Thursday, July 15, 2010

Teaching American History

Teaching American History

Think back to 5th grade US history. Did you get to read 18th century letters that talked about the formation of the United States? Did you get to see photographs of immigrants arriving in New York? Did you get to listen to a grown women recalling what it had been like to be a child during the Great Depression? Probably you learned history from your teacher and from the textbooks, and not from primary resources (AKA the actual old stuff). But this summer a group of teachers came to the JMM to burry themselves in the actual old stuff and use it for their own lessons. This happens every year as part of the Teaching American History summer institute – the program matches museums throughout Baltimore to teachers researching specific historical topics, with the aim of using primary resources to teach their students. Each museum provides digital copies of materials so that students can see and not just hear about what their teachers have seen. This year the JMM brought out archives related to: “Ethnic Relations in East Baltimore from the late 1800s to the early 1900s,” “Childhood in Baltimore’s Immigrant Neighborhoods,” “Discrimination,” and “Occupations of Immigrants in East Baltimore.” A lot of topics and a lot of researchers. I don’t often have five researchers in at one time – they kept me very busy for two days. More than two days actually.

Teaching American History researchers at work

Many of the teachers who take part in the program have not worked with archives before. As anyone who’s done research knows, it can get overwhelming very quickly, so we try and pull a selection of materials for the teachers – photos, traditional paper archives, maps, oral histories, etc. They can also search through our database to find something just right for their topic. Still it requires a lot of work on the part of the staff and interns (thank you Lindsay and Julia!!!!!!! They actually did most of the prep work.)

Lindsay and Julia

While the Teaching American History days do make a little extra work for me (and the interns), I also get really excited about it. I love primary sources (AKA the actual old stuff). To me that’s what makes history exciting. For me, a class about discrimination has more impact when the teacher can show how communities excluded others.

JMM 1995.201.001

A class about childhood in the 19th century can connect with kids better when they read or hear the words of the people who lived through it. The actual old stuff does make a difference.

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