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The Importance of Original Artifacts in Professional Development

Photo, Dublin City Library and Archive, 2007, Dublin City Public Libraries

Too often the words that come to mind when people think about libraries are dusty, quiet, and boring. At the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), particularly through our involvement with Teaching American History (TAH) grants, we have tried to change this perception by showing just how powerful direct contact with historical documents and images can be. This experience is not just true for scholars who spend their careers sifting through these objects, but also for teachers and students who are lucky enough to have the opportunity to encounter them firsthand. Being able to touch the items, study them carefully, and discuss discoveries with colleagues can be a transformative experience. Suddenly they are no longer just words on a page or an image you’ve seen in a textbook, but rather they are very real, tangible remnants of real people.

The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA, is a national research library and learned society that houses the largest, most accessible collection of books, broadsides, pamphlets, newspapers, periodicals, and graphic arts materials printed in the United States through 1876. The AAS also holds an extensive manuscript collection, including letters, diaries, and account books, among many other personal items. In total, the society holds over four million items from throughout the current United States, portions of Canada, and the British West Indies.

They are here to tell us about our past, and there is no better way to do this than by studying them.

With such a wide array of rare objects, it would be easy to shut them up in the stacks and only allow access to a select few. But this would defeat the purpose of preserving such items. They are here to tell us about our past, and there is no better way to do this than by studying them. Through TAH, we have had the pleasure of seeing how this interaction can spark new ideas about how to view a historical problem and how to teach required material in an engaging and relevant way and how it can revitalize teachers’ interest in history.

Why Artifacts Matter

At a recent TAH workshop, I noticed a teacher looking intently at a diary that had been assigned to his group for analysis. Moving beyond the typed transcription provided to help the teachers get through the difficult handwriting, he was far more interested in reading the actual diary. When I asked him what he was thinking, he said, “Look. You can see here when she had to dip her pen into the ink. The ink fades and then gets really dark again.” It suddenly became very clear to him that this document was created by a real person who recorded her feelings and opinions—in this particular case about slavery and the Civil War—and put time and effort into doing so.

It is moments like these that convince us of the power of seeing and holding the original artifact. Teachers can take these experiences back to their classrooms, making the events the students read about in textbooks seem more relevant and relatable.

“Look. You can see here when she had to dip her pen into the ink. The ink fades and then gets really dark again.”

Even beyond this experiential aspect, having the opportunity to thoroughly explore these documents allows teachers to gain a familiarity with them that can improve their understanding and give them the confidence they need to use them in their own classrooms. In each of our TAH workshops we introduce new materials along with methods for exploring these sources, including creating worksheets and activities that help teachers develop historical questions; identify evidence, points of view, and bias; and construct narratives. We make certain to use methods that teachers can emulate in their own classrooms, thus giving them the opportunity to participate in the activity from their students’ point of view, while also gaining firsthand knowledge that they can pass on to their students.

This format for workshops can also breathe new life into subjects that seem to be routine or don’t necessarily hold the punch teachers feel they should. It is one thing to hear about the life and works of a prominent historical figure, but it is another to hold tangible proof that she or he was once a living, breathing person. In one case, a teacher picked up a letter to analyze it. He began by looking at the signature. “This is by someone named Emerson,” he began. “Emerson?... THE Emerson? Ralph Waldo Emerson?” In another memorable moment, a teacher realized that the letter in her hands came from the pen of Frederick Douglass, and her eyes brimmed with tears. Suddenly the words become more than just text. The emotion and knowledge gained from these interactions certainly helps teachers reinvigorate well-trod subjects for their students.

This is all to say that a library is not always just a library, and text is not always just text. In the hands of a dynamic group of TAH leaders and teachers, these seemingly mundane things can become powerful modes of transmitting history. Teachers’ enthusiasm and appreciation help us to remember why we preserve documents and artifacts, while we continue to find ways to make them relevant for the next generation.

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