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Chapter Topics ~ Spring 2023

Best Practices

Information Literacy Through Entrepreneurial Thinking: Activities for Teaching Across the Disciplines

By Dr. Michelle Kowalsky and Dr. Andrea Baer

History, Now and Then: Teaching Historiography and Information Literacy to High School Students with the American History Textbook Project

By Christina Connor, Assessment and Instruction Librarian and curator of the American History Textbook Project, Ramapo College of New Jersey; Daniel Willever, Social Studies Teacher, Ramsey High School

The George T. Potter Library at Ramapo College of NJ, located in Mahwah, NJ, is home to the American History Textbook Project (AHTP), a special collection established by Ramapo students in 2009. About twenty-five books spanning the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made up the initial collection. Over the years, the collection has grown to over 300 materials, primarily consisting of high school level survey American history textbooks, and range in date from 1825-2015. This is a heavily used collection by Ramapo’s undergraduate students, mostly in history and education courses, for independent or course-related research. The collection is often used to teach historiography, which is the study of how historical narratives have evolved over time, as determined through the critical examination of secondary sources.

In October, 2022, students with the Ramsey High School history club came to Ramapo College on a field trip to use the AHTP collection. This collaboration began as a small virtual project during COVID in the spring of 2020, between Daniel Willever, a social studies teacher at Ramsey, and Christina Connor, Ramapo librarian and curator of AHTP. The intent of this collaboration was not only in an effort to expand outreach with AHTP beyond the campus community but also bring together information literacy and historiography with high school students. Despite learning the broad strokes of “history” in the classroom, the concept of historiography is a foreign one to most high school students. By using history textbooks, tertiary sources that distill historic concepts in a more manageable and less intimidating way, we hoped in this activity to show students that historiography doesn’t need to be a scary, academic concept. We saw this type of engagement as fruitful and a valuable application for students at all levels of education, because so many critical thinking skills are embedded within it.

As we considered the structure for the day, we developed both a pre and post session assessment in addition to the main activity. Prior to the session, students were asked if and how they used textbooks in classes. Most indicated that they mainly use a textbook for “Reading and Answering Specific Questions” and “Studying for Tests and Other Assignments.” At the start of the session, we provided a brief demonstration of how students could exercise critical thinking in their approach to these foundational tertiary sources. While a few students may be familiar with recent controversies surrounding history textbooks, many take for granted that the information they receive from these sources is the singular, truthful narrative of the past. Through their work with AHTP, the Ramsey High School students emerged with a more nuanced understanding of how historical narratives are written, challenged, and evolved.

For the main activity, students were divided into groups of four based on topical interests (women’s suffrage, Native Americans, Civil War/slavery, and immigration). Students were encouraged to use the textbooks not just as information sources, but as “artifacts” of a time period. Using guiding questions on a worksheet we developed, they were asked to consider not only the basic language used, but also how that language and the author’s interpretation of a historical event or issue could impact a student reading that book. Since the students work in groups, and with books from different years or regions, they are asked to take the activity further and discuss the potential impact when generations learn different interpretations. After working together in their groups, students reported their findings and reflections to the full group.

In the post assessment, 13 of 14 students who completed the exit survey said that the activity somewhat (8) or significantly (5) changed their understanding of how history is written and understood. One student reflected, “It [the activity] provided a new factor to consider while reading textbooks. Not everything I am reading is the truth and it is important for me as a member of society to acknowledge the bias within our history.” Another student wrote, “I never thought how different a textbook’s content could be based on who wrote it, where it is from, and especially when it was from. It was very interesting to see what was being taught to Americans based on what was going on at the time, and if this information they were getting was accurate. I wonder if the same thing is happening to the textbooks we are learning from today.”

For us, we feel this project provides insight into how different information sources can be used to expose high school students to a basic understanding of critical thinking and information literacy skills, as well as the disciplinary practice of historiography. Students were able to use prior knowledge and made connections to their current or former history courses. The group was thoroughly engaged for nearly two hours of work time and were observed to be consistently thinking out loud, collaborating, comparing, and utilizing historical thinking skills such as comparison and contextualization. Many students expressed an interest in working with older materials and found engaging with the physical materials interesting. Most exciting of all, most students valued the time spent working with the textbooks and many of them said they would enjoy doing so again in the future with different topics of exploration.

We hope to run this activity in the future and welcome collaborations with other institutions and high schools.

Spring 2023

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