Teaching & Learning History

3rd Piece of the Puzzle

During the past week I have really enjoyed the readings on how to analyze historic photographs. It has helped me to refocus my final teaching history project. In addition I had the opportunity recently to interview a retired Arlington teacher. She was involved in standardizing county history curriculums, especially teaching the Civil War. I had her review my site “Mapping the Civil War in Arlington.” We discussed how a local history project could help Arlington teachers encourage their students to learn more about Civil War history. She expressed regret that “Mapping” was not available years earlier when she was teaching. She said that teachers will appreciate the site. But added that most teachers do not have the time to be creative anymore. They are under tremendous pressure to adhere to Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL).

One interesting fact that she pointed out is that since Arlington is a multilingual community many students come from families where English is not their first language. As a result, teaching some subjects, especially Civil War history, can be difficult. We discussed that getting students to “think historically” is difficult if you can’t get them to think about history in general. She explained that teachers use several methods to engage their students. These include auditory, visual, and kinesthetic lesson plans. Of the three, kinesthetic or “hands on” is the most effective. But in the case of students struggling with English, visual literacy projects can be very useful in helping them learn.

For this reason she encouraged me to consider developing a lesson plan that would leverage visual primary sources. She also suggested that a lesson plan that encouraged students to collaborate with other students to review select images, and create their own historical analysis would have several benefits. First, leveraging local historical images would make the subject matter more relevant and interesting. Second, conducting the research and analysis as a team would support the students with weak language skills, and provide them to leverage visual literacy skills they already may have. Third, the core Civil War SOL material could be interwoven in the digital project.

8th New York Militia in Arlington, Virginia June 1861

The photograph above of the 8th New York, represents dozens of early war photographs that were taken of Union soldiers in Arlington. “Mapping” includes several already, but I realize that to better support the teaching project I should add at least a dozen more images. This particular image of the New York soldiers is very detailed and provides a variety of topical subject matter that can be easily analyzed. These volunteer New York troops were part of President Lincoln’s original request for 75,000 troops. Overnight, the roughly 2,000 people living in Arlington found themselves hosting over 30,000 Union soldiers. Telling this story of how these troops came from all over the North to Arlington, after the attack on Fort Sumter, would satisfy some of the SOL requirements.

Since these photographs are preserved in high resolution, students can zoom in and observe many details. They can analyze uniforms, weapons, and even how the soldiers were interacting with one another. To help the students analyze this and other images, I intend to follow some of the examples from the readings. The assignments have provided a significant guidance on how to review and analyze historic photographs. I will edit this and other photos and decompose the images into several sections. Each section will provide students to observe certain details, and in the case of the 8th New York, it will included weapons, uniforms, musical instruments, and even the young enslaved African American boy.

The reading assignments have also helped me to start developing a prototype curriculum and lesson plan designed for both 4th and 6th graders. One of the challenges I will face is making sure that my lesson plan aligns with Virginia’s Civil War SOL guide. The other challenge is finding suitable local images that will encourage students to learn more about what happened in their own backyards. The Civil War was well documented and digital collections, such as the Library of Congress, provide teachers and students with a treasure trove of images. Students will learn about the Library of Congress and its primary source collections. My final challenge is to research and review other “visual literacy” lesson plans and adopt best practices to teaching students how to analyze images. These best practices, including teaching students about using primary sources, and “thinking historically.” For example how did early photographers like Mathew Brady use the new medium of to influence public opinions about the war?

In regard to next steps, I will need to evaluate visual literacy templates, and identify lesson plans appropriate for 4th and 6th grade students. The lesson plan must also be based on an inquiry based methodology, that will permit teachers to engage students with all levels of English proficiency. The success of the project will be determined by how easy it is for students to examine an old image, and answer pre-defined historical questions that encourage them to search for details, and even come up with some of their own questions. Finally, the project has to support independent study for those students interested in learning more about their local history. This activity could be promoted by introducing a “webquest” to search other well known historical websites, or even a photo contest by having students visit some of the local historical sites in Arlington. Their photographs could be part of a “before and after” photo essay amd encourage students to create their own digital collections.

Teaching & Learning History

Teaching History in the 21st Century

Grant Wood; “Parson Weems’ Fable”; 1939; oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; 1970.43

In the early 19th century students were taught the story of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. When confronted by his father Augustine, Washington quickly confessed, saying something like “I cannot tell a lie.”  Well, so said Parson Weems who published a book entitled The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington in 1800.  This book was sold as a biography of Washington, but in truth, it was a book of fables, meant to use the great Father of the United States as an example of moral behavior.

