NARA adds history to Digital Classroom

As more schools come online, teachers are searching for ways to use the World Wide Web in the classroom. Last month, the National Archives and Records Administration released its first set of online materials for teaching American history, containing nine lesson plans that use digitized documents to teach middle and high school students about the role of the U.S. Constitution in history.

The Constitution Community (, part of NARA's Digital Classroom program, currently covers American history from the 1750s until the beginning of the Civil War. By June, the series will include about 30 lessons encompassing the entire span of the nation's development.

Each lesson provides links to images from NARA's collection of photographs and documents, a description of the historical context for the documents, a bibliography and suggestions of activities to do with students.

"Kids really enjoy working with primary sources," said Lee Ann Potter, an education specialist with NARA who is managing the project. "The students find that the original makes the event more real, particularly in the case of the photographs."

Potter noted that NARA's database of online images, the National Archives Information Locator, offers students access to unique documents that they would not otherwise be able to see. But the documents themselves do not provide appropriate background, Potter said.

"What NAIL does not have is the context that belongs to the documents," she said. "So teachers are writing the context." NARA is paying nine teachers who attended its summer program on history instruction to write the lessons, using a grant from the Education Department and the Government Information Technology Services Board.

One lesson, about the nation's economic expansion during the early 19th century and how it shaped regional differences, features a copy of an anti-railroad propaganda poster distributed in Philadelphia in 1839. The lesson plan suggests students compare the message of the poster with information from their textbooks. The plan also suggests that students re-enact a town meeting in which citizens debate the merits of the railroad.

In addition, the plan suggests students research current transportation legislation on congressional Web sites and imagine how it might affect their regions. The lesson is designed to teach students about the powers of Congress and about states' rights.

"Primary-source documents allow students to engage in active learning - where they become the historians," said Kerry Kelly, a teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School, Flemington, N.J., who wrote the lesson. "It is a powerful thing being in charge of your own learning, making conclusions and re-creating history."

Another lesson, about the wars against American Indians and the power of the president and Senate to make treaties, features a copy of the 1868 treaty with the Sioux Indians, a photograph of the Sioux leader Spotted Tail and first-hand descriptions of the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, where the Sioux defeated Gen. George Custer in their ultimately unsuccessful effort to defend the treaty.

This lesson plan suggests students study the treaty for clues about the cultural differences of the two sides and the conflicts these differences might create.

Kelly said the online images help students tune into history topics because they "can get a feel of the color and texture of the documents." Meanwhile, by incorporating primary-source documents into her lessons, "I have learned that we don't have to lecture to students; the documents speak for themselves."


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