Bringing History to Life With Docs Teach

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A sample activity from Docs Teach

Primary sources are the backbone of successful history classes. Using original documents to investigate the past makes history more real for students by giving them access Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 9.24.00 AMto documents and ideas created by people who were alive during the time period being studied. “Bringing young people into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects,” notes the Library of Congress, “can give them a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era.” Now, the National Archives has brought many primary sources to life by creating a flash-based site where teachers can assign students ready-to-use activities or create their own fun ways to have students analyze primary sources. Students can then use computers or iPads to complete tasks, sending their analyses of the documents directly to the teacher via e-mail.

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Three of the seven activity templates available on the site

Called Docs Teach, this primary source platform developed by the National Archives might be one of the simplest and most engaging websites I have seen for use in history classrooms. Did I mention that it’s free? Teachers have the ability to select their own activity-creation tool from the seven available models, find appropriate primary sources from the thousands housed on the site, then add their own assessment questions to the activity based on the model selected and current focus of a class. If you’re new to Docs Teach, I recommend searching for the activities created by the National Archives Education Team, as these are great examples of what is possible on the site (click on “activities” on the top menu bar, then “browse”, then “featured activities”).

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Sample assessment activity

Teachers with class sets of iPads can create their own lessons, then have students log in to their assigned classroom and complete the activities using the Docs Teach iPad app. With their iPads, students can analyze primary sources and then send their answers directly to the teacher. For a twist, teachers with access to laptops can even have students create their own primary source activities and questions to assess classmates. Since Docs Teach is flash-based, activities cannot be created on iPads but can be completed on them. Each activity is given its own unique URL which makes sharing them easy. Searching and creating on the site is simple as the National Archives has divided the content on their site into eight historical eras starting with the Revolution and ending with contemporary issues. The connections to history classes are obvious with Docs Teach but the ability for English teachers teaching American literature to use the site to connect historical information to the texts being studied in class is an added benefit. The National Archives has succeeded in bringing the gamification of education to primary sources. Teachers should consider investigating this tremendous resource and adding it to their classroom activities. The learning curve is not steep; I think I’ve got the site down and how to create lessons in less than an hour.

For a host of video tutorials on how to use Docs Teach click here.

To learn how to assign student activities to the Docs Teach iPad app click here.