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Tip of the Week: DocsTeach Redesign Creates Super Tool


Our job as social studies teachers is not to give our students the answers. Our job is to create great questions and then train kids to be able to address those questions. To model and facilitate the practice of reading, writing, and thinking like historians.

Rather than passively receiving information from us or our textbooks, students should be actively engaged in the activities of historians — making sense of the stories, events and ideas of the past through document analysis.

And one of the tools that every history / social studies teacher should be using to help with all of this is the incredible National Archives site DocsTeach. I first wrote about DocsTeach when it debuted six years ago in 2010. The idea of the site at the time?

the project is designed to provide useful document-based lesson plans and activities created by both NARA staff members and classroom teachers.

And it was awesome. Tons of primary sources from the National Archives. Activities that focused on and supported historical thinking skills. The ability to create your own activities, save them, and share them digitally with your students. For 2010, it truly was cutting edge.

But it debuted before mobile devices and iPads. Before national standards such as the NCSS C3 Framework and Common Core Lit standards. Before Wineburg’s Reading Like a Historian and SHEG. Before online primary evidence archives were commonplace. So even though it was an incredible idea put into practice, it was a bit clunky and not super user friendly in 2016.

But not anymore. DocsTeach just got a massive upgrade. And now there is no excuse not to use it. Because not only can you still access thousands of primary sources, borrow from an ever-expanding collection of document-based activities, and create your own online activities, there are some very sweet changes and additions to the site.

DocsTeach is now easier to use, more customizable, and provides a more complete experience for students.

New features:

  • one of the biggest changes is the ability for studets to use the full website and interactive features on tablets and mobile devices (or an updated iPad app coming in the next few weeks if you prefer)
  • organize your favorite documents in folders
  • access full document transcriptions and citations
  • easily save and print primary sources
  • include primary sources from outside the National Archives
  • search activities by grade level

So what can you and students do at DocsTeach?

Explore & Access Primary Sources

Play with thousands of letters, photographs, speeches, posters, political cartoons, maps, patents, videos, audio recordings, graphs, legislation, telegrams, court documents, amendments, draft cards, executive orders, citizenship documents, census records, and more – covering a wide variety of historical topics. Go spend  Documents.

docsteach docs

Discover Activities You Can Teach With

Borrow from an ever-expanding collection of document-based activities created by the National Archives education staff and teachers around the country. Use or modify ready-made activities. Or create your own using these online Tools:

  • Discussion Topic
    Showcase one document while posing a question, comment, or directions for students.
  • Spotlight
    Highlight a specific part of a document.
  • Zoom/Crop
    Intrigue students about a particular document and give them practice forming hypotheses.
  • Compare and Contrast
    Display two documents to prompt students to observe and point out similarities and differences.
  • White Out/Black Out
    Teach students to use visual cues and context to understand a document.
  • Finding a Sequence
    Present primary sources and challenge students to sequence them based on careful document analysis.
  • Making Connections
    Present primary sources as a string of documents and help students make connections among those documents and the historical events they illustrate.
  • Mapping History
    Link primary sources to locations on a map to practice spatial thinking and understand the impact of geographic factors in history.
  • Seeing the Big Picture
    Pair documents concerning a historical event, concept, or figure with descriptions, questions, or other documents to impress upon students that the whole is derived of smaller parts.
  • Weighing the Evidence
    Turn primary sources into historical evidence that students sort through and evaluate to draw historical conclusions.
  • Interpreting Data
    Introduce students to primary source documents containing historical data and encourage them to consider the source, the presentation style, and the intended impact of the material.

docsteach activities

Create Your Own Activities / Engage Students

With hands-on access to primary sources and analysis techniques, students will form a connection to historical evidence and deepen their understanding of the past. Involve your whole class in an activity, or assign students to complete activities individually or in small groups on or the DocsTeach App for iPad. Activities align with Bloom’s Taxonomy and National History Standards.

docsteach create


Head over to YouTube to view 15 video tutorials that can help you and students navigate and use the site effectively.

docsteach youtube

You will need to create a free account to take full advantage of the DocsTeach site. With a DocsTeach account, you can save and share the primary sources you discover. You can also create, save, and share activities. And you gain access to hundreds of additional activities created by fellow educators. You can even copy and modify these activities to fit your needs.

(If you already have an account, you’ll need to re-register using your current username the first time you visit the redesigned DocsTeach site. Once in you can migrate any activities you may have already created.)

And extra added bonus?

NARA and its education specialists have created a handy document that aligns many of the DocsTeach activities to the Common Core Literacy Reading / Writing standards.

DocsTeach is an example of the kind of site that represents best practice and should be hanging off every social studies teacher’s tool belt. It’s a non-negotiable because it takes advantage of the National Archives awesome primary sources, supports historical thinking skills, and encourages collaboration among social studies teachers.

Have fun!

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