Eager to find a way to introduce
the students in my United States History survey to the World Wide Web in
a meaningful way, I chose The
Valley of the Shadow Web site as the focus for my first lesson
in historical research. Of all the Web sites we had evaluated during
the first New Media Classroom workshop, The Valley of the Shadow
contained the best primary source materials that fit comfortably into the
framework of the course I was already teaching. In particular, I
had always regretted that I was unable to devote more time to discussing
the lives of free blacks during the antebellum period. When I discovered
that The Valley of the Shadow Web site contained registers of free
blacks for both Augusta County, Virginia and the City of Staunton, I decided
to build a lesson around those primary sources.
The first year that
I tried this lesson I decided that it was most important to KEEP IT
SIMPLE (sometimes referred to as the KISS principle -- Keep It Simple
Stupid). Having little time to research the topic thoroughly, I chose
to make the lesson an exercise in drawing important conclusions from collections
of primary sources. Accordingly, I gave my students a choice of examining
any one of the three files of free black registers: Augusta
County, 1803-1845, Augusta
County, 1846-1865, or the
City of Staunton, 1803-1865. I required each student to write
an extended essay of between 750 and 1000 words explaining what important
conclusions regarding free blacks in the antebellum South they were able
to draw from examining the registers.
I was very gratified
with the results. Although many students complained about the difficulty
of drawing any firm conclusions, I was delighted to see so many students
trying to formulate and/or wrestling with significant historical questions.
Whether the students recognized it or not, they had learned a valuable
lesson about the way in which historians go about the work of making sense
of primary sources. Not surprisingly, many of the most enthusiastic
students were of African American descent. They joined others in
expressing excitement at the feeling that they were somehow directly touching
the lives of ordinary historical actors rather than reading about such
people in a textbook. That lesson marked my conversion to the teaching
technique that Professor Randy Bass has labeled "The Novice in the Archive,"
a technique that was largely unavailable until we and our students could
easily gain access to a real archive via the World Wide Web.
When I demonstrated
this lesson for my colleagues at the second summer workshop of the New
Media Classroom, I received a host of constructive criticisms that I am
still trying to assimilate. Among the most important of those
criticisms was that I had paid insufficient intention to the attitudes
and actions of African Americans themselves and that I had placed insufficient
emphasis on the fact that these primary sources had a strong built-in bias.
My colleagues also urged me to do some additional research on the history
of free African Americans, especially in regard to the difference in legal
status between those classified as black and those classified as mulatto.
Taking these criticisms
and those of my students into account, I thoroughly revised the assignment
and tried it again with a new group of students during the first semester
of the current school year. Although many students asked for
even more guidance, especially in regard to formulating significant historical
questions, the papers I received were more detailed, more sophisticated
and showed a greater understanding of the plight of free African Americans.
Students made use of a wider variety of sources, including sources they
found themselves both in libraries and on the World Wide Web.
In addition to looking at the situation from the point of African Americans
as well as that of whites, most students learned a great deal about a specific
aspect of the lives of African Americans in the antebellum South.
Whether they focused on employment opportunities, ownership of property,
the differing experiences of males and females, or the proportion of African
Americans known to be of mixed racial ancestry, my students learned a good
amount about the plight of African Americans while also learning the same
valuable lessons about how to go about conducting research in primary sources.
Equally important, the overwhelming majority of my students this year came
away believing that the World Wide Web could be a valuable tool for doing
historical research in primary sources. As one of my most perceptive
Advanced Placement students expressed it in his evaluation of this unit:
"The Valley of the Shadow research paper brought together all of the main
themes of historical research that we've learned in class up to now. In
the project we did research out of original texts. We were forced to think
critically about the historical value and significance of direct evidence.
We also had to work with this evidence, come to our own conclusions, and
write about our own ideas."
I don't want to underestimate
the extent of the further revision this assignment will require before
it is in polished, final form. Nevertheless, my students seem
pleased with the progress I have made and I continue to work on revising
it. In addition to doing a better job of teaching students how to navigate
and search the Web and evaluate Web sites before giving them this
research assignment, I am working on achieving a greater mastery of the
sources and devising specific historical questions for the less adventurous
students to choose from.
For those of you who are interested in knowing more about exactly what instructions I provided to my students this year, I have linked a copy of my assignment sheet to this draft. In an effort to make this assignment sheet more helpful to those of you who may wish to try something similar, I have made it interactive, that is, I have provided active links to the Web sites that I required or recommended that my students visit. Links to other examples not listed above but referred to orally during my actual presentation can be found at http://schulkin.org.
Please address any inquiries or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org .
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