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Lesson 7


Read the following about Learning to Love Basic Archival Research

Lesson 7 - Learning to Love Basic Archival Research


Assignment:  Come up with another way to teach the subject "Searching the National Archives online is not like searching anywhere else on the web"  and post it on the Discussion Board.


Note:  We tried out the exercise several times, but would welcome suggestions for making the exercise itself clearer.  If you find errors or lack of clarity, please let me know at carol.buswell@nara.gov .  

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  • While I recognize that a library and an archives are organized in very different ways (and I would start this lesson with a statement to that effect), I think a visit to our school library could help my students start to grasp the organization of an archives. I would start with a guided tour in the library--where we would try to find resources on a particular topic (perhaps World War II since I'm about to teach that in US History). I would take them first to the stacks to view books on the war (found in the 940s). I would then ask them where else we could find materials on our topic. We'd explore the biography section, the reference section, and the video section.

    For the next portion of the lesson, we would talk about the organization of the archives--where the library separates first based on media and then based on subject, the archives separates items first by the originating agency (record groups) and then based on a group of related records (series). I would explain that this means that items on a topic may be located in many different places in the archives (even in different facilities around the nation!)--just like WWII materials were located all over the library. Once the students are thinking about how things are split up, we'd explore the record groups and I would orient them to using ARC and OPA.

    I would then have them work in small groups to research a handful of preselected topics (vetted to ensure they had sufficient items available to find) using the NARA online tools. We would have a competition to see which group can find the most digital records related to each topic as well as the most interesting record. Each group would present their most interesting find on each topic and all the students would vote for the most interesting item that was not their own.

    I would do all of this to lead into a research project where items from the archives would be a required component of their source materials.

  • Carol's lesson plan seems like a useful approach to me because it takes students both deductively and inductively through a logical process to get at items within a target range. It is inclusive (all sorts of record groups will show up via a search term) and exclusive (shows kids how to drill through to get whatever item---such as a pertinent digital image--might be in the Archives for a topic.) It helps take a phenomenon with lots of random elements (i.e. the NARA) and provides a logical process for the amateur sleuth. The only caution I would offer is that the classic organization of students into groups where  each student is expert on only one thing, so that it takes the entire group to provide the whole expertise, still leaves individual kids with only one area of mastery.  I think that, as teachers, we've all found ourselves grouping kids this way. The group is a well-oiled machine but the individual student only knows one cog.  This doesn't serve the individual student as well as we would like. So we would want to follow up with a coalescing activity or group of activities that enables students to master the other cogs. The lesson lends itself to a follow-up activity that helps each kid attain the knowledge of the other parts of the machine.

    Departing from that topic, here is something I might do to to help convey the gestalt of the Archives. I have learned that the NARA, while it has marvelous and logical organizational hierarchies, also is an organism that has grown with some randomness---just like any community or ecology. It has different locations, a variety of organizational themes, organizational structures that have been tagged or invented by the human imagination at different points in time and through a variety of agencies and purposes.  As with any extensive or archival entity that has compiled itself over time through decisions by human beings, the NARA is not totally linear or interntally consistent. Therefore, it presents a great opportunity for students to enter into these kinds of creative thinking and decisions that have formed and continue to form this semi-organic thing.

     I see the NARA as a tool for fostering creative and associative thinking--higher order skills that expand the executive function of the brain and also involve deeper functions in the limbic system.  One can follow a lesson unit such as the Lesson 7 idea--that introduces kids to the several  logical structures of the NARA (including what it does and does not have) and makes it accessible to them--with an exploration that uses the NARA for lateral thinking skills.  This is a purposeful "gifted ed" model, but it  is for all kids.  As an example,


    The internet, itself a result of lateral thinking and problem-solving that created a whole new world, is full of lateral thinking exercises and research that supports this kind of forced creative thinking.  There are many books with exercises as well as big challenges that cause students to approach problems sideways and to bring in associative solutions that, in a linear model, would not enter into the picture.   In the classroom, I would follow the lesson plan that we read, or one similar, with lateral thinking activities and challenges that might seen unrelated to archival research.  Then, I would bring kids back to the NARA. How does lateral thinking pertain to this kind of archival research?  Why and how are the National Archives like a lateral thinking puzzle? On a deeper level, what kinds of thinking and logic produces the choices for grouping items and lumping them intellectually into the files, series, records, and locations of the NARA?  Who made up these classifications in the first place?  What other organizational choices could we have come up with?  Why were *these items/series/records* deemed important to keep for posterity?   Why not others, such as your grandmother's recipes?  How about your great-great-great grandmother's recipes?   Why should we, for instance, keep thousands and thousands of enlistment records?  What about the National Archives is important to [preserving/understanding/building upn] our civilization?  If you were an archivist in the service of our country, what kinds of things would you keep?

    You can see the field day here   Intentional lateral thinking activities loosen up kids' brains, take them away from the "what am I supposed to know and what is the teachers' "right" answer" space to an important area of intellectual growth. What a very rich phenomenon the NARA is for this kind of teaching.

  • I love what Carol said about the students and their well hidden cell phones. So true! I was just learning how to create podcasts with students, so I think if I were to do this with high school students I would let the students work in partners, and ask them to research a topic of their choice at a library and/or online, and then research the topic at in the archives. (I would ask them to make sure first that what they are researching is something they can find in the archives) I think that them doing some research in a library/online setting that they are used to would also help them come up with other ways to research their topic within the archives.

    I would then have the students create a podcast describing how they conducted their research and the successes and failures they had with both systems (rather than writing a paper about it, it could just be a fun way for them to present their material). I would encourage them to know there is no right or wrong in this situation, but to just explain difficulties they ran in to or successes they had both researching online and researching in the archives while also doing a compare/contrast. In their podcast they can present items they found, while also explaining how they got there.  I think it could be a really great assignment with a lot of freedom within. Of course, you would want to have gone over the organization system of the archives first, but I think them doing assignment, and then watching the podcasts of other students will really help them to see where their classmates had struggles and where they were successful, while helping to ingrain the organizational structure of the archives. I think the students would be much more interested in watching other students’ podcasts as well and could certainly learn quite a bit!

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