For several years I helped our local ballet group put on the Winter performance of the Nutcracker. One year an adult acquaintance of mine danced in the opening party scene where the parents and children, dressed to the nines, meet and greet each other as the curtains open. Dressed in full Victorian costume, this friend remarked to me how much her beautiful dress looked just like the southern belle pictures she’d seen growing up in the South. As we talked I reminded her that these were the same years – where the height of Victorian England and our own South’s plantation world converged. It hadn’t occurred to her that these two time periods were parallel. Thinking about this later, as a teacher, I got to wondering how many things we miss when we are taught events as though they are isolated by geography. For example, consider how our world view changes when we learn that in the 1770s while James Cook was hanging about in the Pacific, the first water-powered mill was built in England, and the colonies in North America were rebelling and creating a new nation. In most of our instruction, we learn about “explorers”, then “builders of the Industrial Revolution”, and then “how our nation was created”. This segregation of ideas leads us to think that each event happened in its own time and space rather than connected simultaneously.
Here’s a thought: what if we created a history class that leveraged primary sources in a way that started a discussion, opened perspectives, and helped students realize that world events stair-stepped through history alongside each other? Time-lining the events we study in U.S. history alongside other world events allows students to realize that all these things are intertwined. When the butterfly flaps its wings in Asia, might things happen in Europe? How many patterns can we see when we look at the big picture? It need not take us away from the course syllabus of U.S. History. In fact, it can add the depth needed to truly understand events and how today’s world is a result of those events. It can be as easy as keeping a low-key world events timeline around the room where students take a few moments every week to add in events they discover from quick encyclopedia research alongside the news of the day. Or, it can be a part of more extensive work where groups of students keep track of an assigned area to bring everyone else up to speed. Each of those groups could, at any given time, give a brief instructional moment about what was happening at that time. When the U.S. was gearing up for a civil war in the 1860s what was happening in Europe or Asia or Africa? It needn’t be the whole world, just one or a few counties representing a larger area.
While many students are assigned ‘country reports’ or other single subject assignments that tend to regurgitate facts, there are many, many inquiry and creative activities that can teach country information through a world-centric perspective and help students place point of view alongside those facts and then critically figure out (analyze) why things happened the way they happened. If nothing else, it’s a window into someone else’s perspective; something to give us pause before we jump right in with our own judgment and solutions.
<quick aside here: Have you played Chrono Quest? This online game asks participants to put historical events in chronological order - have your students compete for prizes - or just the satisfaction of winning. It could make a great first-five-minute activity as they get settled into class This could be a fun way to experience events in a timeline and reinforces all those connections made each day.>
Following is a Starter Pack list that highlights a couple of sites that may have images or documents about topics often taught in U.S. classrooms. Included at the end of this post are some National Archives links that may interest your explorations. Some have English language access, others don’t. Regardless, they all have photos and other media-related objects that can be used to jumpstart conversations or start a unit.
Start here and then explore further. Check out the World History page in this guide for more – hint: definitely look at the Internet sourcebooks>
World Digital Library: https://www.loc.gov/collections/world-digital-library/about-this-collection/
(suggestion: try this portal after reviewing the home page: https://www.loc.gov/item/lcwaN0018836/ ).
This collection gathered from partnering organizations, translated descriptive information (metadata) to each item collected into English and 6 other languages. Thousands of items were digitized and made available through this portal for researchers to use.
Italian World war I poster (https://www.loc.gov/item/2021670897/ )
U.S. world war 1 poster. (https://www.loc.gov/item/96507165/ )
Irish world war 1 poster (https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.55686)
Germany: fear of Russian Revolution (https://www.loc.gov/resource/gdcwdl.wdl_17981/
The British Library
This site offers many topics filled with primary sources. World War I includes over 50 articles written by experts, plus images on topics such as the daily life of soldiers, strategies of the war, and civilian life. Women’s rights and literature are other topics one can discover. Check out their online learning portals for many resources for classrooms.
Definitely check out the Sound Collections. The “home sounds or “If Homes had Ears” offers a unique set of stories about all those sounds that fill our homes.. from yesteryear to recent times. It is SO fun!
This online source for European History offers many, many resources from Prehistoric times to modern history. Sourced from a variety of museums, universities, and other archives, these can be used in a variety of classroom settings.
Some International National Archive Sites to visit:
The National Archives of Australia.
The National Archives' collection contains records about key events and decisions that have shaped Australian history and includes more than 40 million items focusing on Government records from Federation in 1901 to today. Their Research guides https://www.naa.gov.au/help-your-research/research-guides might be a great place to start research on all things Australian.
Germany: Das Bundesarchiv: or Search Portal
This site is in English, but the photo and manuscript descriptions are in German. I started at Das Bundesarchiv first to see what might pique my interest and found some images that were interesting enough to dig deeper. The images were from a wide range of dates 1940s – 1980s. A simple search on the autobahn brought up a wide range of possible topics.
Here are some International National Archive sites to investigate.
Russian Archives: http://www.russianarchives.com/
South Africa: http://www.national.archives.gov.za/
and our good friends at Wikipedia offer a complete list also.