Want to hear the story about the most embarrassing moment of my life?  My students sure did.  I tell that story, much to the delight of my fifth graders, to teach a way to approach plot in narrative writing. Stories are powerful instructional tools, and as humans, our brains are wired to respond to them. Storytelling, which can teach us about ourselves, about possibilities, and about culture, is such a powerful learning tool that it is even being used to teach robots.

Though cultural literacy is tricky to teach to middle schoolers, cyber resources—perfect for summer—are now available to help; and nothing tells the story of our culture better than the Smithsonian Institution.

I cannot bring all of my students to the museums in D.C., but now, through technology, I can bring the Smithsonian to them through the Smithsonian Learning Lab. The Lab offers more than a million digital images, recordings and texts from across the Smithsonian along with interactive tools to collect, customize and augment them.

It can also help tie student summer reading (or reading any time of the year!) to the real world in four unique ways:

A sleeping car porter employed by the Pullman Company at Union Station in Chicago, Illinois. Copyright: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.

1. The Story Behind the Story

As an English Language Arts teacher, I love it when I find a new resource that connects storytelling to learning, and the Learning Lab does just that. After my class read the historical fiction novel, Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis, I created and shared with my students a Learning Lab collection of artifacts with ties to the history behind the story: an image of a Hooverville, a Pullman Porter hat, a baseball used in the 1937 All-Star game, a clip of Jazz music, and a picture of a soup line, among others.

They were excited to discover objects they “knew” from references in the book. The Learning Lab fostered an almost personal connection between my students and the author as they researched the history behind the artifacts and then analyzed how the author wove that history into his fictional tale.

As Collin viewed an image of the Pullman Porter cap, he noted that it was not red like it was described in the book.  This spurred a class discussion on not only the details of the cap, but the difference between a Red Cap and a Pullman Porter. However, my students’ greatest excitement was when they learned that “their” objects were not just images, but that they physically existed in the Smithsonian museums.

(Next page: 3 more ways to tie cyber reading resources to the real-world)