By GUY LAMOLINARA
"Everything you are learning is a hypothesis. We don't know what the consequences are yet."
To an uninformed observer those words might sound as though they were meant for a group of scientists about to embark on a highly experimental project -- and in some ways that would be correct. But this was not a group of scientists. Bill Tally of the Center for Children and Technology was speaking to 50 school librarians, teachers and other educators attending the Educators Institute sponsored by the National Digital Library Program of the Library of Congress.
The July 28-Aug. 1 program, supported by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, brought elementary, middle and high school librarians and teachers from across the country to Washington, D.C., as participants in the American Memory Fellows Program. American Memory is the Library's electronic version of its unique materials relating to American history that are freely available on the Internet at http://www.loc.gov/.
The 25 two-person teams had been selected by an independent review panel from 165 teams of applicants comprising librarians, teachers, curriculum coordinators, media specialists and other education professionals who serve a diverse student population. Those chosen were already well versed in using technology in class and have used primary sources to motivate students and promote critical thinking. The object of the institute was to hone their skills using electronic primary sources as an effective way of teaching.
Martha Dexter of the educational services area of LC's National Digital Library Program and her staff organized the institute. The Center for Children and Technology served as facilitators.
The first day, after receiving an overview of the American Memory collections, participants had the opportunity to meet with the Library's curators and actually see some of the primary sources that have been digitized from the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs divisions, among others. The following day the focus was on "How can my students and I use the online collections and search tools to engage in different kinds of historical inquiry?"
For Peter Milbury, a librarian at Chico High School in Chico, Calif., online collections are an "energizer" for students. Mr. Milbury's school serves a student population of Southeast Asians, Hispanics and whites in a rural setting.
"The online collections of the Library of Congress have also increased staff development," he said, mentioning THOMAS, the Library's congressional database. "We could never afford the Congressional Record."
His team colleague, Brett Narciso Silva, said, "With American Memory, we can actually see the document. Before we learned history. Now we are doing history."
During six concurrent facilitator-led sessions, participants worked with sample lesson plans such as "Linking Past and Present Using the 'Documents from the Continental Congress' Collection" and "Students as Detectives: Historical Inquiry with American Memory."
The next day the educators refined their projects and learned such practical skills as "Getting the Most from Web Browsers" and "Using Hypertext Markup Language to Support Lesson Templates." Then, participants determined how to assess students' work with primary sources. The fellows reviewed each others' lesson plans and received coaching from the facilitators.
The final day was an opportunity for the educators to discuss the implications of their teaching units for curriculum. They were also given advice on how to disseminate what they had learned to others in an effort to maximize the impact of the Educators Institute.
According to Judy Graves of the National Digital Library Program, "These teachers have to be able to justify this method of teaching [using electronic primary sources]."
"And they have to convince the students that they have learned something," added Ms. Dexter. "If you are not credible with the students, then you have failed."