History Matters:

the U.S. Survey Course on the Web


Kelly Schrum and Roy Rosenzweig

Type “Abraham Lincoln” into an Internet search engine and you will receive anywhere from 300,000 to 1,000,000 “hits.” You will find yourself scrolling down lists of websites for the Abraham Lincoln University School of Law, Abraham Lincoln Camp, the “Hideous Jabbering Head of Abraham Lincoln,” and the online auction of a “green painted plaster figure” of Lincoln. Meanwhile, you might miss out on some terrific Web-based resources, including the original Lincoln letters at the Library of Congress American Memory site or the documentary history of Lincoln’s law practice collected by the Illinois Historical Preservation Society. This example illustrates one of the most common complaints by teachers about the Internet: there is an overwhelming amount of “information” available and it is of varied quality and relevance for the classroom. Teachers often do not have the time to locate and make effective use of the best online resources—to find the substantive, quality sites that will enhance teaching in social studies classrooms. And the lack of control over content, validity, and reliability opens new challenges when sending students to the Internet.1

Yet the Internet also offers amazing opportunities for social studies teachers by providing tools that, when used effectively within the larger context of the social studies curriculum, can prove invaluable. Internet sites allow teachers to enhance inquiry-based learning by bringing primary resources into the classroom, and they allow students to follow their interests and exert greater control over their learning environment. Using digital media in social studies classrooms can also help bridge the gap between reading and writing through online interaction, extending the time and space for dialogue and learning as well as helping make student work public in new formats.2 But these possibilities do not fully address the challenge of finding and using quality Internet sources. In light of the phenomenal growth of the Internet, its increasing importance in the social studies classroom, and the incredible time required to identify quality sites, teachers need tools for navigating its vast but uneven resources. This article will explore one such tool, History Matters—a free, non-commercial website designed to assist social studies and history teachers at high schools and colleges around the world.


Navigating the Web

History Matters (historymatters.gmu.edu) was developed by the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at The City University of New York and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. This website aims to meet a range of pedagogical, professional, and classroom needs. It features useful and innovative teaching materials, valuable primary documents, and threaded discussions with leading historians on teaching U.S. history. Visitors to the site will find depth as well as breadth, with materials ranging from a discussion on texts and contexts in teaching women’s history, to a blues song on domestic work, to a series of sketches detailing one soldier’s experiences in World War II.



An essential function of History Matters is to serve as a gateway to prescreened, quality websites. It does this through an annotated guide called WWW.History. There are currently more than 400 such websites and their number is growing rapidly. Each website is carefully evaluated by professional historians for content, depth, and reliability. The annotations summarize each site’s content as thoroughly as possible, and emphasize its utility for teachers and students. In addition, the annotations highlight special features; mention sites that are particularly easy or difficult to navigate; and forewarn visitors about any potential problems, such as sites that are “under construction.”

Each site chosen for WWW.History is indexed and searchable by the type of website (archive, electronic essay, gateway, journal, organization, syllabi/assignments), type of resource (text, images, audio, and video), and topic covered. Topics include ten time periods, from “Three Worlds Meet, Beginnings to 1620” to “Contemporary U.S., 1968-Present,” as well as twenty-two thematic categories that include African Americans, Consumer Culture, Labor, and Women. You might start by visiting some of the seventeen “Best of the Web” sites, or by searching for a specific time period or theme. A fast search engine allows you to search by topic, time period, or keyword to quickly identify quality resources for lesson plans, lectures, projects, assignments, or student research.


