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Using Digital Archives To Rewrite History (Lessons) For Middle School Students

Research has extensively examined the role of primary sources in history education. One influential piece of research was conducted by Keith Barton in 2005. Barton’s study highlights several key benefits of using primary sources, like historical newspapers, in teaching history, including the promotion of critical thinking, the enhancement of understanding of historical concepts, fostering of information literacy skills, and the development of “Historical Empathy,”

Historical empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate what life was like for people who lived in a different era. It involves understanding the historical context, culture, and perspectives that shaped people’s actions and beliefs. By working with primary sources, students can gain insights into the experiences and viewpoints of people from the past, fostering a deeper understanding and empathy for those individuals.

The concept of “historical empathy” was also supported in the collaborative paper published by Robert Bain and Jeffrey Mirel that emphasized the value of primary sources to make history more tangible and relatable for students. The research suggests that using primary resources provides a direct link to the past, unfiltered by the interpretations of textbook authors or teachers. They offer students a chance to engage directly with the people and events of the past and to construct their own understandings of historical events. 

This “listening to the voices of the past” aspect is particularly powerful. Primary sources, including letters, diaries, speeches, photographs, and newspaper articles, can offer students personal perspectives on historical events that can be more engaging and evocative than a simple factual account. For instance, reading a letter written by a soldier during World War II can give students a vivid sense of what it was like to experience the war first-hand, making history feel more real and personal.

The emotional engagement fostered by this approach can also enhance learning outcomes. When students feel a personal connection to what they’re learning, they’re likely to be more motivated and engaged, which can lead to deeper understanding and better retention of information. Additionally, by interpreting primary sources themselves, students can develop valuable skills like critical thinking, source evaluation, and argumentation.

A more recent study conducted by Callison and Lamb in 2020 explored the use of digitized primary sources, similar to the Community History Archives. Callison and Lamb’s paper provided fresh insights into the effectiveness of digital archives in middle school classrooms, underscoring their potential to stimulate active learning. They explored the students’ experiences across several classes where digital archives, functioning as primary sources, were incorporated into various assignments. These digital archives, equipped with digitized versions of historical newspapers, letters, photographs, and maps, provided the students an immersive historical experience.

The study revealed that students interacting with these digitized primary sources demonstrated a marked enhancement in their historical knowledge. This can be attributed to the hands-on nature of digital archives, as they allow students to actively interact with historical materials, thus promoting a deeper and more personal connection with the subject matter. The study highlighted an important side-effect: a noticeable improvement in students’ digital literacy skills, reflecting the critical importance of such skills in our increasingly digital world.

Bain and Mirel’s research, while conducted prior to the Callison and Lamb study, advocated for an inquiry-based approach to teaching history, resonating with Callison and Lamb’s emphasis on active learning. Both research works underline the central role of primary sources in stimulating active learning and deepening historical understanding. However, Callison and Lamb’s research adds another layer by highlighting the role of digital literacy in history education and the unique value of digital archives. Their findings also lend support to Bain and Mirel’s assertion of primary sources’ importance by confirming these results in a more contemporary, digital context.

In essence, Callison and Lamb’s research reinforces and expands upon the foundation laid by Bain and Mirel. It not only reaffirms the value of primary sources in history education but also highlights the additional benefits and opportunities afforded by their digitized counterparts. Together, these studies offer a comprehensive perspective on utilizing primary sources, both traditional and digital, in promoting active learning and a deeper understanding of history.

They found that digital archives can be highly effective in promoting active learning – an approach where students actively participate in the learning process rather than just passively receiving information. Middle school students using these resources demonstrated enhanced historical knowledge, greater engagement with the content, and improved digital literacy skills. In their study, Callison and Lamb observed middle school students in multiple classes who were instructed to use a digital archive of primary sources for various assignments. These resources included digitized versions of historical newspapers, letters, photographs, and maps. The students reported that their ability to “touch” history through the digitized primary sources made the past more tangible and immediate, fostering a deeper connection with historical content. This shows that digitized archives, like the Community History Archives, can be a powerful tool in middle school classrooms to enhance history education and promote active learning.

Primary sources require students to engage in high-level cognitive tasks. They must analyze the source, interpret its meaning, evaluate its reliability, and reconcile different perspectives or conflicting information. This process helps to develop critical thinking skills, which are essential for success in the 21st-century workforce. Working with primary sources can enhance students’ understanding of key historical concepts, such as continuity and change, cause and effect, and significance. Students can witness these concepts in action within the primary sources, which can deepen their understanding and make them more relatable.

Promoting information literacy is also critical in today’s educational landscape. This involves the ability to locate, evaluate, and use information effectively. In the digital age, these skills are increasingly important. By working with digitized historical newspapers, students practice these skills as they search for information, assess the reliability of sources, and use the information to construct an understanding of the past.

Middle school is a pivotal time in a student’s education, marking the transition from primary to secondary schooling. It is a time of growth and discovery where students begin grappling with complex concepts and are ready to delve deeper into their study subjects. 

Integrating digitized historical newspapers into the middle school curriculum can prove transformative for the student’s understanding of history and the development of critical thinking skills. Students can explore firsthand accounts of history, understand the shifting nature of societal norms, recognize the presence of bias, and grasp the evolution of language and journalistic styles over time. When integrated creatively, digitized historical newspapers can provide a rich, multi-dimensional view of history. They capture the societal norms, attitudes, cultural context, and even biases of their era, giving students a front-row seat to the unfolding of history. By providing a window into the past, they enable students to become historians, sifting through primary sources to analyze, interpret, and construct an understanding of the past.

Moreover, historical newspapers contain a wide variety of content – news stories, editorials, letters to the editor, advertisements, cartoons, etc. This variety allows educators to design activities that cater to different learning styles and interests, making the learning experience more engaging and inclusive.

