Thematic US History: Year 3 – DPLA as Research Playground

In the fall, we will embark on our third year of doing US history thematically. One of the main drivers for us to adopt this approach is the amount of time we spend having the students do a research paper on a topic of their choice. We have moved this project to the beginning of the year, just after our introductory overview unit.

As we have the past two years, we will spend the first few weeks of the course making our way through¬†American History: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Boyer. The reading of that book is accompanied by discussions about which trends and events are significant in each period of time. We have constructed a timeline in the classroom based on those conversations. This year, I am hoping to frame the conversation around what my students think every American ought to know (that’s another post I need to write). As we read those chapters and discuss some events, students will be getting ideas about what they might be interested in researching for their paper.

Once students select their topics for the research paper, inevitably I fight students to get them beyond Googling their topic and reading the websites that surface on the first page. Some simply refuse to do anything else, and their work generally ends up being superficial and descriptive. This year, I am taking a different approach. I plan on constructing a series of lessons in the introductory unit that get students to work with and explore a variety of resources available to them so that they at least see the possibilities. I also want them to have a variety of experiences; I hope that each student experiences serious frustration at some point but also moments of discovery and insight.

One lesson will be centered around the¬†Digital Public Library of America. DPLA is an enormous and eclectic database, with arms that reach into a wide number of collections across the US. It is the perfect playground for research. I will have students choose an event from US history to research in the DPLA. They will sift, refine, and then curate resources. I hope that they get taken down unexpected paths with resources they never imagined existed. In the end, I don’t care where they arrive. Some will no doubt stay focused and curate a group of resources that they could use to research their topic. Others will get sucked into one resource and spend their time reading it, or trying to find out more about it. Others will jump around, not really focusing on any one thing and feeling a sense of panic or inadequacy as time in class winds down. All of those experiences are legitimate research experiences. No matter how they spend their time, they will all end with a reflection on their own process, conveyed to me either in written or oral form. Here is the assignment.

The only way to really learn how to do research well is by doing it yourself and by doing it a lot. The greatest gift I can give my students is the keys to the digital car, enough time to drive around, and then listen to them as they tell me about their journeys.