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Primary sources, personal stories, and thank you Internet

It’s always fun having my kids around during the summer. We chat about books, take short trips, discuss politics, argue about gardening techniques, and they make fun of my love for the Kansas City Royals.

The youngest one heads back to school in Minnesota in a few weeks. She’s been busy this summer selling snow cones and working in the local library. And . . . wait for it . . .

. . . she’s also spent two days a week as an National Archives unpaid intern at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene. How cool is that? The other day, she got the one on one backstage pass tour of stored artifacts. She knows I love the golf so she made sure to share how, among other things, she held Dwight’s Augusta National member’s green jacket. And his favorite golf hat.

You know. Just rubbing my nose in it.

But she’s also come home excited about some of the other artifacts and documents that she’s had the chance to work with. For the last few weeks, part of what she’s been asked to do is organize and catalog the contents of what she called Show and Tell boxes. These boxes are apparently a semi-jumbled group of artifacts that the Library uses with student groups who take short tours of the campus.

And, yes, she grew up in the house of a history nerd. But her excitement is a good example of what can happen when we use intriguing primary sources as part of the learning process.

So today you get a few examples of what she’s found and then some specific resources we can all use – even if we’re not spending the summer up to our elbows in Eisenhower artifacts.

Like all NARA presidential sites, it’s not just the official resources that end up in the archives. People donate stuff. Attics get cleaned out. Grandchildren of WWII vets clear out old houses and aren’t sure what to do with things they find. So a lot of it ends up in Abilene.

And the cool thing about all of it is that the donated artifacts tell stories of individual people that can be tied to larger past events and contemporary issues. They generate a whole range of questions and can lead to intriguing problems that kids need to solve.

One of the first things she ran across was this handmade American flag. It was apparently the first US flag to be displayed in the French city of Versailles after the German troops left in 1944. The flag along with a letter written in French were donated to the Library by a member of the SHAEF security forces.

A quick call to one of her friends who speaks French yields a rough translation of the original letter:

So . . . some possible discussion and writing prompts:

When was the flag created? Why do you think the flag was created? What might have happened to the person who made and displayed the flag? What if they had been discovered by German troops before Allied forces moved in? What did they use to make the flag? How did they make it?

When did Allied forces move into Versailles? Which Allied troops? Where else might we find information about those troops and that part of the fighting?

Are there connections that we can make to contemporary issues and events? How have American and Coalition military forces been accepted around the world since 2001? What might influence how others view these forces? What similarities and differences are there between military activities in 1944 and 2017?

How do people view our flag? Their flag? How do flags create emotion in people? How are flags used today? Can we make connections to current conversations around our national anthem?

She also ran across a ton of donated documents. This recollection is from Robert Davie, a member of the 136th Finance Disbursing Section. The 136th landed in Normandy on June 7, 1944 with $450,000 worth of French francs packed in the back of a truck.

Okay. First of all. How many of us would have thought that part of the massive D-Day preparations included making sure that soldiers had a place for currency exchanges? And how freaked out was Davie riding around in a truck with close to half a million dollars?

The blanket seems like an afterthought. But Robert’s letter makes it clear how important this blanket and the cot it was used on was to soldiers on the Normandy beach. It’s clearly something that he remembered decades later.

Here’s the point. History is made up of literally millions of personal stories. It’s these stories that we can use to help our kids see the big picture, to connect emotion to content, and see their own stories as important.

And while you might not have online access to the types of artifacts and documents my daughter has had the chance to play with, there are tools and strategies available for you to use right away.

First of all, if you’re close enough, an onsite visit to a museum is the obvious choice. Make a connection with the education liaison and let them know that you’d like your kids to actually handle some Show and Tell artifacts. Look for online lessons or ask about artifact identification activities.

But that’s not always possible. So head to the Interwebs:

A few other handy sites:

This is the barely the tip of the iceberg but even all of this can seem overwhelming. So don’t get freaked out. Pick one topic. One museum. One or two artifacts and jump in.

What are your favorite museums? Places to find artifacts? Tools to use?

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Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Speaking and Consulting page.


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