History Education in All Shapes and Sizes

The Fall/Winter 2012 issue of the American Archivist recently appeared on my desk.  I’m still working my way through it, but I found the article “Archival Document Packets: A Teaching Module in Advocacy Training Using the Papers of Governor Dick Thornburgh” by Richard J. Cox, Janet Ceja Alcala, and Leanne Bowler insightful and thought inspiring.

The article focuses on the University of Pittsburgh archival program‘s introduction of a course project to engage archival students in archival advocacy in outreach.   In particular, the students in a course called Archival Access, Ethics, and Advocacy under took a project to create teaching packets based on archival records relating to Dick Thornburgh.  The article outlines the experience of the students and their introduction to archival advocacy and addresses the relationship between archives and K-12 education.

September to December of 2012 was a particularly slow period for elementary and high school visits to the archive I work at.  This can largely be attributed to the Ontario English Teachers decision to cut extra-curricular activities (including field trips) in reaction to Bill 115.  In previous years, the archive has typically hosted one or two school groups a month.  Instead, September to December saw a large number of post-secondary and professional groups visiting the archive.  This shift in visitor trends contributed to me thinking about how archival visits can be bettered geared to each group.

As an archive we are lucky to be ideally situated on a historic site that reflects the type of material we collect.  Students groups often visit us to learn about the history of the site and not about archival practice.  That being said, I have a really hard time resiting an opportunity to explain the importance of historic documents, archives, and heritage institutions.  Any school presentation I give explains how the archive I work at was started as a community effort to collect lost pieces of history, includes slides of archival photographs and documents, and highlights the fact that archives are much more than just boxes of paper. 

Explaining research practices and archival selection to a grade four class isn’t really the way to win supporters of archives in the education world.  But, I do think it is possible to begin introducing archives to students at a young age.  When a K-12 class visits our archive we typically try to pair their visit with a visit from a local Elder, who explains their personal experiences to the students as a form of oral history.  Having a living person sharing their experience tends to add a tangible element to the archival visit, it brings the photographs I use to describe the past to life.

I think my first visit to an archive wasn’t until sometime in my undergrad. That visit included a standard introduction to archival research and prepared myself and my classmates to work on a source finding assignment in the archive. It was an okay introduction to the archive, but it really didn’t inspire any interest in learning about about how archives are organized or historical research.

I also don’t remember really being exposed to documentary heritage in any way in my earlier education.  I recall a couple of museum visits, but I think those were outside of school.  Heritage institutions have the potential to enrich history, social studies, civic lessons, geography, and so many other school topics.  But, for educators who have little to no exposure to heritage organizations or their holdings it’s understandable that this avenue of instruction is often overlooked.  Archives shouldn’t simply expect school groups to show up at their door.  Outreach and advocacy is needed to highlight the value of documentary and material cultural heritage within the formal education system.

How can archives/heritage organizations and educators collaborate more effectively?

Photo Credit: North Carolina Digital Heritage Center

History Education: Remembrance Day

There was a great segment on CBC’s Morning North today.  It focused on Canadian teachers who visited France this past summer to visit WWI and WWII battlefields as a means of learning more about the Wars, soldier experience and historical landscape.  The idea being that this experiential learning trip would provide the teachers with better tools to teach their students about the World Wars. This particular program is run by the Juno Beach Centre, which offers a number of different education programs focusing on tangible history and remembrance.

The CBC segment highlighted the teachers experience making gravestone rubbings, collecting rocks and dirt and taking many videos and photographs of the landscape.  All of these collected items have the potential to illuminate a segment of the past beyond what is written in a textbook.  For example, one teacher spoke of collecting rocks from the beach at Dieppe to help explain why the assault was such a huge failure.  The rocks on the beach have been smoothed by the ocean, making it impossible for soldiers and vehicles to gain traction on.  By bringing back rocks from Dieppe students are able to touch and actually see what the landscape would have been like for solders. 

Using physical objects to explore the past helps explain history beyond textbooks and make it increasingly tangible to students.  Additionally, the days leading up to Remembrance Day provide a time that many teachers utilize to introduce students to Canada’s involvement in the World Wars.  Personally, other than making poppy wreaths out of construction paper and memorizing In Flanders Fields I don’t really remember learning all that much about Remembrance Day or being taught the context behind the day.  I’m sure it was included somewhere, but the method of instruction clearly wasn’t memorable.

