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Five Question with Elementary Teacher Neme Alperstein

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Today’s post comes to us from Neme Alperstein, who teaches fifth grade in New York City. Neme is also a longtime teacher advisor to the Library of Congress and received the NASA Excellence in Teaching Award, 2010. She reflects on her experiences teaching with primary sources.

What do you teach, and where?

Neme Alperstein

I teach fifth grade gifted and talented students in a New York City public school, P.S. 174 William Sidney Mount. We’re in the borough of Queens, in an area considered to be one of the most diverse in the nation.  Our library circulation is one of the largest in the country (we like to think the largest, but I haven’t seen that statistic). Our school library has just been redone and our collection is digitally available. We also can order online books that are delivered to us through the NY Public Library at no cost.  Sets of books are available and we use this to bolster our work with the Library’s resources.

How do you use Library of Congress materials with your students or colleagues?

I love using the primary source sets and the analysis tool to stimulate student reflection.  After we have practiced using images and documents from the sets, we go about finding more images, letters, various texts, and video clips to discuss. Students work in groups and often research the background behind the image or primary source to see if they can assemble a story about what they are examining.  We get some unexpected results and in the past, students have then used their findings to create Prezi presentations or blabberize the image that tells the story with their voices.  The beauty of expanding how they present their findings using so many of the tools is in the motivation added to the class.  Students go home and work on presentations (often more than one in an evening), which teaches their families how to use the tools as well.  Creating presentations of cartoons (Herb Block) has been exceptionally valuable and the entertaining dimension has often sent the students to research other historical aspects of what we’re studying.  This year, we’re going to expand that use with the iPad and the other tablets we have.  Stay tuned…

Tell us about an item from the Library’s online collections that you love to show to students.

I love political satire and the challenge of “Can you tell us why this might be funny? What happened historically to make the cartoon?” Herb Block, the Swann Collection, musical recordings we compare to today’s music, and maps related to American history.  Prints and photographs are the clear favorite lately but we’ll see how this year’s group feels.  Chronicling America is one I like because we then switch to online newspapers and compare digital media of today with how news appears historically.  The NY Tribune archives are especially interesting when compared to current NY publications.

We mix and match, and sometimes groups will take a particular section of the Web site, such as sound recordings, or prints and photographs, or the performing arts.

Describe an “Aha!” moment for you with teaching with primary sources.

“Aha” moments accompany the freedom with which students can use the resources they analyze.  By offering them multimedia ways to present their findings we come up with some creative student work.  The free online tools that are available have led to surprises and new perspectives as to how I introduce use of primary sources.  It expands the menu of what I can offer the students, and then they collaborate to come up with even more ideas.  We have made interactive brochures about a primary source, we have blabberized images, we have explained them in a Prezi in different languages (as I serve many students who come from different countries), and we have conducted interviews with the people in some of those images,– for example, interviews of children that might have been photographed by Jacob Riis (a New Yorker) and child labor in textiles and on the farms.  The students write a script with the questions and the answers based on their research.

What would you most like to tell other educators about teaching with primary sources like these?

These resources offer an enormous variety of choices and unleash students’ imaginations as to how they want to tell the story.  We start with the available analysis tool and teacher’s guides and work from those to expand our projects.  The freedom and flexibility of such a wealth of every kind of primary source brings a certain excitement to the inquiry based process.  It truly supports student centered learning with opportunities to harness technology in unexpected ways of uncovering a story.   The primary sources LOC has made available by themes, already existing collections, and the tools for investigation are a powerful support for changing the landscape of learning in the classroom.  The beauty of these primary sources is that they tap into every content area without dictating how they should be used.

Having the unlimited digital resources at no cost allows me to customize how I can bring these to my students and is a compelling reason to bring them into every classroom.

We are also participating in the Web Archive-it project and so the students reflect on why preserving primary sources is so crucial.  My best answer in the class was, “We don’t know why we will use them yet and may find new questions to ask. We can only do that if we preserve primary sources so we can use them in the future.”    Students constructing a story as “primary source detectives”  has appealed to colleagues because of what it can bring to the classroom.

Updated October 18, 2013: corrected link to blog post on Web Archive project post.

Comments (7)

  1. I love this Q&A style post, and Neme provides such an authentic perspective for teachers! The idea about not always knowing why preservation is important is key. I’d like to draw a corollary with space exploration (There’s a connection, trust me, albeit an obscure one). In the 1960’s we didn’t know why space-travel was important, we were just compelled to do it. The immediate benefits weren’t obvious, but today we have microchips, insulation, water filters, insoles and a range of other items with origins are traceable to NASA and early space exploration. We don’t know what we don’t know, but that’s no reason to let our history fade away. The current importance (i.e. funding) placed on preservation will only truly be realized once it’s too late to turn the sands of time. Well, there is time travel, but that’s another story.

    By the way, The link to the post describing the Archive-it project is incorrect. Here’s the correct link:

  2. Good catch, Taylor – thanks!

  3. By reading Neme’s wonderful Q&A article, you can just feel the passion she has for her students, giving them the tools needed to have those AHA! moments using primary sources. It takes this love of teaching to be motivated at finding what primary sources would enrich the educational experience of children. It is so worth the effort when the results are seen in the eyes of the children and the excitement of a project or lesson completed. BRAVO to Neme and the Library of Congress for being a primary source of inspiration!

  4. hi
    the best method for training that all teacher doing is correct education and correct to using all library,s sourcess,my porpose is you can to use virtual library in the classrome and qestion about the maters and they doing the searching with internet when they can to connect to library of congress or library of school,the base concept is very important in training

  5. Felicitaciones Profesora Neme, lo que Usted ha hecho es significativo, porque propiciar interrogantes o preguntas entre los alumnos, es una muy biena forma de inducirlos en la formacion, es esto una razon importante y extraordinaria de crear en ellos procesos investigativos, es inducirlos a la innovacion o la creatividad, apoyada en la generosidad historica que brindan las fuentes primarias.

    Nuevamente la felicito,
    con admiracion y aprecio
    Oscar Alberto

  6. Neme’s comments are some of the most insightful I’ve seen and they easily convey to teachers how and why primary sources are used. All too often, we neglect the needs of gifted students and Neme’s ideas demonstrate ways to meet their needs while fostering creative ways to allow students to demonstrate their learning. It is critical for all students to be able to express themselves individually and it is good instructional practice to allow students to do that even though it requires additional time to grade student work. However, once a student’s strengths are uncovered, it becomes easier to assess student understanding over the course of time. Thank you, Neme!

  7. Thank you Taylor, Cheryl, Pam, A.Prof.Mossayyeb Samanian, Oscar, and Michael for your very kind comments. I am indeed fortunate to have been given the opportunity to share what I do using the best possible resources. I am sure there are many other people using the Library of Congress’s digital resources in innovative ways and I look forward to hearing about them.
    The Library of Congress has enriched me and my students in many ways. It thank you for such encouraging words.

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