Sunday, July 20, 2014

Archives and Reading Comprehension

WHAT I IMAGINE                                                                                  ©Melissa Mannon

Where did she live?

When did they pose for this picture?

Who were they?


Archivists hold powerful tools to assist teachers with building literacy and helping students enjoy reading. This post discusses how our collections that peak curiosity, invite discovery, introduce unique cultures, and solidify our own sense of identity can engage students and further their work toward strong reading comprehension skills. I have been reading. I Read It, But I Don't Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers by Cris Tovani, which discusses reading comprehension strategies. I have been working with and writing about orphan photographs as a way to engage students. I want to explore the idea that visual images can serve as a gateway for reading comprehension.

Steps Toward Building Readers

I am not a reading teacher, but as a new high school information specialist I interact with reading students everyday. One of my challenges is engaging non-readers. My first steps in this direction had me introducing lower-level reading books. Soon, after getting to know my community, I realized that our collection was lacking in some of the subjects about which my kids are passionate. So, my next steps involved purchasing high-interest books. I am now on my self-assigned step three: learning about teaching strategies to encourage reading. 

Bringing in the Archivist's Mindset

Tovani's book has introduced a number of things to me that get me thinking with an archivist's mindset:

1. Show what good readers do - The Diary Project on which I embarked a few years ago was great for demonstrating how a good reader can use clues to make meaning of materials

2. Set a purpose for reading - In the archives, we always have a purpose for "reading." Whether it is seeking something interesting, solving a problem, or learning about new culture, reading archives such as diaries, letters and photographs impel us to discover cultural information.

3. Taking notes - It is very rare for me to see a researcher in the Archives without a pencil and paper to take notes. The archival medium implores us to find what we need and note it. Taking notes about a single diary entry or piece of correspondence would be a great way to introduce this skill to students.

4. Listen to the voices in your head - Tovani discusses an inner dialogue that we have with the text. She introduces strategies for students to pay attention to their thought processes, to notice when they are confused and to get themselves asking questions about what they read. As a prolific reader, I can identify with the idea of the inner dialogue. As an archivist, I know that archives can bring questions about text (or images) right up front. When reading a book, the voices may be soft. When looking at archives, "What is that?!" pounds in my brain and can even pop right out of my mouth. I provided an example of this in a Teaching Archives blog post.

Knowing, Wondering, Imagining

Part one: With orphan images, it is easy to encourage people to identify facts. My experience Teaching Archives in a classroom setting has demonstrated this. Students will jump to making assumptions, but I can reel them back to get them to focus on what they really know.

"This girl is wearing glasses" is fact. "This girl is bored" is supposition.
Part two: Teachers, librarians, and archivists can use their own curiosity to devise easy questions for students such as: Where did they live? Why did they pose for this picture? Who are they? to encourage students to look for clues and to wonder about the material they are examining. One can encourage students to look at the image itself, for dates and stamps on the image, for signs of aging and other contextual clues. The image does not stand alone. It came from somewhere, it is an image of someone and the printed image itself may have belonged to a different someone. Getting kids to think about the context of an orphan photo is easier than getting them to think about it in a secondary source. In my opinion, students can bring in their own background knowledge and relate an image to their own lives more easily than a written piece.  I can see that the girl in the picture above is probably from another time. Yet, I can identify with her expression and posture.

Part three: Students can use what they have observed to draw meaning from an imageI rarely can identify the person in an “orphan” image, but I usually learn enough about their appearance and setting that I can imagine what the person’s life was like and take guesses about the context of the image. One may encourage students to use their creativity to build context and generate interest in a subject.

What I Know, What I Wonder, What I Imagine can be a useful tool for getting students to examine their comprehension. In three easy steps, readers of an image examine it for clues to gain understanding. Next step? Seg-way them to reading archival documents in the same manner. We often thinking of reading primary sources as a more difficult task than read secondary material. We teach kids to read archives when they are teens. Why not start with orphan photos and other materials in primary grades to help build that inner reading voice? Archival understanding is not more difficult. It is just different. 

I think a visit to your local historical society is in order! Archivists, get ready!

I began working on  What I Know, What I Wonder, What I Imagine a couple of years ago as a workshop. I have since developed it into lesson plans that can be used in schools or in library/archives settings as an outreach program. Upon completion,  it will be included in my next book. Please email me directly if you would like more information.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Archives for Everything

My friends over at the American Association for State and Local History regularly tweet about unusual museums. They say that there is a museum for everything and the museumforeverything  hashtag proves that. Archivists can follow our museum colleagues lead on this one because there are  also #archivesforeverything.  Of course that makes sense because no matter the activity, records need to be kept for organizational purposes and #everythinghasahistory. Once again, we need to take a page from the promotional work of our museum colleagues. Can we make #archivesforeverything a "thing"? Let's get started with just a few archival institutions I came across this week that one may not immediately consider when thinking about homes for historical records.


I always grow very curious about the places I visit. I read the historical signs. I look for vintage photos showing the place's past. I wonder if they have an archive or library. While visiting the zoo with my family yesterday, I began wondering about Zoo documents. What's it like to be a zoo archivist? Curious? Check out this fascinating archivist's presentation -  Bronx Zoo archives.


My tweets revealed a couple of not-too-common Archives this past week:
Police archives
Social Activism archives


How about hobbies? Here are some that we practice in my home along with corresponding archives I stumbled across this week:
Gardening archives
Aviation archives
Kid stuff

What interests you and where can you find the historical records that shed light on that subject? Tweet #archivesforeverything. Publicize the prevalence of archives. Get more people thinking about the role of archives in their lives. Generate support for the profession. AND,sShare knowledge about some great collections.