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In Their Own Words: Professional Development, Primary Sources, and Student Engagement

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The following is a guest post by Michael Apfeldorf, a member of the Library’s education team.

LC Summer Teacher Institute Participants
LC Summer Teacher Institute Participants

Each summer, the Library of Congress welcomes K-12 educators from across the country to weeklong Summer Teacher Institutes. The reflections participants write after they return to their classrooms offer insights into how educators use primary sources and the impact they have on learning, including student engagement.

Many teachers tell us about the challenges of moving from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered inquiry. Middle school teacher Cinnamon Johnsrud gave her students a series of world maps from different time periods to analyze:

Initially, coming up with reflections, observations, and questions was uncomfortable for them. I actually had one student ask me, ‘Can you just tell us what to put down?’

Ultimately, Johnsrud used strategies that helped students think on their own.

Librarian Lisa Seymour noted the profound connections students made to primary sources during the study of a historical novel:

I was able to reach students that I’ve never been able to reach before…For the first time, I really got to see my students’ thinking. As I walked around listening to discussions within groups, I got goose bumps. It was one of those moments every teacher hopes to have.

Students Engaged with a Primary Source
Students Engaged with a Primary Source

Elementary Teacher Angela Dau relayed a similar story:

I have a student with selective mutism – he has NEVER talked at school. However, during this activity he was so involved, so connected, so invested – he was the first student to discover that all the primary sources were about Indian schools and acculturation… The look on his face was priceless. He was filled with pride and joy – he was an integral part of the lesson and he KNEW it!

This increased engagement goes much deeper than “more excited students.” High school physics teacher David Tyndall asked students to examine varying definitions of Newton’s Laws from historical textbooks through time.

I have noticed that students have a better understanding of the meaning behind Newton’s Laws after this lesson. In the past, students focused on a single statement, and they regarded a wrong statement of Newton’s Laws as one which dropped a word. This year they are more focused on how the Law is applied. I am pleasantly surprised by the shift in their focus away from knowing as memorization in favor of knowing as understanding and applying.

LC Summer Teacher Institute Participants
LC Summer Teacher Institute Participants

The end result of such student engagement is students who own their learning. Liz Kerr relayed that, initially:

I wondered if…[ my students] would be as impressed to see these sources as I am. After teaching the lessons I was reminded of the year that I taught first grade for the first time. I nervously asked another teacher, ‘What if I can’t teach them to read?’ She said, ‘Try stopping them.’ That is exactly what this lesson felt like. The students were excited and motivated and captivated. Try stopping them.

The 2016 Summer Teacher Institute application is available. Go here for more information and to apply!

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