Tag Archives: primary sources

A great semester! New approaches prove successful.


As the semester winds down and I am grading the finals, it has been exceptionally rewarding to see how much improvement my students made this go-around in my 101 course.  Teaching roughly 7000 years of history is no joke!  For a community college’s introduction to history course, I try to emphasize a general knowledge of the eras that produced the modern western civilization we live in today and the skills of the historian.

It had been immediately evident in the finals I have graded so far that the improvement in working the historian’s craft was considerable–not only in reading and rating the reliability of primary sources, but also in constructing a logical argument for one’s interpretation of the sources.  Reading and writing skills have improved as they have learned how to approach the material.

This semester I worked towards this goal in a couple of new ways:

  • The midterm was broken into three parts and the first two of these parts were collaborative–and the grades were curved.  The midterm asked them to replicate as much of the reading and writing skills as we had covered in class up to that point while also testing their knowledge of the readings and eras up to that point.  (The greater emphasis on analysis followed their own collective attempts at first on the midterm.)
  • I provided extra credit assignments (two) that specifically emphasized these skills after the midterm–groups that struggled the most on the midterm could thus practice the skills further in the following weeks and earn extra credit for the additional practice.
  • I modeled, with the class’s help, the prioritization of reliable sources when conflicting accounts exist and constructing a basic outline for a history paper.  (Extra credit assignments built directly on these in-class/homework exercises.)

These activities seemed to really help students grow in their understanding of the material.  One could tank on the midterm, but still work towards a successful grade in the class if one was willing to put the work into the class and the projects with the extra credit options.  It was important for me to give students the opportunity to collaboratively see how far they had come on their own and take some risks, but I did not want to punish them if they hadn’t come as far by week six as I hoped they would by finals week.  (I should point out that our institution has a really early midterm.)

The major drawback was that some students were too greatly discouraged and did not see how they could climb out of the hole–none of these ever approached me about their grades or situation before quitting, though.  Students who flat out failed the midterm recovered to earn grades in the 80-90% range.  So, it was definitely possible to make the turn around–most of these did come and speak to me or e-mail me about their grades.  I did not give anyone a free pass–each student earned their grades–though, I was far more lenient in grading the finals where grammar and syntax was concerned.  (This was, in part, because of the high number of ESL students in my evening course who do not have easy access to tutoring resources on campus; and, in part, it was due to the fact that I am not handing back the finals for students to see their mistakes.  Besides, at this point I was far more concerned with their historical understanding and was gratified to observe considerable improvement in organizing their essays and in writing even if they still have work to do in that area.)

Students who were sharper on the first day of class further honed their skills and understood far more about the historical process.  Students who were green gained new understanding and experiences, growing in the class.  It was an awesome semester and the students were a lot of fun to teach–I never dreaded going to class.  Semesters like this remind me why I love teaching so much–even if I only adjunct for a couple of courses a year.


Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

Newspapers – the most well-rounded of primary sources

Newspapers provide one of the most thoroughly fascinating and insightful snapshots of an era, including both the major news items and advertisements.  How the major news items are covered is always interesting, but the advertisements, while often entertaining, also speak to the consumers, market, and companies operating in that age.  Additionally, the smaller tidbits can fill in the blanks about leisure activities and cultural norms/deviations.

Earlier this year, I acquired a handful of newspapers from the UK company Historic Newspapers (http://www.historic-newspapers.co.uk/).  The company provides a service of supplying historical newspapers for gifts (i.e.: newspaper from the recipient’s birthday) and educators.  Their supply includes both originals and reproductions from around the world, but the bulk being from the U.S. and the U.K.  Their staff includes a dedicated research team.  Educational support packs are available free of charge!

To purchase from them, follow the link and use this discount code: 15TODAY

One of the newspapers I acquired was from the day of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, June 2, 1953.  Take a look at Edmund Hillary’s successful journey to Mt. Everest’s pinnacle, the coronation route and service, murder, comics, and advertisements:

The Front Page story

The Coronation

Other News Items

Radio and TV schedule

(This was the first televised coronation and the decision to televise it provided a huge boost to the television industry.)

