Teaching Elementary and Secondary History Using the Internet


C. Frederick Risinger

Although the scope and sequence of the social studies curriculum throughout the United States has changed somewhat in the past decade, most students today are taking social studies courses very similar to those their parents took a generation ago. Yes, some traditional courses such as geography and economics have larger enrollments than they did ten to fifteen years ago. And while newer courses such as future studies and global studies have emerged, much of their enrollment has come from elective subjects such as sociology and psychology. The four-hundred pound gorilla in the K-12 social studies curriculum, however, remains history. About 75 or 80 percent of all students taking social studies on any given day are in a history course or an elementary grade focusing on some aspect of history. Most states have a state history course, either at fourth grade or in middle school. Most states still teach U.S. history at three grade levels—for example, the fifth, eighth, and eleventh; or, in some states, in another combination of grades. World history was once an elective in most states. Today, many states have added it to the required curriculum (in California, for example, at the sixth, seventh, and tenth grades), and, because of college admission requirements, world history and economics have become a sort of “required elective” in many other states.

Because of its pervasive influence within the social studies curriculum, and because historical resources are so compatible with the capabilities of the Internet, there are far more history websites than a person can usefully use. My “bookmark/favorite” folder labeled “History” has more than 120 separate websites that, at one time or another, I thought were interesting enough or useful enough to save.

For this column, I have examined each of the 120-plus sites, done some more searching, and come up with what I think are the most comprehensive and useful sites for classroom history teachers or for elementary teachers who are teaching historical topics. I’m certain that I’ve left out several that are as good as the ones I’ve listed or that are favorite sites of some teachers. If you have some sites to recommend, e-mail them to me (my e-mail address is at the end of the column) and perhaps we’ll do a future column on “Readers’ Favorite History Sites.” The sites listed below are in no particular order. Some focus on the middle school/high school levels, some are primarily elementary, and some contain resources or information for all grade levels.


Position Papers and Research

These first two sites are not the type I usually include in this column. The first is a position paper, Working Together to Strengthen History Teaching in Secondary Schools, by Kathleen Anderson Steeves, associate professor of history at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University. It can be found on the American Historical Association website www.theaha.org where its specific URL is www.theaha.org/pubs/Steeves.html.

Although the title focuses on the secondary level, any classroom teacher who is interested in history and history teaching will appreciate the ideas and recommendations presented by Dr. Steeves. She discusses the dichotomy between historians and history professors on the one hand and K-12 history teachers on the other, looks at schools of education and their role (both good and bad) in preparing teachers, discusses contemporary theories about teaching and learning history, and calls for more collaboration among all interested parties. The paper, which can be read in a half-hour or so, could provide an interesting stimulus for a social studies departmental meeting (certainly better than the “Turn off the lights when you leave a classroom” and “Get your grades in on time” meetings, which are all too frequent).

The second site is an ERIC Digest written by John Hoge, a former colleague here at Indiana University and now at the University of Georgia, Athens. John is an excellent researcher and has always been interested in history at the elementary level. Although this digest, Teaching History at the Elementary Level, has a specified grade level in its title, teachers at all grade levels will benefit from the knowledge gleaned and summarized by John. Although it’s a bit dated (1988), the information is still relevant for history teachers. The digest is located on the ERIC Digest website, where you can find hundreds of concise, useful research summaries and other papers on all sorts of educational topics. Go to www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed293784.html. Scroll to the bottom to get a list of all the ERIC Digests currently available on-line.


Resources for Teachers and Students

This section contains the type of website that I usually include in the column.

American Memory: Historical Collections from the National Digital Library


This is still one my very favorite sites for U.S. history teachers. Part of the Library of Congress, the site contains more than seven million digital items from more than one hundred historical collections. They include collections of documents, songs, photographs, paintings, and even short videos on myriad topics, including agriculture, recreation and sports, geography, social sciences, philosophy and religion, and, of course, history. Within the history collection, there are photographs from the Civil War; folk music from the Dustbowl and Depression Era; every Presidential Inauguration address; a collection of documents, letters, and pictures from the History of the Upper Midwest; and one category titled “Work and Leisure: Motion Pictures from 1894-1915.” These can be viewed as still pictures or in RealMedia format and can provide an excellent look at social history—how people played and socialized at the beginning of the twentieth century.


The Global History at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey


The primary purpose of the Global History Consortium is to present the “vast riches about the heritage of world civilizations to electronic explorers of all ages.” Interestingly, while presenting wonderful pages of maps, pictures, and text that most students from grades 4-5 can read on Africa, India, Asia, and Latin America, the site does not yet include Europe. Both ancient and more contemporary history is included. Some of the links include folk songs and photographs. Peculiar items are also included, such as an editorial discussion of Roseanne Barr’s comments about Bangladesh and how many Americans (mistakenly) share her attitudes. This site is especially good for teachers who want to focus on nations in the developing world.