This example represents the challenge facing history teachers today. Technology on the one hand has provided new venues for research and access to information. But unfortunately, like our entrepreneur biographer Mr. Weems, there are many people posting “fake history” or skewed interpretations that need to be carefully reviewed before accepting them as fact.

During the past twenty years the field of Digital Humanities has been witness to a steady introduction of information technologies that is empowering both teachers and students. These include 1) Cloud based IT services, 2) the growth of APIs or application programming interfaces, and 3) Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning and searching. The availability of the public Internet, and mobile devices, now makes online historical collections ubiquitous. Teachers are no longer bound by the classroom. In fact, the recent COVID pandemic demonstrated the need for more asynchronous learning. All at a time when the “Internet of Things” or IoT has become so commonplace that classroom teaching will never be the same.

At the core of this new shift in teaching methodologies are the introduction of a few important technologies. First, all IT services are now in the cloud, this especially includes the hosting of databases and applications. This means that historical research is available anytime, anywhere, and for anybody. Second, APIs or application programming interfaces, are easier to use and integrate with stored data, both structured and unstructured. Finally, AI or Machine Learning as a service, is improving the way people search for information. It is called “Cognitive Searching.”

The rapid development of all three technologies will dramatically change the future of historic research. But more importantly the growing availability of online collections are providing students access to primary historical sources, including photographs, drawing, diaries, and letters. This is dramatically changing the way teachers are able to get their students to “think historically.” In addition, the the adoption of these technologies is now providing a new way collaborative way to learn by creating “digital projects.”

According to Allison Robinson in “Narratives and Counternarratives”, through collaboration, students can create their own community of scholars. Ms. Robinson advocates that getting students to design and implement digital history projects instead of writing traditional papers, serves a dual purpose. Not only does the new media require students to conduct their own original research, but teaches the students to how to see the bigger historical picture by developing their own interpretations.

The adoption of digital technologies in the classroom, is changing the way students are taught and think about history. Now everyone can learn history by trying to be a historian. But like the stories of George Washington, historic myths are still around. In fact the Internet makes it only easier to spread them. However, teachers and students now have the tools and resources to challenge them.

The role of a teacher is changing. Instead of just trying to get their students to memorize a volume of names, dates, and places, they can now encourage them to think like a historian. In fact, by encouraging students to get involved with digital projects, teachers are becoming more like guides. Helping their students to navigate both the positive and negative aspects of the emerging information technologies of the 21st century.

Teaching & Learning History

Second Piece of the Puzzle

In my previous post I wrote about three technologies that will have an impact on teaching history. These include 1) Cloud based IT services, 2) the growth of APIs or application programming interfaces, and 3) Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning and searching. The widespread adoption of these technologies is transforming the field of Digital Humanities, and most importantly how we will be “thinking historically” in the future.

The COVID pandemic has had a significant impact on our lives, including the way we teach students. For example, asynchronous teaching and learning has proven itself. Remote and distance learning is here to stay. For history teachers, this means that they can now access a broad range of primary source material available through museums and their online digital collections. As a result, students can now be part of a non-stop learning experience, whether it is from the classroom or at home. Also, students are now able to collaborate and develop digital projects online. But more importantly, the emergence of machine learning based”cognitive searching” is going to change the way history students will be able to search for, gather, and store primary source material.

In the past only museums, historical societies, or higher level education institutions, could afford artificial intelligence or machine learning services. But in the not too distant future these technologies will be provided as a service, and accessible to all. But in the meantime, the goal is to teach students how to access and leverage centralized collections of primary sources.

These collections provide a great opportunity for teachers and students alike to gain experience with searching and discovering historical primary sources, like letters, diaries, images, and official documents. By already having access to a collection of these sources, students can than focus on asking the broader historical questions that are important to “inquiry based learning.” Teachers in essence become facilitators by helping students to learn how to “think” historically. The goal is to leverage these digital collections to encourage the students to answer these broader questions and develop their own historical interpretations.

In creating “Mapping the Civil War in Arlington” it became self-evident that a centralized collection of local primary source material is a valuable teaching resource. However, to be a better resource, the site needs to provide an “educational” framework over the content. This framework will permit teachers to establish higher level historic themes and recommend the important and high level questions that the students will need to ask.

In Arlington, the Civil War curriculum, is taught to both 4th and 6th graders. Obviously there are some differences in age appropriate levels of historical thinking. So I will need to ensure that there will be sufficient questions developed for both groups.