For those people looking for instruction ideas, Veterans Affairs has a number of great resources and guides to focused on Canadian war efforts.  Canada’s History Society also has a number of lesson plans that focus on Canada’s role during wartime. 

Active Learning and History Education

In September I talked about the online records management course I’m currently taking.  As the course has progressed I have thought a lot about content delivery and methods of active engagement.  One of the mandatory course features is participating in at least one online chat session.  The idea being that chats can provide a real time chance for discussion amongst course participants. 

The idea of fostering active discussion is great.  But without proper facilitation discussion can easily fall flat.  Discussion can turn into monologues, question/answer session, and conversations that fail to inspire further depth to class topics.  Thus far I’ve attended two of the chat sessions and both times was left with a feeling of wanting more.  Neither of the chats actually fostered any substantial discussions.  Rather, students peppered the instructor with questions for 45minutes without connecting thoughts or engaging each other. This situation isn’t unique to online delivery — poor facilitation can occur in the classroom just as easily as online.  It is also possible that in this case, Q&A is what the instructor saw as being valuable to students than a discussion based meeting.

Perhaps, my desire for meaningful discussion is somewhat inspired by time spent in classes where the core element of the course was discussion. Many upper year and graduate history courses I took focused on student interpretation and moved away from a teacher telling students all ‘the facts.’ Personally, I found this style of education more conducive to my learning style than large lecture classes where I will admit to doodling or snoozing away more than a few classes.  

So, is discussion a necessary element in a learning environment? I’m not sure it is essential in absolutely every situation, but students and teachers/facilitators find it beneficial. Of course, lecture style presentation does also have a place in education and can work well alongside discussions.   Discussion allows for a different form of learning and creates a level of personal engagement that is often not included in more formal lecture style approaches.  Some of my most worthwhile and memorable education experiences occurred outside of a classroom.  I have little memory of what my first year Russian history professor lectured on, but I can tell you all about the discussions my Historical Approaches class had during a prof’s office hours which were held once a month in the campus pub. 

Small workshops, group tours, and hands-on-learning are all methods of facilitation which can encourage discussion amongst participants.  Many heritage organizations and public history practitioners see history education as a dialogue that tries to actively include the audience in the learning process.  With a topic such as history, that many people associate with boring elementary school lessons, I think active approaches to content delivery are key.   Heritage organizations that see regular visits from the public are in a unique position to reach audiences that may never open a history book.

What have been some of your best education experiences?  Has a museum or heritage site visit inspired you to look at history differently? 

Photo credit: My Silent Side

Making History Child Friendly

The August/September issue of Canada’s History recently landed in my mailbox.  A short article, “Genealogy Can be Child’s Play” by Paul Jones inspired me to spend some time considering children and public history.  Jones’ article talks about interesting children in family history through the use of age appropriate activities that are engaging, active, and ultimately easy to undertake for the whole family.

I agree with Jones that inspiring a sense of family history and understanding of ones roots can be a very valuable part of any upbringing.  I also think it is important for children of all ages to be exposed to local and national historical narratives. Looking back at my childhood makes me extremely grateful for my parents attempts to make history and learning fun, even during the summertime. 

One of my earliest memories of experiencing history as a child involves my parents taking me and my siblings to the Dufferin County Museum which was ten minutes from our home.  I don’t remember many details about the trip, but I do remember being fascinated by an exhibit on old toys and how different those toys were from the ones I played with at home. 

Fast forward a few years and my Brownie troop made a trip to the same museum.  This time in addition to being able to look at the collection on display the group was given a ‘behind the scenes’ tour that included being able to see the archival and artifact storage areas.   Seeing something that was normally off limits definitely tickled my childhood interest.  These early positive experiences at the Dufferin County Museum are one of the many reasons why later volunteered at the Museum and eventually became involved in public history.

Not all public history spaces are immediately conducive to children.  Living museums and historic sites with interpreters tend to have more hands on activities that appeal to the tactile nature of many kids.  More traditional archives and museums need to work at making their spaces kid friendly.  Text panels and things secured in display cases can be interesting, but getting an eight year old to stand and look at them is almost impossible at times. 