The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History


The Gilder Lehrman Institute in New York City promises to provide students and teachers with a trusted source of selected, high-quality Internet resources that are searchable by subject and key word. The Institute’s Advisory Board includes distinguished historians such as Joyce Appleby, Ken Burns, and Kenneth Jackson. This site is a cornucopia of outstanding resources for U.S. history teachers and students. The Institute’s Comprehensive Annotated Guide to U.S. history websites (www.hfac.uh.edu/gl/links.htm) deserves a position in this column all by itself. It lists and annotates hundreds of websites arranged chronologically that have been endorsed by the Institute’s Advisory Board. It is one of the only lists of sites that I’ve seen that includes sites related to the Mississippi/Ohio mound-building societies that had highly developed civilizations long before those whom we refer to as Native Americans arrived in the Eastern Woodlands. The site emphasizes immigrants and slavery, but is comprehensive and belongs on your favorites list.


The History Buff


The History Buff used to be independent. Now it’s part of the Discovery Channe#146;s lineup of sites. That change has only increased its value to classroom teachers. The site is a historical reference to press coverage from the sixteenth century to the present and includes reprints from newspapers from long ago, some interesting audio and video clips (including the first radio election commercial and a montage of radio stories from the 1941-45 World War II era), and facts about presidents and the fifty states. The newspaper articles are not just “regular” history, but include a great deal of interesting social history such as new stories about circuses, crime, baseball, first-hand accounts of historical events, and famous hoaxes. (Did you know that in the early 1800s, a man named Lozier persuaded hundreds of people that Manhattan Island was sinking and that the northern end had to be sawed off, towed out to sea, turned around, and re-attached. Three men signed up to work the crosscut saws.)


History Resources on the Web


John Jay College of Criminal Justice supports this outstanding website. Like many others I’ve included in this column before, it is a briefly annotated listing of links to other history websites and resources. It’s divided into world regional sections and includes a separate section on ancient history. It also features a link to college and university history departments around the world. There is even a section of history websites related to Canada. I like this site because it’s comprehensive, yet selective.


The Awesome Library


The Awesome Library is an outstanding site for teachers at all levels and does a great job with elementary social studies and history. I’ve recommended the general social studies site because, in addition to a history link, it also has categories such as Anthropology, Biographies, Countries, Holidays, and Religions—all related to history instruction. The site has a definite agenda. It focuses on information related to peace education, healthy life-styles, and nonviolence. There are hundreds of lesson plans, some of them correlated with state and national standards documents.


K-12 History on the Internet Site Map


This is a site primarily for teachers. It does have links to resources that students can use or that teachers can use with students, but its main focus is to provide a place where teachers can learn about using the Internet to teach history. It encourages interactive classroom projects and activities in history. Simulations, school-to-school exchanges, multicultural calendars, and electronic publishing activities and projects are described. It also has a professional development section for teachers.


Social Studies/History Site: National Education Telecommunications Network


This is another bookmarks/favorites site. It includes other social studies categories such as Current Events, American Government, and American Indians that have relevance to history, but each and every category has dozens of links. The only drawback is that there are no or minimal annotations for the links, requiring you to go to them to see if they’re what you’re looking for. However, you won’t find a more comprehensive listing of sites anywhere.


Eyewitness: History Through the Eyes of Those Who Lived It


The title says it all. Covering historical topics from both world and U.S. history, the site includes brief overviews of historical events and then a first-hand account of the event. Secondary teachers will want the students to read these accounts. Elementary teachers can read the words of people who were there. For example, in the Ancient History section, the account of Alexander defeating Darius and the Persians features a first-hand account of Darius “unleashing his scythed-wheeled chariots.” In a wonderful diary, Sarah Raymond describes crossing the prairie in a covered wagon in 1865. The site also features a “photo of the week” (during the week I wrote this column, it was of an American Red Cross worker tending a badly injured British soldier in World War I) and several audio clips.


Clearly, there are some wonderful resources for teaching history on the Internet. And you don’t have to have a roomful of computers for your students. Nearly all the resources can be downloaded and used as handouts, read to students, or put into folders for student research and projects. Of course, just like videos and 16mm movies long ago, resources like these can be overused. But selected and used carefully in conjunction with a good course outline or syllabus, a well-chosen textbook, guest speakers, and other resources, the Internet can be an integral part of history instruction.


C. Frederick Risinger is a former NCSS president who coordinates social studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, directs a professional development program, and spends far too much time web surfing.