Digital History Education

StoryMaps Live

Earlier in April, I was featured on the StoryMaps Live! broadcast where Allen Carroll (no relation) shared the latest updates to the platform. I was asked to share my experience in using StoryMaps both as a platform for digitally curating A Right to the City for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum and to deliver content in my own classroom as St. John’s and the rest of the nation have transitioned to Virtual Learning.

StoryMaps Live! April 2020

A Right to the City Digital Exhibit

Built using ArcGIS StoryMaps for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

I am excited to share that my internship work creating a digital exhibit using ArcGIS StoryMaps for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum is finally live! Check out A Right to the City and learn about ordinary Washingtonians who shaped and reshaped their city in extraordinary ways.

Internship Post #6

The course in Digital Public History has been particularly helpful in developing the educational plan for A Right to the City and the accompanying digital exhibit.  Early in the course, Dr. Whisnant encouraged each of us to consider our target audience before beginning any project.  Initially, the target audience for lesson plan development was students in the DC area.  After reviewing DCPS curriculum standards, teachers and students in 12th grade government classes emerged as the clear front runner for the target audience.  Some museum staff pushed for including charter schools in the mix as well, but eventually the interim museum director agreed that keeping the primary audience in sharp focus was best.  By homing in on DCPS Government classes, the education plan had the best chance for leveraging access to larger number of students with one targeted plan.  While working with charter schools is also a noble goal, the diversity of their curricular goals and learner ages would make it difficult to deliver a useful universal lesson plan for these schools.  The partnership with DCPS would also provide a clearer path toward publishing the educational materials through DCPS curriculum guides once the project is complete. This was also another focus of the course in Digital Public History – making sure to have a plan in place for promoting the project once it is produced.

The second takeaway from the DPH course was the importance of story-boarding a project in advance of building it.  I have had more challenges with this aspect of project development because the digital exhibit I am creating was not initially designed with a digital presence in mind.  Furthermore, Storymaps has some unique constraints in terms of layout, especially in the BETA version, making the transformation complicated in some ways.  The museum staff seems to be pleased with Storymaps as a platform, and they have mentioned using it as the digital platform for future exhibits.  As such, my recommendation to them would be to take these considerations into mind when writing introduction texts and saving images in a Storymap friendly format from the beginning.

Finally, I have found that ESRI/ArcGIS seems to be much more of an industry standard when it comes to mapping.  I appreciate that platforms like CartoDB were open source at the time, but it would have been helpful to have more exposure to how mapping and layers and intellectual property standards in ESRI work.  Working with the Storymaps platform has been fairly intuitive, however, and I would recommend it as one of the digital platforms that is taught in the Digital Public Humanities program.  I can see it having real usefulness in early projects and as a powerful tool for teachers and students in the Education courses.

Internship Blog Post 1

The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum is committed to preserving the community history of the area that has become the federal district of Washington D.C.  The museum seeks to strengthen the DC metropolitan area by promoting a greater level of mutual understanding within this diverse community.

The museum values grass roots ideals in claiming the legacy of being “a museum of, for and by the people.” It seeks to empower the community to tell its own stories that “showcase the diversity of issues, people and places” that make up the Anacostia area.  The museum also values a high degree of civic engagement that promotes both a spirit of discovery and a legacy of service to the community.

The museum is forward thinking in using its assets and outreach potential to bring together both community stakeholders and outside collaborators in order to take an active role promoting critical thought about the issues that influence both the Anacostia area and society.

One of the ways that the museum is seeking to fulfill its mission is through a new exhibit called A Right to the City.  The exhibit explores six DC neighborhoods and the ways in which they have grown and changed since the 1950s.  My role in the organization is to develop a series of six lesson plans for middle and high school students around the themes presented in the exhibit such as urban renewal, community activism, desegregation/re-segregation and public transportation.

My role is to design a series of six lesson plans to complement the exhibit.  I am working with the museum to focus the primary audiences for these lessons and to determine if these lessons will be geared to non-visitors or as part of a pre/post-visit activity.  I am also working with the museum to determine the online accessibility of some of these items.

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with “material culture” in a museum, albeit in a digital format.  My goal in beginning the program in Digital Humanities at George Mason University is to position myself to have a greater number of opportunities to do this type of work in a museum or educational setting.  I am looking forward to learning more about how to execute this type of work through a professional internship.