Running children specific programming and workshops can be a huge step towards making history accessible to children.  However, not all museums and archives have the staff or resources to make this possible.  Even offering small dress-up or colouring stations amongst other exhibits can help make a trip to the museum enjoyable for children.  Similarly, including outdoor space or outdoor activities as part of the standard tour can help make a museum visit child friendly.

Developing a teaching collection of duplicate or replica artifacts can allow children to actually touch and hold things.  For example, setting up a bunch of old typewriters (duplicate or not historically significant ones) for children to type on can be a great way for children to see an old form of technology in use. Teaching collections can work in museums or as part of an archives program.

Archives do not immediately scream children play space.  But it is possible to run programming out of archives that is geared to children.  Many archives have school instruction programs, behind the scenes tours, or introduction to local history programs that expose children to history in a fun way.  Many of these
programs do require staff time, but the partnerships and future patrons that can develop out of these outreach activities are well worth the effort.

What are some of your most memorable childhood history moments?

Exhibit Reflection: Body Worlds Vital

Part of my recent Science North trip included seeing the Body Worlds Vital exhibit.  This exhibit is part of a series of Body Worlds exhibits featuring real human bodies that have been preserved using a processed called plastination.  Plastination was created by Dr. Gunther von Hagnes, and the resulting figures created through the process have been termed plastinates.  These plastinate bodies allow visitors to see the inner workings of real human bodies in a way that wasn’t previously possible. 

The primary gold of all the Body Worlds exhibits is to increase awareness about the human body and to provide opportunities for health and physical education.  Body Worlds Vital places emphasis on the potential of the human body and the body in motion.  In this exhibit a number of the plastinates are staged in athletic activities such as running, fencing, and dancing to highlight the development of muscle structures, the potential of a healthy body, and the general inter-workings of the vital system. 

Simply put, the exhibit far exceeded my exceptions.  The plastinates themselves are a remarkable mixture of art and science.  The staging of the plastinates in forms which highlight a variety of human activities and body functions allows for a range of educational opportunities.  The range of motion seen in the plastinates allowed for a variety of anatomical features to be highlighted, many of which I had little knowledge about before.  Similarly the placement of the plastinates allowed visitors to walk 360 degrees around them, allowing for all aspects of the human body to be seen. 

Additionally, the signage throughout the exhibit was really well done.  Each plastinate was accompanied by a textual explanation of what technique was used to render the plastinate and what parts of the body are being highlighted by the plastinate.  These textual explanations were accompanied by diagrams labeling muscles, bone structures, and major arteries.  The diagrams helped explain the plastinates and added to the educational component of the exhibit.  There was also oversize text and graphic panels with inspirational quotes relating to the human form throughout the exhibit.  These panels added to the reflective and respectful feel of the entire exhibit.  

The exhibit wasn’t overly busy when I was there.  This allowed for a nice leisurely pace and for me to read all the text and spend ample time looking at each plastinate.  In contrast to the rest of the Science Centre where loud talking and running around are the norm, the majority of visitors looking at this exhibit moved at a leisurely pace and were speaking in hushed tones.  This was most likely due to the subject matter combined with the mood lighting and slow paced background music.  The whole atmosphere of the exhibit helped contribute to the educational atmosphere. 

Have you been to a Body Worlds exhibit? Did you enjoy it?

Graphic Novels and History Education

What to superheros, anime, and history education have in common? They can all be found in graphic comic format.   Recently a number of publishers, historians, and education professionals have attempted to make lessons of history more tangible.  This has contributed to a variety of history based graphic novels being produced.

This month Renegade Arts and Entertainment released The Loxelys and the War of 1812.  This hardcover graphic novel chronicles the experience of Canadian family living in the Niagara region during the war of 1812.  The family’s experience and the colourful accompanying graphics are framed by actual historical events.  The graphic novel covers bits of perspectives from the American, Canadian, and Indigenous sides.  The target audience is children over the age of ten, making this a more kid friendly than adult oriented publication.  However, The Loxelys have the potential to provide an introduction of the War of 1812 to a wide range of school aged children.

