Nicole Krueger
Teach students to manage primary source overload

Imagine you’re a seventh grader researching the history of segregation in the United States. Your teacher wants primary sources. You visit the Library of Congress website and type in “segregation.”

Your query returns nearly 10,000 results. Narrowing your search to “segregation in the 1960s” helps a little, cutting the list by about half.

You’ve got a gold mine of raw historical data at your fingertips, but it’s a lot for a kid to process. How do you even begin to determine which documents might be relevant?

In the age of social media and fake news, teaching students the value of primary sources — often called the raw materials of history — is more important than ever. Yet finding them, understanding them and placing them in context can be difficult. Though the Library of Congress houses a vast online repository of historical materials, its sheer size can be daunting for students and teachers alike as they search for documents pertaining to their class projects.

“I even still struggle with it,” says Michelle Henne, a seventh-grade American history teacher at North Broward Preparatory School in South Florida. “We go on the Library of Congress site and put a topic in, and oh, my goodness! Students are wading through pages and pages of documents.”

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Eagle Eye Citizen, a free digital tool created with social studies teachers in mind, could be the antidote to primary source overwhelm. Developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the website aims to help middle school and high school students develop their historical thinking skills while making the raw materials of history more accessible.

The project mines Library of Congress sources to create hundreds of short challenges designed to flex students’ civic muscles as they complete activities, such as putting historical photos in chronological order, sorting documents by topic and identifying what’s happening in a partially revealed image. After completing each challenge, the site prompts students to reflect on what they’ve learned. They can also create challenges based on their own research and share them with others.

The tool addresses the ISTE Standards for Students by helping students become knowledge constructors as they curate primary sources to create challenges for others. It also meets the new standards for digital citizenship as learners practice thinking critically about online sources. Social studies teachers can use the website to exercise students’ ability to:

  • Observe
  • Question
  • Make connections
  • Place sources in context
  • Sequence events
  • Hypothesize
  • Analyze
  • Reflect

Henne, who started using Eagle Eye Citizen in her classroom last year, says her students loved it. The interactive tool, which gamifies historical analysis by awarding badges and allowing users to climb the ranks of “Congress,” makes a great daily warm-up for opening class, she adds.

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Perhaps even more importantly, it highlights similarities between current and past events, helping students connect the dots of history.

“Being in seventh grade, they’re really starting to form their own opinions, and a lot of what they bring into the classroom is what they hear in conversations at home or see on TV or on their iPad. They’re also at an age where they have a voice, and we talk a lot about what’s going on right now and how it affects them as seventh graders,” she says.

“One thing Eagle Eye Citizen does is enables them to go back to this wealth of primary sources we have and make connections. This is what was happening back then, and this is what’s happening now. What’s the same about it? What’s different? If this is happening now, where is this going to go in the next couple of years?”

Here are three ways teachers can use Eagle Eye Citizen in the classroom:

Daily warm-up. As students settle into their seats, Henne puts a challenge up on the screen do for the class to solve. Then they discuss the reflection questions. It’s an engaging way to introduce the topic of the day while nudging students to don their historical thinking caps. 

Assessment. The site’s built-in formative assessments can help educators evaluate students’ understanding of a subject. Teachers can monitor which challenges students have completed, how they did and how they answered the reflection questions.

Research projects. As students complete challenges, they become increasingly familiar with the types of primary source documents available and how they connect to larger movements and events. This can help them find and analyze sources for their own research projects. Students can also use the site’s challenge creator to construct supplementary artifacts that demonstrate their learning.

To engage students in in primary source research, teachers need to show them that digging into history isn’t just about slogging through page after page of search results. By gamifying the process, Eagle Eye Citizen demonstrates that history can be fun.

“The fact that it’s game-oriented is a challenge to them,” Henne says. “When they connect that to the fact that they’re using the Library of Congress to find research material, they’re like, ‘Wow, here I am having fun looking at these sources.’ ”

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.

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