In regard to the digital environment and how it is influencing the project, I realize that searching for primary sources is one of the most important functionalities. Most of the existing curated content data is structured. This is based on how Omeka supports the Dublin Core. However, with the inclusion of text based files, like letters and diaries, there is a certain amount of unstructured data. Since the site does not currently have any advanced cognitive searching capability, it will be important to aide students in this process. To accomplish this it will be necessary to review and modify the metadata, keywords, and tags of the curated items in order to support identified historic themes and student searches. By aligning the the sites searching functionalities with predetermined historic themes I can ensure that the student’s experience on the site will be optimized.

In reviewing the educational goals of the project, and how to develop the final pitch, I recognize that teaching students how to search for primary source material is an important project goal. “Mapping” will support Arlington’s history teachers “inquiry based learning” methodology and will be an important resource to support their Civil War curriculums. The site offers an opportunity to teach local history by researching an Arlington focused primary source collection. Since the collection is centralized and available to all students, the classroom experience will be a shared experience. And most importantly, students will be able to develop and share their own historic interpretations online.

Teaching & Learning History

First Piece of the Puzzle

In Virginia, 4th grade is when students get their first introduction to the American Civil War. For teachers there are many resources and guides to help them navigate through the complex and difficult themes associated with the conflict. However, in Arlington, there have been recent historical discoveries that makes the war even more relevant for students.

As part of a historic preservation campaign to save the Febrey Estate located on Upton’s Hill, researchers “rediscovered” the property’s connection to the Civil War. As a result, an online collection of primary resources are now available for teachers and students to review and analyze.

The project called “Mapping the Civil War in Arlington” provides students with a asynchronous digital learning opportunity. Using the site’s map, students can explore a multitude of primary sources, including historic photographs, letters, official records, books, and diaries.

The site also encourages teachers and students to collaborate and make contributions to the site if they discover an unknown primary source. The following list of competency questions have been generated to assist Arlington County elementary teachers develop their own Civil War lesson plans that focus on local history. The goal is to make the Civil War more relevant to Arlington’s students.

Upton’s Hill 1861

1) What are some of the unique geographical features of Arlington County that made it so strategic during the war? (Arlington Heights, hills, valleys, Potomac river).

2) Compare and contrast a modern map with one from 1861. What roads existed then? What bridges existed then? What about transportation like canals or railroads? How long did it take people to travel a mile compared to today?

3) What cities or towns existed back then? What was Arlington’s relationship with Georgetown, Alexandria or Falls Church?

4) When was the Alexandria, Loudon, and Hampshire railroad built and why was it so important during the war? What battle took place on the railroad early in the war (Battle of Vienna)?

1) What was the Retrocession of 1846 and what were the root causes? What was slavery’s role in the return of Alexandria to Virginia? What impact did the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation have on Arlington?

2) Who were the radical republicans and why were so many people living in Arlington at the time considered Unionists?

3) Why did President Abraham Lincoln wait until May 24, 1861 until sending Union troops into Northern Virginia?

4) What did the Virginia vote on May 23, 1861 (Referendum on the Ratification of Succession) decide?

Civil War
1) What were some of the strategic objectives of the Union Army in occupying Arlington? (Construction of forts, protecting bridges, establishing camps)

2)Identify some of the fort and camp locations from early 1861, what is located there today?

3) What is the closest camp or fort to where you live in Arlington?

4) Who were some of the famous Civil War personalities that spent time in or around Arlington during the early war? (Robert E. Lee, President Lincoln, George B. McClellan, James Longstreet, Jeb Stuart, and Irvin McDowell?

5) What military technology innovations were first tested in Arlington? (the use of gas filled balloons for aerial observations, the use of rubberized telegraph wire to link fortifications)

Impact of the war on Arlington
1) What was life like for the 2,000 people living in Arlington during the war?

2) How did all of the camps and fortifications impact the countryside? (destruction of Arlington forests)

3) Were there any military engagements that took place in Arlington? (Arlington Mill Skirmish, Ball’s Crossroads Skirmish)

4) Where did the Union soldiers come from? Which northern states sent the most troops? What did they say about Arlington and their experiences while staying there?

5) How did soldiers drill and live in camp?

6) What are some of the types of Civil War artifacts that have been found in Arlington?

7) What was the Army of the Potomac and why was it important in the ultimate Union victory?

For Arlington’s 4th grade students “Mapping” brings the Civil War to their backyard. Long forgotten, many primary resources are being rediscovered and they are helping both teachers and students alike to think historically. By “localizing” the Civil War students will be more interested in learning not only about what happened down the street, but why.