The Sixth Piece of the Puzzle

The concept for my project is a website called Uncovering History that will eventually serve as a repository for digital lessons I create to engage students in learning to think historically and to make that thinking visible.  The landing page for Uncovering History will briefly explain the concepts of historical thinking and coverage vs. uncoverage as expressed in the writings of Calder, Levesque and Wineberg for teachers who are interested in digging more deeply for their middle and high school students.  The inspiration for the site will be the question “How do the raw materials of the past reveal an understanding of history?”  While the larger site will be a work in progress, the primary focus of this project will be developing a series of lessons over three to four days that help students to grapple with this question.

My source material includes items in the collection of the British Museum found in the Vale of York Viking hoard.  I have used these items under the museum’s CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and created an archive called Uncovering A Discovery.  Students will use the archive to work with the digital resources in order to make sense of individual items and to begin to categorize them into groups that will help them to construct a larger historical narrative about how the items might have come together under the influence of trade networks and geographical connections.  Students will also employ Maker technology and good old fashioned Model Magic to recreate the hoard in order to explore how material culture differs from digital culture in exploring history.

The main issue I continue to grapple with is making the lesson streamlined enough so that it doesn’t take too many class days in an already jam-packed year.  Having scaffolded discussion questions and guided lessons will help in this regard.  I also plan to use the concept of adaptations and extensions so that teachers with more or less time can use the lesson as inspiration for their own needs.

Eventually, I will build out other lessons that help students visualize historical thinking skills with raw materials from other historical eras such as the Roman world and Islamic civilizations.

Teaching in the Historical Abundance of the Digital Age

Teaching history in the digital age is a great privilege and a great responsibility.  The resources that I can access and share with my students are almost limitless.  Curious about how the Vikings traded across the river systems of Europe and Asia?  Let’s explore the Vale of York Hoard digitally.  I can even pull up examples of other hoards with a few clicks of the keyboard, and students can compare the similarities and differences between the finds.  Curious about how the idea of blue and white porcelain diffused from Europe to Asia as a result of Mongol invasions and those same river networks?  I can pull up a BBC Radio podcast produced in association with the British Museum and give students access to a 3D model of a similar artifact made possible through the Smithsonian. Having access to these resources gives me the opportunity to help students learn to think historically by engaging with what the raw materials of the past help us to understand about possible narratives that explain their existence.

But, sometimes all this access has its pitfalls.  As students in my class produce their own documentary films, they seek out images and other content that help them to tell their stories. In doing so they often struggle with wading through all of that abundance to find images that actually fit.  Need a picture of a man on a boat?  A Creative Commons search yields hundreds of images.  Choose the first one that looks good and call it a day, never mind the fact that the difference between a Sunday yachting excursion is far different than an immigrant’s journey to the United States.  Need information about the Hippie Movement?  Click on the first blog post that pops up in a Google search despite ads for the latest fashion trends.  But, even in these slips, these mistakes, my students are learning about what it means to think historically because they are actually practicing the skill rather than just learning about an event or memorizing information for a test.  Even though they often fail, they are learning from their mistakes and have an abundance of resources from which to make better choices a second or a third time.

And, digital technology also provides new ways for students to do the work of history in how they manipulate information.  Digital mapping, storytelling and even the Maker Movement have applications for students to create their own content and express their historical understanding in ways that would have been impossible less than a decade ago.  For students who struggle with traditional forms of expression such as writing an essay or taking a test, these digital tools help bring a a higher level of engagement to a wider population of students.

As daunting as navigating this new age of digital information may be, I am hopeful that the opportunities digital resources provide may be the “iron that sharpens iron” in the toolkit of leaning how to navigate this age responsibly.


Taking Control of the Toolbox

In the first quarter of the 16th century, a revolution in social media was taking place.  Martin Luther and other agents of Church reform leveraged the power that the printed word, easily digestible by the populous in pamphlet sized doses written in the vernacular, could have on galvanizing support for their cause.  Though the story is slightly more complex than that, the fact remains that the technological revolution of the printing press had a significant impact in bringing about the Protestant Reformation.  And, as the Renaissance and Reformation gave way to the Enlightenment, the printing press played an increasingly important role in the exchange of ideas ranging from physics to politics, ideas which gave way to the beginning of what we now call the Modern World. Mixed in with the ideas of Newton and Locke, other theories that we might call daft today certainly circulated in the mix.

