The following is a guest post by Michael Apfeldorf, who recently joined the Library’s education team.
When, after just one week on the job at the Library of Congress, I was asked to write a guest blog post on what I’d learned so far, my first reaction was: “Where the heck do I start?” The Library is so vast, with so many incredible resources, I didn’t know where to begin.
After a few false starts, I finally reverted to something familiar and searched loc.gov for the name of my home town. I was not expecting to get many results. Martinsburg, West Virginia, was a great place to grow up, but it wasn’t my sense that anything particularly extraordinary happened there. So, imagine my surprise when this simple search returned thousands of fascinating primary source documents on a wide variety of topics. Among them:
- Apple picking in the region from the year 1910;
- An 1877 train blockade which marked the beginning of a national labor strike;
- A detailed look at a historic hydro-electric power plant;
- A letter from the citizens of Martinsburg to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of a troubled Union Commander.
Browsing these results, I was immediately drawn to resources that held personal significance to me. For instance, apple orchards were a big deal in our region, and my family even had two small apple trees in our backyard; I still remember eating the apples and occasionally throwing them at my friends!
As I examine Apple Picking in Berkeley County, West Virginia, I find myself intrigued to learn more about these people who lived and worked where I played as a child. Look at those long, wobbly ladders — why were they shaped that way? Who were these people; was this one giant extended family? Could they be migrant workers? I see the little girl sitting on the barrel eating the apple, and I wonder: Did they send her and other children up on the ladder as well? Analyzing this photograph could spark questions across a broad range of topics, from science to social studies. One English teacher I showed it to suggested using it with Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking.”
It occurs to me that what I learned on my initial foray into the Library’s online collections also applies to teachers using primary sources with their students: Students are often most strongly engaged when they feel a personal connection to history, music, art, science or any topic, and this connection can be facilitated through the lens of primary source materials. The Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool taps into this original engagement so that students may then think deeply and critically about what they observe, ultimately learning more about something they are truly interested in. I was amazed at how many connections I made, even though the original search was almost entirely personal.
If you’ve used a similar approach with your students, or if you plan to, we’d love to hear about it. Post a comment below sharing your teaching experiences with us!