This post is by Matthew Poth, 2017-18 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.
A skilled craftsman carved the Epic of Gilgamesh into large clay tablets 4,100 years ago to preserve the story of the famed King of Uruk, a powerful Mesopotamian city-state. Over many centuries, these tablets were copied and spread across Mesopotamia and Anatolia until an Assyrian King, Ashurbanipal, gathered as many copies as he could to preserve at his Royal Library in his capital of Nineveh. The library was eventually burned and buried in rubble when the city was destroyed by the Babylonians.
Have I lost you yet? You are not alone! Too often, students fall victim to dull lectures about strange peoples of the past with little context, understanding, or human empathy. Like Ashurbanipal, I have a hunger to learn more about the past and to share that hunger with my students. I also understand that a lecture, textbook, or slideshow will not engage students in the same way as a primary document. I am thrilled to begin as Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress for 2017-2018.
I have already discovered that the Library has vast amounts of primary documents that can help bring a World History class alive. For example, the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedia compiled by a Franciscan missionary in Mexico during the 1540s, focuses on the religion of the Aztecs with beautiful images showing various gods and religious practices. One way to bring this document alive is to ask students to interpret a few of the images and write what they think is going on. Next, students share their thoughts and hear the opinions of others. This sequence supports building analytical skills and encourages students to be active listeners. After a brief student-led discussion, the teacher can discuss the impact of unfamiliar cultures in Mesoamerica meeting for the first time, and how images like these were provocative to those back in Europe. Finally, the teacher might ask students to draw a picture depicting something unique to their family traditions; students might interpret these drawings as a bell ringer the following day.
In my classroom, I try to expose students to as many primary documents as possible, but the search for quality material can be exhausting. I now have the amazing opportunity to work at the Library of Congress for a year to expand my knowledge and use of primary sources for world history. My goal this year is to find captivating primary sources and to build quality materials around them so that teachers may be able to bring the past alive in new and meaningful ways for their students. I will also be working with the Educational Outreach office to find innovative ways for teachers to allow students to get involved with primary sources. It is one thing to talk about the Epic of Gilgamesh, but to see and interact with it breathes a whole new life into the lesson.
What primary sources do you think have the most impact on student learning?