Teaching with Historic Places: Being Selective: Documents and Lesson Plans

The rice barn and threshing mill at Mansfield Plantation, SC were common features of Georgetown County rice plantations. Library of Congress.
The rice barn and threshing mill at Mansfield Plantation, SC were common features of Georgetown County rice plantations.

Library of Congress,

Selections from a Thematic Issue of CRM Vol 16 No. 2 1993
Published by the National Park Service, Cultural Resources

By: Marilyn Harper

Being Selective: Documents and Lesson Plans
Documents play a central role in the lesson plan format. Written and visual materials, designed as handouts and used in conjunction with activities and questions, provide the information students need to attain the objectives of the lesson plans. Readings provide the background students need to understand the historic place and the lesson based on it. Maps locate the place and relate it to its surroundings while also teaching geography skills. Current photographs record the concrete presence of real places. Historic photographs contribute a sense of the small details of the past while strengthening observation and analytical skulls. Historic travel accounts, newspaper articles, diary entries, advertisements, inventories, and other primary documents enable students to envision relationships between people and places in the past, and to compare them with those of the late 20th century.

Imaginative teachers long have appreciated the value of using real places in teaching, but may have been discouraged by the amount of time-consuming and often frustrating research that seemed to be necessary. Teaching with Historic Places lesson plans demonstrate that the more than 60,000 National Register of Historic Places property files can provide a shortcut.

Each National Register file contains a registration form with narrative sections describing the property and analyzing its historical significance. Each file also includes a bibliography, maps, and black and white photographs. Historic photographs and copies of primary documents may be included also. In many files, the amount of historical research is impressive and the range of materials extensive and imaginative.

The documentation on the World War II Attu Battlefield in Alaska, was adapted to a Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan virtually unchanged. The historical background section was abridged as a reading to enable students to understand the historic events that occurred at this barren and remote site. The photos, both recent and historic, were clear and dramatic. Maps from the file were used, but were redrawn for publication to clarify the military action of the battle. This lesson plan will appear in Social Education in the spring of 1993.

Excerpts from documentation in “multiple property submissions” (MPSs) to the National Register – covering the history and development of an area, or of thematically related groups of resources – also can be used as readings. MPS “context statements” give general background for properties nominated for their significance within that historic context. The Georgetown (SC) Rice Culture MPS, for example, provided information for a lesson plan based on three plantations. Historic contexts in MPS documents also can provide information for understanding related properties not included in the MPS. Information on the organization of rice plantations might be compared with plantations growing different crops in other parts of the country, for example; or the information on the early history of Georgetown County could provide the context for a house in a local town.

Sometimes documentation from several property files can be combined. In the lesson plan for the Johnstown Flood, in Johnstown, PA the registration form and the visitor’s guide for the Johnstown Flood National Memorial provided the specific information on the flood itself. Material on the industrial development of the town came from National Historic Landmark files for the Cambria Iron Works. A current photograph, dramatically illustrating the location of the city in a tightly constricted river valley, came from the file for the Johnstown Inclined Railway. Teachers can use the computerized National Register Information System to obtain lists of properties related geographically or thematically.

The photographs included in all nominations not only show what a historic place looks like now, but can help students understand the relationship between the place and important historical themes and events. The photographs of Lead, in the remote Black Hills area of South Dakota, show small worker’s houses clustered around the huge structures of the Homestake gold mine, dramatically illustrating the town’s dependence on the mine. Although nominations are not required to include historic photographs, many of them do. Details, such as the signs, electric power lines, and clothing shown in the historic photograph of Ybor City, FL can stimulate both observation and imagination.

Nomination files may contain other materials usable as documents in lesson plans. The 1948 decision in Shelley v. Kraemer, published in the Supreme Court Reporter, was included in the nomination file for the Shelley House, St. Louis, MO and highlights the constitutional issues raised in the landmark case that banned enforcement of restrictive housing covenants. The schematic view of the Steelton plant in Pennsylvania shown in a Sanborn fire insurance map of 1875 clarifies complex technological interrelationships that are important in understanding America’s Industrial Revolution, but which are difficult to illustrate with words alone.

In many cases, teachers will have to supplement National Register documentation to achieve lesson plan objectives. For properties listed during the early years of the National Register program, for instance, the narratives often are sketchy and the background research limited in scope. Bibliographies included in all nominations, sometimes can help. Also, the State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) that submitted the nominations sometimes can provide additional or updated information. Materials in SHPO files – which may not have been submitted to the National Register – may include survey reports, newspaper clippings, color slides, or other useful items. The teacher’s own background, training, or interests may suggest connections, too. For example, the Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan on log cabins in Idaho asked students to draw a comparison with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie.

Ultimately, the documents to be included in a lesson plan will depend on the focus and objectives selected. These will dictate what is needed to tell the full story. Finding the right document, the one that will make the required subjects of the social studies curriculum come alive, can be one of the most exciting parts of teaching with historic places.

At the time of publication, Marilyn Harper was an historian with the National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service.

Part of a series of articles titled Teaching with Historic Places Program and Where Did History Happen?: Selections from CRM, Vol 16, no 2 (1993).

Last updated: July 8, 2019