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Integrating Writing and U.S. History: Primary Sources and the Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute

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Kelly Hillesland

This post was written by Kelly Hillesland, a teacher at Vista del Lago High School and an ELS Lead Teacher at Folsom Cordova USD in Moreno Valley, California. Kelly participated in one of our 2013 Summer Teacher Institutes and this post was inspired by an activity she developed after the institute.

Throughout my sixteen years as a teacher, I have participated in a number of Professional Development opportunities, including a month studying with the Area 3 Writing Project in Northern California. That month was life-changing and renewed my passion for teaching reading and writing. I never thought I’d have another experience like that. But then last summer, with prompting from my Writing Project director, I applied to attend the Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom - Lincoln Memorial Program, August 28, 1963
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – Lincoln Memorial Program, August 28, 1963

The Institute matched my experience with the Writing Project, and refined and drew focus to everything I have learned as a teacher. The time spent in actual classroom lessons, participating as a reader, learner and writer, all while building curriculum for my own classroom — my classroom hasn’t been the same since.

I team-teach an integrated American literature and U.S. History class with a history teacher who has been using primary source documents for years. She understands profoundly what these sources do for a classroom, and I was skeptical that I’d bring anything to the planning conversation. But the tools that the Library provides — both in terms of actual source material, and also the organizational documents used to drive analysis — were new to my teaching partner, and helped focus our students.

Our first integrated lesson coincided with the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. Checking in our textbook resources, we found an overview. We started digging in to the Library’s resources and found primary source documents that we knew would bring the time period and the mood of the march to life.

Cleveland Robinson… on second floor balcony of the National Headquarters of the March on Washington in Harlem

We divided the students into groups and gave each group an account of the march from one of seven different 11th grade U.S. history textbooks. We also gave each group a set of primary source documents from the days surrounding the march. Each student was given a Primary Source Analysis Tool, modified to accommodate multiple documents. They used the strategies Observe, Reflect, Question for each document, and each group was also given a guiding question on a specific area of interest from the day of the march. The students analyzed each document in their set, corroborated what the textbook offered as an account of the march, and then evaluated the validity of their text and documents, including how well the textbook explained the events and the spirit of the day.

Civil rights march on Wash[ington], D.C.
Civil rights march on Wash[ington], D.C.
My teaching partner and I worried about being able to manage our sixty-six students all gathered in the library that day without a direct-instruction type environment, but we were amazed at the voracity with which the students approached the work. With very little assistance from us, they were engrossed in the topic and the actual documents, and were able to use the graphic organizer and the “Observe, Reflect, Question” way of thinking to analyze the documents. We circulated from group to group, asking questions about what they noticed, but really, the learning experience was extremely student centered—they understood what they needed to do and how to do it. After the analysis portion, we introduced the concept of “Corroboration,” asking students to revise their claims based on new information.

Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy
Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy

For the final writing assignment, we asked students to evaluate and corroborate the information in the textbook version they were given. The papers they wrote reflected thoughtful responses to the questions and larger ideas on a number of issues: the brevity with which we study history; how rarely we get a full account of the actual events; and the romanticized view we sometimes get of history. We also talked about how primary documents give us a firsthand account of history that has not been interpreted for us. The students did the work of historians, which is a major goal we have for our students, especially in the age of Common Core Standards.

For weeks after, on our class Facebook page, students  posted other research they had done: speeches by Congressman John Lewis or Malcolm X; newspaper accounts that romanticized certain views; pictures of the day that had been altered to emphasize MLK, Jr. It was fascinating to watch students gather information, reflect further, and revise their own thinking based on new information.

The activity succeeded in terms of the thinking, reading, and writing the students did. But moreover, it engaged them and interested them beyond the assignment: a greater success, I would say. The Library of Congress Institute has provided me with resources and tools that give my lessons dimension—the richness of the materials has made the curriculum more interesting to my students. And that has been transformative for all of us.

Comments (5)

  1. I saw Kelly present about this at the 40th Anniversary meeting of the California Writing Project and it was inspiring to see history, writing, and critical thinking!

  2. What a wonderful activity! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Yes go mrs. Hillesland!

  4. Wonderful!

  5. Hi Kelly,
    You are brilliant, as usual! Thanks for posting. You are an inspiration!

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