The similarities between this earlier age and the Information Age in which we currently find ourselves are clear.  The differences are defined by the pace and scale and pervasiveness of the information and myriad outlets for it in today’s media driven world. But, one key difference is the way in which the problem Wineberg identifies may also contain the seed of its own solution.

In the earlier age, it would be very difficult to fully vet a popular source.  Information ran easily along trade networks, but wide ranging individual mobility was far more difficult and time-consuming.  In today’s digital age, information often runs along algorithmic networks and daft theories abound, but our ability to step outside those networks and to vet daft theories has probably never been greater.  The key difference is that in order to do so, consumers of information, students and adults alike, must be aware of the tools they are using and how to place themselves in control of the tool instead of letting the tool control them.

I applaud Wineberg’s two-handed approach to vetting information through and  Understanding how to easily learn who owns the website is probably a much easier “verification” for my students than going through my “long” list of five CRAAP Test questions. I am still a bit unsure about how Wineberg used the site to discover the “digital pack” that links to the website he was trying to vet.  But, I understand his point that sticking to one or two disciplinary habits may be more effective than teaching a more complex set of tools that nobody remembers.

The key here is to have the conversation – with students and with adults (myself included) who have already come of age without the benefit of the exchanges that are beginning to happen around this topic within the educational world. Perhaps in addition to ongoing dialogues in education, outlets of public history might create some PSAs to promote awareness of historical thinking skills as they relate to vetting digital sources. As Wineberg makes abundantly clear, our democracy hangs in the balance.

The Fifth Piece of the Puzzle: Books

As expansive as the collections housed at the British Musuem, both online and in house, finding much information about the Vale of York Hoard on the British Musuem website wasn’t as fruitful as I thought that it might be.  It has LOTS of metadata for each of the 54 photographed items from the hoard and the 634 items yet to be photographed.  However, a larger body of content explaining how the hoard was found and processed or what history can be uncovered in examining each object is largely missing from the museum website.

Previously, I have relied on Neil MacGregor’s BBC Radio 4 broadcast about the hoard when I shared its story with my class, but that gives away too much of the narrative that I want students to try to create on their own.  However, I had a EUREKA moment when I remembered that I might have purchased a small book about the hoard from the Musuem’s gift shop on a trip to London three years ago.  I went digging on the shelves above my desk, I found it – The Vale of York Hoard by Gareth Williams and Barry Ager.

The book has been very helpful in fleshing out some of the specifics about what is known about each object, and I will use this information to scaffold some activities or learning opportunities in the lesson to make that historical thinking visible.  But, the most helpful part of the book is the conclusion at the end.  In three fairly succinct paragraphs, the book answers my guiding question:  “What sense can we make of the raw materials of the past?”  It reminded me of the importance of “backward design” in Wiggins’ and McTighe’s Understanding by Design framework.  In thinking about these very specific conclusions, I am hoping that I can design a lesson that will lead students to find their own meaningful conclusions without getting too lost in the weeds.

I also liked that the book spoke a bit more to the procedures employed by archaeologists, curators and historians as they actually collected the hoard.  I may include a short bit on the “forensics” of collecting artifacts in ways that doesn’t destroy the evidence of the past left by these raw materials.

Making Historical Thinking Visible with Images and Film

Digital images, film and storytelling, individually and collectively, factor greatly into the work I do in my history classroom each and every day.  Students spend a year producing documentary films combining original oral history research with images they find in family collections and in additional image research through the Library of Congress, National Archives and online subscription services.  This has been an ongoing project for the past six years, and each year I find new ways to improve upon the process through new experiences.

The readings over the past two modules have been helpful in rethinking some of my teaching approaches involving images.  In the same way that students may struggle with sequencing historical events, what I like to call historical literacy, they also struggle with visual literacy when working with historical images.  A student may find an image of a man working on a farm to coincide with a point in the narrative when discussing reasons why her family left Italy for America in the early 1900s.  However, if she selects an image of a family working on a farm in the American Dust Bowl, the image will silently disrupt the story she is trying to tell just as if she had cited factual inaccuracies in her narrative.

