Have you ever wondered how history itself is made? Though we often talk about individuals and groups “making history” by making certain types of contributions to society, less frequently do we talk about the complex process through which historians construct their accounts of the past. During American Archives Month this October, we have a chance to explore the central role of archives in shaping our perceptions of the past, the various forces that determine the materials and voices included in a given archive, and how this insight can enrich the way we think about historical materials and even produce our own.
How do we help students make sense of the past? During American Archives Month this October and every month, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration suggests that archival materials—also known as primary sources—ought to be an important part of this equation. At Facing History, we agree; primary sources materials are a key component of our pedagogical approach and our classroom resources. In historical study, the term “primary sources” refers to historical evidence produced contemporaneous to the time captured or described in the source. These sources may take the form of images, letters, diaries, speeches, audio recordings, video recordings, and more. Selecting primary sources and making them accessible to students can be challenging, but there are numerous benefits to teaching with them.
In addition to exposing students to secondary sources that offer their own analyses of these historical objects—sources like textbooks, for example—inviting students into the world of the historical subject through primary sources is an excellent way to build their capacities for critical thinking, expand their understanding of a given historical moment, and humanize the historical actors in question. This is not only important for promoting academic understanding of a historical time period but it also has the potential to help the student understand their own small actions as those that have the potential to play a role in history as it is narrated in the future.
We invite educators to check out these 5 time-tested teaching strategies designed to incorporate analysis of primary sources into educator lesson plans:
In a recent interview, I had the opportunity to speak with filmmaker Roberta Grossman—director of the acclaimed documentary film Who Will Write Our History? The film tells the remarkable true story of the Oyneg Shabes, a clandestine archival organization that formed in the Warsaw Ghetto to narrate the unfolding events from a Jewish perspective, as well as capture the richness of Jewish cultural life and agency that persisted in the face of the Nazi German occupation. The resulting archive includes a rich array of essays, diaries, drawings, posters, paintings, poetry, and underground newspapers. Here Grossman discusses the film’s development and reception, the power of eyewitness testimony, and the implications of the Oyneg Shabes Archive for how we teach and understand history.
Language can be alienating. Words with strong associations often force us to take positions of opposition, rather than seek understanding. This has happened recently, when detention centers along the U.S.–Mexico border were termed “concentration camps.” The response was foreseeable: the term has become so strongly associated with Nazi deportations and killing centers that any other use of these words can feel insulting. Used in a contemporary context, the words themselves have the power to cause pain, seeming to diminish the suffering of those who experienced or survived the Holocaust.
A few years ago, a book came into my possession that has been tossed around in my family like a hot potato for several generations.
Entitled, Religion and Slavery: A Vindication of Southern Churches, the book's author was James McNeilly, a Presbyterian minister and Confederate veteran from Nashville, Tennessee. Inside the front cover is an inscription from the author to my great-great-great-grandmother.
"To Corinne Lawrence: A tried and true friend of many years—and a devoted lover of the Old South, which I have tried to vindicate."
In honor of Black History Month, read what it was like for Valerie Linson, Editorial Director for Facing History, to walk through the National African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington DC for the first time.
Friday January 27—the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated—is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This day calls for people around the world to remember and honor the victims of the Holocaust—those who perished and those who survived to tell their story. Read how one survivor found healing through the Facing History students who listened to her after years of staying silent.
Imagine preserving the voices and stories of an entire generation over a single holiday weekend. For the second year in a row, Facing History and Ourselves is partnering with StoryCorps for The Great Thanksgiving Listen to accomplish just that. You can preserve history with us by uploading your own interview with an elder this year, and empowering your students to do the same, by using the free StoryCorps app. Visit thegreatlisten.org for more details about the project and to download the TGTL 2016 Teacher Toolkit.
In Emily Berman’s ninth grade biology class, social justice is a central theme. She’s part of a group of six teachers that brought an interdisciplinary approach to teaching Facing History’s “Race and Membership” unit last year at Blackstone Academy Charter School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
A Facing History classroom is about more than just history. That's why Amy McLaughlin-Hatch asked her students at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School in South Easton, Massachusetts to describe Facing History and give advice to their peers taking the course next year. We're featuring two of these student voices in a two-part series to show just how transformative this experience can be. Amy was a recipient of a 2015 Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant. You can read more about her MSS Grant project here.