Bringing Primary Documents into the Classroom

Primary documents are the “raw materia#148; of historical research. They provide students with a sense of the reality and complexity of the past, and represent an opportunity to interact with real people and problems. Yet, until recently, social studies teachers and library media specialists had little direct access—outside of textbook photographs or edited collections—to these exciting teaching tools. The Internet has dramatically changed this situation, offering teachers and students the opportunity to experience the drama and excitement of reading handwritten diary accounts of the Civil War or examining World War II propaganda posters. The analysis of primary documents, and the structured inquiry learning process that is often used in such examinations, is widely recognized as an essential step in developing student interest in history and culture. And, while primary documents are essentially fragmentary and contradictory, requiring both close reading and contextualization to discover their meaning, they are an invaluable teaching tool.3


Many Pasts

Several features on History Matters enhance the use of primary documents for both teaching and student research. Many Pasts contains more than 500 documents—in text, image, and audio—that highlight the experiences of “ordinary” Americans. While thousands of primary source documents are now available on the Web, the ones you will find at History Matters have all been screened, edited, and carefully contextualized for classroom use by professional historians. The new “Featured Document” section will highlight specific documents and provide suggestions about how they can be used in the classroom. In addition, all the documents are searchable by keyword, topic, or time period, with transcriptions provided for every audio segment.

For example, you can listen to Laura Ellsworth Seiler recall campaigning for suffrage on an automobile tour after college, with her mother in tow as chaperone:

When I got [to a new town], I had to contact all these women and get them organized. And then I had to make a street speech, and that was in the days when you could still rent cars where the back went down. So we would rent a car and put an enormous banner across the back of it, letting it down, and I would stand up on the back seat and make the speech.

Or, you can hear “William Brown” (pseudonym) describe the impact of witnessing a 1902 lynching in Jacksonville, Florida, at the age of five:

You see, we had to live so dangerously down there. My mother told me, said, “Son, I know you’re a good boy. You don’t, haven’t given me any trouble, but if they ever put their hand on you they’ll trump up something, and they’ll never let you get away.” And I knew that.

You can read documents by and about Marcus Garvey, black nationalism, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), including the celebratory song “The Black Star Line,” and criticism by integrationists such as W. E. B. DuBois and Robert Bagnall. You can read the debate about the “bobbed-hair craze” or explore the influence of this new style through a Mexican-American song. Text documents also include the last words of the Haymarket Martyrs, letters home from Polish immigrants, and historian William Langer’s recollections of trench warfare in World War I. Primary documents allow students to explore politics and polling, to study the impact of religion on American society, to listen to a blues song written after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, or to read a ballad by Bonnie Parker of the notorious team of Bonnie and Clyde.


Making Sense of Evidence

Finding primary documents, however, is only half the challenge. Teaching students to analyze and contextualize documents, to place them within the larger context of American history, is another thing entirely. Making Sense of Evidence offers engaging interactive exercises to help students explore the historian’s craft. For example, photographs are valuable historical resources, but they must be studied critically as interpretations rather than as “facts.” One interactive exercise examines the problem of photographs as historical evidence. Viewers explore how Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange created both their famous and less well-known images—from choosing subjects and determining how to frame them to altering them for presentation. Like other forms of historical evidence, these images reflect the views of their creators as well as the intended audiences. Another exercise investigates how film narratives have changed since the earliest days of the medium, while a third allows students to analyze music and race at the turn of two centuries. An upcoming activity will address strategies and tools for reading historical cartoons.


Learner Guides

In addition, a series of Learner Guides is being developed in collaboration with the Visible Knowledge Project at Georgetown University. These guides will provide background and strategies for using various primary sources. Some guides will be available in a traditional written format with a bibliography of related Web resources. Other guides will experiment with an interactive, multimedia format. The first set of written guides will explore the specifics of using oral history, photographs, letters and diaries, and early film for research and teaching. The first interactive guides will emphasize the strategies and techniques used by scholars to read, interpret, and contextualize primary sources in various formats—including fiction, speeches, songs, political cartoons, and photographs. These guides will be useful to teachers in several ways. You can use them to learn new ideas for incorporating traditional and non-traditional sources into the classroom. And, you can send students to the guides to learn how to use a multitude of documents.


Classroom Teaching Tools

Several features of History Matters directly address the classroom needs of social studies teachers, from syllabi and lesson plans, to formats for displaying student work through new media.

