Back to School

(The following is the cover story written by Stephen Wesson, educational resource specialist in the Educational Outreach Division of the Office of Strategic Initiatives, for the September-October 2013 edition of the Library of Congress Magazine. You can download the issue in its entirety here.) 

Teachers and students are discovering new ways of learning with resources from the Library of Congress. 

Fourth-grade students enjoy looking for clues in historic maps. Educational Outreach Division.

Students in the Bronx pore over first-hand accounts of riots in New York City in 1863 and map them to neighborhoods that they know today.

In Oregon, fifth-graders sprawl across a massive world map from 1507, searching for clues about what life would be like for an explorer.

A Nevada middle-schooler finds original paperwork from the construction of the Erie Canal— including a letter from Abraham Lincoln—weaves it into the story of labor and management in the industrial revolution, and wins a national history prize.

These students from different states, in different grades, studying different subjects, have one thing in common: They’re all making discoveries using resources from the Library of Congress.

Over the past two decades, technology has allowed the Library to make many of its collections accessible in classrooms around the world, helping teachers and students to explore a wide variety of subjects. The Library’s robust educational outreach program helps educators maximize this opportunity. At the heart of that program is the unparalleled collection of objects and documents that anyone can explore, save and use for free on the Library’s website, loc.gov.

Bringing the Library into the Classroom

Students from Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., use the LOC Box to explore different features of the Library’s architecture. Photo by Abby Brack Lewis.

The Library’s outreach to K-12 educators has its roots in the late 1980s, when Librarian of Congress James H. Billington recognized that digital technology could be used to make the contents of the nation’s library more accessible to Congress, the American people and the world. In the 1990s, the Library began digitizing items from its collections and sending them to schools on disc. With the rise of the Internet, the treasures of the Library, and its expertise, could be available to an even wider audience. The possibilities for teachers and students were—and are—tremendous.

However, these technologies bring new challenges as well. Students need the skills that will allow them to navigate a crowded information marketplace, and the skills to prepare them to be effective 21st-century citizens. Meanwhile, teachers need materials and strategies to engage students and provide them with opportunities to learn and practice problem-solving, research and collaboration skills.

In the current educational climate, primary sources are more important than ever. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) require teachers to use primary sources in their classrooms, supporting students as they learn to cite evidence and synthesize ideas, thoughtfully considering each piece of information’s point of origin. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a guide for the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), also stress the value of primary-source analysis and research skills.

“The Library is playing a unique and vital role in supporting the K-12 community during this period of transformation,” said Lee Ann Potter, the Library’s director of Educational Outreach. “As the world’s largest cultural repository, the Library provides free access to millions of online primary- source items.”

The Power of Primary Sources

Kindergarten students from Manalapan, N.J., interact with primary sources. Photo by Earnestine Sweeting.

The power that these items bring to learning is that they are historical artifacts that were created during the time period under study. Primary sources are the raw materials of history and culture. “As such, they capture students’ attention,” said Potter. “They give students a powerful sense of history and of the complexity of the past in a way that textbooks and other secondary sources don’t. Analyzing primary sources prompts students to ask questions; guides them toward higher-order thinking, better critical-thinking and analysis skills; and encourages additional research.”

No matter the subject or era, there’s something for everyone. From Thomas Edison’s late 19th-century films to 20th-century soda commercials, from poet Walt Whitman’s notebooks to the journals of scientist Carl Sagan, from Revolutionary War letters from Valley Forge to the stories of Iraq War veterans, the collections span the universe of knowledge, and offer a dazzling record of human creativity.

An Online Home for Teachers

The Library’s support for educators isn’t limited to providing access to its collections.

“We are providing the nation’s K-12 educators with a treasure trove of free tools, professional development and subject-area expertise that allows them to bring the world’s history and culture to life in their classrooms,” said Potter.

All this can be found at the Library’s online home for educators—loc.gov/teachers. The Teachers Page provides classroom-ready primary sources, along with tools and training that make it easier to integrate sources effectively into curricula. The site also allows K-12 educators to interact and share ideas and to learn from Library staff members via webinars.

The site offers more than 100 carefully prepared, teacher-tested lesson plans and teaching activities built around the Library’s online collections. The collections are all searchable by Common Core State Standards, state content standards and the standards of national organizations.

To keep up with everything the Library is doing for teachers, more than 25,000 subscribers receive the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog (blogs.loc.gov/teachers). The blog brings ready-to-use teaching ideas and news to its audience via email and RSS feeds.

Educators looking to build their skills can choose from an array of online, self-directed training modules or customizable professional-development activities on the Teachers Page.

When in doubt, teachers and students can pose their questions through the Library’s online “Ask a Librarian” service.

“Looking ahead, we are energized by the possibilities that mobile devices offer cultural institutions like the Library of Congress, which seek to serve broad and diverse audiences, regardless of where they are located,” said Potter.

On-Site Opportunities

Teachers participate at an on-site workshop at the Library of Congress. Educational Outreach Division.

Each year, educators from across the country are selected to participate in one of several week-long Teaching with Primary Sources Summer Teacher Institutes held at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (Apply at the Library’s “Resources for Teachers” website.) To provide educators across the country with similar instruction, the Library’s Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Educational Consortium offers professional development workshops in various locations.

Teachers and elementary-school students who plan to visit the Library in person should not miss the Young Readers Center. They also will find that many of the Library’s exhibitions offer special guides for children to interact with the exhibitions. Student groups in grades four to six can participate in the LOC Box program to “unlock” the secrets of the historic Thomas Jefferson Building and learn about the Library of Congress and its resources. The program allows students to participate in hands-on activities designed for use by a team of students led by a teacher or adult chaperone.

Anyone age 16 or older can get a Reader Identification Card to do research at the Library of Congress. The reader card allows the public to access the more than 155 million items in the Library’s collections.

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