Content-Rich Commercial Websites


Aaron Willis

Website reviews in our professional publications tend to avoid serious consideration of commercial sites. The aversion to critical review is unfortunate for several reasons. First, while there are many great resources available online for free, there are some developing fee-based services that clearly make teaching easier by engaging students with high-interest content. The old adage “you get what you pay for” applies to the Internet, and it is sometimes better to consider allocating some of your technology money to cover these fee-based services. Second, many commercial sites have the resources to develop creative activities that are available for no charge. This might include a database of annotated websites, saving you time in tracking down and reviewing age-appropriate websites for your students. This article reviews a number of commercial online resources with an eye to quality of content and ease of classroom integration. Topic areas include current events, television meets the web, primary sources, virtual fieldtrips, and online activities and annotated web links.


Current Events

There are several engaging sites with links to current events activities, puzzles, and games. One of my favorites for the K-8 crowd is Houghton Mifflin’s Eduplace ( In their current events section, you will find activities that are updated on a monthly basis. The topics often have a global flavor: for example, a recent feature looks at the new king of Jordan. Each essay in the current events section ends with “leading questions” designed to get students to think, reflect, write, or argue, depending on how you choose to use the information in your classroom. They can also take on a “current events challenge” appropriate for their grade range. The challenge elaborates upon concepts in the original article (for example, forms of government) and includes topical activities and questions. While you are visiting Eduplace be sure to peruse their outline maps. Political, physical, or thematic maps can be printed and used in the classroom or home free of charge.

The New York Times has recently launched a site for educators ( It makes Times content accessible to students in ways that would not be possible using the newspaper by itself. For example, many teachers might worry that the reading level of Times articles is beyond their students’ reach. However, with the interactive “teaching tools” feature, any student can activate online geography or vocabulary support. These features transform articles using hyperlinks to the Microsoft Encarta Concise Encyclopedia for background information, or the Merriam-Webster Dictionary for definitions and pronunciation guidelines. It is exciting to see the web used in a way that adds possibilities that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in any other medium. The Times site also includes many well-designed activities tied to current events and updated on a daily basis. Each lesson is tied to a specific Times article or series of articles, and leading questions help students to focus on key topic areas. In the “Student Connections” area for grades 6-12, you will find frequently updated interactive quizzes to test knowledge of current events. The quizzes are marked online, thus offering immediate feedback.

For those of us who were raised using the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature to research current and global events, The Electric Library ( has streamlined the process into such a neat package that it is hard to imagine any school getting by without it. The Library charges a set monthly, annual, or site license fee for access to literally thousands of sources of periodical literature—including transcripts from National Public Radio, Nightline, 20/20, and a host of familiar and obscure news sources, such as Newsday, El Mundo, Africa News Service, The Jewish Journal, and Arab American News. What many teachers like about this service is that all the information has undergone professional review. Your students will be less likely to use random Internet sources—such as John Smith’s personal view of why the Confederacy will rise again—to support their research theses. Also, all of the results of an Electric Library search can be sorted according to such criteria as reading level, timeliness, file size, or relevance. Highlighted keywords within articles let students know why the article is relevant to the search and make it easier to refine a search if the original information turned up is too broad. Anybody who remembers going to the microfiche room to look up and print out archived news will appreciate the ease of printing articles directly from the web.


Television Meets the Web

The History Channel offers a website rich in resources for the educator ( Features include “This Day in History” for a variety of topic areas, as well as a daily question posted in a threaded discussion list that allows students to submit their opinions on timely matters and see what others have to say about them. Obscene or inappropriate messages are deleted before they can be posted. You will also find special exhibits, historical profiles of individuals, a searchable encyclopedia of historical information, and online quizzes. A wonderful resource is the “Speeches” section, which features hundreds of audio files streamed live over the Internet in RealAudio format. Each day features a speech related to events of that day. Or, you can search the archives and access 20th century greats such as Nixon’s “Checkers Speech,” FDR’s fireside chats, or Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. There is also a “classroom” section with lesson plans, ideas from other teachers on how they have used video in their classrooms, and features such as a recent section on Black History Month.

The Discovery Channel has created Discovery Channel School, a web destination for educators that parallels its excellent cable content ( The resources are truly interdisciplinary, and you can find something here for your colleagues in science and language arts as well. Of interest to social studies educators are activities, discussions, and lesson plans tied to the television features. For example, with the recent airing of the World Empires series, the site has hosted a discussion list moderated by noted educator George Cassutto. The forum provides a vehicle for students and teachers alike to examine historical details and reflect on the larger issues raised by the content. A related section on “lesson plans” is organized by grade level and includes links to other websites, suggested readings, and ideas on how to integrate the specific video content into your classroom. Another great resource recently folded into the site is Kathy Schrock’s Guide for Educators included in the “Web Links” section. This guide includes annotated web links organized by topic and subject area, as well as essays on evaluating websites, creating WebQuests, and more.


