Closer Readings Commentary

NCSS Boston 2014: On the Civic Mission of the Schools

On November 20 an NEH colleague and I flew into Boston’s Logan Airport to attend the 94th annual meeting of the National Council for Social Studies. NCSS is the largest association of social studies teachers and curriculum developers in the world and this year’s conference brought together 4,357 teachers and administrators, making it the third largest conference in the organization’s history.

Initial thoughts and resources on teaching the Great War

The first order of business was setting up the NEH/EDSITEment display table in the exhibit hall—retrieving boxes from our hotel and then schlepping (and it was schlepping) them to the Convention Center to build out the display you see above. Exhibited was a poster taken from the historic front page of the Tacoma Times announcing the sinking of the Lusitania. We brought two dozen rolled posters to give away at our World War I session on Saturday and wanted to make sure to whet the appetite for them and the session.

That evening after dinner, I took advantage of the free conference admission to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Thinking about my upcoming session on the Great War (more about that below), I was excited to encounter the exhibition Over There! Posters from World War I. This show of fifty wartime posters from the United States and Europe includes many that were used to encourage enlistment in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Service. Others appealed to the American citizenry to buy war bonds, conserve food, support the Red Cross and other relief agencies, and maintain a strong work ethic on the home front.

Nothing prepared me for the vivid colors and beautiful graphic design of these art works. The fact that many had not been on display for 75 years added to their aura. But once I started to consider the carnage and destruction of the war, the posters became unnerving. It would have been a thought-provoking exercise to take some of the NCSS teachers and scholars for a tour of this exhibit. I’ll bet they would have had some really interesting things to say.

As I walked back to the hotel, I began thinking about my own presentation billed as “How America’s Newspapers Covered the Debate over World War.”  I’ve been giving a version of this talk to teachers over the last year and what I’ve learned goes into each new presentation. For example, there are many educators who plead lack of time to spend on the Great War. I always try to make the case that teaching WWI is the best foundation for teaching the rest of the 20th—and now the 21st century, and one tool that makes the case for me is 100 Years/100 Legacies, which the Wall Street Journal put up for the beginning of the centenary. Many audience members were surprised that this resource was freely available.

How to teach the Great War with historic newspapers

The star attraction of my Saturday presentation was the NEH-funded free database of historic primary-source newspapers (a joint initiative of NEH and the Library of Congress) called Chronicling America. This database covers newspapers from 1836 through 1922 in 36 states as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico. It will eventually cover all the U.S. and its uniqueness comes from that local or regional slant on the news that students can get nowhere else.   

A resource of over 8 million pages can be overwhelming, so in order to show how this essential tool can be implemented for student research and discovery, I prepared a list of  all WWI-related topics currently available on the Chronicling America site: from “Battleships” and “Christmas Truce,” through “Tanks,” “Versailles Treaty,”  to the “Zimmerman Telegram.” I showed the audience how each topic begins with a historical headnote, follows with a chronology and a list of search terms and suggestion, and ends with a list of articles.

The audience was enthusiastic about using the database and appreciated that EDSITEment had developed a special access portal to this resource from EDSITEment just for them, with video tutorials, features, and new lessons—including one designed to show how varied public opinion about entering the war was throughout the United States. The lessons nicely shows off the strengths of the geographical diversity of the Chronicling America database and is available here.

Resources for civics and the long civil rights struggle

EDSITEment and NEH had even more to show teachers, however. On Friday afternoon I presented at the Civics Renewal Network session billed as “The Only Civics Website You Will Ever Need.” We, along with many representatives of the 26 organizations that make up the CRN consortium were in attendance, speaking briefly about our individual missions. There was a small room for this session but it was full and the response to the presentations was strongly enthusiastic.

Later, my colleague and I prepared for the Freedom Summer screening, speaking to the audience about NEH’s funding of the film, one of five documentaries about the long history of civil rights streaming for free on NEH’s Created Equal website, with a special EDSITEment-created section for teachers. Here’s the flyer we handed out.

The session, hosted by the Boston Public Schools and PBS Learning Media, was followed bya panel with the director Stanley Nelson, Kerry Dunne, Director of Social Studies for Boston Public Schools and Naomi Coquillon, Manager of Youth and Teacher Programs at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Nelson spoke movingly about making the film and how much it and Freedom Riders had changed him; Naomi reviewed the Student Town Hall that the Smithsonian held for students last winter. There was a very lively discussion with the audience, many of whom shared their memories of the civil rights era.


Other projects mentioned in this post

Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Over There! Posters from World War I

Wall Street Journal, 100 Years/100 Legacies