Comics and Crossword Puzzle


It is a great way to take stock of an era in one single snapshot, one single day’s news.  (The next paper I highlight will be the UK coverage of the lunar landing–stay tuned!)

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Forging Ahead, Greek fire through history and mechanical engineering

Tom Harris and one of the swords he made. (Photo credit: Marcus Woo, http://features.caltech.edu/features/393)

Forging Ahead

It wasn’t long ago when I realized that I was a huge nerd, a total dork, a complete geek!  Now, I have long known that I was a big history and civics dork, but it was only when I was attending NOAA’s Why Do We Explore professional development workshop at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History that I realized that I’m an enormous knowledge nerd!  (I’m pretty minimally competent when it comes to technology, so maybe I don’t get to be a geek.)

So, along those lines, I was pretty excited to read about a 2012 Caltech grad with a double major in mechanical engineering and history!  How cool is that!?  His experience brilliantly illustrates the value in multi-disciplined approaches often easily achieved through project based learning.  The intrepid student, Tom Harris, combined research of primary sources about Greek fire with modern scientific knowledge of fluid mechanics.  (Uh, AWESOME!)  He concluded that the weapon was not as effective when used by the Byzantines against the Islamic forces given the methods in naval battles, but acknowledged that his study was not definitive.  His conclusion corroborated some of the contemporary descriptions which suggested the range of Greek fire was limited.

But, let me share with you my favorite paragraph from the short article linked above:

Harris came to Caltech with an undeclared major, thinking he would study computer science. But, having been an avid Lego builder as a kid, he was drawn to mechanical engineering. He also has an interest in medieval history, which similarly dates back to his childhood—he loved pirates and knights, and both his parents were history majors—and after he took Brown’s medieval history class, his impression of the study of history changed. Instead of reading textbooks and analysis from other historians, Harris and his dozen or so classmates read and analyzed original documents.

This is what caught the young man’s imagination:  Instead of reading textbooks and analysis from other historians, Harris and his dozen or so classmates read and analyzed original documents.  The project, an undergrad thesis, resulted in good, quality, original history research.  BRAVO!!

Not only that, but Harris did it by uniting his interests–and, no doubt it took a lot of work with few overlapping core course requirements, from two different tracks.  For some reason, it is a trend in the U.S. that you either do science and math or humanities and language.  While it is one thing to suggest that individuals who do well in one track tend not to do as well in the other track, it is a mistake to encourage this artificial segregation of studies or competencies.  Harris demonstrates the limitations we self-impose on academic study and is exemplary for his cross-disciplinary pursuits.  And, he had fun!  Lots of fun!  The article quotes him as saying, “You could say this experience was about rediscovering my inner child and finding a more mature way of exploring these interests.”

Congratulations Tom Harris on the completion of your thesis and on your graduation from Caltech in the studies of History and Mechanical Engineering!  I hope many people take notice of your example!!

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Historic American Newspapers – Chronicling America (The Library of Congress)


The Hawaiian gazette. (Honolulu [Oahu, Hawaii]) 1865-1918, June 18, 1912

If you visit the Library of Congress’s (LOC) website and click on, “Historic Newspapers,” you open up a unique tool for teaching American history.  The first thing you will see is a collection of newspaper front pages, “100 Years Ago Today.”   These, of course, offer great potential as a way to scan the current events from a century ago, but it is not the only resource the site affords visitors and educators.

“Chronicling America” is a joint-effort of the Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Humanities to provide access to digitized newspapers and to digitize select others.  The intent is, of course, to provide a digital directory of such resources for American history.  The website explains the project in the following manner:

Chronicling America is a Website providing access to information about historic newspapers and select digitized newspaper pages, and is produced by the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). NDNP, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress (LC), is a long-term effort to develop an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers with descriptive information and select digitization of historic pages. Supported by NEH, this rich digital resource will be developed and permanently maintained at the Library of Congress. An NEH award program will fund the contribution of content from, eventually, all U.S. states and territories.

