National Archives Highlights New Teaching Tools

Posted August 20, 2009 at 2:19pm

The media went back to school at the National Archives on Thursday, learning about the Kennedys, the Mercury mission and the Constitution.

The National Archives held the event to showcase its Boeing Learning Center and to announce plans to launch a new Web site for educators to access Archives resources and develop lesson plans.

“We decided it was high time to take off the training wheels and announce ourselves to the broader educational community,— said Marvin Pinkert, director of the Center for the National Archives Experience.

The Boeing Learning Center is an interactive workspace where visitors, school groups and educators can use the Archives’ primary resources to study history.

Education specialist Megan Jones led the group through a series of activities that encourage creative critical thinking.

First, the audience was given a photo of President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and other members of the Kennedy administration watching television in the White House.

After studying the picture, Jones asked them to use “clues— such as who was present, their facial expressions and details in the room to determine where and when the photo was taken and what they might be watching.

It turns out the group was watching Alan Shepard return from the Mercury Freedom 7 mission in 1961 after becoming the first American to travel to space.

Jones said the exercise appeals to all age groups and that everyone notices different aspects of a photo.

For example, she said, a grandmother viewing the picture declared it had to have been taken in the spring because the first lady is wearing gloves, “and no lady would wear those gloves in the fall.—

In addition to the photo exercise, the learning center maintains maps, collections of documents organized by historical topics and binders containing information from past exhibits so visitors can tailor the experience to their interests.

These methods use “interactivity to make visitors into participants, not just recipients,— Pinkert said.

The media members were also treated to an abbreviated version of the “Constitution in Action,— a program used to teach students about how the Constitution affects their daily lives.

Students simulate the roles of archivists and researchers. Jones explained that the experience is meant to be as authentic as possible. The student archivists wear the same coats as professionals and retrieve materials held in the same boxes used to house the original documents and photographs that the National Archives maintains.

Participants then go through a process of identifying the “big ideas— in the Constitution and how they apply to everyday situations. The research is done in a reading room nearly identical to the one staff members use, down to the same cork flooring used to dull outside sound.

This exercise both teaches students about the Archives’ mission and introduces them to some of the 10 billion holdings the organization maintains.

Jones said people often associate the National Archives with just the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other famous historical documents. But there is far more, including letters to presidents from ordinary Americans, historical photographs and the Apollo 11 flight plan, among other treasures.

Stephanie Greenhut, also an education specialist, discussed the new Web site that is scheduled to launch in January. DocsTeach will be a three-pronged site, offering lesson plans, a database of historical documents that can be used to create new lessons and templates based on primary source documents.

“This is a site that, as it grows, teachers will actually build,— Pinkert said.