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Japanese-American evacuation from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Japanese-American child who will go with his parents to Owens Valley
Japanese-American child being sent to an internment camp from Los Angeles, California. April 1942. Photo: Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division

Primary Documents: The Library’s Amazing Resource for Teachers

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This is a guest post by Lee Ann Potter, the Library’s director of educational outreach.

Lisa Suders hears a familiar refrain from her students as they begin history lessons about child labor: We’d rather be out making money at a job than sitting in class.

“There is always a chorus of students who say they would rather be working than be in school,” says Suders, who teaches eighth-grade social studies in Northville, New York.

Their interest in work, however, offers a teachable moment: Suders draws on primary resources from the Library to show students what work historically has meant for children.

She and her students examined photographs taken by sociologist Lewis Hine and read a report he wrote for the National Child Labor Committee in 1909, titled “Child Labor in the Canning Industry of Maryland.

For young people today, Hine’s report and photos are eye-openers.

A preteen boy with a grimy face and filthy shirt faces the camera, deep inside a coal mine.
A boy working in a low tunnel more than a mile inside the Turkey Knob Mine in Macdonald, West Virginia, in 1908. Photo: Lewis Hine. Prints and Photographs Division.

He describes shocking conditions in workplaces that employ very young children. “Little tots” worked long hours around dangerous machinery, with no safety precautions. During the winter, many of them went south with their families to shuck oysters. In one family, children aged 3, 6, 8 and 9 all worked, and all but the youngest worked long, hard hours. “They were routed out of their beds by the boss at 3 a.m. and worked until about 4 p.m.,” Hine reported.

Suders’ students worked in pairs to answer questions about the report, analyzed Hine’s photos of the children at work and participated in a class discussion. The lesson, Suders says, “definitely took away the ‘glamour’ of making money as a kid instead of ‘just sitting in school,’ ” and her students showed genuine wonder about what life might have been like for those children.

What Suders and her students experienced was the power of primary sources — original documents, photos and accounts of history from people who had a direct connection to it. Primary sources generate enthusiasm for learning by helping students make personal connections with the past and its participants.

Since 2006, the Library’s Teaching with Primary Sources program has been empowering educators like Suders to make use of the Library’s digitized collections in ways that are valuable to them and their students.

The program does this by offering professional learning opportunities such as workshops, webinars, institutes and fellowships; developing teaching resources, including the Teachers Page and the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog; extending TPS grants to schools, libraries, universities, museums and associations; and supporting the TPS Consortium, a network of hundreds of partners across the country.

Every year, the program engages thousands of teachers, who reach millions of learners. At the core of the program are the Library’s collections. Across the curriculum, across the grade spectrum and across the country, Library collections serve as teaching tools that capture students’ attention, foster inquiry and promote problem solving skills.

“This has been transformational,” says Jeff Farr, a teacher of at-risk students in an alternative education environment. “Students that previously acted out so that they could leave the classroom are now coming in and actively participating. Wish I could bottle this …”

Farr had witnessed a significant change in student engagement when he taught a unit about Japanese American internment during World War II, using primary sources from the Library’s collections.

One photograph in particular captured the attention of, and surfaced empathy from, his students — most of whom have been unsuccessful in traditional classroom settings and come to his school under burden of expulsion, reassignment, pending judicial action and/or as a transition from a detention facility.

The photograph (at top of this post), taken by Farm Security Administration  photographer Russell Lee featured a Japanese American child — bundled in an overcoat, a tag hanging off the coat — preparing to be evacuated from the West Coast with his parents in April 1942.

Other FSA photographs inspired teachers and students in Peñasco, New Mexico. In fact, the nearly 500 images of people, structures and activities taken in their small town during the early 1940s by Lee and John Collier have played a major role in the Peñasco Independent School District’s efforts to design and implement a K-12 curriculum to teach the history of New Mexico, of the Peñasco area and of Picuris Pueblo, a historic pueblo just south of Taos.

Penasco, New Mexico. Father Cassidy speaking at the dedication of the new building for the clinic operated by the Taos County cooperative health association
Father Cassidy, a local priest, speaking at the dedication of the new health clinic operated by the Taos County cooperative in Peñasco, New Mexico, in 1943. Photo: John Collier. Prints and Photographs Divsion.

But the power of the photographs extends beyond the curriculum. The photos have encouraged intergenerational communication and relationship building — students are learning from elders about the people and places featured. These conversations and student interest in the portraits of community members taken decades ago led to an unexpected after-school program where students, primarily from Picuris, have been taking portraits of their peers and families. This program prompted another unexpected outcome.

“To support their photography,” Michael Noll of the Peñasco ISD says, “we were able to connect with the son of photographer John Collier, who returned unpublished photos, taken at Picuris, from a personal collection to the Pueblo.”

Haley Rooney, a middle school teacher in Michigan, also was drawn to photographs taken by Lee and others as she was developing a lesson for her Introduction to Spanish class focused on combating stereotypes about where Spanish is spoken around the world. For the activity, she identified dozens of images in Library collections that included Spanish words and encouraged her sixth-graders to analyze and annotate them to determine where they were taken.

“My students were incredibly engaged in this activity,” Rooney says. “There were many great discussions about what clues they could see in the photos that backed up what they thought. After we discussed all of the photos and they had looked at all of them so deeply through the primary source analysis, our conversations regarding the use of Spanish were much more informed.”

Prompting wonder about another place and time, and the experiences of those who came before is something primary sources do exceptionally well for students of every age.

Ilene Berson and Michael Berson are professors at the University of South Florida who are co-directing a Teaching with Primary Sources grant project that involves a number of partnering organizations, including the University of South Florida College of Education, the Tampa Bay History Center, the Florida Office of Early Learning and the three Tampa Bay Early Learning Coalitions.

Their project focuses on infusing primary sources into early childhood instruction to foster emergent visual literacy and historical inquiry with young children. In the first phase of their project, while identifying community-based primary sources that are appropriate for preschoolers, they developed a supplemental resource for educators called “Tampa Bay ABCs.” Similar to flashcards, each letter of the alphabet is represented by a word, illustrated by a primary source related to Tampa Bay. For example, P is for pirate, illustrated with a stereograph image from 1926 of the pirate ship Gasparilla in the bay.

“By engaging with primary sources, children are able to explore complex topics and develop a deeper understanding of historical and cultural contexts,” the Bersons report. “This has also helped to foster empathy, tolerance and respect for diversity, as children are exposed to a range of perspectives and experiences.”

Furthermore, their observations suggest that the “implementation of research-informed strategies that infuse primary sources into early childhood instruction can have a transformative impact on the learning experiences and outcomes of young children.”

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