Published Date

June 1, 2017

Resource Type

For the Classroom


Labor, Public History, State & Local (US)


United States

The Like a Family web site had its origins both in my approach to undergraduate instruction at a major research university and in a concern to make the resources of such institutions more readily accessible to teachers and students in other academic settings.

For many years now, I have included in my survey courses research exercises that I call “digs.” The archaeological metaphor is intentional. The assignments offer students an opportunity to go into the library and the archives and to work with some of the source materials-newspapers, photographs, manuscripts, government documents, and magazines-used by historians in their efforts to understand and tell about the past. The idea is to invite students to “do” history for themselves, as opposed to simply reading or hearing about it second-hand. I want students to learn from experience the challenges of wringing answers from sometimes recalcitrant sources, the difficulties of reconciling the differences among conflicting first-hand accounts of the past, and the skills of synthesis and organization required to sift great masses of evidence into a cogent and nuanced narrative.

More recently, I have been involved in an initiative within the History Department at UNC known as the Project for Historical Education (PHE). That undertaking represents a unique partnership between the University and the public schools. Each year, PHE sponsors a series of day-long seminars for North Carolina social studies teachers. The seminars, typically led by a UNC faculty member and an experienced classroom teacher, present recent developments in historical research along with practical strategies for integrating those developments into middle school and high school lesson plans. Our goal is to foster interactive learning, and our seminars usually include a lecture, small-group workshops, and plenary discussions. We average around 35-40 participants, all of whom receive a package of primary documents, short articles, bibliographies, and maps that they may use for further study or with students in their classrooms.

The Like a Family web site was designed to combine these interests by making available excerpts from sound recordings that one could otherwise hear only by visiting UNC’s Southern Historical Collection. Even for my students, who can work easily in that repository, the benefits of such controlled access have been significant. Rather than beginning their research experience by wading through hours of tape and reams of transcripts-and, in many cases, becoming more overwhelmed than enlightened-they engage first-hand accounts in more manageable units carefully selected to coordinate with major themes in their readings and class discussions. They experience on the site the aspects of personality and character conveyed not simply by words, but by the uniqueness of a human voice; they confront people who lived in a world profoundly different than their own; and they encounter views that challenge not only their preconceptions, but the wisdom of their textbooks and their teacher as well. Perhaps most important of all, students come to realize that memory and history are as much products of the present as the past, that they represent not simply the past “as it was,” but a rendering of the past whose shape and meaning have been filtered through years of intervening experience.

The benefits of working with the Like a Family site are obvious when my students later set out for the archives to work on their digs. They feel less intimidated by primary sources; they more readily engage a variety of period materials; they are more confident in posing questions of their own; and they produce essays that seek less often to force conclusions into simple, one-dimensional packages. In short, they have become far better historians.

My hope is that other teachers, from middle school to college, will find the Like a Family web site helpful in similar ways. This fall, the site was introduced to more than 90,000 public school teachers across North Carolina through an on-line clearinghouse known as LEARN NC. LEARN is a service of the School of Education at UNC and is designed to provide teachers with ready access to instructional and professional development resources than can improve K-12 education. The Like a Family site includes lesson plans for teachers who are interested in building labor history and primary sources into their social studies and history courses, along with links to practical guides for those who would like to prepare students to work as oral history interviewers in their local communities. The site also invites teachers to share their ideas and to report their experiences-both the triumphs and the failures. I plan to incorporate that feedback into the site, so that over time it will become a truly co-authored product, shaped by many voices and many perspectives.

This capacity to create a resource that is dynamic and constantly evolving is perhaps the greatest benefit of teaching with web-based technology. Such a collection of instructional materials embodies the central lesson that I try to convey to my students–that history is less a set of answers than an ongoing conversation and quest for understanding. To my mind, it also serves as a fitting sequel to a research project and a book that were products of many hands; that set out to capture the open-ended, dialogic character of historical memory; and that, above all else, were committed to the practice of scholarship as self-renewing inquiry.