Saturday, August 24, 2013

Local Archives in the Classroom: Supporting the Common Core

Local archives can play a unique role in supporting the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The Standards offer a wonderful opportunity for archivists and educators to collaborate. As I prepare to head back to school for my second year as an information specialist, I've got the Common Core on my mind. More specifically, I am thinking about how I can use my specialization as an archivist to help weave archival sources into the curriculum. The documentation of our communities has the power to expand the world known by our children. Study of the papers of local people allow students to see some of themselves in others' lives; to identify with the experiences and explore how others handled themselves. Archives provide a greater context for what students already know, allowing them to better understand the world and their place in it, as well as giving them materials for analysis.

What is the Common Core?

For my archives and library friends who may be less familiar with the initiative, here is the mission of CCSS:
The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

CCSS provides a list of specific expectations in all subjects for students in grades K-12. Last year, during my first year as a high school information specialist, I spent time with our Freshman teacher team creating a research plan that aligns with the standards. This year, I will do the same with the Sophomore team. Additionally, I plan to more deeply explore all the standards to see what information sources I can recommend for lesson plans to meet expectations.

Specific Standards Explored - History

History is the most obvious place to start. Here is a sample letter from my personal collection that talks about home life on a farm in the 1920s.

English and language arts standards in history and social studies for grades 11-12 list the following skill areas for understanding key ideas and details:
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    [How did I determine this letter was written by someone on a farm? Specific key words and the general idea of the text give clear evidence. As the teacher, I know this was written in the 1920s because I have the whole letter in my possession. The whole letter gives more insight and can be supplied after an analysis of this one page to show how we can apply close reading techniques to form some conclusions from textual evidence just from an excerpt. Adding a book about farm life can provide another angle. This letter can be used to show the lead up to the Depression, for example. A book such as Karen Hesse's "Out of the Dust" can be introduced later in in the lesson to show what may have happened to the family.]
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
    [This letter talks about a very specific time - the Fourth of July. It goes into detail about the condition of farm animals. We can imagine that late spring / early summer is a very busy time on the farm. The author is discussing the workings of the farm and even discusses monetary issues. The central idea here is farm life and all the details can be analyzed by teachers with their students.]  
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
    [I wonder whether 18 cents a pound was a good price for chicken. The text doesn't tell us. I also wonder how comfortably this farmer was living. Knowing of the struggles of many farmers around the time this letter was written, I wonder if the writer yet has an inkling of trouble on the horizon. We also know that factory work was a part of the life of someone close to this writer. She mentions that the factory is shutting down in 2 weeks. Is that a normal annual occurrence or is this a permanent shut down? Do any of these details help us better understand the Depression? Do we bring a different understanding to the letter when we realize the context of it? Is some of the information in this letter because of concerns about finances? Could be...]
(The letter, by the way, is good justification for teaching cursive in schools!)

Specific Standards Explored - English Language Arts Reading

History is not the only area where archival materials can be used to strengthen the teaching of Common Core State Standards. Anchor standards in English language arts include the following skill areas for high school students.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
    [The imagination of this young diary writer is loud and clear. The writer's use of adjectives such as "rusty" to describe a bird, and "little" to describe a mouse, and "first" to describe the cherry blossoms give us a sense of springtime. The attention to the details of nature is outstanding and in fact, this "diary" is a nature diary written for a school project. How old do you think this student is? Would an older student choose different words to describe who he sees? When the writer describes plants, he mentions simple words such as "fern," would a high school student need to be more specific than that? Getting students to think of other children as writers with something important to say and analyzing the structure of children's writing can have a profound effect on many levels.]
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.5 Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
    [The point of this diary entry is to describe a nature walk. The author discusses specific things he has seen. Is the information presented chronologically? Can we tell? While the whole of the text is about the walk, specific paragraphs and sentences focus on individual animals. One of my favorite parts of this page is that the author has chosen to include feathers found during his nature walk. This reminds me of good illustrated fiction. The Common Core wants our students to understand visual as well as textual information and the two can be analyzed at the same time. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.)]
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
    [I determined that the purpose of this diary was a class assignment by examining the whole thing. Original local items can be brought into the classroom to give students a chance to analyze primary sources up close. The writer of this diary is being taught to pay attention to nature. Would he have written this nature diary on his own without the teacher's prompt? The content was certainly shaped by the purpose here. Yet, this diary was written at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. People were more likely to explore nature then. Texts by Emerson and Thoreau come immediately to my mind and can be incorporated into a lesson. If this were not a class assignment, would the author have described his walk in a different way. Maybe we wouldn't focus as much on the animals? Maybe we would describe the weather and how he felt? We usually expect people to describe how they feel in their diaries...]

Though I am focusing on high school, archival materials can be used similarly in lower grades to align lessons with the Common Core. local archives should explore their holdings with the Standards in mind to determine what materials may help teachers.  For my colleagues charged with caring for archives, I recommend that you network with teachers. Make your holdings accessible (through the Internet or otherwise.) Invite teachers to workshops where you can introduce them to materials that might assist their work.

Cultural heritage institutions have a great opportunity to reach out during this time of educational change. Cooperation across professions is the best way to improve the future of education and to strengthen the perceived value of the cultural heritage institution. Teachers, reach out to your local historical society and libraries. And, of course, school librarians, don't be afraid to be the catalyst for this kind of interaction!

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