The Record - September 1998

Teaching Approaches

Paula Nassen Poulos, Editor

National Council for the Social Studies and NARA: Partners in Teaching with Documents

By Michael Simpson

The handwriting is old and slopes to the right, each letter carefully shaped by the nib of the pen. The solemnity bestowed by age upon the document is magnified by the official tone of its words. It is Daniel Freeman's application for a homestead on New Year's Day of 1863—application number 1, the first of its kind recorded by Richard F. Barrets, Register of the Land Office of Brownville, Nebraska Territory, and among the first to be submitted anywhere in the United States.

Homestead application, Land Office of Brownville, Nebraska
(National Archives, RG 49, Records of the General Land Office)

With his claim for land in Nebraska, Daniel Freeman, a scout for the Union army, seized the opportunity provided by the Homestead Act of 1862 for U.S. citizens and intended citizens who had never borne arms against the government to obtain 160 acres of free land. Freeman, who filed his claim immediately after a New Year's Eve party, was among 418 people to submit applications the first day the law went into effect in 1863. The applicants obtained the right to receive the title to the property free of charge after five years, provided that they improved the plot and built a dwelling on it. By the time the Homestead Act was repealed in 1934, more than 10 percent of federal lands—over 270 million acres—had been given by the government to individuals. The number of applications during this period exceeded 1.6 million.

From descriptions of the Homestead movement in textbooks and social and economic histories of the United States, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate the intimate ways in which lives were changed by the Homestead Act. The allocation of land titles is a subject that lends itself easily to summary statistics and detailed descriptions of legislation, which can make for very dry reading. Teachers of history, in particular, can face a strong challenge as they try to stimulate their students to investigate social and economic initiatives in times long gone.

There is a way to get students interested in history by focusing on its human dimension, and members of the National Archives education staff practice it every day. This is to use primary source materials, like Freeman's application, as the point of departure for historical study. When looking at early homestead applications submitted by ordinary people, it is easy to be gripped by the hopes, anticipation, and challenge felt by the homesteaders. Here was a unique chance to own property as a result, not of wealth, but of the fruits of one's labor. In the flush of anticipation of a new beginning, the early Nebraska homesteaders may not have worried inception more than twenty years ago. The names of the authors of the articles have become very familiar to social studies teachers. In 1989, Teaching with Documents, a compilation of the first 52 articles was published by the National Archives and quickly became a best-seller. Volume two will follow this fall, featuring articles published since that date.

Documents featured in recent issues have included a letter from baseball great and civil rights campaigner Jackie Robinson to President Eisenhower urging a more assertive presidential position on the Little Rock crisis; Joseph Glidden's patent application for barbed wire; Robert E. Lee's letter of resignation from the U.S. Army; and documents from the records of the Dies Committee on un-American Activities relating to the political ideas of a young American, Don Henry, who volunteered to fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War and was killed in action in 1937. In a typical article, contributors provide a survey of the historical background to the document, present a copy of the original document and related documents or photographs, and suggest numerous teaching activities. These activities are carefully chosen to enable teachers to take advantage of the curiosity piqued in students by the document and to channel this interest by guiding students to a profound understanding of the events, personalities, and issues reflected by the document.

NCSS members who use National Archives documents in their classrooms are quick to cite the enthusiastic responses of their students. David Traill, who teaches at South Fork High School in Stuart, Florida, speaks of the excitement of students when they are presented with passages from the diaries of historical personalities or formerly classified government memoranda offering an inside view of important historical developments. Also rewarding is the visible development of students' historical understanding as they learn how to get beneath the surface of documents and analyze their deeper meaning.

Tom Gray, who was the NCSS Middle School Teacher of the Year in 1997 and teaches at De Ruyter Central School in New York, emphasizes the importance of careful teacher guidance of students, especially in the first stages when they are learning to review documents. He believes that using primary documents has transformed his classes and changed his teaching career. "Documents and primary sources are the raw materials of history. They bring life to the class because they put people right there with the event."

Linda Clark, a teacher in Westlake, Ohio, believes that the use of primary documents is an asset to teachers across the board, whether they are teaching social, economic, political, or diplomatic history. She praises the role played by National Archives staff in selecting the right kind of document for the classroom. Many historical documents are unsuitable for classroom use because they are either too long or do not open the right pathways for teachers to guide students to an in-depth understanding of a historical event or issue. Classroom teachers usually do not have sufficient time or access to good archives to search for useful documents on their own. In this situation, Ms. Clark points out, the carefully chosen documents and teaching too much about the lack of wood, scarcity of natural vegetation for livestock, harsh winds and dry soil-conditions that would later cause many homesteaders to give up and leave the land and their dreams behind.

The homestead application of Daniel Freeman is just one of the suggestions of the National Archives make all the difference.

Cover of the Social Education magazine for October 1997

Among the National Archives resources also used by these teachers is The Digital Classroom Web site. Posted there are online educational units developed by education specialists featuring digitized images of archival documents, pertinent historical background, and teaching activities designed to foster a critical approach to document analysis. many National Archives documents that have been studied in school history classes as a result of the collaboration between National Archives staff and the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). The fruit of this collaboration has been one of the most popular departments in Social Education, the principal NCSS journal. Titled "Teaching with Documents" and edited by NARA education specialist Wynell Schamel and her predecessor, Elsie Freeman, this regular feature has provided scores of historical documents to classrooms nationwide since its By showing the human dimension of history, documents from the Archives have become a central element in contemporary social studies teaching. They certainly give the lie to the cynical claim once made that history is "something that never happened, written by someone who wasn't there."

Michael Simpson is Director of Publications and editor of Social Education at the National Council for the Social Studies, Washington, DC. NCSS is the leading association of social studies teachers at all grade levels in the United States, with more than 20,000 members.