To search for particular content, start by clicking on the sidebar’s link, “Recommended Topics,” (location on left upper sidebar, as seen from the screen shot, above) a large alphabetic list of topics is provided.  From here you have two options, 1) find your topic among the listed suggestions, or 2) type in a search term(s) into the box labeled, “Find,” with one of three search areas (1, “News & Current Periodical Pages,” 2, “Researchers Web Pages,” and 3, “All Library of Congress Pages”) provided in the drop down box immediately to the right and see what is provided (see at the top of the screen shot provided, below).

Topics in Chronicling America

 For example, I typed in, “Thomas Edison” in, “News and Current Periodical Pages,” and hit, “GO.”  Now, here, it gets a bit confusing.  While I did not get a direct result for, “Thomas Edison,” the man, as such, I got a topic that is related to Edison: “Early Cinema.”  This could be frustrating for some folks, but the site does function best along the topics it has prepared.  An alternative method is to search, “Thomas Edison” in, “Researchers Web Pages,” and hit, “GO,” giving you research options from the LOC.  Not all of these results will be useful, some will be collections’ items that are not digitized, and others may be only tangentially related, such as the page for the, “Motion Picture and Television Reading Room,” which explains on its main page that:

The Library of Congress began collecting motion pictures in 1893 when Thomas Edison and his brilliant assistant W.K.L. Dickson deposited the Edison Kinetoscopic Records for copyright. However, because of the difficulty of safely storing the flammable nitrate film used at the time, the Library retained only the descriptive material relating to motion pictures. In 1942, recognizing the importance of motion pictures and the need to preserve them as a historical record, the Library began the collection of the films themselves. From 1949 on these included films made for television. Today the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS) has responsibility for the acquisition, cataloging and preservation of the motion picture and television collections. The Division operates the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room to provide access and information services to an international community of film and television professionals, archivists, scholars and researchers.

 The last search option from this page is to search, “Thomas Edison” in, “All Library of Congress Pages,” and hit, “GO,” thus providing you with a wide array of materials, including lesson plans, events information and much more.  This brings up some of the same material that the last search provided, but it also includes the LOC biography of Edison and the lesson plan, “Thomas Edison, Electricity and America,” which provides some pretty interesting primary sources, though no newspaper sources (it does include magazine sources, focusing especially on advertising in select magazines).

If you are determined to cover Edison and use the Historic American Newspapers website, you still have a couple of options: 1) direct your students to the page on the 100th anniversary of something newsworthy from Edison’s career, or, if you can’t manage that, 2) use either the, “Early Cinema,” or, “Nikola Tesla,” topics.  Once you select on the topic of choice, you will first get a list of, “Important Dates,” for the topic, then, “Suggested Search Strategies,” and finally, “Sample Articles,” providing links to digitized newspaper articles.


A Nikolas Tesla article, The Times. (Richmond, Va.) 1890-1903, October 21, 1894, Page 2

The digital copy of the newspaper can be manipulated with controls in the top left corner of the view screen.  In addition to zooming in and out, turning pages, etc., one can also take snapshots with the view screen which can be copied and pasted, downloaded, or printed.  By clicking on the, “Clip Image,” link, the snap shot is opened on a new page or tab with bibliographic information from the newspaper, itself, and the link to the site.

Keep in mind when using old newspaper articles that the rules of journalism developed over time and are relatively recent guidelines, despite the upheaval and threat to such rules created by the web.  As ever, multiple sources will often reveal biases and prejudices among individual publications or authors.

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Student drama brings War of 1812 home

Student drama brings War of 1812 home – baltimoresun.com.

A model of the fort as it appeared during the War of 1812.

I think theater is one of the most under-utilized history teaching tools available to teachers.  That’s why I got so excited about the performances covered by the Baltimore Sun, linked above.  Students from the Baltimore School for the Arts wrote and performed “Fighting for Freedom” about the War of 1812:

The cast and crew, all sophomores at the Mount Vernon school, researched the archives at the Maryland Historical Society for insights into the war that many call the nation’s second struggle for independence. They visited the fort several times and drew characters from ordinary people, rather than from the few made famous by the war.

