Teaching with Short Texts: Primary Sources from the Library of Congress Say More with Less

Telegram from Orville Wright to his father, 1903

This is a guest post by Bernice Ramirez. Bernice is working with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program. The post also contains contributions from the Library of Congress Teacher in Residence, Earnestine Sweeting.

Sometimes one page can say more about a subject–and about the writer–than a thousand. Short texts from the Library of Congress, including letters and telegrams, can be used to help students unpack meaning and make inferences about the authors. Two of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s letters to men who led the development of technologies that changed the world demonstrate the power that a few words can carry.

What remains remarkable about the success of the Wright brothers was their rise from relative obscurity to celebrated inventors of the power-driven airplane. Neither Orville nor Wilbur had formal aeronautical training; the two studied as much as they could about flight and experimented with their own modifications in near secrecy. An earlier blog post explored the persistence that paid off for the Wright brothers after years of research, failed attempts, and many ruined aircraft.

Telegraph companies charged by the word, so communicating by telegram sometimes required people to describe major events in just a few words, much like Twitter does today. In a 1903 telegram to his father, Orville Wright informs his father of their first four successful flights. The telegram also instructs their father to “inform [the] Press.” Students can discuss the advantages of using this form of communication. Have students describe the tone conveyed in a short message. What emotion can you detect between the lines?

So significant were the Wright brothers’ contributions that President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a day of recognition for their work. In a December 1933 letter, Roosevelt congratulates Orville Wright for helping launch what would become commercial and passenger flight. The President also communicates his plans for a nationwide observance of the thirtieth anniversary of the first flight. Why do you think the President chose to observe the Wrights’ invention in this form? How would you feel if the President of the United States expressed a keen interest in recognizing one of your inventions or innovations, and expressed it to you in a personal letter?

Letter from Franklin D. Roosevelt to J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1943

In another letter, Roosevelt writes to Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist of the Manhattan Project. Ask your students, “Why do you think Roosevelt chose to hand write ‘Secret’ on the top of the page?” Have students think about what they know about this period in history. What do you think was happening at the time the letter was written? What words or phrases does the President use that reveal the secret nature of the letter? What strategies would a writer have to use to communicate in secret about such a significant project?

  • Reread Roosevelt’s letters to Wright and Oppenheimer. Have students find evidence that reveals Roosevelt’s attitude toward the sciences.
  • In both letters, Roosevelt shows gratitude for hard work that led to significant benefit to the U.S.  Students can explain the differences and similarities in the ways determination generated success for both scientists. What connections can your students make in the ways determination play into the outcomes in their own lives?
  • Unlike Orville’s short and urgent telegram, the President’s letter is longer and more relaxed. Have students compare and contrast the tone of the telegram with the letters.

Tell us how you might use short texts to help your students develop deeper meaning.

 

One Comment

  1. Rich Cairn
    March 8, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    The Wright telegram offers a lovely science lesson. Students can identify and expand on several principles of physics of flight that son and father would both have known, hinted in the data that son includes.

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