Prologue Magazine

A Classroom Called NARA

Tours, Workshops, Varied Activities Part of Agency's Education Mission

Fall 2002, Vol. 34, No. 3 | Spotlight on NARA


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Lee Ann Potter, team leader of the education programs staff, works with participants in the "Primarily Teaching" workshop held at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, in summer 2002. (NARA, photo by Roscoe George)

As the nation's teachers continue to be challenged to make history more interesting for their students and to improve the civic literacy of all Americans, the National Archives and Records Administration is helping in a major way.

Not only is NARA providing documents from its holdings— the historical records themselves— but it is also training teachers and students in the skills they need to make primary documents part of their teaching and learning experiences.

NARA's trove of history includes the Charters of Freedom— the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights— other milestone documents from U.S. history, and official papers of the twelve most recent Presidents.* Billions of other less-famous records document the national experience and allow individuals and families to trace their personal histories.

Nationwide, education is a major mission for NARA in dealing with its customers, including genealogists and family historians, veterans, academic and business researchers, historians, journalists; Congress; government agencies, members of professional organizations, NARA supporters, and, of course, students and teachers.

The Education Program Staff in Washington— first through workshops and in print, then online, and now through videoconferences— has for twenty-five years helped teachers prepare lesson plans, find important documents, link documents to great moments in history, and make history come alive for hundreds of thousands of students.

In NARA's ten presidential libraries and its nineteen regional records services facilities, the agency offers a variety of educational activities, which can vary by location: workshops for teachers on using primary documents, workshops and special classes for students, staff visits to schools, special presentations on specific collections, and symposia and conferences. And in the regional facilities, as well as in Washington, genealogy workshops have been available for decades.

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Although NARA's education programs span different media, they emphasize the value of using primary sources as part of a history curriculum.

"Far too many students see history as a series of facts, dates, and events usually packaged as a textbook," said Wynell Schamel, who served as a NARA education specialist for nearly seventeen years before her retirement in 2001. "As students use primary sources, however, they begin to perceive their textbook as only one historical interpretation and its author as an interpreter of evidence, not a purveyor of absolute truth."

This, according to Schamel, has been part of the motivation behind the National Archives education program and its emphasis on primary sources. Historical accounts can be subjective and reflect an author's reconstruction and interpretation of past events as well as his or her personal, social, political, or economic views, she said. Primary sources, on the other hand, provide a direct link to people in the past and allow students to develop and sharpen their important cognitive and analytical skills, she added.

Lee Ann Potter, the current team leader of the education programs staff and a former classroom teacher herself, said using primary sources enriches the classroom experience.

"When I taught with primary sources, my students were so interested, so curious, and retained so much," Potter said. "They were able to conduct research; analyze and interpret sources; identify points of view, biases, contradictions, and limitations in the historical record; and evaluate the reliability and validity of the sources."

She added that these skills also helped her students evaluate contemporary sources, such as newspaper accounts, television and radio programs, and advertising. "So I was not surprised in the least when the one bright spot in the abysmal National Assessment of Educational Progress report on history earlier this year indicated that students who'd worked with primary sources scored higher on the standardized tests than their peers," Potter said.

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The roots of NARA's educational outreach date back for decades. An early advocate was former President Harry S. Truman himself, who in the late 1950s and early 1960s spent time at his presidential library in Independence, Missouri, meeting and talking with student groups.

During the nation's bicentennial in 1976, volunteers began presenting onsite workshops to educators, introducing them to facsimile copies of documents from the National Archives' holdings. The next year, the agency started its "Teaching with Documents" feature in Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the nation's largest professional association for social studies teachers. Each article features a document in the National Archives and provides teachers with suggested activities for using the document in the classroom. To date, more than 130 articles have been published.

Other NARA-generated curriculum materials have been published in conjunction with NCSS and various education publishers. One of the best-known recipients of NARA contributions is The Mini Page, a four-page tabloid that appears weekly in more than five hundred newspapers.

Also, a number of NARA staffers from Washington, the presidential libraries, and regional archives are heavily involved in National History Day, an academic enrichment program that helps students learn about historical issues, ideas, people, and events. Each year, NARA staff help develop lesson plans for the annual teacher's guide, conduct workshops for NHD educators, assist with student research, and serve as judges for the local, state, and national competitions.

To assist teachers in developing their own document-based teaching materials, the Education Staff in Washington has for twenty-four years conducted "Primarily Teaching," a two-week summer workshop in archival research and techniques in using documents as teaching tools. The staff, all of whom have classroom teaching experience, also offers workshops at regional and national professional meetings, in-service programs for school districts that provide travel and expenses, and interactive videoconferences.

These workshops have won praise from those who attended them. "Today, it is very difficult to receive good, content-rich in-service experiences within the education system," said a recent Primarily Teaching participant. "This workshop provides an opportunity for classroom teachers to work as scholars in a wonderful environment."

