By Lee Ann Potter
Reprinted from "Teaching With Documents: Our Documents.gov" Social
Education 66(7), (2002): pp. 390-399 © National Council for the Social
"Our founders believed that the study of history and citizenship should
be at the core of every American's education; yet today our children have
large and disturbing gaps in their knowledge of history."
—President George W. Bush, September 17, 2002
"OUR DOCUMENTS: A National Initiative on American History, Civics, and
Service" seeks to fill the gaps that President Bush referred to in his
2002 Constitution Day remarks. The project revolves around one hundred milestone
documents drawn primarily from the holdings of the National Archives—from
the thousands of public laws, Supreme Court decisions, inaugural speeches, treaties,
constitutional amendments, and other documents that have influenced the course
of U.S. history. Educators and students can participate in this initiative in
a number of ways, including integrating the documents into classroom instruction
and participating in national competitions.
Integrating the Documents into Classroom Instruction
As a starting point, educators are encouraged to visit www.ourdocuments.gov,
view the high-resolution images of the milestone documents, read the transcriptions
and brief explanations, share and discuss the documents with students, and develop
instructional activities that focus on the documents.
Although each of the one hundred documents can serve as a powerful teaching
tool, one teaching method may be more effective with a particular document than
another. The following fifteen teaching suggestions may be helpful for introducing
the milestone documents (and other primary source documents) to students.
- Focus Activity
Introduce document analysis as a regular activity at the beginning of each
class period to focus student attention on the day's topic.
For example: Place a transparency of a document on an overhead projector
for students to see as they enter the room; or meet students at the door,
hand them a document, and as soon as the bell rings, begin a discussion.
- Brainstorming Activity
Launch a brainstorming session prior to a new unit of study with a document.
This will alert students to topics that they will study.
For example: Distribute one or more documents to students. Ask them
what places, names, concepts, and issues are contained in the documents, as
well as what questions the documents prompt. Write these on a sheet of butcher
paper. Keep this list posted in the room for the duration of the unit. Check
off items as the students study them.
- Visualization Exercise
Encourage students to visualize another place or time by viewing and analyzing
For example: Post around your classroom photographs; maps, and other
visual materials created during the period that you are studying. Change these
images as the units change.
- Project Inspiration
Let documents serve as examples for student-created projects.
For example: The Original Design
of the Great Seal of the United States, milestone document #5, could be
used for this purpose. Provide students with a copy of the document, and assign
them to research the symbolism contained in the design. Next, ask them to
design a seal of their own, integrating modern-day symbols to represent the
characteristics that the nation's founders included in the Great Seal.
- Dramatic Presentation Activity
Use documents to inspire dramatic presentations by your students.
For example: Share with students a presidential speech (such as President
George Washington's First Inaugural Speech, milestone document #11), and
ask a student volunteer to deliver the speech to the class; or ask a student
to present a dramatic reading of a letter; or assign students to write a script
containing quotes from primary source documents.
- Writing Activity
Use documents to prompt a student writing activity.
For example: Share with students a letter and ask them to either respond
to it or write the "original" letter that may have prompted that
- Listening Activity
Allow sound recordings to give students the sensation of being present at
a historical event.
For example: Dim the lights in your classroom while you play a sound
clip from an event, and ask students to describe or draw the scene and/or
the emotions in the voices.
- Creating a Documentary
Use vintage film footage to encourage student-created documentaries.
For example: In place of a traditional unit assessment, assign student
groups to create ten-minute documentaries about the time period they have
just studied. Ask them to incorporate film footage, photographs, sound, and
quotes from other primary sources.
- Cross-Curricular Activity
Use documents to suggest and reinforce collaboration with a colleague in another
department on student assignments.
For example: If a physics teacher assigns students to create an invention,
share with students a patent drawing, such as Thomas Edison's Patent Drawing
for the Electric Lamp (1880), milestone document #46. Ask students to draw
a patent for their invention along with a specification sheet describing its
design and intended purpose. Or share documents with students related to the
novels (or authors) that they are reading in language arts.
- Current Events Activity (What Is Past Is Prologue)
Use documents to launch a discussion about an issue or news event.
For example: Select a document that relates to a person, event, or
place that is currently in the news. Strip the document of information revealing
the date of its creation and distribute it to students. Ask students to speculate
on when it was created.
- Drawing Connections Activity
Use documents to help students recognize cause and effect relationships.
For example: Provide students with two seemingly unrelated documents
and ask them to connect them using other documents. One possibility might
be to ask students how the Lee
Resolution, (milestone document #1) and the Homestead
Act (milestone document #31) are connected. Student answers might include,
"Three committees were set up as a result of the Lee Resolution. One
committee drafted the Declaration
of Independence (milestone document #2). Its principle author was Thomas
Jefferson. He was the president at the time of the Louisiana
Purchase (milestone document #18). The territory that became part of the
United States as a result of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty included much of
the land that became available for settlement under the Homestead Act."
- Integrating Geography Activity
Use documents to emphasize the site of significant events.
For example: Post a large map of the United States or of the world
on the classroom wall. Each time a new milestone document is discussed, place
a pin on the location where the specific document was created or where its
impact was the greatest. The Northwest
Ordinance, milestone document #8, could be used for this purpose. Ask
students to first locate the northwestern United States, and then provide
the students with a copy of the document. Ask them how their perception of
the "northwest" had changed.
- Small-Group Hypothesis Activity
Use documents to encourage creative thinking about the significance of a particular
For example: Using the Cancelled
Check for Alaska, milestone document #41, divide students into small groups.
Provide them with a copy of the document, and ask them to consider "what
if" that document never existed. Encourage them to share their scenarios
with the class.
- Self-Reflective Exercise
Use documents to prompt student understanding about how government actions
and/or events of the past affect the students' lives today.
For example: Provide students with copies of the Nineteenth Amendment
(milestone document #63) and the Voting Rights Act (milestone document #100),
and ask them to consider the documents' implications on their lives.
Incorporate documents into document- based essay questions to assess student
knowledge of a topic or event.
For example: Provide students with four documents that relate to westward
expansion, such as, the Northwest
Ordinance (milestone document #8), the Homestead
Act (milestone document #31), the Pacific
Railway Act (milestone document #32), and the Morrill
Act (milestone document #33). Ask them to use the information contained
in the documents and their knowledge of the subject to write an essay explaining
the federal government's role in the settling of the West.
- Participating in National Competitions
Further involvement in the Our Documents initiative can include participation
in national competitions—one for educators and one for students.
Teaching Our Documents: A National History Day Competition for Educators
invites teachers to develop and test a classroom lesson focusing on one or
several of the one hundred Milestone Documents in U.S. history. Lessons should
engage students in a meaningful examination of the documents within their
historical context. Complete contest rules and submission guidelines are available
online at www.ourdocuments.gov.
Awards will be announced at the annual National History Day national competition
June 15-19, 2003, at the University of Maryland at College Park.
Understanding Our Documents: A National History Day Competition for Students
invites students in grades 6-12 to create an exhibit, documentary, paper,
or performance focusing on one or more of the milestone documents and its
relationship to this year's National History Day theme, "Rights and Responsibilities
in History." Projects can be created individually, or by a group of up
to five students. Student winners will also be announced at the national contest
held at the University of Maryland at College Park, June 15-19,2003. For more
information about National History Day, visit the NHD web site at www.nationalhistoryday.org.
Lee Ann Potter is the head of Education and Volunteer Programs at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. She serves as the editor
for "Teaching with Documents," a regular department of Social Education.
You may reproduce the document shown here in any quantity.