Consider the Source: The High School Historians of THATClass

Seth Denbo, December 2017

THATClass students reading microfilmed newspapers. THATClassThe allergy to microfilm research among today’s young people has been overdiagnosed—or so found Patrick Cronin and Thomas Neville. The two high school history teachers from the Washington, DC, area have been working for several years to bring project-based learning into their history classrooms and summer programs, in an effort they call The Humanities and Technology Class (THATClass). One student who participated in the first THATClass summer program described reading microfilm newspapers as “amazing”: the articles were interspersed with “car ads from 1968 [and ads for grocery stores] that are still standing.” Historians of a certain age know the value of seeing all the information on a microfilmed broadsheet at once, but to this student, “the context of it” was entirely new. Analyzing how the events were reported right alongside everything else in the newspapers brought the past to life for him.

Cronin and Neville dreamed up THATClass (which was inspired by but is not affiliated with THATCamp) while teaching at a Virginia high school that took a traditional approach to history education. Textbook-based instruction frustrated them, because, as Neville told Perspectives, they didn’t feel that it got students “interested in the past, or able to engage with it themselves.” So they started looking for ways to change students’ experience.

In creating THATClass, Cronin and Neville set ambitious pedagogical goals for teaching high school students. Cronin contributed his experience with project-based learning—which emphasizes hands-on learning and collaboration—to their strategy to get students to ask and explore open-ended questions about history. In their first experiment, Neville’s 11th-grade students at Flint Hill School used manuscript sources from the Historical Society of Washington, DC, and the National Archives to explore the life of Washington’s famous alleys during the 19th century. This class allowed the pair to hone their philosophy about student-led inquiry, archival research, obtaining expert advice, and using digital tools to explore the materials.

According to the THATClass website, the central question driving their work is “How can we as humanities educators enable hands-on, project-based learning within archives, so that learners uncover knowledge and develop skills for life?” Their answer has been to focus on encouraging students to pose their own questions of primary source materials. Over the past decade, large-scale digitization and access to archival materials via the web has led many educators to use primary sources in classrooms at all levels. Less common is the expectation that students engage in question-driven discovery themselves.

In the classroom setting, Cronin and Neville initially encountered significant roadblocks, but the rewards in surmounting them were great—“we’ll do anything to jump those barriers,” said Neville. If they couldn’t take the students to the archive, they would bring the archive to the students—by copying material and bringing it into the classroom, for example.

Students filled out pull slips, loaded a microfilm reader, deliberated over documents, and revised research questions based on their reading.

Their successes were such that they created a summer program to give high school students the direct experience of using primary sources and working in archives to answer historical questions. They launched their first program in 2015, taking a small group of students into the Washingtoniana Collection, the District of Columbia Public Library’s historical archives for the city. Photocopying materials for classroom use was unnecessary: the summer program allowed the students to start with finding aids and online catalogs. The sources they subsequently discovered helped answer the questions they posed for themselves, and frame new ones. “If you start to curate right off the bat, which is the norm, then every step thereafter needs to be curated, and the teacher needs to intervene continually,” Cronin explained.

Visiting the Washingtoniana Collection and the National Archives reading room gave students a window into professional historical practice. As Cronin put it, this was an “actual, authentic experience of the archive.” It wasn’t only a matter of learning facts and interpretations; it offered class members a chance to learn valuable skills, starting with basic research techniques. Working directly with archivists and librarians, whose contributions were vital to the success of the program, the students filled out pull slips, loaded a microfilm reader, deliberated over documents, and revised research questions based on what they read. Following a research process familiar to more advanced historians—developing questions, reading source materials, rethinking and refining those questions—instead of answering predefined questions, the students expanded their own range of educational experiences.

Digital engagement provides an additional, vital element of THATClass. Digitizing the materials they found and creating project websites to publish those sources built up the students’ digital skills and enabled them to converse fluently about archival work. When Maurice Jackson, professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, looked at the materials the students created, he was impressed by their precocious skills. As he recounted in an interview, the digital focus of THATClass encouraged the students to “know how to read history and archive and document it.” Jackson’s forthcoming book on the African American experience in Washington, DC, includes a chapter on the pivotal riots of 1968. These students “took the archives by the horn,” he said, and found things that “even the trained [historian] might not find.” Organizing and digitizing the sources they found had an impact beyond the classroom. Jackson pointed to the students’ digital mapping of the riots’ events using StoryMap, a platform that allows users to link specific sites to primary source documents and narratives. This work has helped Jackson with his own research by uncovering evidence of police shootings during the riots and pinpointing them in place and time.

But, as historians know, the questions come first. None of the students’ discovery work or the process of understanding what they found would have been possible without initially figuring out their starting questions. For students, the formulation of questions is a vital step, but it’s also a challenge. So a major aspect of Cronin and Neville’s efforts is guiding the students toward asking better questions. They often consult the work of the Right Question Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to refine their thinking about how to encourage students to develop this skill. (The institute’s website describes its “Question Formulation Technique” as a “step-by-step process designed to help students produce, improve, and strategize on how to use their questions.”)

After their 2015 foray into a summer program, Cronin and Neville followed it up the next year with “Downtime and Debauchery in Civil War Washington.” This was a formal partnership with the DC Public Library, and students spent three weeks doing research in the library’s special collections and at the National Archives. This was the first group of high school students to digitize materials from these collections, creating resources for the benefit of future researchers. “We purposefully chose topics that have not been widely covered to show that students can do research and scholarship at high level,” said Neville. In fact, the two educators argue, even middle school students can ask their own questions and develop approaches to finding primary sources that can contribute to historical knowledge. In some ways, none of this is new. As Cronin and Neville told Perspectives, the idea of “putting students in real experiential situations goes back to Dewey.”

Digitizing materials and creating project websites built up students’ skills and enabled them to converse fluently about archival work.

Their latest work, which they call the Monuments Project, moves away from the summer programs they have already run and applies what they’ve learned to classroom settings. While the pedagogical goals and the archival methods are similar, the project design is more scalable, allowing any high school classroom to participate. This shift began with a local project that Neville led while working at the American School of Paris: a partnership with the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), which maintains American military cemeteries abroad. Students, again guided by experts (in this case the superintendent of the cemetery), reconstructed the stories of individuals who served during World War I interred in two cemeteries near Paris. As a starting point, Neville created a virtual “briefcase” for students that included project tools, tutorials on technical and research approaches, and links to primary source databases. With these resources, the students were able to think about the best ways to approach their research and to develop what Neville calls “mind-set and process.”

Cronin and Neville are now beginning to work with high schools in the United States to develop a project using similar methods. By connecting them with the ABMC, the program provides the students with real questions about World War I service personnel. Videoconferencing allows students to see the cemeteries and gravestones and interact with AMBC and cemetery staff. Having the students research the lives of fallen soldiers from their local area, they hope to give students another “authentic archival experience.” They are currently seeking funds to scale up the project to work with more teachers and schools across the country.

The successes of THATClass demonstrate that high school students are capable of discovering and working with primary sources in sophisticated ways. As Cronin and Neville have shown, students have a real appetite for learning history by doing it—cantankerous microfilm readers or not.

Seth Denbo is director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at the AHA. He tweets @seth_denbo.

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