This is an example of a place where I can guide students and make historical thinking visible by giving them opportunities for practice.  In the same way that Sam Wineburg created “multiple choice” options in helping students discriminate among possible interpretations of a textual source, my idea is to take a similar approach with images.

My idea is to design an activity where students source images for 40 seconds of sample narrative from a series of curated choices.   Students would work in pairs to select approximately eight images (meant to coincide with the narrative) from 8 different visual multiple choice options.  For example, I would highlight the text “man on a farm” from the narrative and provide for different images of a man on a farm.  Students would select the “right” image from among several possible choices and write a written justification for their choice.  After compiling their eight “best” images, students would edit the sample images with the narrative in iMovie.  We could compare which films worked and which did not.  This would also give them some practice in editing and using the Ken Burns effect to highlight certain elements of the photo for narrative purposes.

Another way I have been thinking about using film in the classroom is through research into a World War I veteran around whom I am designing some curriculum for the National Cemetery Association.  He worked as a B movie actor and extra in films in the late 1930s.  One of those films, Verbena trágica, debuted in 1939, the same year as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Young Mr. Lincoln.  Each of these films is a part of the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress. According to the Library of Congress, 25 films are selected each year that are “‘culturally, historically or aesthetically’” significant and “reflect the full breadth and diversity of America’s film heritage.”  Of that list, I doubt that anyone would have recalled Verbena trágica as an important film of 1939, and few would know of its existence if not for the Registry.

Verbena trágica was inducted into the Registry the same year Robert Toplin wrote “The Historian and Film: Challenges Ahead” in which he mentioned John Ford’s lack of historical consultation in making Young Mr. Lincoln.  Apparently, movie executives would have also benefitted from a linguistic consultation in making Verbena Tragica and many other Spanish language films of the era.  Movie studios assembled casts of native speakers from across globe.  Moviegoers heard Cuban, Castilian, and Columbian accents from a family living together in New York just as clearly as an English speaker would find it odd to hear Australian, British and Jamaican accents in a period piece about the battle of the Alamo.   While the words themselves were not “lost in translation” in these films, the authenticity of the experience for the audience clearly was.

My point here is one of agreement in our readings this week – that film is an incredibly rich medium but one that is equally complex because it is so multi-sensory.  In addition to making academic arguments, film also speaks to us visually, audibly and in many ways, emotionally.  Films about the historical past must be viewed not only in light of their historical accuracy (JFK comes to mind) but also in light of how they fit into an ongoing understanding of the past that often changes over time.

My World War I veteran also played the role of the Spanish Ambassador in another 1939 film called The Monroe Doctrine. It would be improper to view the film simply as a historical dramatization of the principles of the Monroe Doctrine as it was created in 1823 without understanding American fears of German encroachment into South America in 1939 as evidenced by President Roosevelt’s address to the Pan-American Conference on April 14 of the same year.

I am still wrestling with how to incorporate these rich resources into the lesson I am developing, but I am certain that making historical thinking visible will be an important part of the plan.


Toplin, Robert B. “The Historian and Film: Challenges Ahead.” American Historical Association. April 1996.

Wineburg, Sam. “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.” The Phi Delta Kappan 80, no. 7. March 1999. p. 488-499.

The Third Piece of the Puzzle

I am working to design a lesson that I will use in my own classroom this year to teach students about the role of the Vikings as raiders and traders across Europe and Asia.  I enjoy working with the “stuff” of history and have tried to implement more and more opportunities in my classroom where students learn by being hands on in order to grapple with historical thinking skills.

Teaching the skill of object analysis is a key feature in my classroom.  I find that students are more successful in grappling with visual evidence in primary sources than slogging though archaic texts.  And, since I teach World History, objects are often in far greater abundance than written texts.

While I am designing my main lesson around the Vale of York Hoard, I did set up the Omeka site in a way that will invite more than one exhibit.  The larger site is called Uncovering History, but the idea is that I will have different directories that could house different collections for specific lessons. Students do some work with Roman coins around the time of Caesar, and I can see how I could use this digital space to build a small collection that would make the current iteration of my lesson more streamlined. I can also see how I might eventually add other collections as well.

The other advantage of building an online collection is that it would be more easily shared with other teachers. Instead of poking around in a PDF of a lesson plan, teachers would have access to the lesson resources directly.

While my main audience remains my own classroom use, I am open to the ways in which digital media and publication might be shared with a larger audience.