Monday, December 01, 2014

Literacies for the digital age: Historical literacy

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts highlighting the digital literacies our students will need to succeed. This post will provide you with some ideas on how to infuse historical literacy into the curriculum.


The Hyperhistory site from the National Centre for History Education in Australia is a wonderful site for learning about all aspects of history education, including historical literacy. They have a teacher’s guide which contains information about the nature of historical learning, historical literacy, history education and ICT, and more. Their overview of the key elements of historical literacy include:
  • Events of the past: knowing and understanding historical events
  • Narratives of the past: having time to think about how the past can be explained through a variety of perspectives
  • Research skills; gathering, analyzing, and using artifacts, documents, and graphics
  • The language of history: interpreting words in history
  • Historical concepts: understanding the cause and motivation of historical events and to understand events from the point of view of participants
  • ICT understandings: how to identify bias, authority, and reliability in online information
  • Making connections: thinking about the present and the past
  • Contention and contestability: understanding about debate and discourse in a historical perspective
  • Representative expression: understanding history through art and media of the past (and visual media literacies are important here)
  • Moral judgements in history: dealing with the moral and ethical components of historical events
  • Applied science in history: facial reconstruction, computer imaging, DNA testing, forensic science, satellite mapping, etc.
  • Historical explanation: the ability to reason historically based on a foundation of evidence


The acquisition of historical literacy skills in the digital age involves aspects of other literacies, too. Students need to use the information literacy skills for the research process which involves::
  • Identifying a list of keywords about the topic
  • Creating an essential question
  • Listing the places for gathering their information. This may include the the Web, subscription databases, or experts in the field.
  • Conducting some cursory research to make sure there will be information available for their topic.
  • If necessary, re-working their original question.
  • Utilizing critical evaluation skills in order to determine the credibility, validity, and authority of the research they find.
  • Gathering their assets and remembering to cite their sources

Understanding history through the art and media of the past includes an attention to the media literacy skills, outlined by the Media Literacy Project, which include having students:
  • Understand how media messages create meaning
  • Identify who created a particular media message
  • Recognize what the media maker wants us to believe or do
  • Name the “tools of persuasion” used
  • Recognize bias, spin, misinformation and lies
  • Discover the part of the story that’s not being told
  • Evaluate media messages based on their own experiences, beliefs and values
  • Create and distribute their own media messages
  • Become advocates for change in their media system
Viewing the art and media of the past also involves the visual literacy skills included in the definition  created by the Association of College and Research libraries as those that “equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials.”


One of the ways many of the key skills of historical literacy can be acquired is through the use of primary source documents. Since so many historical artifacts are now digitized and available online, items can be found to support many content areas and time periods. Historical literacy, to me, seems to be a component of all of the subject areas and not just a part of the social studies curriculum. There are many well-know collections of primary source documents, some of which provide materials to support teaching and learning. Here are two of my favorites!

American Memory Collection

The American Memory Collection is a project of the Library of Congress. It includes access to over 9 million items including written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience. The digitized items are from the collections of the Library of Congress as well as other cultural institutions.
Their site includes a wonderful section about primary sources which provides teachers with guides and handouts to help this process. The parts of this section include:
  • Using primary sources: an overview of how to guide students through the process
  • Why use primary sources: how to give students a real sense of what it was to be alive in an earlier time
  • Citing primary sources: style guidelines for MLA and Chicago
  • Copyright and primary sources: generation information about copyright as well as specifics regarding the collections on their site
  • Finding primary sources: links to the gathered resources such as sets of primary source materials, sources by US state, themed resources, Web guides, and more
  • Teacher’s guides and analysis tools: guides for teachers to help them teach the analyzing of primary sources, printed texts, maps, motion pictures, oral histories, photographs and prints , political cartoons, sheet music and song sheets, and sound recordings
This is the Primary Source Analysis tool for students to use.

National Archives 

The National Archives and Records Administration also includes a teaching and learning section for using the documents of the United States government in teaching and learning.
The site includes links to:
  • Featured exhibits which are collections of documents about a theme, such as the “Charters of Freedom” and the “Discovering the Civil War”
  • The Digital Vaults which include 1200 of the over 10 billion records housed there; one of my favorites is a sample letter written by a teenager beseeching the government to allow the Beatles to perform even though, in 1963, there were labor restrictions in place that made it difficult for foreign musical groups to come to the US; students can also use the items in the vaults to make a poster of movie from resources they find.
  • eBooks that support exhibits such as signatures in the collection, baseball, emancipation, and the Constitution
  • Special topics on their DocsTeach page which include YouTube content, iTunesU courses, and podcasts, images, audio, and video “pinned” to Google Maps
  • DocsTeach allows educators to create their own interactive learning activities using documents from the collection and students can complete the activity via  an iPad app  or via a Web browser on a computer,
The National Archives site for educators also includes document analysis worksheets for the following types of documents.

What are your favorite historical online items to use with students? Let us know in Twitter! #kathyschrock