Digital Blackboard

Many teachers have asked for examples of successful Web-based assignments. Digital Blackboard offers more than 40 teacher-tested lesson plans drawn from individual teachers and from such respected institutions as the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration. It helps teachers use the Internet to communicate and share lesson ideas: What lessons work and why? What tools can be applied to other lessons? How can teachers successfully introduce difficult and controversial topics?

For example, a lesson plan submitted by Carl Schulkin, a high school history teacher in Kansas City, Missouri, is entitled “Utilizing the Registers of Free Blacks For the City of Staunton and Augusta County, Virginia, 1803-1864.”4 It was designed to teach students the process of analyzing primary sources and to enrich their knowledge of the daily lives of free African Americans in the antebellum South. Schulkin begins by asking,

What important conclusions can be drawn from examining sets of very brief primary source documents? What are the limitations of such sources? How does one utilize quantitative data in an effort to answer qualitative historical questions? What other sources of information are needed in order to place a set of primary source documents into the proper historical context?

Bill Friedheim at Borough of Manhattan Community College created the lesson “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry” to deepen student understanding of the experience of Japanese internment in the United States during World War II and to promote student-centered collaborative inquiry. “The WPA ‘Life Histories’ Website: Between the Wars,” developed by Bill Tally of the Center for Children and Technology, aims to help students examine differences in American life between the 1930s and the 1990s. As part of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) paid unemployed writers to compile “life histories” of ordinary Americans. Students explore a specific subject as three ordinary Americans described it, and consider ways that other people’s views differ from their own.


Syllabus Central

This feature of History Matters provides another forum for sharing information, in this case through annotated syllabi. These syllabi explain creative approaches to teaching, with particular emphasis on using technology and developing innovative ways to organize the teaching of standard history and social studies courses.

For example, Professor David Jaffee of The City College, The City University of New York, shares and annotates the syllabus from his course “U.S. Society 101.” He explains his efforts to integrate new media into his course: “I have been most interested in having students see images as historical evidence and as historical forces rather than as mere illustrations.” He shares his successes and his frustrations (often caused by limited technical support), and reflects on the course overall:

I would say my teaching has had to become both more structured and more open with the use of new media. The need to organize multimedia materials and focus assignments has introduced more structure in my teaching, but the ability to let the students locate materials on their own and compare their findings with each other has made for a more open teaching format.


Students as Historians

As teachers begin to incorporate new media into social studies classrooms, there is increasing interest in making these projects visible and available for fellow students, families, and communities, and as models for other teachers. Students as Historians presents examples of the kinds of projects students, from high school to graduate school, have done on the Internet. Topics range from an exploration of the U.S. Capitol as an American icon to oral histories of women who lived before, during, and after the Second World War.

In one example, students at South Kingston High School worked with the Brown University Scholarly Technology group to create the website, “The Whole World Was Watching: An Oral History of 1968.” In spring 1998, twenty high school sophomores conducted oral histories with thirty Rhode Islanders about their recollections of the year 1968, creating “a living history of one of the most tumultuous years in United States history.” The site contains transcripts, audio recordings, and edited stories, as well as a glossary, timeline, bibliography, and notes from the organizers. Project coordinator Linda Wood writes, “Together, the students and the narrators constructed a unique document, a record of the past as remembered in the present.” She reflects that students who thought that history was boring were

turned on by their direct involvement in the stories of people who were there as events occurred. Oral history is an example of the best kind of learning because it actively engages the students, using their natural curiosity about other people to provide an emotional context too often missing from textbook lessons.5


Puzzled by the Past

Equally important for engaging students is the notion that studying history and social studies can and should be fun. In that spirit, History Matters offers a regular quiz, “Puzzled By The Past.” The October 2000 pre-election puzzle, for example, invited visitors to connect third party candidates with their parties. Earlier puzzles have investigated intelligence tests from the 1920s or challenged viewers to find inaccuracies in historical photographs. An archive of past puzzles contains both the puzzles and their answers.