Teaching & Learning History Uncategorized

Historical Thinking

U.S. Army officers on a staff walk at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

The United States military uses staff walks at Civil War battlefields to teach new officers that history matters. While military tactics and technologies have changed in 160 years there is still much to learn from the past. These staff walks demonstrate a few of the principles we are learning in our class about teaching history.

Author Sam Wineburg, (Thinking about Historical Thinking) states that reading about history and truly experiencing it are two different things. He points out that it takes an extraordinary amount of effort to conjure up or imagine a world that we have not lived in. For Wineburg “Historical Thinking” requires students to be immersed in the range of opinion in the day and become familiar with ideas or logics that seem “anathema” in the 21st century. For officers in 2021 it is difficult to comprehend how soldiers fought side by side in ranks and willingly exposed themselves to enemy fire. Yet, in the 19th century that is how armies fought.

In “Thinking Historically,” Stephane Levesque challenges the old paradigm of teaching memory-history. In this model teachers are more concerned about students accumulating information, such as dates of events, and names of people and places, rather than being taught how to critically investigate. Instead Levesque proposes that teachers guide their students to create their own “defensible” historic interpretations. In essence, teach them to be historians by learning how to become more empathetic. To accomplish this students need to see the connection between primary source material and interpretation.

During their staff walks, these young officers can draw upon the readings of first hand accounts and official records of the battle from those that actually fought. These primary sources allow the officers to draw their own conclusions or interpretations as to whether the historical participants acted accordingly to military doctrine and tactics of the day. Walking the battlefield provides a brief but important immersive experience to better understand the event.

Finally, Dr. Lendol Calder, in “Uncoverage,” identifies the historical paradox in teaching history. Instead of trying to “Cover” history, by providing volumes of information, teachers should instead be providing their students the means to “Uncover” history. Calder believes this can be accomplished by focusing on a “signature pedagogy” that provides students with ways of being taught that requires them to “do, think, and value what practitioners in the field are doing, thinking, and valuing.” According to Calder, students can be taught this signature pedagogy by encouraging them to ask the big questions, such as “what is history, why study it, and what problems trouble historical knowledge?”

So, what are some of the questions about teaching history we can learn from these staff walks? First, in teaching students about a specific historical period why is it important to have them study relevant opinions drawn from primary sources? Second, while studying events, people, and places is important, how can we also teach students to interpret history? Finally, how can we get students to think like a historian, and ask relevant questions?

As you can guess, the answer to these questions lies in a better understanding of “historical thinking.” In order for us to be better history teachers we need to provide our students with the tools to not just learn what we already know, but how to go deeper and retrieve what is not yet uncovered. To do this, we have to help our students construct a more accurate picture or framework of history., This can be accomplished by demonstrating and encouraging students to do the following in their history projects:

  • Seek out multiple accounts & perspectives
  • Learn how to analyze primary sources
  • Better understand historical context
  • Establish “claim-evidence” connections

The military has understood these concepts for years. They know that studying old Civil War battles is not always relevant to today’s modern warfare. But as Levesque points out the student who is led “to look at matters historically, has some mental equipment for a comprehension of the political and social problems that will confront him in everyday life.”

Teaching & Learning History

Intro Post

In addition to being a Civil War reenactor I sometimes portray Mathew Brady.

Hello, my name is Peter Vaselopulos. I am recently retired from the federal government as Deputy Chief Information Officer at the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM).   While serving 35 years at USAGM I worked as a broadcast journalist, international television producer, and new media and information technology specialist.  Prior to working at USAGM I was a videographer for Cable News Network.

I am a 40-year resident of Arlington County in Virginia and very interested in local Civil War history. I am a Civil War reenactor and teach adult education history courses for Arlington Encore.

I am currently a board member of the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington, D.C., Vice President of the 3rd US Infantry Reenactors, and was a member of Arlington County’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee.

I am a graduate of George Washington University and American University, with masters’ degrees in Managing Information Systems and International Communications.

Currently I am working on a master’s certificate in Digital Humanities from George Mason University.  I am also working on a digital history project called “Mapping the Civil War in Arlington.”  The project’s goal is to generate a greater awareness of Arlington’s military history during the first year of the Civil War.

I am very interested in the backend systems that support online historical collections, and the impact that they are having on the future of teaching history. In particular, I am tracking AI and machine learning, and interested to see what role these technologies will play in promoting public history and the humanities.

