safe outcomes.

Historical records provide teachers with a resource to encourage conceptual learning and higher-order thinking skills in students.  Teachers provide guidance to enable students to get the most out of historical records.  With help, students learn to classify facts into groups of related events; develop hypotheses and validate, revise, or abandon the hypotheses based on their findings; develop interpretations of their own; and recognize that their interpretations, like those of seasoned historians, are tentative.  Teachers also help students to understand the context and the historical background behind the historical records they examine.  This work not only builds a base of knowledge and skills but is a vital step to help students become better consumers of information in the future.   Critical thinking and analysis skills are crucially important in the digital age, and working with historical records can help to build those skills.

Historical records can also be used to assist teachers as they correlate their teaching with state and federal learning standards.  Social Studies standards include an emphasis on the development of historical analysis skills, including the ability to assess, understand, and explain the reliability, significance, and validity of historical evidence.  These performance indicators can best be met through hands-on learning using the actual documents from history.  Document-based questions (DBQ’s) or constructed responses require that students be able to read, analyze, and respond to historical documents.  

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