Today we returned to UVA’s Special Collections to introduce students to their individual documents/artifacts. The students spent about 50 minutes exploring their documents and responding to a series of questions that will help them with further research. They were able to take photographs using digital cameras and they will be required to make one additional trip to the archives at some point over the next few weeks. I have to say that it was an absolute pleasure to watch them interact with the documents. I had a chance to talk with each student and assist them in formulating questions. There was an energy in the room and we couldn’t be happier that so many students were visibly excited about the exercise. This is what teaching is all about and this is how you get kids excited about history. I’ve got the best job in the world. What follows are some of the questions to help students get started:
What do you see? List as many small and large elements in the broadside or artifact as you can.
What are the key features of the broadside? Are they printed text or images or a combination of both?
What words strike you as most important? How does the text highlight the importance of that word or words?
What colors, if any, are used?
What kind of typeface/font is used? Is the print different sizes in places?
Does it tell us anything about who created the document and what kind of emotions it tries to elicit or engender?
What is the size of the document?
What kind of technology was used to create the artifact? How labor-intensive was the process behind the artifact’s creation?
What is going on in American history at the time of this text?
What is the immediate historical context of the document/artifact?
Does 20 years of history on either side alter your understanding of the document?
What was the expected audience for this piece? Specific or General? How can you tell?
The final product will be a website the features the document in question. Students must decide how to present both the document as well as their interpretation. These are the experiences that matter. We need to move away from measuring success simply in terms of what they know about American history. Our job must be to connect them to that past and to help students to see themselves as products of the past.
If you are a teacher who lives in a college/university town I urge you to reach our to the archival staff. Most universities encourage their staffs to engage in this kind of outreach. We can teach history or we can teach them how to do history.