DPLA – Spark for Inquiry-Based Learning

Students asking questions and digging deeper for answers, which lead to further questions = my definition of learning (or at least one of them). I am always looking for ways to encourage inquiry in my classroom.

Last fall I was introduced to the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). The collection is phenomenal, if a bit eclectic at times, given the wide range of participating organizations. In keeping with a summer goal of exploring this site a bit more on my own so that I could harness its potential as a resource for my students, I sat down to try using the Timeline feature to see where it would lead me.

I picked a random date – 1951 – and typed it in. I needed to narrow the results so I selected text and English as limiters. That produced 2,887,870 results – an overwhelming amount. I decided to narrow by subject, and saw that “Menus” was an option. I was intrigued. I thought it would be interesting to see the food options for people in 1951, although I was still not really sure what I would see. That narrowed my results to 3. Much more manageable, almost too narrow.

The second document of the three was a Japanese foods cookbook published in Hawaii in 1951. I. Struck. Inquiry. Gold. Immediately I started thinking about the context. You don’t have to know a ton about World War II to know that the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii brought the US into the war. In 1951 the war had only been over for 6 years. I began to wonder about the interest in Japanese food and culture so soon after the war. I wondered how many Japanese were living in Hawaii, and how well they were integrated. I thought about what the experience of Hawaiins had been after Pearl Harbor.

I started looking at the document. It was published by the YWCA, which led me to think about that organization and its history. I noticed the ad for Reed and Barton silver and thought about how ads had changed over time. The preface indicated that it had taken three years to compile and test the recipes, which meant the project began even closer to the end of the war. The introduction makes the case for Hawaii being the ultimate “melting pot” and then provides a brief history of Japanese food. What follows is a lengthy cookbook with many, many recipes and instructions. I could see this one item interesting students who want to learn more about Hawaii, postwar US relations with Japan, Japanese-Americans after the war, women’s roles and organizations, even cooking.

I can envision having students pick a random year that interests them, look for a document they find intriguing, ask some questions based on their observation of the document, and then set about trying to learn as much context as they can in order to offer some insight into their questions. This would be fun for students to share and would provide another way into doing research. I am convinced we need to equip students with as many research skills as we can. In this case, the lesson would be that the writing of important history can begin with the discovery of a single item.


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