There are graphic novels covering a surprisingly wide range of historical topics. Some of the more interesting novels I’ve come across include:

  • A number of works by Rick Geary focus on history in the 19th and early 20th century.  Geary’s works cover topics such as the assassination of Lincoln, a biography of Trotsky, the Lindbergh kidnapping and number of other topics. 
  • The Age of Bronze series by Eric Shanower.  This series explores the Trojan War via graphic novel at a level that would appeal to youth and with a surprising amount of historical detail.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman.  This graphic novel does a good job of broaching a difficult historical topic, Maus focuses on the experience of Art’s father in concentration camps during the Holocaust.  The comic addresses the Holocaust in a way which is educational, powerful, and appropriate for youth to adults.

Indigenous-Settler Relations: 8th Fire


CBC has recently been running a series called 8th Fire, this tv and radio series focuses on the relationship between Aboriginal people and non-indigenous communities.  The complete series can be streamed online here.

8th Fire addresses topics such as land disputes, indigenous urban communities, and economic and demographic shifts which impact everyone within in Canada.  The series does a good job of presenting this information in a way that is tangible to everyone – even those with little exposure to Canada’s history or indigenous issues.

The series’ website also includes addition information and resources that has the potential to be used by educators.  For example, the section “Aboriginal 101” uses video clips, and often humour, to explain such topics as what does M├ętis mean and what does the average Canadian know about Aboriginal people.

The series is well worth a watch, even if the series does fall victim to common Canadian television cheesiness at times. 8th Fire provides a great look at historical and present day indigenous-settler relations in Canada,

Nippising Junction Public School

This week’s Northern Ontario Historical Photograph is of the Nippising Junction Public School in 1948. This one room school house was for grades one to four and serviced an area that is now part of North Bay, Ontario.

This photograph is from the Michael Oldfield collection held by the Nippising University Archive. The Archive has a number of interesting collections, including a well documented selection of panoramas. However, the local history website and a number local history projects were completed by the Centre for Community and Oral History which no longer exists.

Interactive Learning at the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum

The most recent episode of This American Life on NPR focused on “Kid Politics.” A portion of this show focused on children learning about various monumental moments in United States politics. Included in this discussion of historical politics was a look at students interacting with the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum.

The Reagan Library has an interesting facility called the “Discovery Center.” This Center focuses on providing visiting children with a hands on history and political lesson. While visiting the Center children reenact the process Reagan and the United States underwent prior to becoming involved in military action in Grenada in 1983.

The appealing portion of this reenactment is that children are given a basic script to follow, however ultimately they decide what course of action should be taken. If a group of students select a course of action which Regan did not take a video appears which explains what actually happened. The video clips reinforce historical fact, but the choice factor is key to engaging children in reenactment.

It’s great to see an interactive, nontraditional approach to teaching children political history. This unique approach to history education not only about the history of Grenada and operation Urgent Fury, but it also introduces children to political processes and controversy.

Historical Fiction Not Fact


The CBC recently began broadcasting a miniseries based on the novel The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet. The novel is one of my favourite historical fiction works and focuses on lives of peasants, monks, and British royalty during the 12th century.

Despite my love for this book, I am slightly weary of how this and other historical fiction tv productions are being presented. There is an increasing number of tv shows loosely based on historical fact. The Tudors, Rome, John Adams, and Band of Brothers are just a few examples of the prevalence of history themed television.

Novels by their definition are fiction. However, the distinction between fiction and fact can easily be blurred in television productions. Claiming something is “based upon a true story” can provide a production with a sense of legitimacy, even if considerable liberties are taken with the plot. It is not always clear which portions of history themed productions are based on historical record and which parts are fiction or heavily dramatized.

For example, a large portion of The Pillars of the Earth takes place in a fictional town called Kingsbridge. Despite this town being fictional the miniseries presents Kingsbridge on a map alongside actual locations in Britain. I thoroughly enjoy historical fiction as leisure reading and find history themed tv entertaining. However, I think it is important that the general population be aware that historically themed or historically based productions are not actual history.

I have had more than one individual tell me that all they know about British history they’ve learned from the Tudors. At which point I usually cringe and point out that just because something is based on historical fact doesn’t mean it is historical fact. Historical fiction has the ability to inspire an interest in history. However, it is important that the line between fact and fiction is made very clear.