~ Mary Gail Hare, “Student drama brings War of 1812 home,” The Baltimore Sun

The effort of developing a character based on a historical person, requires research into the primary sources available for that person.  It requires leaving behind one’s own world and trying to access the strangeness and differences of another culture.  While local Marylanders may be well-acquainted with life by the Chesapeake Bay, the world of Maryland during the War of 1812 is still a foreign land, beholden to rules of a different era and expectations that have been left behind in a pre-Civil War/pre-Civil Rights, pre-WWI/pre-WWII America.

Their research unearthed one Maryland militiaman’s letters home, accounts that inspired one of the scenes. Alexandra Morrell, clad in a floral dress that designer Erin Beuglass had created from a curtain, read her husband’s letters to their daughter as their enslaved servant girl shared their concerns. Students developed a love story subplot between the servant and the household’s enslaved wagoner. The scene ended with the young man pleading with the girl to run away.

“It will be hard for her to leave the family, but I think she will run off with her man to freedom,” said T’Pre Mayer, who portrayed both the girl’s hesitation and her love.

Lance Strickland, who played her suitor, said, “The war affected everybody, not just the people in history books, but even the slaves.”

~ Ibid.

The conflict of 1812, is also a different type of conflict, in many ways, than what we have become accustomed to in the modern U.S.  The War of 1812 is the only war visited upon the United States, and outside of Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the only time the United States suffer attacks among the states, themselves.  One has only the Civil War and the colonial wars (and the Indian wars) to turn to for a similar sense of foreign aggressors in and among American homes, cities, and waterways.

This sort of production helps to introduce a narrative that is an authentic representation of that foreign world.  As NPS Ranger Vince Vaise is quoted saying in “the show fills in historical gaps with credible fiction.  ‘These kids are telling untold and more inclusive stories,” he said. “They show what average people were talking about in the Fells Point coffeehouses. They really have blown the dust off the history books. The school, the fort and the historical society give us a real powerhouse of history right here.'”  Emphasizing the other side of this project that I so admire: collaboration.  The archives are here, and the students and teacher put them to innovative and productive use!  (Extra props for using the name of the blog, Ranger Vaise!)

Such insights fulfilled instructors’ expectations for the project, said Norah Worthington, a costume design teacher, who wrote a pirate scene and worked with the 24 sophomores involved in the production.

“They put together a picture of what those of that era faced,” she said. “They focused on everyday people, not the famous, and showed how events affected them. The stories make the war personal.”

The drama helped the teenagers understand the local significance, too, she said.

“The scenes played out on streets these students walk every day,” Worthington said.

One scene focuses on the riots that broke out on city streets. Again, the students presented a new perspective — that of an assertive woman. Calla Fuqua played the normally docile wife of a shipping merchant, prompted by the war to disagree publicly with her husband. Their encounter occurred on Charles Street, where she finds him safe after a night of rioting.

“The war was about freedom of speech, bringing Canada into the union and impressing American sailors,” she said. “I think even the women had to speak up.”

~ Ibid.

This is a new day for these students, many of whom may have had no interest in history before the project who have now experienced it on multiple levels: 1) they have experienced researching history–just as historians do–with primary sources; and 2) they have created an experience of the historical era through their performance, introducing themselves and viewers to the people of a foreign time in our community’s history; introducing them to the concerns about conflict; introducing them to the mores of a society that continued to grapple with slavery, a young government, and other problems that we sometimes struggle to relate to otherwise.

We should be doing more of this sort of learning.  Take the talents that students have or are eager to develop and make use of them in education.

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100 Years Later: Ways to Teach About the Titanic

100 Years Later: Ways to Teach About the Titanic With The Times – NYTimes.com.

100 Years Later Ways to Teach About the Titanic With The Times - NYTimes.com

So, the Titanic has sailed back onto our horizons, for at least a little while.  The link above will take you to the New York Times education page.  On it, you will find links to primary sources from the Titanic’s sinking, including articles from the paper’s archives.  There are a variety of suggestions, such as: making scrapbooks or mock Facebook pages (try MyFakeWall.com) which are neat ideas–easily incorporated into an existing history program or as a stand alone activity.  And, this brings up an important decision for history teachers wanting to do something with the Titanic.