Finally, I am interested in how information technology is empowering individuals to become digital historians. I am hoping to use the skills that I am learning in these courses to start the next phase of my career. This could either be through starting my own public history company, or finding a position with an established firm.

Public History

Rediscovering History

Attack on Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina – April 12, 1861

April 12, 2021 marks the 16oth anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. For many the conflict is long forgotten. But recent political events in Washington, DC have renewed interest in the war’s origins. It also serves as a reminder that sometimes people need to rediscover their history.

For the past semester, I have been taking a graduate course at George Mason University on Digital Public History. The course examines the impact of technologies, like the Internet, cloud hosted applications, and social media, on the public’s access to historical knowledge. For centuries, history was an academic process, based on scholarly research, and publications. However today, advances in information technology provide both opportunities and challenges as to how history is curated and publicly promoted.

An important part of the course was to prepare a final project to demonstrate how to design and implement an online historical collection. For my project, MTCWIA.COM, I chose to focus on Civil War history in Arlington, Virginia. My argument or business case, is that people living in Arlington today are unaware of what happened literally in their backyards over 160 years ago.

“Mapping the Civil War in Arlington” provides local historians, teachers and students, online access to historical photographs, drawings, maps, letters, newspapers, and official documents. These Civil War era primary sources promote a more collaborative interpretation of Arlington’s role during the conflict. “Mapping” also encourages new research and discoveries that will highlight the social, political, and cultural history of the people living in Arlington during the war. 

For decades, Arlington’s Civil War history has been overshadowed by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Arlington House and Arlington Cemetery. In fact, people in Arlington are surprised to learn about the numerous military engagements that took place during the war. Many are unaware of Arlington’s role in the creation of the Union’s Army of the Potomac. The challenge of “Mapping” was to make accessible a sufficient number of primary sources to support the case that a lot did happen in and around Arlington.

A survey of well known Civil War online collections, including historic newspapers, photographic collections, drawings, and diaries, revealed a wealth of publicly available primary source material. An important goal of the project was to curate some of this material and make it discoverable, especially, for local teachers and students studying the Civil War.

Since “Mapping’s” launch, user feedback has been very positive. Local historians like the site’s ability to centralize access to primary sources. This capability has already promoted new perspectives on what Union and Confederate forces were doing in around Arlington.

The hosted platform supporting the site is George Mason University’s Omeka. It is Dublin Core compatible, and the key design elements follow a traditional museum motif, including (items, collections, and exhibits). Some of the key features of the project are a mapping functionality that provides visitors the ability to identify their location in Arlington and historic events that occured close by. The site also includes a useful timeline feature that identifies some of the major historic events impacting Arlington. Finally, the site provides a collaboration feature that permits users to submit historic resources for review and possible curation.

Lessons Learned
Curating historical knowledge is both a subjective and objective process. Individuals studying history learn from a variety of resources, and are often influenced by different historical interpretations. In regard to digital public history, making primary source material available is the key to maintaining objectivity. The goal of “Mapping” is to demonstrate that people can “rediscover” their history when provided online access to previously “unknown” primary sources.

For years, many local historians claimed that not much happened militarily in Arlington during the Civil War. But in fact, a rather brief online research revealed that well over 50 regiments camped on Arlington’s Upton Hill during the war. That is almost the equivalent of over 35,000 troops. In addition, a review of historic newspaper accounts, and official records, has determined that dozens of military engagements occured in Arlington during the late summer and fall of 1861, resulting in hundreds of casualties. Newspaper accounts of the day called it the “Battle of Munson Hill.” For a while the threat of a major military engagement occuring in Arlington was real. While these historical resources have existed for almost 160 years, it was their rediscovery online that is encouraging a new interpretation of the local history.

One of the key lesson learned is that the success of a public history project is dependent upon its accessibility and discoverability. That means that an online collection must invest in the necessary time to properly document its metadata. This especially includes the necessary text associated with a newspaper article or diary. If the digital text is not provided along with the images of the article, then the “discovery” part is minimized. Public historians can not expect their audiences to read everything. It is in the searching functionality, that real discovery and historical associations can be determined.

Like traditional museum collections, public history sites still require some interpretation. This is especially important in trying to engage audiences and making sure the content is relevant. The Omeka platform’s exhibit feature permits some historical context to be displayed so audiences have a reference point. However, the primary value of a collection site, is its ability to catalog and index a wide variety of items, including images, text, and media. This is becoming a powerful resource for public historians, as they continue to help their audiences to rediscover history.