New online tool helps teachers use primary-source documents

DocsTeach gives teachers access to primary sources and history activities.
DocsTeach gives teachers access to primary sources and history activities.

The National Archives has created a new web site to help educators teach with primary-source documents. The site, called DocsTeach, not only lets teachers explore thousands of documents in a variety of media from the National Archives holdings, but it also includes online tools to help teachers combine these materials and create engaging history activities that students can access over the internet.

“ is a significant and welcome addition to our popular education programs,” said United States Archivist David S. Ferriero. “It will engage teachers and students in new ways and stir their interest in history through the use of original documents in the National Archives. It is also consistent with our goals to make as much of our holdings available to the public as easily as possible.”

DocsTeach combines access to more than 3,000 primary-source materials from the National Archives—items such as George Washington’s draft of the Constitution, the cancelled check for Alaska, Chuck Yeager’s notes on the first supersonic flight, and President Richard Nixon’s resignation letter—with the interactive capabilities of the internet in ways that teachers who have pilot-tested the site say have great potential for the classroom.

The seven tools featured on the site are designed to teach critical thinking skills as they relate to history activities, such as weighing evidence, interpreting data, focusing on details, and so on. Each tool employs interactive components such as puzzles, scales, maps, and flow charts that teachers and students can tailor to their needs.

On the site, teachers can (1) browse or search for primary-source documents and activities, (2) customize any history activity to fit the needs of their own classroom, (3) create a brand-new activity with its own web address from scratch, using one of the seven tools, and (4) save and organize activities in an account to share with students. After participating in a history activity, students can submit their work to their teacher via eMail.

Typical online educational tools are prescriptive, the National Archives says: They provide a specified set of activities on a single subject. Any interactivity is usually separated from the lesson plan, which takes the form of an article or essay. DocsTeach is revolutionary, the federal agency says, because the interactive is the lesson; teachers can create lessons from scratch, adapt lessons from others, or even let their students create the lessons; and a single suite of tools can be applied to a broad range of subjects and skill levels.

“Enabling students to immerse themselves in [primary-source] documents like these is a valuable experience,” said Michael Roessler, a professor of education at Albion College. “Teachers [are] able to custom-design [history] activities that will dovetail with the skills and content that they are emphasizing in their course.” He added that National Archives scholars and educators “have put a great deal of thought and creativity into the creation of this web site.”

The National Archives developed DocsTeach with support from Texas Instruments.

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