What are you doing with the Titanic: Is it an opportunity to take advantage of history being covered in the news, or does it work well with what you are covering in your class already, or is it something that you simply feel compelled to cover, or is it a means to actually cover current events?  Another relevant question: Are you going to simply do a fact-finding project, a history project driven by a particular question, or a project that evaluates other disciplines either in an isolated way or in a multi-disciplined approach, such as science, engineering, or sea-exploration?

I always consider the anniversaries of particular events as interesting opportunities in teaching history, but they are also potentially awkward prospects that could unsettle the flow of the class if they do not fit in logically. Sometimes there is no real way to introduce these moments without a natural gap, such as in-class activities just before a major test or due date while students are working on tasks at home, or immediately after such a date when students are a bit exhausted.

Of course, if you are already discussing the era, then so much the better.  This is a great opportunity to evaluate Edwardian issues of class, the lingering perception of invincibility for imperialists and innovators of industry, the era’s perceptions of gender, an evaluation of the early 20th century’s media and connection with perceptions of disaster, or a more general consideration of communication developments in the age.

One of the resource links from the NY Times article: RMS Titanic Victims of the Titanic Disaster

If you are going to utilize the Titanic tragedy in class, do it with a purpose.  Be cognizant of the event’s social and cultural cache.  It may be the perfect moment to capture and wow students with a degree of interest that is sometimes hard to achieve in history classes.  Try assigning each student a person through the stories, wooing them into the drama of the past.  Provide them with multi-media sources to explore the moments they are reading about.

If your student, Tommy, reads about a young lady who gushed over dancing in the ballroom and seeing the view from her balcony, and then let him explore the underwater scene of the ballroom, today, there is a real opportunity to draw him into an experience he may have never had before.

If your student, Natalie, follows the excitement and worries of a family who put everything into this trip to immigrate to America and their struggles to keep the family together during the tragedy, complete with subsequent census records for the family after the survivors made it to the States, she may develop an interest in the nitty-gritty she never knew she was capable of sharing.

If your student, Devon, takes a look at one of the socialites who is in the newspapers leading up to the voyage and then considers his or her experience during the voyage and its disaster, they will get a personal “in” and learn a little bit about class status in the era.

This is a potential trigger moment, that can really open the world of the past in a way that other events often do not, especially for older students who are more likely to know something about the Titanic.

Titanic 100 Years -- National Geographic Channel

Additional resources:

The NY Times piece from above: 100 Years Later: Ways to Teach About the Titanic With The Times – NYTimes.com.

The BBC has interviews with survivors–great primary sources, but don’t forget the effect of history and time impacting the memory of those interviewed.

Teachinghistory.org provides a useful movie review of the James Cameron’s Titanic which is short enough to be used easily in conjunction with the movie (also complement the Hollywood experience with primary sources!!).

HistoryTech.wordpress.com offers some tech resources for Titanic lesson plans.

Larry Ferlazzo also has a collection of “The Best Sites for Learning About the Titanic.”

The History Channel’s website also has a series of articles, clips and interactive materials on its Titanic Topic’s page.

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Teaching history without a history degree

academic,Americans,African descent,chalkboards,gestures,instructing,languages,learning,occupations,people,points,Spanish,teachers,women,communications

Obviously, the best case scenario for every teacher is that they have a degree in the subject or field that they are teaching.  But, for a variety of reasons, that simply is not always possible.  (I am clearly speaking about primary and secondary education, here.)  This post is addressed to those earnest educators working at museums, schools, home schools, historical reconstruction sites, memorials, and similar placements who seek to teach history better, despite a lack of training in the field.