Professional Development and Resources

While placing student work and teaching tools on the Web begins to strengthen the educational community, classroom teachers still frequently feel isolated—cut off from fellow teachers as well as from academic developments. History Matters offers several features that seek to alleviate these feelings by helping social studies teachers connect with others working on similar topics at high schools, community colleges, colleges and universities around the world. It provides models of excellent teaching, forums for discussing history topics with leading scholars, and a series of essays that helps answer the eternal student questions: “Why should I care about history?” and “How does it affect me today?”


Secrets of Great History Teachers

This feature consists of a series of interviews in which distinguished teachers share their strategies and techniques. High school, community college, and university teachers offer their perspectives on what drew them to teaching history and social studies, what they find exciting about teaching, and how they engage students in active learning about the past. Philip Bigler, the 1998 National Teacher of the Year and a history teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia, discusses his favorite classroom assignments for making history come alive: “lots of historical simulations where students stage presidential elections, debate great issues . . . recreate the trial of John Brown, etc. . . .” He also shares his goals and strategies for teaching the survey:

I try to make sure the students have good outside readings that make history come alive. We do just about everything. You also have to change your instruction to the personality of a class. It is different year to year and I think that is what is most exciting about education today.

In another recent interview, Leon Litwack, the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian who has taught more than 30,000 students during the past thirty years at the University of California, Berkeley, reveals how he first developed an interest in history:

[It] began with the education imparted by my neighborhood and my immigrant parents. . . . I came to be fascinated by the story of how my parents came to this country from Russia (and ultimately hitchhiked out to California) and by the experiences of my neighbors, most of them immigrants from Mexico. My neighborhood, then, exposed me to a diversity of cultures, languages, and histories. I thought it to be a unique and valuable education. But I found nothing about their experiences in my courses in social studies and history.

Litwack discusses his passion for teaching the survey and his dedication to making history come alive, even in large lecture courses, since “for most of the students [it is] perhaps the only history course they will take in college. That is the challenge. I have one chance at them, one opportunity to engage them in the study of the past.”


Talking History

Talking History is a more interactive feature than the former, offering social studies teachers the opportunity to engage with leading teachers and scholars on teaching key subjects covered in social studies courses. In October 2000, Professor James Horton of George Washington University introduced a forum on African American history by stating that after three decades of teaching African American history and issues related to race in America, I am still sometimes taken off-guard by my students. Even at the beginning of the 21st century, they are often surprised, fascinated, even shocked, when we discuss the history of African Americans. Sometimes outraged, they demand to know why they haven’t heard this story before.

Teachers from a wide range of schools and backgrounds actively participated in the forum, shaping the discussion and raising issues such as the role of African American history within the larger context of U.S. history. Topics ranged from reparations for the descendants of slaves to a discussion of teaching slavery in elementary schools; from classroom and teaching resources to the debate over the Willie Lynch letter. In the last example, a fraudulent document, reportedly a speech to Virginia slaveholders in 1712, circulated widely on the Web and incited passionate debate. Talking History provided a forum for discussing the content of the letter, the need to question sources, and one respondent’s strategies for testing the letter’s validity.6

Messages from previous forums—covering topics such as Asian American history, the U.S. Constitution, women’s history, and the Vietnam War era—are all archived. Forums for the 2000-2001 year include discussions with Emily Rosenberg on American Imperialism (December 2000); David Montgomery on Labor History (March 2001); and Alan Brinkley on the Depression and the New Deal (April 2001). For the 2001-2002 academic year, look for discussions with Fred Hoxie on Native American History, Eric Foner on Reconstruction, Tom Bender on Internationalizing U.S. History, Linda Gordon on Family History, and Christine Heyrman on Religious History.


Past Meets Present

When adults were asked to describe their experiences with history classes in elementary or high school, a nationwide representative sample responded most frequently with the word “boring.”7 Yet social studies teachers know that the past is far from boring—it is exciting, challenging, and most important, relevant. In Past Meets Present, prominent scholars engage with some of today’s most controversial topics and discuss them in light of the past. You can read an analysis by Eric Foner in which he discusses the controversies surrounding the film Amistad, exploring the problems faced by the film’s producers and the historical shortcomings of the film and its accompanying study guide. Foner also raises questions about the messages behind Hollywood’s portrayal of history as entertainment.

