Prologue Magazine

Sharing the Excitement of History

NARA’s New Boeing Learning Center Supports Education Programs Nationwide

Spring 2007, Vol. 39, No. 1

By Lee Ann Potter


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The SmartBoard in the Resource Room allows for very engaging document analysis. (National Archives, Photo by Scott Suchman)

On a recent weekday morning at the National Archives Building, four sixth-graders from South Carolina and their chaperone, who was also the mother of one of the boys, came into the National Archives’ new ReSource Room.

“What’s this?” one of them asked, looking around the room.

“It is part of our new Learning Center,” I replied, and then described the various activities they could participate in while in the space. Before I could get out another sentence, the children had rushed to our computer stations to sign their names to the Declaration of Independence—an activity also available on the National Archives web site. After printing out their copies, the group left for the Rotunda to see the original document that inspired their activity. Soon they returned with a few of their classmates who participated in the online exercise while the original group explored full-color facsimiles of other documents available in the ReSource Room’s map cases. When they departed for the last time, they repeatedly said “thank you” and exclaimed, “This was really cool!”

Next, an eight-year-old boy from California and his parents stopped by the ReSource Room. Education specialist Missy McNatt welcomed them and oriented them to the space. The enthusiastic boy grabbed a pair of white gloves and a magnifying glass, sat down, and started studying a facsimile of a map published in 1783. “Hey! Check this out!” he said to his parents, convincing them to sit down and join him in his moment of discovery. About 30 minutes later, they continued their National Archives visit in the O’Brien Gallery.

A short while later, a group of high school teachers from Louisiana who were in Washington, D.C., as part of a professional development program supported by a Teaching American History Grant, came to the ReSource Room to participate in a workshop that they had scheduled months in advance. One component of the “Teaching With Documents” workshop, led by education specialist Daniel Rulli, that the teachers raved about on their evaluations was being able to make free color copies of documents they had seen in the Public Vaults exhibit and take them home to incorporate into classroom activities for their students.

The Boeing Learning Center, which consists of the ReSource Room and the new Learning Lab, is part of the National Archives Experience, a set of seven interconnected components that provide a variety of ways of exploring America’s records and uncovering the stories they contain. Located in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., the Learning Center is the result of a partnership among the agency, the Foundation for the National Archives, Gallagher and Associates, Northern Light Productions, and Fablevision.

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The boxes and map case drawers contain full-color facsimiles of documents in the holdings of the National Archives. (National Archives, photo by Scott Suchman)

On this one day, similar to hundreds of other days that have passed in the space, the objectives we had set were being achieved. We had anticipated that the ReSource Room would be a headquarters for the nationwide education programs of the National Archives, where educators and parents would obtain methods and materials for using primary sources as teaching tools. And we planned to provide members of the general public with engaging activities that introduce them to the holdings of the National Archives and encourage further research. But the visits from the South Carolina students, the California family, and the Louisiana teachers revealed an equally exciting outcome—one that we had not deliberately articulated in our planning materials.

In each case, the visitors came up with their own ways to extend their experience by sharing it with others. The students’ enthusiasm brought their friends to the space; the young boy’s curiosity engaged his parents; and the teachers’ excitement will likely lead to memorable lessons for their students back home.

The ability of this space to motivate others to share its resources began almost immediately. When we first opened the space in April 2006, to make the local education community aware of its existence, we invited the social studies coordinators for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and seven surrounding counties to hold a department head meeting in the space. Following these sessions, we witnessed creative follow-through. For example, over the summer, individual seventh-graders from Fairfax County, Virginia, came into the space “on assignment.” They were asked by their teacher to locate an individual document that they had never seen before, make a copy of it, and conduct research about its meaning and significance. They were to turn in their work the first week of school. Also over the summer, a team of eight social studies teachers from DCPS came to the ReSource Room and spent days exploring the notebooks, identifying individual documents to incorporate into lesson plans based on the district’s new social studies standards.

Since its opening, thousands of visitors from every state in the union (most from California, Texas, and Virginia), and more than 60 countries (including Morocco, Russia, Singapore, Australia, Portugal, and Columbia) have spent time in the ReSource Room. They have come individually, as couples, with their families, and as part of a group. They have included newborn babies and visitors in their 90s. They have included teachers, parents, grandparents, students, tourists, business people, researchers, and countless others.

The first physical elements they have all seen in the space are colorful panels surrounding the room. The panels feature images of documents from the holdings of the National Archives and proclaim “Intrigue, Surprise, Inspire, Motivate,” and other terms that reflect what primary source documents are capable of accomplishing as teaching tools. Next, they see a panel that reads “How do we get our kids excited about history and civics?” Subsequent segments of the wall answer the question by stating “Visit, Explore, Participate, and Share.”

Below the panels are more than 40 notebooks that contain facsimiles of all of the documents on display in the Rotunda, the Public Vaults, and the O’Brien Gallery—more than 1,100 of them! Accompanying the documents in the notebooks are information pages created by the education staff that include the document’s Archival Research Catalog (ARC) number, list related resources, and correlate the document to the National History Standards.Staff members or volunteers working in the space invite visitors to look through the notebooks and make color copies of documents that capture their attention. They also alert the public to other “take-home” items. These include the “Teaching With Documents” booklet highlighting the agency’s nationwide education programs, brochures from the presidential libraries and the National Archives regional facilities, the Truman Library’s newsletter for educators, an “ARC Tips” handout, press releases announcing our summer institutes for teachers, and various CDs produced by staff members of the agency’s regional facilities specifically for educators. Visitors can also preview copies of materials available for sale in the National Archives store including exhibit catalogs, the best-selling Our Documents book, the Teaching With Documents article compilations, and the new Mini Page Guide to the Constitution.