First note, that this post is filed under the category of “Experiencing History” and that I have no “History Education” category on my blog despite frequently writing about it.  Simply put, I believe that “Experiencing History” should be synonymous with “History Education.”  By this, I mean that history education should comprise of history research, writing, and presentation on the one hand, complemented by experiences in historical reconstruction on the other whether it is through food, sport, drama, music, travel, presentations, or recreated experiences.  Naturally, this is revised according to level of learning, but experiential learning in history is far more rewarding and lasting than simply being told what happened when, and, oh by the way, kindly memorize that and regurgitate it for me later.  (I’m not castigating tests here, but I do firmly believe that some tests are far superior to others.)  Being a historian is also “experiencing history” because real historians stopped using textbooks the moment they entered real academic training; instead, they read scholarly works infused with passion about the subject (usually passionate, anyway), researched primary sources, and wrote presentations of arguments about their findings.

So, in order for the above to be possible, the teacher has to have certain knowledge and resources.  One thing I want to do in this post is recommend some resources and suggest the best methods for achieving the desired knowledge.  I also recommend you read the following two posts, if you are new to the field: “A metaphor to explain what historians do” and “Primary sources and getting some context” (these may also give you some ideas for exercises–many other “Experiencing History” posts will also recommend exercises).


If the books you read about your subject frequent the fancy display cases at Barnes and Noble–unless it is a university bookstore–you should be wary.  Popular history is written for entertainment and revenues, but seldom for peer review!  This is really important!  Peer review means that other experts in the field have reviewed it, as opposed to newspaper or magazine reviewers who are not historians.  One of the values in getting journals (or getting access to journals) is that they include the peer review, such as the American Historical Association’s The American Historical Review, which has the benefit of covering the vast range of historical sub-studies and eras.  Going to university library and accessing a database such as JSTOR allows you to search for reviews specifically on topics.  This effectively gives you a list of quality history books on your subject (along with their strengths and weaknesses).  It will also give you an introduction into historiography which is the history of what historians have argued regarding your topic and an important insight into how history works and how our understanding evolves.

Another avenue is to skip Barnes and Noble and go to peruse the catalogs, online or print, of publishers who specialize in academic books.  These include university presses, of course, and also academic publishing arms such as Bedford’s, Palgrave, Blackwell, Modern Library (their “College Editions”), and Penguin (though, they publish a lot of popular stuff, too, so be discerning or look for their academic publications–they also have many useful translations of primary sources).  I would still avail yourself of reviews, especially if you are new to the field, but these should be safe for their information.  Once you’ve got good books, start paying attention to their footnotes/endnotes and their sources, both primary and secondary–this is literally your paper trail, and while you probably cannot replicate or follow every lead practically, you can cross-reference and learn about the subject’s evolution in our understanding.

Some of you may ask why you can’t you rely on the history textbook?  At least two reasons: 1) textbooks aren’t very good (for a full explanation of this read the following: “Why you are allowed to be suspicious of history textbooks”), and, 2) your students already have the textbook, so you aren’t providing anything that they can’t already teach themselves if they simply read the textbook–admittedly there opportunities for refining reading skills, but that is not enough of an excuse as you can do that with any reading assignment.  Some of you may be faced with required texts that you are assigned and that’s fine, but don’t be a slave to them.  Once you have educated yourself, the inherent limitations of the textbooks become mind-expanding teaching tools themselves.

But, before you really get into your subject learn more about the field itself.  Some of the books I am about to suggest, are aimed at students.  If you do not have extensive formal training in history, then it is worth considering yourself a student, too.  (Actually, the best teachers never stop thinking of themselves as students, no matter how many years of experience they may have.)  I should clarify why it is important to learn about the field itself: have you ever heard of teaching science without also teaching the Scientific Method or performing experiments to learn chemistry or physics?  Of course not!  Science counts on transparency of method so that each experiment and its findings can be reproduced.  Academic history functions, more or less, the same way–except that history involves a lot more grey area and interpretation of findings–but for some reason history is limited in the early years of education to the very dry transferal of “historical facts” (which, as we see, are often not fact at all–read the link about textbooks above!).

