Primary Sources, Historical Reenactments, and Twitter

Wed 9 2009

Earlier this week, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg.

At this reenactment, participants didn't discuss the authenticity of their uniforms or whether today's weather reflected actual battlefield conditions. Rather, the emphasis lay in communicating the historical voices of Gettysburg in 1863 based on texts of primary source documents.

The participants? History buffs who assumed the roles of historic persona from President Abraham Lincoln to Union and Confederate officers to foot soldiers to the press.

The venue? Twitter!

Direct quotes from primary sources are the foundation of Twitter historical reenactment.

Scholars Tom Caswell and Marion Jensen developed the concept detailed at, and discussed, of course, on Twitter, @twhistory. The twhistory archive chronicles the Twitter account of Gettysburg. Caswell and Jensen believe that such re-enactments can be used as learning exercises for students, who can be assigned to research historical diaries and other sources in order to write the tweets. According to Caswell's Chronicle interview, "Each Twitter account in the re-enactment represents a historical figure, and you are trying to portray that person's actions as accurately as possible. We use the first person to give the feeling that the event is happening in real time." In fact, they encourage tweeting exact quotes from primary sources.

Twitter reenactments integrate personal and educational technology applications.

A St. Louis high school teacher is testing the concept and the medium in her classroom with a reenactment of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Under the title MICDS Cuban Missile Crisis: can't we all just get along? her students have assumed the roles of Robert McNamara, John Kennedy, Dean Rusk, Fidel Castro and others to tweet events from the top down.

Getting Started points reenactment projects toward the tools they need and gives directions for their use, including tools for managing Tweets in order to follow all the historical figures who are participating— a critical element for conceptualizing what is happening when.

Assessing Learning

Twitter reenactments appear as an innovative teaching methodology for engaging students in primary source materials. It would be helpful to see a lesson plan rubric laying out learning objectives, scaffolding, and assessment standards for both historical content and technology—including adaptive writing styles for Twitter.

It's time to turn new media into learning tools.

Projects such as twhistory offer the possibility of bridging the gap between student personal use of laptops and mobile devices and their educational uses. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a creation of the Sesame Street founder, offers a number of scholarly white papers supporting such digital learning. The mission of the Center is to foster innovation in children's learning through digital media, and Cooney points out that "Now is the time to turn the new media that children have a natural attraction to into learning tools that will build their knowledge and broaden their perspectives."

The free industry brief in PDF, Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children's Learning found on the Center's publications page offers a thorough exposition on the state-of-the-art, the potential, and the pluses and minuses of the technologies that enable learning experiences such as twhistory's Twitter reenactments.

(For another look at tweeting with primary sources, revisit our earlier blog post ROTFLOL?* President John Quincy Adams Twittered?)

About the Author

Lee Ann Ghajar is a digital history associate in Public Projects at CHNM and a PhD candidate in American history at George Mason University.