 Here are a few novel lesson plan ideas that allow students to engage with these invaluable resources in unique and meaningful ways:

  • Perspectives and Propaganda: World War II was a time of significant propaganda use, and newspapers were not immune to this. Assign students to research newspapers from this era, focusing on identifying propaganda elements within articles, advertisements, and political cartoons. These could include emotional appeals, the use of stereotypes, or demonizing the enemy. Once they have identified these elements, encourage them to reflect on the intentions behind the propaganda, discussing how media can be used to influence public opinion and why it is vital to read critically. This exercise not only enhances their understanding of World War II but also develops critical media literacy skills.
  • Scavenger Hunting Through History: To familiarize students with the structure and content of newspapers and enhance their research skills, organize a newspaper scavenger hunt. Give them a list of items to find within a set time – an editorial, a piece about a historical event, an advertisement for a product that no longer exists, a political cartoon expressing a particular viewpoint, etc. This activity could be a race against the clock, adding an element of competition that makes the learning process more engaging.
  • Past Imperfect: This lesson plan idea encourages students to understand the evolving nature of societal issues and norms. Select a recurring issue (such as immigration, climate change, civil rights, etc.), and have students find articles discussing this issue from different time periods. Facilitate a discussion about how the reporting has changed over time, what biases can be observed in different periods, and what societal or political factors might have caused those shifts.
  • Tale of Two Newspapers: Another interactive learning activity is to have students compare the reporting of a major national event between their local newspaper and a major national newspaper. This task will require students to delve into the archives of both their local paper (found in the Community History Archives) and a national one. Students could choose a significant event that captured national attention—such as a presidential election, a landmark Supreme Court decision, or a major cultural event like Woodstock or the release of a popular movie.  Encourage students to analyze these newspaper articles critically: How is the event framed differently in the local vs. the national paper? What aspects of the event does each paper emphasize? What sources do the articles quote? Do the papers have different takes on the event’s significance or impact? What can these differences tell us about the influence of geographical location, audience, and local context on news reporting? These questions can spur discussions about media literacy, regional diversity, and the importance of considering multiple perspectives when studying history. Furthermore, this activity will expose students to a range of writing styles and tones used in journalism, enhancing their understanding of language and communication.
  • What Did They Say?:  To help students understand the evolution of language and journalistic styles, have them choose an article from an older newspaper and a recent article on a similar topic. They will compare the language used, the style of writing, the use of rhetoric, etc. Discuss how these changes reflect the societal and cultural shifts over time and how language can be a tool for conveying certain perspectives or biases.
  • Local History Detective: One creative and engaging way to immerse students in historical newspaper archives is to assign them the role of “history detectives.” This will involve diving into the Community History Archives and finding relevant articles, advertisements, and even old yearbooks and phone directories. Pick a “mystery” that leads to an event in your existing lesson planning. Maybe you are teaching a WWII unit a “mystery” could start with “Why did they build that statue in the local park of a man in a military uniform” or maybe why the community has a Victory Garden. Students could explore questions such as: How was this person or place connected to an event in history, and how was it covered in the local press? Were local citizens affected or involved in that event, and if so, how? How does the local newspaper coverage compare with what we know about this event’s national or global impact? This investigative activity not only helps students develop their research and critical thinking skills but also allows them to connect more personally with local history and historical events. It can make history feel more relevant and tangible to students, fostering a deeper engagement with the subject.

Incorporating these activities into the middle school curriculum encourages students to view historical newspapers as dynamic documents that provide a window into the past. It promotes an active learning environment where students are historians, journalists, and detectives, unearthing the layers of our past and gaining essential skills for their future. 

This active engagement is a fundamental shift from the traditional model of history instruction, where students often play a passive role, simply receiving information that has been packaged and interpreted for them. Instead, they become active constructors of knowledge. They are empowered to engage directly with the past, grapple with its complexities, and draw their own conclusions based on their analysis.

One of the most significant benefits of incorporating primary sources is the way they enable students to ‘do’ history rather than just learn about it. In contrast to textbooks, which generally present an established narrative, primary sources allow students to witness history in its raw, unfiltered state. They are the original documents, artifacts, and records created during the time under study – the very same materials that historians themselves use to construct historical narratives.

Students also develop critical thinking and information literacy skills by analyzing primary sources. They learn to discern bias, question sources, compare differing accounts, and distinguish between fact and opinion. These are not only crucial skills for studying history but also essential competencies for navigating the information-rich world of the 21st century.’’

The 7th part of the series looks at how digital archives can be used to transform history lessons for high school students. Drawing on various studies, the article makes the case that primary sources play a crucial role in history education by fostering “historical empathy”, critical thinking, argumentative writing skills, and digital literacy among students. The upcoming article will take an in-depth look into the applications of digital primary sources in high school history classes. Drawing from research and case studies, the article will argue for the educational benefits of these resources, such as fostering historical empathy and critical thinking skills and ideas on how these resources can be integrated into the curriculum, turning history education into an interactive exploration of human experiences. Stay tuned for more on how these tools can revolutionize history teaching and learning, preparing students for a future where digital literacy will be indispensable.


  • Barton, K. C. (2005). Primary sources in history: Breaking through the myths. The Phi Delta Kappan, 86(10), 745-753.
  • Callison, D., & Lamb, A. (2020). Key Words, Concepts and Methods for Information Age Instruction: Methods for Teaching Information Inquiry. LMC, 38(5), 18-26.
  • Bain, R., & Mirel, J. (2006). Setting up camp at the great instructional divide: Educating beginning history teachers. Journal of Teacher Education, 57(3), 212-219.
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