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In both the workshops that are presented in the ReSource Room and during the Learning Lab experience, visitors work collaboratively as they study documents. (National Archives, photo by Scott Suchman)

The other half of the ReSource room has large panels that feature facsimiles of individual documents and questions intended to pique the curiosity of visitors. Each panel corresponds to an “Archival Adventure” developed by the education team. These activities each focus on a different time period, relate to a unique record, employ a gaming approach, and emphasize different historical thinking skills such as document analysis, chronological thinking, or comparing and contrasting.

This space is ideal for document analysis workshops, as it features round tables that encourage conversation, an interactive SmartBoard with Internet access, and map cases and Hollinger boxes filled with facsimiles of documents arranged chronologically, thematically, and as they relate to the Charters of Freedom.

Between April and December 2006, the education staff presented more than 30 workshops for nearly 1,000 educators in the ReSource Room. These included our flagship eight-day summer institute, Primarily Teaching, as well as a two-day institute presented in partnership with the National Park Service and the History Channel Save Our History program. The latter was filmed by the History Channel as a model of sophisticated professional development for history teachers. In addition, in early December 2006 the education team hosted a special evening event at the National Archives Building for nearly 300 teachers who were in town for the annual conference of the National Council for the Social Studies—the ReSource Room was hailed as a favorite venue of the teachers.

In March 2007 we opened the Learning Lab, the final section of our Learning Center. Once more we are excited about its outcomes, both those we expect and those our teachers and students will surprise us with. The Learning Lab provides groups of up to 35 students with opportunities to practice historical thinking skills and work directly with primary sources to learn about the ongoing relevance of the U.S. Constitution.

The lab comprises three rooms, plus an assembly space/coat room. One room is a briefing room with a large screen and a lectern. Another room resembles the main National Archives Building research room, with cork floors, wooden tables and shelves, and six computer stations. The third room is designed to replicate a stack area—complete with metal shelving and Hollinger boxes containing facsimiles of documents.

Ideal for middle school students, the lab’s “Constitution in Action” scenario places participating students into the roles of either archivist or researcher. Working together in small research teams, they locate and analyze documents that help illustrate particular sections and clauses of the Constitution. They can record their findings through a clever computer interactive and meet the challenge of helping launch a Constitution Day initiative for the President of the United States.

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Lee Ann Potter describes the activities to teachers from Colorado, the District Columbia, and Texas. (National Archives, photo by Scott Suchman)

Prior to the scheduled on-site lab experience, students and their teachers will be well prepared by pre-visit in-class activities. And following the experience, post-visit exercises and a customized take-home book for each student will extend and reinforce their learning. All of the pre- and post-visit materials, as well as the lab experience, have been designed by the National Archives education staff—who have nearly 100 years of combined classroom teaching experience. The team is committed to creating an experience that not only meets curriculum standards for both history and civics but also engages and inspires students.

The groups of students who are signed up to participate in pilot programs for the lab experience this spring have been nominated by teachers who have participated in Primarily Teaching or other professional development workshops that we offer. The teachers have both heard about and helped us formulate our plans for the lab.

While education permeates nearly everything we do at the National Archives, and certainly is key to every element of the National Archives Experience—from the Rotunda, to the Public Vaults Exhibit, to programs in the McGowan Theater, to exhibits in the O’Brien Gallery—more formal education is the focus of the Boeing Learning Center.

When we began this project nearly six years ago, we talked about the desired “buzz” we would like the Learning Center to create.

Now that the center is nearly complete, we continue to hope our visitors will join us in saying “If everyone—particularly educators and students—could visit this center, use these materials, and participate in these programs, the teaching and learning of history and civics in this country would be utterly transformed.”


National Archives Boeing Learning Center Overview

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(National Archives, photo by Scott Suchman)

The main objectives

  • To provide educators and parents with methods and materials for using primary sources as teaching tools.
  • To provide students with hands-on opportunities to practice historical thinking skills and work directly with primary sources to learn historical content.
  • To provide members of the general public with engaging activities that introduce them to the holdings of the National Archives and encourage further research.

The components

ReSource Room — This is a materials headquarters where educators and parents can copy document facsimiles and exercises, preview materials available for sale in the Archives store, learn more about what the National Archives has to offer, exchange ideas with others, and where families can participate in on-site Archival Adventures.

Learning Lab — This will provide an on-site peak experience related to the U.S. Constitution for middle school students in an authentic environment that is linked to pre-visit and post-visit in-class activities.

The key features

  • Documents in a variety of formats (written documents, photographs, maps, cartoons, sound recordings, motion pictures).
  • Methods and materials relate to national curriculum standards.
  • Documents drive all of the activities and programs.
  • Hands-on (Hollinger boxes, white gloves, Mylar sleeves).
  • Welcoming atmosphere provided by trained volunteer docents and staff members.

The logistics

  • The Learning Center is located just steps from the Rotunda, on the west side of the exhibits level of the National Archives Building.
  • The ReSource Room is open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; reservations are not necessary.
  • The Learning Lab will be open Monday–Friday and will offer sessions at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.; reservations will be required.
  • For more information, send an email message to

The partners

The Boeing Learning Center at the National Archives Building is the result of a successful partnership among the National Archives, the Foundation for the National Archives, Gallagher and Associates, Northern Light Productions, and Fablevision.

Lee Ann Potter is head of education and volunteer programs at the National Archives.


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