So, this is why your job requires getting good information about your subject and demonstrating transparency of method for your students.  Once they learn the methodology, you will find it makes them more critical readers who grow into citizens requiring a trail of evidence not just random assertions by someone claiming to know something.  (In other words, you are teaching them the skills that will remove them from the gullible e-mail chain population and make them critical of political spoutings and commentary.)  The books below will help get you initiated into the field, but it will take your own leg work to discover the books you need for the history subject you are teaching–by the way, your reading requirement doesn’t end as long as you are teaching: historiography!  What we know is constantly evolving!

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Critical Perspectives On The Past), Sam Wineburg–*Anyone teaching history, should read this book, even with historical training!

From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods, Martha Howell & Waltern Prevenier

A Student’s Guide to History, Jules R. Benjamin

A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, Mary Lynn Rampolla

Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History, Jim Cullen

Writing History: A Guide for Students, William Kelleher Storey

Reading History: A Practical Guide to Improving Literacy, Janet Allen and Christine Landaker *Use this book with an eye to any reading assignment–not textbooks.

Thinking History, Peter N. Stearns *This was published by the American Historical Association along with countless other useful booklets on historical thinking, comparative history, historiography and teaching history.

There are other good books, of course, but this a good list to get you started!


The web provides far less reliable secondary source material about most subjects than it advertises.  (This should not be a surprise!)  If you are trying to find accurate historical information written by competent historians online, your best bet is to pursue academic sites, National Park Service sites (although the quality is variable and lacks an academic standard to be universally applied, these websites are still the product of folks with an intimate knowledge of their Park and often who have some historical training in their background), preservation sites, and those of professional historical associations.  The most difficult area, at least for American history, will be the Civil War, which is awash with amateur historians, often infused with regional prejudices; this would be followed by our colonial history which has become overwhelmed by modern day, political commentary, and is, thus, propagated by amateurs with a modern political agenda.  (Note: I am abstaining from commenting on modern politics and merely discussing the quality of the history.)

Search engines also complicate things.  When you type a query into your search engine, you get the most popular sites–not the best sites–at the top.  Most search engines will let you refine the url type you are searching.  In other words, you can search for your subject but only among .gov or .edu websites, for example.  Some of the sites below include useful secondary information, while others specialize in primary source information.

Of course, there are also documentaries online (and TV), but here especially be critical!  Documentaries often include valuable information and interviews with historians, but they also are usually directed and produced by non-historians in the entertainment industry.  The film genre, more than any other(!), is for entertainment–even National Geographic will emphasize treasure over good history because people will be more interested in gold!  The minute someone sets about making a film, the first goal is always entertainment.  This is the nature of supply and demand for film: busy people, inexperienced people, or lazy people who still have an interest in history are targeted, because they want to know about the subject via great footage and in the space of an hour. Furthermore, they tend to portray a unified interpretation of a subject, which is fairly impossible in history.  Scholars come to well-reasoned, but different conclusions, so the films tend to perpetuate the myth of cold-hard historical fact.  I’m not saying they are useless, but documentaries have inherent flaws because of their goals that you should understand in advance.

The websites below will build on the reading I recommended above and augment individual subject studies.  They will do slightly different things for you which I attempt to clarify.  There are other websites out there, but these are a good start.

A Student’s Online Guide to History Reference Sources – This is an online source that goes with the Jules R. Benjamin book above.

Resources for Teachers at All Levels – American Historical Association, teaching resources–they really serve teaching and pedagogy, so take advantage!

The AHA and K-16 Teaching – American Historical Association, teaching resources.

teachinghistory.org – National History Education Clearinghouse: includes exercises, primary sources, and historian interviews.

Internet History Sourcebooks Project by Paul Halsall of Fordham University – Primary sources, with some secondary source reference material and maps.

And some useful blogs:

History Tech – Teaching resources blog with an eye to technology.

The History Channel This is Not… – Great posts on pedagogy from a trained historian who is teaching.

Brush off the Dust! History Now! – This blog.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning