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When Earnestine Sweeting began teaching her students about the 1863 New York City draft riots, she carried them beyond textbooks and into history, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The fifth-grade teacher at New York City’s P.S. 153 in the Bronx teamed up with her school’s librarian and social studies specialist to employ a collection of maps, manuscripts, sheet music, sound recordings, books and motion pictures.
Among the documents was a tea-dyed, crumpled replica of a letter sent from prominent Republican financier John Jay to President Abraham Lincoln requesting federal help to quell the violence that erupted in the days after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Her students also used a Smart Board, taking specific incidents from the riots and placing them where they occurred on a modern-day map of New York City.
The idea was to inspire students to ask interpretive and analytical questions and to inform students about geography and how places change over time. The result was success.
And Sweeting’s original thinking paved the way for her tenure as the Library of Congress’ teacher-in-residence for the 2011-2012 academic year.
Sweeting’s teaching career began a decade ago as she earned her master’s degree in education while teaching at P.S. 153. (She received her master’s in 2005.) In that span, she’s gone from substitute to full-time educator, teaching kindergarten, third grade and fourth grade along the way. Prior to her residency, she taught fifth grade.
Her first contact with the Library of Congress came in the summer of 2008, when Sweeting was asked by her school’s librarian to participate in a New York-based, three-day workshop put on by the LOC’s Educational Outreach Division that emphasized the Library’s primary sources.
Sweeting was skeptical about participating.
“I thought it was a library for Congressmen and for scholars to do research. I did not know that the Library offered professional development for teachers. I did not know it was a place for educational resources,” she said.
To her surprise, she came away inspired by how she might weave the LOC’s primary sources into her own curriculum.
That fall, Sweeting introduced the material to her fourth-grade class.
It worked so well, the Library of Congress was eager to put the teaching methods on film, green-lighting the production of “Supporting Inquiry with Primary Sources,” a 2009 visual blueprint for other teachers.
Only months before, Sweeting’s knowledge of the Library was limited; now she was seen as a champion of its resources.
But the video was only the beginning of the collaborative relationship.
In March 2011, Sweeting came across the teacher-in-residence program during a random search of the Library’s website and applied.
“Everyday I was checking my email, [thinking] ‘Oh, they’re not going to pick me,’” she said.
In June, Sweeting got word that she had been chosen.
“I have the opportunity to meet with the dignitaries of the Library. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet my Congressman ... which was a big deal for me,” she said.
Meeting Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) motivated Sweeting to begin blogging about ways to bring Congress into the classroom. She works with a research staff to post twice a week. The blog has become an outlet for reaching out to other teachers who provide feedback to her on various ideas.
But the blog represents only a small portion of Sweeting’s LOC duties. Her primary task is “to ensure that the materials that are provided for the teachers in the classroom are authentic and realistic.”
“You are expected to be involved with the planning and the delivery of workshops and resources and online resources that are available for teachers,” she said.
In the course of “spirited conversations,” Sweeting makes her case from a teacher’s perspective about what methods do and don’t work for educating students.
“I’m there to give the [LOC] team, I guess, a reality check,” she said.
Sweeting is already thinking about how to detail the experience for students when she returns to P.S. 153 next fall.
“My students in the past have always known me to be this teacher with wild and crazy ideas. I’ve always taken my personal experiences and brought them to the classroom,” she said.