Primary Sources

One of the most exciting features of the Internet is the wealth of primary source documents available. While these documents, images, maps, and related sources are spread about the web
quite widely, there are a few commercial sites that attempt to organize the chaos for you. Archiving Early America ( offers a wealth of sources documenting the founding, growth, and development of the United States. Students will find facsimile maps, newspapers, magazines, and reflective writings from this early period. For example, students can read David Ramsey’s biography of George Washington (written in 1807) and view scans of the original work. A new chapter is added each week, encouraging students to return on a regular basis until the book is digitally archived in its entirety. I found the threaded discussion groups on Colonial America, The Revolutionary War, The Early Republic, and the 19th century to be fascinating. This is a place where you and your students can pose questions to people who have dedicated a great deal of time trying to understand the historical issues of these times. Just a quick review of the questions and responses already in the “discussion” area will prove highly informative.

For images, you should try the AV PhotoFinder component of Altavista’s search engine ( The photo finder displays thumbnails of images that save you time by eliminating less relevant sites from your search results. Switch to “verbose listing” and you will see text that is included near the photo on its web page, offering help in quickly assessing its usefulness for your purposes. Unfortunately, quite of few of the images are from a commercial archive (Corbis), which is great for sending postcards to friends, but not all that helpful if your students are looking for images that they can use in a presentation. You can exclude these resources by adding “-corbis” to your search.

Social Studies School Service has a page devoted to teaching with primary sources ( It includes links to important online collections (like the National Archives and Library of Congress), a review of annotated websites with suggestions on how to use primary sources in the classroom, and an online activity titled “Evaluating Web Sites.” You will also find an essay that reviews supplemental resources available for teaching with primary sources, including CD-ROMs, reproducible activity books, videocassettes, jackdaw collections, posters, and photo aids.


Virtual Fieldtrips

If you don’t have the budget to take your students to Africa for the semester, try a virtual fieldtrip. Classroom Connect ( features a number of interactive expeditions that are designed to engage student interest by giving them a stake in the daily activities of adventurers halfway around the world. Making use of cutting-edge technology, remote teams interact with students on a daily basis through e-mail, audio, and video links. Examples of the trips found at the Classroom Connect site include MayaQuest, AfricaQuest, GalapagosQuest, and (coming in Fall 1999) AsiaQuest, which will feature a tour of the ancient Silk Road. You can follow a trip from the website for no charge, but for a fee you will receive a teacher’s guide and password protected access. Registered users may use the “teacher’s lounge” to exchange ideas with other teachers. Students can participate in weekly quizzes posted by team members or vote on where the remote team should go next. Your students may enjoy the “kid profiles,” which the remote teams post to inform virtual participants about how children their same age live in this distant locale—what they eat for breakfast, what their favorite games are, how far they have to travel to school, or if they go to school at all. Numerous photos and multimedia presentations help your students feel as if they are really there, and communication with the team gives them a direct stake in the progress of each adventure.

Another site for virtual fieldtrips can be found at Adventure Online ( with upcoming expeditions to the North Pole, Central America, and Greenland, and an ongoing round-the-world trip in the steps (wake) of Magellan.


Online Activities and Annotated Web Links

Tired of spending hours trying to locate websites that are substantive and age-appropriate, and then struggling to figure out how to integrate these gems into your curriculum? Social Studies School Service ( has created a database of free online activities and annotated Web links that is searchable by grade level, subject area, and keyword. Go to the “Search Our Catalog” section and change “Resource Type” from “Products” to “Online Activities” or “Related Web Sites.” The site also features thematic reviews of websites, product reviews, streaming video, sample lessons from activity books on a variety of topics (including Black History, Women’s History, Global Studies, Holocaust Studies, Guidance), and more.

These are just a few of the commercial websites that will help you to integrate the Internet into your classroom. Take advantage of free resources like activities, annotated web links, online quizzes and discussion groups to make the best use of your limited time. Also, most of the fee-based services discussed have trial periods or free content that provide a good flavor of what you might get in an online subscription. Whatever your experience, these websites can make your job easier and are sure to engage your students with dynamic and timely content.


Aaron Willis is the Director of Professional Development for Social Studies School Service.

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