Beyond the Reference Desk: Archival Education Institute 2010
On Saturday, December 4, I attended the inaugural Archival Education Institute, presented by the National Archives at New York City, the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York (ART), and the Association of Teachers of Social Studies (ATSS)/United Federation of Teachers (UFT) with funding from MetLife. The Institute sought to introduce archivists and teachers who want to use primary sources in the classroom and show both how to select “teachable” documents and incorporate them into lesson plans. Archivist participants were asked to bring with them copies of documents from their collections that related to the theme of human and civil rights.
To introduce the Institute, members of the planning committee (Ryan Donaldson, Christopher Zarr, and myself) explained what an archive is and how archivists select, process, and describe records. Julie Daniels (New York State Archives) and Kristi Fragnoli (College of St. Rose) served as the Institute’s facilitators. They brought a wealth of expertise to the table, and their energy was infectious. They distributed photocopies of documents to participants, urging them to mine even the simplest documents—like the impassioned letters by students urging the Army not to cut Elvis Presley’s hair—for their educational potential. As an archivist and education professor familiar with New York State teaching standards, they also tailored the documents they distributed to match social studies standards.
Christopher Zarr, of the National Archives, described NARA’s extensive online resources for K-12 teachers and took participants on a tour of the facility.
For the University Archives’ contribution, I photocopied several articles from a student newspaper, the Washington Square College Bulletin, which discussed whether or not an African-American football player, Len Bates, would or should play in an away game against the University of Missouri in 1940. Articles written by the student staff—both news articles and editorial opinions—reflected different points of view on the issue, with some students calling for the student not to play, citing fears for his safety, and with others urging the University to boycott the game and, in the words of one headline, “Break Sports Relations With Intolerant Jim Crow Colleges.”
An article about an American Student Union meeting was included for its mention of Bayard Rustin, then a student at CUNY and a leader of that chapter of the ASU. A guest editorial by the then-President of the University, Harry Woodburn Chase, stated the administration’s opinion: the game would be played, and Bates would not travel with the team.
A cover article printed several months later described a visit by Eleanor Roosevelt to the campus to speak about racial equality. The authors of the article described Ms. Roosevelt’s wardrobe and mode of transportation, which they would have been less likely to do had she been a male speaker.
To me, these stories presented varied points of view and issues that were ripe for discussion. But would my enthusiasm for these documents, and the story I heard them tell, work in the classroom?
The teachers I spoke with did see a potentially useful narrative in the articles I’d collected. Several of them asked what other topics we might have information on, and how quickly we’d be able to provide them with additional documents. I should also have known, but was nonetheless surprised, the extent to which local and federal standards dictate what should be taught at each grade level. Even if you put together a series of documents perfectly calibrated to resonate with eighth-grade students, if these documents didn’t cover a particular period of history, they cannot be worked into the social studies curriculum for that grade.
Most exciting for me, though, was realizing that for these teachers, archival materials WERE a way to engage their students. And far from shying away from dated language or complex situations, all of the teachers I spoke with proclaimed their students ready to handle the complex vocabularies and questions present in the documents.
Interested in learning more? Did you attend and want to share your experiences? A follow-up meeting to discuss the Institute and begin planning the next one will be held this Saturday, January 29, from 10 am to 12 pm at the National Archives at New York City. If you’re in the area, RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday, January 26.
–Photographs of the Institute by Johanna O’Toole.