Another recent participant said: "I had been concerned about how I could make my return to the classroom interesting and motivating to my students. Now . . . I can be a different kind of teacher from my colleagues."

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NARA's education mission also is carried out by the presidential libraries and their affiliated foundations or institutes as well as by the agency's regional archives around the country.

The ten presidential libraries have active but varied education programs that usually include tours of the library and the holdings. Many also have workshops for teachers and students of all ages, but there are special kinds of programs, too.

The newest major program is the White House Decision Center at the Truman Library (See Spring 2002 Prologue), where students take on the roles of President and cabinet members and debate critical issues. The Bush Library holds annual "high school days" that show eleventh graders the library and tell them how to use its holdings. The Hoover Library reaches five thousand students a year through a statewide cable network in Iowa that reaches eight hundred schools. The Johnson Library offers workshops in which Texas teachers can get continuing education credits. The Eisenhower Library has created lesson plans about the life of Dwight Eisenhower and his times. The Kennedy Library sponsors the annual Profiles in Courage student essay contest in which entrants write about an elected official who has shown courage in dealing with a political issue.

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Some of the youngest visitors to the Roosevelt Library get a special introduction from Fala, FDR's famous Scottie dog. (NARA, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)

To appeal to the youngest of students, there are special approaches. The Carter Library has a program called "Presidents on the Money," which deals with presidential likenesses on currency. The Roosevelt Library has "Fala's Famous Friend" as a way to introduce youngsters to Roosevelt through his little dog, Fala. In a World War II exhibit now at the Reagan Library, student visitors receive dog tags and an identity of a person who served in the war; a few of those dog tags will match up with some library docents. The Ford Museum offers a "President for a Day" tour for students of all ages.

A number of NARA's regional archives offer various special educational programs, some of them related to genealogy. The Central Plains Region has produced two teaching videos, one on the Korean War and another on World War II. The Northeast Region has offered workshops to personnel at the Boston Regional Passport Office on NARA as a resource for documentation individuals need to obtain U.S. passports, and it holds tours for graduate students at several of New York City's colleges and universities. The Pacific Alaska Region offers the "Teaching With Documents" workshop that is also offered in Washington, D.C. The Mid Atlantic Region is helping the Philadelphia public schools improve the quality of teaching American history. The Pacific Region co-sponsored a major symposium earlier this year in San Francisco on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The Rocky Mountain Region offers a class on using genealogical information for making maps. The Southeast Region sponsors a history essay contest for graduate and undergraduate college students. The Great Lakes Region co-sponsors an annual Civil War symposium.

NARA's Center for Legislative Archives in Washington has developed two document-based curriculum units for educators. In a new outreach program, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, NARA's grant-making affiliate, has developed teaching packages of documents related to early U.S. foreign policy and Southern secession.

In 1996, NARA launched The Digital Classroom on its web site. It provides research activities, opportunities for professional development, educational publication information, document-based lesson plans, and links to thousands of digital images of historical documents from NARA's holdings. Lesson plans related to specific events or developments in each of the major periods in American history identified in the National History Standards are included.

The Digital Classroom, too, has won praise from users and others in recent years.

"It has always been very hard for my students to track down primary sources, as we live five hours from the closest large university. This will be a wonderful asset to us this year," said a teacher from rural Nebraska.

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NARA's education programs are key elements of the agency's outreach to all of its constituencies.

"An overarching goal of NARA's education program is to stimulate and support enhanced civic literacy in America," said Michael Kurtz, assistant archivist for records services— Washington, D.C. "NARA's mission of providing 'ready access to essential evidence' seeks to make our common documentary heritage available to all, thus providing a foundation for a strengthened appreciation and understanding of our democratic traditions."

The education programs are also providing some of the underpinning for the future "National Archives Experience," a multimedia program that will open in the renovated National Archives Building in 2004, with the remodeled Rotunda as its centerpiece.

"Early in conceptual design, we decided that the National Archives Experience would fuse together the National Archives' education and exhibition programs," said Marvin Pinkert, director of museum programs for NARA. "Not only would we expand our capacity to serve schools through the Learning Center, but the Theater, the Public Vaults, even the Charters of Freedom in the Rotunda would be conceived as fostering 'learning with documents.'"

Pinkert said NARA, "in every exhibit unit, in every film, and in every web page," has the opportunity to replicate the success of programs like "Teaching with Documents" and "Primarily Teaching." He added: "We can engage people, young and old alike, in America's story by letting them see source evidence with 'new eyes' and then move from this initial engagement to a desire to learn more."

* Richard Nixon's official presidential papers are at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland; the private Nixon Library is in Yorba Linda, California. William Clinton's papers are at the Clinton Presidential Materials Project in Little Rock, Arkansas, awaiting completion of a presidential library.

For More Information

To find out more about workshops and materials, visit The Digital Classroom or contact the Education and Volunteer Programs Staff at the National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001.

For a list of the presidential libraries and presidential materials projects, their locations, and their World Wide Web addresses, see

For locations of NARA's regional records service, see facilities

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.