This article was originally published in The History Teacher 34, 3 (May 2001): 339-344 and is reprinted here with permission.
I wander around the computer lab watching my ninth grade class, all of whom appear absorbed by what they are discovering on the Internet. Even the sometimes frustrating hunt for new information seems to fascinate them. Occasionally one student calls across the room to another when she stumbles on a new site that might be helpful to someone else. Or students ask me for help in making sense of what they are finding, or in determining whether a site is trustworthy, or in searching for sources on their topic. It’s like a community of scholars, I think, except that they are ninth graders in a United States history class in a Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, all of whom carry a double load of classes. (They must takes courses in Jewish subjects, like Rabbinics and Bible, in addition to the usual high school schedule.) If I forget to give a “two minute warning” before the bell rings so that they can save, log off, and figure out their homework for that night, they work through the bell. They have lost track of time. It’s not exactly my doing as their teacher, much as it pleases me to create projects and watch them learn. It’s the Internet; and sites like http://www.historymatters.gmu.edu that help make the Internet safe and accessible for ninth graders.
When there is a limit on the amount of information available in a classroom, the students need to depend on the teacher as the master of information. Conversely, when accurate information is widely available, conveniently organized, and easily accessed, then the nature of the learning that takes place can resemble more what the AHA now advocates: students learn by “doing” history. Given a structure and guidance, students can generate their own questions based on their analysis of the historical record, and then form conclusions that they validate by the data that they analyzed. They can construct history–and know that’s what they’ve done, and why.
But the information must be accurate, organized, and accessible. For this reason, I have found History Matters most helpful as a portal sight. It is, along with http://www.loc.gov and http://www.archives.gov/index.html, the place where the students begin. Search engines such a Yahoo!, Ask Jeeves, and Google! can turn up hundreds of sights in response to a query about, say, the role of entrepreneurs, or immigrants, or those enslaved, 1790-1865. Those sites, however, have not necessarily been vetted by historians. History Matters, on the other hand, is safe, secure, informative, and always accurate. I tell students in my United States history classes that any site they find listed on History Matters, or any site that they can reach through a link from a site they reached through History Matters (and so on down the line), is valid and usable. Furthermore, History Matters includes descriptions of what can be found at the linked site. When high schoolers slow down enough to read carefully, these can be a great resource.
My favorite example of a project from my classroom that used History Matters as the enabler for effective Internet use is a ninth grade United States history class, a class that insisted on following its own interests wherever that led. We were discussing Hamilton’s plan to establish the credit of the United States after the Revolutionary War. Students were genuinely puzzled about how borrowing more–increasing the national debt–could improve the nation’s credit. When, eventually, I attempted to bring the class back to our scheduled work, they wanted to know why we couldn’t continue to learn about what interested them. The eventual result was an open ended unit that depended in significant ways on the students’ interests to define our studies. We decided to investigate the contributions to the nation of a variety of “groups” that we identified as important to the “development” of the United States, 1800-1860. These groups included inventors and entrepreneurs; slaves in the South; immigrant laborers; women; and political leaders. The class worked collaboratively. They began by collecting information for oral presentations to each other. That way everyone would learn what others had uncovered. This was followed by a structured (and graded) debate on the question, “Who Built America? 1800-1860.” Finally, the class was divided into work groups (see below) to create an interactive website that would allow visitors to explore the historical questions that the class had raised.
The kids needed accurate information even though they were not entirely sure what they were looking for. In this situation, History Matters was especially helpful. It allowed them safely to surf the Internet, roaming around in secondary and primary sources. They could locate information, read it, put it into a growing context for their subject, or abandon it and move on when they lost interest. For example, in the project “Who Built America? 1800-1865,” a student began by investigating the role that slaves played in “building” the American economy during the first half of the nineteenth century, only to discover that what she was really researching was the role of all those who contributed to economic development disproportionately to what they received as compensation. Her topic expanded to include, among others, the contributions of immigrant married women whose work at home may have made possible the payment of subsistence wages to male factory workers, thus allowing the accumulation of capital. Without such a portal as History Matters, I, as the teacher would have had to establish the basic questions and provide a limited number of materials that, in my view, would answer the questions posed. With the aid of History Matters, it became possible for students in my ninth grade class to follow their own leads wherever their research led them–even before they were entirely sure what they were studying. They developed questions based on their perusal of almost unlimited information. These questions then oriented their continuing search for more information. And their conclusions were validated by the accurate historical information that they found on the Internet.
For the project “Who Built America? 1800-1865,” the questions that the ninth grade students raised, developed and responded to eventually were turned into a website. You can visit the website at http://members.aol.com/nachamon. It also can be accessed through our school’s website, http://www.cesjds.org (under “Student Projects”). The “rubrics” included below–the criteria by which to judge–will help you understand how the class was taught to do this activity. As many of you are aware, in high schools rubrics are often used both as directions for an activity and as a model of what the completed work should look like when it meets the teacher’s expectations. That way students “work to high expectations” rather than “working to the test” (although the rubric also sets the criteria for evaluation). For our ninth grade project, the class was divided into three collaborative groups. The “Web Masters” held primary responsibility for developing the website. The “Archivists” principal assignment was to find appropriate primary sources. The “Writers” needed to address the historically significant issues and questions that the class’s research had raised.
An “A” site…
An “A” project…
An “A” text…