Or, you can follow a discussion of sweatshops past and present by Harry Rubinstein and Peter Liebhol, in which they place the current debate on sweatshops in a historical context and explore the complex factors that contribute to their existence today. Current and upcoming Past Meets Present essays compare the politics of the two presidential impeachment trials and examine the historical contexts for such hot contemporary topics as the Second Amendment, capital punishment, national drug policies, and the electoral college.


Reference Desk

Finally, a Reference Desk serves as a gateway to quality websites for information on using new media in the classroom. Prescreened, annotated links lead to valuable resources on citing digital resources, understanding copyright and fair use laws and how they apply to classroom practices, evaluating digital materials, and addressing national and state history and social studies standards.


In Conclusion

Each feature of History Matters offers valuable information and ideas for teaching history and social studies. Taken all together, this website creates an interactive community of history and social studies teachers, offering opportunities for teachers to engage in dialogue with leading scholars and share suggestions with each other about how best to use both Web and non-Web resources to teach U.S. history effectively.

History Matters is committed to improving the teaching of history and social studies in a free, non-commercial environment, as schools, teachers, and students learn to access and manipulate new media. The resources on History Matters reflect a commitment to teaching about the lives of ordinary Americans, to engaging students in the analysis and interpretation of primary documents about the past, and to making the Internet a vehicle for democratizing education. To that end, History Matters encourages social studies teachers to submit any suggestions, syllabi, lesson plans, or student projects that might benefit other teachers.

History Matters recently received a substantial grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is currently expanding its contents. This expansion will add hundreds of new website annotations and primary source documents, dozens of new online assignments, a new series of topical discussions, new interactive activities, and many other features. In addition to a myriad of new images allowing students a visual glimpse at various aspects of life throughout American history, History Matters will also add new interviews on teaching secrets and strategies, new syllabi and lesson plans, and a new puzzle every other month.



1. C. Frederick Risinger, “Separating Wheat from Chaff: Why Dirty Pictures Are Not the Real Dilemma in Using the Internet to Teach Social Studies,” Social Education 62 (March 1998): 148-150.

2. Roy Rosenzweig and Randy Bass, “Rewiring the History and Social Studies Classroom: Needs, Frameworks, Dangers, and Proposals,” forthcoming in Journal of Education (2001) and in Vernon Burton, ed., Computing in the Humanities and Social Sciences; Randy Bass, Teresa Errickson, Bret Eynon, and Mark Sample, eds., “Intentional Media: The Crossroads Conversations on Learning and Technology in the American Culture and History Classroom,” Works and Days 31/32 16 (Spring/Fall 1998).

3. Randall Bass, “Engines of Inquiry: Teaching, Technology, and Learner-Centered Approaches to Culture and History,” American Studies Crossroads Project, Engines of Inquiry: A Practical Guide for Using Technology in Teaching American Culture (1997).

4. Carl R. Schulkin, “High Voltage Teaching: Using New Media to Electrify Students and Classrooms,” Works and Days 31/32 16 (Spring/Fall 1998): 231-245 [chnm.gmu.edu/us/digital.taf]

5. “The Whole World Was Watching” [www.stg.brown.edu/projects/1968/] (November 27, 2000).

6. Roy Rosenzweig, “The Road to Xanadu: The Present and Future of Digital History,” forthcoming in Journal of American History.

7. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).


Kelly Schrum and Roy Rosenzweig teach at the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.


 Themes in US History

African Americans

American Indians

Business & Business people

Cities & Suburbs

Consumer Culture


Environment & Conservation

Ideas & Ideologies

Immigration & Ethnicity

International Policy

Labor & Labor Movements

Legal History

Military History

Politics & Political Parties

Popular Culture, Leisure, Arts

Radicalism & Reform


Rural Life & Movements

Science, Medicine & Technology


Southern States

Western States