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How Do Historical Records Fit Into the Classroom?

Historical records fit into virtually every classroom.  They are interdisciplinary and can be used effectively not only in history but across the curriculum.  They can be used to enhance skills development and to teach core subjects. For example:

  • Math students, using a sample of school district budgets over a 100-year span determine whether teacher salaries have kept pace with inflation.
  • A high school sociology teacher provides school district yearbooks, photographs, and newsletters for students to study the history of the cultural life of the district and how it relates to state and national trends.
  • Science students use topographical maps, environmental impact statements, land use, and soil maps, and other historical records to develop their own opinions about a proposed landfill in their community.
  • A language arts teacher and a social studies teacher team up to provide students a greater understanding of the Holocaust using historical records such as immigration records, photographs, newsreel footage, letters, and literature such as Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti, The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank, Hide and Seek by Ida Vos, and Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss.
  • Technical Drawing students are asked to step back in time, to imagine they have been asked to construct a mill from the specifications outlined in a contract found in the County Historian’s office for an actual mill built in the early nineteenth century.  Students create their mills as drawings on paper, models, a videotaped presentation, or computer simulation and discuss the challenges faced by nineteenth-century builders, including building materials, the topography of the mill site, availability of equipment, and access to skilled labor.
  • In Technology, students learn to maximize the resolution of digitized historical records related to the invention or development of a specific type of technology and use them in a narrated slideshow, webpage, or digital video.   The rich content found in historical records drives the technical skills training and understanding that students require for the twenty-first century.

Historical records may be used as a motivational exercise at the beginning of a lesson, as an evaluative exercise at the beginning or end of a unit, dropped into a lesson to make a point clear, or as the focus of an entire lesson or unit.  Teachers who are responsible for multiple preparations will find historical records extremely flexible.  A turn-of-the-century immigration record used in an eighth-grade social studies class to introduce a lesson on United States immigration may also be used in a global studies class to discuss why the person may have left his/her native country.  

Teaching with historical records can reveal different views of events and ideas and help promote an understanding of multiple perspectives.  The Williamsburg women in this Vietnam-era flyer are striking for peace.  They ask the question, “Is the War in Vietnam in Our National Interest?”  They believe it is not.  This record, if presented with excerpts from President Lyndon Johnson’s April 7, 1965 Peace Without Conquest speech, would help students see events from two opposing perspectives.  Students can use our Comparing Perspectives Graphic Organizer to analyze these two primary sources.

Historical records provide an ideal vehicle for encouraging collaboration with the community and attracting parental participation.  For example, one teacher used document-based group projects related to life in the 1800s in her school’s town.  Group research topics included education, recreation, farming, cooking, clothing, business, medicine, and transportation.  Each group used documents and other research sources to learn about its subject, then designed an interactive educational workshop incorporating a game or demonstration to share what the group had learned for a Community History Celebration.  The teacher then reached out to the community, including the local historical society and senior citizens groups, to invite and encourage registration for the event.  Each participant could attend three different twenty-minute workshops that were taught by students, and then help themselves to some 1800’s era refreshments that parents had made using recipes discovered by one of the groups and collected into a small cookbook.  The experience was one that the students would never forget because it was authentic and meaningful learning at its best.  The same teacher collaborated with a local national park to help students research and develop exhibits and performances that were displayed for the public visitors of the park.  Other teachers have created “Living History” museum events, where students act as statues of people from the past who come to life and speak when touched on the shoulder.

When teachers connect with members of the local community – the historical society or the public historian or librarian, for example-- everyone benefits.  A student trip to the local history section of a public library benefits the students educationally and can benefit the library by making the public aware of its resources and how they are used.  The historical society curator who helps a teacher locate historical records for the classroom can use this experience to help justify requests for grant funding for the historical society.  A student internship, pairing a high school student with a town clerk, can promote communication between the school district and town government and familiarize the student with the workings of government and his or her rights as a citizen.  Collaboration and cooperation can benefit all parties involved.  

It is easy for teachers to find and use records that correlate with and enhance the curriculum.  For example, historical records related to the Civil War, World War I, and World War II can be found in most communities in this state.  Local historical societies have letters sent to and from soldiers on the battlefields, diaries, photographs, and even records from local businesses, whose profits may have been affected by the wars.  County governments often have copies of the 1865 New York State Census which provides Civil War statistics for each county, including names of soldiers who died, as well as the cause and place of death.

Counties may also have soldier enrollment and discharge records for World Wars I and II.  School district records may also reveal the effects of war, as seen in the Cafeteria Menu for the Week of January 4, 1943.  These historical records can convey to students the impact of war on the soldiers, their families, the local community, the state, and the entire country.

1915 Buffalo Census

Page from the 1915 New York State Census Showing Buffalo Neighborhood

New York State Archives

Support Our Boys Flyer

Support Our Boys in Vietnam! Flyer

Courtesy: Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY, CEN_OGR_B1F12_457

Manumission of Mink

Courtesy: Schodack Town Clerk

Historical records can be used effectively across the entire scope and sequence of primary and secondary studies.  Teaching with historical records is stimulating for teachers, educationally sound for students, and supports national and state goals for education.