Review of HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

Review of HERB: Social History for Every Classroom, a product of the American Social History Project and the Center for Learning and Media at CUNY.

The assignment for this week was to look outside of the projects of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media to see how others are incorporating digital primary sources and history pedagogy. My choice, HERB, is the product of the American Social History Project and the Center for Learning and Media, a past collaborator with RRCHNM on projects such as History Matters, The September 11 Digital Archive, and Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Given this past relationship, it is interesting to investigate a project that shares a commitment to making history accessible and meaningful for students of all ages.

HERB is a database of primary material and teaching activities that have been created as part of a series of “professional development seminars” designed to encourage the teaching of social history at all levels of the history curriculum.1 HERB is the companion site to these seminars and the resources presented here have been recently opened up the broader audience of the web.

There are two main modes of interacting with the HERB’s collection. The organization of the site suggests that the primary mode of navigating through the materials is by search or browsing the items that are available. A quick exploration of these features reveals that, while they reveal a plethora of primary materials and teaching resources and provide a useful tool for locating supplemental material for an existing lesson plan, this is not the primary strength of the site. Following the suggestions of ‘tags’ and ‘related resources’ it becomes clear that the strength of this resources is best revealed in the Collections.

The Collections are divided into two main ‘genres’: one focused on topics or themes in American History and one focused on surveys of American history. These Collections pose a historical question (such as “Who Freed the Slaves?”) or a theme (such as “slave communities and resistance”) and then offer both primary materials and a guided lesson for helping students construct an argument for a particular interpretation or develop a sense of experiences of historical actors. These lessons emphasize the variety of perspectives and allow for multiple interpretations, both of which help counteract the general conception of the study of history as the memorization of a series of facts and figures. A particular strength of these assignments is the emphasis on group work, on student collaboration for both analyzing the individual texts and for creating and defending their interpretations of the assigned texts.

The layering of short introductory essays, primary material, contextual information, teaching activities, and additional resources within each Collection provides a powerful framework for making the teaching of history through primary material accessible to teachers. At the same time, I have two main concerns with the presentation of the materials. First, similar to my complaint from last week, the written material that is presented is stripped from it’s context, whether that be the newspaper in which it was published or the diary in which it was written, etc. While flyers are reproduced on the site, the physical presentation of published texts appear to be considered less important. My intuition is that this is due, in part, to long standing practices of print, particularly with the publishing of edited editions of primary material that reproduce the text but because of technological constraints, erase the original presentation. With the ability to house images of the primary documents in addition to an edited text, the web allows us to recapture that lost aspect of these historical texts.

My second concern relates to the videos created by the ASHP-CML. While students are encouraged to look at the assumptions of the primary material, the lessons building from the films focus largely on ensuring that students gather the correct facts from the film. Critical engagement with film is a particularly important skill in a culture full of visual rhetoric. The ability to analyze the presentation and assumptions of film is equally important to the ability to glean the important facts from the visual presentation. A similar emphasis on the factual content of images is apparent in the goal of “finding information and making inferences from visual sources” in the lesson on the painting “On to Liberty”. Teaching students to develop a more complex attitude toward visual sources and to being proficient at analyzing and evaluating visual rhetoric would be a valuable addition to an already strong site.

HERB is a valuable resource of teachers of American history, providing both primary materials and well developed lesson plans to help students engage in the work of history. Overall, the lessons complicate the presentation of the past, introducing multiple points of view and helping students and teachers think about these differences. In doing so, they present a history that is not a collection of facts and figures but instead stories and interpretations, with unresolved questions of meaning that students are encouraged to engage in.