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How Do Teachers Bring Historical Records into the Classroom?

There are a number of ways for teachers to bring historical records to their students. Each method has its own advantages, but by using several methods a teacher will have a wider array of historical records and experiences to draw on in the classroom.

Teachers may decide to conduct historical record searches themselves. When they do so, either on their own time, or in conjunction with a records manager and students, they have the opportunity not only to gather historical records for classroom use, but also to experience the work of the historian. In this respect, research offers unique perspectives to teachers. Wading through raw data in the field may elicit emotions ranging from tedium to exultation and from frustration to satisfaction, but invariably teachers gain from the experience a more personal feel for how history comes to be written. 

Some historical organizations have educational outreach programs and staff who are willing to make a presentation to students either in the classroom, at their physical site, or through the use of their web site, or other distance learning technology. In some instances, the educational staff may be able to work with a teacher to develop a presentation specific to a particular class.

Historical Records in the Classroom

It is extremely important that citations for each paper-based or digital document be maintained and that copyright issues are considered no matter how the document is to be used (see section….. for more on citations and copyright). It is a courtesy as well as legally prudent to review each custodial institution’s policy regarding the use of their historical records and how the institution would like to be acknowledged. It is important to consider copyright issues and citations before posting historical records on the Internet for public access, and even when posting to a class web site or wiki that is password-protected.

Care of Original Copies – Paper-based:

It is important to take care of the original copies of historical records. Protect published facsimiles and copies by keeping one “master” copy and use this to make multiple classroom copies. If the copies are for classroom use or display, it would be wise to laminate them (but never laminate original records) or place them in clear polyester sleeves and place them in binders, file folders or other organizers. In the case of prepared document kits (sometimes available from museums, libraries and BOCES), take care to return all documents to the kit so they don’t get hopelessly dispersed. Paper-based records can be scanned into a digital format and maintained as a digital file.

Care of Original Copies – Digital:

The use of digital records allows for teacher and student access, without the time/cost of lamination and copying. Digital records can be accessed and stored a variety of ways. In some cases teachers may want to bookmark their favorite online documents and access them only when needed. They may want to save a digital document to an electronic device using file and folder names that will make it readily accessible. Teachers may also want to simply print out a copy of a digital record and keep a paper copy. 

Presenting Students with Historical Records

The way a historical record is presented to students may vary from lesson to lesson. Sometimes the record needs to be enlarged to be legible and help details to emerge. A transparency, slide, projection on an interactive whiteboard or screen, or opaque projection on a screen are several ways of enlarging historical records, but care will have to be taken to make sure the entire class is attentive. Historical records may also be enlarged on a photocopier, laminated or placed in polyester sleeves, and handed to each student or to groups of students to facilitate individual seat work, group discussion, or writing activities.

The use of technology and digitized documents can help students to better access, analyze, and understand historical sources. Some museum websites are providing superimposed, easy to read, transcripts over the original document. Others are also providing a read-aloud feature, which makes the document accessible for the visually impaired. Digitized documents can also be manipulated by the teacher or the student – for example, font size can be increased or contrast can be adjusted for easier readability and viewing (Allen and Dutt-Doner 2006).

Handwritten historical records can be difficult to read and require close attention. The ink on some items will have faded. Some, with writing on both sides of the paper, have become illegible as ink has stained through both sides of the paper. Some handwritten historical records will be barely legible. Until the late 1800’s, letters were formed in ways different from today. The elongated “S” that looks like an “F,” creates problems for modern readers since both the long and short “S” appear in historical records (see insert for the word “Goshen” taken from the 1807 Runaway Slave Broadside, page …..). For assistance in deciphering old documents, visit Memorial Hall Museum Online: American Centuries and choose: Things to Do and Now Read This.

Even though digital media is easy to present and access, giving students experience with handling the actual document is important and gives them a sense of the historical era that may not be easily replicated with digital media.