What’s a Teacher’s Favorite Word? “Free!”

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What’s a Teacher’s Favorite Word? “Free!”

2012-07-23 11:10


Last month, I started working as the Beneficial National History Day fellow. Here at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I share office space with another teacher fellow, so teaching and using primary sources has, not surprisingly, been a frequent topic of conversation.  As a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia, I experience many barriers to successfully using primary sources in the classroom.  The three major ones are finding free digital primary sources, getting my students engaged in using primary sources and utilizing technology that promotes the use of these sources.

While I hope to address the last two topics in other blog posts, in this entry I’d like to share some of the places I use to find free digital primary sources. This post is born out of a teacher workshop (held by the fantastic Paula Don) I attended that focused on free online resources for teachers.


If you’re a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia, you have free access to NBC Learn through a pilot program. NBC Learn has digitized 12,000 stories from the NBC news archives, which date back to the 1920s. Many videos have transcripts available and are correlated to state standards and the Common Core. The videos are a great way to start a discussion or as the jumping off point for a constructed response. If nothing else, your students will marvel at how Barbara Walters’ hair hasn’t changed for decades.  

Contact the district to find out your school’s login code. If you are not part of the district, take advantage of the site’s 30 day free trial to show your principal how great the site is – NBC Learn will work with schools to identify funding sources to purchase a subscription. 


Although we all seem to listen to them, teachers don’t seem to use podcasts in the classroom. I know that playing a sound clip, without an accompanying video, might seem daunting, but I have found that the right podcasts can get a class’ attention.

This American Lifeseems to have an oddly powerful ability to silence my students. Something about Ira Glass’ voice entrances them.  Many This American Life episodes are rooted in historical events and the interviews are an entertaining, unusual primary source that I like to use as a jumping off point for discussions. The podcasts also seem to work well as an incentive for good behavior. And really, who wouldn’t want to listen to This American Life instead of reading a textbook?

The site How Stuff Works produces a podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class. Although some of the topics are, well, a little off-topic if you’re trying to stay within state standards, this podcast is great because it focuses on high-interest material. Some of the episodes are a bit long and are best presented in short clips; I like to use them as the basis for a constructed writing prompt. There are so many podcasts for certain time periods that you can also assign different podcasts to groups and have them create posters, raps or dramatic interpretations of the material they learned.

HSP’s, along with WHYY, co-produces a radio segment called That's History that turns to history for insight into present day issues.  Recent topics include the history of alimony and the recent call for reform, as well as the first nationwide missing child case.  HSP historian Jonathan Zimmerman is featured on this bi-weekly radio segment.


Sometimes, getting your hands on a class set of books can be tricky. Getting kids to read those books can be even trickier, especially if you have students who are reading below grade level or who have learning disabilities. Audiobooks are a fantastic solution for this problem, but we all know audiobooks aren’t cheap…or are they?

At the site Books Should be Free, you can download audiobooks, including historical non-fiction such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. There is obviously a lot more fiction than non-fiction available, but using excerpts of books written during the time period you’re studying is a quick way to get students engaged. Instead of learning about the effects of publishing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, why not give your students excerpts and use it as the basis of a document based question? Present the audiobooks to the whole class or at individual or small group “listening stations.”

While you’re at it, download a book for yourself. This summer, I am on a Civil War and Reconstruction-era kick that I am feeding with books from and about the time period…not only does summer reading feed my inner geek, it helps re-inspire me to teach!

Project Gutenberg has free ebooks that are part of the public domain.

Miscellaneous Digital Sources

The Doris Duke Collection of American Indian History at the University of Oklahoma (Boomer Sooner!) includes transcripts of hundreds of interviews conducted with American Indians resident in Oklahoma from 1967-1972. Topics discussed in the interviews include customs, ceremonies and histories of the tribes. The history of American Indians doesn’t get covered much in textbooks, but it should. These interviews are a high-interest way to introduce students to this aspect of U.S. History. Try playing clips or setting up listening stations. 

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is home to 600,000 books, pamphlets, serials, and microfilm reels; 20 million manuscripts; and over 300,000 graphics items.  HSP is one of the nation’s largest non-governmental repositories of documentary materials. The Digital Library offers free access to nearly 50,000 digital images, including paintings, political cartoons, photographs, documents and much, much more. You can use the site to find digital images to use in the classroom (for example, using photographs of 20th century Philadelphia to illustrate changing urban life).  For those of you participating in National History Day, a visit to HSP’s location at 1300 Locust St. enables students (and teachers!) to fully access its numerous collections.

Imagine a more scholarly Wikipedia, with its scope fixed on Philadelphia, and you’ve got the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. The site describes the encyclopedia as “a civic project to increase understanding of one of America’s greatest cities…The digital Encyclopedia volume and its print volume will offer the most comprehensive, authoritative reference source ever created for the Philadelphia region.”  The Encyclopedia is a treasure trove of essays, maps and more. Use it to help students find high-interest topics to research or as a handout for accessible, engaging background reading.

If you have time to kill and are looking for a little inspiration this summer, check out the Promise Academy at Martin Luther King’s PBWorks page. The site has lots of teacher-approved links, including sites that help with lesson planning across content areas and planning research projects (a great resource for those who want to participate in National History Day this year!).

My favorite? The link to the Free Library’s reading list. The “Staff Picks” tab has some great suggestions, including an “Exploring Philadelphia” link. As teachers, we often forget how lucky we are to live in or near a city that has history in every nook and cranny.  Exploring Philadelphia and learning more about what the city has to offer can lead to reinvigorating your teaching and even to inspiring some field trip ideas!


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