Distance learning idea: Two crowdsource history sites need your students’ help

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Add a touch of PBL to distance learning

Students thrive when what they do is REAL. And by real, I mean that their work actually has a purpose not just within the walls of the school building, but beyond those walls in the real world.

When students know that real people are going to consume their work, they intrinsically care more about the result. That intrinsic care is what makes me a big fan of Project-Based Learning (PBL).

As a result, I try to keep my eyes open for free PBL opportunities where students — especially those in high school — can produce work for the real world.

In addition, with distance learning being a real possibility for schools in the United States, allowing your students to work with these sites may infuse some PBL magic into your lesson plans.

In this post, I’ll highlight opportunities from the Library of Congress and the National Archives that invite students (or any volunteer, for that matter) to transcribe historical documents. Apparently, there are thousands of documents that both of these groups wish to make accessible to the public. The sheer volume of letters, journals, diaries, newspapers, court brief, memoranda, and other documents necessitates that volunteers — including students — help out.

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

And while I’ve touted these sites as PBL projects, let’s make sure we understand that the primary contribution students are making to these projects is transcription… not exactly a higher-order thinking activity.

I get that concern. I really do.

However, I believe there is value in allowing your students to peruse through a variety of primary sources to experience history in a tangible way and to gain an appreciation of the development of language and communications technology.

After all, who wouldn’t be intrigued with the prospect of transcribing 1925 “secret and confidential correspondence” from the Chief of Naval Operations to the Commanding Officer of the USS Dallas about submarine battle depth charges?

Or the diaries of physician Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the woman “widely considered to be the first American woman to receive an academic medical degree” and who worked with the support of Florence Nightingale and others to open the medical profession to women?

Elizabeth Blackwell | Photo: Public domain

Or the 1982 nomination form by the owner of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ home for placement on the National Register of Historic Places?

Langston Hughes | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There’s a trove of history on both of these governmental sites. There’s also exposure to vocabulary, grammar, usage, mechanics, and linguistics… not to mention an intimate glimpse into the lives of people who have gone before us, from the well-known to the obscure.

Transport your students back in time while allowing them to contribute toward the online publication of these documents for use by real people out in the real world.

And yes, I should warn you that some of the documents are indeed difficult to read. There will be opportunities for you to get in the trenches with your kids and decipher handwritten and even some of the typed documents. It can become tedious and frustrating (trust me on this), so definitely take a look at some of the documents beforehand to find a project fit for your kids.

Dig deeper into these two sites:

  • By the People at The Library of Congress
    • This is a crowd-sourced transcription project that “invites you to transcribe, review, and tag digitized images of manuscripts and typed materials from the Library’s collections.”
    • Transcription projects are grouped into several “campaigns.” For example, students can transcribe letters and other documents from educator, women’s rights advocate and civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell. She was the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women and, in 1909, a founder of the NAACP.
    • Another By the People campaign is called The Blackwells: An Extraordinary Family. In this campaign, students are invited to “explore the long struggle for equality through the diaries, letters, and speeches of the men and women who fought for the right to vote and changed political history 100 years ago.”
    • Students can click on links to educational and historical info for each campaign to understand the context of the material they are reading and transcribing.
    • I opened an account and can attest that it’s very user-friendly and loaded with tips and forums to assist. Campaign projects are labelled as to their progress of completion with terms such as completed, needs review, in process, or not started. Currently, 1,703 volunteers have provided help on The Blackwell Family campaign to date. Several campaigns are marked “All Done!” and need no further work.
    • Have your students go this page to become a volunteer transcriber. They will not need to open an account to participate, but if they wish to return later to a document, they will need to open an account.
    • Get your students up and running with the site’s brief tutorials and helpful hints, which they can continue to consult as needed while they transcribe. Organizers know the process must be simple to encourage volunteers to help out, so they really do make it easy. Click here for the By The People Help Center.
    • Worried about mistakes? Don’t worry. Student work is reviewed by other volunteer transcribers and historians. Visit this page for more info.
Photo by Andrew Buchanan on Unsplash
  • National Archives Citizen Archivist
    • The National Archives has a similar program to By the People and it’s called Citizen Archivist. Students read, transcribe, review, and tag documents in the National Archives’ collections.
    • The National Archives groups its projects into “missions” instead of campaigns like the Library of Congress.
    • There are many missions available. Open a document, click on a page without a blue tag, and start typing. Their progress will be contained on their dashboards when students open an account.
    • One project includes transcribing issues from a periodical called The Mission Indian, a newsletter that served the large number of Native American tribes in the southern California Mission region from 1932-1941. This newsletter was published by the Office of Indian Affairs. Honestly, there is so much history to learn!
    • Other Citizen Archivist missions include:
      • “Submarines,” where students can transcribe patrol reports and reports of sinking enemy submarines; or
      • “Award Cards,” where students can transcribe index cards for awards such as the Purple Heart, Air Medal Decoration, and Distinguished Service Cross with soldier names, service numbers, ranks, award dates, and award type. There are forums within the site to help your students note awards these correctly and consistently.
    • Imagine how enticing it would be to transcribe a document when these words are stamped at the top: “DO NOT DESTROY – HISTORICAL VALUE – NATIONAL ARCHIVES”
    • Like By The People, the Citizen Archivist offers this FAQs page to help answer questions from their transcribers. Have your kids visit these pages to learn how to transcribe, tag, and review. When questions arise as they work, they can review the guidelines as needed.
    • I think the Citizen Archivist is slightly less user-friendly than the Library of Congress site upon initial use. It became easier the more I worked on it, though.
    • When students create an account, they’ll be able to return to their dashboard whenever they log in and return to their mission work. Creating a private account enables students to have an ongoing project.
    • Student usernames appear as the “contributor” on the projects. (Make sure students choose an anonymous username for their own privacy.)

There are many more crowd-sourcing PBL opportunities out there. For example, I’m researching one by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, but I’m having trouble coordinating the required free Ancestry.com account with the software program used to create the database.

Also, there’s another project called missingmaps.org that enables users to “map areas where humanitarian organizations are trying to meet the needs of vulnerable people.” Truly intriguing!

As I gather more information on both of these, I’ll write another post. In the meantime, if you have information or experience with these two, please let me know with a comment below or on my Contact page.

Like other teachers right now, I’m grappling with how to make my teaching “go the distance” this fall.

Even though these sites mean more screen-time (ugh) for students, I do think it’s worth exploring how these crowdsource transcription sites may enhance distance learning as well.

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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