Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Using Historic Newspaper Databases in the Classroom: From Primary Sources to Research Assignments

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Using Historic Newspaper Databases in the Classroom: From Primary Sources to Research Assignments

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article has two main goals: to introduce Massachusetts history teachers to a remarkable database of historic newspapers and to provide specific ideas about how to use it as a teaching tool. The article explains the advantages of teachers using the America's Historical Newspapers database to find interesting primary sources that connect local people and places with national (and international) themes and events. It describes how teachers can use the database to create an effective research paper project, and it concludes with a lesson plan on the revolutionary era in Massachusetts.' Brad Austin teaches U.S. history and coordinates the Histoiy Secondary Education Program at Salem State College.

As an historian who is still relatively new to New England, I am constantly discovering the ways local events and people have shaped the larger narratives of U.S. history, and, as a teacher, I am committed to trying to get my students to share my sense of wonder and fascination with the past and our shared surroundings. This commitment has led me to look for ways to make my world and U.S. history classes seem personally relevant to my students while also teaching vital historical thinking skills. Fortunately, a fantastic resource for connecting individual towns in Massachusetts with larger U.S. and world history themes exists and is available to all Massachusetts teachers: the America's Historical Newspapers database, produced by Readex (www.readex.com).

In my Methods of Teaching History class, I focus my students' attention on a select few of the many web sites with excellent resources for history teachers. The National Endowment for the Humanities, for example, produces Edsitement, which offers an interdisciplinary approach to both U.S. and world history topics, and all of its resources and links are vetted by content specialists. San Diego State University's World History for Us All offers a constantly expanding collection of rich teaching resources. All of George Mason University's sites merit attention, but I devote my class time to exploring the lesson plans and "expert analysis" sections within History Matters. Similarly, my students use the National Archives' document analysis guides and related materials, the primary sources of Fordham University's Modern History Sourcebook and its siblings, and the primary sources available at the Library of Congress' American Memory site. They are excellent resources, rich in historical materials and pedagogical guides, and deserve the national audiences they have attracted.

In Massachusetts, however, their utility is matched, if not superseded, by the America's Historical Newspapers (1690-1922) database offered by Newsbank-Readex and accessible online through the Boston Public Library. This searchable database includes 142 Massachusetts newspapers from twenty Massachusetts towns and cities, and it offers remarkable opportunities to make our U.S. and world history classes more personal and interesting for Massachusetts students. It has enabled my students to understand Salem's Federal Era political disputes through contemporaneous examples from partisan newspapers, to explore how "national" and "international" events were received and portrayed locally, and to reconstruct a web of connections that they never suspected had existed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

I have successfully used these newspapers in two main ways. First, I have researched a topic and presented the selected articles to my students, either in class or as a homework reading assignment. For example, to demonstrate the ferocity of locals' feelings about the wisdom of President Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807, I gave students a brief report from a newspaper explaining that "Last night, a man by the name of James Clark, was beat down with a club in Little-George-Street, and killed, by the Jefferson and Embargo mob." It is one thing for students to read that people disagreed; it is another to be able to find on a map where someone died locally as the result of a political dispute. …

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