Saturday, September 15, 2012

Teaching Public History

When we visited the Massachusetts Historical Society in July, we learned about all the resources available to teachers, both digitally and through a trip to Boylston St in Boston.  I am planning on using the online features offered by the MHS and encouraging my students to visit there to do some primary source research if they pick an applicable topic for their sophomore research papers.  This is great example of local public history at its finest!

Last year as a result of my professional development with the Teaching American History grant, I incorporated a lot of public history into my teaching.  I’d like to share one lesson I did that I though was particularly effective.  This lesson included an instructional method I picked up from History Connected—“Silent Conversation.”

The lesson is on the Inauguration of President Theodore Roosevelt and makes use of the National Park Service’s website:  The website gives resources for teachers and has information for tourists that wish to visit The Wilcox Family Home, the site of the inauguration.  
In my lesson, I use images from the website and instruct my students to have a “Silent Conversation.”  I post the images around the room and have a large blank piece of paper below.  Students are asked to write one thing on the paper and initial it.  It can be a question, an idea about the content, a detail they think is interesting or important or they can comment on a point from a peer. 
At first, students usually don’t see the connection between the images, but after they  have viewed them all, most have a vague understanding that the images are about President McKinley’s or Teddy Roosevelt’s Inauguration.  When we reconvene as a class, we examine each image, this time with further explanation from me.  I also answer their questions, as best I can.  The NPS site does a great job of proving questions for each image as well as the historical context to guide teachers.     

The skill that students work on is analysis of primary sources as outlined in Historical Thinking Standard 4:
§  Obtain historical data from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films, oral testimony from living witnesses, censuses, tax records, city directories, statistical compilations, and economic indicators.  (Source:
§  Interrogate historical data by uncovering the social, political, and economic context in which it was created; testing the data source for its credibility, authority, authenticity, internal consistency and completeness; and detecting and evaluating bias, distortion, and propaganda by omission, suppression, or invention of facts.  (Source:
This is really evident when students examine an artist’s sketch of Teddy Roosevelt being sworn in  and then look an actual photograph of the room in the drawing.    We discuss the intent of the artist and the difference between a photograph and drawing as a primary source.  We also examine a newspaper heading and compare photographs from past and present of the site. 

Lastly, we end with a conversation about the use of The Wilcox Family Home as a historical site.  I ask my students what types of historical tours they have taken or would like to take in the future.  In the end, I make sure we connect this back to the function of public history.

If you have time and are teaching some lessons on Teddy Roosevelt, check out the NPS website.  If this doesn’t apply, I also highly recommend using the “Silent Conversation” instructional method with your students.  It gets them moving around the room and encourages historical inquiry and helps you hit your teaching standards!

Image Credits from National Park Service "Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site:  Birthplace of the Modern Presidency." 15 September 2012 <>

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