Unlocking History's Trove
How educationally valuable would it be if your teachers and students could gain access to six boxes of formerly classified presidential documents kept locked in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's White House safe in the '30s and '40s? And what insights might they derive from combing through President Truman's diaries, letters and speeches describing negotiations with the Allies and detailing feelings about his decision to drop the atomic bomb in World War II?
Such original source materials would humanize historic events that are part of the curriculum in every school district and provide perspectives on presidential decisions that no textbook could duplicate.
The great news is that all of these documents--and many more--are available online through the Web sites of the presidential libraries that were set up to preserve the papers, records and historic materials of U.S. presidents since Herbert Hoover. These sites offer searchable documents, photographs, political cartoons, audio and film clips, and are all linked to NARA, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration site. The libraries also include special sections targeted to K-12 education, with multimedia exhibits, curriculum guides, lesson plans and teaching units.
The traditional social studies curriculum in most K-12 schools emphasizes the acquisition of facts: names, dates and events. In contrast, the National Council for the Social Studies specifies that K-12 students should "understand the purpose of government and how its powers are acquired, used and justified," which requires collecting and processing often conflicting data to arrive at conclusions based on historical evidence.
Online documents from the presidential libraries offer unparalleled opportunities for students to do such original research.
In order to help students and educators "make sense of the vast amount of source material on the Internet," Peter A. Pappas, assistant superintendent for instruction in New York's East Irondequoit Central School District, developed a Teaching with Documents site. This site offers guidelines for judging the quality and accuracy of primary documents, sample document-based activities for grades 2-11, and recommended online resources.
Some districts now include links to presidential library resources on their Web sites. The Iowa City (Iowa) Community School District--has used presidential library resources to develop online curriculum projects, including an exhibit on the life and presidency of Herbert Hoover.
Similarly, Unified School District 230 in Spring Hill, Kansas, worked with the Eisenhower library to develop an outstanding original "World War II Remembered" multimedia online research museum featuring timelines, recorded student-conducted interviews with local World War II veterans, and artifacts such as photographs, maps, telegrams, letters, newspaper articles and mementos from Kansas citizens. These included items contributed by a bomber pilot shot down over the Adriatic Sea, and another veteran who survived the Bataan Death March. DA
Odvard Egil Dyrli is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.